The donuts in the details

frying_doughnutsThe Chicago Tribune‘s coverage of what appears to be a minor news story about a contract dispute between a national franchise (Dunkin’ Donuts) and a local franchisee deserves a mention of praise for its accuracy and relative depth on the tricky religious and legal angles. For starters, the reporter portrays the article’s primary subject precisely and in a way that conveys the information readers need to know:

An Arab-American owner of a Chicago-area Dunkin’ Donuts store has to give up his franchise after he lost his long-running legal battle with the restaurant chain over his religious objections to selling pork products.

A lawyer for Walid Elkhatib said Tuesday that his client is in the process of removing Dunkin’ Donuts signs from his Westchester outlet, but apparently not fast enough for the company.

Combined with the article’s lede, the headline use of the term “Muslim owner,” works well with the description of Elkhatib because there are Arabs who are not Muslim and Muslims who are not Arab. And people who are not Muslim and people who are not Arab object to the consumption of pork products as we shall see later on in the article.

The article accurately reports the legal angle regarding the difference between an employee and a franchisee, but also gets into the precise nature of Elkhatib’s dispute with Dunkin’ Donuts and the religious issues that are at the heart of it all:

The company’s lawsuit came two weeks after a federal jury found that the chain did not discriminate against Elkhatib for refusing to renew his franchise agreement because he declined to sell breakfast sandwiches with bacon, ham or sausage.

The dietary restrictions of Elkhatib’s Muslim faith forbid him from eating or handling pork. When he decided to go into the restaurant business, his faith was one of the reasons why he invested in Dunkin’ Donuts in 1979. The chain did not introduce breakfast sandwiches until 1984.

The religious issues are more of the sidebar in this case, which is probably OK because the restriction is not all that complicated. The article does note Elkhatib’s claim was rejected earlier in the process because the judge determined that it was a religious discrimination claim, rather than a racial discrimination claim. For these reasons it’s important for journalists to be precise in their use of language: whether or not Elkhatib’s objection were based on his faith or his race could determine whether or not his lawsuit was successful and journalists should never take sides in news articles.

While brevity is important these days, it would be good to know exactly why that was significant to the trial court in rejecting the claim. It may not seem that significant, because two years later, an appeals court reversed the decision and set the case for trial because of inconsistencies in the doughnut chain’s practices on this issue of pork-filled breakfast sandwiches (which Elkhatib lost on March 13, 2009), but it’d be good to inform readers of the reasoning. The inconsistent practices were the fact that Elkhatib’s lawyers found another Chicago-area franchise permitted by the chain to refuse to sell the sandwiches because of the store’s Jewish customer base.

The only other aspect missing from the article is a bit of the history and theology behind the beliefs against consuming products with pork. Do all Arab Muslims object to handling products with pork, or are there some that believe the restriction just relates to their own personal consumption? I also wonder whether this is becoming a more significant issue nationwide from a legal perspective. Determining that would require some legal research as opposed to religious research, but that would be an interesting perspective to have.

Image of doughnuts being deep fried used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

Nailing down a conflict

north_america_lds_2007_membershipThe Arizona Republic‘s coverage of an alleged conflict between the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its efforts to convert Latino Catholics troubles me in a number of ways. But before I get into my criticism, I think it’s worth saying at the top that just covering this issue is an excellent first step. The challenge faced by the reporter is that this is a massive issue that requires a close examination into a number of different areas that are sensitive, conflicting and anything but straightforward.

The article’s main focus and headline is on the proposition that LDS is “conflicted on church’s illegal-migrant growth,” whatever that means. The subhead states that the story is about “Drawing converts vs. upholding the law,” but it is difficult to find in the story where that contradiction is actually present in the facts. In fact, almost the exact opposite seems to be the case, or at least one side of the issue is “quiet” as this portion of the article seems to make clear:

The church has not taken a position on immigration, Andersen said.

“But we feel it is our responsibility to minister to all of God’s children, regardless of (immigration) status,” he said.

Immigration has touched off a “quiet revolution” within the Mormon Church, said Garcia, the Brigham Young professor.

The conflict appears to be more about perceptions as opposed to anything official coming from the church. The main focus is on a state lawmaker who partially bases his opposition to illegal immigration and his efforts to fight it on his church’s theology:

Some state lawmakers, on the other hand, are trying to drive illegal immigrants out of Arizona.

Pearce said his immigration legislation, including the state’s 15-month-old employer-sanctions law, is rooted in the Mormon Church’s 13 Articles of Faith.

“We believe in laws and the sustaining and obeying of the laws of the land,” Pearce said.

At the same time, Pearce said he is sympathetic toward illegal immigrants.

“I tell you, most of these are good people,” he said. “But you are still taking jobs from Americans, suppressing wages and breaking the law. We can’t tolerate that.”

Still, he doesn’t believe Mormons are undermining his efforts by reaching out to Latinos.

As Pearce states at the end of the above quoted section, converting Catholic Latinos does not necessarily go agains his political goal of driving from Arizona people who have immigrated illegally to the United States. The story focuses more on what academics have to say than actual Latinos who have either converted to LDS to are opposed to the perception that LDS somehow opposes illegal immigration. The article ambiguously states that “[s]ome Mormons] believe anti-illegal immigration policies hurts those families and is against the church’s tenants, but I don’t get a sense of who those people are.

While I know the article focused on the issue of immigration, legal or illegal, I would have liked to see the article address more thoroughly the issue of converting to LDS.

The issue of proselytizing is treated as completely benign. Whether or not the Latino community appreciates the conversion of members of their families is not addressed. In addition, little is said on the fact that when Brigham Young left Illinois for the Western North America, the region he ended up in was part of Mexico and portions of where they settled are still part of Mexico today.

Lastly, the article rightly touched upon the issue of the Mormon church’s tendency to lean towards the conservative branch of the Republican Party and that has resulted in the conflation of both the perceptions and the reality of issues of public policy. If only other news articles were this careful in distinguishing actual church policy with the actually facts on the grounds when it comes to issues of politics and policy and LDS. Unfortunately, I think this article reported accurately the church’s public policy but overplayed the concept that Mormons are stridently divided on immigration policy based on the facts given in the article.

Image of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints membership in North America for year 2007 used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

No religion in Beck’s life?

Sometimes the media amazes me with its ability to ignore the way religion influences people’s lives. Often the result is that religion is hinted at, suggested in an off-hand manner, or noted in an unintentionally ironic manner.

This New York Times article on conservative populist Glenn Beck is a case in point. At this point, before you read any further, please provide a guess, informed or otherwise, of the faith to which Beck publicly subscribes.

Got one?

Now consider for another moment whether that faith would be relevant in examining Beck’s view of the world based upon the perception of his television show (“preaches against politicians, hosts regular segments titled ‘Constitution Under Attack’ and ‘Economic Apocalypse,’ and occasionally breaks into tears”) and his impact on society (“he talked to experts about the possibility of global financial panic and widespread outbreaks of violence” and “the TV host may have been promoting an armed revolt”).

Apparently, Beck’s Mormon faith isn’t relevant to any of that, but there are hints of his religious faith in the profile:

He says that America is “on the road to socialism” and that “God and religion are under attack in the U.S.” He recently wondered aloud whether FEMA was setting up concentration camps, calling it a rumor that he was unable to debunk.

At the same time, though, he says he is an entertainer. “I’m a rodeo clown,” he said in an interview, adding with a coy smile, “It takes great skill.”

And like a rodeo clown, Mr. Beck incites critics to attack by dancing in front of them.

“There are absolutely historical precedents for what is happening with Beck,” said Tom Rosenstiel, the director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. “There was a lot of radio evangelism during the Depression. People were frustrated and frightened. There are a lot of scary parallels now.”

See where the subject of Beck’s faith could be explored further? A couple of spots later in the article, there are other opportunities to discuss Beck’s faith, but apparently it did not come up, or there just was not enough room:

“Let me be clear,” Mr. Beck said. “If someone tries to harm another person in the name of the Constitution or the ‘truth’ behind 9/11 or anything else, they are just as dangerous and crazy as those we don’t seem to recognize anymore, who kill in the name of Allah.” …

When it was suggested in an interview that he sometimes sounds like a preacher, he responded,
No. You’ve never met a more flawed guy than me.”

He added later: “I say on the air all time, ‘if you take what I say as gospel, you’re an idiot.’”

Those last quotes concluded the article, but there are obvious theological implications to Beck’s declaration that he is a flawed individual. As you can see in the YouTube interview that leads off this post, Beck has quite a conversion story. Ignoring it leaves a substantial portion of Beck’s life out of the conversation.

That said, I will concede that the article was less about Beck’s personal life and more about using him as an example of the populist fever that has become an issue of late. But that doesn’t mean that the (TV) leader of the populist revolt shouldn’t at least have some of his life story mentioned.

For more background on Beck’s life, see this article in GQ, which contains this interesting observation:

While he is broadly School of Limbaugh, Beck differs in striking ways. Where Limbaugh speaks of his “talent on loan from God,” Beck regularly calls himself an “alcoholic rodeo clown.” Where Limbaugh was a sanctimonious fall from grace waiting to happen, Beck wears his dysfunction on his sleeve, reveling in his past addictions and his clinically diagnosed ADD. Where Limbaugh is a lockstep Republican, Beck is a former social liberal turned libertarian conservative, a registered independent, and a devout, tithing Mormon. He has done 180s on contentious issues — from pro-choice to not, from being in favor of pulling the plug on Terry Schiavo to siding with her parents against it, from supporting George W. Bush’s handling of Iraq to seeing it as another Vietnam — and is almost as quick to fault politics itself as to go after Democrats.

Unfortunately, this article does not get that deep into his faith. But it is a start in terms of tying his conversion story into his worldview which in turn ties into the populist revolt he is perceived to be leading.

Mate selection and religion

Houston Chronicle readers were introduced last week to the fact that a first generation Pakistani Muslim woman has values and preferences for a life mate that look an awful lot like a lot of Christian American women. She also faces a lot of the challenges all Americans face in general in finding a suitable life partner.

But one wouldn’t necessarily know that from reading the article because it attempts to introduce the reader to Pakistani-Islamic traditions while at the same time showing us that the article’s subject is different from that tradition. But the mate selection process used by the article’s subject is still different from what we’re supposed to believe is practiced in the American tradition. Is it really though?

I am also not so thrilled by the article’s headline:

Muslim woman tries to avoid the life of a spinster

The headline’s use of the term spinster is clearly a pejorative term that connotes an attempt to avoid degradation and disapproval by society by maintaining single-status beyond the time that society believes is appropriate. And with the woman portrayed in the article at the age of 30, the article attempts to show that her societal view — based on Islamic and Pakistani traditions — is so obviously different from the larger American society in which she now lives:

You see, Ali is 30 years old. And for a first-generation American with family and faith roots in Pakistan and Islam, 30 is not the new 20 when it comes to matters of marriage.

“In our culture women are expected to be married by their mid-20s,” said Mona Baig, Ali’s childhood friend — her married childhood friend.

“In American culture, being single at 30 is no big deal, so by those standards she’s on the right track,” Baig added.

Ali’s tracks to marriage have gotten a bit crossed. Like many young first-generation South Asian-Americans, Ali is committed to marrying within the traditions of Islam. But it’s a tradition twisted for the life of a bright, witty, supersocial Sugar Land resident with her own business.

The challenge this article presents is its attempt to define American culture as opposed to Ali’s efforts to remain within her culture. Instead of attempting to portray Ali’s attempt to straddle American and South Asian cultural traditions as somehow different or unique, a better approach would have been portray Ali’s efforts to find a life mate as exactly what many human beings do regardless of the specifics of their religious background or the culture in which they live:

For example, Ali doesn’t date. She doesn’t get gussied up for sexy evenings of dinner and dancing to meet potential mates.

But Ali’s parents also won’t choose her husband. She expects to find him herself, with the knowledge and blessings of the two families, of course.

The setup is more an “assisted” than an “arranged” marriage, Ali said.

Until the right level of assistance meets Mr. Right, Ali must be courted.

She knows what she wants and is not afraid to be upfront about it.

Hanging out is fine; getting physical is not. She is clear from the get-go that the goal is marriage.

“It’s kind of old-fashioned, where suitors used to come to people’s homes and take the women for a walk in the garden,” she said.

Ali’s approach is not that far off from many women in the United States of Christian or Mormon faith. And regardless of faith, I’m sure there are non-religious individuals out there that prefer a similar no-nonsense process for finding a life mate.

A few paragraphs later the article states that “Ali doesn’t bear the battle scars of dating American-style” such as the lack of “drunken first dates or bad breakups and certainly no walk of shame” but why is that the definitive style of American dating? That’s certainly a popular portrayal of it, particularly in Hollywood and the stereotypical impression many have of secular American college campuses. But that doesn’t mean it’s the rule for “American-style” dating. This also implies that the only way for attractive, intelligent, successful women in America to find spouses is to go on drunken first dates, experience bad breakups and experience the “walk of shame.” Really?

In general, the article treats religion and Ali’s religious faith as a cultural backdrop that suggests many of the stereotypes that inform American impressions of Muslim-Americans. Ali’s approach to life and dating is portrayed in some nuisance, but only in the sense that it is different from those stereotypes:

Ali’s tale of heartbreak concerns a love who caved when his parents demanded he call it off so he could marry a woman from their hometown in Pakistan.

Her dream guy is worldly and educated, he appreciates different cultures, and he possesses wit and humor to rival hers.

“I’m looking for a best friend, someone I can click with, I can hang out with all the time,” Ali said.

I would have liked to know more about what it means for Ali to marry “within the traditions of Islam” beyond the fact that the man would have to be of the Islamic faith.

Another aspect the article fails to address is divorce and Americans’ relatively high rate of the practice. Some interesting comparisons would be whether divorce rates — or the functional equivalent — have any statistical comparison between the United States and Pakistan.

Veggie menu eases sacred concerns?

tigers_opening_day2_2007My favorite quote coming out of the controversy over the Detroit Tigers’s decision to schedule their home opener during the time Jesus Christ is believed to have hung on the cross on Good Friday goes as quoted in The Detroit News:

“Nobody is saying baseball isn’t big but Good Friday is really big,” said the Rev. Ed Vilkauskas, 62, pastor of Old St. Mary Church in Greektown. “It’s 2,000 years old.”

Yes, a 2,000 year tradition versus an afternoon baseball game. Credit goes to the News for having the best coverage of the outrage. See here for coverage from The Detroit Free Press.

From a theological perspective, reporter Francis X. Donnelly accurately lays out the even more problematic challenge of starting the game at 1 p.m. along with a nice description of how scheduling this game at this time was an offense for Tigers fans:

Even more galling is the time of the game, 1 p.m.

In the last hours of his life, Jesus hung from a cross on Good Friday from noon to 3 p.m., and many devout Christians attend church services at that time.

Quiet contemplation is what’s sought. The drunken debauchery of Opening Day is not.

“It’s like Mardi Gras and Fat Tuesday rolled into one,” said Michael Ochab, 47, a Hamtramck Catholic who will skip Opening Day for the first time in 20 years. “I couldn’t believe they had it that day.”

As a side note, you also have to appreciate Donnelly’s colorful writing style.

The article also appropriately notes that fans won’t be able to consume hot dogs. But along with the Free Press coverage, the Detroit Tigers PR Department managed to spin the idea that there other options for fans who for one reason or another, decide to attend the game despite the sacred tradition but also get hungry during the game and have consciences strong enough to prevent them from savoring a Ball Park Frank.

Here is an earlier version of the Free Press coverage:

That’s the day for somber reflection, personal sacrifice, church services that run from noon to 3 p.m. and a no-meat pledge, which doesn’t lend itself to downing a hot dog or two at the game.

But the Tigers point out that there are plenty of vegetarian offerings on the concession menus. Last year, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals even named Comerica Park one of the Top 10 vegetarian friendly stadiums in baseball.

That’s some nice Tiger public relations spin, but too bad the reporters couldn’t have pointed out the irony of the idea that the vegetarian menu could come into play to limit any guilt fans may have had for attending opening day on Good Friday. As a later version of the Free Press coverage points out, such cases do exist, but apparently the only good options are peanuts and popcorn.

Image of Tigers opening day in 2007, viewed from section 326, used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

What is a ‘strict’ Catholic stance?

Not that anyone should be surprised, but a portion of the national community that makes up Notre Dame’s supporters, alumni, students and the parents of students, are none too thrilled with the fact that President Obama will be speaking at the institution’s graduation this spring and receiving an honorary degree. Their problem is that Obama’s official policies directly contradict Catholic teaching on the subject of the sanctity of human life.

But at least according to MSNBC’s First Read, the problem is just the beliefs of those “strict” Catholics:

The point of contention? The president’s record on issues related to abortion, the majority of which clash with the strict anti-abortion stance of the Catholic Church. An online petition has sprung up urging people to voice their complaints to Father John Jenkins, president of the university.

Jenkins said in an interview with the student paper Monday that while there are clear differences between the president and the Catholic church on some issues (abortion and embryonic stem cell research), it was a great honor to have the president accept the university’s offer and that he had no plans to rescind the offer.

A majority of the student body is enthusiastic about President Obama coming to speak — he won the campus’ mock election 52.6% to 41.1% over Sen. John McCain — but an active alumni base that skews more conservative than the increasingly liberal campus has been vocal about the selection of the commencement speaker.

So the “strict” Catholics oppose the invitation to President Obama, as opposed to what other kinds of Catholics? There is an answer to that question that reporters should include in their articles. It would be interesting to see the definition attached to those Catholics. See here for Tmatt’s summary of the four types of Catholics of which reporters should be aware:

* Ex-Catholics. Solid for the Democrats. GOP has no chance.

* Cultural Catholics who may go to church a few times a year. This may be an undecided voter — check out that classic Atlantic Monthly tribes of American religion piece — depending on what is happening with the economy, foreign policy, etc. Leans to Democrats.

* Sunday-morning American Catholics. This voter is a regular in the pew and may even play some leadership role in the parish. This is the Catholic voter that is really up for grabs, the true swing voter that the candidates are after.

* The “sweats the details” Roman Catholic who goes to confession. Is active in the full sacramental life of the parish and almost always backs the Vatican, when it comes to matters of faith and practice. This is where the GOP has made its big gains in recent decades, but it is a very small slice of the American Catholic pie.

In The Los Angeles Times write-up of the controversy, there aren’t any voices from independent Catholics who support the invitation, or are at least not opposed. The Associated Press article plays the story a bit closer and resists the urge to portray this outrage as somehow surprising or a representation of some strange strict sect of Catholicism.

In another facet of the story, Notre Dame’s president says that the honorary degree is not supposed to condone his positions regarding abortion:

Notre Dame President Fr. John Jenkins says that the honorary degree “is not intended to condone or endorse his position on specific issues regarding life.” Jenkins also commented: “You cannot change the world if you shun the people you want to persuade, and if you cannot persuade them show respect for them and listen to them.”

If that is the case, what does the honorary degree endorse or condone and is this just something people should take on faith or is there a little exemption clause in the degree certificate that makes that clear? Somehow I doubt that, but it makes for nice PR cover. For example, when Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke at my alma mater Butler University in 2003, the express purpose was to recognize his life’s work and to highlight the principles by which he lived his life. Former GetReligion blogger Mark Stricherz points out that inviting Obama to speak at Notre Dame would be akin to “inviting Barry Goldwater in 1965, the year after he had opposed the Civil Rights Act.”

At least one reporter, Julia Duin of The Washington Times, managed to report that giving Obama the honorary degree will violate a policy of the U.S. Conference on Catholic Bishops:

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2004, he added, specifically forbade giving “awards, honors or platforms” to “those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles.”

It is hard to tell whether this story will pick up any steam, but the Bishop of Fort Wayne-South Bend (South Bend is where Notre dame is located, Fort Wayne is the state’s second largest city), announced that he will not attend the graduation. The next shoe to drop will be whether Obama addresses the issue of the sanctity of human life in his address.

Death, God and faith in the news

540px-paradiso_canto_31Death and dying are intricately tied to the subjects of God, religion and faith. The Los Angeles Times made this clear earlier this week in its detailed look at why some statistics show that cancer patients deemed terminally ill requested intensive, but useless medical treatment, such as breathing machines, at a much higher rate if their faith was a significant factor in the their medical decision.

The article’s general perspective is that such individual decisions were poorly thought out, and as a per se rule, ought to be altered for unspecified reasons. The article has a lot of quotes from experts in both the religious and medical communities, as well as some from those who straddle both.

Although there is plenty of information regarding the appropriate medical treatment for terminally ill patients, there is not as much discussion about any more appropriate theological approaches to death and dying. Readers are told what is an improper theological approach:

“We don’t do enough talking earlier in the trajectory of illness,” said Dr. Ray Barfield, a pediatric oncologist who teaches Christian philosophy at the Duke Institute on Care at the End of Life.

When patients must make treatment decisions in the midst of a medical crisis, he said, “the most obvious theological straw to grab onto is, ‘Well, maybe God will still perform a miracle, so we’re going to keep at it.’ Bad theology can lead to a lot of suffering.”

Accepting death, on the other hand, can provide an opportunity to get one’s religious affairs in order and make the most of remaining time with family and friends.

One study of parents whose children were dying of cancer found that the sooner the family accepted that the child would not recover, the more they enjoyed their final months with their ailing son or daughter, Barfield said.

There need not be one single theological answer to this very difficult problem, but there are alternative religion-based approaches that should have been discussed. The practical, money-saving reasons that support the article’s thesis do not provide a robust faith-based framework for approach death and dying.

For example, there is no mention of the fact that religious groups started the concept of hospice care. Of course, this would undercut the theme of the story that religious people irrationally attempted to avoid death as long as possible.

In a related story, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel discussed the decision by a hospice chaplain to resign when certain religious oriented behavior was banned. The problem with the article is that it is not made clear what behavior became prohibited that instigated the resignation:

A chaplain at Hospice by the Sea in Boca Raton has resigned, she says, over a ban on use of the words “God” or “Lord” in public settings.

Chaplains still speak freely of the Almighty in private sessions with patients or families but, the Rev. Mirta Signorelli said: “I can’t do chaplain’s work if I can’t say ‘God’ — if I’m scripted.”

Hospice CEO Paula Alderson said the ban on religious references applies only to the inspirational messages that chaplains deliver in staff meetings. The hospice remains fully comfortable with ministers, priests and rabbis offering religious counsel to the dying and grieving.

So is it a ban on words used in public or just in staff meetings, which are presumably not held in the public square? Apparently, the new rule came through a directive of some sort that amounted to a command to “cease and desist from using God in prayers,” according to Signorelli. The hospital portraying the new rule “as a minor administrative directive aimed solely at improving the decorum of monthly staff meetings” with the goal of adjusting chaplains’ tone from religious to motivational. If there are strongly contradictory opinions about the facts, this should be made explicitly clear in the news article.

The hospice’s six other chaplains seem to be comfortable with the prohibition because they are not leaving, but that raises questions as to whether Signorelli is considered as somehow different than the other hospice chaplains. See here the article’s description of him:

A devout Christian who acquired a master’s degree in theology after a career as a psychologist, running a program for abused and neglected children, Signorelli has been ministering to the dying for 13 years. She worked at the Hospice of Palm Beach County before moving seven years ago to Hospice by the Sea, a community-based nonprofit organization that cares for terminally ill patients in Palm Beach and Broward counties.

Is “devout” some sort of code word for evangelical or fundamentalist? Knowing more about Signorelli’s theological background, particularly as compared to the other chaplains at the hospice, would go a long way to better explaining the core of this conflict.

Image of a representation of Paradise, used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

Religion and Afghan Star

I don’t watch American Idol, but I think that if I lived in a foreign culture, that country’s version of the show would be a great place to learn about that particular society. This rather amazing Guardian story on Afghanistan’s Afghan Star television show gives readers a glimpse into a society that we generally only hear in the news when it relates to war, terrorism and international politics. As a reader noted, how often do we hear about the regular people from Afghanistan, the ones who have put up with multiple invasions, governments and a bleak future.

Religion is touched upon in the article, but not to the extent that would give readers a real sense of its nuances and cultural contradictions. For example, the show appears to be a big hit in Afghanistan, a country where music was banned just a few years ago:

Three years later, Afghan Star, the country’s equivalent of Pop Idol, was launched by Tolo TV, Afghanistan’s leading independent television company. By the time the third series came around last year, the show had become a national phenomenon, despite — or perhaps because of — the fact that some entrants were risking their lives by taking part. Women contestants, in particular, have been the object of much anger among religious conservatives. But the prize is considerable: as well as fame, the winner receives £5,000, which is 10 times the average salary.

The Taliban outlawed music for five years. Now hopes are high that this hit show can unite Afghanistan’s diverse ethnic groups and help bring an end to conflict. Daoud Sediqi, who presented the first three series, once said that the show’s aim was “to take people’s hands from weapons to music”. Sediqi — who rebelled against Taliban rule by secretly repairing people’s video recorders — wasn’t exaggerating Afghan Star’s huge influence. The final was watched by 11 million people, a third of the Afghan population, all voting for their favourite singer by mobile phone; for many, it was their first taste of democracy.

You get the sense initially from the article that music and pop culture is going to unit the country and that everyone was behind the cultural influences of this hugely popular television show, but then you read this paragraph that seems disconnected from the earlier portions of the article:

Sadly, most Afghans are not so open-minded. Setara, a single woman who lives alone (something that is almost unheard of), has much to fear. Although there is nothing in the Koran prohibiting music, many Islamists disapprove of music and dance as incitements to licentious behaviour. Already the show has received a warning from the Islamic Council, for “misleading the people”.

As another reader noted to us, the article provides an excellent opportunity for launching into an explanation of Afghanistan’s post-Taliban cultural revolution, but it fails to ask the most basic question: why was music banned by the Taliban?

A nice follow-up question would be why do the Muslims there object to music and dancing in particular. One answer given in the article is that it is an incitements “to licentious behaviour.” Is the matter simply related to sex, or are there deeper religious reasons particular to their tradition? Prohibitions on music and dance aren’t exactly foreign to Puritan traditions in Western cultures, and even the Reformed tradition’s John Calvin was known to oppose public dancing.

I had similar questions with regard to National Public Radio’s Fresh Air interview with the Iraqi heavy-metal band Acrassicauda. The musicians noted that while Saddam Hussein was in power, they were bothered some, but were generally allowed to go about performing their music discretely.

After the invasion, things became more difficult in terms of their safety and now the band members are in the United States. Was it the mere lawlessness that ensued after the invasion that made living in Iraq impossible, or were there religious reasons making it more difficult for performing artists when the secular Saddam was not in power?


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