MEDIA coverage of religion is a 24-hour, 365-day affair. In recent times, media, technology and religion feed into themselves, consuming its own image.
And one of the genres affected is journalism. The science and art of journalism have a role as public discourse and a platform for civilisation dialogue. If the year 2001 was the United Nation’s Year of Dialogue among Civilisations, all we saw and what follow in the global media are images of war, conflict, terrorism and extremism. Dialogue, as it appears, is buried in the sands.
Meanwhile, the collusion of forces continues to determine what we see, hear and speak — the commodification of news and information; conventions of journalism, of industry and capital; and geopolitical power relations. Reporting religion is the hidden dimension.
If the coverage of religion in the media is a daily staple, why are there no concerns and initiatives, especially among Muslims, and in Malaysia, the region and other Asian nations, to introduce courses and workshops on the coverage of religions (and Islam) by the professional fraternity and programmes in universities? Similar courses are available at some American universities and conducted by the profession through several institutes and research organisations. But that is only half the story.
We, in Malaysia, and much of the Muslim world, have complained for almost four decades on how the West has misrepresented Islam and Muslims, maligned the religion and the Prophet, and through the coverage by the Euro-American media, defined us. Hence, Islamophobia — nothing to do with us, but a construct imposed upon us by a few groups of policy, media and university elites. The coverage of the 1979 Iranian Revolution by the Western media has redefined the modern news paradigm through its reportage of Islam. The “sudden reemergence” of Islam in the modern world within the last four decades has given new meaning to “pandering the news”. The journalistic narrative took a turn — largely unnoticed.
I first proposed that the course/subject or module titled the Reporting of Religion be introduced in universities in Malaysia and elsewhere in the world at an international conference on the representation of Islam in 2008 held in Kuala Lumpur. A revised and expanded version of the paper was later published by the University of Wollongong-based journal Asia Pacific Media Educator (Issue 20, December 2010). I am also suggesting that the Malaysian Press Institute through its workshops, other media/press fraternities and professional organisations, especially in the Muslim world, integrate the course and develop it as a specialisation/beat.
I raised the theme again earlier this month, when I was invited to speak at the First International Symposium on Media, Culture and Islamic World Issues organised by the Iranian Association of Cultural Studies and Communication at the Faculty of Social Science, University of Tehran.
Although I emphasised that the problem in the reportage and representation of Islam in the media goes beyond the profession and culture, the onus is also on us to continuously reconstruct and appropriate our image, and facilitate the dialogue. In the 1970s through the 1990s, we used to dub this “media and cultural imperialism”. We were wrong. It lies deep in how knowledge of the world and of the Other has been structured over the centuries. Religion and Islam have been badly covered, even by our own journalists and media. Perhaps, the sin of covering Islam is the failure to believe what was said about the religion by the Book, the Prophet, by the ulama and by its believers.
A major issue, which I highlighted, was the journalistic narrative. In modern journalism, timeliness — the here and now — and novelty are fundamental criteria. And central to the news is conflict, or what is conceived, or constructed as such by the media. But Islam and other major religions transcend the language of the present, of novelty, of events and of conflict. It also transcends all forms of proximities. Islam (and other religions) is timeless, anathema to the spirit of time and periodisation in history and the modern narrative paradigm. The news paradigm needs a shift.
The paradigm may well embrace the dimensions of timelessness and the transcendent. The current news paradigm is not compatible with religion, the transcendent and perennial values. I told the panel and audience that we have to rework the journalistic narrative. The language of modern news, with its emphasis on events, incidents and the past tense, falls short of religion. The reportage of religion transcends the past, the present and the future tenses.
In recent history, Islam has become “news” of a particular unpleasant sort. The western policy elites and academic experts are all in concert: that Islam is a threat to Western civilisation. Since universities also function as repositories of knowledge and civilisation (and that thought is gradually being erased from Malaysian universities), one of the initiatives to ameliorate the issue must come from the campus itself.
Universities — and not limited to communication, media and journalism schools and programmes — must educate and train students, and by extension, reporters, editors, producers and independent writers and journalists on the telling of stories about the intersection of religion, faith, culture and modernity with greater context, thoughtfulness, critical thinking and consciousness.
We have sidelined the spiritual dimension in our society. Of note too is a revamp of models of media literacy as applied to non-Western societies. Concepts of media literacy as applied to Malaysia and the Muslim world must also be reassessed in appropriating the particularities outside the British or European civilisation.
On the reporting of religion, the learning must include explaining and interpreting politics as it engages with religion, identifying challenges on issues of geopolitics; identifying resources, concepts of rationality; and addressing movements and spirituality as it colludes with modernity.
The programme must bear in mind the objective of responding to the coverage of Islam induced by the problematic nature of its representation. Underlying its orientation and learning is, in many ways, a reverse of Eurocentricism. Consciousness of the task is to adopt a universalistic approach, and to counteract Eurocentricism in the social sciences by reversing the subject-object dichotomy.
In a nutshell, the reportage of religion (reporting religion/covering religion/media writing on religion) comprises the following themes (but not limited to them): Epistemology and the production of Knowledge/Civilisation and Society/The Concept of Time and Periodisation/Orientalism and European History/Eurocentricism, Religion and the Social Sciences/Colonialism and Islam/Islam and Civilisation/The Language of Religion and the Language of Modern News/Editorialising Religion, Science, Islam and the Other/Religion and Media, Islam and Other Religions.
The praxis in the reportage of religion can be the central factor in the dialogue among civilisations. It would be worthwhile for universities in the Muslim world to ponder and propose such a programme, providing the relevant intellectual, language and writing skills in the reportage of Islam (and other religions). I told the Tehran Symposium that Muslim bureaucrats, scholars and intellectuals must move beyond rhetoric. The university (including the media professions) must endogenously construct the news paradigm for Islam and the Muslim community to speak, and appropriate its own voice in an ever changing world.
A MURAD MERICAN is a professor at the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia, and the first recipient of the Honorary President Resident Fellowship at the Perdana Leadership Foundation. Email him at email@example.com