Making media matter

By Editor on April 2, 2008 3:08 pm

Making Media Matters
The media has a crucial role in ensuring a commitment to constitutionalism, pluralism, rule of law, and rights in every democratic society. Would it serve this cause best by an ‘objective’ approach? What the media should do is not chase after hypocritical objectivity, writes Professor
Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, but be self-aware and ‘socially engaged’.

A COMMON AND DANGEROUS illusion, I think, is the explicit or implicit belief that once “settled” or “resolved” by founding generations and embodied in national constitutions and political culture of societies, commitments to civic values of constitutionalism, democracy, pluralism, rule of law and protection of fundamental rights will somehow survive and thrive through subsequent generations, as if encoded in our genes.

A more realistic view, it seems to me, is that these values must be rejuvenated and developed through the constant reenactment of civic discourses about their significance and current relevance by every generation. For instance, founding visions of secularism and pluralism in the United States or India are not sufficiently sustained by constitutional texts and bureaucratic mechanisms, or infused into subsequent generations through civic classes in schools or the mythology of ritualistic politics.

It is not possible for these values to survive the inevitable crises endured by every society unless they are also reaffirmed and nurtured by each generation on its own terms and in relation to the current issues of the day. This is clear, I would argue, from the moral failure of the United States in the face of international terrorism and cyclic tragedies of communal violence in India. The fact the United States inflicts its moral failure on other societies across the world and India endures its own at home are simply different manifestations of the same underlying failure to reenact civic discourses.

A constant appreciation of the reality and urgency of this need is of course the essential prerequisite for its possibility for any society. But since that is likely to be already true of some opinion leaders, the question is about the means and process of raising awareness among wider segments of society, as well as the actual practice of civic discourse.

This is where partnership of the academy and media in enhancing public space for civic discourse is so crucial. To call for this is not to assume that it is totally absent now in any society, or to be naïve about probable limitations of the academy or media constituencies, or underestimate obstacles facing their sustained collaboration. Rather, my call is for a pragmatic yet optimistic engagement and mediation of such difficulties as part of the process of civic discourse itself.

Objectivity: that myth again

On the academy side, there is the deeply entrenched myth of objectivity and neutrality — the notion that scholarship must be detached and unaffiliated with any social or political agenda to be valid and sound from a “scientific” perspective. However, in view of the realities of the world as we have it, assertions of scholarly objectivity and neutrality are simplistic if not hypocritical, because failure to take a position against injustice and human suffering around us everywhere is in fact a taking a position in support of the status quo. At the same time, bad or weak scholarship is not helpful for any cause. So, what we need is good scholarship that is socially engaged, rather than one that is either weak or claims to be socially and politically neutral. I realize that this is not easy to do, but believe it is what we should strive to achieve.

Similar tensions between professional neutrality and risks of bias due to social and political commitments arise in the journalism and media side of the partnership I am promoting here. Professional neutrality is needed for good media work, but that should not be at the expense of commitments to social justice and individual freedom. Once again, we need good journalism that is socially engaged, rather than one that is either biased or claims to be socially and politically neutral. Again, I realize that this is not easy to do, but believe it is what we should strive to achieve.

Beyond these types of “honorable” concerns about balancing quality and social commitments, there are other mundane issues of both the academy and media being implicated in economic and class or other interests that can consciously or unconsciously coopt scholars and journalists. Both communities are dependent on structural power relations in every society. The first step in this regard is to candidly acknowledge these realities of power relations and seek ways of systematically reducing their influence over time.

My objective in this short essay is to begin talking about these types of risk factors and their implications for the constant reenactment of civic discourse. I am not suggesting that partnerships between the academy and the media are the only way to promote these civic values, as the seeds of these commitments, institutions and practice may be planted into the consciousness of our children through early socialization at home, civic education in schools, and traces of all this may filter through our popular culture.

But none of this is likely to be sufficiently strong, at least for the majority of citizens and especially in times of severe security crises or social trauma, like the aftermath of 9/11 in the United States or outbreaks of communal violence in India. Integrating good and socially engaged scholarship into good and socially engaged media work is one way of reinforcing values.

What can academy-media engagement do?

For example, partnerships between the academy and media can promote a more sophisticated and nuanced public debate about the relationship of religion and the state, on the one hand, and religion and politics, on the other.

I have recently attempted to produce what I hope is good and socially engaged scholarship about the paradoxical need to separate religion and the state in my book Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari`a (Harvard University Press, 2008). The paradox of separation of religion and the state, with recognition and regulation of the unavoidable connectedness of religion and politics can, and should, be mediated through a variety of mechanisms, but cannot be resolved once and for all. This approach makes a difficult but necessary distinction between the institutional continuity of the state and the contingency of politics as reflected in the government of the day. While my argument is applied to Islam and Muslims, I believe that it is also applicable to other religious traditions and communities.

These issues can be explored in strong socially engaged scholarship, but that will have little wider social and political impact unless the media engaged in broader dissemination and debate about whatever the academy has to say on the subject. In terms of my thesis in the book, the media can contribute by facilitating debates about the imperative requirement of the institutional separation of religion and the state in order to ensure the strict religious neutrality of the state and all institutions.

By religious neutrality of the state I mean that official policies, laws and institutions should never favor or disfavor any religious doctrine or practice as such, i.e., by virtue of its being religious or because it is sanctioned by religious authorities. Norms or policy objectives which are accepted by citizens as based on their religious or other beliefs can be proposed for public debate and possible adoption by the state as public policy or law, but that can only be by virtue of “civic reason” and not religious rationale. That is, all state action must be based on reasons that are equally accessible and debatable, accepted or rejected by all citizens, without reference to the religious beliefs held by any of them.

Public debate facilitated by the media can help clarify the practical mediation of the paradox of separation of religion and the state, for instance, in terms of regulating the social and ethical influence of religion on public policy, gender relations, human rights and social justice concerns. Similar clarification and illustration may also be necessary for the refurbishment of the normative and institutional frameworks of transparent and accountable government, political parties and community leaders.

The media can also facilitate the process of broadening and deepening popular understanding and appreciation of the nature and dynamics of secularism and religious/philosophical pluralism, and how to safeguard and promote the critical role of dissent and heresy in a variety of settings.

Professor Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im is Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law at Emory University School of Law. His research interests include constitutionalism in Islamic and African countries, human rights, and Islam and politics.

Image: Sunil Krishnan


Your Thoughts (1 Comment)

April 8th, 2008 3:39 pm by Catherine Squires

I agree wholeheartedly with your piece, and will be sharing it today with my grad and undergrad students.

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