There are many reasons I have become very skeptical of the media over the years. Though I do not subscribe to the conspiracy theory paradigms, it is obvious that the mainstream media often combines fidelity to precise narratives with a lack of detailed knowledge about the topics they are covering. In other words, they’re stenographers with an agenda. When you don’t know the topic they are expositing upon they can seem quite persuasive. But when you do know the topic they are addressing the emperor can be revealed to be naked. Naturally this warrants concern in most people who observe this, as if they are catching errors in the matrix.*
One area that this problem crops often for me is in regards to media coverage of Islam and and the Middle East. Most reporters don’t seem to really know much about their beat in a deep sense, so they are superficially taking in facts and putting them through coarse interpretative filters.
To name names, David Kirkpatrick covers the Middle East for The New York Times. I read his stuff, and he is not a bad journalist, but he clearly has no deep familiarity with the history of the Middle East or the details of Islam. His work is like a pop-tart; sweet, temporarily filling, but long on a sugar-rush and short on filling substance. For example, he can talk about a contrast between peaceful Sufis and Islamist militants Libya, without knowing that Sufi orders were often militant organizations, and that Libyan independence after World War II was spearheaded by a militant Sufi order. (I know this, so I’m passing this on to you!)
But readers of The New York Times “know” that Sufis are peaceful. So for prose contrast it makes sense that Kirkpatrick would bring that up. Never mind that this is so reductive to be useless in terms of getting people a better picture of reality.
In the interests of adding context, let me add something to the story about FGM in Michigan which is prominent in the news today. A Dr. Jumana Nagarwala is accused of practicing FGM on young girls. Though it is not emphasized in the American media (because it wouldn’t mean much), it seems she is from the Dawoodi Bohra of Ismailis. In India the Bohra community is well known, as it is a very distinct group from the majority of Muslims, who are Sunni, and even most Shia. Its origins seem to be among the mercantile castes of the Gujarat coast, who were converted to a particular Ismaili sect of Shia Islam.
I have some “book learning” about this sect under my belt because I read Mullahs on the Mainframe: Islam and Modernity among the Daudi Bohras about 15 years ago on the recommendation of my friend Aziz Poonawalla, who is a member of this community. Mullahs on the Mainframe was topical in the post-9/11 era because it seemed to depict a community which was both modern and religiously orthodox and observant, with fewer tensions being a minority in the West than other groups of Muslims. I don’t want to rehash that line of argument too much; descriptively it is correct that Daudi Bohras are a well behaved minority who attain success, combined with adherence to traditional beliefs and practices (Daudi Bohras, like many conservative Islamists, tend to “look” obviously Muslim because of matters of grooming and dress).
But another aspect of the Daudi Bohra community is that it is one of the few in South Asia that practices FGM. I don’t know or care about the prevalence, extent, or origin of the practice among the Bohra. When I saw the doctor’s name, which seemed South Asian, I immediately suspected she was from the community (the type of headscarf seemed familiar too).
The point of this post is not to demonize the Daudi Bohra community; the vast majority of the world’s Muslims who engage in FGM are not Daudi Bohra. The Shafi school of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence is the big offender in terms of numbers. Indonesian Sunnis are Shafi, so that nation often praised for its tolerant version of Islam has a very high proportion of FGM. Rather, it is to point out that the neat narrative frameworks we prefer are often not descriptively correct nor predictively useful. Since 9/11 rather than a more complex and nuanced view of Islam it seems that opinion leaders have been converging upon the idea that the religion is either with the angels or the devils, rather than a man-made thing which occupies the area in the middle.
The reliance on theories and heuristics which appeal to our sensibilities as right and true misleads in many ways. The arc of history bends toward justice, but the path is winding. The Protestant Reformation was rooted in the more literate and well off classes, and aimed to rid corruption from the Christian church. In the process it unleashed horrible intolerance, cultural genocide, and conflicts which resulted in tens of millions of deaths. Not taking a view on the Reformation as a whole, it is clear that its consequences are not so simply integrated into the Whig version of history when taken in full.
Ultimately we need to rush less quickly toward our preferred conclusions, which align neatly with our prior models. Rather, we need to explore the sideways and what we think are certainly dead-ends, because sometimes those dead-ends will open up startling new landscapes (by the way, I think the “rationalist” community is much better at this than the general thinking public, though that’s not saying much).
* When I was in grad school an acquaintance mentioned this in relation to Jonah Lehrer before his exposure. Lehrer was persuasive whenever he was talking about a topic he wasn’t familiar with, but was clearly out of his depth whenever it approached something he was familiar with.