Friday, September 16, 2011

Headlines, Cultural Context, and Meaning

Today I saw this tweet from my old friend Dima Khatib, who is now the South American correspondent for Al Jazeera, and it immediately caught me:

Dima Khatib أنا ديمة
Many ask why protests in Syria always come out of mosques. The answer is that assembly is forbidden and impossible anywhere else in

It made me think of my childhood, when I heard about things happening in mosques or temples in countries I was unfamiliar with, and wondered what place mosques and temples really had in those people's lives. News stories are by necessity limited in length. That means that they cannot include all the necessary underpinnings, and are quite easily skewed by our own underlying assumptions about how life works. "Protest at a mosque" - what does it mean? Does it mean that religious people get angry, for instance? Does it mean that people are protesting somehow against the mosque? Or does it mean - and as Dima points out, it does - that this is the only place people can gather in large enough numbers to protest anything?

I think it would be easy to throw up my hands and despair if I always took headlines at face value. I've seen many posts recently about how Fox News headlines quite differently from CNN, for example. What I take away from it all is that no matter what you hear, if it's important to you, then it should be worth looking into more of the details than you can get in six words, or even 200.


  1. That is a very interesting point about mosques, and honestly not something I'd thought about before.

  2. As Joshua said, this wasn't something I'd considered before.

    Knowing the ins and outs of every news story is impossible but I do appreciate the news sites here in the UK that provide numerous links to other articles on the same topic. At least points the way for a little research if one is inclined.

  3. Joshua, thanks for commenting. The tweet was remarkable to me because I'd never heard this stated so clearly and simply before.

    CharmedLassie, indeed it is impossible. On the other hand, you make a good point that there are lots of resources available for comparative research.

  4. The limits of the news do little to combat the tendency to see every experience through our own filters, something that is responsible for more culture clashes than any other single characteristic in my opinion.

  5. Mosques play different roles depending upon the country and culture. For many countries, such as in the Middle East, where public political activity is heavily scrutinized, if not controlled or banned altogether, the Friday prayers provides a place where political discussions might be made in relative privacy. In western countries (including the US), mosques play a much broader role, being more of a community center in addition to the primary function of being a mosque. It is not uncommon for these western mosques to include schools, shops (including groceries and butcher shops for halal meats), morgues and small libraries. Here in SE Asia, most mosques focus on prayer and education, especially for children and teenagers. There is not as much emphasis on fulfilling other community needs, if only because the Muslim communities here are much larger and able to provide for those needs through other organizations and businesses.

    Whether politics may be discussed at mosques also depends upon the local culture. At a mosque I used to attend in Phoenix (pre-9/11), the imam would frequently remind us not to have political discussions inside the mosque. Here in S'pore, the government Muslim liaison agency writes the Friday sermons, and deviations from that script will get the imam in trouble. (As a result, local sermons almost never refer to politics.)

    I agree that most people refer only to their own underlying assumptions with respect to many issues (and not just about Islam and the Muslim world). Getting people to go beyond that, to do their own research, can be very difficult.


  6. JDsg, thanks for your comment. I appreciate you giving us a view into the role of mosques in other regions.