Half-truths and lies: A biased Urdu press can harm India's secular image

Akhbar-e-Mashriq is widely regarded as a balanced and sober Urdu daily published from Kolkata but recently, it ran an uncharacteristically sensational front page with the banner headline, Islami Shiddat Pasand Hamare Haqeequee Mohafiz ("Islamic extremists our real protectors"). It was inspired by a quote from one of the Indian nurses who had returned from Iraq the previous day after being held captive by the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis).

The nurse had reportedly praised Isis fighters describing them as "good people" who had behaved decently with them and were concerned about their safety. That brief comment was enough for Mashriq to translate it into a tub-thumping endorsement of what is arguably one of the most vicious jihadi groups whose leader Abu Bakr Baghdadi, now a self-proclaimed "caliph", is listed as a "global terrorist" with a $10 million prize for information leading to his capture.

Front page of Akhbar-e-Mashriq. Image courtesy Hasan Suroor

Front page of Akhbar-e-Mashriq. Image courtesy Hasan Suroor

While playing up the nurse’s remark, the paper glossed over the version of two other workers who had accused Isis of "brutality" and said that its men behaved like "barbarians". It also played down reports of Isis attacks on Shias and historic Shia sites.

Regrettably, Mashriq is not the only Urdu newspaper whose coverage of the gory events in West Asia has been so shamelessly biased. Worryingly, much of the Urdu language media in India sounds like an Isis mouthpiece. Anyone reliant solely on the Urdu press for information and opinion (and a large section of Muslims reads only Urdu newspapers) would think that Isis is a benevolent and devout religious organisation dedicated to upholding Islamic law and values rather than a blood-thirsty terror group.

As much as the Urdu media is guilty of unethical professional conduct in peddling a one-sided picture of a very complex situation it reveals a disturbingly sectarian worldview that critics are likely to seize on to question the secular claims of Indian Muslims.

Besides, it has dangerous implications for Shia-Sunni relations in India. Despite their historical differences India's Shias and Sunnis—unlike their counterparts in Pakistan and most Muslim countries—have a proud record of living in harmony. And any action that may have the effect of bringing this shameful conflict home should be a matter of concern for all right- thinking Muslims. Already Muslim internet chat rooms are buzzing with Shia versus Sunni arguments partly whipped up by this skewed coverage, and there is a danger of it spilling over into the wider public discourse if we are not careful.

An analysis of the Urdu press by NewAgeIslam, a progressive Delhi-based news website is revealing. The website's editor Sultan Shahin has shown great courage over the years in challenging Muslim orthodoxy and channelling the debate on Islamic issues into a progressive direction. He believes that by and large the Urdu press is secular but it gets "confused" and tends to veer to the Right when it comes to reporting religious issues. And that’s what is happening now.

In a sharp critique, Shahin has pointed out how the Urdu media has manipulated the slant through what he calls "acts of omission and commission"—suppressing or playing down negative stories while playing up pro-Isis statements. For example, reports that Isis had asked the residents of Mosul to offer their daughters in "Jihad al Nikah" (a practice whereby women were once offered as comfort slaves to jihadis) were completely ignored by the Urdu press.

"It also mostly ignored two workers returned from Iraq on July 3, Safdar Kunhi and Mohammad Abbas, who narrated their harried experience of escape from Najaf. Mohammad Abbas had called Isis militants 'barbarians' and added that he had never heard of or seen anything like this before. He had said: 'The violence is unparalleled, the brutality unbearable.' But when one of Keralite nurses released from captivity praised the good behaviour of ISIS militants towards them, a section of Urdu media went overboard, blowing the news out of all proportions," Shahin wrote.

Others who read the Urdu press regularly or monitor it say that it is stuck in a time-warp. Some believe that it is a result of their attempt to "pander" to a conservative readership.

"They probably have a very low estimation of their readers. To pander to the lowest common denominator, they often play up the 'Islamic' sounding causes while privately shaking their heads," says one critic.

Another factor, according to those familiar with the working of the Urdu press, is that most of their staff have a background of madrasas and still suffer from the so-called "madrassa mindset". This means belonging or owing loyalty to either Deobandi or Bareillvi sect which, in turn, influences the editorial policy of the paper they work for.

In Muslim communities worldwide, the Iraq conflict is playing out along sectional lines and that's reflected in media reportage depending on who (Shias or Sunnis) controls the press in a particular region.

To be fair there are lots of individual secular voices but, as always in such situations, the dominant narrative has been hijacked by sectarian interests. Yet when the Western media portrays it as a sectarian conflict Muslims are quick to object. In London, a group of British Iraqis protested outside BBC headquarters accusing the broadcaster of "misleading" the world by presenting the events in Iraq and Syria as a Shia-Sunni conflict.

The protestors, representing both Shias and Sunnis declared they were united in the fight against terror.

"This is not a sectarian war. This is a Muslim versus extremist war," they insisted.

But that was before the Sunni-backed Isis went on a rampage against the Shias in retaliation against the Iraqi government's anti-Sunni policies.

Meanwhile, as usual, liberal Muslim voices are missing at a time when they are needed most. And quite rightly people are asking: why is there no collective Muslim outrage against what Muslims are doing to each other in the name of Islam? Where are the moderate Muslim voices?

The Times, London, ran an op-ed piece headed: Moderate Muslims—It's time to be outraged. Its author David Aaronovitch, a respected columnist and by no means an Islamophobe, started off by rejecting the theory that Islam doesn't permit dissent or debate -- and acknowledging individual Muslim protests. But he echoed the wider concern that as a community (ummah), Muslims seldom stood up against even the worst criminal acts committed in the name of Islam beyond pro-forma condemnation.

Why is it that Muslims always see themselves only as victims? Why is there such a palpable "lack of a sense of outrage about what some other Muslims are doing?" Why is there no Muslim protest against the persecution of religious minorities (including Muslim sects) in Islamic countries? Or the adoption of the "most medieval" form of Sharia by Sultan of Brunei?
These are all legitimate questions that Muslims must answer if they don’t want to be seen to be giving legitimacy to what is being done in their name. In their reluctance to speak out, Muslims are a bit like Jews. Quick to close ranks and accuse critics of Islamophobia just as Jews almost instinctively respond to any criticism of Israel with cries of anti-semitism. While there is an internal debate, in public the community clams up—like a family not wanting to wash its dirty linen in public.

For far too long, Muslims have been in denial and blamed Islamist extremism on a few bad eggs. But these bad eggs are multiplying at a horrific rate and now pose a threat to the whole basket. What we are witnessing is a battle for the soul of Islam and it is the moral responsibility of every moderate Muslim to stand up and be counted if they don’t want to lose this battle to the likes of Baghdadi.

As for the Urdu press, for starters it should start telling the truth, if for no higher purpose than that this is the least it owes to its readers.


Published Date: Jul 19, 2014 02:45 pm | Updated Date: Jul 19, 2014 02:51 pm

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