International Muslim Media has to look at the Bigger Picture
By Farish A. Noor
As someone who studies the phenomenon of political Islam, I have, understandably, been reading much of the international Muslim press over the past few years. In particular I have focused on the International Islamist media- and by this I am referring to the newspapers, websites, journals and magazines produced by the many Islamist organisations, NGOs, political parties and social movements all over the world.
One factor that comes to mind immediately is how parochial and narrow the worldview of much of the international Islamist media has become. More often than not the reportage of world affairs, particularly by Islamist media in the non-Arab world, is focused more on the goings-on in Muslim societies and Arab-Muslim societies in particular. Reading through the material produced by the Islamist media in Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia for instance one learns more about the developments in Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, the Gulf states and Iran than anywhere else.
This does not mean to imply that the developments in these countries are not important, or that they are of no relevance to the development of Islamist movements in Asia or Africa or even Europe. But one does wonder how Islamists in Asia view the rest of the planet, and whether they realise that so much else is going on beyond the narrow frontiers of the Muslim world.
More troubling is that the view of the West is often shaped by the Islamist lens that they wear, and here again the ethnocentric and religio-centric biases of the Islamist press stands out in bold relief. We are all well acquainted by now with the controversy over the recently-released film Fitna by the Dutch politician Geert Wilders. But how many Islamist papers reported the fact that during the protests against the recent Gulf War more than half a million Berliners came out into the streets of Berlin to protest against the invasion of Iraq? And what about the other civil-society led demonstrations organised in London, Paris, Madrid, Rome, Barcelona?
But perhaps the most troublesome thing about the Islamist media today is the impression it gives of being primarily and solely concerned with the affairs of the Muslim world alone; to the point where the overwhelming majority of the rest of the human race remains neglected and their stories remain untold. Yet if we were to look at the developments in the world since 11 September 2001 it should be clear to us all by now that many of the major geo-political shifts we have seen reflect and mirror many of the developments that we also see in the Muslim world.
Two examples stand out:
The first has to do with the latest scramble to re-colonise Africa in no uncertain terms. If we were to cast our minds back to the late 1990s, some of us may recall that it was even trendy in some Western technocratic circles to mumble the mantra of ‘saving Africa from itself’. Since the publication of Basil Davidson’s ‘The Black Man’s Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-state’ (1993) there was much spurious talk of how post-colonial Africa was a disaster zone and that the nation-state model was not applicable there. The subtext of this constant attack on the performance of the nation-states of Africa (which did not come from Davidson, though) was that Africans were not able to govern themselves and were not culturally or essentially adapted to modern modes of governance. The other subtext was that if Africans could not govern themselves then perhaps the time has come for a new mode of colonialism that would rescue Africa (and by extension Africans) from themselves.
Today what we see is the rush to gather and monopolise the oil and gas fields of Africa in the most blatant manner. Already American, European and Chinese companies are all over the continent, cutting deals with corrupt African despots in order to secure the gas and oil resources of countries like Sierra Leone and Guinea.
Yet why isn’t any of this being reported in the Islamist press? Surely the parallels with the developments in many Muslim countries, that are likewise hostage to the oil industry, are clear? Or is it because many Islamist intellectuals and journalists still think that Africans are not important to deserve such reporting because many parts of Africa (like Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania) are not Muslim?
Another striking example that comes to mind is the politics of Central and Latin America, that has gone unrecorded and unrecognised for so long. Venezuela for instance has been threatened with numerous embargoes, has experienced several attempts at toppling its government and has been cast as a Pariah state by the American government. Yet the country’s President Hugo Chavez has been attempting nothing more than an economic reform project aimed at giving the Venezuelan economy back to its people, complete with land reforms and nationalisation of key industries as was the case in Egypt during the time of Gammel Abdel Nasr.
Surely it should strike many of us as obvious that this is a case of history repeating itself, and the parallels with developments in the Muslim world; from Egypt under Nasr to Iran under Mosaddeq, are obvious too. And surely there is so much that Muslims can learn today by looking at the Venezuelan struggle against hegemony and comparing that to their own geo-political plight under present circumstances. But again, Venezuela seems entirely off the map for the international Islamist press. Why? Is it because Hugo Chavez and the people of Venezuela are not Muslims?
One cannot help but come to such conclusions when the contradictions and blind-spots seem so painfully obvious. But if prejudice and ignorance of the world of the other is the only thing that is stopping Muslims from looking beyond the frontiers of their own community, then perhaps the time has come for them to serious ask themselves what it means to be Muslim in the first place. Surely one of the principle tenets of Islam is the notion of Tauhid – the unitary nature of God and creation – which reminds us of the fundamental unity we share with the entire human race. The editors, writers and journalists who serve the machinery of the international Islamist press should therefore get their respective acts together and begin to look closer at the rest of the world around them. If they do so, they may realise that Muslims today have more in common with their struggling brothers and sisters in Venezuela, Cuba and the African nations that with the rich elite of their own countries.
Dr. Farish A. Noor is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University of Singapore; and one of the founders of the http://www.othermalaysia.org research site