GetReligion, burkas and the press

burkas and mini skirtEver since Doug LeBlanc and I started this blog, we have had problems explaining to some people what GetReligion is about and what it is not about.

Here’s the bottom line: This is a blog that tries to dissect religion-news coverage in the mainstream press. We strive to praise the good and we try to put a spotlight on stories that we believe are flawed or, perhaps, haunted by religion themes that the journalists didn’t seem to realize was there. We call those missing religious elements “ghosts.”

But we always stress that this is not a weblog for theological debates. We also cannot cover all the world’s religion news. We don’t even have the time to get to half of the stories that we wish we could feature on the blog. And television news? And international coverage? Oh man, I feel those guilt shivers already.

So we are not a religion-news blog. We are a blog about how the mainstream press covers religion.

Here’s why I bring this up. A dedicated GetReligion reader and critic, Joe Perez of the Gay Spirituality & Culture blog, sent us a pointed note the other day that went like this:

Why oh why haven’t you said anything about the Dutch burka ban news item from 11/17 among other stories. Those wacky liberal Europeans can’t so much as frown at a Pentecostal minister’s sermons without getting GetReligion exercised, but ban burkas and they get a free pass? I thought this would be a big story but the US press is ignoring it. Can you help me understand?

By the way, is that “exercised” or “exorcised”? Sorry, I could not help myself.

Actually, I have written quite a bit on this blog about some of the internal tensions in Europe these days, with the drive for multiculturalism clashing, at times, with classical liberalism. I think the legal issues raised in the burka debates are fascinating and a bit frightening for people on both sides. Clearly, this is an issue of freedom of expression and association that affects all kinds of people, even stewardesses on British Airways. What right does the state have to tell a Muslim woman that she cannot choose to wear a burka?

submission 01But there’s the issue. Some women choose to wear traditional Islamic dress — although there would be fierce debates about using “traditional” in that phrase — and others are forced to do so, often through violence. Is it cultural imperialism for a Western government to try to protect these women by banning this public expression of Muslim faith? And while we’re at it, did filmmaker Theo van Gogh need to die because he made a fierce, offensive movie (Submission) about these issues?

All of that interests me and I am glad that many newspapers have written about the issue. I, frankly, think that much of the coverage has been quite good. I have come very close to commenting on this several times — to praise the coverage. I have circulated at least 10 of these stories among our GetReligion inner circle. However, no one has elected to write on one of them — yet.

So I agree with Perez that this is an important story. He sent us a link to an Associated Press report that gave plenty of evidence that the issue is not going away anytime soon:

The issue has resonance throughout Europe[.] Former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw recently caused a stir by saying he wants Muslim women to abandon the full-face veil — a view endorsed by Prime Minister Tony Blair. In France, the center-right’s leading presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy has increasingly been adopting some of the rhetoric of the extreme right.

Germany, which also has a large Muslim immigrant community, has a law banning teachers in public schools from wearing head scarves, but no burqa ban.

In Holland, policies associated with the nationalist fringe in 2002 have been co-opted by the center: holding asylum-seekers in detention centers, more muscle for the police and intelligence services, and visa examinations that require would-be immigrants to watch videos of homosexuals kissing and of topless women on the beach. Everyone must learn to speak Dutch, and Muslim clerics must mind what they say in their Friday sermons for fear of deportation.

I have seen some fine stories on this topic in major news outlets. Has anyone seen a really bad one? Let us know.

Meanwhile, please try to understand when we simply cannot comment on every religion news story or trend that comes along. It usually means (a) we haven’t seen the same story you have, (b) we were not struck by something highly critical or positive to say about it or (c) we were simply swamped that week in our day jobs.

Patience! And repeat after me: “It’s not a religion-news blog, it’s a blog about how the mainstream press covers religion.”

Top photo from Muslim Refusenik

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • lauren

    what’s the source for the second photo?

  • tmatt

    There are quite a few photos taken from Submission on various sites all over the WWW.

  • Elmo

    You might also want to check out the difference in the reporting between AP and Reuters over the San Joaquin Episcopal Diocese resolution. It’s hardly surprising, except that Reuters almost covered the whole story.

  • joe perez

    Hmmm… not sure why you’re emphasizing that GetReligion isn’t a religion news site. Perhaps it wasn’t clear that by suggesting a treatment of media coverage of the burka ban story I was primarily interested in discovering why the story has gotten minimal attention compared to, say, the Ake Green story (the Swedish Pentecostalist minister who was threatened with jail time for giving a sermon that ran afoul of hate speech laws). I can think of no better reason than that Green’s story fits the “Christians persecuted by liberals” meme that so many bloggers push, but the burka ban story doesn’t so it gets largely ignored.

    There are 19,900 hits for “ake green” on Google; 961 hits on “burka ban”. And even today–over a year after the Ake Green story left the news–386 bloggers talking about “ake green” according to Technorati, but only 92 are talking about “burka ban” (a story that’s been in the news the past few weeks).

    Maybe GetReligion hasn’t reported on the story because, as you’ve said, the coverage that has been done has been fair. But the unanswered issue is this: why hasn’t there been more media interest in and public outrage over the burka ban story? And could such bans happen here in the US? Advocates for religious freedom need to take care that they don’t save their outrage for pet causes close to their own traditions (e.g., condemning gays from the pulpit) but also defend religious freedom even for practices (e.g., wearing the burka in public) that they may find objectionable.

    (For the record, I’m opposed to hate speech laws but not opposed to the burka bans but am open to bans on all full-facial coverings if they fulfill a genuine national security interest. I just find it interesting that so many Christians are outraged over Ake Green, and so many media stories have been written, but when the “European liberal brownshirts” come for the Muslim burkas, these stalwart defenders of religious freedom go silent.)

  • Martha

    This is going to be an unholy mess. “We believe in tolerance and free expression, so we are going to force you to be tolerant and exercise your freedom of expression – except when we don’t like what you’re expressing.”

    I do remember the issue about immigrants having to watch a video, and participating in a discussion about this a while back. It wasn’t a religion board, it wasn’t full of believers and/or fundamentalists (for whatever value of fundamentalist you want to attribute to that label) and most people felt it was very clumsily constructed, to say the least. Would non-Muslim intending immigrants be required to watch this video? What about white visitors to the Netherlands? What about people from other European states wanting to visit/live in the Netherlands? And how about if one of them said “Sorry, I don’t approve of that sort of thing” re: ‘homosexuals kissing’? Would they be slung out, or would it be ‘ah, but they’re not a potential Mad Bomber’?

    A lot of questions here.