The terrorists’ guns and grenades may have been muted in Mumbai, but their most devastating weapon – the media – is still causing damage in living rooms around the world.
Deccan Mujahideen, the group claiming responsibility for the Mumbai massacre, were tuned in to the terrifying power of the media when they broadcast their three‐day horror. With one bloody hand they call for an end to the ‘propaganda war’ against Muslims; with the other they handcuff Islam with terror, and press their own PR agenda.
Terrorists use religion to justify murder, and depend on the media to faithfully spread their message.
Much has been spoken about the responsibility of religious communities in a post 9/11 era, but what about the media’s role in all of this? Malcolm X said, “The media’s the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses.”
In using terms like ‘Muslim terrorists’, the media are at risk of tarring a billion people with a terrorist brush. Just because the media has the power to make the innocent guilty, doesn’t mean they have to use it.
Every time the media uses a phrase like ‘Muslim terrorist’ (according to Google News, the phrase is contained in over 10,000 news articles on the killings in India), it pains and pinches at the hearts of millions for whom Islam is a peaceful way of life. It is clear that people who terrorize in the name of religion wish to polarize Islam and the West. In this sense, the media’s phrases do a little bit of the terrorists’ work for them. Aside from being convenient shorthand for a complex issue, why does such language persist?
After all, the audience doesn’t know enough about Islam to place such coverage in its proper context. We lack faith literacy in Britain and around the world. According to a BBC survey in 2003, 40% of British people can’t name the sacred book of Islam (82% can’t even name the Archbishop of Canterbury). How can we then be expected to understand the meaning of ‘Muslim terrorist’ or ‘Islamist group’?
The Gallup Organization’s World Poll of Muslims – the largest social research project ever conducted – tells us that 9 in 10 British Muslims condemn terrorist acts that target civilians, the same proportion as the non‐Muslim public. Moreover, it reveals that foreign policy and not religious belief is the principal driver of anti‐Western sentiment in the Muslim world. Mainstream Muslim belief is diametrically opposed to terrorism, so what value does a term such as ‘Muslim terrorist’ hold?
The terrorists’ distorted slant on Islam is no doubt an element of their murderous motives. It would be ludicrous, and wholly irresponsible, not to reflect this at all in reporting. Rather than ‘Muslim terrorist,’ let’s say ‘terrorist;’ rather than ‘Jihadist’ or ‘Islamist group,’ let’s simply say ‘group.’ Religion’s role in the story should be reported in the words of the terrorists themselves, or in thoughtful commentary on the motivations for murderous acts. Bringing religion to the forefront, tying ‘Islam’ to ‘terror’, is doing a disservice to the minds of the masses, and strains the efforts of individuals, charities, and faith groups trying to strengthen relations between the world’s religions and secular society.
The modern media’s unparalleled power comes with a responsibility to reflect and respect the society it serves. It warrants more than being a pawn in the terrorist’s battle plan. Nearly 200 people died in Mumbai, but millions may be infected by the media’s unhappy marriage of Islam and terror. The media has the capacity to be a weapon of mass instruction. By informing its audiences, the mass media prescribes an antidote to the poisonous propaganda of the minority who would drive us apart.
Simon Cohen is the managing director of Global Tolerance, a leading international communications agency for charities, faith and interfaith groups.