Seven candles: ‘What the Century said’ (updated)

Since your GetReligionistas went pretty ga-ga the other day while celebrating post No. 6,000, I think it is wise to try to stay calm while noting that today — Feb. 1 — marks the site’s seventh birthday. I mean, 10 people left comments to celebrate that previous landmark! Nevertheless, we plunged ahead and did a podcast to mark the event, too.

So, let’s not bury the lede: We’re still here, trying to do that thing that we do. I could reprint the whole introductory post from Day 1, but I think that I’ll just give newcomers the link to that.

But we need some kind of meditation on some of the lessons of the past seven years. Thus, here is a short blog item from The Christian Century website that takes one of our major themes and applies it to one of the events — the uprisings in Egypt — that we have been discussing quite a bit here in recent weeks.

So, under the headline “No religious dimension?”, Amy Frykholm writes:

In an interview with Oxford professor Michael Willis about Tunisia, Radio Free Europe correspondent Hossein Aryan noted that “there has not been a religious dimension to the unrest” in the Middle East.

This is quickly becoming the conventional wisdom. The media report that protests throughout the Arab world are “remarkably secular,” “nonideological” and “free of sectarian influence.”

It’s time to get our terms straight. What people mean when they say “no religious dimension” is that religious conflict is not playing a role in the events. “Religious,” in media language, is shorthand for “religious extremism.”

Yet several of these photos of the protests in Egypt show protesters praying together, which suggests that there may well be religious dimensions to the drama. The more interesting — and accurate — question is not “why is religion taking a back seat?” but, “what are the religious dimensions to these political protests?” If conventional wisdoms of all kinds are being challenged by the events in Egypt, let’s allow the idea that “religion” means extremism and violence to be another idea that falls.

To which I would respond, “What she said.”

At the same time, as I have stressed in my posts about the Coptic believers, Egypt has a long history of religious tensions — many centuries, in fact — and they have often led to violence. Meanwhile, we are talking about a land in which reporters must emphasize that religious minorities play a major role and, at the same time, it is totally wrong to assume that there is anything that can be called THE Muslim point of view.

Those who are tempted to believe that longstanding religious tensions in Egypt have vanished need to look more carefully. Here’s the top of a recent Los Angeles Times story that scratched just beneath the surface of this weekend’s protests, which kicked into high gear after Friday-morning prayers in mosques across Cairo:

The medical students marched and sweated in protest.

“The fear is broken,” yelled Bahaa Mohammed. “We want freedom.”

“And Islam,” said his friend. “We need Islam.”

“Yes,” said Mohammed, hushing the young man. “But first freedom and the will of the people.”

The exchange in the streets of Cairo between the students, both members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, is a telling glimpse into the Arab world’s largest Islamic organization as it joins other opposition groups seeking to overthrow President Hosni Mubarak. The Brotherhood is muting its religious message amid a popular revolt that is not driven by Islam or politics.

Stay tuned. GetReligion has lots more work to do.

Also, it must be said that we truly appreciate the readers who have come along for the ride and, especially, those who — day after day — send us URLs pointing toward stories worthy of criticism, positive or negative. Thank you one and all.

UPDATE: The protesters are, to some degree, supporters of the rule of law and democracy. However, what would Egypt demand at the ballot box? Take a look at the statistics in this Gallup poll on the role of Sharia law. So 64 percent want Sharia to be the nation’s only source of law. Another 24 percent say that Sharia must be a source of law, but not the only source. Then 9 percent said they “did not know” or declined to answer. Meanwhile, the percentage saying that Sharia should NOT be a source of law? That would be 3 percent.

So 12 percent of Egyptians either opposed Sharia or declined — perhaps for the sake of safety — to respond. And the percentage of Christians in Egypt, primarily Coptic believers? That is estimated to be between 10 and 12 percent.

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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.

  • Dave

    Happy Birthday!!

  • Julia

    Happy 7th Birthday !!

  • Jerry

    My “happy birthday” as well.

  • tmatt

    Folks, please check out the update. Sobering.

  • Julia

    re: Islam and what’s going on in Cairo.

    Check out the amazing article in a respected Egyptian weekly incorporating 21 talking points for a new discussion about how Islam can address the modern world. These points were derived from interviews with 23 well-known Muslims. One of the major issues was how to separate Islam from politics; another was about the possibility of even a Christian being elected President.
    The article was spread by 12,000 + Egyptian websites and blogs in the days leading up to the demonstrations.

    Perhaps this article gave hope and backing to Egyptians to act as one instead of throwing around religious rhetoric in starting a new venture in choosing their own government?

    Original document in Arabic:

  • Jerry

    Terry, you’re “sobering” comment ignores a gigantic, black hole sized “get religion” problem. The article and presumably the survey did not define what sharia meant to the people answering the poll. And another critical point is does this definition differ between the countries? Until those fundamental questions are answered, then the poll is almost meaningless to me and any story based on that poll a sand castle with not much substance.

  • MichaelV

    I hope you all got a piece of non-jpg cake.

  • Jerry

    538 aka a NYTimes blog analyzes why relying on polls being accurate can be a mistake and specifically writes about the differences between two polls in Egypt. It’s yet another reason to be cautious about drawing conclusions from a poll.

    There is also a difference in question wording: the BBC survey asks whether the United States has had mainly a positive or negative influence on world affairs, whereas the Pew poll asks whether people have a positive or negative view of the United States. While we would expect these results to be correlated, these are different questions and might elicit different responses.

    Two other factors might have come into play in explaining the differences — and I suspect, given the magnitude of the discrepancy, that one of the two is the culprit. One is language issues. Both surveys were conducted across many different countries and had to be translated into several different languages: Arabic, for instance, in Egypt’s case. It’s possible that either or both surveys lost something in translation — anything from a fairly subtle shade of meaning, to an outright poor or erroneous translation.

    Another issue is cluster sampling, a technique used in the Pew poll and also I would suspect — although it discloses less about its methodology — in the BBC survey…