Among the first session’s central objectives were conveying the diversity within each tradition and dispelling misperceptions. Since the media in both the Muslim world and the West exercise enormous influence in disseminating information that shapes mass perceptions of “the other,” participants aimed to develop a strategy to promote better understanding between the Muslim and Western worlds through the media.
Session chair Iqbal Riza, special adviser to the secretary–general of the United Nations on the Alliance of Civilizations, opened the session by reading a statement from UN Secretary–General Kofi Annan to the conference. In his statement, the secretary–general acknowledged that we are at a critical moment in the Muslim–Western encounter. Extremists on both sides threaten to overwhelm the dialogue between cultures, which is why this gathering of tolerant voices is so timely. He urged participants to bear in mind that how we receive and act on the discourse of the other is as important as what is said; respectfully put, grievances that are not addressed will eventually spark violence. The conference is well–equipped to make a real contribution to the UN’s new Alliance of Civilizations initiative, which was established to overcome prejudices and misunderstandings that potentially threaten world peace.
Mr. Riza then turned to the theme of the first session, stressing the media’s important role in strategic communication of information. Whereas educated elites can turn to other sources to corroborate, clarify, or dispute information found in the local press and televised media, the average person relies solely on this information, believing it to be the “full story” on any issue. The ability to convey or withhold information represents the media’s greatest power. Freedom of expression is critical to the media, but it is also vital to societies in general as a means of fostering progress, limiting the power of the state, and protecting the rights of citizens. However, this freedom can be dangerous, particularly at a time of troubled relations between the Muslim and Western worlds. This is especially salient with regard to the media, whose power can be used negatively—particularly when unbalanced, misleading, or inaccurate information promotes stereotypes. Such abuses produce a situation where the few—those whose voices are taken up by the media as sources—speak for the unheard many. The key question regarding the promotion of accurate information and informed dialogue is how to balance the need to limit the power of the media to shape opinions while protecting the freedom of expression that allows for a healthy exchange.
The first speaker, Timothy Garton Ash, director of the European Studies Centre at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University, started by identifying the current moment as a time of opportunity, thanks to the many fast–paced transformations that define and redefine the world today. Whereas in earlier times different communities could express local customs and views in a relatively isolated manner, cultural globalization has ushered in a constant awareness of other places, other cultures, and other eyes, which has been reinforced by accelerated migration. For the majority of the world, a purely local existence and a mostly local awareness are thus no longer possible. This evolution from local to global is reinforced by the proliferation of round–the–clock, “24/7” mass media.
Given the global context of today’s world, how can the media’s role as a protector of human freedom be understood and supported, Mr. Garton Ash asked? Perhaps the best approach, he suggested, is to start from the expression that freedom of speech is the “oxygen of liberty.” This is a universal value that is not attached to a specific culture. Just as modernization is not synonymous with Westernization, the right to speak freely—though practiced more consistently in that part of the world—is not a value confined to the Western world. Freedom of speech is that healthy “collision of opinion” of which John Stuart Mill wrote the following:
I do not pretend that the most unlimited use of the freedom of enunciating all possible opinions would put an end to the evils of religious or philosophical sectarianism. Every truth which men of narrow capacity are in earnest about, is sure to be asserted, inculcated, and in many ways even acted on, as if no other truth existed in the world, or at all events none that could limit or qualify the first. I acknowledge that the tendency of all opinions to become sectarian is not cured by the freest discussion, but is often heightened and exacerbated thereby; the truth which ought to have been, but was not, seen, being rejected all the more violently because proclaimed by persons regarded as opponents. But it is not on the impassioned partisan, it is on the calmer and more disinterested bystander, that this collision of opinions works its salutary effect. Not the violent conflict between parts of the truth, but the quiet suppression of half of it, is the formidable evil: there is always hope when people are forced to listen to both sides; it is when they attend only to one that errors harden into prejudices, and truth itself ceases to have the effect of truth, by being exaggerated into falsehood.6
The difficulty comes in translating free speech from the abstract into its concrete application, including its limits in any particular society. Which subjects are taboo, for what reasons, and with what consequences should they be raised regardless? As much as the answers vary across cultures, all societies must avoid leaving the definition of forbidden subjects to those espousing extremist positions. The limits of free speech must be defined by those who wish to keep such limits to a minimum. Tolerance, which makes free speech palatable as well as possible, likewise requires patience with views that initially appear divisive. The “collision of opinions” may seem at the outset to inflame passions, but in the long run it informs and enriches debate. Providing civilized dialogue based on the open exchange of views is one of the free media’s most important functions—and it is for this reason that restrictions upon it must be applied cautiously.
The second speaker, Max Boot, senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, echoed Mr. Garton Ash’s comments regarding the timeliness of the topic. He stated that what the West and Islam are experiencing today is not so much a clash of civilizations as a divergence of assumptions. For example, many in the Muslim world assume that governments can and should be held accountable for the actions of their national media, while in the West these are assumed to be two separate spheres.
Referring to the cartoons controversy, Mr. Boot noted that some media had chosen to contribute to the problem rather than work for its resolution and increased intercommunal understanding. He noted, however, that generally speaking, the Western media have made efforts to avoid offending Muslims. For instance, both the news agency Reuters and the BBC eschew the phrase “Muslim terrorist” when reporting the use of force by militants or insurgents. These efforts notwithstanding, ignorance of Muslim sensitivities, coupled with sensationalist tendencies in the popular Western media, has enabled negative reporting. Portrayal of the rich reality of the Muslim world and coverage of the “normal” are sorely missing.
The danger of simplistic narratives of “Muslim terrorists” and other stereotypical views is that, when promulgated through the media, they can become the dominant prism through which people perceive Islamic civilization. The news media, in particular, should work to provide a more accurate depiction of each civilization so that the debate within and among civilizations can be based on solid facts. For their part, Mr. Boot continued, the media in Muslim countries have tended to filter news reporting through the point of view that American foreign policy is motivated by animus toward the Arab and Muslim world, the pursuit of oil and other commercial interests, and Zionist and neoconservative lobbies. Mr. Boot attributed this in part to the diversity of opinions that is prevalent in the West, which can create a situation wherein a view that is considered marginal within the West is picked up by foreign media and gains greater currency outside the West.
The third speaker, Boutheina Cheriet, professor of sociology at the University of Algiers and former minister of women’s affairs, spoke from the desire to ground policy discussions in a theoretical understanding of the history behind the current situation. She suggested that an adequate response to the cartoons crisis required investigation of the meaning that the Western and Muslim worlds have each attached to free speech. Mill’s “collision of opinions” is also a “collision of thought.” Further examination reveals, for instance, that a number of great Western thinkers carried and promoted a negative image of Islam and Muslims. Although not explicitly cited in contemporary media coverage, their opinions often inform a “common sense” subtext of understanding. As an example, Ms. Cheriet mentioned Max Weber, the eminent German sociologist, who wrote in The Sociology of Religion that Islam is a “warrior religion” that displays a feudal spirit, champions the subjugation of women, and simplifies ethical requirements.
Western thinkers have also often exhibited “Manichaean thinking” vis–à–vis the Muslim world. Ms. Cheriet referred to sociologist Ernest Gellner’s work, which pointed out Western historians’ tendency to represent human conflicts in a binary way: two opposites in confrontation with one another.7 This way of viewing the world has certain negative consequences—as may the very formulation who speaks for Islam and who speaks for the West. Rethinking the universal legacy that history, as the chronicle of human events, has to offer humanity will enable more objective representations of the other, which will in turn produce better journalistic accounts of conflicts and civilizations.
Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami spoke next, stressing the timeliness and overall importance of reexamining civilizations, which he explained is as difficult to accomplish globally as within the Islamic tradition. The importance of dialogue among cultures is paramount. Today there are great opportunities for this dialogue, although it is jeopardized by various threats. For example, true dialogue cannot tolerate that the prophet of one of the world’s great religions be insulted. Islamophobia is also a danger, and steps must be taken to eradicate it. Mr. Khatami cautioned that the signs of growing Islamophobia ought not to be taken lightly by the West.
By the same token, the urgent need for self–examination and intercultural dialogue should encourage Muslims to consider how their identity fits—and is perceived by others—in a globalized world. The “social” dimension of identity is what matters most when it comes to communication. However, identity is neither predetermined nor preexisting; it is created and shaped by time and space—today, possibly, more than ever. In other words, Muslims’ willingness to take an impartial, critical, but respectful view of their own tradition can foster the development of a creative and flexible identity in a democratic paradigm. Absent such a dynamic, frivolity and violence will continue to proliferate.
Mr. Khatami also pointed out the diversity that characterizes Islam, which is evident from Arab, Asian, African, Persian, and Turkic influences on religious teachings, practices, and cultural expressions. This multiplicity of Muslim voices must be reflected in the media. The panel’s discussant, Feisal Abdul Rauf, chairman of the Cordoba Initiative, concurred, noting also that the current boundaries of the Muslim world are not the product of its own history but have been imposed by the West. Similarly, recent Muslim thought has been shaped by and expressed in Western modalities. In classical Islam, the question, who speaks for Islam? would not arise. God speaks for Islam, and man interprets God’s words. A nuanced picture of the historical development of Muslim ideas is therefore necessary to understand the heterogeneity of Islamic thought. Mr. Abdul Rauf maintained that Islam does not have to be defined by a binary relationship that sets it against a presumed universal secularism. Since religion and identity are largely matters of perception, the media must play a leading role in finding solutions to the problems of misperceptions of other cultures and traditions.
Following these remarks, the floor was opened to general discussion including conference participants and observers. Kamar Oniah Kamaruzaman, associate professor at the International Islamic University in Malaysia, asked for a definition of “freedom of expression” and wondered what kind of professional ethics guided the media in the cartoons controversy. Mr. Boot responded that freedom of speech is often defined as the right to express any views that one wishes, adding that although there should be limits to that right, they should be minimal and concerned mostly with preventing libel and the espousal of violence. He went on to say that although offensive speech should be limited, governmental policing of the press ought always to be kept to a strict minimum. As is often stated, the best remedy for speech deemed offensive is more speech. Professional ethics do exist, and they are recognized by the media and the general public, with the exclusion of radical groups. Media lacking such ethics ultimately lose credibility and thereby their audiences.
Richard Bulliet, professor of history at Columbia University, added that the work of the media is often informed by a number of “common sense” cultural myths. One of the most powerful in recent years has been the theory of the “clash of civilizations,” which, he noted, is not grounded in empirical facts. Mr. Boot agreed, indicating that the clash is within Islam, rather than between Islam and the West.
If free speech is a universal value, argued A. Riawan Amin, president director of Bank Muamalat Indonesia, so too is respect. Given the interrelated nature of the two, what is the ultimate criterion by which they should be prioritized? The cartoons controversy, which drew in various media outlets, government agencies and officials, and ordinary citizens, raises the question of the degree to which the nation in toto and the government in particular are responsible for regulating free speech. What is painted as a dismissible myth (in this case, the representation of the Prophet Muhammad) by some members of the European media, governments, and citizenry is an urgent reality to practicing Muslims.
Jean–Pierre Langellier, Le Monde correspondent in the United Kingdom and Ireland, took exception to Mr. Amin’s characterization of the current situation. He reiterated that freedom of speech is the oxygen of democracy, and thus its expression is nonnegotiable except in relation to the law and the respect of individuals. To be deprived of that freedom is to be metaphorically asphyxiated, to feel the painful privation of an essential component of democratic life. The critic’s right of irony extends even to blasphemy, which has been confirmed by the European Court of Justice. Though Mr. Langellier admitted that there is a thin line between a right and how it is perceived by others, republicanism and the French constitution regulate this matter by providing for legal recourse. Furthermore, from a French republican perspective, religions are mere beliefs that can be criticized and deconstructed. It is indeed a form of progress to do so. Given that the Arab press habitually publishes anti–Semitic materials to no public protest, Mr. Langellier said, and that some Muslim countries are open to revisionism about the Holocaust, what is worse for the reputation of Islam, he asked—a caricature in poor taste or a suicide bomber at a wedding in Amman?
Returning to Max Weber’s derogatory remarks about Islam, a participant commented that there is a long list of such assaults on the part of some of the greatest Western minds. These respected philosophers and scientists have articulated all manner of demeaning thoughts on Islam (as well as Hinduism and Buddhism, for that matter). Yet one seldom finds similar attacks on the West expressed by leading Muslim scholars and intellectuals. In Islam, one does not defame another religion. Though freedom of expression is absolute, such a right cannot in and of itself condition our morality. If one is legally free to blaspheme, what is key is the moral question of whether to blaspheme.
Expanding on Mr. Garton Ash’s discussion of cultural globalization, Farhan Nizami, director of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, noted that the reason communities can no longer live with their local prejudices is that they are readily visible to others, primarily through the globalized media, raising new questions of responsibility for media organizations. There must also be consistency in the dynamic between free expression and restraint. Western societies and their media cannot be strict regarding some issues and lax on others. In the context of the relationship between Islam and the West, this also brings to the fore the persistent question of individual rights versus communal rights.
Craig Charney, president of Charney Research, remarked that globalization in effect ends up creating a “dilemma of transparency” whereby the more people are exposed to other cultures, the more they have to object to.
Responding to Mr. Langellier’s comment on the republican principles, Mohammed Arkoun, professor emeritus of Islamic thought at the Sorbonne, noted that while the French constitution states that religious commands do not supersede French law, many constitutions around the Muslim world stipulate the exact opposite, namely, that civil law cannot contradict the shari’a (Islamic law). Both sides hold their “truths to be self–evident,” and their media merely reflect that logic. It is precisely in such polarized conflicts—the Danish cartoons incident being merely the most recent episode in a long list of controversies that included the Salman Rushdie matter, the affair of Talisma Nasreen8, and the question of the veil—that we have to inquire about the nature (and usefulness) of the intellectual tools that are available to us. Mr. Arkoun argued that scientists have long demonstrated that reality and our perceptions of it are socially “constructed”; it is fundamental differences in our social realities, rather than particular events, which underlie the debate. On a separate note, he continued, we must place newfound investment into scientific research, which in turn would be transmitted through a reinvigorated educational system in which hard knowledge, an open perspective, and a commitment to literacy could vastly improve the relationship between Islam and the West.
The session closed with Mr. Garton Ash highlighting the alleged clash of civilizations as a doctrine that has already done serious damage to relations between Islam and the West. Mr. Garton Ash insisted that it is therefore key to portray the conflict properly, as a clash of values rather than civilizations. He suggested that an efficient means of fighting partial or distorted knowledge is increasing visibility of the other. In that sense, the West must redouble its efforts to portray the richness of the debate within the Muslim world.