Islam the Media and Intolerance

by Shaykh Seraj Hendricks

While Muslims are governed by a code of ethics considered, in principle, to be Divine there can be no excuse for us remaining silent in the face of injustice. Nor can there be any excuse for attitudes, on the part of Muslims – whether at the political or social levels – which endorse and promote dictatorship of any kind. There is simply no room in Islam for caricatures of the hegemonic sort. Unfortunately this is a trend that many Muslims throughout the world have to contend, live, and suffer with for most of their lives. For the overlords of this trend the term "freedom" means little more than their own personal freedom to police the lives of others as they please. Often at the butt-end of this authoritarianism, cloaked in the garb of religiosity, is the media.

But before we whinge too much about the oppression of the media a word of caution is needed. On the part of Muslims in particular there is a perception that much of what constitutes the media is manipulated by special-interest groups to promote Islamophobia. Generally too, there is the fear – and by a number of journalists themselves – that monopoly ownership of the media might prove fatal to the ideal of objective reporting. "It would be a fine day" to quote one of them, "if the media should transform itself into just another business".

While all these suspicions abound – and might well need to be addressed – my purpose nevertheless, is to provide an Islamic perspective of the media and freedom.

First of all the buzz-words are accountability and openness. These were eminently exemplified by the Prophet Muhammad and his four Caliphs after him. Umar al-Khattab, in his inaugaral speech as leader of the Muslim community, for example, openly declared himself accountable to the Divine law and to the will of the people. He proved his mettle during a Friday sermon when a lady protested his call to place a limit on the dowry due to them on marriage. When she proved him wrong he publicly admitted to his mistake. Secondly, there is a need to distinguish between information and propaganda. This is an Islamic imperative spelt out forcefully by the Quranic verse "If a wicked person comes to you with news then verify it, lest you harm people in ignorance and regret what you have done". If that information, however, serves to advance the cause of genuine public interest then it must be articulated, no matter how harshly it flies in the face of our specific private interests. Thirdly, the media has a seminal role to play – and I might be charged with sentimentality here – in the creation of an honest world. Honesty often suffers the sorry fate of landing in the gutter when there is either a failure to admit ignorance or when personal agendas dominate our worldview. Fourthly – and more specific to the Muslim media – the focus ought to be not only on the defense of Islam but also on the concerns of humanity at large.

While there can be little doubt that these features would enhance the level of trust between the media and the consumers of such media, there can be even less doubt about its applicability to those who have assumed the mantle of political or religious power. When we look at the Muslim world today and particularly at the Middle East with its six monarchies and seven dictatorships then the picture presents a rather ominous face. Now we might add here that Islam does not slavishly commend itself to any political system – even a Western-styled democracy; but when basic freedoms of expression and healthy diversities of opinion are simply not tolerated then we really ought to make a serious attempt at rediscovering our roots. While extremists and obscurantists of all shades might want to trade blows with me on the matter, my view is that those roots are still firmly placed in mainstream, traditional Islam. It was the Islam that not only won our battles for us but also taught the "Dark Ages" of Western historical time the best of human values and progress. Let us not be mistaken, however, into thinking that mainstream Islam was that stream which flowed through the structures of political power during the long course of our history. On the contrary, mainstream Islam was, and still is, represented by those people who - irony apart - will fight to the last for the preservation of that "sacred" space within which diversity is tolerated. Disconcertingly we have to note today that in many regions of the Muslim world, either at governmental level or by groupings punting new "purified" versions of Islam, there are concerted attempts to slap a ban on that space – a kind of group areas act of forsaken ideologies. We also have to note with even greater consternation that the ripples of this new purified craze are now threatening to gain an even firmer foothold in South Africa. Calls to ban one or another of our Muslim newspapers, or to prevent the open dissemination of legitimate and well-researched topics expressing the rich variety of Muslim legal and other opinions, are occurring far too often to merely dismiss as isolated fulminations of a lone fanatic. Often too the justification for such fulminations – and typical of all dictators – is that the Muslim community is not yet ready to receive opinions which militate against customarily received and accepted conceptions (or even misconceptions). The obvious conundrum in issues of this kind is who in our community, and particularly from amongst its leaders, is entitled to appropriate the weight of public opinion in support of their own narrow positions? Is there, I am almost forced but hate to ask, a conspiracy to entrench ignorance? What is to happen to our Islam that liberated and gained the respect of both Muslims and non-Muslims alike? Admittedly there is many a journalist who simply foul up, wittingly or unwittingly, on simple facts. By doing so they invariably become the vehicles of exploitation and prejudice. A journalist for a world -renowned magazine, for example, almost unforgivably translated the word "fatwa" during the Salman Rushdi crisis as a "death sentence". The term simply means a "legal ruling". For indiscretions of this and similar kinds – in both the Muslim and non-Muslim media - are we entitled to respond to them in an equally foolish and reactionary manner? Or are we to uphold the ideal of promoting a culture of the media, even under the eyes of the spiritually and intellectually blind, which tenaciously sets itself the task to inform and to emancipate. And, with regard to the Muslim media in particular, to do so with integrity- even if integrity in this context means to shock ever so now and again. We can only do so, however, if we as a Muslim community are prepared to take up the broader struggle of fighting for that "sacred" space without which genuine progress will remain nothing more than a chimerical oasis in a rather pitiless desert.

( From the Cape Times dated 7th May 1998)

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