Monday, January 08, 2007

Muslims, media and my conservative law lecturer

I studied law at Sydney's Macquarie University, then a hotbed of the Critical Legal Studies (CLS) movement. The majority of our tutors and lecturers expected us to take a 'critical' view of the law. But not all believed in the CLS approach to teaching and studying law.

My lecturer in commercial law was a staunch opponent of CLS. Unlike most of his colleagues, he was politically conservative. I asked him once what was his objection to the CLS approach. This was his response ...

How can one possibly be expected to criticise the law before on has even had a chance to properly understand it?

Which, I guess, is another way of saying: "If it ain't broke, don't try and fix it".

I wish some commentators on either side of the ideological divide took the same approach when discussing Islam and Muslim communities. These days, it seems anyone can become an expert critic on Islam just by using a few catch phrases.

Late last year, I attended a conference on The Journalist & Islam. A variety of academics and researchers presented papers. Most focused on the complexity of reporting on Islamic cultures and Muslim communities, both in Australia and overseas.

What fascinated me were the presentations of a columnist from The Australian newspaper who defended the reporting of Muslim issues in her newspaper. What surprised me was the simplistic approach taken to Muslim communities and to the various interpretations of Islam in Australia.

Dr Janet Albrechtsen, a columnist and ABC director, spoke of recent comments of Sheik Hilaly as evidencing another episode in an apparently long-running struggle between “conservative Islam” and “Western modernity”. She spoke of the Hilaly incident in the context of events in Europe and the Middle East, as if Sheik Hilaly’s misogynistic comments were indicative of criminal and terrorist actions of a small number of European and Middle Eastern Muslims.

Of course, writers and editors like Albrechtsen others have every right to write about Muslim-related issues. But when criticising Muslims without first trying to understand them, columnists should themselves expect to be subject to criticism.

At the same time, Muslim organizations have a responsibility to ensue journalists and editors are provided with accurate information about the real extent of diversity among Muslims in Australia.

© Irfan Yusuf 2006

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