Faith and Violence – the journalist’s role

On New Year’s Day this year the Western Mail published an article by the Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Wales, Saleem Kidwai. He claimed that a precious achievement in Welsh cultural life is in jeopardy and that a generation have felt ‘rejected by their fellow Welshmen’.

 Welsh-Muslim youth who thought themselves like any other Welsh person got a rude awakening post-9/11 — a sort of cultural shock that they were not like any other Welsh person. Overnight, they were the other, the enemy…

As Mr Kidwai set out the traumatic ramifications of this tragic dissociation I felt the force of his appeal that, “As a society…  We have to reject any attempts to marginalize Muslims as second-class citizens” but I was perplexed as to how to go about that.

Until I perceived a potential response from the world of journalism itself – from journalism in Wales.

silent rally
Silent rally in Cardiff in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings

How is a society to mobilise itself against its own potential prejudices? No matter how willing individual citizens might be to endorse Mr Kidwai’s sentiments what, practically, is someone then to do? In some areas of Wales citizens have few Muslim neighbours so how do they demonstrate good will to a group of people they don’t even know? Is it for politicians to take a lead? No doubt many already do but having an effect on the very atmosphere in which we live – our attitudes and assumptions – is enormously challenging. I know that because I work in the media and the media deal with these very intangibles. I asked myself what I could do but I didn’t come up with an answer.

And then Charlie Hebdo happened. This obscene union of faith and fanaticism impacting on the world of journalism itself did, briefly, deepen my sense of helplessness but then I saw a tiny glimmer of possibility. In journalism itself there is something to be done.

For five years, till 2014, I taught as a professional tutor at Cardiff University School of Journalism. One day last year a colleague expressed her concern that no tuition was offered at postgraduate level to would-be journalists about how to report well on faith. Most of the British students, she claimed, have no faith background yet they are sent off to cover complex issues in the world of faith with no particular preparation offered specific to that world. They would never, she said, be dispatched to do complicated tasks on other specialisms such as finance or international affairs without some preparation but nothing is offered about reporting on faith. Yet faith is near the top of the news agenda constantly. She believed that students felt out of their depth and they didn’t perform well.

These remarks came back to me.  It is journalism, I remembered, which gives most of us what we know about those who are not like ourselves. Journalism introduces us to ‘the other’. Reports on the issues of the day do much to affect the atmosphere in which we live. Our notions of what is ‘normal’ or ‘reasonable’ and, crucially, our assessments of what is politically achievable are heavily influenced by the daily newsflow, not to mention the other types of reportage on various media.

So, was there some improvement that could at least be made in my own world? And could something be done precisely in Wales, a small country which can sometimes, precisely for that reason, do big things? If we can improve journalists’ reporting on faith could we improve our ability as a society to understand each other and tackle the trauma in our midst?

Just at this time the Open University published a report, Religion, Martyrdom and Global Uncertainties on the relationship between religion and conflict. One of their recommendations is for improvements to the ‘religious literacy’ of journalists.

I decided to explore the concept of ‘religious literacy’ in the training of journalists in Wales, at the levels of both university teaching and training for working journalists.

I wrote to the journalism departments of all the Welsh universities asking for an example of good practice in preparing students to report well on faith – an example that could be shared. They kindly replied (this was merely an enquiry from an individual, after all).

No Welsh university offers any specific input on reporting on faith. They (as one would expect) teach on ethics, balance, fairness, international affairs… but I didn’t discover anyone who systematically approaches the world of faith. Much interest was expressed and appreciation that the issue had been raised. I know experience the pressures of time on courses and the challenge of accessing expertise.

Is there an appetite for improvement in this area?

I have met with the training officer of the NUJ in Wales who has expressed serious interest.  She will discuss with their committee whether working journalists would value some input on this topic.

Following discussion, the Diploma in Broadcast Journalism at the School of Journalism, Cardiff University will programme in a workshop next year about reporting on faith. I would very much like to explore the level of interest in academia in teaching on this topic.

I met Mr Kidwai and he has offered the support of the Muslim Council of Wales to an initiative to improve reporting on faith.

I have had an initial conversation with Dr Robert Pope, joint head of the School of Theology, Religious Studies and Islamic Studies at Trinity St David’s about potential input .

Britain has had, in Northern Ireland, the supreme example of what can happen when a section of society is regarded as a ‘suspect community’ whose loyalty to the state is questioned and whose suitability, therefore, to be entrusted with any civic responsibility is in doubt; not to mention access to equal opportunity in housing, jobs and other aspects of life which British citizens are supposed to have as of right. It is traumatic to be young and under suspicion.

Before violence took a hold of Northern Ireland many, many opportunities were lost to address issues of inequality. Many interventions were not made, by politicians and community leaders, which could have dealt with injustices. This was partly because the media did not fully do their part. They were, in fact, either actively prevented from carrying out their role or they colluded with the establishment. But once the media did get to grips with the realities it became impossible not to acknowledge the need for change.

We shouldn’t wait for a crisis. Mr Kidwai’s article is a call to attend now to the pain of some of our citizens.

To report well on faith one does not need to have a religious faith oneself but one does need to understand the claims that faith makes on adherents; the structures of religious institutions; the interplay of orthodoxy and heterodoxy and how to establish authoritative sources. In addition, one should be conscious of one’s own ‘faith’, one’s personal orthodoxy. No one is without faith in something so alongside religious literacy perhaps we need a kind of literacy of ideology.

Mr Kidwai states, “Fortunately, an overwhelming majority of Muslim youth, thanks to their spiritual resiliency, continue to maintain a strong commitment to a secure, just and inclusive Wales.”

I would like us to help trainee journalists and working professionals to do their part to contribute well to mutual understanding in Wales. We need to build up expertise and resources. I welcome any suggestions.