The media and religion
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.