February 25, 2003

As the news media prepare for coverage of a potential war and occupation of Iraq, religion stands out as one of the many factors journalists need to understand.

But simply slapping the words “Islam,” “Christianity,” and even “Judaism” as the sole, descriptive terms of the diverse religious segments in the Middle East presents the public with an insufficient understanding of their specific influence. In fact, using such generic terms alone may misinform and mislead those seeking relevant news about the impact those faiths have.

One Middle East expert stressed that point during a day Poynter faculty recently set aside to try and become smarter about the Iraq conflict.

“There is no such thing as Islam,” he said, aware of how odd that sounded to those of us who have been reading, listening and watching news that refers to “Islam” regularly.  Then he added that “there is no such thing as Christianity and there is no such thing as Judaism.”

He paused.

“There are Islams, Christianities, and Judaisms,” said the professor, who asked that his name not be published. He employed the plurality of these terms, insisting that journalists need to have a holistic view of religions.

By paying attention to the details and distinctions between the different ways Islam manifests itself in Iraq, and the rest of the world, journalists can paint a more accurate and authentic picture of that religion’s impact there and what it indicates about its followers.

In Iraq, for example, Muslims outnumber all other believers. The Shi’a Muslims make up 60 percent and the Sunni Muslims 35 percent, according to U.S. State Department figures. Christians account for almost 5 percent, and the Jews, Yezidi, Bahais, and Mandaens total less than 1 percent.

Understanding the differences between the Sunni and Shi’a Muslims is important. Beliefnet offers one man’s explanation of how they differ. While they share basic foundational beliefs, he points to historical and political divisions that came from how they viewed who would succeed the Prophet Muhammad.

Saddam Hussein is a Sunni Muslim. Although he helped steer his Ba’ath political party along a more secular path, Hussein recently began building huge mosques that help support a more radical resurgence of Islam, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Couple that with the fact that neighboring Iran’s dominant Muslims — the Shi’ates — represent as much as 89 percent of that country’s population, and some analysts believe Hussein has cause to be worried about the Shi’ates in his own country.

A PBS Frontline report on Iraq notes how stark those divisions can be. It repeats an Iraqi proverb:  “Two Iraqis, three sects.” The report shows that in Iraq, the Sunni Arabs live in the triangle between Baghdad, Mosul and the Syrian border; Shi’a Muslims live in southern Iraq between Baghdad and Basra; and the Kurds live in the mountains along the Iranian and Turkish borders and the plains below.

Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter Caryle Murphy, a Washington Post staff writer who now covers religion and used to be the Post‘s Cairo Bureau chief, notes the many differences among followers of Islam.

“There really is not one ‘Islam.’ There are Muslims living out their concept of Islam. They differ,” Murphy said in a live, online chat.

Consequently, journalists writing or editing copy that include references to “Islam” should strive for specificity that offers more insight and knowledge.

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Aly Colón is the John S. and James L. Knight Chair in Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Previously, Colón led…
Aly Colón

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