Muslims are rightly concerned that they are getting a bad international press. It is easy to blame the news media, but is it solely its fault?
Arguments go back and forth about the influence of the news media in our daily lives.
Some say, for example, that the role of the news media in influencing voters in an election is overstated, that the voters are capable of coming to their own conclusions about the merits of party platforms. But most politicians do not hesitate to use the media as a vehicle to attempt to get across their message.
Many politicians in fact thrive on good publicity and spend considerable energy and resources trying to ensure coverage from their point of view. Many have become skilled in the art of delivering "grabs", a few seconds in which they quickly get their point across to television news cameras. For some this ability has become one of the keys to the art of political survival.
Some people express concern about the "negative impact" of the news media, that it tends to sensationalize and trivialize issues. In various countries, we hear about the need for the news media to be "responsible" in promoting good social values. But we also hear complaints from some well-heeled quarters when, for example, allegations about their misdoings are published because they feel these negatives are being given undue attention.
We hear comments implying that there is deliberate, negatively biased reporting of Asian affairs by the Western media and suggestions that the Western media is dominated by Jewish interests (i.e., it is anti-Islamic).
Many in the West see the news media as the most accessible and immediate propagator of thoughts and events. Many have developed highly attuned skills, or employ those who have them, to plug into this giant, almost all-encompassing propagator so that they can have some influence on its output in their own interests.
Today technology is moving too fast for news media to be shut out (although obviously individuals can simply switch off the signal if they do not want to see or hear it). It used to be said that ignorance is bliss. Perhaps it was once when communications were unsophisticated and it was possible to be shut away in a small corner of the world without being touched by outside influences.
But not today. Ignorance is more likely to lead to disaster. Our natural inclination as humans seems to cause us to be suspicious, negative and, sometimes, dangerously prejudiced towards the unfamiliar, whether it be religion, other ethnic groups, or whatever. There is plenty of evidence this century of the grave peril to mankind of such ignorance and prejudices when combined with the misuse of propaganda and force.
I have heard some fellow Muslims say recently: "What do we care what the rest of the world (read the West) thinks about us? It's their problem, not ours."
To me, such a view in today's world is akin to maintaining that "ignorance is bliss". It is failing to realize the impact the so-called Information Age can and is having on all our long-taken-for-granted values and way of life. How we can influence what happens as the Information Age evolves is one of the most important challenges we Muslims must tackle for our own survival, for the survival of our children.
So long as we are bombarded by emotive, ill-informed (some would say biased) accounts by the Western-dominated international news media of events involving Muslims (and the apparent incidence of such reports being seen here can only get greater as ease of access to the world's news media grows), the chances of our children being influenced negatively even if they live in Muslim surrounds are considerably enhanced.
It is our responsibility to ensure that, as far as possible, reports emanating from the world's news media accurately reflect Muslim perspectives.
Muslims need to learn how to influence what the international news media contains and the perceptions it engenders in ways that are of benefit to Islam. Simply railing about the news media's negative impact is not good enough. On the contrary, there is every chance that those failing to put a coherent argument will be dismissed as dogma or slogan-mouthing intellectual lightweights whose views need not be taken seriously.
How you go about having your point of view heard, and who hears it, is critical. It is not enough just putting your argument to those already on your side.
It was suggested at an international symposium in Kuala Lumpur last month on "The Islamic World and Global Co-operation: Preparing for the 21st Century" that a way of combating biased or emotive reporting of events involving Muslims was to establish an alternative news network in the Muslim world and then disseminate Muslim news and views throughout the non-Muslim world.
I frankly doubt that such a service, by itself, would have much impact on the non-Muslim world. There is a huge credibility gap between what the West perceives to be its free press and what it sees as the predominantly government-controlled news media in the Muslim world. So long as this perception remains, anything emanating from a Muslim-based news network is likely to be seen as propaganda and, therefore, suspect and not worth reading or reprinting.
But I am not saying that a well-argued, easily understood Muslim perspective is not worth developing. The key is how it is propagated.
I do not accept that all Western journalists, their editors and proprietors are biased against Muslims. All of us, no matter where we live, have tantamount to innate sub-conscious prejudices brought about by our cultural surrounds and upbringing, so it would not be surprising if many Western news media practitioners have a somewhat jaundiced, suspicious outlook towards Muslims. But that does not mean they are not prepared to approach another point of view with as open a mind as possible.
It is our responsibility and in our interest as Muslims to establish a machinery that can relate to these media practitioners in their own terms. We need to develop and implement a strategy that will penetrate from the highest levels of the Western news media downwards to influence positively their perceptions of Islam and the treatment they give to coverage of events involving Muslims. We need to have people who can give authoritative "grabs" for the electronic media when required. The strategy also needs to embrace interchange between relevant academics and educators, and others likely to influence public opinion and perception.
It is not something that can be done overnight. It will take years, maybe generations, of dedicated input from articulate, personable, flexibly-minded Muslims who are well versed in international media affairs.
But it is my experience as a former Western journalist, a practicing international public affairs specialist, a former Christian and a Muslim of many years standing who has had to face the barbs and disadvantages (but also the understanding of some) of being the odd person out living and working in mostly non Muslim surrounds that convinces me that such a strategy will be rewarding.
Many thinking people in the West are very curious about Islam and want to know more about it. It is our duty to ensure that what they hear is well informed and balanced.
Brett Martin, an Australian, has been devising and implementing public communications strategies for top level government and business in Asia for more than 20 years. For several years before 1996, he focused on the development and implementation of public diplomacy/public affairs strategies in South and South East Asia for the Australian Foreign Service, including on official postings to Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and India. Before joining the foreign service, he trained as a journalist, worked for both mainstream newspapers and the electronic media, and directed public relations for Australia's premiere arts festival, the Adelaide Festival of Arts. A former Anglican Christian who spent several years preparing to become a priest, he converted to Islam in 1985 before marrying his Malaysian-born wife Mas Zetti Atan. They have lived in Malaysia with their three children since 1996. Contact: [email protected].