Media Influence and How Secular Society Perceives Religion – Lola Rose
To what extent does the media influence the manner in which secular society perceives religion?
It could be argued that religious extremism is currently the biggest factor affecting the manner in which religion is viewed by secular society at large and by believers themselves and that the media has a huge influence on this. In fact, throughout history religious extremism has been the main cause for disagreements both within and between religious groups. Current interest, for obvious reasons (largely driven by the media), tends to focus on terrorism, to the extent that for most people ‘religious extremism’, especially Muslim ‘religious extremism’, equates with ‘terrorism’: for them the terms are interchangeable. In my opinion, this is an error, as religious extremism can take many forms (from acts of terror to hate speech) and can present itself within many religions (from Christianity to Islam and even Hinduism, as well as cults) which are usually disregarded or hidden from by the media. In addition, I believe, the issue is complicated by the intervention of the media, which may be driven by quite unrelated factors (such as political bias or commercial concerns). There are numerous responses to religious extremism. Among the most prominent are claims that extremism has a very negative impact upon non-religious society’s perceptions of believers. Others would agree with this but say that this negative perception is a consequence of media exaggeration. Finally, there are those who would argue that the dangers of religious extremism are underplayed and are not being taken seriously enough. In the light of this, this essay will discuss the debates surrounding various forms of religious extremism such as Hinduism, Christianity, Islam and religious cults and consider how the media depicts them.
Hinduism has a reputation for non-violence, largely as a consequence of Ghandi advocating non-violence in the struggle for Indian independence. In fact, for most westerners ‘Hinduism’, ‘non-violence’ and ‘Ghandi’ are virtually synonymous as a result of media representations. However, in India, violent Hindu extremism is a pressing issue. In recent decades, Hindu extremists in the sub-continent have attacked Christian communities on a daily basis, although this only made news in the West in 1999 when an Australian missionary and his family were burned alive. Even Hindu violence against Muslims of the scale of that experienced in Gujarat in 2002, when as many as two thousand Muslims were massacred, barely made headlines in the West due to media disinterest. It seems to me that ‘brown on brown’ violence in the former British Empire is as unlikely to be reported as is ‘black on black’ violence notoriously is in the United States. In my opinion, this is not justifiable, as it does not give a fair picture and misinforms the public. It has minimal impact upon the dominant White community and is therefore deemed to be of minimal interest. Some of the violence perpetrated by Hindu extremists is said to be justified by reference to sacred texts such as the Vedas, but modern scholarship has demonstrated that such texts have been much adulterated over time. However, its roots seem to lie mostly in historical resentments of Hindu nationalists against so-called ‘foreign religions’. So, media ‘Hollywoodization’ of ‘Ghandi’ has distracted Western audiences and secular society as a whole from the true brutality and complexity that characterizes Christian–Hindu and Hindu–Muslim relations in India. I believe that the absence of meaningful scrutiny of this issue by the media could be dangerous: away from the cameras, Hindu extremists may resort to more extreme acts.
One of the most virulent forms of religious extremism is Christian fundamentalism. This term refers to Christians who interpret the bible literally. In its most relatively harmless form, an example of this would be following the Old Testament word for word and believing the account in Genesis of the world’s creation in six days. However, the same set of beliefs can lead to forms of violence against, for example, homosexuals as a result of Christian’s misinterpreting the disapproval of homosexuality that is sometimes expressed in the Biblical texts condoning violent acts against the gay community in order to seek approval from God. Such attacks became so common after the growth of fundamentalist Christianity in the 1970s that this inspired the coining of a new expression, ‘queer-bashing’. Despite this, the media tends to view most literal Christians as harmless cranks. In my opinion, this is because although media in Britain and in Europe generally regards itself as impartial, it is in fact the product of its background in Christian society meaning it often ignores Christian extremist groups in order not insult its readers who may have grown up in a Christian lifestyle. Consequently the media seems to foreground examples of Muslim extremism and radical teaching, but largely plays down comparable examples of Christian extremism, which tend to be portrayed as the acts of lone individuals who have nothing to do with a Christian heritage. If anything such individuals are portrayed as reflecting the beliefs of extremist political organisations, which are assumed to have little or nothing to do with the broader Christian society from which they have stemmed. This means that secular society in Christian countries is poorly informed of the roots of violence among its own members, as a result of the media leading them to associate extremism with outsiders, especially (nowadays), Muslims. It is my belief that this is one of the root causes of racism and discriminatory practices within British and European society because the media distorts views of race relations by focusing only on specific religious groups.
A further form of religious extremism is that associated with the Muslim faith. As with Christian fundamentalism, the Muslim brand stems from an allegedly literal interpretation of the faith’s fundamental text, in this case the Quran. Although many Muslims in the modern world regard the Quran as an unalterable guide on how to live correctly (with regard, for example, to matters such as diet and dress), the faith’s extremists use the same guidelines to justify terror and violence against so-called ‘infidels’. For example, the Quran Verse 48:29 states that “Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, and those who are with him are severe against disbelievers, and merciful among themselves.” But in this verse the word “disbelievers” is actually a specific reference to persecutors of Muslims and does not instruct Muslims to inflict violence upon non-believers indiscriminately. That is to say, this verse is used without context to justify terror. It can be argued that this shows that many of the Quran’s sacred texts do not try to inflict violence in any shape or form and that the violence that is misread in these texts is simply the readers’ incorrect interpretation and belief. As a result of such misinterpretations many terrorist attacks upon non-believers have been committed throughout the years causing the media to portray Islam in general as violent and dangerous – a view that is accepted and even amplified in secular society causing Muslims to be viewed, in general, as ‘the enemy’. This in turn is used by Islamists to justify their actions to broader Muslim society, thereby creating ever widening circles of terror. Thus, the Quran, a work dedicated to the dissemination of peace and love has become, through this feedback loop, one regarded as the source of terror. This can be viewed as a blatant distortion of a sacred text – not least because most people who condemn the Quran as a sort of terrorist textbook have never read it or at least not understood its teachings so do not act according to the Quran.
Finally, it is interesting that the mass media often seems to take a delight in reporting and commenting upon violence and atrocities committed by religious cults. Two prominent examples are the so-called “Jonestown massacre” of 1978 and the events at Waco, Texas in 1993. In the first of these events almost 1,000 American followers of the cult leader, Reverend Jim Jones (a third of them children), were induced to or forced to commit suicide in northern Guyana. This was an extraordinary event. In fact, it was the greatest loss of American lives in one event prior to 9/11. However, I believe that the media’s responses to the massacre and seemingly endless subsequent investigations, popular literary treatments, films and even the naming of a successful band (The Brian Jonestown Massacre) surely goes beyond the level of coverage and attention that the event deserved. It is disproportionate. Of course, there may be other issues at play regarding America’s vision of itself, but it seems to me to be unjustifiable and unhealthy for the media to dwell at such length on this one extraordinary event when, as we have seen, massacres of one degree or another are a day-to-day fact of life for the victims of Hindu, Islam and Christian extremism around the world. Much the same could be said about media coverage of the events at Waco, where David Koresh had fostered a personal cult (“Koreshians”) among followers of the Branch Davidian Christian group. This time live-action TV coverage of the siege of the Koreshian compound by the US authorities was relayed around the world and, again, the Waco siege (in which 76 members of the cult died) was subsequently much dramatized. An indication of how desperate the media was to get in on the action was that the film (In the Line of Duty) was actually made during the siege! In this case, the Christian origins of the Koresh cult were generally ignored. Perhaps this was because it allowed the media to avoid big questions about the origins of Christian cults and instead focus on the military aspect. I believe that as long as such disproportionate and wrongly focused media coverage of such events, no matter how dramatic they may be, continues, our understanding of religious extremism will be distorted as the bigger picture is kept hidden from the public eye.
So, to conclude, it is clear that in each of the examples discussed above the media plays a significant role in either filtering or exaggerating the causes of religious extremism and is vital in determining secular society’s interpretations of violence and terror. In some cases it can make a mountain out of a molehill; in others, it pretends that the mountain does not exist. Of course, nobody would deny that the media is necessary in informing and educating society at large but the question of diminishing trust in the mass media, partly as a consequence of its own actions and partly as a consequence of the ever growing number of sources of news (many of them entirely unreliable), has complicated matters in the contemporary world. The reporting of religious extremism has suffered perhaps more than other fields of interest because of its emotive nature and its deeply ingrained historical background of misinterpretation and mistrust. It is my belief that this is a very important issue that is too often neglected as a consequence of the media’s lack of care or interest in what they are reporting. Perspectives are also distorted by the perceived immediacy of an issue. Christian extremism and intolerance has been largely ignored in contemporary British society, where Christianity, however passive, remains dominant, but Muslim aggression against Christians is highlighted even when it takes place on the other side of the Atlantic, while Hindu attacks upon Muslims in Gujarat are ignored. In contrast the treatment of events surrounding Christian cults is characterized by a mixture of exaggeration and the downplaying of the Christian context. With all due respects to Marshall McLuhan, who claimed that “the medium is the message”, therefore, on the issue of religious extremism, the media is definitely off message.
Essay by Lola Rose, July, 2019
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