Thursday, September 16, 2004
I gave a guest lecture on "Muslims in the media" to an honours class in media studies at Victoria University last Friday, and was surprised by how enthusiastic, well-informed, and savvy the students were. Among the material we discussed was a letter to the editor to The Times a few months back, which read in part:
During the terrorist activities in Northern Ireland I recall it was the practice of The Times to make a distinction between law-abiding Unionists and violent paramilitaries by using inverted commas to describe the latter as "loyalist" terrorists. Could you not now perform a similar service for the peaceful, law-abiding British Muslims, who must be weary of reminding us that they do not support al-Qaeda’s murderous practices, by referring to al-Qaeda as "Islamic" fundamentalists? Al-Qaeda has as much to do with mainstream Islam as the Ku Klux Klan has to do with mainstream Christianity.For my recently completed masters thesis, I did a survey of several hundred Muslim students and interviewed about thirty. While the attitudes I gleaned about the media didn't make the thesis for reasons of space and pedagogy, they were fascinating. The issue of what to call people like Osama bin Laden and organisations like al Qaeda was one that had the students most animated. The issue is concisely put: Is it okay for journalists to write of Muslim or Islamic rebels, terrorists, insurgents, etc, simply because that's how the latter identify themselves? It probably comes down to what you think the adjectives "Muslim" and "Islamic" mean. If you think they merely designate things derived from people who believe Allah is the one, true God, then using the adjectives Muslim or Islamic is just as mundane as calling, say, Osama bin Laden a Muslim. But if you think that using the adjectives "Muslim" or "Islamic" implies that the things of which you speak are in some sense consistent with Islamic juridical principles - developed over centuries of scholarship - then their use for bin Laden and his ilk becomes problematic. That is, if the vast majority of Muslim scholars (and Muslims generally) believe bin Laden's actions, ideology, and politico-strategic thrust to be deeply unIslamic (and thus unMuslim), then is it fair for journalists to call him an Islamic terrorist (rather than an "Islamic" terrorist)?
Some journalists might wish to say, "Sure, the issue of whether bin Laden's actions and ideological framework are truly Islamic is an interesting one, but that is a complex, political dialogue going on amongst Muslims at present, and is one in which we - as independent analysts - cannot possibly be expected to take sides. Therefore, we are not willing to make the political intervention of labelling him an "Islamic" terrorist, because there are clearly a very many Muslims who believe he is truly an Islamic terrorist, without the inverted commas."
The problem with this argument is that, by failing to make the political intervention I believe they should make - by failing to add the inverted commas - newspapers (and other publishers, be they academic, web-based, or whatever) are by default making the opposite political intervention. That is, they are bestowing religious legitimacy on what are, in truth, fringe, blasphemous groups, de facto claiming that they are worthy of being recognised as Islamic. This is a case where to do nothing, to not take sides, is to make a definite choice with far reaching political consequences. By not using inverted commas, writers (and their editors) predispose their readers to having very negative views of Islam and Muslims - by using the expressions "Muslim terrorist" and "Islamic terrorist" (or similar ones) ad nauseum, and thus constantly reinforcing a link between Islam and violence.
The problem with living in one place for all but ten months of your first twenty-one years is that, no matter where you go, on whatever continent, you inexorably end up comparing it to 'home'. Conditioned to find Wellington comfortable, familiar, pleasurable, your experience of the unknown is constantly an exercise in asking, 'How is this and how is this not like what I know?' So, Gothenburg, Sweden felt like home because it's a city built on water, with rolling hills that make walking across the city a somewhat tiring experience. Cambridge, England felt like home because it is of a similar size and feel to Wellington - not too big but not too small; there are things to do, but not an overwhelming preponderance of frenzied activity that comes with too many people (i.e. more than half a million); the same pointy-headed ponderous aesthetic. Vinezac, France - a tiny village under whose jurisdiction my French family live - couldn't feel further from Wellington in the summer: its parched, brown landscapes; its searing heat that makes staying inside or in the water obligatory; its thin, windy, paved paths.
So, why does this matter? Well, firstly, because when you come home, it might not feel like 'home' anymore, and then you've completely lost your bearings. Indeed, nostalgia means pining for a particular place at a particular time - so, returning to that place sometime later, you might no longer find the same one you remember. And, secondly, because going overseas is ideally a discovery of the unknown - not a packaging of the unknown in terms of what you already know. One probably cannot get to the essence of a place if all one is asking is, 'How is this like or not like what I already know?' That question is a superficial one, and while understandably the first you ask, should only be a starting point.
A few years ago, I did an honours paper entitled 'risk in international relations', which was really a misnomer, as it was actually a tour d'horizon of political and social theorists - including Foucault, Fromm, and Benedict Anderson - and their writings on various forms of social control. Anyway, one student in my class did an excellent research paper on Lonely Planet guides, and how they are an attempt to take the 'risk' out of going overseas. People travel, discover new places, because they like the thrill of the unknown - yet, before they go, they go to great lengths to make sure that they are not too surprised or shocked by that unknown. Lonely Planet guides offer information about the unknown in an easily digestable, taxonomically recognisable format, telling you where to go and where not to go so that you can be sure you will not have any unhappy experiences along the way.
Cricket's second most prestigious tournament gets underway for real tonight, when New Zealand plays Australia. Australian captain Ricki Ponting is tired of those who perpetuate the "myth" that New Zealand is especially good at rattling the Aussies, citing the fact that his side has beaten the Black Caps on the last six occasions the two sides have met. The British press is breathing a sigh of relief that it'll finally get to report on a cricketing contest worthy of the name. And the Hindustan Times is underwhelmed by the tournament so far. The Black Caps' chances tonight? Well, Australia wins about three in four ODIs overall, which leaves one in four games in which their opposition will triumph. And, considering New Zealand presents the single biggest threat to Australian dominance in ODI cricket (bar, perhaps, Sri Lanka) at the moment, I'd put our chances at closer to one in three. The TAB has the Black Caps as rank outsiders - anyone willing to risk a grand of the New Zealanders stands to get $3,100 back in the case of an upset. A lengthier discussion of the Champion Trophy and related cricketing issues can be found at LeftField , a relatively new home for my (and other people's) blatherings about sport.