It is almost a truism to note that if the mainstream media is our only source of news regarding anything to do with religion (however that might be conceived) in the Middle East, or even the Middle East in general, we are in deep trouble. Two acute reminders of this in the last week indicate to me just how problematic these things are. Confusion about what is and what is not ‘religious’ is one of the key issues here.
The death on 17.3.12 of Pope Shenouda III, the leader for four decades of the Coptic Church, resulted in considerable confusion and demonstrable ignorance from many. For example, an otherwise excellent Egypt correspondent for Al Jazeera, Evan Hill, put out this message on Twitter:
Never knew, but Sadat stripped Shenouda of power and exiled him to desert monastery for more than 3 years before Mubarak brought him back.
— Evan Hill (@evanchill) March 17, 2012
Shenouda’s house arrest in a desert monastery played a key role in defining the way he interacted with the political hierarchies and the importance he gave to monasticism. Shenouda’s reluctance to criticise President Mubarak until shortly before his downfall is in part, no doubt, related to the fact that it was Mubarak who restored Shenouda to his former position, as I noted here. Evan Hill, and Al Jazeera in general, are excellent sources of Middle East news – but this kind of thing does not reflect well on him or the network (though see my additional note below).
My second reminder concerned the BBC and UK broadcast news in general: on Thursday 23.3.12 I had the privilege of chairing an event for the Scottish Palestinian Forum at which Professor Greg Philo of the Glasgow University Media Group discussed the new book he and Mike Berry have written, More Bad News from Israel (2011) – a follow-up volume to their ground-breaking Bad News from Israel (2004). The book covers UK TV news, and addresses the ignorance and imbalance in reporting that is anecdotally obvious to many, but substantiated with detailed statistical analysis by Philo, Berry and their team: even the audience at Thursday’s event, many of them already knowledgeable about the situation in the region and aware of the bias in the media, were shocked by some of the data that Philo discussed in his presentation and the questions afterwards. Philo argued that a central issue is the failure to explain, or explain adequately, the context for news stories: the terms ‘military occupation’, ‘land expropriation’ and so on are hardly ever mentioned. One of the most remarkable findings that emerged from the first edition of the book was that a significant number of people in the UK, from all socio-economic backgrounds, thought the Palestinians, not the Israelis, were the ones illegally occupying territory – an astonishing success on the part of the Israeli propaganda machine.
Of course, it is not only interesting to observe such bias and ignorance, but to ask where it originates. After all, the Israeli government knows what it is doing, and has always done so: the issue of stolen land is key. Philo cites Moshe Dayan in his book (and did so in his presentation), one of the key Israeli military figures in the early years of the conflict, who in 1956 at the funeral of an Israeli soldier famously said:
Let us not today fling accusation at the murderers. What cause have we to complain about their fierce hatred to us? For eight years now, they sit in their refugee camps in Gaza, and before their eyes we turn into our homestead the land and villages in which they and their forefathers have lived.
This kind of discourse is almost completely absent in the contemporary news media in our country. It is certainly not a part of the BBC or ITV; Channel 4 News is slightly better. In part, Philo explained, this is because the media reframe the conflict in terms that distract from the core issues of occupation, irredentism and discrimination. One part of this reframing is to put it in ‘religious terms’ – the most common being that this is a conflict of Muslims against Jews. Of course, this not only ignores the Christian Palestinian population who suffer under the occupation as much as their Muslim neighbours, but it also makes the conflict seem irrational: the Israeli propaganda enterprise (led by the Israeli government’s Orwellian-sounding ‘National Information Directorate) helps to further the notion that there is an intrinsic, irrational hatred on the part of Muslims against Jews: that if only the Palestinians would stop firing rockets, the Israelis would not ‘need’ to take reprisal action. That the Israelis tend to be the ones to instigate each round of the conflagration is ignored: my students are shocked when I tell them that the 2009 attack on Gaza by Israel, dubbed ‘Cast Lead’, began the previous year when the Israelis initiated an attack on Gaza on the day of the US presidential election – of course, the world’s media did not notice! Instead Palestinian rocket attacks are presented as ‘irrational’. Whether we approve of the use of violence or not, they are anything but irrational: under international law, resistance to illegal occupation is permitted, including through the use of force, and the rockets are an expression of that resistance when few other avenues for resistance appear to have any effect on Israel’s ongoing dispossession of Palestinians. There is, of course, a connection here to Naomi Goldenberg’s idea of religion as a vestigial state: if the conflict is about Muslims (a ‘religion’) against Jews (another ‘religion’) rather than Israelis oppressing Palestinians, it plays into the static and ahistorical nonsense propagated by the supporters of the ‘clash of civilisations’.
Such a reframing is in part, at least, a category error: not so much in that it wrongly ascribes the conflict to the ‘religious’ rather than the ‘political’ sphere – as much discourse has it – but in that it creates a distinction between these two as if they are opposing aspects of a self-contained and ontological binary. We do not see such a distinction in other areas. For example, economics correspondents reporting the UK budget last week explicitly discussed the party political consequences and not just the economic impact of the government’s decisions. But the division between ‘religious affairs’ and ‘current affairs’ in media reporting is deeply problematic, and is surely in part a factor in Evan Hill’s ignorance about the profound importance of Shenouda’s relationship with Mubarak, as well as the distortions that emerge in reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We need a media that not only has the courage to address issues appropriately – the BBC, for example, as a public service broadcaster, is legally obliged to discuss Palestinian and Israeli views – but that also understands the damage that is done to media reporting when distinctions are made that reinforce or reify category distinctions, rather than diminish or subvert them.
Additional note: I stated above that Al Jazeera is an excellent news service for the Middle East and global news. There is one important caveat to this praise: it has significant failings in reporting on its immediate home turf. Critical engagement with Qatar, or even near neighbours such as Bahrain, does not happen. This is not unlike Russia Today: a serious news service for anything other than internal news about Russia. It is notable, however, that the BBC’s failings extend beyond reporting on issues in the UK (a whole other issue!), but also to areas such as the Middle East.