FRANK F ISLAM
Muslim Mirror Community Journalism Awards
Thoughts on the Role of the Muslim Media in Creating Communal Harmony and Community Development in India
Ladies and Gentlemen, Distinguished Guests and Journalism Awardees:
Thank you for your kind introduction
I want to express my deep appreciation for your warm welcome. I am humbled and honored to be with you today at this most important awards ceremony. It is wonderful to be here tonight. Thank you Zubair for your invitation.
It is my distinct pleasure to be here addressing the topic of the Role of the Muslim Media in Creating Communal Harmony and Community Development in India. When I was asked to speak at these awards ceremony, I accepted immediately for THREE primary reasons:
- The focus that the Muslim Mirror brings on the needs of the Muslim community and other marginalized communities here in India is a critical one.
- The role that you journalists play in ensuring that the “voiceless are given a voice” is an absolutely essential one.
- The fact that we share a common bond as practicing Muslims who understand the true purpose of our religion with its emphasis on peace and harmony is a central one.
There is one other reason – I am a Muslim with the last name of Islam. Over the past several years, because of the savage and violent acts by radical sects, the word Islam has become entwined with terrorism.
This is tragic because it distorts religious beliefs and defames its practitioners. It builds gigantic walls between people of different faiths and beliefs. Because of that, there are places in the world, where there is little hope for creating an atmosphere of communal harmony and community development.
This need not be the case in India, however, because there is a great familiarity across religions here. And, in the past many of our greatest leaders have stressed building community through collaboration and cooperation. I’ll share my thoughts on that in a minute.
Before I do so, I must confess that I am not a media expert. I am a humble person who was born and spent my early years in India and then moved to the United States.
Those formative experiences provide the insights and perspective that I bring to this talk. They shape my observations and opinions on the concept of “communal harmony and community development” and on the role of the media in creating an atmosphere conducive to such a condition.
A Spiritual Common Ground: The Platform for Communal Harmony and Community Development
I would assert that an atmosphere of communal peace and harmony will not be created by accident. It must be a consequence created through strong beliefs and a concerted and sustained effort over time. It must be an outcome that overcomes religious, regional and racial boundaries.
How do we reach that ideal state? We begin with where we are, find our shared values, leverage our strengths, and then chart a path to where we want to be.
As an example of discovering our shared values, let me draw upon the teachings of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, founder of Aligarh Muslim University where I went to school, and Pandit Malaviya, founder of Banaras Hindu University.
These men were visionaries who saw the world not though religious blinders but through an expansive view of what strong and inclusive faiths can do to unite rather than divide us.
Pandit Malaviya instructed us, “India is not a country of the Hindus only. It is a country of the Muslims, the Christians and the Parsees too. The country can gain strength and develop itself only when the people of India live in mutual good will and harmony.”
Sir Syed expressed a similar philosophy stating that the graduates of Aligarh University, “shall go forth through the length and breadth of the land to preach the gospel of free inquiry, of large hearted toleration, and of pure morality.”
While there was not a religious bond between Malaviya and Sir Syed, there was undoubtedly a spiritual one. Indeed, it might be said they were soul mates. They committed themselves in building bridges of understanding and cooperation among various faiths.
That is why even though we are here to speak about “communal harmony and community development”, I would like to reframe our discussion just a little and to talk about creating a “spiritual common ground”.
That is because spirituality transcends religious, racial and regional boundaries. Spirit is the invisible force that brings us together regardless of our particular pre-dispositions.
In this regard, I am reminded of the words of President John F. Kennedy, who in speaking before the Protestant Council of New York City in November of 1963 – just weeks before his assassination – said, “The family of man is not limited to a single race or religion, to a single city, or country…the family of man is nearly 3 billion strong. Most of its members are not white and most of them are not Christian.”
President Kennedy went on to say, “The members of this family should be at peace with one another.”
As we are gathered here to explore the terrain of “communal harmony and community development” in India, we would do well to remember President Kennedy’s admonition and recall the advice of Sir Syed and Pandit Malaviya.
Let us do so, not by looking to the heavens and to the gods whom we worship – but by looking at the earth and the people and family that we are.
As that family, let us think and dedicate ourselves to creating a spiritual common ground. In my opinion, we can create that spiritual common ground through: a common communion, a common cause, and a common crusade.
I know the words “communion”, “cause” and “crusade” have strong religious overtones. I use those words in an ecumenical sense rather than a religious one.
- We need to make common communion by speaking together about how to forge stronger bonds among those of all persuasions;
- We need to establish a common cause by developing a plan of what can be done to strengthen those bonds that bind us as one family
- We need to join in a common crusade to work here in India to implement that plan and form a universal family
The Framework for Communal Harmony and Community Development
A common communion, a common cause, and a common crusade are abstract terms. They need to be made concrete and actionable in order to create an “atmosphere for communal peace and harmony” here.
They need to be translated into a framework for change. There are many things that should and can be done in order to establish such a framework. Opinions will differ on what should be at the top of the list.
The ones that I consider most important as priorities and the preconditions for creating “communal harmony and community development” throughout India are: building the spiritual common ground that I have been discussing; equal opportunity, the elimination of poverty as we know it today; and educational equity.
Let me amplify on each of those areas
We need to work together to build a spiritual common ground. We should expand cross-cultural education, people to people, and inter-faith exchanges. Schools at all levels can and should play a vital role in diffusing tensions and helping our youth understand an evolving environment and the need for collaboration and cooperation.
We need to work together to find equal opportunities in jobs and advancement for all citizens of this country, regardless of their color, creed, caste, background, or beliefs. Discrimination can shatter people’s ambitions and dreams. We would do well to remember no nation, no race, no religion and no culture has a monopoly on the values of freedom, justice and human dignity.
We need to work together to eliminate poverty in our country. Several reports that I have seen have deepened my understanding of how entrenched poverty in the Indian minority community has become. Poverty fuels a dangerous mix of desperation and frustration and can result in an instability that erupts into community violence. If we come together as people of faith and one-united- family, we can “together” eradicate the poverty.
We need to work together to eliminate disparities in education. The disparities today in this country are striking. Lack of access to education crushes a person’s chance for growth and development and traps families in a vicious cycle. The greatest gift we can give is the gift of education. Education empowers the mind and uplifts the soul. It is a powerful equalizer opening doors to all to lift themselves out of poverty.
I have been saying “we need to work together”. Who is we? In the broadest sense, we is all of us. Eventually, this must become a shared societal imperative.
More narrowly, the responsibility for initiating and shepherding the necessary changes to create an atmosphere of communal harmony and community development must fall to our leaders from all fields – business, politics, religion, education, health care, and yes – especially the media..
We have much work to do in working together. Let me expand on the leadership role of the media and its responsibilities to ensure that work is done and that we work together to do it.
The Role of the Media in Creating an Atmosphere of Communal Harmony and Community Development
As I said earlier, I am not an expert on the media. But my time in the United States has given me an exposure and a viewpoint that might be useful.
Before I outline my thoughts, I want to celebrate India as the largest democracy in the world and the lessons in democracy that India taught the United States and the whole world by the manner in which the most recent national elections were conducted and the participation of our Indian citizens.
The Indian media, in conjunction with their media brethren around the globe, shone a bright light on the election process and in so doing communicated those lessons world-wide.
Having exported our lessons on democracy through the Indian media, I think it is appropriate to import some lessons for our media from the United States. American democracy does not exist because of the media, but it would not and could not exist without it.
It is suffice to say, that the free press has been a cornerstone of American democracy since its establishment.
In the 21st century, the question becomes what are the key functions that the news media should play in a representative democracy today.
Professor Michael Schudson of Columbia has identified six. They are
- Information: provided fairly and fully
- Investigation: into concentrated sources of power
- Analysis: furnishing in-depth and coherent frameworks to help explain complex topics or issues
- Social Empathy: describing the conditions and situations of others in society, especially the disadvantaged
- Public Forum: being a centralized communications vehicle for dialogue and discourse on issues and matters of importance
- Mobilization: advocating for particular positions, programs or actions
I think the functions that Professor Schudson has specified apply perfectly to the media’s primary role and responsibilities for creating an atmosphere of communal harmony and community development
I would add to this list the following recommendations from a study done in the United States by the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy:
- Maximize the availability of relevant and credible information to all citizens and their communities.
- Strengthen the capacity of individuals to engage with information.
- Promote individual engagement with information and the public life of the community.
To sum it up, let me repeat what I said earlier – that is the media needs to be a leader in building the framework for communal harmony and community development. This demands that the media be a proactive participant in the process of creation rather than a passive bystander and reporter of current events.
I’ve covered a lot of territory and there is much work to do. As I have noted, that work requires a common communion, a common cause and a common crusade. It demands a framework for change.
The work must begin, however, by imagining an atmosphere of communal peace and harmony. Imagining will not make it so – but not imagining will make it impossible.
You journalists here today can be the leaders in sparking that imagining. You must be our imagineers.
Through your words, you can call us to action. Through your words you can document our successes and failures. Through your words, you can keep us keeping on.
In closing, let me extend my congratulations to those of you receiving award’s here today. You are doing God’s work. You are doing the people’s work. You are doing the work that needs to be done to promote community harmony and community development throughout this great nation.
My hat is off and my hands are together for you.
Finally, thanks to all of you for listening to me talk about this topic which is so near and dear to my heart and my last name Islam is imprinted on my soul.
My wish for you and all of India is peace, love and understanding. Imagine that!
Imagining and making it happen here in India will set the example for the world. Who knows what might come next?
I wish you all the best
God bless you all