Christian-Muslim dialogue activists are faced with a media landscape where a statement such as "We condemn terrorism" has no news value whatsoever, says Melanie Miehl. In her article she explains why Muslims taking part in the dialogue need to be thick-skinned
Every new terrorist act in the name of what is called "Islam" shocks me in two ways. On the one hand, I feel anger and helplessness, as well as pity for the victims and their families. Yet I am also acquainted with cynical thoughts: whether we should now compose another press release, in which we condemn the attacks and express our sympathy with those who have suffered.
I have also wondered, perversely, whether this particular catastrophe is big enough to require a public statement. If it is, then a feverish race begins, in which we try to guess the half-life of this story in the media, and then hurry to write the statement, discuss it, revise it, take a vote on it, and eventually, hastily, send it off.
A mantle of journalistic silence
The statement will be very much the same as others we have made and written, on other occasions, in other times and other places, when other atrocities have caused other victims. We; that is, the Muslims and Christians in the inter-faith organisations and discussion groups, in the coordinating councils, in the Christian and Muslim parishes and associations.
Each and every time, we know we are writing for the waste-paper basket, for the "circular files" of the major press organisations. Sometimes I have the feeling that I only write so that no one can accuse us of not having bothered to do so. Because even those who have a cast a mantle of journalistic silence over all of our previous statements can still earn a cheap laurel wreath – as a minimally "investigative" reporter – by trumpeting the fact that this or that organisation has not said a word about this or that act of violence.
This is a rat-race we cannot possibly win, and I ask myself to what extent it is even our task to try.
Invisibility in the media
Muslims and Christians who endeavour to meet and achieve understanding don't have a chance of being noticed in the media. They suffer under the all-too-familiar mechanism that no news is good news. Like the Muslim organisations, all groups devoted to dialogue can speak volumes about their invisibility in the media.
Though they produce publications, organise congresses and issue statements against terror, against forced marriage, and against attacks on religious freedom, the media response is negligible. For these groups, especially when they work for nothing, have no lobby and no cash, and therefore there is no interest. They even lack the imagery.
When newspapers, magazines and audiovisual media report on Islamist terror with pictures of Muslims at prayer or the call of the Muezzin, they are undermining people of the Islamic faith and their partners in dialogue. They are usurping the sounds and images of Islam and investing them with Islamist themes. Islamists have understood this logic and exploit it more skilfully than Muslims can react to it: the outstretched arm holding a Koran has now become a symbol of terror.
Al Qaeda bombings and dialogue
How can Muslims recapture it in a media landscape where a statement such as "We condemn terrorism" has no news value whatsoever? It is a merciless downward spiral. And it has repercussions. Christians or Muslims who stand up for dialogue move in two different worlds: in their own experienced reality here in Germany and in the world of Islam that is conveyed by the media.
Someone in Small Provincial Town A who is debating the issue of whether the ten Muslims in town, all of whom he has known personally for years, should be given a prayer room in the hospital or not, knows that his success or failure ultimately depend on what images of Al Qaeda bombings are shown on the news that evening. The human right to freedom of religion ends up depending on the barometer of how the other inhabitants of Town A perceive the state of the world at the moment.
If the mayor's wife happens to have gotten books by various experts on Islam for Christmas, or if she laps up descriptions of modern harems, Town A will remain mosque-free.
Thick-skinned for dialogue
The probability that dyed-in-the-wool extremists will enter into dialogue with the parish of Town A is relatively low. So for its podium discussion Town A invites those who are willing to come. And they had better have a thick skin. Though they are among the few people far and wide who speak out against terror and violence, they are clobbered as stand-ins for the others. It is difficult to draw distinctions, and prejudices cannot be jettisoned overnight.
For people engaging in dialogue, it is unbearable to see how freedom of religion is subjected to political gamesmanship on the issue of Turkey's EU accession, how the peaceful coexistence of Christians and Muslims in Iraq is undermined and how the victims of natural catastrophes in Pakistan vanish below the media horizon because Pakistan has no palmy beaches.
Those who engage in dialogue in this country do not need to apologize for all the evil in the world. On the contrary, they are justified in asking why there is so little support for this work.
This work is necessary, and ideally the serious efforts of Muslim and Christians, with all their skill and competence, would meet with commensurate recognition. It is necessary to draw distinctions, and society as a whole should not forgo the chance to fall back on and provide positive encouragement to the people who know how to build the bridges for which there is no alternative.
© Qantara.de 2006
Translated from the German by Patrick Lanagan and Isabel Cole
Melanie Miehl, expert on Islamic studies, is acting board member of the Christian-Islamic Society, Germany, and heads the executive committee of the Christian-Islamic Dialogue Associations in Germany, KCID.