Sunday, November 22

Alliance of Civilizations Media Training Click for more info

To be honest I still don't know why a good friend had put me forward for this, a UN-funded media training weekend for Muslim opinion makers. I mean hey, I do think that I'm a passable writer who might sometimes talk about religion on his hobby-blog, but that's a far cry from being an influential opinion maker or leader. So despite my paranoia telling me I was just being sent to make a fool of myself I went along anyway: after all, I had never been a delegate or sent on a business trip or like (expenses and all) so it would be something new for me at least. Plus it was quite flattering that I was invited in the first place so would have been rude not to attend, and I was sure it would broaden my horizons in more than a few ways anyway. And hey, it's not like I'd ever get a paid trip to Bristol ever again.

The United Nations Alliance of Civilizations is an organisation set up by some important people in order to directly address the problems various cultures and communities around the world have in communicating with each other. For us, this meant some media training this weekend. The pitch given to me was that we would get the opportunity to add value with our existing opinions and form new ones based on the eclectic mix of Islamic personalities. Yay, a weekend of some serious brainstorming and debate, I thought.

In reality it was actually more of a classroom based formal PR and media training: you know, how to give press releases, deal with a crisis and write opinion pieces for newspapers. A team from Fenton Communications were running the sessions and it was immediately clear that they really knew their stuff; more importantly though they also knew how most effectively to get us to understand it all. In terms of the training itself the whole weekend was pretty slick; in fact we were well looked after throughout the whole weekend.

The first day was pretty hard and perhaps even a bit boring, as we were told what seemed like the obvious things about how Muslims were currently being misrepresented in the media. Quite predictably this paved the way for us to rant and moan about how bad we have it and how the world should change. What I saw as digressions made me switch off a bit; after all, if I had wanted to hear this stuff I'd have just picked any random Muslim blog in the comfort of my own home. Having said that it was clear that most of the group found it relevant and engaging, something which added to my increasing suspicion of how I shouldn't have actually have been there in the first place.

The technical training in the afternoon was much more interesting as we found out about controlling an interview, the use of emotion and emotive words, some basic cognitive theory and other PR tips and tricks. Again most of this was obvious once we heard it, but often things have to be said in order for them to be registered and put into practise so I was happy to hear what was being said.

The evening was more fun as I hung out with the rest of the delegates, all smart and with a clear stake in British Islam. We had Imams and chaplains, charity workers, Islamic human rights people, student young ambassadors, lawyers, councillors, mosque trustees, Islamic bloggers and webwasters, authors and journalists - clear leaders in the making. Despite the lack of my own set of credentials (I got used to the polite "oh really"s after telling those who asked that I was a software developer) we did connect on a social level and had fun, even if that was by playing silly games of charades, word association and something called Zip Zap Boing outside on a bit of Bristol University's green. Further still I realised that although my colleagues each had an overt Islamic brand, that I was being unfair in assuming that that was all they were each about, and they didn't wear their Muslim hats (topis?) all the time. Oh and as an aside it seems that there's a bit of a clothes shortage in Bristol on Saturday nights. Particularly for women.

After a night's rest (single hotel rooms are pretty lonely I reckon) I decided to approach the remainder of the weekend in a different way. I'm not really a media person, not in the way the session wanted me to be anyway, and once I realised this the whole thing became a lot less forced - and ironically now that it was of passing and academic interest to me it became quite a bit more fun and interesting. We also began the practical work which helped: video interview workshops (in which I was pleasantly torn apart by a UN representative) and another in which we had our opinion writing critiqued by Fenton. Unfortunately just as we were getting into the swing of things it was all over: a fun coach ride back to London and a brief meeting with others on the programme (whom had been sent to Spain instead) and we were done.

I guess figuring out what you aren't is just as important as figuring out what you are, and for that reason I'm glad that I went to Bristol this weekend. I now know that I don't want to be a "face of Islam", not with respect to the media in the UK anyway, be it via TV, an affiliation with an organisation or even writing. On the other hand it's encouraging to see that there are bright people out there willing to take on that role, do it well and even enjoy themselves while they're doing it. And finally the weekend reinforced my opinion that it's actually okay (and even helpful) to resist Islamic™ branding and that being "subtly always Muslim" can be just as powerful as being "overtly Muslim first".

That's not to say that I didn't learn loads or will take absolutely nothing away; I now have a more formal understanding of how the media functions and will definitely apply some of the things I learned in my writings and even social interactions. And if I'm honest I am excited to by a part of something so important going forward (maybe I'll buy a UN t-shirt or something) even if I'm not going to be the most participatory of the bunch. I did some classic networking and met some ace and inspiring people which is always a good thing as the possible opportunities and doors open up... and hey, the food wasn't that shabby either.


  1. Bristol is great, you guys were staying near Clifton I'm guessing?

    good post

  2. I think what you personally add for future potential participation, whatever media that may be, is humour (amongst other things) which is sorely needed in these times. Everything is so serious and sombre, and a touch of humour can lighten the load, and help humanise Muslims.