From the March 26 Olin Institute blog
March 31, 2008
by Hillel Fradkin
According to Philip Bennett, managing editor of the Washington Post, Americans lack a proper understanding of Islam. Contemporary media practice is to blame, and it is the job of the same media to fix it. His immediate proposals: hiring more Muslim journalists, better translations of Arabic words or terms and greater descriptive precision. The latter might include dropping the term “Islamist” as a characterization of certain Muslim political movements. Bennett presented these views in a talk delivered at the University of California-Irvine and it was reported in the Daily Pilot, the Newport Beach newspaper.
To be sure, Americans know relatively little about Islam. They also know relatively little about Hinduism, Buddhism and Shintoism and not a few other things besides. Just why is it the special duty of American newspapers to make Americans knowledgeable about Islam? And is it really plausible that newspapers could accomplish this task? In fact, the proposals Bennett makes to address the problem are more likely to do harm than good. But he may represent a growing consensus.
The first difficulty is that newspapers are simply not intended or designed to provide a general education in any subject, let alone one like Islam, which has a 1,400-year long and complicated history. Their role is to report the news. Of course, these days newspapers supplement that with feature stories, and if these are good and long—indeed, very long—they can be helpful. But for better or for worse, if Americans are to become deeply knowledgeable about Islam, they will have to invest more time and effort than is required by reading newspapers.
Nor will having more Muslim reporters necessarily help. This assumes that Muslim reporters are both necessarily deeply knowledgeable about Islam and have no intra-Muslim biases of their own. Take the division of contemporary Muslims into Sunnis and Shiites. The usual description of the character and grounds of the differences between them in news stories is inadequate, limiting itself at best to its origin in the quarrel about the succession to Muhammad. This is less adequate than it needs to be, and some fairly simple remedy could be proposed.
But is the remedy more Muslim journalists? Quite a few Sunnis and Shiites know relatively little about one another’s beliefs and history. Moreover, the antipathy between them could lead to biased reporting—anti-Sunni or anti-Shiite respectively—of a different sort. Or does Bennett propose to have both Sunnis and Shiites on staff and limit them to reporting on their respective affiliations? If so, one might wonder why this practice should not be extended to other religions to allow for intra-Catholic, intra-Protestant and intra-Jewish differences and disputes.
It is unclear whether Bennett has thought about any of this. But what is clear is that his idea resembles an all too common and regrettable view that only members of specific religious or other societal groups are fit students and interpreters of such groups. This view has its recent American origins in American universities. It has already done a great deal of damage there, where one of its chief consequences has been to render much scholarship akin to apologetics. It would be regrettable if apologetics were to replace reporting as well.
There is some hint of this in Bennett’s remarks, particularly where the report comes to the question of terms. Apparently there was some discussion of terms like “jihad,” “madrassa,” and “hijab,” and hand-wringing about their alleged mistranslation. What this meant with regard to madrassa and hijab is not stated and is, even in the case of hijab, hard to imagine except for students like myself of arcane medieval discussions of Sufism and related matters.
In the case of jihad, there was the standard belaboring of the fact that it sometimes means warfare but also may mean “struggle and valiant attempt.” Precisely because this belaboring has become so standard, it is hard to believe that “mistranslation” is today the issue or problem. The real and obvious question is how many Muslims embrace the one or the other and with what energy, and that has nothing to do with what newspapers say or do not say.
The somewhat new issue concerns the term “Islamist.” The use of this term is apparently being debated in newsrooms, with some urging it to be dropped as too vague. This perhaps reflects and derives from a similar debate in the American academy, where the issue less concerns vagueness than the possibility that non-Muslims might identify Islamism—i.e., radical Islam—with Islam itself, and so identify Islam with violence.
It would be unfortunate if this term were dropped. Indeed, it would make reporting more inaccurate rather than less, and if accuracy is genuinely the concern of newspapers it should be retained. Although the term Islamism is not free of ambiguities (neither is the word Islam itself, so should we stop speaking of it as well?), it is not simply vague. It refers to the radical ideological and political movement which arose upon the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928. To be sure, this movement now embraces a variety of organizations, including Al Qaeda, which disagree and diverge from one another (often with great hostility). But they still retain enough in common to be describable with the same term, and such distinctions among them as are necessary can be appropriately made. (A case also can be made for Salafism, but its present disadvantage is that, at best, it would cover only Sunni and not Shiite groups.)
At all events, the great utility and advantage of the term Islamism is precisely that it makes a distinction between Islam as such and its contemporary radical offshoots. In fact, so far as I’m aware its first usage in English about forty years ago was by the late Pakistani theologian and scholar Fazlur Rahman. (For full disclosure, he was my teacher.) His purpose was precisely to draw this distinction and to protect Islam from being confused with radical groups. Since this seems also to be the purpose of Mr. Bennett and others, they would be well advised to continue using it. Otherwise they will contribute to that which they fear: anti-Muslim bias.
Hillel Fradkin is a Senior Fellow and Director for the Center on Islam, Democracy, and the Future of the Muslim World at Hudson Institute.
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