by Iqbal Siddiqui (Book Review, Crescent International Vol. 46, No. 10, Rabi' al-Awwal, 1439)
Confessions of a Muslim journalist: My life in the mainstream and alternative media by Roshan M. Salih; Pub: 5Pillars Media, Conway, UK, 2017, 400 pages. Price: £14.99/US$18.77 Pbk; £6.00/US$7.50 Amazon Kindle.
Two years ago, Crescent International ran an interview with a young journalist who had some very insightful things to say about the role of the media in both the West and in the Islamic movement (Crescent International, August 2015). Roshan Mohammed Salih, founder and editor of the British Muslim news website 5Pillars (www.5pillarsuk.com), already had an impressive list of achievements, having gained experience working for mainstream British television channels in the late 1990s, before moving on to al-Jazeera’s English news website, becoming head of news at the Islam Channel, and then head of the London news service of PressTV. Now he has added “author” to that CV.
Autobiographies and memoirs are often difficult books to read, let alone write. Too often they have a sense of self-promotion or self-justification. Few lives are truly significant in themselves, in broader historic terms, and most of those whose lives are significant have better things to do than write about themselves. The ordinary lives of unremarkable people, on the other hand, can provide invaluable windows into the places, times, and societies they live in, and sometimes the broader human experience. But those with the necessary detachment, objectivity, and insight to achieve this are unlikely ever to try. The result is that autobiographies and memoirs often leave their readers wondering why the authors thought that they had anything significant to say, or why they thought anyone might be interested in reading about them.
Roshan Salih’s book on his life “in the mainstream and alternative media” avoids falling into any of these traps for one simple reason: he is writing not because he thinks that his life has any particular significance, nor because he particularly wants to write about himself for any reason. In his introduction, he gives his objectives as being to write about the evolution of Islam in Britain since the 1990s, and to write a book about the media in Britain. Beyond that, his aim is clearly to promote and raise funds for 5Pillars UK, which he set up in 2013, and which has rapidly become the most significant Muslim media presence in Britain. The result is a memoir with peculiarly little ego, and a perspective and voice that are both casually readable and deceptively insightful.
Another problem with autobiographical writings is that the authors often have trouble balancing between their personal experiences and broader commentaries on their times and societies. Thus too many such writings are filled with unnecessary biographic details and personal anecdotes that are of great interest to the writer but little interest to anyone else.
This too Salih manages to avoid, thanks largely to his lack of ego. A certain amount of biographical detail is inevitable given the nature of the book, but throughout it serves more as context or — to use a journalistic terms — a “peg” for the issues that he wants to discuss, rather than being there for its own sake.
The structure of the book is broadly chronological, with chapters on his early life and various stages of his career, but is in no way a narrative. Instead, it begins with an Introduction giving an overview of his life and career trajectory to date in less than 20 pages, which provides the biographical framework within which the chapters of the rest of the book can be situated. The following eight chapters discuss his early life, the early years of his journalistic career, and then his experiences in various media roles, with a chapter each on al-Jazeera and the Islam Channel, three chapters on PressTV, and finally one on 5 Pillars, tellingly titled “Doing my own thing.”
Salih’s interview in Crescent focused on the nature and role of the media, including both the sophistication of the propaganda machine that is the mainstream media, and the weaknesses of Islamic media. These are both major themes in this book as well, with his own experiences providing ample supporting evidence for his broad points. The fact that this evidence is based on experience in different areas of the media, and in his work on so many different current affairs stories, from the war on terror and Iraq, to the experiences of Muslims in Britain and the ongoing war in Syria, makes his views on these issues utterly convincing.
Salih’s personal experience and insight into so many different news stories over recent years provide another key element in the book. Studded throughout the chapters are short but revelatory discussions on key episodes, each one of which could perhaps be a chapter in its own right. From his early years in Western media organizations, for example, he has a few paragraphs on covering the buildup to the war in Iraq, the US’ justifications for it, and the Western media’s role in it. In later chapters he discusses his own experiences working in Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere, and in every case his insight is acute and his conclusions are convincing. It is just a pity that there is no index to help readers navigate the fragmentary nature of these discussions.
Another area that Salih covers in some detail is his personal experience of various Muslim media organizations, from Q-News in the 1990s (the British Muslim community paper where he started as a junior reporter), via the major companies he worked for, both Western and Muslim, through to 5Pillars, in which he has of course a very different role and perspective. His views on al-Jazeera are likely to have the greatest interest, as this is the highest profile of the companies. Throughout, he pulls few punches, discussing their many failings and weaknesses, while recognising the issues that they face and being duly sympathetic to the many sincere and dedicated colleagues that he has known and worked with.
One final element of the book that deserves to be highlighted is Salih’s insight into the British Muslim community over the past two decades. It is interesting to note from his account of his early life that he grew up largely outside the mainstream of the British Muslim experience. This perhaps explains his fierce independence of mind and spirit, as well as his perspective as a semi-outsider wherever he has been through his career. At the same time, he has had firsthand experience of most of the key episodes, organizations, and figures in the community during this time. His views on these are compelling and convincing.
If there is a problem with this book, it is that it covers so much and yet so often leaves the reader wishing for more. Brevity is of course a virtue in journalism, but on many issues and episodes, more detail would be most welcome. But that is perhaps to expect too much. The fact is that Roshan Salih has produced a wide-ranging work of personal experience that verges in its depth and insight on a work of contemporary history. No one interested in the Muslim experience in the West, or a Muslim perspective on the contemporary media, can afford to miss it. One can only hope that it finds the audience that it deserves, insha’allah, and has the impact that it merits, not least aiding the continued development of 5Pillars as an independent media platform for Muslims in Britain, and as a platform for one of the finest journalistic talents and minds in the Ummah today.