Sitting in Cairo in a flat borrowed from a friend. Turn on the TV and catch the news on BBC World: six stories in 15 minutes. Iraqi guerrillas blow up a couple of pipelines. European hostages released by Muslim guerrillas in Mali. Nigerian peacekeeping troops in Liberia. Rioting between Muslim sects in Pakistan. Iceland resumes whaling. Islamist terrorists arrested in Indonesia. End of world news.
Four out of six: that’s how many of the stories were about Muslims who do violent things. Since only one-fifth of the world’s people are Muslims, and many of them don’t even spank their children, it calls for an explanation.
BBC World is not particularly bad. In fact, from Minnesota to Moscow to Manila it is the preferred source of TV news for people with an interest in the world, a knowledge of English and access to cable. It is serious about delivering “balanced” news to a multi-national audience, and yet it is doing a terrible job. Why'
Consider the four “Muslim” stories among the BBC World six I listed at the top of this article. The Iraq story is legitimate: when the world’s greatest power is sinking into a political and military quagmire, it is going to get coverage. But why Muslim hostage-takers in Mali rather than politically motivated kidnappers in Colombia' Why sectarian clashes between Muslims in Pakistan rather than inter-caste violence among Hindus in India'
The story of suspected terrorists arrested for the Mariott hotel bombing in Jakarta is of legitimate interest, but there’s a lot less follow-up when suspected Basque terrorists are arrested in Spain, or when a resurgent Sendero Luminoso blows something up in Peru. The BBC is not anti-Muslim, but it is responding to a definition of international news that makes “violent Muslims” more newsworthy than other violent peoples.
It is largely a Western definition, following an agenda set mainly by the dominant American media. It is rooted in Western perspectives on the long-running Arab-Israeli conflict, and has been vastly strengthened by the Islamist terrorist attack on the United States of America two years ago.
I’m not preaching pious nonsense about Islam being a “religion of peace”: the only peaceful religions are dead religions. And I’m not denying that the Muslim world has a big historical chip on its shoulder: having run one of the most powerful and respected civilizations on the planet for the first thousand years after they burst out of Arabia and conquered large chunks of Europe, Asia and Africa, Muslims have spent the past three centuries being overrun, colonized and humiliated by the West. But the image of Muslims that the rest of the world gets through international news coverage is deeply misleading.
No clash in sight
For the past month I have been wandering around west Asia with eight other members of my extended family. For some, it was their first time in the region; others of us have lived here or visited often enough to be able to lead everybody astray. And we gave less thought to our personal safety — and much less to petty theft — than we would have done on a comparable trip across America, or even through Europe.
I won’t go on about how kind and friendly most of the people we met were, because most people are like that everywhere. I would point out that every single person I discussed current events with was against the American invasion in Iraq, but that I nevertheless encountered no personal hostility although I am easily mistaken for an American. (Would an Arab on a similar trip around America have the same experience')
If Iraq gets completely out of hand, the patience and tolerance that still prevail at street level in the Muslim west Asia will be severely eroded, and even Asian Muslim countries may end up taking sides against the US and Britain. But for the moment, Samuel Huntington’s nightmare vision of a coming “clash of civilizations” is still a long way off, and the most striking thing is the sheer ordinariness of daily life in the Muslim world. Don’t be misled by television.