Communication between peoples of different faiths and ethnic backgrounds
has been implemented and fostered by the media, which at the same time
have contributed to the conflict between civilizations.
I strongly feel that interreligious dialogue, which partakes very
much of the dialogue between different civilizations, begins first of
all at a very personal level, in what mass media experts call
"interpersonal communication." I think that the dialogue between people
of different religions or people of different civilizations is strongly
related to their reciprocal knowledge and feeds upon the handshakes
they give each other, the cups of tea they have together, trips, and
Nevertheless, such dialogue has also been richly implemented and
fostered by the development of the media and by globalization, which in
turn the media's contributions have served to stimulate and amplify. It
cannot be denied that at the same time, the conflict between different
civilizations has also been stimulated by the development in the media.
It is difficult to know how much good and how much bad will come out
of the development in the media: what we know for certain, though, is
that if problems have increased, so also has the possibility of doing
some good for humanity.
What I mean is that, in the relationship between civilizations and
religions, the media cannot possibly hold a neutral position. The media
have an enormous potential for creating a positive and constructive
atmosphere for dialogue: this potential is still very much hidden and
as yet undisclosed.
Marshall McLuhan (1911-80), the Canadian educator who foresaw the
development that would occur in the media in the second part of the
twentieth century, idealistically imagined the media as tools to
express the spiritual values of the civilization of the global village.
The vision of this man, who had undergone a profound religious
conversion from atheism to Christianity, has not been completely
fulfilled, but it somehow still has a prophetic value.
Before analyzing both the risks and the possibilities that result
from the encounter between newspapers, television, and the Internet on
one side and the dialogue between religions on the other, I would like
to make a realistic statement: people who work in the area of
interreligious conferences have no right to claim anything from the
media. It is, on the contrary, up to them, together with those who work
in the media, to make that world interested in them by transforming
something like conferences and other initiatives into an event worth
noticing and talking about.
The first risk is that those who work in the media may not manage to
pass on a correct view of the events related to the relationship
between civilizations and religions. This is a general problem of
communication, and it is due to contemporary technological developments
and to the prevalent working rhythms. I would like to mention, for
example, sensationalism: in order to increase the audience, our
attention is directed toward the most effective and exciting details of
an event, even if reality thus results in being completely distorted.
Half-truths are another example: often, because of lack of time or
space, these are passed on as truthful information even though they
certainly do not provide a correct global vision.
Another problem we must not forget to mention is the control of the
sources: this is nowadays rarely and often only partially done. If two
agencies present the same information, there is a tendency to think
that information must then be correct, even if that is often not the
case. There are unfortunately also several examples of news given in
bad faith by people who want to spread tendentious information.
A second risk is related to giving an ideological interpretation to
events, that is, to interpret events in the particular light of a
specific current ideology. It is said that people who belong to a
religion and are deeply involved in it have an ideological
understanding of events. Even though I can see the risk, I do not think
that this is totally correct, provided one makes sure there is no bad
faith involved. I am not saying one should follow the philosophy of
British journalism in the fifties, according to which the journalist
should "disappear" and give space only to the events. This theory no
longer holds, as it is clear that no one can tell the "total truth."
But certainly a middle way exists, and people who work in the media
must aim at truthfulness if not at truth. I am thinking of the embedded
journalists with the American and British troops in the Persian Gulf
War (1990-91). I am also thinking, on the other side, of the
journalists paid by Saddam Hussein to stay in Iraq, in
government-controlled areas. I am thinking of a Western or Turkish or
Italian interpretation of facts: this is ideology too. Globalization
should help us to lift up our vision, not to direct it to the tip of
A third risk is the possibility of taking intellectual shortcuts:
when the pace at which the media are forced to produce increases, such
shortcuts appear nearly inevitable. History, and all the different
phases of coexistence and conflict, is an essential part of the
dialogue between civilizations and religions. Unfortunately,
journalists tend to have a general and not a specialized background:
this often brings them to write or talk about subjects on which they
have a limited expertise. For example, in recent years we have read
many superficial and often banal comments about Islam, especially in
Another risk is to muddle the different levels of analysis. Even
though the political level is not the same thing as the religious
level, and also not the same as the ethnic level of analysis, one finds
very often in the media very doubtful expressions such as "ethnic and
Last but not least is the risk of being a victim of that type of
narcissism that is so common among those who work with the media. In
this case, one tends to think that one holds the only truth, that the
truth that one knows is the only adequate one to represent and report
events. Often it is the use of an exclusively individual point of view
that creates so many problems. I recall a French journalist who gave a
very personal interpretation of Algerian terrorism: his vision
contributed a great deal to the breaking out again of acts of violence.
The first chance the media have is obviously the opportunity to have
a positive influence on society, amplifying and spreading good. I refer
to all types of media, not only those that deal mainly with
interreligious dialogue. Italian state television has recently produced
an excellent series of reports from Iraq: the aim was to present people
who, although living in a war context, whether they be Shiite or Sunni
Muslims, Chaldeans or Kurds, were trying to spread seeds of peace. That
series had an extraordinarily large audience.
Another opportunity we have is to give a balanced account of events
thanks to our deep insight into a situation and to our specific
knowledge of a certain context. This can help to ease tensions and to
remind people not only of the previous conflicts but also of periods of
peaceful coexistence. The press on the Gandhian movement is an
excellent example in this respect. Also, recently in Punjab some of the
media have greatly contributed to what seems to be an easier and calmer
relationship between India and Pakistan.
I want to mention another opportunity that the media have. Once
politics no longer works, once diplomacy is no longer functioning, the
media may still have some space left to keep communication going and to
keep some hope of peaceful coexistence alive. I am thinking, for
instance, of what happened in Kigali, the Rwandan capital. A private
Catholic radio broadcaster managed to keep giving some unbiased
information: this probably contributed in the last few years to
avoiding a new outburst of interethnic conflicts in the city.
The media that specifically deal with the dialogue between different
civilizations and different religions also have another very important
opportunity. That is, they can give voice to ethnic and religious
minorities, regardless of their numerical size and extent. Within the
context of interreligious or interethnic conflicts, allowing minorities
to express their own point of view helps to decrease tensions and to
Another possibility is to find stories related to interreligious
dialogue that can be appealing to the media. This is not always easy,
as often what at first looks like a "perfect story" is not necessarily
good for television or newspapers or the Internet. I have long been
involved in the production of such programs, and I am very satisfied
with the results. One could also envisage applying fiction to the area
of interreligious dialogue.
The Media and Religions
The five risks and the five opportunities I have mentioned involve
religious and specifically interreligious activities at various points,
and they underline the fact that the media and religions have to work
together with the goal of future peaceful coexistence among cultures
and religions and nations.
Things, of course, stand quite differently according to whether we
refer to the media that have a specific interest in interreligious
dialogue or to the media in general, which normally have only an
occasional interest in such matters. In order to reach credibility, the
media that are specifically dedicated to interreligious dialogue must
make a special effort to portray events in the most objective and
complete way possible. On the other hand, the general media should
allow more space for truthful accounts of events in the area of the
dialogue between civilizations.
Nevertheless, it must be said that in recent years, most of the
media, be it newspapers, radio, or television, have given ample space
to the relationship among different religions. This is mainly owing to
the results of the recent conflicts in the Middle East and the increase
in terrorist acts all over the world.
It is also clear that in the area of interreligious dialogue, if we
want to be faithful to our moral values, we must respect some basic
communication rules. I present to you four of them; they were quoted by
the late Chiara Lubich in a speech about the media. Ms. Lubich, who
died in 2008, was an honorary president of the World Conference of
Religions for Peace and the founder of the Focolare Movement, one of
the most active organizations in the area of interreligious dialogue,
which she started in wartime Italy in 1943.
In June 2000 she said, during a conference on the subject of
communication and unity: "Globalization will not choke people, on the
contrary, it will be a tool towards a global sharing among
civilizations and cultures. All material and spiritual riches will be
part of a common heritage: individual differences will not be annulled,
but highlighted and respected, in a fair game between unity and
First communication rule. The common goal, the ultimate aim
of any communication between people, is universal brotherhood.
Communication is an essential tool toward creating a just and fair
society. That is why communication must help toward the fulfillment of
the good of society.
Second rule. Communication must serve humanity's needs.
Communication is deeply rooted in humankind's nature: it has an
ontological root, and it is an essential part of our history.
Communication is an expression of the basic fraternity that ties all
human beings together.
Third rule. Communication is, in itself, positive. The media,
therefore, are also in themselves positive. Of course, if used
incorrectly, they may become negative tools. In all forms of
communication, but particularly in the world of the media, one should
be able to stress and underline what helps humanity move toward its
ultimate goal, which is unity, and not what distracts from it. In
communication, reporting and revealing evil should also be motivated by
and oriented toward the good of humankind. This is why communication in
the media requires as strong an ethical commitment as the goal it works
Fourth rule. In order to communicate effectively, we must
ourselves be able to listen with respect to others. We must show
respect, and also (why not?) love. From this point of view I think that
it makes very much sense for people who work in the world of the media
to keep the Golden Rule as a fundamental element for dialogue between
civilizations and religions. The so-called Golden Rule, which exists in
the holy books of all religions, reminds us that we should not do to
others what we would not want done to ourselves. Always keeping in mind
the Golden Rule can help us put into practice acts of reciprocity. This
concept is becoming more and more important, and not only in the field
of interreligious dialogue. We are not dealing here with automatic,
mechanical answers to a question but with an answer given with respect,
care, and love to a question asked with equal respect, care, and love.
This would be a very interesting area to tackle.
I recently published a book about the presence of religions in the
Caucasus, one of the richest and most complex meeting points between
peoples of different religions and ethnic backgrounds. It is precisely
these vital centers that have been mined and attacked in recent
decades. I am thinking specifically of Lebanon, Jerusalem, Nigeria,
Somalia, and East Timor.
It is my sincere hope that the media will play an important role in
making these regions an example of dialogue among different religions,
ethnic groups, and civilizations.