“Mediating Islam: Cosmopolitan Journalisms in Muslim Southeast Asia” by Janet Steele

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Janet Steele’s new book is a deep dive into five leading Malaysian and Indonesian news publications: Tempo, Malaysiakini, Harakah, Republika and Sabili. Steele evidently knows each of them well; the text is littered with quotes and anecdotes. News organizations are very much people-driven, and Steele’s interviews of editors and journalists alike do much to bring the publications, reporting and editorial decisions alive. In aggregate, she provides a richly-layered overview of the journalistic landscape in Malaysia and Indonesia, with some summaries of recent history and politics thrown in for good measure.

These are not exactly arms-length investigations: in a fascinating if perhaps somewhat tangential discussion, she relates her attempt to fast during Ramadan at Malaysiakini. She stopped after a few days, under the impression that the Muslim journalists did not approve of Steele, a non-Muslim, make to follow Muslim custom. At Tempo, in Indonesia, there had been no such friction. The difference in the experience reflects, she concludes, the different role that religion plays in government and society in the two countries.

Tempo and Malaysiakini appear in the news quite often themselves and therefore are probably of the most interest. But the book is brief—some 140 pages of actual text—and so each publication is handled briskly in under two dozen pages. They serve not only as introductions and useful context for understanding the role of the news media in Muslim Southeast Asia, but also as a sort of back door to the societies themselves.

 

Mediating Islam: Cosmopolitan Journalisms in Muslim Southeast Asia, Janet Steele, (NUS Press, February 2018)
Mediating Islam: Cosmopolitan Journalisms in Muslim Southeast Asia, Janet Steele, (NUS Press, February 2018)

Just as interesting, although somewhat fraught in my view, is Steele’s attempt to answer the question with which she starts the book: “What is Islamic journalism?”

While the approach to Islam in the publications she covers ranges from religious obligation to market-driven or political, none is “secular”. “Islamic journalism” is, at least for Steele, something concrete and not just journalism that just happens to be undertaken by (and for) Muslims. She writes that her book

 

rejects the “commonsense” view of Western theorists that journalism is a fundamentally secular enterprise.

 

The question remains, however, as to why journalism isn’t just journalism:

 

Muslim journalists in Indonesia and Malaysia uphold the same basic principles of journalism—truth, verification, balance, independent from power—as do their Western counterparts, but the ways in which they explain these principles to themselves are different.

 

Rather than truth and accuracy being something inherent in the profession, Steele writes that these journalists apparently use the external strictures of Islamic teaching, e.g. “the Qur’anic instruction that believers must be skeptical of those bearing news” or isnad, “the process of following ‘the chain of transmission’ of the sayings and acts of the Prophet and his Companions” as guidance.

It is one thing for journalism to informed by a belief system, but another when a journalist operates by reference to faith (or ideology) rather than exclusively on evidence. There is a fine line between these two, but it seems to me to be the same line as that between “Islamic journalism” as Steele would have it and “journalism practiced by Muslims” (or Christians or Socialists).

However, while Steele’s interlocutors, some of them anyway, do opine on the broad issue of journalism in an Islamic environment, one suspects that on a daily basis, they may be more concerned about readers, their interests and preoccupations. It would not be surprising that journalism might configure itself somewhat differently in places where religion is more tightly integrated with daily life.

 

Steele is simultaneously trying to bat down what she calls the West’s “monolithic understanding” of Islam and journalism in the Muslim world. By highlighting the diversity of both stated objectives and practice in Muslim Southeast Asia, she has provided evidence for anyone who may still need persuading.

Academic language can sometimes get in the way of the message: the “mediate” of the title is a sort of verbification of “media”, while “cosmopolitan” is also meant in something other than the straightforward dictionary sense; here it means (among other things), an acceptance of diversity.

But her final admonition that “those who wish to engage with the Islamic world should consider using the local idiom to reach it” is straightforward enough.


Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.