When in doubt, we believe that it is best to define people’s religious beliefs in two ways, through (1) their own words and (2) accurate descriptions of their actions that affect the story that is being covered. Thus, rather than describe Muslims by using a term (“fundamentalist”) taken from battles in America between modernists and conservative Protestants, it is best to simply cite the movement the Muslims in question are part of and then describe the conflict or story at hand. There are also terms that are used to describe trends within Islam, terms that are exclusive to Islam, such as “Salafism” or “Wahhabism” that can be briefly explained and then used.
There is no perfect solution. However, it is clear that some terms are more accurate than others. When covering Islam, why not use words that clearly describe groups within Islam?
Meanwhile, many mainstream journalists can’t seem to make up their minds what labels to use, so they keep trying out new ones or even resorting to clusters of labels. The result is kind of like throwing digital spaghetti against a newsroom wall.
Thus, I think the following piece by Ali H. Mir — currently the director of Muslim student activities in the religious life office at the University of Southern California — is an excellent door for discussions of this topic. It’s being circulated by the TRANS/MISSIONS website linked to the university’s Knight Chair in Media and Religion.
The opening is blunt, to say the least:
Islamist, orthodox, jihadist, conservative, Islamism, hardliner, Moslem, extremist, insurgent, fundamentalist, freedom fighter, infidel, moderate, liberal, progressive … blah, blah, blah.
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.
Take, for example a hard-news story that describes an Islamist who is also a militant and an extremist, as well, and he has been linked to a hotel bombing. What do these words mean?
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). … 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. …
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.
Now, there is much for journalists to discuss and even debate, after reading this article. One does not have to agree with how Mir evaluates some of the issues and personalities involved.
Also, I am sure that there are believers in other major religious groups who could cite numerous examples of how vague, inaccurate and misleading labels are applied to their flocks. Muslims are not alone in believing that they have it bad, when it comes to news coverage. Mir suggests that journalists tend to pin nasty labels on Muslims — alone.
But the key is to actually think about the problems caused by these kinds of labels in the first place. Journalists cannot find journalistic solutions to these kinds of journalistic problems without admitting that the problems exist in the first place.
So read the essay and then be constructive and practical, when it comes time to click “comment.” Carry on.