Why you should be Skeptical of Media Pundits’ Commentary

Are the pundits (or experts) on TV actually making us more ignorant? I am starting to wonder if all this explosion of ‘experts’ around us is really helping us understand the complex issues in front of us, or are they ‘dumbing down’ things, in order to reach us, and in essence not really helping us ‘know’ and ‘learn’? With the proliferation of social media, TV and 24 hour news channels, it is easier for everyone to have an opinion about everything. Even if we don’t know anything about a topic, it is quite possible to have an idea about that topic – I would even say that this current flood of ‘knowledge’ around us forces us to have an opinion, however ill informed. I am guilty of this, myself and catch myself having an ‘opinion’ on a random topic that I don’t know much about.


Are we are living in an age of illusions – where the ‘illusion of knowledge’ is very real, while the actual knowledge of the topic or subject may be minimal. The most egregious form of ‘knowledge sharing’ is the 2 minute interviews on TV. In fact, there has been much criticism about this form of discussion. How much can you realistically aim to teach or inform someone about complex topics such as the unemployment in America, War in Iraq or Global Warming? While TV anchors force their interviewees to churn out wisdom in sound bites, are they not really asking these ‘experts’ to dumb down, so that the lay person can really ‘get it’ in two minutes? Whose responsibility is it, then, to inform and educate the public – that of the public scholar or the media houses?

This brings us to the question of ‘what is knowledge’? Knowledge can simply be defined as what is agreed upon by people in a society. While observation and logical deductions form the tools of creating knowledge, they must also be validated by the ‘experts’ in the particular field, before it becomes ‘knowledge’, as Earl Babbie(2011) reminds us. “In general a scientific assertion must have both logical and empirical support: it must make sense and it must not contradict actual observation.” (p.4). This means that what our society determines is actually very critical, if not the only relevant criterion, to what we consider authentic ‘knowledge’.

Let us use one example to illustrate a point I am trying to make. Recent debates about Islam in the US media are also an example of what is going wrong, when it comes to ‘knowledge’ about Islam. A recent Pew Survey shows that 42% of Americans believe that Islam, more than other religion promotes violence. While the findings of the survey may be true – that is a whole different argument – what I am concerned is how terms are defined and how this comes to constitute what we ‘learn’, in other words, the epistemology behind it.

What the surveys do not tell us is how they define violence. This should be balanced with ‘facts’ such as structural violence, which are defined as ‘hunger and poverty’ are growing enormously in the US alone. Is poverty ‘structural violence’ as I have argued above, in which case the US society would be very high in this form of violence? And in comparison, many of the answers that we see in this survey may not hold true, even if we were to compare societies by religious belief.

While surveys are surely useful in aggregating opinions and ideas of large numbers of people, these very surveys can be quite problematic too. False respondents, social desirability and interviewer distortion are some of the methodological difficulties in survey research and in using the data that is collected. Also, surveys do not tell the ‘full story’ from the perspective of the group that is researched. Data and numbers can only inform us partially and only in a very dry, scientific manner, that may be misleading at times. So, while data alone cannot help us understand religion, we realize that tradition and metaphysics are crucial tools too. So, the real question is – what do we really ‘learn’ from such efforts? Not the entire story, I would argue.

Another problem with study of religion is that of tradition. While scientific research and methods often disregard values and tradition, as being anachronistic to research methods, one cannot ignore the force of traditions in studying religion. This does not mean we need to disregard tradition completely. While a purely positivistic paradigm of research may reject tradition and values outright, a constructivist may regard them as valid and often required. But for one who is practicing religion, tradition is part and parcel of the practice. I speak here of most Abrahamic religions, and perhaps some Eastern faiths too – Hinduism and Buddhism included. So, how do we incorporate tradition with the modern notions of how contemporary religious people see themselves? Speaking of Islam as an example, Talal Asad (1986) has argued that there is a need for studying Islam as a discursive tradition, i.e., a tradition that is evolving and adapting to the circumstances around it. Additionally, the work of Anthropologists who have studied Islam- scholars like Ernest Gellner and Clifford Geertz place representation of Islam in the social structure that is ‘entirely in terms of dramatic roles and this tends to exclude other conceptions”. By this, he means that Islam can be reduced to a battle of ‘big traditions’ of the city with the ‘small traditions’ of the villages. Asad says that Gellner’s Muslim protagonists do not speak, they only behave. Asad’s biggest critique of both these scholars, and by extension of a way of writing about Islam is that it ignores indigenous discourses i.e., how Muslims themselves talk about Islam and how they understand it. Their own notions of ‘knowledge’ about Islam are ignored. Pundits usually rattle off numbers, statistics and latest ‘reports’ by think tanks to prove their point, without telling us the weakness of this data and the many fault lines that exist there. Traditions, values and understandings of norms – that are crucial to behavior are often ignored or ‘essentialized’, making simple the complex and ever changing dynamic of how groups behave and negotiate with their circumstances.

Another recent example of the fuzzy logic that media pundits use to convince people is on Politico. Here, the authors points to data shared by Fareed Zakaria, who has argued that ISIS holds about one third of Syrian territory. This is blatantly untrue, argue Weiss and Itani. They further say “Most troubling is Zakaria’s fuzzy math about the opposition, its ideology and the terrain it is said to control. He writes: “The Islamic State controls about one-third of the country, and the other militias control a little less than 20 percent. But the largest and most effective of these non-Islamic State groups are al-Qaeda-affiliated and also deadly enemies of the United States. The non-jihadi groups collectively control less than 5 percent of Syria. These data points are dubious and misleading. A look at reliable maps of ISIL-dominant zones in Syria indicates that the terrorist army holds much of the Euphrates River Valley and Raqqa province, as well as parts of Aleppo province.” This seems – at face value – to be a more sound argument, based in facts rather than the one that Zakaria has made. Which facts do we choose and why? Not easy answers, unless we know a whole lot about the issue and the sources of research that are being presented before us, as ‘valid proof’.

While all that I have said should not mean we should totally disregard ‘experts’ on TV, who can be thoughtful and knowledgeable people – their comments should be treated for what they are – appetizers for us to start our meal of knowledge – rather than treat their summary remarks as the entrée. Doing so will only ensure we remain hungry for more knowledge! And at worst, our limited knowledge will blind us to the realities of the world that we do not see, in our own ignorance, and the illusion of knowledge.

The illusion of knowledge is tempting. Indifference and ignorance aren’t sexy, anymore.

How to write about Islam?

Amidst all the noise about the end of the world scenarios being portrayed as a result of ISIS conquest of parts of Iraq and Syria and equally banal assertions that Islam is somehow inherently violent, and needs ‘reformation’, the common man out there is left confused. As someone studying Islam in America, I am at a loss for words, at times, and have to remind myself that unfortunately much of what we read and hear is from people who have no clue what they are talking about. Propaganda, vested interests, media hype make a clear political or sociological analysis of what is going on in the MiddleEast and the U.S. very hard, if not impossible.Blue mosque

What is the best way to write about Islam, then? Is it to be an ‘apologist’, and ‘defend’ Islam against all the attacks and criticisms? Though this approach is needed sometimes, it doesn’t sound very helpful, because there are genuine criticisms of Islam and Muslim societies that should be considered and weighted in, if one is writing in an honest manner. The alternative is to take a critical stance and call for a radical reform of Islam, as several atheists and former Muslims have done. The most egregious and distasteful manifestation are people like Irshad Manji and others like her, who are often seen coddling with the pro-Israeli or extreme Right-wingers in the U.S. It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to see how these two groups get along. The criticisms that they level are often steeped in broad stereotypes and an almost anti-intellectual approach to Islam and its rich intellectual and cultural heritage. The third way to write about Islam is to write it from a perspective of how Muslims themselves understand Islam and I will delve into this approach, in a bit of detail here.

For starters, what is Islam? Is it a ‘religion’, as we understand it? There is serious debate among scholars of religion about what constitutes religion. Is Islam a religion by the classical definition, or is it an ‘exceptional’ religion, in that many definitions of religion do not apply to it- by virtue of its origins, growth and universal appeal? A few scholars that have written extensively on Islam. Dr.Talal Asad is one such scholar, who I will quote extensively in this article. Asad reminds us that Islam has been studied by Anthropologists – he names Ernest Gellner in particular – as someone who has tried to present Islam as a totality. This Islamic totality, according to Gellner, is formed as a result of social forces, political ideas as well as historical facts. This view that is often informed by Orientalism, and is premised on an opposition between Islam and Christianity – with Christianity located in Europe, while Islam is situated in the Middle East, Asad contends. Even current media representations of Islam use these binaries to define a ‘modern’ West and a ‘backward’ ‘Muslim world’. There are several problems with this binary approach, not least of which is how does one speak of Muslims in the West? Are they ‘negotiating’ with modernity in the West, or are they excluded from modern notions by virtue of their religious beliefs? No easy answers to these questions. With this in mind, Asad reminds us that writing about just social interactions or social constructs such as ‘tribes’ is not very helpful, as this approach, adopted by scholars such as Gellner reifies the Islamic norms, social relations and other aspects.

Another problem with this approach that Gellner and others take is that religion, power and political authority are often represented as having fused in Islam, while this has not occurred in Christianity. This view is not wholly accurate since there is a vast diversity in how power and religion interacted, historically, argues Asad. The perspective that Gellner and Clifford Geertz take is not helpful in understanding the perspective of Islam as an analytical concept that is as much part of the present as it is a construction of the ‘past’. Further, this perspective grounded in history misses out on the diversity of Islamic practices in contemporary societies.

Asad’s key argument about Islam is that it should be treated as a ‘discursive tradition’. He says “No coherent anthropology of Islam can be founded on the notion of a determinate social blueprint, or on the idea of an integrated social totality in which social structure and religious ideology interact.” This means that all that Muslims do is not ‘Islam’. What Muslims around the world do is not necessarily a reflection of their religious traditions, just as much as all Christians’ actions are not a reflection of Christianity. He suggests that the only way for studying Islam and its Anthropology is how Muslims would do, i.e., examine how their actions relate or should relate to the founding texts – the Qur’an and Hadith. He further argues: “If one wants to write an anthropology of Islam one should begin, as Muslims do, from the concept of a discursive tradition that includes and relates itself to the founding texts of the Qur’an and the Hadith. Islam is neither a distinctive social structure nor a heterogeneous collection of beliefs, artifacts, customs, and morals. It is a tradition.” By tradition, he means: “A tradition consists essentially of discourses that seek to instruct practitioners regarding the correct form and purpose of a given practice that, precisely because it is established, has a history.”

Finally, it is helpful to remember that the ‘Muslim world’ is just a conceptual ideal, not a ‘social reality’. Asad reminds us that “It is too often forgotten that “the world of Islam” is a concept for organizing historical narratives, not the name for a self-contained collective agent. This is not to say that historical narratives have no social effect—on the contrary. But the integrity of the world of Islam is essentially ideological, a discursive representation.” This should be kept in mind, when we speak of a group of people that are over 1.6 billion in number and are present around the world – in every conceivable corner of every country.

One might also be tempted to ask: Why isn’t India a part of the ‘Muslim world’, since there are over 150 million Muslims there, despite being a minority? This is something every person who writes about Islam should consider. Broad generalizations, stereotyping and inaccurate analysis won’t help. On the contrary, such analysis will only confuse us, rather than clarify what we are seeking to study and understand. To quote Asad again, he says that the fatality of character among Muslims in Islamic society that Geertz and other invoke is the object of ‘of a professional writing, not the unconscious of a subject that writes itself as Islam for the Western scholar to read.’ As with Orientalist representations, what others write about Islam says as much about the author, as it does about the Islam or the actors they describe. A profound insight that should help us think critically before writing about a much misunderstood and misrepresented faith.

Why Gandhi is Relevant in 2014

Indians around the world celebrated Gandhi Jayanthi on October 2, his birth anniversary. It is a solemn day, often marked by social gatherings, politicians saying something banal about Gandhi’s life and legacy and talk-show hosts debating his life. While the question whether Gandhi’s life lessons are relevant is taken seriously by few, a vast majority seem to have created a myth around the Mahatma’s life and are happy to live by platitudes. I believe there is an urgent need to look at Gandhi’s life and the lessons he offered us.

Nehru_with_Gandhi_1942-Churchill Firstly, Gandhi’s life is a testament to the struggles that oppressed people have to go through to achieve freedom. Gandhi’s entire life can be seen as a struggle and his life, an example in sacrifice. As Arthur Herman writes in Gandhi and Churchill – The epic rivalry that destroyed an empire and forged our age, Gandhi had undergone a spiritual transformation in the decades he had spent in South Africa and had found his life mission. This mission was to ‘transform the character of his fellow Indians by bringing them closer to God.’ “By doing so, he intended to undercut the foundations of British rule in India and set his people free.” (p.215). Gandhi’s life mission was rooted in self-transformation and transformation of society at large, missions that most ‘value driven’ organizations and institutions espouse and aspire to.

Secondly, the techniques that Gandhi promoted – Satyagraha being the key one – is still being used by nonviolence activists around the world, from the U.S. to Palestine. As a model of resistance, nonviolent resistance and non-cooperation are tactics that forced the British Empire to the negotiating table, more than once. Time and again, Gandhi deployed this tactic, both in South Africa and in India and despite some failures, it did succeed. In a situation where a powerless people are faced with a majority, that is armed, mighty and powerful, passive resistance did prove useful. Whether it was fighting for the miners rights in Johannesburg in 1908 or for self-rule or Swaraj years later, in India – similar tactics were in play. Mubarak Awad, a Palestinian activist seems to have been using Gandhis’ methods for years now. Martin Luther King in the U.S. considered himself a protégé of Gandhi’s methods.

Thirdly, with globalization, increasing consumerism and a general increase in materialism in India, perhaps it is time for Gandhi’s message to make a comeback. While economically, the Mahatma proposed self-rule and self-reliance, it may be next to impossible to roll back the Neoliberal framework that came into play in the 1990s, with the opening of India’s economy.

Perhaps the greatest contribution that Gandhi made to the Indian ethos is that of embracing pluralism and rejecting casteism. As a self-conscious Hindu, he practiced his religion throughout his life, but was against caste and its de-humanizing influence on the Indian mind. An anecdote that Herman quotes in his book is relevant here. In 1916, Gandhi took in an untouchable family at the Sabarmati Ashram. As Herman says, this set off a domestic pitched battle, with Kasturba threatening to leave immediately. “However, Gandhi’s will prevailed. He had deliberately broken the greatest Hindu taboo of all, the prohibition against any contact with dalits or untouchables. It was part of his war against the India he detested most: the India hidebound by ceremony and meaningless tradition split by ancient religious feuds, festering in its own filth, the India without compassion or pity.” (p.221).

While Indians are justifiably proud of the progress that the country has made since 1947, much remains to be accomplished – not only in economic and monetary terms, but also in terms of achieving basic dignity for the poor and oppressed. While there is growing pride in India’s ascent on the global stage, this must be tempered with a realization that India is also home to the world’s largest number of poor people. A mission to Mars may have demonstrated to the world that India is home to capable Engineers, Scientists and technocrats, but facts such as the above demonstrate that India has a long way to go before being truly a ‘regional power’, much less a ‘super-power’. India is the inheritor of a great civilization, hat has contributed much to the world, but also has a lot to learn from the rest of the world. Recent attempts to vilify Gandhi and his life are a danger not only to India’s legacy but are also part of a campaign to distort Indian history. For sure, Gandhi was not a perfect human being, nor was his life perfect by any means. Nevertheless, his life and message were a moral force that moved millions. While we must not fall into the trap of worshipping our leaders uncritically – something that most contemporary Indians seem to be doing – we must, at the same time embrace the best that our tradition has to offer. Towards this, Gandhi’s life lessons are exemplars that can be emulated.