The need to understand the intersections of religion and civil freedom has never been greater. Hard-won human rights victories of the past century, for women, gays and free thinkers, are still opposed by zealots across the world, while people of faith are under persecution in many lands.
These are complex issues which the news industry has a duty to explain. Instead, however, we have a media rife with contradiction, faux morality and double standards.
Take the decision by the BBC’s religious affairs flagship, Songs of Praise, to film a service from a makeshift Ethiopian Orthodox church, fashioned from canvas and corrugated iron, in the “Jungle” refugee camp at Calais.
To the Daily Express, which devoted its entire front page to the news and a picture of the presenter Sally Magnusson outside the little church in “the lawless migrant ghetto”, this was an outrageous attempt to bring religion into the political arena. “This is how the BBC is spending your money,” it stormed, joining other right-wing tabloids in again questioning the broadcaster’s public funding.
Songs of Praise recently underwent a makeover to make it more relevant to a contemporary audience. The programme makers showed editorial flair in going beyond Middle England to demonstrate Christian worship in an unusual setting, with a congregation facing the most straightened circumstances. Christian persecution is common in parts of North and East Africa, as is war and despotism. And the sons of Israel who left Egypt in the Book of Exodus were refugees, after all, not to mention Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus, as they fled King Herod.
Ironically, the Express famously carries the image of a Crusader on its masthead – the Christian soldiers who, during their Holy War of 1204, headed out via what is now Turkey and savagely sacked the then Christian Byzantine city of Constantinople (now Istanbul) en route.
As young British jihadis book their circuitous paths to Turkey and on to holy battle in the so-called Islamic State, there is a hunger to understand their motivation. But giving a platform to those who raise the flag for Isis, with all its chilling implications for women, gay people and dissenting voices, is for the liberal press a path strewn with unexploded roadside bombs. The Guardian has got itself in a real mess over this.
Last month it commissioned Peter Oborne – a brave right-of-centre journalist who recently resigned over alleged commercial influences on the editorial output of his old paper, the Daily Telegraph – to conduct an interview with Dr Abdul Wahid, the chairman of the executive committee of the British wing of Hizb ut-Tahrir, which campaigns for the establishment of a caliphate and the introduction of sharia law.
The interview was extraordinary, not least because Oborne revealed that his subject, a safari suited GP who was educated at the private Merchant Taylors’ school, was an old acquaintance and dining partner. It offered insight into the thinking of one of the leading minds in a notorious group that was singled out for criticism by David Cameron in the wake of the atrocities in Tunisia.
But some readers were shocked by the gentle tone of the piece, as Oborne praised Dr Wahid for his “well-organised mind” and being “well-read”, while allowing him to try to justify the worst of Hizb ut-Tahrir’s anti-Semitic bile. The article concluded that in a democracy, Dr Wahid “surely has the right” to express his views. Hizb ut-Tahrir was so pleased with the Guardian piece that it featured it on its website.
In a response, on the leftist political blog Left Foot Forward under the headline “Why is the Guardian giving a platform to Hizb ur-Tahrir”, Dave Rich of the Community Security Trust, which monitors anti-Semitic attacks, said the article epitomised the “double standards” and “moral blindness” of apologists for Islamism. He pointed out that a Hizb ur-Tahrir leaflet, which Dr Wahid refused to denounce, said of Jews: “Eradicate their entity and purify the earth of their filth.”
A few days later, the Guardian published another interview piece, altogether different in tone from Oborne’s, featuring as its subject another British Muslim, Maajid Nawaz. Unlike Dr Wahid, who has attracted Mr Cameron’s ire, Mr Nawaz has gained the ear of the Prime Minister as the founder of the Quilliam Foundation, set up to counter Islamic extremism.
The interview was a calculated attempt to discredit Mr Nawaz and was loaded with innuendo, questioning his motivation and credibility as a Muslim voice. It made snide references to him being “crisply turned out”, ordering “a skinny flat white” and meeting in “a buzzy private members’ club in Covent Garden”, even if the Hospital Club is a popular venue for all kinds of media interviews.
The piece sought to take Mr Nawaz down with a series of biting anonymous quotes, including one that said: “I don’t think Maajid believes anything.”
The subject complained to the paper, accusing it of a “hatchet job” and having misled him with a beguiling email approach which hid its real intention. Chris Elliott, the Guardian readers’ editor, looked into the matter and concluded that “the use of anonymous quotes is an insidious way to take a swipe at public figures, and the Guardian was wrong to have used three in this way”.
Mr Nawaz, a reformed Islamist extremist who grew up in Essex and fought against far-right thugs, said in the Daily Beast last week that he had been victim of a “character assassination” because he didn’t fit the Guardian’s idea of an angry Muslim. “Their First World bourgeois brains seem to malfunction because I refuse to spew theocratic hate.”
In a phone call, Mr Nawaz, who stood as a Liberal Democrat at the last election, told me that liberal Muslim voices faced attack not only from religious conservatives but from the media on the left and right. “They are set upon from all directions.”
Meanwhile another supposedly liberal media outlet, Huffington Post, has made a blundering attempt to take its services directly to the Middle East. Within days of going live, the new site HuffPost Arabi had hosted content criticising gay people and atheists, even denouncing selfies as a symptom of “the diseases and viruses of the Western world”.
Arianna Huffington promised that Arabi would reflect the values of the original HuffPost, but former colleagues of her partner in the venture, Wadah Khanfar, will not be surprised by the conservative views. Mr Khanfar, the former director-general of Al Jazeera Arabic, is regarded as a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and, in an article for the Guardian in 2012, said its Egyptian election victory would be celebrated “across the length and breadth of the Arab world”.
HuffPost, in response to criticism, issued a strange defensive statement claiming that 95 per cent of Egyptians opposed homosexuality and there was a place on its site for those who reflected that view.
I fear that, in between the narrow-mindedness of the right-wing tabloids and the liberal media’s willingness to host extremist views in the name of free speech, the news industry seems to be promoting anger and dissension rather than the greater understanding and tolerance we need.
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