Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Viewing the Hajj from the West

I began this week by considering the nature of a Huntington-like "clash" between Western and Islamic civilizations and the ways in which this clash surfaces in the biases that arise when these two civilizations report the news. One of my conclusions was that it is particularly important for those of us on the Western side to monitor Al Jazeera English for the perspective it provides from the Islamic side. An example of the value of this perspective comes the reporting of the annual Hajj in Mecca. The Western press has a track record of focusing on the large crowds, the dangers of the lack of adequate (by Western standards) crowd control, and sometimes the symbolic acts of violence, such as the stoning of the Devil.

This year, however, Al Jazeera English found a more substantive source of news in their reporting on the Hajj:

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, joined millions of Muslims on Mount Arafat, east of Mecca, to mark the spiritual high point of the Hajj.

He is the first Iranian leader to take part in the annual Muslim pilgrimage.

Ahmadinejad is attending the Hajj at the invitation of King Abdullah, the Saudi king.

Now, in fairness to Western journalism, I need to state that I was first aware of Ahmadinejad's participation in the Hajj when I watched yesterday's 3 PM (live) broadcast of BBC News on KQED World; but, in equal fairness, I need to observe that I have yet to find a text version of this BBC story on their Web site (having just done a search before writing this sentence). More important is that the BBC found this story newsworthy for the same reason that Al Jazeera English provided in their account:

Relations have been rocky between Shia majority Iran and Sunni majority Saudi Arabia, which also has a substantial Shia community in its oil-rich eastern province.

Relations reached an all-time low in July 1987 when 402 people were killed in clashes between Iranians and Saudi security forces during the Hajj.

However, Ahmadinejad's appearance is seen as a sign of warming relations between the two countries.

Now perhaps it would be a bit extreme on my part to suggest that the West is more inclined to report acts of conflict and violence within the Islamic civilization than they are to report the ways in which Islamic precepts and ceremonies may lead to peaceful resolutions of those conflicts. This may just be the capitalist bias and war sells better than peace, but my own view is that the latter principle is the tip of the former principle's iceberg.

The other thing that struck me about the BBC account was the way in which they used images to show all the Hajj pilgrims wearing white robes that were practically identical. The BBC reported explained that this is because Islam views all pilgrims as equal, regardless of wealth, power, or gender (yes, in this setting, women have the same status as men). For me this was a profound reminder that the very concept of civilization clash is Western in origin and is thus a bias that needs to be recognized as such. Karen Armstrong has done much to try to bring that bias to our attention; but, as is almost always the case, the right image can speak louder than even the most eloquent prose. I just wish that more of the Western press shared the value of this particular image with the BBC.

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