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Western Media Make a Mistake of Associating ISIS Directly with Islam

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Iran Review’s Exclusive Interview with Gavin Rees
By: Kourosh Ziabari

Thanks to an invitation by the Deutsche Welle on a program financed by the German Federal Foreign Office, I had the chance to attend the Global Media Forum 2015 held in the German city of Bonn from June 22 to 24 and cover the largest media gathering in Europe for Iran Review.

The 3-day event was held in the World Conference Center Bonn, the former home to the German Bundestag (lower house of the Federal Parliament) and several workshops and plenary sessions were arranged with different subject matters revolving around the forum’s main theme “Media and Foreign Policy in the Digital Age.” About 160 speakers and panelists delivered presentations in the workshops and plenary sessions.

On the second day of the event, Iran Review conducted an interview with Mr. Gavin Rees, a British journalist and filmmaker, and the European director of the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, a project of the Columbia Journalism School. Mr. Rees has contributed to CNBC, Financial Times Television and also some Japanese news networks. He has worked on drama and documentary films for the BBC, Channel 4. Gavin’s writings have appeared on the British Journalism Review, The New Statesman and The Guardian. He has interviewed several survivors of the Hiroshima nuclear attacks and moderated the workshop “Involuntary journeys – How to interview refugees in a digital age” during the Global Media Forum 2015, in which he shared his experiences with the attendees on how to interview traumatized, war-struck citizens who’ve been emotionally and psychologically affected as a result of war and conflict. The British journalist also gave a presentation at the “Understanding social media vs. digital jihad” workshop.

Mr. Gavin Rees shared his viewpoints with us about the rise of the terrorist group ISIS in the Middle East and the media coverage of its dreadful activities, the approach of the corporate media towards the conflicts of the Middle East and also Iran’s nuclear program.

Q: Your workshop was on the rise of ISIS and the influence of this terrorist organization on the digital media. First of all, as a journalist who has been working on conflict zones, do you think that the rise of ISIS was a spontaneous incident or a premeditated process? To put it better way, was the rise and emergence of ISIS a by-product of the Syrian civil war, the invasion of Iraq and the conflicts that erupted there subsequently, or do you think that it took shape overnight and now it’s swallowing the whole region?

A: I’m not an expert on the historical or political background to the creation of ISIS; say you probably need to talk to somebody else to get a detailed sense of that. But I say that everything has a history and everything has a contemporary history. So in other words, in order to understand this phenomenon, we need to look at particularly the last fifty years and try to work out what’s been happening and, you know, what’s the environment that this particular political movement has arisen from. So, I would rather prefer to look at this as a political movement rather than as a religious movement, and I think that’s a mistake that have been often made particularly in Western media of associating ISIS directly with Islam without actually looking at the conflicts within these countries and also thinking a bit more carefully about how political groups that have particular violent agendas use religion as a justification for their actions.

Q: And so, why do you think there is a tendency in the Western media, especially in the mainstream, corporate media to portray ISIS as a religious movement that is run by religious extremists, as they say, “Islamic fundamentalists” and “crazy Muslims”? Why do think there is such a willingness to depict ISIS as a religious movement rather than, as you say, a political movement which has military intentions, military purposes and military nature?

A: I think that the simplest answer we can give is that we see a certain kind of laziness. In other words, ISIS says that they are a religious movement, and therefore, the journalists in modern countries who don’t know perhaps the background [of it] in detailed ways take that at a face value. So we have a whole tradition of journalism which is based on reporting what people say is their agendas. So in a way, we are cultivating a kind of laziness. I also think it’s not a big point to make, but there’s perhaps a certain kind of Orientalist legacy or perspective in the West just as there is the reverse in countries in the East which we call Occidentalism. So, you know, both sides perhaps have slightly unrealistic views of the other and there is a kind of history thing. And if people just rely on superficial knowledge, they are not going to come to a deep understanding of the issues and that’s why we need to encourage people to do research and to investigate the issues in greater depth and with a greater degree of flexible thinking.

Q: You referred to laziness in the media. Is it simply laziness that underpins this kind of media coverage, or do you think there is perhaps a systemic effort aimed at vilifying Muslims? If a Muslim country rises in the Middle East politically and economically, and if it emerges as a superpower or a regional power at least, then it would have unfavorable repercussions for the great world powers, and they won’t like it.

A: No, the short answer is no. I don’t think there is a systematic campaign to vilify the Muslim nations in the Middle East in the sense that doing so would be extremely bad for most Western democracies, because the consequences would mean being locked into eternal conflict and that would be awful. I do think there are certain actors and there are certain political organizations who like this clash of civilizations idea. So again I think that’s why it’s important for us. I think it’s important for journalists to debunk the mythology and to say this isn’t true.

Q: Do you think the progressive media in the United States, which are mostly under-represented and not funded mostly by the big think tanks and big corporations, like the Rupert Murdoch conglomerate, can have an influence on changing the mentality of the American public, the Western public and showing them the reality that this is not all about Muslims trying to explode themselves somewhere in Washington D.C. or London, wreck havoc on the Western countries and threaten their democratic values?

A: Yeah. I think it’s a big task. It’s a real challenge and also we need to remember the different media needs in different places. In other words, it’s a question about what the general public learns and how things are framed in basic news reports. The problem with basic news reports is that there is not often much space to go into context and explain about the history of things. So, often news reports are very short and react to the fact that something bad happened and then of course what happens is that the people draw their own conclusions. So we also need a different kind of journalism that’s more in-depth and more looks into the details behind things. But also we need to have a good quality journalism written in important newspapers and important television programs, that’s aimed at people who make decisions. So, we got the general public, and we also need to make sure that the people who make policy are given useful information and reminded that maybe at times there is a risk of falling to a certain kind of tunnel vision. So this is the model of good quality journalism and good quality investigation; that we look at the real causes of things and give our societies the information that they need to make good decisions. As long as we do that, I think there’s going to be progress; if we don’t do that, we’re more in trouble.

Q: Well, you talked about the mission of the journalists in debunking the mythology. So, do you think that the journalists in the West, especially in the United States are given the adequate opportunity to reflect the alternative voices? When you turn on the TV and switch to CNN, all you hear about Iran is that it is developing nuclear weapons, trying to threaten other countries, to wipe that country off the world map, and so on. So, there is no alternative coverage, no mention about Iran’s culture, Iran’s civilization, the modern, sophisticated life of its people, etc. I think there is a tendency not to reflect those voices that give a better view of Iran. I have met many American and French and German citizens who have travelled to Iran and told me that “wow, we didn’t expect that to be the reality of Iran; everything we saw here was totally different from what we saw on the TV. They only depict Iran as an isolated land where people still ride camels in the deserts” These tourists didn’t even think that there might be flowers and trees on the streets of Iran! So this is what those media are inculcating and I think the discourse needs to change. What’s your take on that?

A: I think we need to do both, and we both need to report on the tensions and the current disagreements about the nuclear energy program, you know, the possibility of developing nuclear weapons in Iran. And at the same time, we need to report on the broader Iranian society and culture and give a sense of what the place is. So our job is not to just offer from one perspective but offer a range of perspectives, and a range of ideas. And I would agree with you in the stand that sometimes reportage can be too one-dimensional and we need a broader kind of perspective. Obviously there are some international tensions and it’s a disagreement at the governmental level between the European Union and American government with Iran We obviously need to report on that and investigate that.

Q: And finally, do you believe that cultural exchanges and a fair, balanced media coverage of events in Iran can lead to further reconciliation and rapprochement between Iran and the United Sates? In particular, what do you think is the role of media in improving the marred relations between the two countries?

A: There is always hope. I mean, for example until Nixon went to China, the Chinese and American government had never talked to each other properly. So things change. You know, that’s the point where history is an unfolding, fluctuating narrative that changes through space and time, and who knows where it will take us.

Q: And you are hopeful about the future and the fact that after these maybe four decades of estrangement, Iran and the United Sates can come together and maybe put aside the hostilities or at least reach some degree of understanding?

A: Well, it’s a bit like a kind of physicist who believes there are a lot of different dimensions to experience!  I’m not going to make a prediction, but I think things could get better; they could get worse. There are lots of different possibilities. But in general, not just talking about Iran but in general, I think we can do well to trying to be hopeful. It’s often best way of getting to better future.

Key Words: ISIS, Islam, Digital Media, US, Hostilities, Progressive Media, Religious Extremists, Rees

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