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Media and religious extremism

Militants from the Islamic State - Photograph: presstv.ir

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It is only through giving voices to more people, even to those with whom media workers don’t agree, that religious extremism can be better moderated, writes Nicholas Chan.

Iman Research (a research outfit of which I am part) recently launched our maiden event with the partnership of The Habibie Centre, Usaid and The Malaysian Insider in the form of a roundtable and public forum to discuss the media’s role in countering religious extremism.

Due to the pervasive threat of religious extremism in many forms, from Isis to religious zealots in Malaysia to Burma’s state-sponsored violence against Muslims, the topic generated a lively discourse. That said, the greatest takeaway from the event remained that the topic deserves greater and deeper interrogation.

To begin with, the media (in this case, the news media) and extremism enjoy an intricate relationship. Historically, the media has not only served as the reporter of extremist acts and ideologies (the US media did not shy away from reporting Hitler’s atrocities), but unfortunately also ended up being easy targets of extremist acts.

In their line of duty, journalists were killed, abducted or jailed, while offices of the press were no stranger to raids and harassments, some even deadly ones.

Reporting and commenting on religion topped the risk scale, for aggressors came not only from the state but also outside it, as bloggers in Bangladesh sadly found out, slain for criticising the rise of religious militancy in the country.

On the other hand, some scholars would argue that the media actually enables terrorism by giving them a platform on which to spread messages and images of terror to strike fear into the hearts of people and publicise their causes to attract more followers.

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With the coming of the internet age, the media now refers to a much broader and looser network as compared to the age of the printing press. Like any successful capitalists, terrorists now can not only formulate their own media strategies, but also execute them effectively.

Websites propagating Isis’ ideology have paraded as news portals, not to mention that the terrorist organisation has a magazine of its own that belies a rather suave and professional presentation, one must say.

Social media join the fray by atomising and multiplying media presence, which creates a formidable threat considering that 75% of Malaysian Isis militants were recruited through social media.

Understandably, there is a natural expectation of the media to counter religious extremism because the media have always been seen as the voice of conscience for society in dire times.

It is an agent of social change for some, such as Chinese nationalist Sun Yat Sen, who famously said, “One newspaper is worth a hundred thousand soldiers.”

Nevertheless, even if the general perception is that we are losing to extremists in the propaganda war, we must be careful not to jump to the conclusion that the (news) media should be made a ‘tool” in combating religious extremism.

As Jahabar Sadiq, chief executive officer of The Malaysian Insider accurately puts it, the primary role of the news media is still to report facts. Taking an active role in countering religious and violent extremism, which are arguably areas of state jurisdiction, would risk the news media losing their sacrosanct status as the fourth estate.

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Besides, it is also naive to think that the general conditions which encourage religious extremism can be reversed by the media. Among these reasons is unfulfilled spiritual needs in the modern condition, according to lecturer Ahmad El-Muhammady, which the media can only do so much to provide.

Even so, the news media can still play a useful and productive, albeit nuanced, role in countering religious extremism.

The National Violence Monitoring System (NVMS) of Indonesia, a project of the Habibie Centre, uses newspaper reports from 34 agencies in nine provinces to gather information about conflicts and political violence within the nation. This provides important data in analysis of why and where violence breaks out, and hopefully finds ways to prevent them, as highlighted by Rudi Sukandar, senior advisor to the system.

Producing documentaries to bring out the voices of the disillusioned fighters of Isis, who would not talk to the authorities for valid reasons, for example, is another way of adding to the discourse by showing the ‘caliphate’ for what it is, with injustices, insufficiencies and contradictions that propaganda fails to mention.

Even in the Malaysian context, reporting facts remains an important avenue in countering religious extremism. What can be done is that the media acquire greater religious literacy to provide a broader perspective in reporting about the Muslim community in Malaysia, so as to avoid stepping into the trappings of a ‘right’ versus ‘wrong’ Islam debate fervently guarded by liberals and conservatives, state and non-state actors alike.

For example, there is actually a movement within the Malay-speaking Muslim community to counter Wahhabi thinking in Malaysia (which has a Facebook page and interestingly, an anti-Facebook page).

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By covering this, the news media can dispel the notion held by many that Salafi-Wahhabi teachings, an ultraconservative brand of Islam many would argue is extremist, is subscribed to uncritically by Malaysian Muslims.

One should note by now that a binary position – one that is popularised by the ‘war on terror’ paradigm – is insufficient and often alienating in covering issues with regard to religion and its cultural and political praxis.

A heightened awareness of the media’s subject-position is also needed. The last thing the media would want is to be boxed into factions or slapped with labels such as ‘pro-West’ or ‘government mouthpiece’ which would deny them access to the people who need the narratives they provide, or worse, cause them to be unwillingly dragged into a Manichean worldview that diminishes the media as a neutral arbiter of truth and facts.

Ultimately, it is only through giving voices to more people, even to those with whom media workers don’t agree, that religious extremism which thrives on the idea that we are seeing a ‘clash of civilisations’ can be better moderated.

Depth has to be provided in understanding extremism, be it about the surrounding geopolitics, sociological concerns or state-induced reactions.

In doing so, the media will invariably benefit from more connections fostered with experts, activists, authorities and even those foaming at their mouth espousing hate.

Source: The Malaysian Insider


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