Are Muslims the cats who are tree-climbing pests or the cats sleeping peacefully a home?

al-Qalam Special Correspondent

One would imagine that someone so enormously wealthy, titled and the leader of millions would come into South Africa in a blaze of glory and leave only after doing the obligatory photo-shoot with President Nelson Mandela, a walkabout through the portals of Parliament and a banquet with the rich, famous and influential of the South African cocktail circuit. This did not happen during the visit this month of the Aga Khan, who put in a Cape Town pit-stop to address the world's media.

A more controversial figure in the Muslim world you could not find. The Aga Khan is the Imam of 20 million Ismaili Muslims; he is a breeder of racehorses and is emerging as an elite media baron.

So with his "haram" horse-racing links, what was he doing at an international conference in South Africa. Actually, he was there to defend Muslims, to tell the media world it has been more than a trifle unfair in handling news relating to Muslims.

Delivering a keynote address to the Commonwealth Press Union Conference at the Cape Sun, the eloquent and articulate leader complained that while there have been major strides to improve the level of journalistic education, there still was a need for greater expertise, especially in an area close to his heart.

"I refer to the superficial and misleading way in which much of the world's media treat the world of Islam." Muslims, he said, constituted a quarter of the world's people and comprised the majority population in 44 countries. Of these, he pointed out, 435 million lived in the Commonwealth.

"If asked to characterise Islam, many non-Muslims would have little to say, except perhaps that the world of Islam seems a distant and different world, a strange, mysterious place, a world which makes them a bit uncomfortable, and perhaps even a bit afraid."

The vast and varied group of Muslims is perceived by the rest of the world "as a standardised, homogenous mass", the Aga Khan said. Taking it further, he said, the cultural contexts in which one billion Muslims have been reared are not understood in much of the world.

"Even the most basic elements of 1400 years of Islamic civilisation are absent from the curricula in most of the world's schools. The subject is just not on the world's educational radar screen. And the result is an enormous vacuum. When developments in Islamic societies break into the headlines, few journalists - and fewer of their readers - can bring the slightest sense of context to such news."

Muslims, he said, are reported in what he described as "crisis reporting", which is the inclination to view news in an abnormal and disruptive way. He likened this view of crisis reporting to an instance in the cat-world. It is the exceptional cat, he said, the one that climbs a tree and can't get down, that dominates our headlines; not the millions of cats who sleep happily at home.

"Most of the public, however, has no context in which to place the story of the exceptional cat that climbs a tree. And without that context, the casual reader or viewer, never hearing about the cats that stay home, come to think of all cats as tree-climbing pests who forever impose on the fire departments of the world to bring out their ladders and haul them to safety."

The fact is, he said, that what the world thinks about Islam has been the result of crisis reporting. He took his illustration further. "When terms like Shi'a and Sunni first entered the world's vocabulary, it was in the emotional context of revolutionary Iran. Similarly, recent press references to the Shari'ah, the traditional Islamic system of jurisprudence, are illustrated by its manifestations in Afghanistan."

Journalists learn to use these words, but how many really grasp their essential meaning, he asked? "How many of them understand, for example, that the Shari'ah is seen by most Muslims as a changing body of law, subject to what we call the fiqh, the capacity for evolving interpretation. How many are aware of the selective and moderate application of the Shari'ah in the legal systems of Islamic countries which do allow its application? How many know that Arabic translators of the Old Testament used the word Shari'ah to designate the Torah, underlining a shared perception of the Divine Law that governs the spiritual relationship between God and His believers? How many are knowledgeable enough to appreciate the Shari'ah's illuminating qualities in civil law?"

The Cape Sun audience listened quietly. Some shuffled their feet nervously as the Aga Khan continued his verbal assault. Included in the audience were London Fleet Street's top media moguls, senior international political figures and writers.

It was little wonder that "those exceptional instances of Muslims theocratising Islamic politics" are mistaken as the norm while the humanistic temper of Islamic ethics is overlooked, he continued.

"Among some observers, there is even a tendency to see political violence as a function of the faith itself - when in fact nothing could be further from the truth." He said it was questionable whether there were media offices which included people who could recognise the distortions he enumerated or whether they had the ability to set the distortions right. "When the educational background is so barren and when the rhythm of our learning - as reporters and readers - is so often that of crisis, crisis, crisis, then deep misunderstanding will be the inevitable result."

He said he was not suggesting every journalist becomes an expert on Islam. "But it would help greatly if more journalists were at least aware of them, and where they need to turn to find out more."

Through an air of nervous guilt that permeated the air, the Aga Khan received a standing ovation.