Last week saw Macquarie University’s Centre for Middle East and North African Studies – of which I’m a board member – hold a two-day conference on “The Journalist and Islam: competing agendas, political correctness and the war on terror.” The range of speakers was diverse – and included former NSW Premier Bob Carr, Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott, Murdoch columnist Janet Albrechtsen, former ABC head Peter Manning and yours truly – discussing issues such as Israel/Palestine, Muslim identity, media bias and representation and the Murdoch line on the “war on terror”. The Australian’s opinion editor, Tom Switzer, has published his speech in today’s paper:
Another charge that has gained currency in recent times is that the media, in its general coverage of Muslim-related issues, has ignited “racism and religious bigotry”. In the case of the Cronulla riots, talkback radio host Alan Jones was singled out for allegedly stoking the violence that weekend. Yet the majority of his audience is older than 40 and the rioters at Cronulla were half that age. Besides, talkback hosts are merely raising and debating a subject that has been taboo for too long: that a significant group of Muslims is much more resistant to integration into Western society than other ethnic groups. It is surely far better to discuss openly uncomfortable community concerns than letting them fester.
In recent weeks, The Australian has also been condemned for publishing and debating extensively Hilali’s speech that compared immodestly dressed women to meat left out for cats, and blaming them for sexual assaults. The Australian’s decision to highlight the story has amounted to a “media lynching” of the Muslim cleric, according to online journalist Peter Botsman. Similar complaints have been raised by Carlton and the website crikey.com.au.
Yet this newspaper published and debated extensively the story – which gained an international audience – not because of any desire to “lynch” the cleric, but because his remarks go to the heart of one of the world’s most intractable problems: the clash between conservative Islam and Western modernity, specifically equality between the sexes. This is not just a problem in western Sydney’s Lakemba, the Mufti’s home territory. It is a problem across the world, from Bali to Madrid, from New York to Amsterdam, from London to Paris.
Held in the NSW Parliament (with the event critiqued by Muslim commentator Irfan Yusuf here), the timely conference attracted close to 100 participants from across the country. It was refreshing to hear a wide variety of views debated in a (generally) friendly and tolerant manner. I may have personally disagreed with many remarks made by the Murdoch players – and they didn’t exactly impress with their knowledge of Islam and Muslim issues, despite writing extensively about them – but a meeting of differing political shades is a welcome development.
My paper, “Taking on Palestine: a Jewish journalist’s perspective” (read it here), talked about the ways in which debate on Israel/Palestine has started to open up in the last years and the experience of writing My Israel Question:
As a journalist who writes extensively on the Israel/Palestine conflict – and recently released the best-selling book, My Israel Question – I have discovered that our mainstream media has long ago dictated the acceptable bounds of debate. Challenging Zionist ideology, Israeli government policy or military tactics and the nearly 40-year illegal occupation of Palestinian land is virtually verboten in polite company. And yet speaking out has never been more important.
As a human being first and a Jew second, I have faced my fair share of slanderous attacks for simply stating the obvious; Israel in its current form is a danger to both the Middle East and the world. It is equally painful to admit that far too few Jews are willing to speak out against these atrocities, either out of cowardice or complicity.
Former US President Jimmy Carter, currently touring the United States to promote his new book, Palestine: Peace not Apartheid, said this week that America must take a more “balanced view” of the conflict, yet acknowledged that the likelihood of such action was remote. Why? It would be “unimaginable” for a politician, he lamented, to blame Israel for the never-ending violence and still gain office. The power of the Zionist lobby and the unwillingness of the mainstream media to reveal the reality on the ground are partly to blame. Likewise, few journalists are willing to actually spend time away from seductive Tel Aviv nightclubs and see for themselves the effect of Israeli occupation policy down the road in Palestine.