The problem with the Pulitzers & Islamic reform

The problem with the Pulitzers & Islamic reform May 11, 2006

A profound analysis from a veteran journalist of the way American journalism today devalues its most important function through flashy awards and overemphasizing international affairs and high-falluting pontification.

Edward Wasserman: Prizes are trophies for rich papers

I’ve come to believe that the Pulitzers — for all the celebrity, the champagne, the career-capping glory they bring — are bad for the profession. They purport to stand for excellence in journalism, but if they do it’s in the same way that Rolls Royce stands for excellence in car-making.

And that’s the problem. The Pulitzers are big, clunky trophies for the rich. They honor lavish work that has no bearing on the reasonable strivings of most journalists, dazzling achievements that are a galaxy apart from the nimble municipal reporting that energizes a robust civic culture. They amplify a structure of dominance within the profession that sneers at the work of most newsrooms, and every year they send out the same, deeply wrong-headed message: that great journalism is primarily national and international in scope, and is practiced mainly by the country’s wealthiest news organizations.

In a way, his criticism of the priorities of contemporary journalism reminds me of the discourse of Islamic activism and reform.  We’re always talking about Big Ideas, even though the real contributions are generally made not out in the ether of theory but on the ground of practice, dealing with concrete and sometimes numbingly mundane problems and issues.  In a way, a real reformer is a glorified proofreader who periodically reviews tradition for inconsistencies or anachronisms (i.e., things that no longer apply) and then proposes to the author new language that attempts to resolve these problems with minimal changes to the text. 

In my opinion, in normal circumstances real reformers don’t talk grandly about "reconstructing" religious thought,  "islamizing" knowledge, or "reviving tradition" without explaining what that tradition is.  They roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty with specific problems and issues.  Such work is not as sexy, but it’s what makes a difference in the real world.

Incidentally, this is why I don’t like to join the lynch mobs that form against liberal Muslims[*] who go overboard when sincerely advocating reform.  They may get important things seriously wrong–and if they do, they should be critiqued–but unlike some of their critics they’re at least talking specifics and trying, however imperfectly, to be part of a solution.  When those who have the knowledge and wisdom to tackle these thorny issues remain silent (whether out of habit or out of deference to their peers), I think we have to make some allowances for the inevitably imperfect attempts of others to solve real problems.

I look forward to the day I don’t have to turn to liberals for open, concrete discussions of reform and renewal of Islamic tradition.  When it’s the traditionalists who are leading important discussions about updating fiqh, as opposed to trying to torpedo them.   Then I’ll be the most ferocious advocate of taqlid you’ve ever seen.

* No takfir is intended by this observation, but when I say "liberal Muslim" I mean somebody who advocates reform while believing in Islam in a reasonably traditional sense.  Thus, I do not include secular Muslims or cultural Muslims under this rubric for these purposes.  I’m referring to Muslims who consciously strive to base their solutions on authentic Islamic sources (which in addition to the obvious ones–Quran, Sunnah, subsequent scholarly tradition, etc.–includes reason and the common good).  Not included are Muslim intellectuals who’ve just given up on Quran and Sunnah, or clownish mutant-provocateurs like Irshad Manji or Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

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