UNITED NATIONS - When Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi addressed the United Nations General Assembly last September, he rejected the argument that religion was responsible for disputes between nations.
Providing a political perspective, he declared that the primary cause of conflicts between Islamic and Western nations "is the repeated use of force by the powerful over the weak to secure strategic or territorial gains."
Dr. Muhammad Nurayn Ashafa, joint executive director of the Interfaith Mediation Centre in Nigeria, adduced another argument for the current religio-cultural tensions: he blamed the media and the movie industry for their "insensitivity" to religious and cultural values in reporting and documenting events.
At a recent General Assembly meeting on inter-religious and inter-cultural understanding, he quoted a Jewish rabbi as having said: "Religion is like a flame, it can be used to warm the house and it can also burn down the house."
The United Nations, whose "Alliance of Civilisations" is aimed at improving religious and cultural understanding among nations and peoples, admits that "the impact the media can now have upon our perceptions of others has reached an unprecedented scale".
The right to freedom of opinion and expression also carries responsibilities.
"The media should strive to broadcast a balanced view of all cultures by tackling stereotypes and prejudice, and promoting tolerance and mutual understanding," according to one of the guiding documents of the Dialogue of Civilisations.
But does it?
The media have been accused by some of being responsible -- either wittingly or unwittingly -- for instigating or provoking religious or ethnic tensions in areas of conflict or making preemptive judgments.
When the Oklahoma City bombing took place in the United States in August 1995 -- long before the terror attacks in New York in September 2001 -- the initial press reports and stories that hit the wire attributed the bombing to "Middle East terrorist groups". That bombing was actually carried out by a homegrown anti-government militia inside the United States.
Perhaps in an attempt to beat competitors, the wire services also rush to judgment in more subtle ways, says a Middle East analyst based in New York.
After a bombing in Europe a couple of years ago, one of the wire service stories read: "A voice in broken English -- and with an Arabic accent -- claimed responsibility for the bombing."
A second story coming out of Europe about a bomb threat read: "A man called the U.S. airbase in Germany and threatened to attack it...Speaking German -- possibly with a Russian or Turkish accent..."
These judgmental statements -- mostly erroneous -- could have created irreparable damage to ethnic or religious groups or triggered a backlash, said the analyst.
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Norman Solomon, executive director of the Washington-based Institute for Public Accuracy, says "extremely polarising fundamentalisms -- which could sometimes be called Islamic, Christian or Jewish -- are real threats to peace and human rights."
At the same time, he said, media efforts to use a religious faith as an adjective to condemn deadly violence are often self-serving; they point the finger in one direction and away from others, obscuring the truth that radical fundamentalisms are not confined to any faith.
"A single standard of human rights would not have anything to do with winking at some deadly zealotry while condemning others," Solomon told IPS.
But the U.S. news media, on the whole, appear uninterested in a single standard of human rights.
"Such a standard would require not only the condemnation of the inhumanity of suicide bombers of the Islamic faith -- the standard would also condemn the Israeli officials ordering the attacks and policies that continue to kill Palestinians of all ages," he said.
"A consistent standard would also condemn the U.S. government's top officials who have overseen so much destruction of human life in Iraq," said Solomon, who co-authored "Unreliable Sources: A Guide to Detecting Bias in News Media".
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says "it's time to promote the idea that diversity is a virtue, not a threat."
He says it is also time "for a constructive and committed dialogue; a dialogue amongst individuals, amongst communities, and between nations."
In a report released last November, a high-level group of political leaders promoting the Alliance of Civilisations urged media professionals to develop, articulate and implement voluntary codes of conduct.
The study called for training programmes to help widen journalists' understanding of critical international issues -- particularly in the fields where politics and religion intersect.
The high-level group also called for creation of a "risk fund" by public and private donors "to temper the market forces that encourage sensationalistic and stereotyped media and cultural materials."
Solomon of the Institute for Public Accuracy says that news media ought to shun the de facto propaganda campaigns that vilify a particular religion by linking it with the most destructive people who claim to be adherents.
"Journalism, independent media and the free flow of information can help us to see common humanity -- but propaganda has often encouraged us to believe that inhumanity is a characteristic of particular ethnic groups and religions."
He said "the frequent media strokes of a broad brush end up painting us into corners that polarise rather than inform and inflame rather than educate."
© 2007 Inter Press Service