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The Media and Positive Role Models: the First Annual UN Alliance of Civilizations Conference


Just back from two days in Madrid at the first annual Alliance of Civilizations conference, I must say I was happily surprised by the fact that this was more than just a group of diplomats, heads of state and NGOs saying the same thing over and over. The typical long, dry speeches by many were overshadowed by timely, increasingly important issues. Participants from the Muslim world were well-represented, as were those from the media and youth groups. Unfortunately very few American representatives attended, yet there was a handful of Americans, some of them very concerned Muslim-Americans and even the CEO of a Hollywood production company, who seemed to "get" the importance of this meeting and participated. But it is the lack of overall U.S, representation which worries me, because now more than ever, we need a strong "alliance of civilizations." The goal of the conference was to promote understanding between world religions and cultures, creating the beginnings of what could become a kind of social and cultural Davos. And right now we desperately need this kind of understanding. Especially inside the United States, which is becoming more fearful and isolationist, especially as our economy stalls and a recession is next to being officially announced.

The focus on how the media can help emphasize solutions, while reporting on crises, was much discussed. Interestingly, this went beyond news media, and into the realm of popular culture, television and film. Stereotypes of Muslims in the West have greatly harmed peaceful relations. Recently, in the U.S., I spoke with Americans who seem to be more afraid than ever of what they do not understand. This fear, coupled with worries about the economy, has lead to resentment and paranoia. People hear about money from Abu Dhabi or Saudi helping shore up banks in the U.S. and they become suspicious. Talk of "another strike on the U.S." before the next election became almost the norm which I found deeply disturbing.

Research into how media stereotypes affect audiences has recently been carried out at Harvard University, financed by those who are very much aware of the backlash against Muslims even those living within the United States as fellow citizens. It seems that we all have "mirror neurons" which mean that when we watch something on television or in a movie theatre, we can "feel" or empathize with what we are seeing. For example, if we see Muslims or African Americans being portrayed negatively, or see them being abused, we internalize this, and if we are also Muslim or African American, we feel the humiliation shown to us on the screen. The negative stereotypes of minorities within the U.S. (and in much of the west) and the repeated televising of events such as the Rodney King beating or violence against Muslims, has the effect of creating anger and frustration within the populations due to this humilation being distributed visually. This is one reason it is believed that it was not until African Americans as a group viewed the racism and violence against them on television that we finally had a wake up call and the beginning of the civil rights movement and even rioting began. We cannot ignore the role the media plays in both creating fear and violence, as well as humiliation. Yet the power of the media can also help reverse this situation and it needs to do so more now than ever before, especially within the United States.

There is no excuse for the cover of Newsweek magazine a few months ago which showed angry Pakistani faces of extremists. I could not help but thinking of Nazi images of Jews prior to and during WWII. Editors need to act more responsibly as they are fueling the very violence they are describing. Film studios need to reach out to Muslim and non-western audiences as their films now earn more abroad than at home. There is a responsibility which comes from putting out into the world images of human beings, as the line between storytelling and propaganda is virtually erased if this responsibility is ignored. The media must report on violence, but can also aid in the construction of a peaceful dialogue if they are open to more moderate approaches. Following the crisis which resulted from the publication of the Danish anti-Muslim cartoons, very few media sources reported on the peaceful series of exchanges and outreach which took place between the Muslim communities and Denmark specifically. One cultural leader from the Arab world brought 40 Muslim students to meet people in Denmark and talk about peaceful ways to get to know one another and create mutual respect. Where is the more positive, solution-based news? The journalists want to report on it, but the corporations and even editors believe that selling stories based on alarming headlines is somehow what people want. It is not! They need to give the public something deeper, and respect their ability to understand other cultures, religions, societies and not keep feeding the fire of fear.

On a more positive note, the more people get to know one another and receive positive images and see inspiring role models of Muslims and other groups, the better chance for peaceful relations, mutual-understanding and self-respect. In some countries, media funds, often subsidized by the government, make a point of creating television programming and films which allow various ethnic, religious and cultural groups to begin to better understand one another, and which help to support positive self-images of those groups portrayed. In the U.S., there have been efforts by various groups to do the same on a private level, but "cross-over" programming in the media has not been doing a good job where Muslim stereotypes are concerned. And the majority of the media is not asking themselves how the negative images they are distributing affect those who are portrayed in those images. But a few unique voices are trying to change this and sent their representatives to Madrid to speak at the UN conference, and better yet, make concrete these ideas through the establishment of a media fund, the details of which will be announced soon. It takes money, a lot of it, to "campaign" for new ideas and approaches and invite people to spend some time getting to know the "Other."

Companies such as L.A.-based Participant Productions, which sent its CEO to the UN meeting in Madrid, have funded feature films and documentaries such as The Kite Runner, Syriana, North Country and Darfur Now, allowing U.S. and international audiences to better understand how and why crises are created, and, also perhaps, how we can go about resolving them. They are also offering to the Muslim world, Africa, women and other often frustrated groups, examples of how to better understand how we arrived where we are, and, just perhaps, what we may be able to do about making positive changes. It takes human connection. Once you know people of another faith, or ethnic group, make them your friends, spend time with them and their families, they no longer are dehumanized. They are no longer "the Other." As one Native American tribal leader stated years ago, "I am Another Yourself."

Follow Vivian Norris de Montaigu on Twitter: www.twitter.com/vivigive