Janet Steele is associate professor of media and public affairs, and international affairs, at George Washington University, USA. She is the author of Email dari Amerika (Email from America) and Wars Within: The Story of Tempo, an Independent Magazine in Soeharto's Indonesia. She has just brought out Mediating Islam: Cosmopolitan Journalisms in Muslim Southeast Asia.
Mediating Islam asks: what is Islamic journalism? It examines day-to-day journalism as practiced by Muslim professionals at five exemplary news organisations in Malaysia and Indonesia. At Sabili, established as an underground publication, journalists are hired for their ability at dakwah, or Islamic propagation. At Tempo, a news magazine banned during the Soeharto regime, the journalists do not talk much about sharia law; although many are pious and see their work as a manifestation of worship, the Islam they practice is often viewed as progressive or even liberal. At Harakah reporters support an Islamic political party, while at Republika they practice a "journalism of the Prophet." Secular news organisations, too, such as Malaysiakini, employ Muslim journalists.
In her guest post for Asian Books Blog, Janet talks about the generosity of her sources in the world of Islamic journalism, in the years leading up to the recent Malaysian general election.
In early June 2015, the Concorde Hotel Shah Alam in the Malaysian state of Selangor was full of Girl Scouts. It was also full of members of PAS, the Pan Malaysian Islamic party, or Parti Islam se-Malaysia. They were there for their annual general meeting, or muktamar, which was being held at the nearby convention center.
The Girl Scouts were young, and friendly in a way that is characteristic of Malaysians. “Where are you from?” they would ask in the elevator. “Your first time here? Are you on vacation”?
How to answer? I wondered. With the truth? That I was there in hopes of crashing the muktamar?
For the past several years, I had been doing research on journalism and Islam at Harakah, the newspaper of PAS. PAS is distantly related to the Muslim Brotherhood, and supports the creation of an Islamic State. The party’s newspaper was edited by Ahmad Lutfi Othman, who, I had learned to my great surprise, was an unabashed champion of press freedom.
For many years Harakah’s website, Harakahdaily.net, was edited by Zulkifli Sulong. I had first met Zul at a 2013 conference at the University of Malaya, where I was teaching as a guest lecturer. I had screwed up my courage and introduced myself, asking if I could come to Harakah and interview him about journalism and Islam. I was very nervous - although I knew a number of Malaysian journalists from Malaysiakini and elsewhere, none of them were supporters of the Islamic state.
To my astonishment, Zul agreed to meet me, and a few days later I went to the Harakah office, which is in an older and somewhat shabby part of Kuala Lumpur. Everyone was wearing hijab - as Zul explained, it’s not exactly “required,” but given that all Harakah journalists are party members, it is certainly expected.
Zul is jolly and bespectacled, and was willing to answer all of my questions. Pointing out that PAS also has non-Muslim members, he laughed and said, “No, it has never happened that a woman who does not wear hijab comes for an interview to be a journalist.”
Although the five publications I examined - two in Malaysia and three in Indonesia - were completely different in political orientation, there were also similarities in the ways in which the Muslim journalists who worked there explained the meaning of their work. Universal principals of journalism, like truth, balance, verification, and independence from power, can each be explained in Islamic terms, and I found that the journalists’ explanations were similar whether they worked for the scripturalist and politically conservative bi-monthly Sabili, the progressive news magazine Tempo, the Indonesian newspaper Republika, or the secular news portal Malaysiakini.
For example in explaining the principle of verification, which is usually described in English as “check and recheck,” it was common to hear references to a famous verse from the Qur’an: “O believers, if an evildoer comes to you with some news, verify it (investigate to ascertain the truth), lest you should harm others unwittingly and then regret what you have done” (Al-Hujuraat: 49:6).
There are many other principles of journalism that can be conveyed in Islamic terms, including the importance of independence, or speaking truth to power. The Prophet’s statement that “the best form of jihad is to tell a word of truth to an oppressive ruler” is something I heard over and over from Indonesian journalists - many of whom had been involved in the pro-democracy movement that led to the 1998 resignation of President Soeharto. Malaysian journalists who work for Malaysia’s alternative media often mentioned this passage as well - along with the sayings of the first two caliphs that the people should correct them if they deviate from the truth.
Of all the five publications I analyzed in Mediating Islam, my findings about Harakah were the most unexpected. Not only did its two chief editors have a clear understanding of press freedom - as well as the relationship between the principles of journalism and the teachings of Islam - but they also had to deal with the needs of a fractious political party, one that was on the verge of shattering at the 2015 muktamar that I was hoping to observe.
“If you only know one verse from the Qur'an, you have an obligation to tell it to other people.” This is an important principle of Islam, and also one that I heard repeatedly. It is key to the understanding of dakwah, another name for Islamic propagation, or “the call to God.” It explains Muslim journalists’ willingness to talk to me about their faith and its relationship to their work. Perhaps it also explains why it was not especially difficult to “crash” the PAS muktamar. All I had to do was let my friends know that I wanted to see and learn, and before long I had a formal invitation to attend.
On June 1, 2015 I witnessed the opening day of the muktamar of the PAS youth wing. I was one of a handful of women there (the others were journalists), and almost certainly the only non-Muslim. I heard the speech of Mat Sabu, one of the leaders of the “professional” faction of the party. Although his faction was ultimately defeated by the “ulama” group, and indeed ended up leaving PAS to form a splinter party called Amanah, it was part of the winning coalition - in alliance with Anwar Ibrahim’s Keadilan party and Mohammad Mahathir’s Bersatu - in the recent Malaysian general election.
What happened at the muktamar was typical of all of my experiences in working on this book, in which I was touched by both the kindness and generosity of my sources, and by their willingness to share.
When I left the muktamar, I accidentally walked off in the wrong direction. “Where are you going?” asked an older imam, driving up beside me and rolling down the window of his car.
“Please, get in,” he responded, when I gave him the name of my hotel.
Details: Mediating Islam is published by NUS Press, Singapore, in paperback, priced in local currencies.