Thursday, 20 December 2007

"Where are all the moderate Muslims?"

Boy,  am I sick and tired of hearing that old line.  I saw it asked most recently by Dan Savage in an op-ed piece in Seattle newspaper The Stranger  (on Dec 7 - yeah,  this has been sitting on the  "to blog"  list for a while).  Savage is more famous for doing what he is good at,  namely giving excellent sex advice.  He's less good whenever he strays beyond that sphere,  usually leading him to mouth all the usual ill-considered and ill-informed opinions typical of mainstream centre-left America.  Such as his wholehearted  "humanitarian"  support for the invasion of Iraq.  Now he thinks it's a  "good question"  when an op-ed in the New York Times asks where are all the voices of Muslims who are "said to be moderates".

Well,  the short answer to that would be – as always – they're in the newspapers you aren't reading.

Mass media organizations generally report news that they believe their readers/listeners/viewers will be interested in hearing.  This is particularly true of commercial media organizations,  which depend for the their livelihood on the level of interest they can raise among their potential audience.  Now,  which of these headlines is going to sell more papers:  "Girl stoned to death by enraged fundamentalist mob"  or  "Moderate cleric calls for restraint"  ?  No prizes for guessing that one.  In the same way,  media organizations also tend to pander to whatever prejudices or stereotypes their customers are predisposed to have,  rather than attempting to challenge those prejudices.

So we begin to see why people like Dan Savage might not be hearing any moderate Muslim voices.  Virtually all major  (and most minor)  media outlets in the USA are commercial.  The situation is fairly similar in most of the Western world,  Australia included.  In the USA,  the band of different political viewpoints catered to by major news providers is also relatively narrow:  the British press offers a considerably broader spectrum,  for example.  Furthermore,  the range of viewpoints in the mainstream American media tends to be more right-wing and more anti-Arab than elsewhere,  reflecting the prevailing political climate.

The New York Times piece which set Savage off was written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali,  described at the end of the article as  "a former member of the Dutch Parliament and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute".  Sounds very respectable. But what is the  "American Enterprise Institute",  exactly?  In the unlikely event that any New York Times readers felt the need for critical appraisal of that organization,  they would have had to look outside the mainstream American media to find it.  There are plenty of blogs out there talking about it and even Wikipedia is not too bad, but my favourite source for this kind of thing is the highly regarded,  left-leaning British daily The Guardian.  Articles like this have described the AEI as a neo-conservative thinktank which is fiercely pro-Israel and anti-Arab,  and one which has enjoyed remarkable favour not only with the Bush White House,  but also with a broad cross-section of the Amercian media.  Other pieces like this offer harsh criticism of the quality of its policy advice,  and argue that its  "scholarship"  is hamstrung by its extreme political biases.

Not only does the The Guardian provide information which might lead readers to question the agenda and credibility of the New York Times author,  it is also one of the very few Western media outlets I know of which regularly reports voices of "moderate Islam",  the existence of which Hirsi Ali dismisses as "wishful thinking".  A recent example came in its coverage of the British teacher imprisoned in Sudan for giving a teddy bear the name Mohammed.  One article contained the following paragraphs:

While many in Khartoum thought the arrest was harsh - the Sudanese blogosphere is awash with derision aimed at the authorities - leaflets were distributed at some mosques calling for protests against Gibbons after Friday prayers.
There was little doubt the protest had been carefully orchestrated.  The banners waved by marchers and tied to the front of vehicles had all been pre-printed.
The police did not intervene,  indicating that the protest received the official approval of the authorities.
In other words,  not only do we hear of moderate Muslims condemning the extremists,  we are also given the impression that the enraged mob was the result of a carefully orchestrated action by people with a hidden agenda  (quite possibly an unpopular government seeking to have unrest vented on a convenient foreigner).  Regardless of the ultimate truth of the matter,  The Guardian's piece is valuable for its thought-provoking perspective.

My previous post here cited the headline of an article in Australian paper The Age covering the same story.  That article in The Age was in fact lifted directly from the article quoted above,  citing  "The Guardian"  as its source.  In a graphic example of just how blatantly media outlets will manipulate information to cater to their reader's preferences,  The Age dropped all the passages just quoted,  along with any other "shades of grey",  turning it into yet another story bound to make its readers to ask where all the moderate Muslims are.  And given the source citation,  few readers would expect those moderates to be found in The Guardian either!

So Dan Savage's simplistic perspective is not surprising.  His support for the Iraq war stemmed from the same lack of access to decent information,  the same deplorable and deliberate failure of the mass media to provide vital facts.  Stephen Colbert got it exactly right with his satirical praise of the White House Press Corps back in 2006:  "We Americans didn't want to know,  and you had the courtesy not to try to find out".

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Papa, non predicare

The World section of today's online edition of The Age has these two items cheek by jowl:

- Kill 'teddy bear' teacher,  says crowd
- Pope blames atheism for injustice and cruelty

Enough said, really.