‘Media must uphold human rights and social justice principles’

By Editor on June 12, 2008 4:49 am

abduh4.jpgProfessor Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im is Charles Howard Candler Professor of Law at Emory Law School, Atlanta, USA and former Executive Director of Human Rights Watch/Africa. He is the author of Islam and the Secular State: Negotiating the Future of Shari`a.  In an email interview with Rohit Chopra, he addresses the relationship between media and scholarship, the limits and license of each with respect to questions of social justice, rights, and secularism, and the problematic implications of embedded journalism.

Professor An-Na’im, you have spoken of the need for scholarship as well as journalism that is socially engaged and rigorous. How might scholarship and the media support each other in this regard?

I think scholarship and journalism or media can support each other first by combining commitments to individual freedom and social justice with professional rigor and integrity, each in terms of its own standards. Poor scholarship or weak journalism is not useful for any cause.  But the two are different in conception, methodology and expression, and should not be judged by the same standards. In other words, scholarship should not seek to be good journalism, and vice versa. At the same time, however, scholars and journalists should both work on the basis of a clear understanding of all the relevant facts, history, and context of the issues they are dealing with; and strive to frame their questions or inquiry consistently and fairly.

In this regard, we probably need to clarify what we mean by “neutrality” as a standard of good scholarship and journalism. Absolute or completely neutrality is of course not possible for human beings, but I also don’t think that it is desirable. Whether we are aware of it, admit it or not, claims of neutrality are misleading because we always have some purpose or agenda in mind, if only to maintain the status quo. What scholars and journalists can and should strive to avoid is being biased or patrician, by prejudging an issue or failing to consider both sides of an argument before coming to a conclusion. This is probably what people mean when they speak of neutrality, which does not mean that the scholar or journalist has no personal opinion or position on the issue at hand.  Rather, the point is that we should try our best to frame the questions fairly, seek all relevant information, and avoid presenting them in ways that prematurely influence our audience.

Often, media professionals and scholars seem to approach issues very differently. Mediapersons often complain that academics view their work as superficial without due consideration for the constraints under which they operate. On the other hand, scholars point to the anti-intellectualism in the media. What might be the deeper sources of this tension, for instance, with regard to coverage of human rights, secularism, or religion? Could these be productive tensions?

This tension is not only unavoidable, but in fact necessary for each of these two fields to achieve its objectives and serve its legitimate purposes in society. Some of the differences that underlie this tension are to be expected because they are inherent to the nature and functions of scholarship in contrast to journalism. It is true that journalists have to operate under constraints of space and time, which do not permit them the benefits of extensive and profound examination of the issues, as scholars are able to do. But the constraints under which journalists operate are integral to their primary role of informing the public at large about current debates and concerns. Given the wide range in levels of education, intellectual engagement, and emotional orientation of their audiences, journalists could not perform their proper function or role in society at all if they tried to be as nuanced in their analysis or careful in presenting them as scholars are able and expected to do. 

In reporting about human rights, secularism, or religion, for instance, journalists have to frame issues at a high level of generality and balance to be accessible and influential among the widest possible range of readers or listeners. They should be able to present sufficient breadth and clarity to enable people to make up their own mind about the issue at hand, without being so complex in their analysis or nuanced in presentation as to defeat the purpose. 

Regarding human rights, for example, journalists are best at verifying the facts and reporting them accurately and clearly, while scholars are trained to engage in deeper philosophical or social scientific analysis of the concepts, norms and their practice or application. Scholars can help us understand the historical roots and philosophical and policy implications of the relationship between secularism and religion, and journalists can present the findings and conclusions of scholars to the widest range of public opinion to inform public policy. Neither should try to perform the role of the other. Society needs both set of professionals to do what they are supposed to do, each according to their own functions and methodologies. If journalists and scholars are good at what they are trained and situated to do, they should be able to cooperate for the benefit of society at large.  

In your work you seek to engage public constituencies in various national and global contexts, from Indonesia to America.  Toward this end, you utilize media formats that complement scholarly texts.  What are the ways in which this approach contributes to the goals of your current project on Islam and the secular state?

In working with colleagues in various projects, we attempted to integrate communications and media strategies with the concept and basic methodology of the project because we believe in what we call “scholarship for social change”.  Since our explicit objective in all these projects has been to influence public policy and behavior, with due regard to the human agency of Muslims and citizens, we have deliberately sought to bring our findings and conclusions to the attention of the public at large. We do not believe it sufficient to produce a good idea, or substantiate a strong argument, without striving to bring that into the public domain in ways that motivate and empower people who are persuaded to struggle for the practical application of those ideas or arguments in practice, whether through official action or private practice.

But we have also consistently found that this is easier said than done, very much for the sort of factors and constraints I have outlined earlier. The fact that we think our work is relevant and practically useful does not necessarily mean that journalists would be keen to cover or disseminate our findings and conclusions. Part of our difficulty may have been that our findings and analysis were presented on websites and in books in English, while the readers who are more likely to be interested in what we do speak other languages.  We tried to address this issue by translating the Islam and Secular State manuscript into several languages of Islamic societies that can be downloaded and printed from the project’s website free of charge. Since we still did not receive much feedback from readers, it seems that another limitation is that the website format is not easily accessible to our constituencies, while books are too expensive for them. We still believe so strongly in the role of the media in our work that we keep working to overcome such limitations and to facilitate our cooperation with journalists.

What specific critiques might you have about current media coverage of human rights issues, international law, war, and conflict?

The question is whether, despite the increasingly globalized nature of media, coverage is still dictated by national interests or the interests of powerful nation-states such as the US. An example would be the mainstream US media coverage in the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, where the media did not distance itself sufficiently from a US state department position.

I would first recall here the points made earlier about some of the limitations of the media that are in fact necessary or relevant to its proper role and function in society.  Still it seems to me that journalists can do better in informing themselves about the broader issues of human rights, international law, war, and conflict around the world. As I said earlier, I don’t think it is appropriate for any of us, whatever function or role we play, to be “neutral” about human rights in principle.  Journalists have the obligation to investigate and verify the facts as best they can, to present a balanced view of all sides and perspectives of an issue, but that should not mean pretending to be indifferent about the outcome, as if describing a football game. I do believe that journalists have an obligation to be socially responsible in their reporting on human rights issues. As I emphasized from the start, no cause is served by weak journalism, but good strong media must seek to uphold the principles of human rights and social justice.

It is important for journalists to avoid taking sides in a conflict, or prejudging an issue, but there is no question in my mind that they must be totally uncompromising in upholding the rule of law in international relations and condemning flagrant violations of international law like the invasion and colonization of Iraq by the United States and its allies since March 2003.  Living in the United States, I was particularly distressed to see American journalists exhibiting bias and prejudice for either chauvinistic so-called patriotic reasons, or out of concern about their ability to have access to information. The notion of so-called “embedded journalists”, whereby a journalist would live and move with units of an invading army, seems to me to mock and contradict any notion of independence and impartiality. 

Similarly, what critiques might you have about scholarly work in these areas.  While recognizing that media and scholarship are not subject to identical forces, is it the case that the same kinds of ideological factors– whether in US, India, or Saudi Arabia-often also influence scholarly work in problematic ways?

Much of what I said about the media above applies to scholarship: risks of undeclared bias or prejudice, sometimes not acknowledged to scholars themselves, and ethnocentric assumptions that essentialize the “other” to fit preconceived notions or models of analysis. The risks of such factors are probably greater with scholars because they tend to assume that they have been “trained” to overcome or avoid them. To be clear on the point, these concerns are as true of so-called “Third World” or non-Western scholars as they are of Western scholars.  There is “orientalism” and “orientalism in reverse” that seeks to recapture and finally appropriate the “true and authentic” identity of “oriental” intellectuals and political elites (Mehrzad Boroujerdi, Iranian Intellectuals and the West: The Tormented Triumph of Nativism, Syracuse University Press, 1996, 11-12).

Another concern that applies to scholars in particular is the myth that true scholarship must be neutral, and that advocacy for social change diminishes the intellectual purity and authority of scholarship. The illusion here is that scholarly neutrality is possible or desirable, and can be achieved by simply refusing to take a position, which is of course an actual position in favor of the status quo.  Scholars who insist on that view tend to be privileged elites who are keen to avoid questioning the basis of their privilege.  Again, this can be as true of so-called non-Western as of Western scholars.

You strongly emphasize the importance of practice and process in developing values of secularism and civic engagement. What might be some strategies by which media and scholarship could be attuned to this perspective?

The primary rationale of my emphasis on practice and process is respect for the human agency of the subjects of the theory I am trying to develop — the values and traditions of secularism in the instance of the current project on Islam and the secular state and the future of Shari’a. Another main reason is that an effort to “theorize the experience” of persons and their communities is more likely to be accepted by its subjects as legitimate and practical than a hypothetical theoretical construct. The actual methodology of this approach is to devise a theoretical framework through observation and “translation” of the daily experiences of persons and their communities.

Both the rationale and methodology of this approach clearly indicate possibilities of strong partnership between media and scholarship.  Media strategies can help articulate the practices and process by which scholars can develop theoretical frameworks, and then communicate that information to the public to motivate and inspire action that can reinforce the theoretical framework.  For instance, the role of state funding and supervision on religious education in schools or tax breaks for private religious schools need to be negotiated through practice over time. Competing views and policy priorities about controversial educational issues, like the exclusive reservation of physical exercise facilities for female students by Harvard University, can be presented and debated through various media outlets. Whenever it is wise to try a new policy on an experimental basis, the media can play a critical role in publicizing the policy and engaging people in following its progress and eventual assessment for the policy to be either terminated or extended. This can happen for various models of regulating the relationship between religious organizations and political parties, or the role of Islamic religious endowments (waqf) in funding electoral campaigns of political leaders or their parties.

Photograph: Courtesy Emory Law School


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