Four Years After September 11th: The Media Failure
[Note: Center for Islamic Pluralism Executive Director Stephen Schwartz delivered the following Address [with minor changes] to the 6th Asian-European Editors' Forum, Sponsored by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, Jakarta, Indonesia, 30 August 2005, and as the Keynote Speech at "Covering Islam: Challenges & Opportunities for Media in the Global Village," Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs, Singapore, 3 September 2005. The events were reported in The Jakarta Post and The Straits Times].
We have reached the fourth anniversary of the terrible attacks of September 11, 2001. I am sorry to say that, in my view, the U.S. and Western media have completely failed to meet the challenge of reporting on Islam, in the four succeeding years since then, or in reaction to the atrocities that followed, including the extremist violence in Iraq, which I would not dignify with the titles "insurgency" or "resistance," the Madrid metro and London underground bombings, and the terror assaults in Indonesia, Morocco, Turkey, and elsewhere.
On September 12, 2001, it was as if two civilizations, the Judeo-Christian and the Islamic, which had shared the planet and had contacts with one another for 14 centuries, sometimes violently, sometimes peacefully, but nearly always fruitfully, were completely unknown the one to the other. Indeed, it seemed that Muslims knew a great deal more about the West than the West knew about Muslims. To borrow a simile from the film industry: in this "war of the worlds" the Muslims may as well be "invaders from another planet," whose beliefs, customs and habits are completely unknown and incomprehensible to Westerners.
For example, in the current debate over the Iraqi constitution, it has repeatedly been stated with horror and condemnation in the West that the new national charter embodies the principle that Islam is a source of law, and that lawmaking shall not contradict the principles of Islam. This has been taken by U.S. and foreign commentators, both those who oppose the Iraq intervention and some alleged supporters of President Bush, as evidence that a Shia theocracy is being implanted in Iraq, or at least in its southern areas. Few seem to have fully understood the political alliance of the Kurds, who are Sunnis, Sufis, and, in many cases ultrasecular, with the Shias -- presumably, the Kurds would not support a theocracy. But this aspect of the question is too complex and deep for much Western media.
In reality, the concept that lawmaking should not conflict with Islam in a Muslim country is an entirely uncontroversial principle established in many moderate Muslim states: Saudi Arabia and Turkey are the only countries that consistently deviate from it significantly, with the Saudi kingdom requiring that all law be derived exclusively from a Wahhabi definition of shari'a and Turkey long banning shari'a altogether. An experiment in the imposition of monopolistic shari'a, in its most radical and exclusivist form, in Sudan, has essentially failed. Nearly all other Muslim countries, including even Iran, have legal systems based on the coexistence of shari'a with Western or Soviet law, either inherited from the colonial past or borrowed (as in the case of the non-Islamic legal components in the Iranian model.) I have the habit of referring to this state of affairs as the "Israeli" standard, and not merely to provoke discussion: Israel maintains Jewish religious law in personal and family matters (halakhah, which is structurally modeled on shari'a), alongside shari'a for Israeli Arabs and Palestinian Muslims, and criminal law inherited from the British. Indeed, the regulation of holy sites in Israel, including Christian monuments, remains based on Ottoman law.
The parity of shari'a and non-Muslim law in Islamic polities is nothing new; it has existed since the fall of Baghdad in 1258 CE to the Mongols, who became Muslim but would not abandon their customary law. Indeed, when it is said that law must not conflict with Islam, it is rather difficult to imagine what laws would do so. Aside from the former Soviet Union, only a few Communist regimes foster state atheism, and none makes it official as former-Communist Albania did -- that would obviously conflict with Islam. No country in the world mandates alcoholism or sexual depravity, which would conflict with Islam. No country in the world bans Muslims per se. One may argue that the French law forbidding head coverings contradicted Islam, but a notable and peaceful civil debate over this law has taken place, in which Muslims are supported by Jews as well as Sikhs.
When the Serbs destroyed mosques and murdered ordinary Muslims as well as clerics in the Balkans, one could argue that their regime was in legal conflict with Islam; but Muslims living in south Serbia and elsewhere did not declare that the Serb state was actually in conflict with Islam according to shari'a. When the Russians destroy mosques and massacre people in the Caucasus, they do so lawlessly, but even when such atrocities are carried out by the state, only fanatics who have infiltrated the Caucasus claim that Russia acts in violation of the rights of Islam.
Islamic shari'a is quite clear on what constitutes a state policy that contradicts Islam: it is one that silences the call to prayer (adhan), and prevents the teaching and preaching of the religion. Serbia, Croatia (in Bosnia-Hercegovina), Macedonia, and Russia may be said to have done so in recent times, although indigenous and legitimate clerics did not judge it to be so. Thus, regardless of conflicts over land, Israel does not interfere with the peaceful activity of Muslim teachers and faithful. Nor, most certainly, does the United States. So one could just as quickly describe the U.S. constitution as a document that does not conflict with Islam, as to so label the Iraqi constitution. Is there reason to be concerned about the U.S. constitution as an Islamic theocratic document? I think not.
The failure to grasp the nature of the new Iraqi constitution extends to the document itself. Much noise has been made about Article Two, in which it is stated that "Islam is the official religion of the state and is a basic source of legislation," and some praise has been issued for Article 14, which proclaims equality of gender, ethnic groups, religion, opinion, social and economic status, etc. But little has been said about one of the most remarkable and significant elements of the new Iraqi charter: The ban in Article Seven on "Entities or trends that justify or propagate racism, terrorism, 'takfir,' sectarian expulsions," as well as the Saddamist Ba'ath party.
The ban on takfir, which means excommunication or expulsion of one's opponents from Islam, is exceptionally important, but I can say with considerable certainty that most Western journalists do not have the slightest idea about it. I have found no Western media commentaries on the issue of takfir as treated in the Iraqi constitution, but many that seek to associate tribal customs in the treatment of women, which have no basis whatever in Islamic tradition or law, with the future Iraqi legal system.
I recently noted that a major Saudi cleric, Sheikh Abd Al-Muhsin Al-Abikan, has called for banning the practice of takfir. The significance of this is potentially immense. Wahhabis have, for centuries, declared that those who do not share their fanatical doctrines are apostates from Islam. This has been their excuse for murder and pillage against Shias and non-Wahhabi Sunnis. And it is important for another reason.
"By labeling all nonradicals apostates from the religion, and blessing as the only faithful Muslims the adherents of their own violent ideology, the practitioners of takfir [let me add, including Sunni radicals from America to Indonesia] bind their followers together as an elite, but also as a pliable human mass, convinced their brutal urges are sacred and worthy. Many if not most Muslim terrorist recruits are weak in their religious belief and knowledge, and the power they assume by expelling a billion people from the religion fills the intellectual and spiritual void within them...
"A movement against takfir has taken hold elsewhere in Sunni Islam, in which many clerics now appear deeply repelled by the horrific events in Iraq. In July, an international Islamic conference in Jordan produced a statement opposing the Sunni use of takfir against Shias, a practice enunciated time and again in the bloodthirsty manifestos of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, as well as condemning takfir against Sufis. The Amman declaration called for the restoration of pluralistic debate in Islam, banned in Mecca and Medina... and for the affirmation of liberty as a principle."
Takfir is, therefore, an urgent issue for discussion in Western media that seek to "cover Islam." But it is not the sole example of a concept lacking in sensible understanding and even context when dealt with by journalists. Here are some other aspects of Islam apparently unknown to Western media:
The Ottoman caliphate abolished death sentences for apostasy from Islam more than two centuries ago, but Western media still widely report that all Muslims believe the penalty for apostasy must be death. One Islamophobe in the U.S. even warned me that if I were to leave Islam I would be subject to a death sentence, which is absurd.
Almost no Western journalists have any idea what a fatwa actually is. A fatwa is not a death sentence. It is a religious opinion comparable to a responsum or teshuvah in Judaism. Fatawa (the correct plural) are not binding on Sunnis. They are binding on Shias if issued by a marja or Shia legal authority. Fatawa cannot be composed by individuals without training and credentials. For example, Osama bin Laden cannot and has not written authentic fatawa, either in their content or style.
Almost no Western journalists seem to be aware that shari'a exists in every country in the world where Muslims live. I well remember the shock and horror of a certain esteemed academic "expert" when I informed him that shari'a courts exist in New York, London, and Paris. He said they should be immediately suppressed. He was unaware that shari'a courts exist to issue halal meat butchers' licenses as well as to pronounce on the appropriateness of financial contracts - since Islam bars profit by interest - and to settle family and property disputes. Participation in them is generally entirely voluntary, except in extreme shari'a milieux created by Saudi-funded radicals.
I don't know of very many Western journalists who understand the theological differences between Sunnis and Shias. It is for this reason that one reads continually the absurd claim that Sunni and Shia "insurgents" are cooperating against the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. Nor do many Western journalists know much about Sufism; many seem to think it is a separate phenomenon from the Sunni and Shia traditions. It is not. But Sufism also has very different characteristics according to the country in which it is found. For example, Albanian Sufism, which is a powerful, organized force, is completely different from Sufi-influenced Islam in Bosnia-Hercegovina. In general, the substantial diversity of Islam is lost in Western media.
The category of just plain myths about Islam in Western media is pretty long. A great deal of anguish has been expressed in the European media about the spectre of Islamic reconquest of areas once under Muslim rule, such as Spain, or al-Andalus. I find it characteristic that nobody ever suggests that Muslims would want to reconquer Greece, Romania, southern Ukraine, or Hungary - in the latter case where they ruled for 150 years. Rhetoric about the reconquest of lands once under Muslim rule is verbiage and nothing more, with no basis in Islamic law.
A similar and absurd belief involves the alleged Islamic division of the globe into two worlds, the dar ul-Islam or "land of Islam and peace," where Muslims rule, and the dar ul-harb, or "land of war," where non-Muslims rule. The presumption is that all Muslims are required to observe a state of permanent military jihad against any country not ruled by Muslims, and therefore intend world conquest through violence. While it would be ludicrous to deny that most Muslims, like most Christians, believe theirs is the best faith and is ultimately destined to win over the planet, or that takfiris indeed subscribe to the "theory of two worlds," it is worse for Westerners to simplify their view of Islamic law and political conceptions in a way that reinforces prejudice. The dar ul-harb has a specific and restricted meaning, referring to places where Muslims are victims of violence because of their religion. It is worth observing, once again, that even during the ex-Yugoslav and first Chechen wars the local ulema of these communities did not define their enemies as representing the dar ul-harb. In reality, Islamic law has long recognized a third category: the dar ul-sulh or "land of contract," where Muslims do not rule but live as peaceful subjects permitted to practice their religion. Takfiris have preached that Muslims living in non-Muslim lands cannot and should not obey non-Muslim authorities or participate in non-Muslim politics. But the Iraqi Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Shia marja of the time, holds to the exactly opposite view, which is that of mainstream Sunnism as well: Muslims migrating to non-Muslim countries, if they have signed as minor a document as an immigration form, have given an Islamic oath to obey local laws that do not directly contravene Islam (as described above) and to live at peace with their neighbors. Muslims who cannot execute such an oath in good faith should not migrate to a non-Muslim country, according to Sistani and others.
I am especially somewhat exercised about the frequency with which it is stated that Osama bin Laden has called for or seeks the overthrow of the Saudi monarchy. Bin Laden and al-Qaida have never called for the overthrow of the monarchy, and I challenge anybody to find serious evidence otherwise. Bin Laden is a scion of a family owing its position to the House of Saud; he seeks a reinforcement of Wahhabi ideology in the monarchy, not its overthrow. That is why his statements have always called on the Saudi rulers to "return to the straight path." In addition, Bin Laden and al-Qaida are products of Saudi society and Saudi politics, which is why the Saudi rulers have typically called on him to "return to the straight path." Neither side has employed the idiom usually found in a revolutionary movement or its opponents. And although thousands of Saudi aristocrats travel around the world, and thousands of Saudi enterprises are located across the globe, and thousands of Saudi government offices operate in the kingdom, none of them (with the exception of a single latter example involving a local licensing office) have been attacked by al-Qaida. In Saudi Arabia, al-Qaida targets foreigners, not the rulers. In Saudi Arabia, al-Qaida terrorists, curiously enough, always appear to have access to government vehicles and government uniforms, and some terrorists are obviously government employees. Western media seldom draw the obvious conclusion from this, which is that al-Qaida is protected or supported by a faction within the state; I excuse Western media from further comprehension of this problem because the Saudi kingdom continues to bar independent, foreign media from working on site.
Yet in what I fear is the worst such instance, Western media, especially in the U.S., continually criticize Muslim clerics (ulema) around the world for failing to oppose terrorism. In reality, great numbers of prominent ulema have condemned aggression in the name of Islam. I can cite the example of an aggressive and insulting American "academic" who demanded "five names" of leading clerics who denounced terrorism. I first pointed out to him that the five names would mean nothing to him -- that he would likely never have heard of them, not because they are obscure, which they are not, but because these names are not known in the non-Muslim world, regardless of their prestige among Muslims. I finally asked him if he thought Ayatollah Sistani, in Iraq, had failed to issue binding fatawa as well as condemnatory statements against the desecration of holy places and murder of his cobelievers. It was as if I were talking to myself. My interlocutor was simply imprisoned in clichés.
I could continue with a list of the lacuna about Islam found in Western media, but the experience would be depressing.
What are the reasons for this problem?
First, Western media are not engaged in "covering Islam," Rather, they are engaged in reporting on events that happen to involve Islam. There is an obvious difference.
Second, reporters are "first responders," rather like police and fire personnel. They are expected to get the basic facts about a story, not to offer serious analysis or background. There is nothing wrong with that, except that the fire caused by Islamic radicalism is of such magnitude that greater expertise is necessary. There is some unavoidable fault in that journalistic enterprises and their reporters are expected to compete, with much detail lost in the search for original stories and headlines. But that probably cannot be helped.
Third, when they need expertise and analysis Western media often turn to academics and governmental experts whose knowledge of Islam is distorted or limited, or to representatives of Islamic trends that have become well-established in the West but which do not represent any consonance between Islam and Western values. In turning to such academics and groups, Western media may find their prejudices and mistakes reinforced rather than corrected. Western academic experts often express contempt for what they call "Orientalism," while practicing a form of it themselves. That is, academics of both the left and right shove Islam into categories determined by Middle Eastern politics, even though the very simplicity of Islam as a faith should obviate this temptation.
Fourth, Western education for the past hundred and fifty years has concentrated on the gap between the two worlds rather than study of the real elements they have in common.
For example, an honorable, recently deceased Indonesian Muslim philosopher, Nurcholis Madjid, in a comment soon after September 11, 2001, noted the paradox of contemporary Muslim hatred of the West, when one of the most famous chapters of Qur'an, surah 30, titled "The Greeks," praises the Byzantine empire, representing Rome and the West, in their conflict with the Persians, embodying the cultures of the East. Brother Madjid noted, "the Muslims sided with [the West], and not with [the East]." The reason was simple: the Byzantines were Christians, and therefore monotheists, while the Persians did not believe in an almighty God, creator of the universe. Brother Madjid further pointed out that the arrival of the "news to the followers of the prophet Muhammad aleyhisalaam about the defeat of [the Byzantines] by the Persians made the people of Mecca, the enemies of the Prophet, happy."
It will come as a surprise, I am sure, to most Western European editors and reporters to learn that there is a significant and respectable body of scholarship showing the influence of Islamic thought on Dante Alighieri, the greatest Christian author outside the church. This concept is not some new claim advanced by Muslims for the gratuitous aggrandizement of the faith. It was developed in the 1920s by Miguel Asín Palacios, a Spanish Catholic intellectual of the highest caliber, who because of his own background had no reason whatever to exaggerate or falsify. Most Western editors and reporters are equally shocked to be told of the real similarities between Judaism and Islam, and of the authentic influence of Islamic religious practice on Judaism.
What, then, is to be done?
In my view most of the blame rests outside the journalistic profession. Solutions to the knowledge gap about Islam will not be easy in the wider sphere, but may be so in newsrooms. If a reporter is going to "cover Islam," he or she should handle it as a separate and full-time "beat," and should study the basic and authoritative published works about it. When "covering Islam," reporters should do more to identify the opponents of extremism and to learn what questions to ask them. I can name many authentic representatives of moderate Islam who speak perfect English and whom I have never once seen interviewed in American media. A Western writer who does not know what takfir or its significance are will not get very far in covering Islam.
Further, moderate Muslim parents in the West should encourage their talented children to enter the journalistic profession, if their offspring show a desire to do so. I have heard, too many times, the stories of Muslim parents who tell their children only computers and engineering, management studies, or medicine are worthy professions. Western media enterprises, especially in the U.S. and UK, are presently concerned to encourage diversity in employment and remain very open to hiring Muslims. I have elsewhere proposed the establishment of an Islamic institute for journalism, with campuses around the world, to form new cadres for the profession. Muslim as well as non-Muslim governments and media enterprises should contribute to the creation of such institutions.
In addition, moderate Muslim authors should do more to patiently, intelligently, carefully, and competently write so that they may become trustworthy and authoritative sources for Western media. They must master the Western idiom to better convey the realities of Islam to non-Muslims. These works should be motivated by the need for clarification and accuracy rather than da'wa or missionization of non-Muslims.
Finally, Muslim ulema, other institutions, and governments should investigate the need to replace or supplement existing donations or programs at Western universities, so as to refine and improve the quality of Western scholarship and media coverage of Islam alike.