Madeleine Davies

Why journalists can’t afford to ignore religion

In Uncategorized on March 19, 2015 at 1:27 pm

“Why journalists can’t afford to ignore religion” was on the table last night, at the Groucho Club.

It’s been a “hobby horse” of Edward Stourton, the presenter of Radio 4’s Sunday programme for some years. Introducing the debate as Chair, he described how he had developed this conviction while covering the Second Intifada. A suicide bombing, he asserted, “only makes sense if there is a religious dimension to it”.

Except, as Karen Armstrong points out in her new book, that’s not true. Robert Pape of the University of Chicago has studied every single suicide bombing from 1980 to 2004 and found that it is “always a response to the invasion of the homeland by a militarily superior power”. Suicide bombing was first used by the Tamil Tigers. Of the Lebanese bombings of the 1980s, most were committed by secularists and socialists.

I think that Stourton is right that religion is ill-understood, and over-looked, by journalists, but his comment was the first of several throughout the debate which illustrated that we won’t overcome this through opinions, impressions, and anecdotes. The danger, given the level of religious illiteracy, is that statements which may sound credible, self-evident, or intuitive, are accepted as fact.

In the end, it fell to Myriam Francois-Cerrah, a writer and broadcaster, to provide the corrective. Of all the panellists, she appeared by far the most equipped with hard facts. In addition to citing the Pape study, she presented a strong case that the key to understanding the Middle East is not theology, but politics.

Anne Leslie, the veteran foreign correspondent for the Daily Mail started off by opining that: “We are very ignorant because we have a bit of an allergy towards religion – we misrepresent things.” Journalists covering the Arab Spring could not, for the most part, speak Arabic, she pointed out, so tended to interview protestors who spoke English (often after being educated overseas), and did not represent the majority view.

“The assumption was that all Egyptians wanted what Western Liberals wanted: freedom of expression. And there was a huge shock when the Muslim Brotherhood won. . .

“We have consistenly ignored it [religion] because we think it is rather tasteless to say how important religion it is to a lot of people there: it is the guiding reason for their lives.”

Francois-Cerrah believes that, in the Middle East, the role of religion has, in fact, been “over-stated, in as much as I consider socio-economic factors to have been very much central to people’s motivations.”

She pointed out that, in the first round of the elections in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi got less than 25 per cent of the vote. It was only when he was pitted against a figure of the old regime in the second round that he secured victory.

A pet hate of Francois-Cerrah, it appears, is “Islamic exceptionalism”. Was Leslie’s assertion that the Afghan military prioritised collecting their dead in order to be able to bury them within 24 hours substantiated? Francois Cerrah questioned whether they are that different to us. Why did three school girls from Bethnal Green go to join ISIS? Why does any young person join a gang? Theology was “not really the key” to understanding Al Qaeda which “did not exist prior to the invasion of Iraq”, she suggested.

I agree with her that: “Greater religious literacy can help us to understand where religion is and is not relevant to the story”.

A twin danger to ignoring religion altogether is that we exoticise it, using it as a hook on which to pin complex political and socio-economic phenomenon that defy ready explanation.

Steven Barnett, professor of communications at the University of Westminster (“the token atheist”) disagreed with the motion, arguing that religion had no special claim to the limited resources available to the nation’s editors. Citing statistics from the latest census and the British Social Attitudes Survey he argued that it was of diminishing importance to people’s lives in the UK. The “big global questions” were largely political, not religious, ones.

My own impression is that this opinion probably reflects those of a fair proportion of the British press. I disagree, but I think we need to work harder to make the case.

Who are we making the case to?

Francois-Cerrah believes that: “There is a sense that religion is something from a bygone era: we have evolved, progressed and anyone who is religious is somehow lagging on the developmental spectrum.”

We have failed to understand, she argues, that, in many parts of the world, religion is regarded as a liberating force against oppressive, secular regimes, a “rallying force for people power”.

One point that could be made, is that demographics will play a role. In a book entitled Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? Eric Kaufmann, a professor of politics, showed that the more religious poeple are, the more children they have. Ultra-Orthodox Jews have three or four times as many children as their secular counterparts.

Roger Bolton, Stourton’s predecessor on Sunday, and a trustee of the Sandford St Martin Trust gave a rather damning account of the current culture at the BBC. Baby boomer journalists were primarily “liberal, secular metropolitan” who “do not understand what motivates large sections of the population and cannot be bothered to find out what they do believe” (I got echoes of David Goodhart here).

He pointed out how a recent report on the Today programme had inaccurately described FGM as a Muslim practice, and said that the BBC lacked a central religious editor: “Broadcasting culture is not fit for purpose in dealing with the realities of the world”.

Its journalists were arts graduates who struggled to understand business and science, where at least there were clear “experts” to help with stories, he suggested: “I would not be able to do that in the religious area. . . We do not know who to ask. Those within these relatively closed communities think quite reasonably that we do not know what we are talking about.”

I would disagree with him here. In the age of the Internet, it should be relatively easy to find people who do know what they are talking about. Francois-Cerrah for example. It sometimes feels as if there is a slight laziness about searching for and cultivating contacts in this area. Is it really that hard to build relationships with credible, informed spokespeople? I understand that it makes better TV to invite on the most extreme types, and that journalists must be cautious about being duped by self-appointed “representatives” with few credentials, but what about the many groups dedicated to a better public understanding of their communities? Or the many academics easy to contact via their universities? Faith groups are understandably fed up with being represented by people who don’t really speak for them. If we can find people we trust to talk about climate change, or the Budget, why can’t the same be said of religion?












Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: