Journalism: Islam, the media and meaningless language

Clear as mud

Islamist, orthodox, jihadist, conservative, Islamism, hardliner, Moslem, extremist, insurgent, fundamentalist, freedom fighter, infidel, moderate, liberal, progressive. All of these words mean nothing and everything at the same time – a testament to the power and mutability of language in the media, specifically when it comes to the words we use to describe Muslims and Islam in the contemporary world.

The potency and slipperiness of this kind of journalistic shorthand is apparent in a recent article from the Associated Press that was picked up in the World section of the Los Angeles Times. The headline reads: “Indonesian militant gets 8-year jail sentence for twin hotel bombings.” This piece is a treasure-trove of over-used and under-defined jargon – Islamist, militant, extremist – that tells a poorly contextualized story and thereby plays to readers’ assumptions instead of informing them or challenging their prejudices.

So what is an Islamist? According to Princeton University’s WordNet, an Islamist is either “a scholar who knowledgeable in Islamic studies” or “an orthodox Muslim.” So an “Islamist” is someone who most likely knows a great deal about Islam and probably adheres closely to its tenets. (Note: there is no mention of terrorism, violence, hatred or intolerance in this definition).

The Indonesian man who was sentenced to eight years is described as an “Islamist militant.” What is a militant? An “activist (a militant reformer).”

So the individual in question is a fervent Muslim scholar with weapons training? How much Islamic knowledge and learning does he actually have? Does he have a degree in Islamic Studies from Harvard, or is he a sheikh (religious scholar)? How religious is he in terms of his practice of Islam? Perhaps he is just a man that happens to identify as a Muslim who was recruited to commit violent acts in exchange for money or to retaliate against perceived threats to his family or community. The article fails to provide these details, leaving readers to clarify the ambiguity with their own biases.

Finally, what is an extremist? Not surprisingly, I learn he or she is a “person who holds extreme views.” By this definition, many people are extremists. The two most extreme Muslims who come to mind are Osama bin Laden (for obvious reasons) and Ayaan Ali Hirsi, who says that Islam is “not just ugly but monstrous” and that “the Christian leaders now wasting precious time and resources on a futile exercise of interfaith dialogue with the self-appointed leaders of Islam should redirect their efforts to converting as many Muslims as possible to Christianity.”

Hirsi, a self-proclaimed former Muslim and current atheist, calls for the destruction of Islam through religious conversion. Sounds pretty extreme to me, but I am hard-pressed to find her consistently described in the Western news media as an extremist, hatemonger, bigot, racist and advocate for the subjugation of over one billion Muslims worldwide.

The aforementioned AP article is part of a broader news media trend toward sloppy (or nonexistent) contextualizing when it comes to Muslims and Islam. A recent piece on CNN refers to “radical Islamist groups” and “Islamic radical groups” committing “un-Islamic” acts of violence and intimidation. Even in absolving so-called “radical Islamists, Islamic militancy and Islamist rule” from responsibility for the current ethnic violence in Kyrgyzstan, Reuters still uses a series of equally vague, undefined terms that muddy facts instead of clarifying them. The BBC reports that a terrorism suspect “was ordered to be electronically tagged and live in the Midlands to keep him away from Islamist extremists in London.”

So this suspected terrorist was to be kept away from ardently religious Muslim scholars? Thanks BBC, I feel so… informed.

In these and other mainstream news outlets I am unable to find examples of similar stock-phrases referring to Christianity, Judaism or Buddhism that carry the implication of something inherently negative or dangerous in those traditions. On the other hand, as we have seen, there are many journalistic stock-phrases that associate Islam with violence, oppression and subjugation. A critical question to ask is whether this state of affairs represents the actual experience and attitudes of the majority of Muslims in the world or, rather, the willful ignorance of the non-Muslim press and the audiences they serve.

Are there no positive stories to tell about Islam or Muslims worldwide? As a Muslim born and raised in the U.S. who works with and for Muslims in the U.S., I know many important stories that are simply not being told.

So what does all of this mean? The short answer is that the use of reactionary language in place of context is simply lazy journalism. But there is more at stake than that conclusion implies. These hollow phrases fail to portray Muslims as human beings or to accord Islam the same stature as other global faiths. They also perpetuate the infantile (and self-fulfilling) construct of a so-called “Clash of Civilizations.”

Journalists pride themselves on being informed so that they can inform others. Many of them might renew that sense of mission by taking a close look at the language – and assumptions – they bring to their coverage of Muslims and Islam.

(Photo: Carole Reckinger)

Ali H. Mir is currently the Director of Muslim Student Life at the University of Southern California Office of Religious Life and a 2010 NewGround Fellow. Ali is a graduate of the USC School of Policy, Planning and Development. As a private environmental consultant, Ali has over seven years of experience within the policy framework of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

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