Platforms for inter-religious dialogue?


The mayor of Amsterdam on 2 June told a group of Asian and European journalists gathered for a dialogue under the umbrella of the Asia-Europe Foundation that his government’s role in blunting collisions between religious immigrants and secular Dutch people should be limited.
Mayor Job Cohen visited the delegation of about 20 journalists gathered to discuss reporting inter-faith issues. Europe has over the past decade witnessed the development of rather negative public perceptions toward certain religions, evident, for example, in Dutch parliamentarian Geert Wilders’ short film “Fitna”.

When asked about the film, Cohen said advertising prior to the launch of the movie prompted debate in many spheres of society, including government. He said he was asked many times how his government would react, because there were concerns about riots. But he chose not to act pre-emptively. And the reaction to the movie after being published was rather calm and did not extensively impact the integration of the Muslim population in the Netherlands.

Cohen and the delegates seemed to see mass media’s role in facilitating inter-cultural dialogue as freer than would be government’s.

The meeting, the Sixth ASEF Journalists’ Colloquium, organised by the ASEF and EJC, was predicated upon the idea that dialogue and education among journalists is paramount to improving coverage of inter-faith issues.

New media provides platforms to facilitate such dialogue and education, journalists at the meeting was agreed. And better to use new media for these purposes than the proliferation of inflammatory steryotypes.

While both societies struggle with inter-faith dialogues, each side can benefit from examining case studies from the other region. This is particularly the case given the myriad religions present in Asia – and the little-touted fact that Indonesia boasts the largest Muslim population in the world.

The inter-religious conflict garnering the most “play” in the world’s media – and the session in Amsterdam – is, unsurprisingly, that between the Christian world and Muslim world.

Amina Rasul, who attended the conference, founded and edits the Moro Times in the Philippines. The Moro Times is a monthly insert of The Manila Times concerned with issues facing the Muslim minority the Philippines and the world.

She presented her analysis of the role of media in Mindanao. The Philippines has a long history of colonisation and foreign interventions dates back to the 15th century. The country is predominantly Catholic, but in Mindanao the Muslim population comprises 20 percent of its population. Rascul said local media oftentimes lacks reportage aiming to stipulate interfaith dialogue at societal levels. Economic issues are considered to be more important than religious conflicts, she said. Furthermore, many articles related to the topic of religious conflicts are published via the government. The independence of these reports are questionable. As for recommendations, she thinks that media must be sensitive to religious issues, presenting different aspects of conflict and considering more psychological aspects in their coverage in addition to the facts.

Another attendee, Frans Jennekens, the chairman of the Intercultural and Diversity Group of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), introduced his the EBU’s latest effort to facilitate diversity, a binder with detailed guidelines and suggestions called the “diversity tool kit.”

He pointed out that the extent to which Dutch society has ignored the realities of its growing Muslim population are mirrored in the faces of its television reporters.

He added that in the Netherlands, conflicts between freedom of expression and freedom of thought has become an unavoidable element in intercultural dialogue. Given these circumstances, he said, programmes handling more diversity on television like “Bimbo’s en Boerka’s” have been. He showed a clip from the programme. Its hosts are three young Muslim women, wearing headscarves commonly known as hijab, invite people with different faith backgrounds to the show.

The group of journalists discussed these instances and other case studies – such as Singaporean models of state-mandated religious tolerance and the worldwide fallout after a Danish newspaper published cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

The dynamics of the group varied greatly, reflected in their level of acceptance and understanding of new media. But it was agreed that new media’s role in inter-cultural dialogue is in flux but essential.