Opinion & Analysis

Reporting about Muslims? Here are some things to consider

As Ramadan begins, Eva Nisa and Faried F. Saenong share some useful points for media to consider when covering Islam and Muslim society.

Journalists and the media play a significant role in educating the public. Studies have mentioned, for example, how the media is powerful and able to shift public opinion which has led to journalists being bribed and even killed, like in the recent case of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.

During conflicts, coverage of violence and peace as well as reconciliation is often unbalanced. Therefore, it is not surprising if some scholars, like Johan Galtung, the father of academic peace research, and Jake Lynch, emphasise the importance of peace journalism. In times of conflict, considering what and how to report can potentially contribute to peacebuilding. The current protocols pertaining to the Christchurch attack trial issued by New Zealand media organisations can be applauded.

In the aftermath of the inhumane Christchurch tragedy, media outlets in New Zealand have been inundated by stories on and about Muslims and Islam. The Sri Lanka Easter Sunday bombings further added to this. Muslims have been continuously in the spotlight. The media, both mainstream and social media, has become the main window through which many learn about Islam and Muslims.

reporting about Islam

The Christchurch tragedy has put Islam in the spotlight. Image: James To

Unfortunately, stereotypical portraits of Muslims, especially pertaining to the myth of violence that positions Islam as the cause of inhumane terrorist acts, have long been circulated, particularly post 9/11. Media framing needs to contribute to the goodness of humanity.

It is certainly not easy to pinpoint the dos and don’ts when reporting and framing Islam. This is because there are currently around 1.8 billion Muslims in the world and the way they understand, embrace and express their religiosity is very diverse. The diversity can also be seen in the Muslim population in New Zealand, which is a small minority of approximately 60,000 people or just over 1 per cent of the total country’s population.

These points would be useful to consider when covering Islam and Muslim society:

1. Muslims differ considerably regarding how they understand and express their religiosity. There are two big branches of Muslim communities, Sunni and Shia, and within Sunni and Shi'a there are countless (transnational and local) Muslim groups, Islamic and Islamist (political Islam) movements which have specific understandings of Islam. Thus, Muslims range from moderate, conservative and radical, to liberal and progressive. At the level of ‘aqida (essentials of their faith) — such as believing in one God, the Qur’an and His messengers — however, belief is the same for all Muslims.

2. It is important to avoid the essentialist approach to Islam, beyond the domain of creeds (‘aqida) and formal acts of worship — such as the required five prayers each day and observing of the month-long fast during Ramadan, which will begin in New Zealand close to the 6 May — where changes are not allowed.

 "Indeed, the majority of Muslims live in Asia; around 62 per cent of Muslims live in the Asia-Pacific region."

3. One of the most common mistakes relating to essentialising Islam in many reports is the use of phrases such as “the position of Islam” and “according to Islam” on any given matter. Islam is not an agent that thinks and acts. Rather, it is believers who try to talk about and understand their religion. Their socio-cultural backgrounds, including political and economic backgrounds, also influence them in understanding and practising their religion. For example, in New Zealand, we witness diverse expressions of Muslim religiosity.

4. Studies have mentioned that post 9/11 media coverage often fails to distinguish between Islam as a religion and radical Muslims who hijack their religion to label their acts of terrorism. Like other religious believers, Muslims condemn violence and terrorism, which is considered a grave sin. Therefore, it is important to avoid the myth of the “clash of civilisations”. When terror attacks happen across the globe, mainstream Muslims indeed feel that they are amongst the primary victims. Many of them have continuously suffered because they feel they are being blamed, and their religion is often framed to be blamed for diverse atrocities enacted by inhumane terrorists using their religion. Therefore, it is not surprising if, for example, Muslim-majority countries believe that they have an immense responsibility to fight against terrorism and extremism.

5. Geographical essentialism, by emphasising that the Arab world is the true home of Islam, also needs to be avoided. Muslims are scattered across the world. Indeed, the majority of Muslims live in Asia; around 62 per cent of Muslims live in the Asia-Pacific region and only around 19.8%-20% live in the Middle East and North Africa. Muslims from these countries are actively engaged in understanding their religious texts. Thus, we cannot say that Islam in the Asia and Pacific, for example, are inauthentic, yet Arab Muslims are the model for other Muslims.

Those are some main points to consider in our effort to support peacebuilding and avoid essentialising any religion. Muslims also strive to fight against global terrorism. It is imperative to analyse specifities, not generalities, in any given conflict.

With Ramadan approaching, Muslims believe that it is a moment of rejuvenating their sense of community, not only with their coreligionists but also their community. In the aftermath of the Christchurch tragedy, it is a perfect time for Muslims in New Zealand to welcome Ramadan with an ethical and moral orientation by restoring and revitalising their bonds of solidarity and brotherhood with their Kiwi compatriots, because Ramadan is a month of compassion (syahru al-muwasah). Ramadan Kareem!

Main image by James To.

- Asia Media Centre