Media and Religion in the Arab-Islamic World
Little or nothing of this story, which has gone on for several years now, has appeared in the Arab press. The Jerusalem Bureau of Al Arabiya did cover the story, and thanks to one of my former journalism students at the American University in Cairo (AUC) who writes for major Arab media, this story has at least appeared in the Cairo press. But this story is not convenient to Arab media, which embraces and at times incites the street’s take on Palestine. Of course, if the issue is domestic—a question that concerns the large Coptic Orthodox Christian community in Egypt and their relations with the Muslims, or even one of the handful of Egyptian Jews remaining—then we will read in Egyptian state media about the heavenly religions (meaning Christianity and Judaism).
There are other no-go topics when media and religion intertwine. I believe Pope Benedict, even more than his successor, wants a frank as well as friendly dialogue with Muslim religious leaders and Arab and other Muslim governments. That dialogue has to do with the issue of reciprocity. European Muslims, backed up by the Arab and Muslim states, have clamored for and received permission to build large central mosques in Rome, London, and Washington, and these mosques have been generously funded by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, among others. But still today no church may be built in Saudi Arabia, nor until a year ago could one be built in Qatar. This is not an issue that will ever be raised by most Arab media.
The Arab press becomes furious over the slightest discrimination that befalls Muslims in Europe and America, but there is little or no sense of equity, of equivalence, of an elementary quid quo pro as in the case of church building in Arabia and mosque building in Rome. Indeed, often the opposite is the rule.
Not long after 9/11 the Egyptian managing editor of the student newspaper at the AUC flew to New York. This young lady, like most Egyptian women, is a muhagaba: she wears a large scarf over her head and around her neck. For most women who chose to put on the hijab, it is a question of piety or public conformity in the wake of a very broad religious revival underway in Egypt since 1967, and now reaching into the ranks of many highly Westernized upper middle class youth, whose older sisters would not have worn the hijab.
She breezed through customs and security at JFK Airport. Just outside the gates she was greeted by a reporter and photographer representing one of the two main Egyptian newspapers. The reporter asked if she had been hassled in any way or inconvenienced by the Homeland Security personnel at Passport Control or at Customs. She said no, not at all. The news team went off in search of another would-be victim.
The mainstream American media is intrinsically decent. When injustices appear to have been done to Muslims solely because they appear to be Muslim—Muslim names, a Middle Eastern look, a beard , a head veil—those stories get reported in the American press. Aside from the Islamophobe margins of our media (and most of that media is online not in print or broadcasting), Muslims get a fair break in these stories. And then there are the positive stories, like the case of the Justice Department intervening as a friend of the court on behalf of a Muslim student who was suing a school district that barred her entry into her classes because she was in hijab. The Justice Department saw the exclusion as a violation of the first amendment right to practice one’s religion. To my knowledge this story never appeared in Arab media, at least not in the Egyptian press.
Neglect of Accuracy
This brings me to my next point. Why are such stories so unusual? They are true and deserving of recognition. Accuracy is the very beginning of truth, of getting things right, for it is easier to be accurate than to be able to perceive complex truth. Yet much of the Arab press takes a casual attitude towards accuracy.
Sloppiness is a universal credo in much of the Arab media. Indeed, the Mufti of Egypt, one of the highest ranking religious figures in Cairo, is forced to spend considerable time and energy clarifying and correcting the misquotes, invented quotes, and mistranslations that appear whenever he is interviewed by the Egyptian press. Egypt’s leading newspaper, Al Ahram, has attributed to me remarks that were not mine when reporting on a talk I gave in public and in English in Cairo. Perhaps the reporter could not afford a translator and had to fabricate. But another time, a reporter interviewed my assistant in Arabic since I was not available. The interview appeared in full in a respectable Arabic newspaper and was attributed entirely to me.
Such disregard for facts and for accuracy is profoundly un-Islamic. In theory, if modern media had arisen organically in the Arab world, deriving its style and values from within traditional Arab-Islamic culture, it would have been perhaps the most obsessively accurate and objective media that the modern world would have known. That is because in Islam the word is paramount. The Quran is the cosmic equivalent of Christ in traditional Christian understanding, not the Prophet Mohammed, who is the vessel of this revelation and whose life is a commentary on this revelation, but not revelation itself, as in the case of Christ, who is the living revelation.
In Islam, the Quran is the uniquely, perfectly preserved revelation—which would be the textual equivalent of immaculate, existing though eternity, not made or “created” as in the rationalist terminology in the classical period debate as to the nature of the Quran, a debate that the rationalists lost. The Quran is the Word of God made word as Christ is the Word of God made flesh, which by definition is a pictorial event—we understand the Word made flesh, Christ’s life and Christ’s Passion in visual or pictorial terms.
The Word as word. It is not so much that Islam is iconoclastic—quite the contrary—but that its icons, its representations of the sacred inner essence of all things are aural rather than visual or pictorial. In Islam, the manuscript or the calligraphied Quran is a rendering of the sound of an original recitation, of a sacred recitation granted to the Prophet by the Angel Gabriel, the same Angel who announced to the Virgin Mary that she was the chosen vessel for the coming of the Word made Flesh.
But how to interpret this Quran? It contains all of the Names or attributes of God, such as Ar Rahman (the Most Merciful), Ar Raheem (the Most Compassionate), Al Haq (the Truth or the Reality), Al Hai (the Ever Living)—Names and attributes as to the nature of God which are at the core of the mystical dimension of Islam known as Sufism. But it is also in its expository form a guide to prayer, to purification of body and soul, and to social relationships. For the Muslims, the Prophet’s life and his sayings, is the sacred commentary, the interpretation of the Word. The Quran tells the Muslim to maintain prayer, the Hadith (the verified sayings of the Prophet). It tells the Muslim that that means to perform canonic prayer five times a day, and how to prepare for and perform those prayers.
The time and manner of the prayer and the content of canonic prayer has not varied since the time of the Prophet, and the language of prayer remains in the language of revelation: Arabic, even though the majority of Muslims in the world, all of whom recite their prayers in Arabic, do not understand Arabic. An American Muslim can parachute into the most obscure village in Sumatra and immediately join in and follow or even lead canonic prayer. It is an example of how profoundly “catholic” if I may mix my metaphors, how conservative, and how ritualistic Islam is, revolutionary Muslims, Islamists and modernist Muslims to the contrary.
So it became imperative in the earliest years of the Islamic community after the passing of the Prophet and his companions to accurately assemble canonic collections as to every certified statement of the Prophet. The collection of these reports, or news about the prophet’s own words, constitute a sacred news. The key lay in what modern journalists describe as sourcing, tracing any given hadith back to the Prophet and the persons who actually heard the Prophet speak, through a chain of reputable sources, which meant a reputation for truthfulness and moral rectitude. This was particularly necessary because in an age of faith, such as the earliest centuries after the Prophet, political struggles among the Muslims were inevitably colored by religious justification, and the temptation to forgery, to invent politically useful hadith must have been great.
With all this as background, one might assume that journalism in the Muslim world, and particularly in the Arabic-speaking cultural core of the Muslim world, would be the modicum of soul-searching honesty and painstaking accuracy and sourcing. And there are positive values to be found in Arab journalism—an aversion to blasphemy. Arab journalists do not blaspheme God, or any of His Prophets.