IN 1981, THE LATE Edward Said noted that Western media coverage of the Muslim world was ideologically driven and deceptive. Providing inaccurate and distorted depictions of a region largely unknown in North America and parts of Europe, Said argued that the Muslim world was rendered visible and knowable through reckless generalizations, untamed ethnocentrism, and an awkward projection of fear and desire. Today, despite almost daily coverage of Muslims and the Middle East, English-language media broadcasts and publications consistently fail to demonstrate a critical understanding of the region’s history, culture and context. Thus, violence, terrorism and an overarching backwardness caused by anti-modern fundamentalism endure as the defining motifs of the Muslim world. This kind of reporting not only forms misguided opinions, but also fuels disastrous policies. The media’s culpability in the events unfolding in Iraq should be scrutinized to a much greater extent.
At the same time, the Muslim world has by and large failed to recognize the importance of communicating its ideals, values and culture in the English language. For some strange reason, Muslims demand accuracy of others in representing their views, but invest little or nothing to ensure that this actually happens. Given that freedom of the press is almost non-existent across many parts of the Muslim world, it should come as no surprise that the intellectual infrastructure necessary to tell the Muslim story to the rest of the world is at best, limited.
Within the nexus of this dual failure some important and pioneering efforts have emerged. One of them is Al Jazeera, the first truly global media brand emanating from the Arab world. Leading the transnational Arab media market, Al Jazeera ranks today amongst the world’s most influential media organizations with up to 100 broadcasting channels and services in Persian, Kurdish, French and, more recently, English. It is fast becoming an important alternative to major American and European networks including CNN International and BBC world.
In addition to providing alternative perspectives, new media ventures like Al Jazeera create forums for debate and self-criticism within the Muslim world. The existence of institutions that provide outlets for communities and individuals to be heard is a critical need for modern societies. Learning how to discuss problems in a public forum without resorting to violence cannot take place without public forums. Let us hope that Al Jazeera represents one of many organizations that facilitate public discussion and dialogue.
Understanding the link between information and public attitudes is critical for our times. In this issue, we include the timely reflections of HRH Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad on the fraught interaction between East and West. His sobering forecast of a possible future marked by distrust and violence highlights the fundamental role media can play in promoting mutual understanding and establishing trust and reconciliation. In its scope, Prince Ghazi’s call is deeply connected to broader efforts of evaluating our present state in light of a potentially grim future. As the Amman Message emphasizes, tolerance and the promise of an integrated world require that we all play our part in uniting across geographic, ethnic and religious borders. Sharing accurate and balanced information about ourselves and others is an important aspect of this endeavor. Our interview with Karen Armstrong, a scholar and leading voice for interfaith dialogue, is an example of this effort. In it, she examines the religious and political roots of the West’s apprehensive approach to the Muslim world. In addition, an excerpt from Eboo Patel’s recent book, Acts of Faith, provides a framework for cooperation based on the common values shared across faiths.
Islamica Magazine is itself a journalistic enterprise dedicated to sound and insightful analysis. The editorial team is therefore delighted to announce that, come next issue, Islamica will share its voice as a monthly publication throughout the world.