So why was I recently in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, Cape Town, South Africa?
My South African colleagues in Prince Sultan College, Alfaisal University, have given me lots of reasons to go. They come from different parts of the multicultural country of 45 millions, and showed much professionalism, friendliness and character. The enthusiastic love they have for their country has been contagious. I couldn’t wait to visit.
Then, came an invitation from King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz International Centre for Inter-religious and Intercultural Dialogue to participate as a speaker and panelist in the International Press Institute’s World Congress in Cape Town, April 12-15.
Our session, “Images of faith: Clash of perceptions?” attempted to address media portrayal of religion as a source of division and conflict, in contrast to how people of faith see themselves. The panelists explored the delicate middle-way between journalistic ethics, news as an industry, and respect of the subject matter.
We discussed the challenges journalists face when they seek to understand and explain the intersection of religion, politics and social tensions.
Cape Town put me in the right mode. The peaceful coexistence among different races and faith followers, and the media’s responsible practice of press freedom in covering religious issues and events, gave me much hope and optimism.
In my speech I told a story of a similar mode.
The day after 9/11, American vigilantes came in increasing numbers to surround our Islamic center, in Eugene Oregon. They told us we are here to protect you … your religion won’t be held responsible for the crime committed by terrorists in the name of Islam.
Muslim scholars were invited to speak in local churches and Muslims were invited to Christian and Native American events.
The University of Oregon organized an awareness campaign about peaceful Islam. Its paper and the local media participated.
As a result, Imams with extremist messages were impressed and moved. Now, they talked more of interfaith cooperation, harmony and peaceful coexistence in sermons and the media.
Oregon media and civic institutions not only showed religious tolerance, but also upgraded Oregonian mind and heart to a new height of understanding and knowledge. Now, that is an educating and enlightening experience for the world to learn from.
“But what about free speech?” a journalist attending our session asked. “Give me one example of media reporting that started a war?,” another challenged.
My answer was that journalists should be good citizens and responsible human beings. Giving a platform for hate speech lead to conflicts. We saw that in the Middle East, where media are used to promote division and hate. People now fight over 1400-years old racial and sectarian issues. We saw that in Rwanda, in 1994, when the media inflamed hatred of the Hutu majority against the Tutsi minority. A million people were slaughtered within 100 days, as a result.
On the other hand, the American media, especially in Oregon, were wiser and more responsible, after 9/11. They didn’t use their freedom to publish hate speech. Instead they sought positive messages about the peaceful nature of Islam to balance the negative ones from terrorists and extremists.
What we need is a some code of ethics to guide coverage of religious conflicts. Our goal is to inform well the pubic about current events, not to provide a platform for preaching hate.
My journalistic audience seemed to agree. What do you think dear readers? Here are your comments on my last article “South Africa: Lessons in racial reconciliation”:
“Apartheid was the worst form of racism and oppression the world has seen. I dread to recall what the "non-whites" underwent at the hands of white racists. The change came after a brave man resisted and had to be jailed for 27 years. When he came out, he was able to get the rights of his people democratically. He didn’t seek revenge but went for reconciliation. We need more Mandelas.” — Abu Sabri
Islam’s true sprit
“Our Prophet Muhammad (SAW) has abolished such discriminatory practices 1500 years back. The beauty of Islam can be seen in any Masjid, where everybody stands in the same row whether he is black or white, rich or poor. Time has come to practice Islam in its true spirit.” — Dr. Muhammad Shoaib Ahmedani
“South Africa and its traversing history is a great reminder that all ills can be fixed if there is a will. Credit goes to Nelson Mandela who has shown magnanimity in his heart despite the injustices he suffered. Forget and forgive and move on is the key to success of South Africa today, where people of all races live in harmony. This in itself offers many a lesson to learn from.” — Faiz Al-Najdi