The tremendous advances in communications technologies of the past century have ushered in a world in which the news media play a very dominant role. With amazing alacrity they tell us what is happening in places near and far. In the past some wars continued months after the generals had negotiated a settlement simply because the news did not reach the troops. Today the media bring the world to our doorstep instantaneously, with sounds, pictures, and clear narratives.
Our large scale practice of faithfully reproducing these reports and of reacting to them on the assumption that they are true, is deeply flawed.
With all that speed and efficiency they also offer great entertainment. There is never a dull moment on the international media machine. It always has a story to tell and it is a compelling storyteller. It is slick, seductive, endlessly entertaining. No wonder it has come to enjoy a central place in our daily lives. It defines what is important and what is unimportant; what is good and what is bad. It shapes our ideas, our thoughts, our outlooks, our world.
We have become so captivated with all this razzle-dazzle that we forget to ask the basic question: What should be our relationship with the media?
The first thing to note is that the machine that is always engaging our eyes, our ears, and our minds, is not ours. We did not design it, neither are we running it. It talks to us and about us but does not let us talk. It claims to be knowledgeable, objective and honest but suffers from ignorance, malice and prejudice. It turns molehills into mountains when it suits it and ignores mountains when that would serve its purpose.
Unfortunately, for all practical purposes, it remains our means of knowing not only about the world but also about ourselves. It follows then, that the first priority of the Ummah in this regard has to be to develop its own news media, totally independent of the prevailing and corrupt media machine. An Islamic media with its own eyes, ears, and mind. One that would set the discourse, instead of perpetually reacting to someone else's promptings. One that would just tell the truth instead of perpetually unraveling someone else's lies.
Till that happens, the rest of us will have to contend with the current media machine. We cannot shut it off but we cannot continue the business as usual either. For this interim period we do need to become wise (not just intelligent but wise) consumers of the media. Islam does provide guidance to us in this area, as in all areas of life. We ignore it only to our own detriment. And we can certainly follow it to our own good. Here are three essential Qur'anic teachings in this regard.
1. Confirm the news before you act. "O you who believe! If a fasiq (transgressor) comes to you with any news, ascertain the truth, lest you harm people unwittingly, and afterwards become full of repentance for what you have done." (Al-Hujrat, 49:6). This warns us against becoming passive consumers of the news from unreliable sources. What about the "prestigious international news organizations?" Are we to throw away every report we receive from them? Not really. Only those reports that have the potential of creating a mischief. (That, by the way, includes most of the reports about the Muslim world).
It is well established that the "prestigious" news organizations, despite their claims, do get involved in propaganda through careful omission, slanting, distortion, and even outright lies when it comes to reporting about the Muslims. It is beyond a shadow of doubt that they are unreliable resources for such reports. It follows then, that our large scale practice of faithfully reproducing these reports (that is what our own media does) and of reacting to them on the assumption that they are true (that is what our opinion leaders routinely do), is deeply flawed and in violation of this command.
Our recent uproar about the Taliban is a case in point. Over the issue of identification, the propaganda machine raised the Nazi specter and through its endless repetition convinced many of an impending genocide. It was a minor detail that the Hindus who had left Afghanistan during the civil war came back to Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover precisely because of the peace and protection they provided.
The first priority of the Ummah has to be to develop its own news media, totally independent of the prevailing and corrupt media machine.
It is sobering that so many of the Muslim intellectuals obediently reproduced the lies and used them as a basis for their own ruthless condemnations of the one Muslim government today that has the courage to defy world imperialism against all odds. They did not even stop to think that had there been a single case of persecution, not only that would have been headline news, but the powers that be would have invaded Afghanistan on the pretext of a rescue operation. This tragic foolishness of the intellectuals could have been avoided had they heeded this command.
2. Remember your accountability. The Qur'an says: "And pursue not that of which you have no knowledge; for every act of hearing, or of seeing or of (feeling in) the heart will be enquired into (on the Day of Reckoning)." (Al-Isra 17.036). Maulana Shabbir Ahmed Usmani says in his commentary: "Do not say or act on something without ascertaining it. This includes bearing false witness, leveling false allegations, and developing hatred and malice against someone based on unverified reports." It also is a very strong reminder that we must protect our ears, eyes and thoughts from the obscenities that have become an integral part of the modern media.
3. Ignore the Propaganda. Many of us get un-nerved when the propaganda machine goes in the attack mode. While it is our job to respond to the allegations and portray the correct image, nevertheless it is not right to get panicky and start appeasing to "correct the image." A Muslim must not be intimidated by false propaganda, no matter how ferocious. Qur'an mentions it as a quality of the believers who love Allah and are loved by Him that they strive in His path "fearing not the blame of any blamer" (Al-Maida 5:54). It assures us that the propaganda will continue as part of our test. "You shall certainly be tried and tested in your possessions and in your personal selves; and you shall certainly hear much that will grieve you, from those who received the Book before you and from those who worship many gods. But if you persevere patiently, and guard against evil,-then that will be a determining factor in all affairs." (Aal-e-Imran 3:186)