What comes to mind when you hear church bells ring or the call to prayer resonate across your city? These age-old holy sounds have been echoing throughout the Arab world for centuries, and are a core part of how the region’s predominant religions connect with their followers. Most people wouldn’t think of these ancient rituals as forms of noble communication, but the way that religions reach out to their audiences is very similar to a company communicating its values.

Pious PR

This idea might seem strange at first, but if we take a closer look we might find that communication and religion do go hand-in-hand, as religions must also ensure that they are understood by the general public and that their reputation is maintained and enhanced with audiences around the world, much in the same way that companies must maintain their image and highlight what they stand for.

Yet, while we see companies pulling out all the stops to ingrain the meaning behind their brands and view their corporations positively, are religions and religious institutions doing enough to enhance or correct their image and uphold their reputation? Are they engaging people and reaching out through communication to a universal audience beyond their immediate followers?

Beginning with Islam, the true voice of Islamic values seems overshadowed. Everywhere we look, groups only pretending to be Muslim are dominating the airwaves and television screens with fundamentalist and extremist messages that have no real relation to Islam’s teachings. From the Taliban recruitment videos, to websites dedicated to promoting terrorist activities, extremists have been exploiting young Arabs by using the communication channels that target them best, preying on their impressionable nature and lack of fully-formed values and faith, by swaying them with flashy but poisoned messages. Unfortunately, the damage of this “intelligent” propaganda, much like that of the extremists’ predecessors from Goebbels to McCarthy, can only be assessed when it is too late and people, especially the youth, have already been misguided.

This propaganda has been able to thrive as the “silent majority” of Muslim faithful, from religious institutions and other walks of life, are not communicating an alternative message that reflects the true essence and practices of their religion, which is both tolerant and moderate. Until the majority invests in effective, strategic communication, the propaganda of the minority extremist groups will continue to win.

But strategic communication is not only the responsibility of religious authorities, since, if we turned on our TV sets to find a moderate Muslim cleric arguing with an extremist religious leader, we might change the channel thinking that this is only an internal schism within the religion itself. This is where the role of the entire Arab community comes in, as it is in all of society’s interest to relay the true values of Islam and ensure that extremists do not succeed in distorting the image of their faith both regionally and worldwide. By joining together the voices of non-governmental and civil society organizations, academic institutions and the media, along with religious organizations and even the private sector, to face down extremism, the impact of communicating true, moderate values will be much greater.

Each of these organizations can play a role in helping achieve this through a number of initiatives, such as launching media campaigns about the core values that are at the heart of religion, holding workshops to discuss the importance of religion and religious values in everyday life, or relaying these messages through reports and media interviews.

There have been some promising attempts by community organizations to communicate religious values to the youth and general public, such as a recent campaign on Arab satellite networks, showing young people helping others and being charitable, reflecting values that are at the core of Islam, as well as another campaign stating that “Terrorism has no religion.”

These activities, although on the right track, are not enough to make a lasting impact as they remain paid advertising and are not backed up by continuous and consistent messaging using a variety of channels.

Reaching out

Religious organizations have also attempted to communicate by launching satellite TV channels dedicated to religious topics. However, the main focus of these stations is purely on prayer and discussions of religious texts, devoting the majority of their programming to roundtables with religious authorities. Limiting religion to prayer and religious study can only succeed in making it more exclusive and less accessible to a wider audience, an approach which is incompatible with the concept of mass media.

Actually, religion permeates and guides every aspect of our lives, and therefore these channels should develop more well-rounded media content that touches on all areas of life and resonates with all audiences, infusing programming such as drama series, entertainment shows, children’s shows, and even game shows with religious values.

By communicating from this new angle, religious institutions and authorities can reach one of their most important target audiences: the youth. It can provide them with an aspirational system of values that is more in line with their lifestyle.

This new approach to communicating religious values has, in fact, proven successful in the case of a Catholic nunnery in the US that tried to change its image as obscure and completely out of touch with people’s lives. It did so by opening its doors to talk show host Oprah Winfrey’s camera crews and sending two of its 20-odd nuns to be interviewed on the show about everything from faith to romantic relationships.

Engaging communication is the only way that Muslim and Christian religious communities in the Arab world can overcome the virus of exclusivity that is plaguing them and fight misperceptions about their beliefs, helping to create more understanding and tolerant societies.

This means taking a more proactive approach in keeping the true spirit of their religion alive and upholding their core values that are universal to all humanity.

Nohad Mouawad, Zeina Loutfi and Ramsay G. Najjar