Much of the Western press ignored the religious dimensions of theSeptember 11, 2001, attacks and has faltered in its coverage of global Islamist violence ever since, said Dr. Paul Marshall of the Hudson Institute to a group of journalists and scholars in Istanbul.
This continues a long pattern of the media’s poor handling of religion, especially in the Middle East, according to Marshall. He commended the few self-reflective members of the press that have picked up on this problem, although they remain at a loss to fix it.
“Obviously, we can argue about the proportion of reports affected,” said Marshall, “but the essential point is that religion is a major factor in the modern world and, hence, in major news stories, so if reporters do not understand religion, they will be poorer reporters.”
Marshall criticized the media’s insistence on interpreting Al Qaeda’s post-2001 attacks through a matrix of Western preconceptions of liberation and economic alienation. Choosing only secular frameworks is a disservice both to Al Qaeda and to those seeking information about the group.
Osama bin Laden “consistently describes intended targets as Christians, Jews, Crusaders, followers of the cross, Hindus, Buddhists, apostates, idolaters, infidels and polytheists—all religiously loaded terms…” Marshall said. “bin Laden’s and Zawahiri’s complaints are set within a context of Islamic history and teaching quite distinct from the nostrums of western Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought.”
Marshall also criticized the coverage of the Bali night clubs in October 2002, which killed more than 200 people. Though the bombings took place in a Hindu-majority context and exactly coincided with bombings against Christian outposts in the Philippines, the media were consistently wrong in reporting that the bombs targeted “the West,” he said.
The media also erred badly, according to Marshall, in its coverage of killings in a Christian charity in Pakistan in September 2002. Gunmen entered the charity, separated the Christians from the Muslims, bound the Christians and shot them to death.
“Although this was the sixth in a series of attacks aimed at Christian targets in Pakistan, much of the media played down the religious dimension in favor of a more secular storyline” Marshall noted.
Though the Christian victims and the Muslim survivors were Pakistani, the New York Times wrongly claimed that the attacks were designed to discourage Western influence, said Marshall.
French media claimed the attacks targeted people committed to a “tolerant” society. Marshall pointed out that Muslims worked in this charity, too. If the French analysis were correct, Muslims would have been killed as well. But they weren’t. The gunmen weren’t opposed to tolerance, he said. They were opposed to Christians.
Marshall showed that these poorly reported stories were not isolated cases. The secular-storyline problem is deeply rooted in the way Western media thinks about itself and the world.
The media’s refusal to take Al Qaeda at its written word that it is fighting a holy war is especially concerning for Marshall. Despite bin Laden’s many religion-soaked treatises, the media still emphasize motives of nationalism or globalization - anything but religion.
While he does want to influence media practice, Marshall said it is not his goal to make reporters into believers of a particular religious faith. He just wants reporters to see the importance of religion in what we often misname a ‘secular’ world.
“We are trying to show that it is important to take religion seriously and to know about it in order to properly report the news…” Marshall concluded. “To the degree our views of the nature and goals of radical Islam are shaped by the media, we are consistently misinformed about the nature of the war we are in.”
Dr. Marshall’s original presentation took place at The Media Project's conference “Rumor vs. Facts: Journalism in the 21st Century” in Istanbul, Turkey.
Summary article by Richard Potts, The Media Project