Attack of those ‘religious conservatives’

Is it just me, or has anyone else noticed that the professionals who run many crucial mainstream newsrooms seem to be throwing up their hands, editorially speaking, when it comes to accurately describing the cracks and divisions inside the complex world of Islam?

Here’s an example from the Washington Post that would have made me spew my morning coffee, if I was a coffee drinker.

Yes, I realize that MZ posted on this same subject earlier this morning. However, this is a truly bizarre situation and we elected to analyze different stories, while looking at the same subject from two different situations.

Consider this a two-part report.

Once again, here is the context, which is the assassination of another prominent voice in the wider world of progressive Islam, although this short Post story never gets around to telling us whether this activist is or is not a Muslim or a Jew or whatever. I realize that this is a complex question, since the man himself liked to say: “I am 100 percent Palestinian and 100 percent Jewish.”

Here is the top of the report:

JERUSALEM – A prominent Israeli actor and director who mentored young Palestinians at a youth theater that he founded in the West Bank town of Jenin was fatally shot Monday in the community’s refugee camp.

Juliano Mer Khamis, 52, born to a Jewish mother and a Christian Arab father, personified the complexities of the conflict dividing his country. He served in Israel’s army as a paratrooper and portrayed Israeli Jews in film and on stage, but he cast his lot with the Palestinians.

Following in the footsteps of his mother, who ran a youth theater in Jenin in the 1980s, Mer Khamis founded the Freedom Theater in the town’s refugee camp in 2006 with Zakaria Zubeidi, a former Palestinian militant leader.

A witness said that Mer Khamis was shot five times by a masked man. Other reports also noted that he was carrying his infant son in his arms when he was gunned down. The child survived.

The crucial questions, once again, are easy to articulate: Who killed him and why? This is where to Post report includes some crucial facts and one totally bizarre label.

Mer Khamis’s activities in the Jenin camp had been criticized by religious conservatives, who objected to the mingling of boys and girls at the theater and accused the project of promoting permissive social norms. The theater was burned twice in recent years.

Mer Khamis sparked anger when he staged the play “Animal Farm,” in which actors played the roles of pigs, considered impure animals in Islam. He said he shelved plans to stage a play satirizing armed resistance after a window of his car was smashed. He also reported receiving threats.

Now, these vague, undefined religious conservatives who had — according to other reports — been threatening his life, were they merely “religious”? There is nothing else that can be said about their religious and political roots or connections? Were they religious Christians? Religious Jews? Mormons, perhaps? Or Zen Buddhists? Or is the story accurate in saying that they were simply “religious”?

One more thing. Note that this means that Mer Khamis and those who support him are, according to simple logic, best described as “secular” people or as “religious liberals.” They cannot, for example, be portrayed as believing, practicing Muslims who simply disagree with many Islamists about the interpretation of sharia law when it comes to issues such as co-ed education, the acceptance of the dramatic arts, the morality of shooting an unarmed man who is holding an infant, etc., etc.?

Nope, all we can say here is “religious” vs. “secular.” After all, aren’t all “religious conservatives” alike? Who needs precise information?

By the way, if you thought that the Post editors would straighten this out, then check out today’s update on this tragic story.

Ready? Put your coffee down.

Plays staged by the theater, such as a version of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” or a recent adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland,” prodded audiences to think critically about Palestinian society and politics. Coeducational classes drew fire from religious conservatives who objected to mingling of young men and women, and there were phone threats, two arson attempts and harassment on the street, said Nabil al-Rai, the director of the acting school.

Clearly this has been added to the newspaper’s stylebook. The question is, “Why”?

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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.

  • tmatt

    We also did two posts on this since we knew GR readers would so anxious to comment on this journalism trend.

  • Ira Rifkin

    …this short Post story never gets around to telling us whether this activist is or is not a Muslim or a Jew. I realize that this is a complex question, since the man himself liked to say: “I am 100 percent Palestinian and 100 percent Jewish.”

    Why assume that Mer Khamis was, religiously speaking, a Muslim or a Jew?

    His father was a Christian who once headed the Israeli communist party, and his mother was a secular Jew, which in this Israeli context means she was ethnically a Jew but devoid of any connection to religious Judaism.

    Given Mer Khamis’ personal history he’s as likely to have been a Zen Buddhist as anything else – but most likely was agonstic/atheist whose self-identity was ethnically rooted.

    Jenin, by the way, is a Muslim town that is today empty of any local Christian residents (some foreign Christians may live there).

  • tmatt

    Changing to post to reflect what I meant, if you look at the scope of the rest of the post.

    Thanks for this input!

  • Julia

    And just saying Palestinian doesn’t mean much either.
    There are Muslims and Christians among the folks living in what was called Palestine.

    And there are also Jews whose immediate ancestors have lived in the area for many, many years and a few who have been there straight through since Biblical times.

  • bob smietana

    Very odd indeed. What do they mean by “religious conservatives?”

  • Ira Rifkin

    Very odd indeed. What do they mean by “religious conservatives?”

    They mean conservative Muslims. Its clear if you know the context of Jenin. Unfortunately, most readers outside the Middle East do not know the context, which makes this just another example of poorly written/edited journalis – alas, one of dozens easily found every day.

  • tmatt


    Same mistake on back-to-back days? Same newspaper?

  • Ira Rifkin


    yup! same people at the helm.

  • Jerry

    I appreciate Ira Rifkin’s illuminating additions to this story.

  • http://TheIsraeliAmerican Benjamin Urrutia

    The murderers of this brave man, this Jewish Palestinian, were obvioulsy Muslim extremists. It’s silly to pussyfoot around that.

  • Terry

    If Ira believes that there are no local Christians in Jenin, then I invite him to contact Fr Vito at Holy Redeember Latin Rite parish who I suspect will tell him otherwise.