Mullahs And Media Must Do More To Combat Extremism
An Iraqi journalist talks about the schism opening up between ordinary Muslims in Iraq and Islamic extremists. The only way to win this cultural war is if the local media get on the good guys' side, he writes.
An illustration by 13th Century Iraqi artist, Yahya ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti. (photo: The Yorck Project / Wikimedia Commons)
Although I now consider myself a “free thinker” rather than an overly pious man, I was born into a Muslim family and brought up in a Muslim household. And after 11 years working as a journalist in Iraq, I can see there is an ideological war in the Middle East today. Not between the West and the Middle East, or between Christianity and Islam. It is between the Islamist extremists and peaceful Muslims, who want to have a good life away from violence. And today I believe the extremists have the upper hand in this ideological war. Even if the whole Middle East doesn't go up in flames, then at the very least, we can see that the Iraqi people have lost nearly all hope for a better future.
So there is an urgent need for changes that would allow peaceful Muslims to win this ideological war.
The most important and urgent change is the reform of Islam. However I doubt that this will happen in my lifetime, and for many reasons.
Islam's clerics prefer to remain in their comfort zones. When did they last organise a demonstration protesting violence by members of their sect, against members of another sect?
Firstly, the clerics of Islam believe their religion is perfect and that any attempt to reform it is blasphemous; they have been preaching that for centuries.
Secondly, Islam has an authority problem. Unlike Catholicism, Islam does not have a single leader like a Pope. It is very difficult to bring prominent Islamic clerics to the same table, let alone get them all to agree to make such a fundamental decision.
Thirdly, Islamic clerics prefer to remain in their comfort zones. So they proclaim that violent extremists are just a few bad apples who have fallen from the huge tree that is Islam. But that tree is producing more and more bad apples. And if a tree is producing so much rotten fruit, and for such a long time, there must be something wrong with that tree.
Fourth, leading Islamic clerics do not have the will to make a change or to do more. An example: When a newspaper draws a caricature of the Prophet Mohammed, I see the majority of clerics calling for demonstrations and condemning the newspaper. But I have yet to see any Sunni clerics organize a demonstration condemning the extremist group known as the Islamic State for killing Yazidis, or for killing innocent Shiite people. And I have yet to see any Shiite clerics organise any demonstrations to protest against the killing of innocent Sunni civilians by Shiite militias.
However I do not believe we need to wait decades for Islamic clerics to act. Instead I have faith that the Iraqi media could play a role in educating audiences. It is very difficult to make the media in the Middle East change since most of them are funded by either the state or by political parties. But in today's Middle East, and certainly in Iraq, the media can be, and in some cases, is, stronger than the mullahs. The mullahs use the media but in actual fact the media could use the mullahs. Local media could be more courageous, they could back the mullahs into a corner and force them to discuss problems in Islam, force them to admit that there is a problem. The Iraqi media shouldn't shy away from the topic of an Islamic reformation.
If they don't do this, they all – and their audiences – will continue to be the victims of extremists.
Sadly, the media in the Middle East publishes a lot of information which encourages violence, just for the sake of getting more likes on Facebook or getting more comments. Many local journalists are naively promoting the Islamic State group's brutality. They don’t realise they are poisoning their own society. Local media should check what kind of information they are feeding their audiences, ensuring their information does not promote violations.
For example, recently one Iraqi Kurdish media outlet published an article online saying that after the attack in Paris, Spain was shaken by four bombs. I was shocked - but when I read the story I saw they were actually talking about a football game between Barcelona and Real Madrid, where Barcelona won four to nil. This is the kind of insensitivity I am talking about.
The media should also focus more on victims of extremist groups rather than the extremist groups themselves. The victims are not just numbers, they are human and beloved, and their stories should be told.
And the local media should also focus far more on those mullahs who preach peace and coexistence. They should ignore those who preach violence and hatred.
I want to say this again: The Iraq media is stronger than the mullahs. If local media put the idea of an Islamic reformation on their agendas, this is a win-win. Local audiences want to talk about this, whether they agree or disagree. And such a conversation will benefit a society that has already suffered a lot from religious extremism and sectarian bias.
We should forget about wishing that Iraq's politicians and religious leaders would solve problems caused by extremism. We should put our faith in the Iraqi media, we should discuss these issues. We must discuss these issues. It is our last hope.