Media and Religion in the Arab-Islamic World
Issue 1, Spring 2007
Old and new religious media on sale in Syria. Photograph by Kim Badawi.
This is an edited version at the 11th of the annual Templeton Lectures on Religion and World Affairs, given by Abdallah Schleifer, Philadelphia, September 2006 At the time Schleifer was serving as Washington Bureau chief of Al Arabiya. He is now in Dubai serving as an advisor on training and public affairs to Al Arabiya.
The past few decades have borne out the warning made more than thirty years ago by Jacques Ellul, the French moral philosopher and sociologist, that the phenomenal development of mass media would revolutionize politics, with the flood of information and discontinuous facts overwhelming any sense of historic context. Now more than ever, with religion and politics often having become overtly intertwined, the lack of historic context is a massive problem.
We have gotten used to this dismal situation where the parade of facts usually lacks the vital context, especially in the context of religion. And if discontinuity in making sense out of the facts that appear in respectable Western media is a problem, in much of the Arab-Islamic-world media, even determining what is a fact is a problem.
As a recent example, when Pope Benedict XVI spoke on September 12 at Regensburg on Faith, Reason and the University, the Western media seized upon one particular paragraph as the breaking story, without regard to how it fit into what the Pope saw as the profound coexistence between Faith and Reason in Christianity, which he did not see in Islam.
Any number of scholars—both non-Muslim and Muslim—have contested that exclusivist point. And this was not the Pope speaking ex cathedra, nor was this a new doctrine guiding relations with Islam to replace the Church’s standing document Nostra Aetate, which affirms the extraordinary commonalities between Islam and Christianity. The Nostra Aetate also noted how practicing Muslims “value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.” The Regensburg paper was an academic paper of debatable quality, by a theologian for theologians, arguing some points that many Muslim theologians would take issue with and advancing an understanding of the militantly secular modern West that many of the same Muslim theologians no doubt share with the Pope.
Fact and Context
My point, however is that, taken out of context, the quote quickly was construed as some sort of papal insult to Islam. When you combine this with the reluctance of the Arab press, in particular, to gather facts, then you get what you got. The discontinuity in the initial stories that appeared in the Western press was intrinsic: first, in ignoring context, and second, in ignoring not just the official papal perspective on Islam and the long collaboration and dialogue between Muslims and Catholics set in motion by John Paul II, but also Pope Benedict’s remarks a year ago when meeting with representatives of Muslim communities in Cologne, Germany. In Cologne, the Pope insisted that dialogue was an absolute necessity and that Catholics and Muslims must seek paths of reconciliation.
Even the issue of a relationship between violence and Islam, which was an aside in the academic paper, had as its most direct commentary Pope Benedict’s own recent words commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the inter-religious meeting called Prayer for Peace initiated by John Paul II. Those words were: “Demonstrations of violence cannot be attributed to religion as such but to the cultural limitations with which it is lived and develops in time.”
This is an observation applicable to the massacres associated with the Crusades; the Almohad persecutions of non-Muslims in Spain; the compulsory conversions of Jews and Muslims that followed the Reconquista of Spain; the Cossack and other pogroms in honor of Easter; the gory passages in the Book of Joshua; or for that matter the exhortations by extremist rabbis quoting those passages to ethnically cleanse Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza of all Arabs—both Muslim and Christian. As for Pope Benedict XVI, he went on to observe: “Attestations of the close bond that exists between the relationship with God and the ethics of love are recorded in all great religious traditions.”
But despite our own journalistic attraction to conflict and confrontation and our own immediate discontinuity from the background, and despite its often secularist bias, the Western press has a corrective: the follow-up story that attempts to develop an alternative narrative to the original breaking story and the op-ed column. So papal clarification as well as intelligent analysis found significant space in the Western media.
In contrast, in the Arab world, with rare exception, once the state speaks there is little turning back. In one of the most recent precedents of a media-driven “Muslims vs. the West” drama turned violent, some Arab and Muslim states played a demagogic role in cynically overreacting to the Danish cartoons last winter. And once populists in the Arab World have spoken, there has been little reevaluation.
There has been little interest in most of the Arab press in gathering more facts to a story than one paragraph taken out of context, and no significant reference to the facts of Catholic-Muslim relations over the past few decades. It is also significant that the two immediate violent episodes centering around that one paragraph following the first press reports—the murder of a nun and the torching of Catholic churches—occurred in two of the three most lawless parts of the Muslim world: Somalia and the West Bank (the other of course now being Iraq).
The most obvious and absurd point about the violence in the Muslim world in response to the Pope’s quotation (and burning the Pope in effigy is metaphorical violence) is that all this violence is to protest against a Pope reportedly saying that Islam is violent.
The Selection of Facts
But let me also point out that selection of what facts do get reported is often curtailed by the confrontation line. In much of the media of the Arab-Islamic world the problem is not simply discontinuity between events and reportage, but the difficulty of getting any facts reported once a confrontational line is drawn, be it with Europe, the Pope, America, or Israel or elements within that state who are then portrayed as the spokesmen for some monolithic Israeli society.
For example, there is the tendency of Yusuf Qaradawi, a popular sheikh who is closely associated with one of the Islamist movements and whose reach in the Arab world has been greatly enhanced by his regular appearances on Al Jazeera satellite news channel, to allude to “the Jews” when discussing some specific issue in the Arab-Israeli or Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Of course, in part this reflects the transformation of a clash that, however much religion may get involved or exploited, is nevertheless basically between two rival nationalisms, Arab and Israeli, or Palestinian and Israeli, into a total confrontation between two religions, Judaism and Islam, a perspective that has been popularized not just in Palestine but throughout the Arab and Muslim world. As always happens with extremist perspectives, this is absolutely mirrored by the ultra rightwing religious nationalist forces in Israel and their supporters in America.
I pointed out to Sheikh Qaradawi at a conference a few years back that among “the Jews” were a few thousand peace activists who were risking their lives and their reputations as patriotic Israelis for the sake of the West Bank Arab villagers, who were being prevented by force from harvesting their olive crops by the religious nationalist settlers. The activists became human shields, and their nonviolent presence as victims of settler assault, would force the otherwise passive Israeli Defense Force in the neighborhood to intervene and protect both the Israeli peace activists and the Arab villagers. By attempting to frustrate the settlers’ campaign of stealth ethnic cleansing, these Israeli peace activists were doing more to preserve a Palestinian presence on Palestinian land then anyone else in the region.