Philip Bennett, managing editor of the Washington Post, offered a franker set of views than perhaps he intended when he spoke on March 3 at the University of California-Irvine's Center for the Study of Democracy about media coverage of Islam, as reported by Alan Blank in the Daily Pilot. Bennett, Blank writes,
thinks news organizations ought to hire more Muslim reporters. To illustrate this point he drew mainly from quotes of notable colleagues and statistical polls, rarely giving his own opinion directly. "Six of 10 Americans, according to a 2007 ABC Poll, don't understand the basic tenets of Islam," Bennett said. He attributed this to the lack of Muslims working in American newsrooms. "At the Post I want more Muslim readers and I want more Muslim journalists."
Bennett assumes, with touching naïveté, that to be Muslim is know Islam. Less touching is the assumption that not to be a Muslim is not to know Islam. This fraudulent expectation of special insight from one's status, religious or otherwise, needs strenuously to be rejected.
Bennett's thinking gets worse from here:
Words poorly translated from Arabic to English are a big source of confusion caused by the lack of Muslim voices in the American media, according to Bennett. Zeyad Maasarani, 22, a Muslim reporter for California's most circulated Muslim publication, Southern California in Focus, agrees with Bennett that terms like "jihad," "madrasa" and "hijab" are a big source of the public's misunderstanding of Islam. "Jihad means holy war, which is the definition that most Americans know, but it also means struggle, and valiant attempt," Maasarani said
Unreported here is that Southern California in Focus is affiliated with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the continent's leading Islamist organization. More importantly, madrasa and hijab are simple terms that most politically aware readers understand, while jihad is more accurately understood by the simple "holy war" translation than through complex interpretations – as I have at some length argued elsewhere.
Finally, Bennett unintentionally revealed the appallingly primitive state of understanding of Islam in his own institution:
One such word that has been contentiously debated in newsrooms is "Islamist," which generally refers to a political movement governed by Islamic law. Bennett said at the Washington Post editors still have not decided whether to add it to their style book. Some argue the word is a useful distinction for movements like Hamas and Hezbollah, but others at the Post argue that it is too vague and should be omitted in favor of a more specific description.
Comment: It's all very well for Bennett to sniff patronizingly at the knowledge of Islam among average Americans, but I am impressed with their learning curve since 9/11 as well as their common sense. Far less impressive to me is a group of sophisticated editors that cannot even, after all these years, decide to use the word Islamist. Someone has a problem understanding Islam, but it's Philip Bennett, not his readers. (March 4, 2008)