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University of Balamand > News > Archive > Media and the Religions of the Mideast

Upcoming: Media and the Religions of the Mideast

Not since the late Columbia professor Edward Said published Covering Islam in 1981 has there been a serious study of the manner in which Islam is discussed in the media, says Ramez Maluf, visiting associate professor in the Department of Mass Communication. This, says Maluf, is one of the main reasons his department is convening a conference on “Media, Islam and the Other Religions of the Middle East.”

 A lot has happened in media since the 1980s.  Edward Said’s main argument was based on the fact that sources of information were then controlled by the West. “When Said published his seminal work, the portrayal of Islam in the media was an Orientalist portrayal, and the flow of information was basically from West to East,” says Maluf.

“Soft and hard news, or information presented as fact or dramatized in movies or television, originated in Western capitals and studios, and news wire services catered to Western audiences, so that the news and all programming were tilted to Western interests.” 

This, argues Maluf has changed, although he cautions that the change is “not as significant as some have argued.”

Today, Middle Eastern nations operate their own media centers and satellites. Such powerhouses as MBC, Al Jazeera, and Egyptian and Lebanese satellite stations, have redefined the way media operate in the Arab World. Moreover, says Maluf, “individuals and organizations can propagate their messages and opinions through a variety of new ways through the Internet or social media.”

The intent of the conference, scheduled for May 6-8, is to examine how these developments in media have impacted the portrayal of Islam and other Middle Eastern religions. This has become increasingly relevant given current developments in the region and in Europe, in particular, that have cast a dark shadow over the portrayal of Islam, with established scholars joining in.

Michael Walzer, a professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, has recently published an opinion in the journal Dissent criticizing American leftists for failing to identify what he considers to be core issues in Islam that make possible fundamentalism and jihadism. This, writes Walzer, is due to the fear that the media would label them as bigots or islamophobic. 

In recent years, says Maluf, as the media portrayal of Islam and Moslems takes on an ever more negative tilt, the issue has become more pressing. “People would do well to read a recent article by Seyla Benhabib, where the professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University discusses the societal reasons that are the root causes underlining the behavior of extremists in Europe and the Arab World.” Without at all justifying the atrocities committed by fundamentalists, she points to the need to understand what she calls the “civilizational despair” in which Arabs and Moslems live, both at home and in their diasporas.  In turn, she blames the media for shying away from these discussions, lest they suffer accusations of justifying terrorism.

The challenge facing the media, says Maluf, is to navigate wisely between reporting on the atrocities and addressing their causes without being accused of either whitewashing them or of justifying terrorism. That, he adds, “is no easy task.” He expects these issues, in their varied forms, to be addressed in the May 6-8 conference.
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