x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Relevance, significance, and effective discourse

If we did not acknowledge the shortcomings of contemporary Muslim discourse to achieve the target of clarity, defining factor of the contextual channel between sender and receiver.

Perhaps the most looming challenge before Islam today is to be understood. Misrepresentation on the part of international media pundits does contribute to this handicap, as well as a general myopia in the consciousness of the Western public regarding their own "others", a category in which Islam, more often than not, features as the "poster child".

We would be remiss, however, if we did not acknowledge the shortcomings of contemporary Muslim discourse to achieve the target of clarity, defining factor of the contextual channel between sender and receiver. It is the ever-elusive ingredient of the encoding and transmission process of communications. Four considerations illustrate the gravity of this problem. First, systemic misunderstanding of Islam challenges the well-being of Muslim populations worldwide. Muslims easily become victims and their religion a scapegoat, whether in minority communities in the Far East and its counterpart, the Far West; or in majority resource-rich regions under occupation or at the mercy of proxy governments.

Second, it impedes Muslims' potential to contribute to the common good of the greater global community in which they participate. Suspicion is an inhibitor where there is a need for enablers. Third, Muslims believe that it is the human right of every person to experience the message and meaning of Islam. The ability of every person to make his or her own informed decision about Islam is at the essence of securing freedom of conscience.

Fourth, it is this disconnect between peoples and cultures that continues to exasperate the atmosphere of volatility that so often defines our contemporary environment. In the Quran we find the verse, "and We have never sent a messenger except with the tongue of his people". The tongue of a people is not just the formal patterns of their language but the meanings conveyed by that language. Language is the vessel of meaning, but the conveyance of meaning implies much more than passing an exam. Speech, in the language of the Quran, is nutq, from the same root as mantiq, logic. A discourse that is in tune with the "tongue" of the people is conversant with the operating assumptions that inform their views.

An effective discourse must be recognizable to its audience. The way in which it adds value to their lives must be readily apparent. This can be summed up in two operating principles, relevance and accessibility. Relevance implies value and significance. For a discourse to be significant it must first be meaningful and exceptional; the importance of its content should stand out. To have value is that it contributes to the fulfilment of a real need or enriches and augments existing value.

Accessibility means that the discourse is comprehensible to its audience, it is immediately recognizable as adding value to them in particular. It must have transparency. For the exchange of meaning between sender and receiver to be successful, it has to be built on a foundation of trust. The message must secure confidence in the integrity of the source. The challenge posed by facing off against a powerful and ubiquitous media machine is an overwhelming prospect. But the onus is on the Muslim community to do everything within our ability to fulfill our side of the communications equation. Along with this, we must ensure that our discourse is calibrated and aligned with our organic roots. This alone is the source of significance; everything else is just an adjective.

Jihad Hashim Brown is director of research at the Tabah Foundation, and delivers the Friday sermon at the Maryam bint Sultan Mosque in Abu Dhabi