A shower of labels in Pakistan

The mainstream coverage of the shocking assassination of the Punjab governor in Pakistan is a gripping example of job reporters continue to struggle to know how to describe the clashing doctrinal and cultural armies within the complex world of Islam.

The New York Times article is, of course, must reading if you want to gospel according to the Northeast media corridor. It’s crucial to understand that most elite journalists are deeply committed to thinking that Pakistan is a predominately secular and, of course, “moderate” nation that is struggling to control a small number of radical Muslims who, in this story, are even referred to as the “religious right.”

In other words, “secular” is good and “religious” is bad. The more religious people are the more dangerous they are. That’s the rational, American point of view. Correct?

Thus, the reason this bloody event has been so shocking is because the nation’s alleged “moderate,” secular, majority has remained silent, refusing to condemn the action of the “religious” assassin. Here is the top of the Times report.

As always, when reading this pay special attention to the labels used, as opposed to any hard, factual information about what these various groups believe about crucial issues in Pakistani life.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – The emotional funeral of the assassinated governor of Punjab and the cheering of his killer in court Wednesday highlighted the intensifying struggle between secular and religious forces in Pakistan that has grown nastier than ever in the country’s history.

As the 26-year-old assassin, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, appeared before a magistrate in Islamabad, to be charged with murder and terrorism, he was showered by hundreds of supporters with rose petals and garlands. Moderate religious leaders refused to condemn the assassination, and some hard-line religious leaders appeared obliquely to condone the attack.

Meanwhile, thousands of mourners thronged to the funeral in Lahore of the governor, Salman Taseer, a prominent voice for secularism who had recently become the focus of religious fury for speaking out against the nation’s strict blasphemy laws. Many of the nation’s top politicians, including Mr. Taseer’s chief rival in Punjab and the leader of the opposition, Nawaz Sharif, did not attend the services. Neither did President Asif Ali Zardari, a friend and ally of Mr. Taseer, but out concern for his own security.

Government ministers and party officials indicated that they were dropping the campaign to change the blasphemy laws that Mr. Taseer had championed. No senior official would be drawn to comment on the religious extremist aspect of the killing at the funeral.

As the story goes on, it is clear that one of two things are true.

Either (a) the overwhelming majority of people in Pakistan support blasphemy laws, which, for example, make it illegal for a Muslim to “insult the prophet” by converting to another faith (a right protected in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

Then again, (b) it is also possible that many oppose blasphemy laws, yet know that their own government and its security forces are so divided on the issue that it is impossible to speak freely in Pakistan without being killed. Thus, the story notes:

At a market in Islamabad on Tuesday, Mr. Qadri pumped more than 20 rounds into Mr. Taseer’s back, Pakistani media reported, and yet was not fired on by any other member of the security detail, raising still more questions about whether any of the others knew of his plans in advance.

Mr. Qadri immediately surrendered, called himself a “slave of the Prophet,” and indicated that he had killed Mr. Taseer for his campaign against the blasphemy law. …

Half a dozen policemen interviewed while on duty around the city of Lahore voiced support for the assassin or refused to condemn the murder. “He acted according to his conscience,” one said. “What is done is Allah’s will,” another said.

It is interesting to note that the Times elected not to link this horrific event with another religious issue that currently has Pakistan at a boiling point. I refer to the November sentencing of Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five, to death for blasphemy. Pope Benedict XVI and many other human-rights activists have called for her release. Her case is on appeal.

All of this, of course, has little or nothing to do with religion. Keep that in mind.

The crucial question that journalists need to answer in stories on this issue cannot be answered with mere labels. What readers need is precise information. The crucial question? Instead of using labels, reporters could state whether the groups or persons discussed in this particular story support the nation’s blasphemy law, either by action or by silence. Other stories would focus on different questions, digging out information on different issues, as required.

Sadly, vague labels also dominated many other stories on this event. Consider the top of the Associated Press report:

Lawyers showered the suspected assassin of a liberal Pakistani governor with rose petals as he entered court. Some 170 miles away, the prime minister joined thousands to mourn the loss of the politician, who dared to challenge the demands of Islamic extremists.

The cheers and tears across the country Wednesday underscored Pakistan’s journey over the past several decades from a nation defined by moderate Islam to one increasingly influenced by fundamentalists willing to use violence to impose their views.

Even so-called moderate Muslim scholars praised 26-year-old Mumtaz Qadri for allegedly killing Punjab province Gov. Salman Taseer on Tuesday in a hail of gunfire while he was supposed to be protecting him as a bodyguard. Qadri later told authorities he acted because of Taseer’s vocal opposition to blasphemy laws that order death for those who insult Islam.

And Reuters? At least this story noted the wider context, which means the Bibi case — which is ironclad.

A politician gunned down over his opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws was buried on Wednesday after a murder likely to cow further those pushing for a more liberal and secular vision of Pakistani society.

Five hundred Pakistani religious scholars said that anyone who expressed grief over the assassination of Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab province, could suffer the same fate.

Taseer, a liberal politician close to President Asif Ali Zardari, had championed the cause of a Christian woman sentenced to death under the blasphemy laws which critics say are used to target religious minorities, often to settle personal scores.

Once again, what readers need is some succinct, focused information about the issues and actions that are involved in this kind of life-and-death story — not vague labels.

Print Friendly

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.

  • Jerry

    Once again, what readers need is some succinct, focused information about the issues and actions that are involved in this kind of life-and-death story — not vague labels.

    Amen. And Amen.

    It’s also really worthwhile to understand the what the religious references are all about as well. For another interpretation the TED talk by Lesley Hazleton shows how a secular Jew has read the Quran. Note that some Christians will find one image in that video offensive and might want to listen to the talk not view it.

    The real question that people need to understand is that the root of the issue is how to interpret scripture. Sound familiar?

    The most important thing from her talk was that she presented a “how to read the Quran” for a western audience which has remarkable parallels to “how to read the Bible” including not taking verses out of context etc.

    I happen to like the Wikipedia article on apostasy in Islam because it provides differing perspectives depending on history and scholar.

    I don’t expect a news report to have all this information in it, but I do expect an aside reference to where to find more info, or, on the web, links. And I judge news stories by this perspective.

  • Jeffrey

    “in this story, are even referred to as the “religious right.””

    As the story explains, that is a term used inside Pakistan to explain the religious extremists. Should reporters not use terms used in the countries they cover out of a sense of political correctness in the U.S?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Jeffrey,

    The point is that some terms aren’t helpful. Who are the “religious right” — is it the Taliban allies who opposed the assassination? Is it the “moderates” who support it?

    It’s just not a very helpful term.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JEFFREY:

    You argument pivots on whether that term was used in Pakistan, oh, pre-Falwell. I have trouble buying that, especially in light of my conversations with journalists in that part of the world (Afghanistan, Indonesia and India mainly) on how the terms USED IN AMERICAN MEDIA have a way of bleeding into their own coverage.

    “Fundamentalist” is the big one, of course. This struck me as a perfect example, too.

    But neither of us could prove our point without a massive content analysis study of Pakistani media.

    To that I would add: What MZ said.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    We also need some honest and truthful debate on the issue of the differences between religions and their impact on individuals and societies. But the American media and scholarly conceit is that there is no essential difference between religions so words used to portray, decribe, or explain one religion can willy-nilly be used on ANY religion.
    Another problem in having such a free and open debate, in the media or elsewhere, is that those who are frequently termed “moderate” or secularized Moslems are too scared to step forward and become the next Taseer or Bibi or Rushdie.
    Violence does happen in “Christian” parts of the world. But the question for debate should be how WIDESPREAD are violence problems connected to religion especially withwith regard to rights or open-minded exchanges in Islamic areas as opposed to Christian or other areas. (Is there even a Moslem concept of God-given rights???)

  • T Sherm

    Newshour had a story on this last night that did make the explicit connection between the assassination and Asia Bibbi

    GWEN IFILL: The governor’s murder added fuel to an already heated debate over the blasphemy law. It’s been building since November, when a Christian woman was sentenced to death for allegedly insulting the Prophet Mohammed. Last week, Governor Taseer called for the woman to be granted a pardon.

    This exchange also seems to provide a little more nuance to the labels that are being used:

    ROBERT GRENIER, former CIA official: Well, I think this just underscores the extent to which those are willing to stand up to the religious right are very much taking their lives into their own hands.

    So, while Benazir Bhutto of course met a violent end, it was for somewhat different reasons. And yet it was very clear the very extreme religious right, if you will, that was responsible for her murder. And this is a message which has been clearly passed to others as well.

    GWEN IFILL: The religious right that you refer to, do they have positions in government? Do they have that kind of political power? Or is it only — is their power exercised in moments like this, moments of kind of mayhem?

    ROBERT GRENIER: Well, I think we have to be a little bit careful when we talk about the religious right in Pakistan.

    I think the distinction between extremists and relative moderates in Pakistan really doesn’t accord with our own notions of extremism and relative moderation. I think what we’re seeing here is that even relative moderates, these 500 clerics who were mentioned, they are adherents of a relatively moderate religious movement in Pakistan referred to as the Barelvis.

    They consider themselves to be somewhat moderate. They would clearly make a distinction between themselves and those who are currently using violence and terrorism to pursue their own agendas.

    GWEN IFILL: Right. Yet, they applauded this assassination.

    ROBERT GRENIER: Indeed they did.

    And I think it just shows the extent to which the default position, if you will, in Pakistan has moved very sharply to the right and toward intolerance.

    It was interesting here that initially “religious right” is qualified by an “if you will” and also the observation that our notions of extremism and relative moderation don’t seem to fit. However, they did continue to use these labels in their discussion.

    Also, this line from the NYT story,

    Moderate religious leaders refused to condemn the assassination, and some hard-line religious leaders appeared obliquely to condone the attack.

    doesn’t really seem to assertion from Newshour that,

    these 500 clerics who were mentioned, they are adherents of a relatively moderate religious movement in Pakistan referred to as the Barelvis.

    They consider themselves to be somewhat moderate. They would clearly make a distinction between themselves and those who are currently using violence and terrorism to pursue their own agendas.

    GWEN IFILL: Right. Yet, they applauded this assassination.

    ROBERT GRENIER: Indeed they did.

  • Jeffrey

    … Pakistan is a complex place and reporters are trying to explain extraordinarily complex political and religious situations in a short amount of time.

    Look at TMatt’s bromide:

    Instead of using labels, reporters could state whether the groups or persons discussed in this particular story support the nation’s blasphemy law, either by action or by silence.

    That doesn’t help a reader who is unfamiliar with Pakistan at all and is hopelessly simplistic. The conflict over blasphemy laws is about more than Christian martyrs and involves complex political realities.

    So there is going to be a short hand that doesn’t always do a story justice, but is much more helpful than focusing on the culture war divide approach over blasphemy. Wanting to put it in those terms is using an American approach that is as much more unhelpful than labels like “moderate” “progressive” and “religious right.”

  • Julia

    Since the issue at hand was support for or against the blasphemy law, that would appear to be the most relevant fact about the various groups mentioned in the story. It’s not just an innocuous culture war issue when the judicial penalty is death.

    Of course, it’s about more than a particular Christian woman. It’s also about Muslim converts and anybody (Christian or not) saying something deemed insulting to Islam or Mohammed.

    Where do those 500 scholars stand on that issue and why?

    Different topic: It’s not clear whether the assassinated man was himself a practicing Muslim. What does “secular” mean in Pakistan?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JEFFREY:

    The actual blasphemy issue can be explain in a sentence or two a whole lot better than through the use of American/political culture wars language that you seem to prefer.

    At least, that’s what I hear from journalists in the region. They cannot understand why Americans keep trying to understand their region through the use of language that has no relevance, such as left, right, moderate, fundamentalist.

    There is no left and right in Islam. There is secular vs. Muslim, from the point of view of the religious leaders all across the spectrum (think Turkey). There is faithful vs. infidel, but that doesn’t tell you much unless, again, you know what issue they are talking about.

    Ask a Shiite why Sunni is wrong. They will talk about history, theology and specific issues — AND they will discuss issues of culture and tribe, etc.

    Journalists are not in business to avoid the facts and information that lead to events. Even when you use labels, they mean nothing if you do not have concrete issues and beliefs in mind that define them.

    BTW, if you have read GR at all, you know where I am on the protection of religious minorities, PERIOD. I believe in this case the man with 20 holes in his back was taking a stand in favor of all religious minorities in his land, including Muslims who want to speak out without dying.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    It’s very clear why the media uses the term ‘religious right’ to refer to anyone they don’t like. It allows them to roll together people who think blasphemy should be punished by stoning to death, and people who think that, just maybe, perhaps, it might be advisable to have a debate on whether we want blasphemy to be federally funded with taxpayer dollars.

    Clearly those two groups of people are exactly morally equivalent, and clearly they should be referred to with the same label.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com bob smietana

    There is no left and right in Islam. There is secular vs. Muslim, from the point of view of the religious leaders all across the spectrum (think Turkey). There is faithful vs. infidel, but that doesn’t tell you much unless, again, you know what issue they are talking about

    There are however no authorities in Sunni Islam at least to say what the “faithful” “Muslim” view or practice is — no binding doctrine or teaching authorities. There are schools of law and scholars and sects of all kinds of varieties. We did a story here in TN last year about a commune of African American Sufi Muslims who follow sheik in Pakistan who’d spent much of the 1980s in the US trying to recruit followers to fight for independence for Kashmir. Some anti Muslim groups accused them of running Al-Qaeda training camps – which made no sense, given their theological ties.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com bob smietana

    One other thought.

    Is it possible for Americans in general or journalists in particular to understand the kind of religious fervor — or the kind of belief in a transcendent, holy Deity – anymore.

    Westerners used to have blasphemy laws– and thank God we don’t any more — so people don’t get killed over religious beliefs. But that may mean we can’t fully grasp the experience of people who think that offending the Divine really matters.

    Hope that makes some sense.

  • Hector

    Bob Smietana,

    England and Ireland (and probably some other European countries) have blasphemy laws, though I believe they are 1) rarely enforced, and 2) are supposed to protect all major religions, not just Christianity.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: What does “secular” mean in Pakistan?

    I don’t know about Pakistan, but in India (I’m Indian-American, FTR), ‘secular’ means something different then what it means in England or the United States. It doesn’t mean ‘nonreligious’ or ‘agnostic’, rather it means someone who may be personally religious, but does not believe religion belongs in the public square.

  • Jerry

    Bob,

    You have a point about Americans not understanding such fervor or fanaticism especially if this new book is true:

    Millennials and religion: They are the least religious generation in American history, though Millennials still say they are “spiritual.” Only 13 percent of Millennials considered any type of spirituality to be important in their lives. In fact, most Millennials don’t think about religion at all.

    http://www.thegurdontimes.com/lifestyle/x1049175725/Religion-News-Book-reveals-Millennials-as-least-religious-generation

  • Jerry

    I just noticed this today and wanted to add a coda: anyone who looks at Islam in Pakistan also needs to be aware of and reflect the various Sufi traditions there.

    This peaceful tableau is part of Sufism, Pakistan’s most popular brand of Islam, which attracts millions of worshipers at about a dozen major festivals throughout the year. Each day, thousands visit shrines dedicated to Sufi saints.

    But the rituals came under heavy attack in 2010

    http://atwar.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/06/the-islam-that-hard-liners-hate/


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X