A well functioning democracy requires an effective media that in the words of critic Eric Alterman focuses on the 'spinach' of hard news and not the 'candy' of sensationalism. From reluctance to critically question WMD assertions prior to Iraq War to obsession over covering celebrity trials, all points to a media that has discarded its traditional role of a watchdog in favor of an ill defined goal of infotainment.
This apparent change in philosophy has not resulted in any major gains. Despite growth in US population, newspaper circulation remains flat and audiences for news dwindling. A study by Harvard University reports 58 percent of people perceive news as sensational, 84 percent as depressing, 42 percent as misleading, and 47 percent as biased.
Perhaps the most egregious of these failures is the media's coverage of Islam or Muslims. A search of past newspaper articles shows that terrorism, militancy or extremism by a Muslim is frequently linked to his faith. The association is 1000 to 1 times more likely for Muslims than any other faith group. This lopsided association is troubling given the fact that that all religions, not just Islam, have in the recent past fallen prey to misinterpretation by a radical fringe. Certainly the ills of a misguided minority do not justify the victimization of the peaceful majority. The consequences of such imprudent associations are often overlooked.
In 1999 Wall Street Journal ran a story on the ongoing struggle for democratic reform in Iran. The article suggested that the struggle in Iran is between, 'Islamic clerics and secular reformers.' The struggle for reform was and is still being lead by a cleric, current Iranian President Khatami. A reader later pointed out that a Muslim does not have to be 'secular' to believe in the universal values of social justice and human dignity.
The 9/11 Commission reported with alarming alacrity that 'Islamist terrorism' is the greatest threat posed to the United States. A University of Washington professor of Islamic studies Brannon Wheeler now questions why the commission did not use any Islamic scholar to 'explain Islam, Muslim religious activism or bin Laden.' Journalists in expected their watchdog role should have been more diligent, asking the commission to explain 'Islamist' instead of leaving its meaning open to the imagination of uninformed
Another recent headline stated, 'Saudi security forces kill Islamic militants.' Perhaps a better choice would have been 'Islamic forces kill Saudi militants.' After all Saudi Arabia is a self-described Islamic country whose security forces are 'Islamic' and
the militants unmistakably Saudi.
On August 5 three stories came across AP news wires - the arrest in a sting operation of two Muslims, the arrest of a man who allegedly had plans to bomb a federal building, and FBI raid on a home investigating anthrax. Guess which story made your headline news?
Such repetitive slant in media coverage builds an environment in which bigotry fosters. It is thus not surprising that radio and television talk shows are resplendent with both caller and host assertions that Muslims have either not condemned terrorism or have only six degrees of separation from it. A Pew Forum survey shows that 44 percent of Americans believe Islam encourages violence and 49 percent believe one in two Muslims to be anti-American. Neither public opinion reflects reality.
Anouar Majid of University of New England in his book 'Unveiling Traditions' writes that such bias is reflective of an intrinsic Eurocentric worldview that needs change as 'a progressive multicultural world of linked, but irreducible cultural singularities, has become a historic necessity.'
Media organizations will have to reawaken to the principle of unlimited interrogation, which begins by understanding the limitations of the prevailing Eurocentrism and its consequent Orientalism - understood as attitude that views non-western ideas and culture as inferior. Mainstream Muslim scholars and activists must be given airtime and print space to dispel the stereotypes that dog them. Not doing so imperils our liberal democracy where journalists have the sacred duty to improve civic dialogue.
Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiment pointed out that human communities be bound together by agreeable bonds of affection and be drawn to one common center of mutual good. Today technology necessitates that we view the human community as extending beyond our national boundaries. Islam and West are not two exclusive poles but are part of an integrated whole in a polycentric world.
Parvez Ahmed, Ph.D. (email@example.com), is a board member for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, (CAIR). CAIR is headquartered in Washington D.C., has 28 offices nationwide and is America's largest Muslim civil liberties advocacy group.