The Guardian on Islam and female genital mutilation

The Guardian reports that Britain’s largest Muslim organization, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), has condemned female genital mutilation as un-Islamic.

The article reports on the campaign to end the practice brought to Britain by immigrants from Africa and the Middle East, and the steps taken by the MCB and NGOs to educate immigrants on its health dangers.

I am pleased to hear this news as I believe FGM is an abominable practice. But in looking at the journalism on display in this story — not the topic — I was struck by the disconnect between a claim in the lede that FGM is “no longer” linked to Islam and the claims made by the Muslim council further down in the article that it was never part of authentic Islam.

It is not The Guardian‘s job to referee disputes between religious scholars and to award the prize to what it believes is the true embodiment of Islamic principles. Yet by presenting only one view of Islam, only one side of the debate, the newspaper does just that.

Monday’s story states:

The influential MCB has for the first time issued explicit guidance, which criticises the practice and says it is “no longer linked to the teaching of Islam”. It added that one of the “basic principles” of Islam was that believers should not harm themselves or others. The organisation will send flyers to each of the 500 mosques that form its membership, which will also be distributed in community centres in a drive to eradicate a practice that affects 125 million women and girls worldwide and can lead to psychological torment, complications during childbirth, problems with fertility, and death.

The article quotes one MCB pamphlet as stating:

FGM is not an Islamic requirement. There is no reference to it in the holy Qur’an that states girls must be circumcised. Nor is there any authentic reference to this in the Sunnah, the sayings or traditions of our prophet. FGM is bringing the religion of Islam into disrepute.

If this second claim is true, what prompted some to believe that it was linked to Islam?

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Auschwitz in Ireland: L’Humanité on Ireland’s mass graves

The falsehoods and exaggerations — need I say, the hysteria — surrounding the Irish orphanage story has been a sorry spectacle for those who love the craft of reporting. The first reports of a mass grave in a septic tank containing up to 800 unbaptized babies at a Catholic orphanage has been proven to be false as have many of the other extraordinary claims of incredible, monstrous behavior.

The push back began almost immediately, however, as reporters began to examine the claims in detail. The Associated Press printed a correction on June 20, 2014, stating:

In stories published June 3 and June 8 about young children buried in unmarked graves after dying at a former Irish orphanage for the children of unwed mothers, The Associated Press incorrectly reported that the children had not received Roman Catholic baptisms; documents show that many children at the orphanage were baptized. The AP also incorrectly reported that Catholic teaching at the time was to deny baptism and Christian burial to the children of unwed mothers; although that may have occurred in practice at times it was not church teaching. In addition, in the June 3 story, the AP quoted a researcher who said she believed that most of the remains of children who died there were interred in a disused septic tank; the researcher has since clarified that without excavation and forensic analysis it is impossible to know how many sets of remains the tank contains, if any. The June 3 story also contained an incorrect reference to the year that the orphanage opened; it was 1925, not 1926.

Note the subordinate clause in the second to last sentence — “if any.”

The story has shifted from 800 unbaptized dead babies in a septic tank to an acknowledgement that there might not be any bodies in the tank. For a detailed study of this sorry chapter in journalism I recommend the Catholic League’s Bill Donohue’s paper “Ireland’s ‘mass grave’ hysteria.”

The revelation that this is a junk story has not stopped some newspapers from adding their own exclusive revelations.

France awoke a few days ago to the news that the 796 dead babies in the septic tank were the subjects of medical experimentation, according to L’Humanité. The dead children may have been (not the conditional tense) the victims of experimental vaccinations by the British company GlaxoSmithKline carried out with the blessings of the Catholic Church and the Irish State.

Il y a trois semaines, 796 cadavres de nourrissons nés hors mariage entre 1925 et 1961 ont été exhumés d’une fosse commune à côté du couvent ?de Tuam. Un taux de mortalité supérieur à la moyenne qui fait craindre que ces « baby homes » aient été le lieu d’essais vaccinaux sur des bébés.

Three weeks ago the remains of 796 infants born out of wedlock between 1925 and 1961 were exhumed from a mass grave near a convent in Tuam. This higher than average mortality rate raises concerns that these “baby homes” were the scene of vaccination trials on infants.

The article, which is behind a pay wall, approaches the story through the concerns of Susan Lohan, the co-founder of an adoption rights alliance.

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Journalism, facts and the fires of hell (revisited)

Without a theory the facts are silent, the economist F. A. Hayek has written. That may be true of the cold facts of economics, but the facts of war are not cold. They burn with the heat of the fires of hell.

– John Keegan, A History of Warfare (1994)

The late Sir John Keegan, the renowned military historian known for The Face of Battle and many other superb studies of combat in the Western world, opposed philosophical abstraction. Theories of history that sought to explain the causes of conflict by reference to materialist, idealist, gender, (what have you) theory failed to appreciate the role human agency and culture — tradition, religion, tribal identity — played in explaining human action, Keegan believed.

In his particular field of study, military history, Keegan believed the theories of Carl von Clausewitz that war is about politics, was a wholly inadequate explanation. (War is simply [an expression] of political intercourse, with the addition of other means. Clausewitz, On War, p.605) The adoption of theoretical constructs to explain war, Keegan argued, lay upon totalizing or universalist assumptions that failed to see farther than their cultural presuppositions.

Journalism suffers from these problems. What I see as the displacement of the classical Anglo-American school of journalism by European-style advocacy journalism mirrors the failings Keegan identified in the historical profession. Reporters who come to a story through advocacy journalism have a preconceived notions about the nature of truth into which they seek to place the available facts. If the facts are inconvenient or do not fit the theories, they can be left out of the story.

These musings on the nature of truth and journalism were prompted by a question posed to me by Todd Wilken, during an appearance I made last week on Issues Etc., for Lutheran Public Radio.

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Who is an evangelical? Who isn’t? Who says so?

Having thus, according to his own opinion, explained how a clergyman should show himself approved unto God, as a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, [Obadiah Slope] went on to explain how the word of truth should be divided; and here he took a rather narrow view of the question; and fetched arguments from afar. His object was to express his abomination of all ceremonious modes of utterance, to cry down any religious feeling which might be excited, not by the sense, but by the sound of words, and in fact to insult the cathedral practices. Had St Paul spoken of rightly pronouncing instead of rightly dividing the word of truth, this part of his sermon would have been more to the purpose; but the preacher’s immediate object was to preach Mr Slope’s doctrine, and not St Paul’s, and he contrived to give the necessary twist to the text with some skill.

– Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers, Chap. 6 “War” (1857)

I am pretty sure I know what an evangelical is — someone who believes and worships as I do.

Don’t press me too hard on this point. For the past 15 years I have written for The Church of England Newspaper, since 1828 the voice of the Evangelical party of the Church of England. Trollope refers to our august publication in Barchester Towers under its name at that time “The Record” with disdain, noting the odious Obadiah Slope, the oily chaplain to Bishop Proudie, is a “Recordite.” Evangelical for me is a set of beliefs and style of churchmanship. And it is a particular party affiliation.

Now I will not be the first Episcopalian or Anglican to systematize the Christian world according to our particular prejudices: there are Catholics, the Orthodox, foreigners — everyone else who speaks English should properly be an Episcopalian. Sadly the world has not been persuaded of the merits of these arguments. Nor do I expect my suppositions on who is an Evangelical to be the final word.

The Rev. Billy Graham for one, as tmatt has reported at GetReligion, will not define an evangelical. One of tmatt’s more frequent story lines is “define evangelical. Give three examples.” He also has devised a test, the tmatt trio, that places a Christian on the spectrum of belief, that many argue (tmatt disagrees) roughly corresponds to evangelical belief.

(1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

Yet these questions could be answered the same way by Evangelicals, Catholics, Orthodox, even Episcopalians (well some of us at any rate.) Placing my arch attempts at Anglican humor to one side, I agree with tmatt, (and Billy Graham) that it is quite hard to define an evangelical today.

However, I will stick out my neck and say a recent article in FaithStreet misuses the word evangelical. What it wants to say and should have said was “proselytize.”

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What’s in a name? PCA vs. PCUSA

Oh my. My heart goes out to the writer at NBC News’ breaking news desk for having bungled a story from the Presbyterian Church of the USA (PCUSA)’s General Assembly in Detroit.

From the conservative religion news and advocacy website Juicy Ecumenism, here is a report from reporter Alexander Griswold from the meeting:

At its 2014 General Assembly held in Detroit, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted to approve two measures to allow ministers to perform same-sex marriages. The first, Item 10-03, issued an authoritative interpretation of the Book of Order stating that pastors have a right to preside over gay marriages in states where they are legal. The second, Item 10-02, amended the Book of Order to redefine marriage as between “two people” rather than between a man and a woman and allows ministers to perform any legal marriage between two people. That amendment will require the approval of a majority of the presbyteries before it will take effect.

For religion news watchers this vote was not unexpected. The delegates to the 201o General Assembly voted to permit the ordination of non-celibate gay and lesbian clergy, while the 2012 General Assembly narrowly turned down a similar gay marriage bill. The surprise was in the strong margin of support the measure received this time round.

Religion News Service observed:

The church has long grappled with the issue, which came to a head at the last General Assembly, in 2012, when a similar resolution allowing for gay marriage lost 338-308. Since then, the church’s decades-long decline in membership — it has lost 37 percent of its membership since 1992 — has continued. These losses have been led by conservative-leaning congregations that defected over what they lamented as the church’s embrace of more liberal values.

Those defections — many to smaller and more conservative Presbyterian denominations — made it more likely that the General Assembly would approve a gay marriage resolution this year.

One of these more conservative denominations is the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) — the second largest Presbyterian denomination and one that withdrew from what is now the PCUSA in the early 1970s.
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Immigration: Its not just Eric Cantor’s problem anymore

One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter: Sure, if the other man is an idiot. Was Martin Luther King Jr. a terrorist? Was Bin Laden a freedom fighter?

Jonah Goldberg, The Tyranny of Clichés (2012)

Immigration is the issue of the moment in the United States following Rep. Eric Cantor’s primary defeat this week. But the U.S. is not alone in playing host to illegal immigrants and struggling with sharply divided views over what to do about them.

Yet the coverage of the substance of these issues has been rather thin. The press here and abroad has been resorting to stock phrases and cliches to describe the controversies.

But where would newspapers be without cliches? In trouble most likely — for cliches enable authors to communicate ideological assumptions to their readers thus avoiding having to take the time or space to make an argument. European-style advocacy journalism relies on cliches to set the ideological tone of a story. Stock language lets the initiated know how they should approach an issue before they are presented with the facts.

For the party faithful cliches are a virtue. For the rest of us their use in political and social discourse destroys debate, limiting our autonomy of choice.

The language used by some French papers in their coverage of the trial of Father Gérard Riffard illustrates the methodology of cliche newspaper reporting. The language used at the top of the story sets the moral and ideological tone for the newspapers readers. It saves us the trouble and time of thinking through the issues and coming to our own conclusions.

So who is Riffard and what has he done to merit coverage in all the French dailies? The septuagenarian parish priest is on trial for harboring illegal immigrants (the view from the right) or for sheltering asylum seekers (the view from the left) in his rectory.

The classical liberal school of Anglo-American journalism would lay out his story along these schematic lines.

The opening paragraphs would report the who, what, when, where, why and how — Riffard stood trial last week before a court in Saint-Etienne in the Loire facing charges that he refused to obey the orders of the government ministry charged with overseeing refugees and stateless persons (Ofpra) that he desist from providing accommodation in his rectory and parish hall at the Church of Sainte-Claire in Montreynaud to migrants who had entered France unlawfully or who had overstayed their visas.

The article would have a lede sentence that would give the author’s editorial view of the matter, but then lead into the facts. Quotes from the trial would follow — the prosecutor’s denunciation of Riffard followed by the priest’s statement that he would not comply with the law. The potential penalties should he be found guilty would be presented — fines of almost $2000 a day for each day he is in contempt — followed by third-party commentary. Context would be provided that would ask whether the priest’s actions were representative of the views of the Catholic Church and his reasons and motivation would be spelled out. If space was available, the article would close with statements about immigration issues in France.

How have the French papers responded?

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Did a British judge compel a child to have an abortion?

Reader beware. A story that is too good to be true is often that, not true.

An article in the Huffington Post reporting that a British judge compelled a 13-year-old to undergo an abortion sparked outrage on pro-life blogs and news sites this week. Unfortunately the key claim of the story — what moved this from a tragedy to an outrage — was false.

The Huffington Post ran a story on June 9 entitled “High Court Orders 13-Year-Old Girl To Have Abortion.” This prompted sharp reactions from commentators, while LifeSiteNews.com — a conservative Christian advocacy site — ran a story entitled “UK judge orders 13-year-old to have abortion. This is medical rape.”

The lede in this advocacy piece stated:

This story is truly disturbing. According to the Huffington Post UK: “A ‘very damaged’ 13-year-old girl was ordered to have an abortion by Britain’s most senior family judge, it has been revealed.

The girl, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was impregnated by a 14-year-old boy and initially wanted to keep her baby.”

That’s right. This girl, because she was considered mentally incompetent, was forced — forced — to have her child dismembered, decapitated, and disemboweled by the medical establishment because one Sir James Munby decided that capital punishment was most appropriate for being the child of a someone he described as “very … impaired.”

Where does the error lay? Did the editorial writer at LifeSiteNews misconstrue the Huffington Post story? Here is the lede from the Huffington Post — what would you take this to mean?

A “very damaged” 13-year-old girl was ordered to have an abortion by Britain’s most senior family judge, it has been revealed.

However, other press reports of the incident did not say the judge compelled the girl to have an abortion. The Daily Mail reported the girl had at first declined to have an abortion, but then wanted to have an abortion.

The judge said evidence had been prepared on the basis that the teenager was opposed to a termination. But when the hearing began she was ‘wavering’ and by the end she had wanted a termination. He said the ‘preponderance of evidence” pointed to a termination being in the girl’s best interests and said he had, in any event, concluded that a termination was in her best interests.

The Huffington Post piece did hint at a change of mind.

But Sir James said the girl’s opposition to an abortion had wavered during the hearing. “It was clearly appropriate for me to supply the necessary consent to enable the termination to proceed,” he said.

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TASS on Russia’s talking dogs

Politicians were like talking dogs in a circus: the fact that they existed was uncommonly interesting, but no sane person would actually believe what they said.

Alan Furst, Dark Star (2002)

I am sympathetic to the sentiments expressed by Pravda journalist André Szara, the central character in Alan Furst’s political-historical novel Dark Star. (I consider it the best of his 13 novels to date.) Once upon a time I too spent a great deal of my time listening to politicians, reporting for the Jerusalem Post on Parliament and the British government.

I cannot blame the Episcopal Church or the Church of England for giving me my jaundiced eye. Reading the debates in Hansard and ministerial press hand outs was unpalatable work, akin to eating sand. I no longer follow politics and politicians. For my sins I now read denominational reports, church press releases and bishops’ sermons. I’ve exchanged sand for sawdust.

Yet, this work must still be done. Even though a great deal of fluff and nonsense is spouted by the great and good, reporters must keep their ears (and brain) open. Even politicians say things that are novel and important.

Foreign correspondents have a doubly difficult job in that what may be novel and important in one culture is drivel in another. And, if they do not speak the language, they must rely on what others tell them. Raw information passes through sieves of culture, language and spin before it lands in the ear of an American foreign correspondent, who then must make it interesting and intelligible for his home audience.

The result often is an incomplete, or wrong-headed news story. One that bears but slight resemblance to what was said or done.

As GetReligion’s editor tmatt has noted in a recent story, the conflict between Russia and the West is one are where the press has fallen short by omitting, ignoring or not understanding the religious issues that are in part driving the conflict. On June 4 Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) in Moscow the clash between East and West was a clash of religious worldviews (Orthodox Russia v. post-Christian Europe/America).

And, from what I have been able to find, this story has not appeared in the mainstream press.

The ITAR-TASS news agency published an English-language reporting summarizing Lavrov’s speech — but their correspondent seems to have slept through the talk. The TASS lede stated:

MOSCOW, June 04./ITAR-TASS/. Russia is not going to build anti-western constructions and get involved in senseless confrontations only for the sake of providing us and NATO with desirable enemy image, Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said.

The policy of limiting Russia’s capabilities is conducted mostly not by European powers, but by the United States, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a meeting of Russia’s council for international affairs. “The oddest thing is that all this is happening contrary to the obvious and objective benefit the pooling of technologies, resources and human capital might yield for both parts of the European continent,” Lavrov said.

The remainder of the article continues along these lines — tedious babbling. All politics, all foreign policy wonkery — dull, dull, dull.

Yet the next day the Interfax News Agency put out a one-paragraph story reporting that Lavrov had said the clash between Russia and the West had arisen over Russian return to “traditional spiritual values” and that America and Western Europe were “more and more detached from their own Christian roots and less susceptible to the religious feelings of people of other faiths.” Oh my.

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