Need For Counter-Narratives To Correct Misunderstanding Of Islam
The sheer terror of the mass shootings on Friday, 15 March 2019 at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand sends chills down one’s spine. The terrorist act which was aired live on Facebook left 51 people dead, some 50 people injured and several missing.
The massacre was the deadliest in New Zealand’s history so much so that Jacinda Arden, the Prime Minister said that it was one of “New Zealand’s darkest days.” Almost all media highlighted that the shooter is an Australian whose beliefs include far-right extremism, eco-fascism and Islamophobia.
Three days after the New Zealand mass shooting came news of the Utrecht tram shooting which left three people killed and five others injured. While the shooter has been arrested, Dutch authorities are looking into possible terrorist motive behind the shooting, although later reports indicated that the attack was most probably due to personal and family disputes.
Nonetheless, what is apparent is that some of the narratives for both incidents in New Zealand and the Netherlands have put Islam in a bad light. Islamophobia is reported to be the major triggering factor that became the motivation for the white supremacist shooter in the massacre in Christchurch. This can be seen from his 80-page “manifesto” which is full of anti-Islam and anti-immigrant tirades. The contention is that Muslims are to blame for the troubles that white people face.
Meanwhile, the suspect in the Netherlands tram shooting incident is a Turkish immigrant, and almost immediately the word “terrorist” is used in the media once his identity was released. The image of Islam and Muslims have somewhat been interlinked with “terrorism” particularly since the September 11 attacks in the United States in 2001.
The media in general are very adept at creating images and perceptions as part of their agenda-setting. This agenda-setting would become the popular narratives that are fed to the masses. With the aid of social media, these narratives that put Islam and Muslims in a negative light are easily spread with just a click of a button.
Muslims seem to be struggling to shed these negative perceptions especially with on-going narratives equating Islam to terrorism. Concepts in Islam, especially jihad and shahid, are very much misunderstood, giving rise to the misperception that Islam promotes terror and blatant killings of people. This misunderstanding, coupled with the rise of groups such as Al-Qaeda and Daesh, create narratives that give Islam an image that is far from the true teaching of the religion.
As such, effective counter-narratives are urgently needed to correct any misunderstanding that people may have on Islam and Muslims. Counter-narratives may provide a way to contradict popular narratives on Islam as well as overcome negative perceptions on Muslims. In a way, this can become a form of engagement between popular narratives which are negative and counter-narratives which show the true image of Islam and Muslims.
The use of counter-narratives would provide a persuasive alternative voice to the public by highlighting and putting forth evidences that Islam is a religion that stresses on the need of mutual respect and peaceful coexistence. However, what is equally critical is that the counter-narratives provided must be consistent, coherent and cohesive, and they must be presented in an organised manner.
Counter-narratives to show the true image of Islam must provide unequivocal answers to the lingering questions that people have on Islam. They must also be able to give explanations and clarifications to confusions that arose out of popular narratives.
For counter-narratives to be successful, data on popular narratives must be collected, analysed and thematised. This is crucial as those providing the counter-narratives must know what messages are contained in the popular narratives, as well as the demographic profile of the people who follow these narratives.
Analysis on popular narratives would certainly pinpoint certain themes that must be addressed and answered convincingly point-by-point in the counter-narratives which are then constructed for dissemination.
It is also critically important that these counter-narratives are constructed by experts who can address the misunderstood themes. If this aspect is neglected, i.e. failing to have experts on Islam on board to provide the much needed input, then the constructed counter-narratives would then be counter-productive.
The next challenge is to disseminate counter-narratives to the masses in an effective manner. Rightly or wrongly, most people seem to have a trust deficit on official or government media. Disseminating counter-narratives using official print or electronic media may not necessarily be the best way.
The masses must be reached using social media platforms. At the same time, the people involved in disseminating the counter-narratives must be people who are highly regarded as authorities on the subject matter, and more importantly, they are trusted.
As such, in order to present the true image of Islam, we have to engage trusted religious leaders who command respect. Involvement from people who embrace Islam as their way of life would also be effective as they can explain the reasoning behind their acceptance of Islam as their religion. Erudite scholars of Islam as well as respected Islamic institutions would equally have a big role to play in disseminating counter-narratives.
In this day and age, effective and co-ordinated measures must be taken to correct the image of Islam in the eyes of the masses. Muslims could no longer afford to just let popular narratives, which are driven by particular agenda, paint how others perceive Islam. It is incumbent upon Muslims to work together, not in silos, and in a well-organised manner to correct these misperceptions and misunderstandings by providing counter-narratives which are based on facts and figures.