The world changed forever after September 11, 2001. After having been locked in decades of a power struggle with the communists, the United States of America (US) had found a new enemy in Islamist extremism, which had claimed the lives of thousands of innocent beings by attacking the World Trade Centre in New York.
In a recent speech delivered at the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism held on February 18, 2015, US President Barack Obama came out as a cautious orator and refrained from using the much controversial term “Islamic terrorism”. Instead Obama went on to proclaim that “we are not at a war with Islam”. His comments invited both praise and criticism.
In an opinion piece for The Washington Post (February 19, 2015), journalist Fareed Zakaria stated, “President Obama stands accused of political correctness for his unwillingness to accuse groups such as the Islamic State of ‘Islamic extremism’, choosing a more generic term, ‘violent extremism’. His critics say that you cannot fight an enemy you will not name.” Zakaria stressed on the “limits of the Islamic label” by mentioning that there were as many as 1.6 billion Muslims in the world while only around 30,000 Muslims happened to be part of the Islamic State. He wondered as to how “0.9% of Muslims” can come to represent the entire religion.
On the other hand, New York Post published an article titled “Obama refuses to acknowledge ‘Muslim terrorists’ at summit” (February 18, 2015) whose tone and tenor seemed completely dismayed with the President’s comments. The lead paragraph of the article stated, “They are burning and beheading victims in the name of Islam, but President Obama delivered a major speech Wednesday on combating violent extremism – while refusing to use the words Muslim terrorists.”
The dichotomy in the approach of the Western media while dealing with the phenomena of Islamist terrorism became evident soon after 9/11. Not much has changed 14 years down the line. The debate still revolves around as to who is really responsible for unfortunate terrorist incidents like the ones in Paris and Peshawar: Islam or misguided Muslims.
Following 9/11, Time Magazine (September 23, 2001) carried a piece by author Karen Armstrong titled “The True, Peaceful Face of Islam”. In her strongly-argued piece, Armstrong stated that the Quran only permitted fighting in self-defence and that “it would be a grave mistake to see Osama Bin Laden as an authentic representative of Islam.”
Harvard Professor Roy Mottahedeh wrote a piece on similar lines in The New York Times (September 30, 2001) in which he sought to play up the pacifist face of Islam by quoting Islamic injunctions against indiscriminate killings. He concluded his article with the following words, “The people behind these atrocities committed a crime against all humanity. Under the precepts of every great religious tradition, they and their sponsors must be brought to justice.”
However, there were some who found a problem with Islam and took a contrarian view. The UKTelegraph published an article with the provocative headline “A religion that sanctions violence” (September 17, 2001). Written by Patrick Sookhdeo, the piece drew a comparison between Islam and Christianity by stating, “Many horrific acts have been, and continue to be, perpetrated in the name of Islam, just as they have in the name of Christianity. But unlike Islam, Christianity does not justify the use of all forms of violence. Islam does.”
Similar anti-Muslim observations were made by Daniel Pipes in a New York Post article “Muslims love Bin Laden” (October 22, 2001). He wrote, “The internet buzzes with odes to him [Bin Laden] as a man of solid faith and power of will. A Saudi explains that Osama is a very, very, very, very good Muslim. A Kenyan adds that every Muslim is Osama Bin Laden.”
So what are we supposed to infer from the coverage Islam and Muslims got from the Western press immediately after 9/11. There is no denying of the fact that there exists a section of intellectuals who are deeply prejudiced against Islam. They view Islam as inherently violent and Muslims as actively supporting terrorism. But, importantly, there is another section within the Western press that realises the “true, peaceful face of Islam” as argued by Karen Armstrong.
To say that the Western media is entirely anti-Muslim is as wrong as stating that every Muslim is a terrorist. We need to go beyond maximalism and understand that the entire Western media is neither being completely hostile nor being overtly sympathetic towards Islam. The war against terrorism cannot be won by making enemies. If the war against extremism has to be won, it has to be won through engagement and friendship. The ideal engagement would be one which emphasises on the tolerant teachings of Islam.
The Western world has to become aware of what Islam really stands for. If people in the East, specifically Muslim societies, want that to happen, then they themselves have to shake off their anti-Americanism and realise the fact that there are individuals in the Western media who are objective enough to not indulge in the practice of muck-throwing on Islam and present the benevolent side of the faith.
(This article was originally published in Newslaundry.)