OIC Secretary General Ihsanoglu Addresses Dignitaries, Media at Georgetown
On Friday, 21 September ACMCU was honored to welcome His Excellency Dr. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the Secretary General of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) to Georgetown University to deliver a keynote address on the role of media in Muslim-Western relations.
Dr. Ihsanoglu's spoke before a packed room of members of Washington's diplomatic corp, media representatives and Georgetown University faculty, staff and students.
The text of Dr. Ihsangolu's speech is below.
HIS EXCELLENCY PROF. EKMELEDDIN IHSANOGLU
SECRETARY GENERAL OF THE
ORGANISATION OF THE ISLAMIC CONFERENCE
ON THE ROLE OF MEDIA IN THE RELATIONS OF THE ISLAMIC WORLD-WEST
ON FRIDAY 21ST SEPTEMBER 2007
AT THE GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY CAMPUS
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to start by thanking the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim Christian Understanding for providing this occasion for me to address an important issue which gains prominent relevance in managing the world affairs.
A special word of thanks and appreciation is addressed to Prof. John L. Esposito for his tireless effort to organize this event.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
There is a growing consensus that mass media is becoming a major factor in shaping public opinion, and influencing decision-making process.
It assumes this power without being an elected entity reflecting the will of the citizens.
Mass media has also great potential to facilitate dialogue among cultures and civilizations, as well as to propagating and spreading prejudices and misconception against a given culture or faith.
This role has become more prominent with the advent of the era of globalization and the wide-scope fast means of communication.
Specialized Western institutions indicate that mistrust in Islam or Islamophobia in Europe run very deep in the European cultural heritage.
Most of these sentiments are based on a wrongly perceived self-defence against Muslim influence supposedly endangering European culture and integrity.
This vision is being accentuated by a comprehension that Muslim immigrants to Europe come with a deep rooted civilization based on an equally entrenched religious heritage immune to assimilation or absorption in the cultures of their host countries.
Regardless of the correctness or falsehood of this claim or perception the fact remains that we are dealing with a very complex issue which lies in a very intricate context.
There is no denial also that there exists a prevailing degree of misconception, ignorance and distortion of Islam in Western societies that has led to a state of suspicion and mistrust.
One might say that Islam is looked upon more as an alien that is incompatible with western culture.
Many factors including historical and fictional ones have created an impression in the Western societies to consider Islam and Muslims to be feared and abhorred as proponents of hate and of trying to destroy everything that the values of western civilization stands for.
Many reports indicate that mass media reporting on “the Islamic issues increasingly reflect a narrow view of Islam as one dimensional religion that is oppressive, fundamentalist and threatening democratic and civil values”.
The dissemination of these allegations is done through resorting to sensationalist headlines, pictures, cartoons, as well as through giving wide coverage to Muslims expressing extremist views.
The writings of some scholars, in the forms of, books, encyclopedias and investigative reporting are the most important sources of media’s knowledge about Islam.
Most of these sources depend mainly on field research studies financed by some major news production companies.
These studies rely on skillful identification of evocative thing, images and behaviours that are motivated by misinterpretations and erroneous comparisons.
Here lies the danger of the role played by the mass media in consecrating the stereotyped and distorted image of Islam.
The purely commercial nature of various media organs and their main concern with realizing news scoops on one hand and higher financial gains on the other make them compete with one another in resorting to sensationalist headings to draw as many viewers, reader, or listeners as possible.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The relationship between the Islamic and Western worlds spans over fourteen centuries.
There are hardly any other civilizations whose histories have been so intertwined as these two.
This long history has seen periods of conflict and confrontation as well as interaction and coexistence.
Contrary to the common perception, the history of Islam and the West has not been only a history of confrontation and collusion.
Military conflicts, conquests, the Crusades, the reconquista in the 15th century Spain, and European colonialism in the 18th and 19th centuries have all shaped this history in important ways.
However, there have also been remarkable periods of interaction, mutual influence and co-habitation.
We can mention the experience of convivencia or co-existence in Andalusia, the translation movements, philosophical, scientific, cultural and artistic borrowings, and the co-habitation of Jews, Christians and Muslims across the Muslim world.
It would be a grave mistake to describe the history of Islam and the West as one of wars and bloody conflicts only.
Today, the relationship between Islamic and Western societies is shaped by a multitude of factors.
The new realities of globalization, immigration, communications technologies, internet, the media, trans-national corporations, regional and international institutions and forums are all part of a very dynamic process extending from one end of the globe to the other.
All these factors and many others can be both constructive and destructive.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Perceptions shape the reality. How people perceive something is more important than the facts on the ground.
In fact, whoever controls perception controls reality.
More than any other religion, Islam has suffered the most from the impact of false perceptions and stereotyping.
This requires little explanation. The way a news is reported, i.e., described in a certain language and with certain words is more important than the news content itself.
It is therefore extremely significant to understand how perceptions and images concerning Islam and Muslims are created, formulated, shaped, transmitted, publicized and sustained.
In this context, generally speaking, news coverage, reporting and analysis regarding Islam and the Muslim world tend to create negative images as evidenced in the cases of Arab-Israeli conflict, war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In his book: The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality, my friend Prof. Esposito sounded a word of caution saying that “If Western powers begin to appreciate the legitimacy of grievances in the Middle East, the West and Islamic movements will get along peacefully”.
It should be emphasized that various events such as the Danish Cartoon crisis and ongoing war in Iraq sharpen the sense of polarization and set the relations between the Islam and the West on edge.
However, despite the widely held notion of incompatibility between Western and Islamic societies, it is a mistake to identify religion itself as the cause of the problem.
As Karen Armstrong eloquently pointed out in a recent interview, “the division in our world is not the result of religion or of culture, but are politically based.
There is an imbalance of power in the world, and the powerless are beginning to challenge the Great Powers, declaring their independence of them-often using religious language to do so”.
Traditional stereotyping and misperceptions between Muslims and the West are not new and they are mostly the legacy of problematic moments of history such as the crusades, expansion and rivalry.
The colonization and post-colonial periods in the 19th and 20th centuries have further reinforced distorted images on a large scale on both sides.
In the very recent history, the 9/11 has been a turning point in relation to how the West perceives Islam and the Muslims.
The media coverage of Islam has suffered yet another setback after the tragic terrorist attacks in US, Europe and Asia. Post 9/11 has further witnessed the rise of stereotypes, biased and sensationalist reporting not only in small and local media outlets but also in the mainstream media.
Such terms as Islamic extremism, Islamic terrorists, Islamo-fascism, and others, used by the media have been stirring fear, anxiety and xenophobic prejudices.
Misrepresentations and stereotyping of Islam and Muslims in the media had negatively affected public attitudes and contributed to a climate of hostility towards Muslims in the West and beyond.
One example is the cartoon crisis. In September 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten's publication of a series of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed escalated into an international row involving demonstrations and protests across the Muslim world.
This example indicates the potential impact of the media on the polarization of cultures and nations in a globalized world.
A recent example of these prejudices is the intended so-called “Islamo-fascism awareness week” that is being planned by an Islamophobic group during a week in October in more than 200 universities and college campuses throughout the United States.
At this critical moment of history, I would like to ask the following question to emphasize the urgency of taking steps to receive the full contribution of the media to establish bridges between the West and the Muslim World:
Does the West have the luxury of alienating and losing the trust of the Muslim World? Are the West and the Muslim World prepared to face loss of trust in such a volatile world when cultures, religions and nations are in search of new alliances?
If our answers to these questions are “no”, then, politicians, intellectuals and the media must act responsibly to address current challenges.
To this end, I strongly believe that the media has much to gain from working more closely with Muslim experts and Islamic civil society organizations to counter stereotyping.
The Organization of Islamic Conference, which is the largest international Islamic organization representing 57 Muslim nations, can be a great resource for a correct and responsible media coverage of the Muslim world.
What can be done to improve the media performance of both western media and the media in the Muslim world?
In order to bridge the ideological gap between different trends both in the West and the Muslim world, there are several areas and avenues where reforms needs be made and improvements should be encouraged.
First of all, the creation of a critical environment is needed. Without critical approach to news, reports and coverage, journalists would be prone to fall into bias, one-sidedness.
Second, a code of conduct should be established and followed by the media professionals to ensure responsibility, impartiality, anti-racism, and respect for different cultures, traditions and values.
The third area of reform should involve diversification of sources in the midst of concentration of a media industry which facilitates the monopoly over news reporting and coverage.
More diverse sources, civil and official, should be made accessible to reporters and journalists to be able to see and analyze various aspects of the views and events they cover.
Fourth, a closer dialogue and cooperation should be established among the media professionals, journalists and reporters to enhance international understanding.
To this end, exchange programs between Western and Muslim media institutions should be initiated to foster mutual understanding and gaining an insider perspective about the “other”.
Fifth, a media monitoring initiative in the US, Europe and the Muslim World should be launched.
Media organizations and internet service providers should ensure that vulnerable groups should have easy access to complaining procedures.
To this end appropriate legislation should be enacted to prevent the dissemination of illegal, racist, xenophobic and Islamophobia material in the media.
Such initiatives, of course, should not be understood as a call for censorship because I strongly believe that freedom of expression has to be defended, as the freedom of speech is one of the main bastions of democratic governance.
Yet, we ought to recognize that freedom of speech and expression should not mean the freedom to produce images, however offensive, or to make insulting gestures.
Sixth, diversity and inclusion should be increased by the employment more journalists with an Islamic background in the mainstream media who would be qualified to understand the significant distinctions and relations between religion
Ladies and Gentlemen,
If we are keen to bring about peace and security in the world, we are duty-bound, Muslims and Western alike, to put an end to this generations-old hostility.
We should have in mind that there is a genuine desire in the West to know the truth about Islam and to try to understand it.
There are also, fair and moderate voices that promote the tolerance of Islam and acknowledge the value of its civilization and vehemently reject all distortion of its image.
The task ahead of us remains overwhelming and fraught with difficulties. But there is no room for non-action because the stakes are very high for both sides. President Sarkozy of France, three weeks ago, said: the greatest achievement of our times is to avoid war between Islam and the West.
We are living in the age of globalization, where the distances are shrinking, and where values and cultures became closer.
Calls for dialogue among civilization, alliance of civilization and many other calls aim at reaching shared human values and “common core values”.
This could be achieved only through comprehensive and all-embracing dialogue.
The notion of pluralism in today’s global village is largely acceptable.
This means that in the near future walls of separation on the basis of exclusiveness will be torn down.
To attain that goal many kinds and rounds of dialogue should take place, challenging stereotypes, prejudices, discrimination and rallying common partners for the promotion of tolerance, peaceful co-existence, peace and harmony.
As we chart our way towards the future, we have to think of an elaborate and adequate campaign of raising awareness of civic responsibility among media officials inducing them to be more objective, and avoid fanning hate, disputes and hostilities for the sake of peace and security.
Another effort should be exerted to go down to the grass roots level of both sides, to erase the stereotype, negative picture about religions in Children’s text books, publications, cartoons, films.
In conclusion, I would like to say that we hope that the media will play a role in disseminating the values of peace, tolerance, and cooperation.
The Media has the potential to help the world usher into an era that is conducive to enhance peaceful civilizational dynamic between Islam and the West.
What we want to achieve is a highly cultured and intellectually inclined interplay between the West and the Islamic world, devoid from any conflictual trends.
It is our common duty to close together any apparent divide and bridge any chasm, to transcend the narrow political and ideological differences and make irrelevant any attempt to plant the seeds of discord and conflicts. I am confident that we will be able to pave the way for the humanity to live in peace and security and chart a way toward progress, prosperity and well-being for all.
Thank you for your attention.