ANALYSIS: Nieman Reports Criticize Media Reporting On The Muslim Brotherhood


The summer issue of the Nieman reports is entitled “Islam: Reporting in Context and With Complexity ” and two of the articles are critical of media reporting on the Muslim Brotherhood. Fawaz Gerges of Sarah Lawrence College, in an article entitled “Understanding the Many Faces of Islamism and Jihadism” complains that “mainstream Islamists” such as the Muslim Brotherhood are lumped together by the media with jihadists such as Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaida, a mistake which does not recognize the “complexity and diversity” of the Islamist movement:

Disentangling myth from reality about the political Islamic movement-whose goal is to establish governments based on shari’ah (Qur’anic law)-is a challenge fraught with difficulties. For journalists, this challenge involves a willingness to recognize the complexity and diversity within this movement, which encompasses a broad spectrum of mainstream and militant forces, as they try to place their coverage of news and events (often involving violence and threats of violence) within a broader, more meaningful and accurate context.

Ignoring their support for jihad against Israel, Gerges goes on to assert that the Brotherhood has foresworn earlier “flirtations” with violence to become “unwitting harbingers of democratic transformation”:

They have formed alliances with their former sworn political opponents, including secularists and Marxists, in calling upon governments to respect human rights and the rule of law. Mainstream or traditional Islamists are not born-again democrats and never will be. They are deeply patriarchal, seeing themselves as the guardians of faith, tradition and authenticity. In Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, Islamists vehemently oppose efforts to give women the right to vote or to drive cars. In Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Tunisia, Algeria, Pakistan and other Muslim countries, they denounce any legislation that would enable women to divorce abusive husbands, travel without male permission, or achieve full representation in government. Nevertheless, many Islamists are gradually becoming initiated into the culture of political realism and the art of the possible. They are learning to make compromises with secular groups and rethink some of their absolutist positions. Events have forced them to come to grips with the complexity and diversity of Muslim societies, though they still lack a well-delineated vision to solve their countries’ socioeconomic challenges. More and more, they recognize the primacy of politics over religion and the difficulty, even futility, of establishing Islamic states

Finally, Gerges posits that “mainstream Islamists might serve as a counterweight to ultramilitants like al-Qaeda.” citing the denunciations of 911 by figures such as global Muslim Brotherhood leader Youssef Qaradawi.

In an article entitled “When the News Media Focus on Islam’s Internal Struggles”, journalist Geneive Abdo complains about journalists attempts to divide the Muslim world into what she calls “good Muslims and bad Muslims” and rejects what would appear to be a reasonable standard for moderation:

This ‘good’ Muslim ‘bad’ Muslim characterization is particularly evident with stories about Muslims living either in the United States or in Europe. In reporting the internal divides among Muslims, the “good” Muslim is often described as ‘moderate.’ These are Muslims who take pride in their national identity as American, British or French, who at the very least are willing to compromise Islamic ideals in order to fully integrate into a Western society and, at the most, publicly criticize other Muslims and Islamic doctrine.

She then asserts that what she calls the “secular Muslim vision” is based on a Western perspective “offensive” to Muslims:

This secular Muslim vision is highlighted because it reflects a Western outlook that Islam needs to transform and modernize. But for the vast majority of Muslims, such coverage is offensive not only because a small fringe is given massive exposure, but also because it is the media, not Muslims, who have the power to decide who speaks for Islam. Giving attention to the minority of “secularists” overshadows the views of the majority.

After also praising the “moderate” views of Youssef Qaradawi, Abo continues by citing efforts by Muslims in the U.S to “respond to this distorted media vision by gaining greater access to broadcast and print.” The examples she cites are all drawn from the Muslim Brotherhood network in the U.S including Radio Islam in Chicago and a program on NPR’s left-wing radio broadcast Pacfic radio hosted by the Council on American Islamic Relations.. Abo concludes by claiming that even if American reporters become more educated in Islam, they will never be able to properly understand it:

Even if American reporters immersed themselves in courses on Islamic studies, the baggage they-and their editors-carry of viewing this religion and ideology through a Western prism, rather than on its terms, is likely to remain. What is required is a new intellectual enlightenment about an ideology and faith that is vastly different from anything Americans have encountered.

If there is a common theme running through these articles, it is that they assert media coverage on the Muslim Brotherhood is based on a misunderstanding that only these intellectuals are able to correct. Gerges seems to feel that more “study” would make such understanding possible while Abo seems to believe that proper understanding lies forever beyond journalists and that only persons with her background can achieve the necessary “enlightenment”, presumably resulting in a viewpoint in accordance with own.

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