WORLD POLITICS: War, journalists, and cultural blunders
Dr. Frank Kaufmann «View Bio

May 22, 2005

The near thorough removal of all communications boundaries in our contemporary world is unprecedented. Incendiary Arabic language sermons quickly circulate among American conservatives, and insults to Islam are heard instantly in remote cities and villages from Peshawar to Kuala Lumpur. We do not yet have habits of mind that match this new reality. Debate, reactions, and analyses struggle to transcend traditional categories. As such they do not shed light. Wholesome responses and solutions elude us.

Last week two privately owned corporations, namely Newsweek Inc. (a Washington Post company), and the Washington Times sparked high intensity, international incidents. In one there was even loss of life. Newsweek ran a half sentence on desecrating the Koran causing a worldwide firestorm including riots and death, and the Washington Times ran an objectionable and embarrassing cartoon. The half sentence and the cartoon caused problems of towering gravity and consequence. Very little is similar between the two cases other than that they both had to do with the incredibly fragile relations between `the West` and `Islam`.

The Times peccadillo came and went somehow waning despite the paper`s odd non-apology about `man`s best friend`. Perhaps the more horrifying series of events surrounding the Newsweek half sentence knocked the legs out from under the Times` troubles.

Analysis of these phenomena should concentrate on two most important aspects:

1. The immediate politicization of the problem and virtually all commentary that followed.

2. The clear evidence that cultural ignorance a) abounds, and b) has dire consequences in this age of instant communication.

David Brooks described the politicization well in his May 19 New York Times editorial. The Newsweek problem called for quick, genuine, and creative solutions. Instead we were buried under the hype and barrage of finger pointing and blame from all sides. Then, instead of searching for creative, urgently needed solutions, we are made cross-eyed by yet another round of media narcissism obsessing on itself in the tiring minutiae of journalism standards, use of sources and other shop talk.

These are all red herrings even though the real problem is plain. What the Newsweek blunder showed, more than confusion over the use of sources, was the simple fact that almost no non-Muslim Americans naturally know how the Koran truly functions in Muslim life and piety. Why wasn`t our ignorance of the one of the most basic facts of Muslim piety the immediate focus of our national conversation? (Same with the offensive `dog` cartoon. How many non-Muslim Americans know how dogs are viewed in Muslim culture?)

Yes, the question of single source and anonymous source reporting is interesting. Yes, the question of media responsibility in a `time of war` is interesting. Surely the question of prisoner rights is interesting, and all are extremely important. The most frightful revelation however shown by the `Newsweek horrors` is that the cost of cultural and religious ignorance in a world of instant communication is at an all time high, and can no longer be ignored or left unattended. The solution to this problem does not lie in blaming newspapers, interrogators, or militants. It is a complex problem that should be approached by all communities and leaders unencumbered by the poison of blame and politicization.

The second major problem revealed in these events has to do with a near impossible effort to divide a `foreign` cultural sphere into an enemy half and an allied half. To presume that one can simply divide into `good guys and bad guys,` a 1-billion-person international community grounded in 1,400 years of complex and opaque processes and evolution is silly on the face of it.

Islamic history, theology, jurisprudence, political philosophy, and the profound and subtle evolution of its schools of interpretations, its political and theological development, its own debated issues of expansion, modernization, race and gender issues and more takes patience and understanding to intuit. To think that one can do this on the cheap, and further to think this is possible under the defining context of military alliances and national self-interest is in a word, impossible, and should be unthinkable.

Until the alliance between the United States and forward looking Muslim thinkers, countries, and leaders is one that transcends military purposes, and grows to become one of mutual embrace, and until the centuries long slide of modernity into the secularization that misses religion as a vital to the human experience is reversed, we are bound to continue suffering from the results of self-imposed ignorance.

We may not always have Michael Isikoff [the Newsweek reporter who wrote the article] to blame for our own sins. The next half sentence might be my own.

Only a starting point of true inter-cultural and interreligious respect and collaboration can start to dampen the flames of violence couching ever ready at the doors of instant global communication.

Frank Kauffmann is the director of the office of inter-religious relations of the Inter-Religious and International Federation for World Peace. This article appeared in the World Peace Herald.