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Spotlight on Seminars: U.S. and Asian Muslim Journalists Explore Each Other’s Worlds


 

Top: U.S. journalists meet with a leading Muslim cleric in Kolkata, India. Above: Asian Muslim journalists visit a Jewish synagogue near Washington, D.C. Below: National Public Radio producer Neva Grant laughs with students at a madrasah, or Islamic school, near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Bottom: Senior Journalists Seminar participants and staff at Doris Duke's "Shangri La" estate in Honolulu, now a museum of her famed Islamic art collection.

 

A group of U.S. journalists who recently traveled to several Islamic areas of Asia, and their counterparts from largely Muslim Asian countries who visited several cities in the U.S., both reported that many of their preconceived notions about what they would find were shattered by the actual experiences they had as participants in the East-West Center’s Senior Journalists Seminar .

“Before we went, I think a lot of us had imagined a kind of outsized role that Islam plays, particularly in politics, in Muslim-majority nations like Malaysia,” said Beliefnet.com  Politics Editor Dan Gilgoff. “And I think the fear was that there is this kind of creeping fundamentalism that was accompanying this growing role for Islam in politics.”

But in actuality, Gilgoff said during a June 27 public presentation by seminar participants, he was surprised to find that even a leader of an Islamic political party seemed more focused on pocketbook issues such as national death benefits than on a religious agenda.

Gilgoff also recounted visiting a madrasah, or Islamic school, in Malaysia. “It was my first time touring a madrasah,” he said, “and it was the first time that this particular madrasah had ever opened its doors to a Western audience of any kind. But for three hours we mixed, learned and exchanged, and those kind of cultural breakthroughs happened over and over during our trip.  There’s just no way to do that without actually being there and meeting with people face to face.”

Meanwhile, Riyaz Wani, a Kashmir-based correspondent for The Indian Express newspaper, said he felt fortunate to be experiencing the U.S. during “a time of great changes, especially with the unprecedented presidential campaign.”

Wani said he encountered an America that is coming to terms with new realities, including the rise of emerging economic powers such as China, India and Brazil. “Most importantly,” he said, “I saw a great soul-searching taking place within the U.S. government and media about the Muslim world as a whole. Seven years after 9/11, I think maybe there is a growing awareness in the U.S. media that they need to go beyond a broad-brush view of the Muslim world. In our countries, there is a perception that people in the U.S. are generally clueless about Islam, but we saw that there is an effort here now to reach out and learn more.”

Wani said he also saw Muslims in the U.S. trying to adapt to new circumstances. “They are entering into interfaith initiatives, which is something they wouldn’t normally do back in their countries, because it would be seen as a kind of a dilution of their faith,” he said. “Here, they are reaching across to other communities and religions to create a new movement towards interfaith understanding so they are able to react constructively to the challenges that are faced in world. I think it is something really, really big.”

Each year, the East-West Center’s Senior Journalists Seminar sponsors journalists from the U.S. and Islamic areas of Asia on learning trips to each others’ countries. Before and after their tours, the journalists meet at the Center in Honolulu to compare notes and share perspectives. This year, the U.S. journalists visited Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Kolkata, India, while the Asian journalists visited New York City, Washington, D.C., and Colorado. Each group met with a broad variety of political, civic and religious sources.

Devianti Faridz, a producer for the “Indonesia Now” program on Jakarta’s Metro TV, said that one of the biggest stereotypes she’s seen in U.S. attitudes after 9/11
is “to look at Islam only through the lens of the Middle East, whereas in reality the majority of the Muslims in the world actually live in the Asia Pacific region.”

Faridz said that, for her, one of the most memorable experiences of the trip was the Asian journalists’ visit to an evangelical Christian “mega-church” in Colorado Springs.

“As a Muslim, I would never have thought before of going to a church like this, with thousands of people, music, and a whole multimedia presentation. I was surprised at how interesting and attractive it was – it felt almost like a concert – and it’s a formula that clearly works, especially in reaching the youth.”

Through such visits to Christian and Jewish congregations, Faridz said she realized how many similarities exist between their beliefs and those of Islam. But while she saw some interfaith groups trying to focus on such common ground, she felt that these mainly consisted of people who shared a more liberal world view and were mostly “preaching to the choir,” while the more conservative practitioners of each religion tended to focus more on their differences than their commonalities.

“It’s unfortunate that there seems to be a lack of communication between them,” she said. “During our visit, we felt that we needed to deliver the message to at least try.”

Faridz said that the program also reinforced “the importance of media and how it shapes pubic perception. We realized there are media that are very biased, but that’s what the audience wants. As journalists ourselves, I think we became more aware that what stories we choose and how we present them can definitely affect our viewers. What I take home from this trip is that we have the role to create better understanding of other faiths.”

Allie Shah, a staff writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, called the exchange “a life-changing experience for me personally, as well as professionally. In some ways, I left with more questions than answers, but think that’s a good place to start for any journalist.”

As an American Muslim, Shah said she had looked forward to visiting places where she would “be among the majority for a change.” But she also carried a preconceived expectation that in such places the expression of Islam might be “in your face,” and “wondered if there would be some narrow-mindedness attached to that too, as in any country where you have like-minded people only interacting among themselves.”

Instead, she said, she was “surprised to see that the range of expression of Islam was really wide. It sort of challenged my notion of what a Muslim society looks like.”

Similarly, The Indian Express reporter Wani said that while he had previously had a stereotyped image of the U.S. as a monolithic western superpower, “now that has been broken, because I have met so many people here from so many different faiths, with so many different values. Now, I am as confused in the U.S. as I am in India.”