Devil is in the (religious) details

Talk about a tweet going viral.

A Twitter post by Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Missouri, voicing frustration with the budget deal reached by congressional leaders and President Barack Obama did just that:

This deal is a sugar-coated satan sandwich. If you lift the bun, you will not like what you see.

He followed up that tweet with this one:

This debt deal is antithetical to everything the great religions of the world teach, which is take care of the poor, aged, vulnerable.

Soon, media all over the place were serving up sugar-coated Satan sandwiches — and, really, who can blame them?

“A Lucifer Panini?” asked CNN’s Political Ticker.

ABC News put its investigative prowess to work on the “Satan Sandwich”:

Yesterday, Representative Emanuel Cleaver used the term “Satan Sandwich” to refer to the debt deal cooked up by House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama (or should we say, Commander in Chef?). This title attracted a lot of media attention, but as it turns out, Rep. Cleaver, D-S.C., was not the first to coin the term.

In a deliciously literal form, a “Sugar-Coated Satan Sandwich” refers to a red velvet variation on the Southern Moon Pie. Made with red devil’s food cake and marshmallow filling, you can find the recipe here.

CNN, too, delved into the potential ingredients:

What’s in a Satan sandwich? Deviled ham? Goat horn peppers?Marmite? (Surely that is not the foodstuff of the angels.)

Politico noted:

Even Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi agreed with Cleaver, saying it comes with a side of “Satan fries,” though she says she will support it.

Fun, fun, fun!

But, oh, I almost forgot: This is GetReligion. So I guess we better explore any potential ghosts related to this story. Anybody see a religion angle?

As best I could tell, most media took rather shallow bites of the Satan sandwich and steered clear of the meatier parts. By that, I mean they did not seem all that interested in the idea of the debt deal being “antithetical to everything the great religions of the world teach.”

Honestly, I don’t begrudge the media a little lightheartedness. At the same time, just a sentence or two could have provided much-needed context about Cleaver and why he might make such a statement.

For example, here’s how Mediabistro’s FishbowlDC handled it:

Deeply religious, Cleaver is no stranger to injecting biblical references into his political theater. As a United Methodist minister, he prays in his office and apartment several times a day.

See how easy — and tasty — that was?

Times and Catholics: Call to journalistic action

Once again, we face the same question when discussing a New York Times news feature about the Church of Rome.

I get the Times on tree pulp on weekdays at my office on Capitol Hill, but not on weekends. The rest of my interaction with the world’s most powerful newspaper takes place online. This sometimes leaves me wondering precisely how certain news stories were played in the analog edition.

For example, can someone out there in reader-land tell me if an “analysis” label graced the Times print edition of the recent story that ran under this headline: “Catholic Group Based in Chicago Leads Protest Against Church.” Surely it ran with an “analysis” tag, because it certainly isn’t a traditional, American model of the press news report. At times, it reads like a public relations release.

I just love the cutline on the main photo, which is a totally stereotypical pic of Catholic hands holding a rosary. No, it’s not the photo with this post, but it’s one totally like it. The cutline says:

The Roman Catholic Church in the United States is divided on the ordination of women. The group Call to Action, based in Chicago, supports such a policy.

Actually, Catholics in America are somewhat divided on the issue of the ordination of women (much more so the ordination of married men) but the Catholic CHURCH in the USA, in terms of its governing institutions, is not divided on the issue. If one includes seminary faculty, there are some cracks. But the cutline makes this sound like, oh, the Anglican Church’s local, national and global wars about the moral status of sex outside of the sacrament of marriage.

The story flies its PR flag high, right at the top:

It’s a long way from the Vatican to Roscoe Village, but a group based in that North Side neighborhood is leading a high-profile protest among American priests that challenges the Roman Catholic Church’s ban on ordination of women.

The group, Call to Action, an organization for reform-minded Catholics, has collected signatures of more than 150 priests — including 8 in Chicago — on a petition defending a liberal priest, the Rev. Roy Bourgeois, who is being threatened with dismissal for his public support for ordaining women. In an increasingly conservative church, the rebellion has been hailed as a remarkable moment for liberals in the church.

“We just got on the phones and started telling priests, ‘We’ve got to support Father Roy,’ ” said Nicole Sotelo, 33, a leader of Call to Action, which bills itself as the nation’s largest organization for reform-minded Catholics.

Two things, out of many:

(1) “Reform” is one of the most loaded words in the journalism dictionary, because it already assumes that one side is right and the other wrong. “Reforming” financial practices is one thing. Certainly, reforming clerical policies that protect lawbreakers is an appropriate use of the word. But “reforming” the doctrine of the male Catholic priesthood, which is unbroken in the ancient churches of the east and west?

Now this is an issue that journalist must cover fairly and accurately, because debates are taking place in some circles. But who gets to decide who is “reforming” who? Unbiased language is urgently needed there, rather than simply using Call to Action’s own pet phrases.

(2) The story states this as fact: “In an increasingly conservative church, the rebellion has been hailed as a remarkable moment for liberals in the church.” Let’s simply nod at the passive voice sourcing. Nod. Now, what does the word “church” mean in this sentence? Is this the whole global Catholic Church? Is it the American church culture? Are we talking about Chicago?

It is significant that a small number of priests are putting their names semi-publicly on the record in support of the Womenpriests movement. That’s a story. It’s important that some priests are doing that (especially if they are not retired). Now, assemble a list of bishops — the only people who can ordain priests — who are signing on with the Womenpriests movement and you will have a “rebellion” in an accurate sense of the word.

The story includes a long unattributed summary of Catholic activism in Chicago, a city with a rich history in this regard. It is, of course, a totally one-sided list, ending with:

In the ’80s and ’90s, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the head of the Archdiocese of Chicago, was a leading national voice in opposition to the death penalty.

These days, the Rev. Michael Pfleger invokes the Catholic mission and obligation in pushing for social causes that serve the poor and reach out to blacks, even as his style sometimes draws the wrath of his boss, Cardinal Francis George.

Smooth, isn’t it. The former cardinal was a good man (opposition to the death penalty, of course, is common among many conservative and orthodox Catholic bishops, as well) and the new one is, well, sort of a racist for opposing the “style” of a priest who reaches out to African Americans?

So what else is Call to Action up to?

Besides the ordination of women, the group calls for equal rights for gay men and lesbians, giving priests the option to marry and accepting back into the fold divorced Catholics who have remarried.

Call to Action has also focused on protecting church workers, citing cases of Catholic employees’ being dismissed for holding views contrary to Vatican orthodoxy or belonging to organizations like Planned Parenthood deemed unacceptable by the hierarchy.

Gasp. You mean that Catholic organizations might have a right to hire workers who do not actively oppose “Vatican orthodoxy,” which I assume would mean centuries of church teachings? The church may want to opt out of employing those who oppose what it teaches to be truth? I am sure that academic groups, scientific groups and political groups would never do such a thing.

From a strictly journalistic perspective, note the paragraphs rolling by in opinion essay form, almost totally free of attribution to on-the-record voices.

But wait, there is one conservative voice:

Although many Chicago priests and nuns belong to the group, Cardinal George has kept his distance. “The archdiocese has no relationship with Call to Action,” said Susan Burritt, the spokeswoman for the Chicago Archdiocese, “and therefore has no comment on Call to Action’s policies or statements.”

Unlike, of course, Bernardin. There is no discussion of the facts about how the late cardinal did or did not support this particular group. The implication is that he backed them.

Later on, there is a fact paragraph that also deserves some two-sided unpacking:

The organization has 57 chapters and 25,000 members nationwide. Nuns and priests account for about 30 percent of the members who attend the group’s annual conference.

How many people attend those conferences? How many nuns and priests are we talking about and, oh, what is the average age in this crowd?

Toward the very end, another conservative does appear (not counting Pope Benedict XVI). This produces the ultra-strange ending to this essay:

The Rev. Anthony Brankin, the longtime pastor at St. Thomas More Church who now serves at St. Odilo Church in Berwyn, is an outspoken conservative and critic of Call to Action. Father Brankin describes members of the liberal Catholic movement as lost souls, disenfranchised by both their own church and a larger society that views Catholicism as largely irrelevant.

Pope Benedict XVI has spoken of a more faithful church, even if that means it becomes smaller.

Father Brankin said: “Really, when you think about what has happened in modern society, who but aging feminist nuns and their hangers-on clerics even cares whether women should be priests or not?”

But the activists at Call to Action note that while church leaders might not be open to dissent, they seem to be paying attention.

So conservative dioceses are shrinking and the progressive ones growing, right? The orders led by liberal nuns have waves of young sisters and the conservative orderss are shrinking and aging, right? The same thing is true with priests, from diocese to diocese?

This story, in other words, covers one half of a debate, while using very few on-the-record facts on that side. The viewpoint of pro-Vatican Catholics is totally missing. There are facts over there, too, that needed to be included. What we need here is some additional journalism to complete the picture. The reporter could even attempt to report facts that would make activists on both sides upset or nervous.

That is, if this is a news story, as opposed to an “analysis” essay or even an editorial.

IMAGE: Available at AllPosters.com

Auspicious start to Ramadan coverage

Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, began yesterday. During the month, participating Muslims refrain from eating or drinking during daylight hours. Muslims believe Ramadan was the month during which the first verses of the Koran were revealed to the Islamic prophet Mohammed. The month is based on the Islamic lunar calendar and moves back about 11 days each year. So I guess that’s why it seems to come earlier each year.

I’ve been seeing a few feature stories here and there but wanted to highlight this one from the Journal-Sentinel of Milwaukee.

Written by Annysa Johnson, the article describes the work of a hafiz, a term that describes Muslims who have memorized the Koran. It is a great way to advance annual stories about Ramadan while also doing the important work of basic education about Muslim practice:

The boy rocks gently on his knees, eyes closed, as if lost in meditation. The young imam tilts his head to listen, and the boy begins to chant.

It is a rhythmic, almost musical, intonation in Arabic as he recites, from memory, long passages of the Qur’an.

Like the imam before them, the boys at Masjid Al-Huda in Greenfield are working to “make hifz,” to memorize and recite the Muslim holy book in its entirety.

One who succeeds will become a hafiz, a guardian of the faith, whose job it is to preserve the Qur’an – not on the printed page, but in his heart and mind.

“He is preserving the word of God,” said Al-Huda Imam Noman Hussain, a Chicago-born hafiz who at 22 has mastered the Qur’an in all 10 Arabic dialects.

The article, which does a great job of succinctly translating each of the terms it uses, explains the particular significance of the hafiz during Ramadan. During the month, the Koran is read from beginning to end, one chapter each night. Some of the boys mentioned in the lede will take part in that:

“It’s a great responsibility,” said Omar Syed, 12, whose older brother was chosen to recite last year. “When you’re in class and you hear the voices, you want to be like Shuraim and Sudais,” he said – a nod to the two famed huffaz of the Grand Mosque in Mecca.

We get a lot of detail about the classes at this particular mosque as well as context to how they compare to others. The reporter includes details about the pious postures of the students down to the physical description of the mosque.

More than anything, we get great quotes:

“I’m looking for that most perfect pronunciation – but also that he is living according to the Qur’an,” said Hussain, who can trace his lineage as a hafiz 40 teachers back to the Prophet Muhammad.

“If one recites beautifully, but does not practice upon it, you won’t call him a great hafiz.”

That is one of the reasons Al-Huda instituted the hifz and Qur’an study programs, said Aijaz Noor, a Milwaukee physician and president of the masjid. Those who commit violence in the name of Islam, he said, “don’t understand their religion.”

“We want them to be good Muslims and good citizens of this country?.?.?. and not on the fringe,” Noor said.

Again, the article is full of detail that anyone unfamiliar with this aspect of Muslim religious life will appreciate. Do let us know if you see any other particularly good or bad coverage of Ramadan this month. I, for one, am glad to see something that’s not related to parsing the words of President Obama’s annual greeting or something else more political than religious.

Where’s the grass-roots reporting?

A front-page story in Sunday’s New York Times featured this main headline and subhead:

Behind an Anti-Shariah Push

Orchestrating a Seemingly Grass-Roots Campaign

The 2,800-word report on “The Man Behind the Anti-Shariah Movement” carried a Nashville dateline, but Rick Bragg could have provided more actual details from the Volunteer State from the comfort of his hotel room. 

The top of the story:

NASHVILLE – Tennessee’s latest woes include high unemployment, continuing foreclosures and a battle over collective-bargaining rights for teachers. But when a Republican representative took the Statehouse floor during a recent hearing, he warned of a new threat to his constituents’ way of life: Islamic law.

The representative, a former fighter pilot named Rick Womick, said he had been studying the Koran. He declared that Shariah, the Islamic code that guides Muslim beliefs and actions, is not just an expression of faith but a political and legal system that seeks world domination. “Folks,” Mr. Womick, 53, said with a sudden pause, “this is not what I call ‘Do unto others what you’d have them do unto you.’ ”

Similar warnings are being issued across the country as Republican presidential candidates, elected officials and activists mobilize against what they describe as the menace of Islamic law in the United States.

Now, right off the bat, the Times seems intent on making Womick sound like a complete idiot. With his state facing real economic and educational concerns, he’s wasting time voicing concerns about Shariah. Amazing.

What does Womick have to say about his lack of concern for the truly important issues of the day? Well, that’s a potentially good question. But the above opening section of the story represents the entirety of Womick’s cameo appearance (playing the role of modern-day moron).

Good news for Womick, though: He’s not the main villain in this story. That, um, honor belongs to someone else. To wit:

A confluence of factors has fueled the anti-Shariah movement, most notably the controversy over the proposed Islamic center near ground zero in New York, concerns about homegrown terrorism and the rise of the Tea Party. But the campaign’s air of grass-roots spontaneity, which has been carefully promoted by advocates, shrouds its more deliberate origins.

In fact, it is the product of an orchestrated drive that began five years ago in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in the office of a little-known lawyer, David Yerushalmi, a 56-year-old Hasidic Jew with a history of controversial statements about race, immigration and Islam. Despite his lack of formal training in Islamic law, Mr. Yerushalmi has come to exercise a striking influence over American public discourse about Shariah.

Working with a cadre of conservative public-policy institutes and former military and intelligence officials, Mr. Yerushalmi has written privately financed reports, filed lawsuits against the government and drafted the model legislation that recently swept through the country — all with the effect of casting Shariah as one of the greatest threats to American freedom since the cold war.

Notice anything missing from the above summary of this report?

It could be that it’s entirely accurate and the facts are 100 percent correct. From a journalistic perspective, though, my problem is the lack of attribution. Actually, that’s my major problem with the entire story: So much is reported as fact without — in my view — adequate sourcing and attribution.

Keep reading, and the Times uses a blanket approach and broad statements to tie Yerushalmi to the laws that have passed in Tennessee, Oklahoma and Arizona, but there’s no specific evidence presented of his involvement in those states. No state officials who supported anti-Shariah measures are asked:

* Have you ever heard of David Yerushalmi or talked to him?

* Are you aware that he has made controversial statements about race, immigration and Islam? By supporting the anti-Shariah measure in your state, did you, in fact, endorse such statements?

* Did the measure in your state result from grass-roots concerns or an orchestrated effort?

The story does manage to make a sweeping Norway reference:

The more tangible effect of the movement, opponents say, is the spread of an alarmist message about Islam — the same kind of rhetoric that appears to have influenced Anders Behring Breivik, the suspect in the deadly dual attacks in Norway on July 22. The anti-Shariah campaign, they say, appears to be an end in itself, aimed at keeping Muslims on the margins of American life.

This is one of those stories where you wonder if a piece about apples and oranges has been combined into a really weird-tasting fruit concoction. Is it a story about one crazy man’s influence? Or is it a story about whether anti-Shariah state laws are good or bad? Or is it both? If it is both, is it really possible for a single story to tackle both questions in a satisfactory way?

Maybe I’m being overly critical.

Read the full story and weigh in. If you decide to comment, remember that GetReligion is a journalism site and not a place for advocates on either side to argue the issues. In other words, let’s stay focused on the media coverage questions. Please.

About Baltimore, bullying and St. Paul’s School

Let me preface my remarks about the following Baltimore Sun story with a bit of personal history.

I need to state up front that I have only lived in Anne Arundel County on the south side of Baltimore for a total of eight years and have only read the Sun on dead-tree pulp and online for a total of 12 years. Around these parts, that still makes me a bit of a newcomer.

Thus, I am sure that there are kazillions of obvious things that I do not know, but should know, about the old and very complex city of Baltimore and the many fascinating institutions in and around it.

End of confession. I wanted to say all of that because I am about to get very, very picky about a recent Sun story about a conflict in what is apparently a well known local private school.

You see, something is missing in this story and the lack of one crucial fact left me very confused, even after reading it top to bottom two or three times. The report starts out like this:

A Baltimore County mother is suing St. Paul’s School for Boys and two administrators for $150,000, claiming that her son was bullied for years by other students and the school did nothing to protect him.

In a lawsuit claiming breach of contract and negligence, Nannette Krupa of Nottingham argues that the school in Brooklandville effectively expelled her son a half-year before he was due to graduate while not disciplining other students, including some attending the school on athletic scholarships, who she claims attacked her son.

In an interview … Krupa said that her son was attacked three times physically, most severely in a bathroom when he was a freshman, and in between those incidents was a frequent target of abuse. His lunch was often stolen, his backpack was flipped inside out and he was called names, she said.

The suit was filed last month against the school, naming also Headmaster Thomas J. Reid and John Marinacci, the Upper School dean of students. The suit, which identifies Krupa’s son only as “NZ,” contends that the boy sought help several times from Marinacci, who “failed and/or refused to take any action to prevent the verbal harassment, physical threats and battery suffered by NZ” at the school.

As you would imagine, the school declined comment. So did the members of it’s legal team.

At the moment, bullying is a hot topic in American education — which makes this a hotter story than normal. And then there is the name of the school — St. Paul’s.

I don’t know about you, but, as someone who is really interested in religion news and events, that name intrigued me. Thus, I read the story closely. Then I read it again. Then I ran a Google search for “Catholic, St. Paul’s, school” only to find that that there is no Catholic school with that name that fits the details of this story.

Now, this lengthy news story goes on to offer many details about the alleged harassment of this young man, leading to him taking a stand that got him in trouble. Near the end there is this most strange summary:

Krupa said in the interview that her son, who is 18, was never officially told that he had been expelled from St. Paul’s, but he was not allowed to attend this spring’s commencement ceremony. She said his status was unclear from December through March, as she and her lawyers tried to negotiate an arrangement with the school that would allow him to graduate with his classmates.

“He wrote letters of apology, I appealed to them,” Krupa said. “He doesn’t understand why they would treat him this way,” said Krupa, whose 6-year-old daughter will be starting her third year this fall at St. Paul’s.

Krupa said she learned that he would not receive his St. Paul’s diploma in a March conversation with an official at St. John’s College in Annapolis. She said the college has accepted her son for admission in the fall.

And so forth and so on. So what is my picky question?

It seems that the Sun‘s editorial team believes that all of its readers are already familiar with St. Paul’s and, thus, would not leap to the conclusion that this is one of the area’s many, many Catholic schools. I think this is a rather important detail in an era when Catholic schools are being accused of all kinds of things. Bullying has become a rather symbolic issue.

Thus, I find it strange that, in this long daily story, the Sun team could not spare a single sentence to fill in a bit of the history of this institution. It took me a few clicks of a mouse to learn that:

Our School’s philosophical beliefs are rooted in our historic relationship with Old St. Paul’s Episcopal Church and its Anglican traditions. These roots help us define the institutional and educational practices that support our goal of helping each member of our community achieve individual excellence. …

We believe it is our community’s responsibility to stress morals and values in all areas of school life. We expect all members of the community to respect others, be responsible, treasure integrity, and to live with honor.

In other words, this is a private Episcopal school.

Does this mean that the school is wrong in this case? Of course not. Does this mean that I am saying the school is not a wonderful place and worthy of its acclaim (I assume it’s rather famous, since the newspaper does not need to identify it)? Of course not. In fact, I am not saying anything about the school at all.

My point is journalistic. I simply think the story needed one line of type offering a bit of history that identifies this school, since journalists are not supposed to assume that readers know all of the background details on this kind of event. This is especially true if there is any chance for confusion.

Truth be told, I am rather sure that if a Catholic school was being accused of harboring and protecting bullies we would have been told that it was a Catholic school. That might even be a crucial element in the story, with calls to the archdiocese for comment, etc., etc. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but I would be surprised if I was.

IMAGE: The entrance gate at St. Paul’s School.

Breivik, Bin Laden and moral equivalency

Normally we like to look at news treatment, as opposed to opinion pieces, related to religion. But there were two analysis items from this weekend that were worth considering. The first came from the New York Times and was written by Thomas Hegghammer, a Norwegian expert on Islamist violence. It’s helpful for those of us trying to analyze how to define this rather idiosyncratic terrorist.

Hegghammer says that the first glance of the 1,500-page manifesto by Anders Behring Breivik, the accused terrorist in the Norway attacks, might lead you to think it’s a “fairly standard ideological treatise of the far right.” But he notes that Breivik’s worldview doesn’t fit well into any of the subcategories of white supremacism, unltranationalism and Christian fundamentalism:

For example, although Mr. Breivik says he fears “the extinction of the Nordic genotypes,” racial hygiene is not high on his agenda. He wants to expel, not kill, Muslims in Europe, and he does not mind Jews and non-Muslim Asians. Similarly, while Mr. Breivik says he is “extremely proud” of his “Odinistic/Norse heritage,” he is not a Norwegian nationalist — his “declaration of independence” applies to all of Europe. And while he is Christian, he admits that “I’m not going to pretend I’m a very religious person.”

Instead, Mr. Breivik’s goal is to reverse what he views as the Islamization of Western Europe; indeed, he sees himself as a soldier in a defensive war against “Islamic imperialism.” In his view, Muslims are colonizing Europe, helped by high birth rates and a doctrine of multiculturalism advocated by the European elite. Islam, for him, represents an existential threat to European civilization, a threat that must be countered at all costs. The best way to do so, he argues, is to wage war against “cultural Marxists” — his label for the European political and intellectual elite — because they are the traitors who allow the colonization to take place.

Having read the manifesto, and having failed to summarize it succinctly, I must commend Hegghammer and his editors for doing just that. Anyway, then we’re told about the counterjihad movement and its roots. The author explains that the manifesto suggests he was inspired by this movement’s writers but also that these writers don’t advocate violence and have condemned his actions.

Hegghammer argues that Breivik’s violence has more in common with something other than the counterjihad movement:

Indeed, the more belligerent part of Mr. Breivik’s ideology has less in common with counterjihad than with its archenemy, Al Qaeda. Both Mr. Breivik and Al Qaeda see themselves as engaged in a civilizational war between Islam and the West that extends back to the Crusades. Both fight on behalf of transnational entities: the “ummah” — or “community” of all Muslims — in the case of Al Qaeda, and Europe in the case of Mr. Breivik. Both frame their struggle as defensive wars of survival. Both hate their respective governments for collaborating with the outside enemy. Both use the language of martyrdom (Mr. Breivik calls his attack a “martyrdom operation”). Both call themselves knights, and espouse medieval ideals of chivalry. Both lament the erosion of patriarchy and the emancipation of women.

The analysis continues from there and Hegghammer even wonders if a violent anti-Muslim movement will emerge in the West. He wonders if this hypothetical movement will attack the European elites for their treason or whether they will attack Muslims as the enemy. Of course, a response of “both” would be a similar strategy to al Qaeda and other Islamic militant movements. These movements are just as keen, if not more keen, to go after the elites that threaten them in their home countries as they are civilian enemies.

In any case, it’s a very good analysis piece. The other analysis piece came from the Associated Press’ Jesse Washington, headlined “Christian Terrorist? Norway Case Strikes Debate“.

When the “enemy” is different, an outsider, it’s easier to draw quick conclusions, to develop stereotypes. It’s simply human nature: There is “us,” and there is “them.” But what happens when the enemy looks like us — from the same tradition and belief system?

That is the conundrum in the case of Norway and Anders Behring Brevik, who is being called a “Christian extremist” or “Christian terrorist.”

As westerners wrestle with such characterizations of the Oslo mass murder suspect, the question arises: Nearly a decade after 9/11 created a widespread suspicion of Muslims based on the actions of a fanatical few, is this what it’s like to walk a mile in the shoes of stereotype?

“Absolutely,” said Mark Kelly Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. “It clearly puts us in a position where we can’t simply say that extreme and violent behavior associated with a religious belief is somehow restricted to Muslim extremists.”

“It speaks to cultural assumptions, how we are able to understand something when it (comes from) us,” Tyler said. “When one of us does something terrible, we know that’s not how we all think, yet we can’t see that with other people.”

The article goes on to explain that stereotypes come from an impulse to categorize and that it’s easier to stereotype groups you don’t belong to than ones you do belong to. And that’s why people thought Al Qaeda might be behind the deadly attack in Oslo (the idea that this might be a rational guess is not engaged). But they were wrong. You know how this story goes. Let’s do a quick sideline to correct the myth that will not die:

Mark Juergensmeyer, editor of the book “Global Religions: An Introduction” and a sociology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, wrote an essay likening Breivik to Timothy McVeigh, the American who killed 168 people in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. It was the deadliest terrorist attack on U.S. soil until 9/11.

McVeigh and Breivik were both “good-looking young Caucasians, self-enlisted soldiers in an imagined cosmic war to save Christendom … and both were Christian terrorists,” Juergensmeyer wrote.

Of course, McVeigh was not a Christian terrorist. I’ll slow down and repeat with another link: McVeigh was not a Christian terrorist. Yes, George W. Bush and a variety of other folks have repeated the claim. But not everything George W. Bush says is true. This would be an example of just that.

So if you’re wanting to make a morally relativistic argument, you have to use a source other than McVeigh. Of course, sources seem to be a problem in general for this reporter since the next person quoted is Alex Pareene. Pareene is shrill and profane, but not a theologian or anyone who should be within 100 feet of a serious article about religion. For that matter, neither should the next person quoted in the piece, one Bill O’Reilly. I mean, come on, it’s getting silly.

The whole point of the piece is that the universal Christian response to Breivik as “he’s not one of us” is the equivalent of the universal response of Muslims to Osama bin Laden and his ilk as “they’re not us.”

And that’s where the piece fails to engage a pretty obvious counterargument. It’s true that Breivik’s complex views make it easier to see the folly in painting all Muslims with the same broad brush. That’s a great idea for an article.

But it’s also true that there are differences between Al Qaeda, for instance, and Breivik. Here’s one, from a new poll of youth in Malaysia:

The statement “Osama bin Laden is an Islamic liberation fighter” was endorsed by 51.1% to 28.1% among Indonesian youths and “Osama bin Laden is a freedom fighter” was endorsed by 62.4% to 33.3% among Malaysian youths.

Or what about that Pew poll from last December that polled Muslims in just six countries and found the equivalent of 150 million folks supporting Al Qaeda?

It’s certainly worthwhile to explore the topic of extremism in every religion. But a good report should go further than just raising the issue. What are the similarities between Breivik and Al Qaeda? I myself found quite a few when reading the Breivik manifesto.

But just as importantly, what are the differences?

I know people on all sides have been having quite a fun time pointing out the double standards in how the media treat various terror attacks. But if we’re going to have a big rally for moral equivalency, I’d like to see a tad more depth than “Oh yeah? What about the Crusades”-type rhetoric.

The story does have an opportunity to discuss just that, but fails to get into specifics. Psychology professor Art Markman is quoted saying that people justify their own behavior but not others:

“If you’re a Christian and you see this Norway murderer, you say, I have these teachings and I haven’t murdered anyone, so the teachings can’t be the problem,” Markman said. “But if you’re talking about the ‘other,’ it’s different. And if you don’t know what the actual Muslim teachings are, it seems like a plausible explanation.”

Some Christians say they do know the Muslim teachings, and that they are the problem. “There is a lot of text to justify the link between Islam and terrorism,” said Michael Youssef, founder of the Evangelical-Anglican Church of the Apostles in Atlanta. “In the Quaranic text, and in the tradition that was written by the followers.”

Youssef, who is identified as Egyptian-born to Christian parents, is quoted saying something about how Jesus was non-violent as opposed to some other unnamed guy “who waged war and killed people.” Presumably he’s talking about Muhammad who — whatever else you might say about him — waged war and killed people. But while there would certainly be plentiful opportunity to explain what’s being referenced in the quote, we get nothing. That seems fair neither to the critics of Muhammad’s violence or its defenders. And it’s not fair to people who may just be ignorant of Muhammad and his actions.

Instead, the whole line of discussion is just dropped like a molten spud. Youssef’s quote is immediately followed by an international human rights lawyer who wrote a book on Islamic pacifism and who says that the Norway attacks prove that terrorism can be committed by any race, nationality or religion. Which has nothing to do with engaging Youssef’s point.

Again, it is certainly true that people of all religions have engaged in violence. But is the net result of Breivik’s murder spree going to be that all stories about religion and violence boil down to “they all do it”? Are we capable of seeing the distinction between a dude acting alone with, at this point, no following and a large global movement with many leaders and supporters? Supporters of Islamic extremism are a minority in most Muslim countries. But there’s a dramatic difference between the level of support a killer such as Osama bin Laden had and the level of support a killer such as Breivik has. Media coverage should not ignore that distinction when pushing the moral equivalency meme.


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