News coverage of events in countries where significant populations of Muslims and Christians live side-by-side pays close attention to conflicts and acts of inter-communal violence. However, when the Christian and Muslim communities work together successfully, even in important developments like national elections, little attention is paid by the Western media.
The recent elections in Macedonia are a good example of this asymmetrical coverage. For weeks before the elections in early July, articles appeared describing the tensions and the acts of violence that occurred early in the electoral campaign. Right up to the day of the election, the New York Times (4 July 2006), for example, had as the headline for its last pre-election article, “Nationalism Still a Threat in Macedonia,” with subheadlines warning: “Division May Flare in Ballot Tomorrow.” The article was a substantial one of about forty-five column inches, including two pictures, and the general tone of the article built on the idea that “there has been a revival of violence and reports of fraud and intimidation in the election” and “all the major political parties have been implicated in violence, intimidation or fraud.” (p. A8)
The concern for violence is understandable, given the recent history of the country. Rebels from the large ethnic Albanian (Muslim) minority brought the country to the brink of civil war in 2001. Nationalists among the ethnic Macedonian (Slavic-Christian) majority maintain a hard line against the Albanians and there is the continuing potential for civil war.
In this context, the media attention to the ethnic tensions is understandable. What is less understandable is the minimal attention given to the actual results of the elections. The elections took place in a peaceful and orderly manner. When the results were announced, it was clear that the incumbent Prime Minister, Vlado Buckovski, was defeated. His first public act was to call and congratulate the winner, stating that “Macedonia is the main winner as the citizens showed that they could vote in free and fair elections.” (BBC News; 2006/07/06) Even the leader of the 2001 revolt by the ethnic Albanians, Ali Ahmeti, participated actively in the elections and his party is in a position to be a part of a new coalition government. The Albanian Government also hailed the elections as free and fair.
Given the remarkably good results in a context where violence had been anticipated, one would have an expectation that the results of the elections would get significant coverage – as a new and encouraging step forward for democracy in the world. However, the New York Times coverage was again typical. While it had a major article the day before the elections, the election results were presented in a short paragraph (about two column inches) in the “World Briefing” section. (New York Times, 7 July 2006, p. A6)
As long as Muslim-Christian violence gets headline billing and Muslim-Christian success in working together gets barely mentioned, the average person will continue to believe that it is inevitable that there will be conflict when Christians and Muslims live together in the same country. Cooperative relations are not rare and deserve more attention.
John O. Voll is Professor Emeritus of Islamic History at the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.