Nov 112004
Authors: Meg Burd

Turn to any television news channel, flip open any newspaper and

chances are good that you will come across a story discussing the

Middle East. Just this week, newspapers are filled with stories

about the assault on Fallujah, the death of a Dutch filmmaker or

even the death of Yasser Arafat, and one might find a whole bevy of

sweeping statements about the “Islamic World” or discussions about

a “Clash of Civilizations” (a la Samuel Huntington’s controversial

book of the same name) in many of the stories purporting to give

background information on these current situations. This supposed

information, however, is often ill-informed and misleading,

scholars argue.

It is time both those in the media and we as consumers of the

media and students in academia carefully scrutinize the discourses

about the Middle East, or indeed, any place in the world. Too

often, media and those discussing situations in the any foreign

place in the world rely on stereotypes and clich�s to

explain complicated, complex and diverse peoples and areas, leading

to misconceptions that can result in or fuel racism, hatred, as

well as serve to create or further supposed divides.

Edward Said, a literary and cultural critic who examined in his

seminal book “Orientalism” the way in which ideas about the East

got their start in Western imagination, found that texts by British

and French colonial officials and writers of the Imperial era

tended to portray the East as backwards and less “civilized” than

the West and were often blatantly misinformed and racist.

Today, these discourses about the East, and the Middle East in

particular, sadly still inform much of our discourse and so-called

news, Said suggests. As Said points out, when the so-called

“Islamic World” is pictured in newspapers today, it is usually only

in times of crisis and the presentation usually centers around how

the “Islamic World” is different from “ours.” Too often, this term

of “Islam World” is used as a term to represent a whole variety of

diverse peoples from various countries: “In no really significant

way is there a direct correspondence between the ‘Islam’ in common

Western usage and the enormously varied life that goes on within

the world of Islam, with its more than 8 billion people … its

dozens of societies, states, histories, geographies, cultures,”

Said notes in his book “Covering Islam.”

Indeed, even with such diversity present, news reports on the

so-called “Islamic World” are likely to lump together regions,

states, religious groups and peoples and even then only discuss

them in the context of crises. As Parvez Ahmed, a board member for

the Council on American-Islamic Relations notes, “A search of past

newspaper articles shows that terrorism, militancy or extremism by

a Muslim is frequently linked to his faith. The association is

1,000 to 1 times more likely for Muslims than any other faith


Furthermore, the United Kingdom’s Home Office Report (complied

by researchers from the University of Derby) found that 80 percent

of the Muslim organizations they interviewed said that coverage

presenting an unfair image of their religion was frequent. Such

portrayals, one commenter in the BBC series “Myths About Muslims”

noted, are “extending misconceptions about Islam and creating

hatred that sort of comes with those misconceptions.”

Just look at an MSNBC story of Nov. 9 in which it declared: “The

clash between Islam and outspoken artists is not new” for an

example of such dangerous generalizing.

By simply grouping such diverse places, ideas and peoples under

the term Islam we are not able to understand the complexity of many

situations involving these areas and, in many cases,

miss-representing the religion as it is practiced by many.

The Home Office Report suggests that education, better training

for journalists and writers, greater consultation with religious

groups and policy reviews to ensure equal treatment were necessary

to begin to repair this problem in the media. As Said also

suggests, journalists and academics alike must review what they are

saying about Islam and consider how perhaps their words are coming

out of the Imperialist tradition and seek to inform themselves more

clearly on issues. Said calls on reporters and academics (and

perhaps consumers) to be “more diligent” asking sources “to explain

‘Islamist’ instead of leaving its meaning open to the imagination

of uninformed readers.”

To do this, Said suggests in one of his last comments in 2003,

we might be able to “put aside our personal differences and work to

make a more humane world.”

 Posted by at 5:00 pm

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