Why Journalists Can’t Afford to Ignore Religion

Date: 18 March 2015

Region: Worldwide

Journalists_Reporting_Charlie_Hebdo_AttackJournalists can’t afford to ignore religion anymore. There is a growing need for a better understanding of faith and for more accurate, non-stereotypical reporting on issues related to religion. But how difficult that can be was illustrated at the debate “Damned If You Don’t? Why Journalists Can’t Afford to Ignore Religion” organised by the Media Society in conjunction with the Sandford St Martin Trust on 18 March in London.

Four media professionals and a moderator, BBC Radio 4 presenter Edward Stourton, presented different points of views. Some participants though, were jumping into generalisations such as ‘all Muslims in the UK prioritise their religion’ or ‘the Muslim Brotherhood was elected because the ordinary Egyptians are far more religious.’

Writer and broadcaster Myriam Francois-Cerrah warned against generalisations. She also opposed to Dame Ann Leslie’s argument that the election of the Muslim Brotherhood was based upon the strong religious beliefs of the Egyptian people and pointed out that the election of Morsi was a political decision, as the alternative to him seemed far worse. She stressed that seemingly religiously motivated developments, such as the seizure of power of ISIS, reflect political interests rather than religious ones and therefore need to be analysed through the lens of political movements. Regarding the increasing number of young people joining ISIS, she argued: ‘When we discuss theology we miss more substantive points. What [persuades] young people to join IS? What about gangs? What about cults?’

Professor Steve Barnet highlighted how important it is to understand the essence of religion in order to have accurate and fair reporting. Moreover, he brought attention to the practical implications on journalism as a field by stressing that the field of journalism is continuously shrinking and that a focus on a specialist role on religion would mean getting rid of another post, which media outlets simply cannot afford.

‘We have constantly ignored how important religion is to a lot of ordinary people. When they believe that corruption is such that they’ll never get justice, they turn to a fundamental and purer god’, said Ann Leslie who was a foreign correspondent for Daily Mail. But her highly problematic remarks on Muslims and violent conflicts in Muslim countries drew criticism and heated up a debate.

Ann Leslie talked about an experience while she was reporting in Afghanistan where she witnessed Afghans rescuing the bodies of the dead instead of wounded soldiers. She explained that dead bodies must be returned to the families within 24 hours and that this was the reason why Muslims had different priorities.  But her generalising assumptions from one experience she had in Afghanistan which was criticised by Myriam Francois-Cerrah. “It is extremely problematic to construct all Afghans fundamentally different to ‘us’ and make it seem like they all prioritize saving dead bodies over wounded soldiers,” warned Francois-Cerrah.

However, Ann Leslie continued to construct the Muslim ‘other’ by supporting her arguments with anecdotes from her life. The debate reached another boiling point when Ann Leslie mentioned how her father only employed Muslim servants when they were living in India as it was ‘difficult to employ Hindus’ due to their cast system, to which Myriam Francois-Cerrah again responded by opposing to the benign way that Ann Leslie talked about Muslim servants. Not only did Leslie Ann connect a discussion on media and religion to servants in British India, but she also mentioned the benevolence of her father, while conveniently leaving out Britain’s history of colonialism in India. This uncritical way of contextualising religion within a master-servant structure in one of Britain’s former colonies was then complemented with more recent forms of Western intervention. Ann Leslie remarked that journalists need to understand the different forms of Islam in order to fully grasp conflicts in the Middle-East for example, as ‘more Muslims are killed by Muslims than by the West’.

Leslie Ann’s remarks reproduced highly problematic discourses that absolve Western societies from responsibility for political and military interventions in Muslim countries. Furthermore, she constructed Muslims as fundamentally ‘other’ and opposed to a Western lifestyle, while also depicting them as violent and internally conflicted as a religious group. Meanwhile, she produced the opposing image of the West as a peaceful spectator that is merely interested in bringing stability to the East, completely disregarding Western interests and responsibility regarding these interventions.

Although the panel discussion raised some important questions for journalists, it was overshadowed by generalising assumptions about Muslims and a lack of reflection on the West as a political actor. It is further remarkable that a panel discussion on religion and media immediately turned into a discussion on Islam and media, continuously linking Islam to international conflicts, while not mentioning any of the other world religions at all.