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Islam & the West PDF Print E-mail
In May 1995 we assembled two dozen senior, influential media figures, half from Europe and half from the Middle East and North Africa to discuss "Images of Islam in the West -- towards a better understanding". We have a transcript of the three day Round Table.

Now we want to re-run the seminar. The need for greater understanding is even more urgent than ten years ago and the success of the event last time demonstrates that it is possible to change people's perceptions and attitudes with meetings like this if they are carefully designed, developed and organised.

As before, the event would be very practical -- having spent time analysing the images of Islam in the West and the realities that should underpin those images, we will explore ways of achieving better understanding. For example last time we commissioned research on ways in which Islam was being protrayed in the West and then tried to understand what was wrong with these portrayals and why the West was portraying Islam in this way.

Towards the end of the Round Table we put the participants into mixed groups with these original news stories from the Western media and, against demanding deadlines, we made them re-write the stories in the light of their increased understanding of one another. This demonstrated to the muslim participants their need to make Islam more understandable within a Western context and the Western participants came to realise that they had to work harder if they wished to give an accurate account of events in the Islamic world.

In the present context, we believe that it would also be useful to run a couple of sessions on images of the West in the Islamic/Arab world to show what it feels like the other way round, for both sides. Also this would give an opportunity to correct misunderstandings, to consider how they have arisen and to discuss what needs to be done about them in future.

For the Round Table to be maximally effective, the careful selection of participants is crucial. We should again aim for senior journalists in important editorial positions where their decisions are directly influencing news output, eg night editors of national newspapers, radio news presenters and producers, the editors of main TV news bulletins. So the ideal participant is a non-specialist who is obliged by his or her job to have views from time to time on the 'other' world. Besides being influential, he or she should be open-minded and interested in exploring the other. We also found last time that it's essential to have some participants with deep knowledge of their own worlds, in particular Islam, which they can share and interpret for the whole group and we suggest having a couple of correspondents from one world who are based in the other. It might also be useful to bring back one or two of the earlier participants, as well as introduce output from the cartoonists' workshop,

The outcomes of the Round Table would include a more sophisticated understanding of crucial issues by journalists whose opinions and actions influence millions. After the last workshop the BBC re-wrote its news guidelines on covering Islam.

We would expect to produce a publication aimed at increasing mutual understanding; a network of concerned journalists whom we would assist to remain in contact; perhaps a more informed debate within the media about these issues; and possibly some proposals for the future.

Alongside the Round Table we would hope to run a workshop for cartoonists from European and Arab countries to explore the 'images of the other' but in the context of practical professional concerns for cartoonists, including drawing techniques, syndication opportunities and general editorial and professional pressures. The intention is to run a workshop that would be interesting and enjoyable anyway for some of the most successful, influential cartoonists in the two cultures. To show them initially what they have in common and can learn from one another professionally.

As a sub-text, having created an atmosphere of friendship and mutual interest, we would explore some of the underlying issues of stereo-types and professional responsibility that might show how far cartoonists can affect understanding between communities.

We ran an earlier workshop for cartoonists in autumn 1998 in Malta. Our belief now is that the cartoonists workshop should be part of a wider programme of activities, including the Round Table on Images of Islam, designed to bring together media professionals from Europe and the Arab world. The impact of cartoons makes them a powerful weapon in increasing or decreasing tensions and hostility between the two worlds.

By running this workshop alongside the Round Table, the cartoonists' output could be discussed by the senior journalists and, if it seemed a good idea, there could be some joint sessions towards the end of the two events, as well as a cartoon record. This might also give an opportunity to discuss the often tense relationships between editors and cartoonists and the effect upon their work. So the two events would complement and enrich one another and perhaps the cartoonists could even use the Round Table as a subject for some of their drawings.

The more specific outcomes of the cartoonists workshop would include a collection of cartoons which help us all to see how the other side sees us, along with a record of the subsequent discussions. Jemstone would retain the right to publish and publicise this output and we have hopes of a touring exhibition, perhaps with follow-up sessions involving local cartoonists and opinion formers as well as a virtual exhibition on our web-site.

The cartoonists workshop should last for five days and begin a couple of days before the Round Table, so that the cartoonists are a firmly established group by the time the journalists and editors arrive. They would continue to operate separately for another day, though the Round Table would then have access to the work of the cartoonists. And we would bring the two groups together, on an ad hoc basis in response to the views of the participants, for the final two days.

All discussions would be conducted under what are known as Chatham House rules -- ie individual comments are not linked to individual participants, although their presence at the event is recorded in the documents we produce.

 
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