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The media and religion

3 November 2010

That the media don’t “get religion” is a commonplace. There is even a web site devoted to the phenomenon. Now Church of England bishop Nick Baines has come up with some interesting examples, commenting on the media coverage of the conversion of Lauren Booth (Tony Blair’s sister-in-law) to Islam (On becoming a Muslim | Nick Baines’s Blog).

In today’s Mail on Sunday Lauren Booth gives her side of the story. Credit to the Mail for giving her the space, but it is set amidst the usual xenophobic content we have come to expect. The headline speaks volumes: ‘Why I love Islam: Lauren Booth defiantly explains why she is becoming a Muslim’. I defy you to read what Booth actually writes and call it ‘defiant’. ‘Defiant’ suggests stubbornness, arrogance or deliberate contrariness; yet, she writes calmly, clearly and honestly to explain why she has converted. She doesn’t pretend to know more than she does and she doesn’t overstate her case.

She describes how she found Muslims and Islamic society very different from the way they are portrayed in the Western media, and Bishop Nick goes on to say

You’ll have to read the article to see the experience of generous hospitality that impressed her. And it is this that provides the most interesting element of the story.

The factors in her conversion were: (a) unexpected generosity from a stranger; (b) experience of hospitality and community; (c) an intense spiritual experience. Interestingly, she is only now learning to read the Qur’an and understand the faith that has grasped her. Didn’t someone once speak of ‘faith seeking understanding’? And someone else of ‘believing before belonging’? The message is meaningless without a community in which to see it lived.

An interesting sidelight on this emerges from the current one-day cricket series between South Africa and Pakistan, being played in the United Arab Emirates. In the second match of the series (which Pakistan won in a nail-biting finish), played in Abu Dhabi in a largely empty stadium, among the spectators was a group of males who were carrying dolls and teddy bears and a variety of other stuffed toys. In other matches at other venues, when specators realise that the camera is on them, they tend to jump up and down, or wave their arms wildly, or both. In Abu Dhabi, however, the (male) spectators held up their dolls and stuffed toys to display them to the camera. In Western culture such toys are usually confined to small girls, and so it seemed strange to see the way that grown men were relating to them. Some of the men also had real children, and quite young ones.

The cricket commentators remarked on this phenomenon, but no explanation was forthcoming. I was reminded of the use of dolls and stuffed toys in Albania — where they are nailed to half-completed buildings to ward off the evil eye. People from other cultures find these crucified dolls quite scary and disturbing (they are called dordolets) and you can find information about them on the web if you Google for it. But the dolls and stuffed toys in Abu Dhabi seem quite different, and searching the Web produced no information about it. Abu Dhabi is an Islamic culture, but this aspect of it is missing from the Western media.

And the distortions in the media are not confined to Islam. Christianity also suffers, as Bishop Nick goes on to point out:

Just as Islam is fragmented and contains a spectrum of ‘believers’ – from the mad to the wonderfully wonderful – so is Christianity. Just as I want Christianity to be judged by the best examples of Christian expression and community, so I want the same for Muslims. I wonder if the Mail plans to give any thought to, consideration of or coverage of good Christian stories that speak for themselves – or are Christians only useful if they are pitted against ‘the others’. Certainly, to depict Christians as white, Anglo-Saxon victims of persecution in the UK is ridiculous… but it sells well.

So when it comes to religion (as with many other things), the media act as trolls (let’s you and him fight). I suppose dolls and teddy bears are not enough of a casus belli for the Western press.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 3 November 2010 7:42 am

    In general terms, there is a lack of religious understanding in the Australian media. There is some media discussion but it is increasingly sidelined. I don’t want intrusive religious opinion but a widespread undertanding of what religion and religious means; an understanding of the history, sociology, and key beliefs of major faiths would be a start.

    However, this lack is not confined only to religion. Having just been through a very peculiar election and come out on the other side with a hung parliament I found political reporting very inadequate on many occasions. It is as if the journalists have 5 minute memories. Reporting is superficial with very little reference points to previous political behaviour and history. One major daily didn’t even know the difference between a donkey vote and an informal vote. Perhaps that was the lack of a sub-editor and an error got through – but somebody wrote the original text. Can’t provide you with a link to this story because within a few hours the word had spread and the error was corrected without comment.

    Back to religious understanding. Australia has a strong and deliberate secular stream. This can be a good thing – particularly in relation to The Public Square. However, it can be a negative thing. When universities were first established in Australia in the 19th century, religion/theology was deliberately kept out of them. There is a strong element in our history of people coming to Australia and wanting a clean slate instead of the prejudices and bigotries of the Old World. So this means that there is a clear historic reason for the lack of breadth and depth on religion within Australian society. In recent years however, this problem has been overcome. The major universities have Christian theological colleges attached and, if not theology, they will have religious studies faculties.

    However, we need to remember that even if a journalist is a religious person it doesn’t mean that there is an articulate and intellectual understanding of religion to allow an intelligent article to be written. In fact, I would suggest that some religious studies faculties would equip professionals better for this task than theological faculties.

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