Magazine article Nieman Reports

Reporting to a Western Audience about the Islamic World: American Journalists Often Lack Training, Knowledge and Sensitivity Needed to Tell These Stories. (Coverage of Terrorism)

Magazine article Nieman Reports

Reporting to a Western Audience about the Islamic World: American Journalists Often Lack Training, Knowledge and Sensitivity Needed to Tell These Stories. (Coverage of Terrorism)

Article excerpt

Through eight years as a correspondent in the Islamic world for The Guardian and other publications, my aim was to tap into the untouched universe of Muslim sources. I conducted interviews with militants in Algeria determined to kill foreigners; a progressive Iranian cleric under house arrest who is considered one of the greatest threats to the Islamic republic; his hard-line nemesis, believed to be responsible for the murders of Iranian intellectuals; and hundreds of Islamic moderates in Egypt under round-the-clock surveillance by the intelligence apparatus propping up President Hosni Mubarak's government.

The militants were men who loathed the Western world, were unlikely to meet a foreigner, and even less likely to be interviewed by a female foreign correspondent. Some agreed to one interview and others to many more after I convinced them I wanted to hear their opinions and give them a voice in a world otherwise closed to them. When I wrote stories based on the interviews, I reported their views in much the same way I would have if they were coming from the U.S. Secretary of State, not from advocates of creating an Islamic state based on principles the Western world finds abhorrent. In other words, I sought to reflect their views and comments with accuracy, providing the reader with the context needed to understand the world through an Islamic perspective.

Since September 11, much discussion has focused upon appropriate methods for reporting on the views and statements of Islamists who are either involved in the war or in the reporting of it. Should U.S. television networks refuse to report statements made by the Al Qeada network? Should the U.S. government pressure Qatar to place restrictions on reporting on Al Jazeera, the Arab world's CNN, which has served as Osama bin Laden's microphone from his cave to the outside world? Should CNN submit questions through an intermediary to Osama bin Laden, then air his views?

In more ordinary times, campaigners for free expression would have launched protests over such overt suggestions of censorship. But even before September 11, conventional rules of journalism were often suspended when covering Islamic societies. Islamic sources were considered less credible because their views stem from a different philosophy, not only about politics and religion, but life itself. As a result, the American media, particularly television, often relied on the usual suspects--the 20 or so sources in countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, Algeria and Iran who were Westernized--and often English speaking--and who were found to be much more acceptable than the average Islamic activist. These sources are, in fact, often local journalists with ties to their respective governments. Reporters overlooked the fact that they generally have a political agenda and are rarely objective analysts.

A foreign correspondent in Tehran who worked for an international news agency boasted that in eight years on the job he had never traveled 100 miles from the Iranian capital to interview clerics in Qom, Iran's religious center. Many theologians in Qom are directly involved in policymaking, but rarely come to the Iranian capital. Even in cases when journalists tried to interview major players in the Islamic world, their lack of knowledge and preparation produced less than enlightening reports. This lack of understanding of the material, in turn, discouraged other Islamists from cooperating and contributed to the Western press's pariah status in countries such as Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, Algeria and Syria.

The progressive cleric in Iran under house arrest, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, had denied interview requests to nearly every major American newspaper for two decades, including The New York Times. After I submitted my questions to him by fax in December 1999, he responded one month later in an 8,000-word treatise.

The story I wrote in The Guardian, based on his response, was read aloud on the BBC, and its contents were reported widely across Europe. …

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