Exorcism for fun and profit

The title of this story from the Agence France Presse (AFP), “Exorcism boom in Poland sees magazine launch” caught my eye, as a good headline should, and set my click finger twitching.

“What was this?”, I wondered. An explosion during an exorcism? Did the acolyte get too close with his burning taper to a gas line? Satan levitating magazines, tossing back issues of Our Sunday Visitor at a cowled cleric?

Alas, my imagination — alight with images of Max von Sydow battling the forces of evil in the form of the National Catholic Reporterwas a bit off. The AFP was reporting on the launch of Egzorcysta, the Polish word for “exorcist”, a monthly Polish-language magazine devoted to exorcisms, demonology,  and related topics.

With its 62-page first issue including articles titled “New Age — the spiritual vacuum cleaner” and “Satan is real”, the Egzorcysta monthly with a print-run of 15,000 by the Polwen publishers is selling for 10 zloty (2.34 euros, 3.10 dollars) per copy.

Though not as colorful as I had hoped, the article nonetheless turned out to be well crafted with strong quotes from the magazine’s principals outlining its editorial mission. It also looks into the phenomena of exorcisms.

The story beings with Fr. Aleksander Posacki, one of the magazine’s founders, whom AFP describes as a “professor of philosophy, theology and leading demonologist and exorcist” explaining the niche his magazine will fill is related to the “rise in the number or exorcists from four to more than 120 over the course of 15 years in Poland …”

Having identified his audience, Fr. Posacki explains why the market for exorcists has grown.

Ironically, he attributed the rise in demonic possessions in what remains one of Europe’s most devoutly Catholic nations partly to the switch from atheist communism to free market capitalism in 1989.

“It’s indirectly due to changes in the system: capitalism creates more opportunities to do business in the area of occultism. Fortune telling has even been categorised as employment for taxation,” Posacki told AFP.

“If people can make money out of it, naturally it grows and its spiritual harm grows too,” he said, hastening to add authentic exorcism is absolutely free of charge.

The article offers Fr. Posacki’s views on the intersection of psychiatry and the demonic possession, and he and fellow exorcist Fr. Andrzej Grefkowicz offer accounts of exorcisms.

According to both exorcists, depictions of demonic possession in horror films are largely accurate. “It manifests itself in the form of screams, shouting, anger, rage – threats are common,” Posacki said. “Manifestation in the form or levitation is less common, but does occur and we must speak about it — I’ve seen it with my own eyes,” he added.

A fun little story — yet I was troubled by its lack of curiosity and its underlying assumptions. Unlike the Huffington Post‘s treatment of this issue, the AFP does not play it for laughs. But is it too respectful, to earnest? An assumption behind this story is that exorcisms are a bona fide spiritual phenomena — should AFP have been more circumspect? Even-handed? Would it have reported accounts of Sufis doing spiritual battles with Jinns from Pakistan, or occult practices from Zimbabwe in the same way?

The respectful tone of the story might well have led to the avoidance of hard questions. Fr. Posacki argues that the free market for spiritualists has led to the growth in demand for the services of Catholic exorcists. Might not the same question be put to Fr. Posaki? Is he making a quick buck out of exorcisms though the launch of this magazine?

And, if the rise in the number of exorcists is only “partly” due to a free market in fortune tellers, what are the other reasons for the jump from 4 to 120?

Let me say I am not denigrating Fr. Posacki with my questions. Rather I am asking why the reporter on this story did not press Fr. Posacki to address the issues of the business of exorcisms when Fr. Posacki raises this issue in his rationale for the magazine. Many of my posts at GetReligion deal with the ignorance or hostility a journalist brings to a religion story. But there are also times when a too respectful attitude, too deferential to an institution, individual or doctrine results in poor reporting. Tell me GetReligion readers, is this the case here?

Foggy Bottom’s ‘pantywaist protocol pussy-footers’

Wanted to thank me brokenly, I suppose, for so courteously allowing her favorite brother a place to have his game legs in, Eh? [said Bertie Wooster]

Possibly sir. On the other hand she alluded to you in terms suggestive of disapprobation. [said Jeeves]

She — what?

“Feckless idiot” was one of the expressions she employed, sir.

Feckless idiot?

Yes, sir.

I couldn’t make it out. I couldn’t see what the woman had based her judgement on. My Aunt Agatha has frequently said that sort of thing about me, but then she has known me from a boy.

P.G. Wodehouse, Very Good, Jeeves! (1930) p 124.

The 9/11 assaults on the U.S.  consulate in Benghazi and embassy in Cairo have jumped to center stage since the first reports came out on Tuesday. The press has continued to do a fine job of highlighting the religious and political issues behind the protests — this report from the AP on the Benghazi attack is quite good. The latest round of stories also addresses the question whether the assaults were spontaneous acts of religious outrage in response to an anti-Mohammad film, or where they planned attacks?

Yahoo! News’ The Lookout reports:

The deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya may have been a planned operation and not a spontaneous protest that turned violent, U.S. officials told the New York Times and CNN on Wednesday. Initial reports suggested that protesters in Benghazi, Libya, were angry about an online video that mocked the Muslim Prophet Muhammad, and then attacked the consulate, killing U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other foreign service workers. But now, according to the New York Times, officials suspect that “an organized group had either been waiting for an opportunity to exploit like the protests over the video or perhaps even generated the protests as a cover for their attack.”

There are reports out of Egypt that the Cairo assault was also a planned spontaneous political action that was awaiting a religious provocation — this was the opinion of my Christian Egyptian contacts on Tuesday. MEMRI states:

On September 7, 2012, Nasser Al-Qaeda, a prominent writer on the Jihadi forum Shumoukh Al-Islam suggested burning down the U.S. embassy in Egypt with all workers inside in order to pressure the U.S. to release Sheikh ‘Omar ‘Abd Al-Rahman aka the Blind Sheikh. In the post, titled “How can the U.S. embassy remain in Egypt while [the U.S.] imprisons Sheikh ‘Omar ‘Abd Al-Rahman,” Nasser Al-Qaeda wrote: “Oh people of Egypt, it is time [to launch] a powerful movement to liberate the mujahid Sheikh ‘Omar ‘Abd Al-Rahman.

In contrast to the foreign reporting, I’ve not been that impressed with the even handedness of the domestic stories. For example, Geoffrey Dickens at NewsBusters reports:

The Big Three (ABC, CBS, NBC) Wednesday evening newscasts devoted more than 9 minutes (9 minutes, 28 seconds) to the flap over Mitt Romney’s statement criticizing the administration’s handling of the Libyan crisis but spent just 25 seconds on questions regarding Barack Obama’s Middle-East policy, a greater than 20-to-1 disparity.

My colleague at GetReligion Mollie Hemingway today also tweeted a telling question:

Has anyone seen any MSM reports about why conciliatory messages from U.S. officials aren’t going over well with some Americans?

I would however like to single out for particular praise CNN’s story “Ambassador’s killing shines light on Muslim sensitivities around Prophet Mohammed” by Dan Gilgoff and Eric Marrapodi.

This well written, well researched, finely balanced piece from CNN provides the views of Sunni Muslim scholars who explain why a film portraying Mohammad in an unflattering light would provoke religious outrage.

Violence over depictions of the Prophet Mohammed may mystify many non-Muslims, but it speaks to a central tenet of Islam: that the Prophet was a man, not God, and that portraying him threatens to lead to worshiping a human instead of Allah.

“It’s all rooted in the notion of idol worship,” says Akbar Ahmed, who chairs the Islamic Studies department at American University. “In Islam, the notion of God versus any depiction of God or any sacred figure is very strong.”

“The Prophet himself was aware that if people saw his face portrayed by people, they would soon start worshiping him,” Ahmed says. “So he himself spoke against such images, saying ‘I’m just a man.’”

Do read the whole story. It will give you a good grounding in one of the religious angles in this affair.

My first post on this story also generated several thoughtful comments focusing on the statements issued via twitter from the U.S. embassy in Cairo. “The Old Bill” asked who had tweeted these comments, while “Ben” questioned the timeline. When did the Embassy release the tweet and press statement — before, during or after the compound was attacked?

By day’s end, these questions had entered the U.S. political arena as Mitt Romney criticized the administration over the tweets and statement. Foreign Policy Magazine’s “The Cable” has a solid story that looks at these issues, identifying the embassy staffer who wrote the tweet — and revealing the anger within the State Department over the content, timing and tone of the embassy tweets and statement.

People at the highest levels both at the State Department and at the White House were not happy with the way the statement went down. There was a lot of anger both about the process and the content,” the official said. “Frankly, people here did not understand it. The statement was just tone deaf. It didn’t provide adequate balance. We thought the references to the 9/11 attacks were inappropriate, and we strongly advised against the kind of language that talked about ‘continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.’”

Despite being aware of Washington’s objections, the embassy continued to defend the statement for several hours, fueling the controversy over it, a decision the official again attributed to Schwartz.

“Not only did they push out the statement but they continued to engage on Twitter and retweet it,” the official said. “[Schwartz] would have been the one directing folks to engage on Twitter on this.”

The State Department has long had a reputation of being disconnected from reality. Spiro Agnew is not the author of the title of this post — that honor belongs to a Democratic congressman from Ohio who in a 1948 speech condemned the reluctance of the State Department to engage with China over the fate to two downed airmen. The actions of its public affairs officer in Cairo has done the administration no good — adding yet another stanza to the song of the feckless idiots of Foggy Bottom.

Righteous Religious Indignation in Cairo

YouTube Preview ImageThere are conflicting reports coming out of Egypt and Libya tonight on the attacks on the U.S. embassy in Cairo and the consulate in Benghazi.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, drawing upon reports from Reuters and AFP, stated one U.S. official was killed and a second injured in the attack on the Benghazi consulate,while the Washington Post, citing the Associated Press, reported that no one was inside the Benghazi consulate when the attack occurred.

The protests, coming on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 bombings, are being described in most press accounts as being driven by religious fervor. The New York Times reported:

The protest was a result of outrage over a movie being promoted by an anti-Muslim Egyptian Christian campaigner in the United States, clips of which are available on YouTube and dubbed in Egyptian Arabic. The video depicts Muhammad as a fraud, and shows him having sex and calling for massacres. Muslims find it offensive to depict Muhammad at all, much less in an insulting way.

And the ABC noted:

Reports suggest both incidents were sparked by anger over a film which was produced by expatriate members of Egypt’s Christian minority resident in the United States.

Reports said the Cairo protesters, numbering nearly 3,000 were mostly hardline Islamist supporters of the Salafist movement.

A dozen men scaled the embassy walls and one of them tore down the US flag, replacing it with a black one inscribed with the Muslim profession of faith: “There is no God but God and Mohammed is the prophet of God.”

The New York Times added a bit of context about this black flag, stating: “The flag, similar to Al Qaeda’s banner, is popular with ultraconservatives around the region.”

Religion, then would seem to be one of the forces driving the attack — though some Egyptian Christians with whom I was in contact via email today suggested the attacks were driven by Egyptian domestic political considerations. Their argument was that the Salafist parties — the hardline Islamist groups that are junior coalition partners with the Muslim Brotherhood government — are seeking to incite the “Arab Street” to pressure the government to adopt a stricter Sharia law-based government. Religion, this line of thinking believes, is a tool for political ends.

I have no knowledge as to the truth of these assertions, but the first day reports out of the Middle East have noted the religious and political nature of the protests.

The Washington Post reported:

Many of the protesters at the U.S. Embassy Tuesday said that they were associated with the Salafist political parties Al Nour and Al Asala. Salafism is an extremely conservative branch of Islam.

Protesters condemned a video clip that depicted the prophet Mohammed in a series of humiliating scenes. A controversial Cairo television host, Sheikh Khaled Abdallah, aired clips from the video on an Islamic-focused television station on Saturday, and the same video clips were posted to YouTube on Monday. Depicting Mohammed at all is considered deeply offensive by Muslims. Some protesters said that the movie had been created by Egyptian-American Coptic Christians, though its provenance online was unclear.

“We are speaking out and will never be tolerant toward any curses for our prophet,” said Moaz Abdel Kareem, 37, who had a long beard typical of followers of the Salafist movement and was carrying a black flag.

Congratulations to the Post — and the wire services — for being on the scene and doing  a great job in explaining what is taking place.

I would note that the prohibition against the portrayal of Mohammad is a Sunni Muslim tradition and not practiced by the Shia.  My colleagues and I at GetReligion have written extensively about reporting on images of Mohammad. Articles on Everybody Draw Mohammad Day, South Park, and the Jyllands-Posten cartoons have raised questions about the quality of reporting and unwarranted suppositions about Islam. I hope we will not see these same mistakes in this news cycle.

While the press has done a great job so far, I would not say the same about the U.S. embassy press people in Cairo. Their response to the violation of American sovereignty, the raising of the al-Qaeda flag at the U.S. embassy and destruction of the American flag by the Salafist protestors on the 11th anniversary of 9/11 was to send out this tweet:

We condemn the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims

An extraordinarily feckless statement — even by the standards of the State Department.

I do hope that in the days to come the press continues push, seeking to unravel the political and religious dimensions of this story.

57 Communists: McCarthyism from The Australian

I have in my hand 57 cases of individuals who would appear to be either card-carrying members or certainly loyal to the Communist Party, but who nevertheless are still helping to shape our foreign policy.

One thing to remember in discussing the communists in our government is that we are not dealing with spies who get 30 pieces of silver to steal the blueprints of new weapons. We are dealing with a far more sinister type of activity because it permits the enemy to guide and shape our policy. …

This brings us down to the case of one Alger Hiss, who is important not as an individual anymore but rather because he is so representative of a group in the State Department. …

Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wisc.) Congressional Record, 81st Congress, Second Session, Vol. 96, Part 2, 1954-1957.

One month after Alger Hiss was convicted of perjury, Senator Joseph McCarthy began his now famous series of speeches on Communist infiltration of the U.S. government. He told a Wheeling, West Virginia Republican Women’s Club there were 57 Communist spies in the State Department, repeating this charge in a speech to the Senate on 20 Feb 1950.

Exaggeration, hyperbole and guilt by association were among the tools used by Sen. McCarthy in achieving his political ends — and he was also helped by the fact that there had been Communist spies in the U.S. government — Alger Hiss being one.

My mind turned to Joseph McCarthy and McCarthyism as I read a story this morning in The Australian, the largest daily newspaper in Australia and a part of the Rupert Murdoch media empire. The article entitled “Fears Anglican abuse linked to Catholics” is filled with exaggeration, hyperbole, guilt by association and the omission of key facts. But yes, there are abusers in this case — though not 57 of them.

The news behind this article is the 10 September 2012 announcement from the Anglican bishop of the Diocese of Newcastle, Brian Farran. Acting upon the recommendation of the diocesan professionals standards board he had defrocked three clergy, suspended one priest for five years, and banned a lay employee from further employment in the church for having engaged in sexual misconduct with a teenaged boy.

Here is how The Australian reports this story:

NSW police are investigating allegations four Anglican priests, including the former dean of Newcastle, had sex or were involved in group sex sessions with a teenage boy aged as young as 14.

The establishment of the inquiry, which was referred to police by the church itself, means detectives are now involved in two separate investigations into alleged child abuse by church officials in Newcastle during the 1970s and 80s. The second, Strike Force Georgiana, is investigating the Catholic Church and has charged six priests with pedophile abuse.

While neither police investigation is looking specifically at any connection between members of the two churches allegedly involved in pedophile abuse, detectives believe such relationships may exist. One source within the Anglican Diocese of Newcastle said: “It’s possible there are links. There’s no strong evidence of it, but it’s possible …

“There’s certainly been a strong network up here and they infiltrated the church.”

It is not suggested any of the four priests currently under investigation were involved.

The article then goes into details of the abuse, quoting graphic extracts from the professional standards report. This is followed by:

Each of the four priests has previously denied the allegations against them while a previous police inquiry was suspended after the state Director of Public Prosecutions found there was insufficient evidence to lay charges. Mr Goyette could not be contacted yesterday.

And closes with a statement from the unnamed victim:

In a written statement, M said: “Making my complaint and having it heard has been a long and difficult journey. “I urge anybody else who has had similar experiences to speak out.”

What is wrong with this story? Where is the exaggeration, hyperbole, guilt by association, and omission of facts? Let me start off by saying I have been following this closely for two years and have written a half dozen articles on this story. So I come to this story encumbered with a degree of knowledge.

Let us begin with the lede. It reports that police are investigating the four Anglican clergy for child abuse — and they may be part of a clergy pedophile ring that includes six Catholic priests who are suspected abusers. And then we have an unnamed source within the Diocese of Newcastle saying that it might very well be possible that there is a clergy pedophile ring involving priests from the Anglican Diocese of Newcastle and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Newcastle-Maitland

But then again, the third and fifth paragraphs tells us that there is no evidence of a clergy pedophile ring and the police had investigated the four Anglican clergy once already and had taken no action.

And — the Catholic Church has nothing to do with the actions of the Anglican clergy. Does The Australian work on the principle that any abuse story by any cleric must somehow be tied into the Catholic abuse scandal? As the story states there is no link between the Anglicans and Catholics, what else is this but Catholic-bashing?

What is omitted from this story are several key facts that provide context for this story. Two of the clergy and the lay employee — a cathedral organist — had filed a civil suit that was heard by the New South Wales Supreme Court. They argued the professional standards board process violated natural justice and their due process rights. Supporters of the accused have brought Bishop Farran up on charges for the way he has handled this case. The diocese also halted disciplinary proceedings for over a year while this issue was taken through the civil courts and has defrocked the accused clergy now that the Supreme Court has held that it will not intervene in the church’s internal disciplinary proceedings.

There is omission of the fact that the lay employee, Gregory Goyette — the former organist of the Anglican Cathedral in Newcastle — and the most prominent of the accused, Graeme Lawrence, the former dean of the cathedral are same-sex partners. What we have are five gay men (and Angl0-Catholics) being accused of being part of a pedophile ring by persons unknown. Is it because they are gay men and hence potential pedophiles? That is what I hear in the unnamed quotation in the lede.

By raising the spectre of a pedophile ring and omitting the legal battles and questions about probity of the professional standards board’s actions, The Australian crosses a line. Whether this is a subtle form of gay bashing (“Well, we know that all Anglo-Catholics are like that don’t we”, wink wink) or a case of improving a story — sexing it up — is hard to tell. But to me this smells bad.

One of the odd things about this is that Lawrence, who served as Dean of Newcastle for 25 years until his retirement in 2008, was a member of the Anglican Church of Australia General Synod Standing Committee task force that in 2003 created the recommendations for the current professional standards proceedings.

He was a member of the 2003 Sexual Abuse Working Group that recommended that the church change the clergy disciplinary proceedings from an adversarial procedure involving a prosecution for an offense before a tribunal, to panel review process that looked at the fitness of the church worker to hold office. His complaint to the Supreme Court was that he never had an opportunity to face his accusers or dispute the charges — and now he has been deposed by the process he helped create.

Also — here is what I am not saying. I am not excusing or condoning the behavior described in this article.

There are evil people in this world. Some of the clergy sexual abuse stories I have covered have sickened me, while stories on the cover up of abuse have left me ashamed. Yet in the evil and sickness that I have seen, I am always mindful that the perpetrators of crimes are still human beings — and deserve to be treated with fairness and dignity — even if they never showed this compassion to their victims.

In writing clergy abuse articles there is a temptation to paint the abuser in the blackest of terms. Monster A is as bad as Monster B who is just short of being another Charles Manson. Yet there needs to be nuance and clarity in reporting on these cases so that the truth can be told.

The bottom line in this article is that the whole truth has not been told by The Australian. It throws in a gratuitous and unproven assertion of a pedophile ring, omits important facts that provide context to the case, takes an uncalled for swipe at the Catholic Church, and relies upon an unnamed sources to make its most important point. This is not the way to write a newspaper story. It stinks.

Sex and the Single Indian

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The BBC’s inability to comprehend religion is not a new story at GetReligion. Often as not the corporation appears oblivious to the faith dimension of a story. I should say the BBC’s religion reporters are a professional lot and there are a number of fine specialty programs that treat faith issues well and when it focuses on religion it does a good job. It is outside the religion ghetto that the BBC fails to “get religion.”

This item, “Virginity cream sparks Indian sex debate”, is an example of the BBC’s failure to comprehend the faith element of a story.

It begins:

An Indian company has launched what it claims is the country’s first vagina tightening cream, saying it will make women feel “like a virgin” again. The company says it is about empowering women, but critics say it is doing the opposite. The BBC’s Rajini Vaidyanathan in Mumbai reports.

It is certainly a bold claim. As the music starts playing on the advertisement for the 18 Again cream, a sari-clad woman is singing and dancing. It is an unusual take on Bollywood. “I feel like a virgin,” she croons, although the advert makes it clear she is not. Her shocked in-laws look on, before her husband joins her for some salsa-style dancing. “Feels like the very first time,” she continues, as she is twirled around. Cut away to her mother-in-law who begins by responding with a disgusted look on her face, but by the end of the advert even she has been won over, and is seen buying the product online.

This video is designed to market a vaginal “rejuvenation and tightening” product, which was launched this month in India. The makers of 18 Again, the Mumbai-based pharmaceutical company Ultratech, say it is the first of its kind in India (similar creams are already available in other parts of the world such as the USA), and fills a gap in the market.

The article starts off with a few facts about the product but then turns into a discussion of the importance of virginity for women. It states:

… the company’s advertising strategy has attracted criticism from some doctors, women’s groups and social media users, who say the product reinforces the widely held view in India that pre-marital sex is something to be frowned upon, a taboo which is even seen as sinful by some.

The clause that ends this paragraph frames the rest of the story: “which is even seen as sinful by some.”

The BBC then lines up critics of 18 Again: doctors, activists and bloggers whose objections are that the add campaign reinforces a taboo on pre-marital sex.

Objection one comes from Annie Raja of the National Federation of Indian Women who says “this kind of cream is utter nonsense, and could give some women an inferiority complex,” as it reaffirms

a patriarchal view that is held by many here – the notion that men want all women to be virgins until their wedding night. “Why should women remain a virgin until marriage? It is a woman’s right to have sexual relations with a man, but society here still says they should not until they are brides.”

Second comes the doctor with the sex-advice column in the newspapers.

“Being a virgin is still prized, and I don’t think attitudes will change in this century,” says Dr Mahinda Watsa, a gynaecologist who writes a popular sexual advice column in the Mumbai Mirror and Bangalore Mirror newspaper. … Men still hope they’re marrying a virgin, but more girls in India, at least in the towns and cities, are having sex before.”

And then we move to the internet. Man (woman) in the street comments followed by Dr Nisreen Nakhoda, “a GP who advises on sexual health for the medical website MDhil” who questions the science behind the product, and observes:

The young generation wants to be hip and cool and try out sex before marriage, but they’re still brought up in the traditional set up where it’s taboo to have sex before marriage. This leads to a lot of confusion in many teenagers. On one hand you’re supposed to be the traditional demure Indian bride, but on the other hand, you don’t want to have to wait for sex because people are marrying later. Temptations are coming their way and people are no longer resisting,” says Dr Nakhoda.

Any comment representing a voice in support of the traditional view? No, but the BBC does provides a sidebar which begins with this questionable statement:

Ancient India has always been celebrated for its openness and lack of hypocrisy, for its modernity and inclusive attitude; but in one aspect, it has remained rigid: the need for women to be virgins.

But closes with the admission that virginity is a religious issue and is:

Considered to be a spiritual obligation, Hindu wedding ceremonies even today centre round the Kanyadaan, which literally translates as the gift of a virgin.

From the start the BBC has framed this story in a faith-free atmosphere.  We see this in the line about some “even” seeing pre-marital sex as being sinful. Who might these people be? Answer: India’s Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jains and Parsis to name but a few.

Were India a fiercely secular society, such an omission might be justified. But it is not — nor are the rates of pre-marital sex comparable to the West. A study by the International Institute for Population Studies estimated that 3 per cent of women had engaged in pre-marital sex.

Why? Perhaps it is because sexuality for a woman in the Vedic tradition of Hindu culture is controlled by her age and marital status. It frames virginity, chastity and celibacy as being appropriate for distinct periods of life. Virginity is expected of a woman before marriage and chastity is expected within marriage. Celibacy, as signaled by an ascetic withdrawal from the obligations of marriage and family life, takes place at the end of life with abstinence being a liberation of the self from worldly attachments. While Tantric cults exalted women in worship, their sexual mores did not extend to a modern notion of female sexual autonomy. While the ideal seldom governs the real, it must be stated that pre-marital sex simply does not work within the Hindu worldview.

From what I have read, discussions of sexuality in India often turn to a mythologized past where it is claimed “openness and a lack of hypocrisy” ruled. This is the Kama Sutra narrative, but it is not history. It is more a product of the nationalist aspirations of the rising middle classes of the Twentieth century, mixed with anti-colonialism, coupled with a dash of “Orientalism” — a belief in repressed Westerners and liberated Orientals. However the Kama Sutra narrative of Indian sexuality is largely irrelevant to an understanding of its modern manifestations and as sociologist Sanjay Srivastava of the Institute of Economic Growth in Delhi writes:

is best confined to expensive coffee table books of our ‘glorious’ past that was supposedly destroyed by foreign invaders.

Does the BBC truly believe that it is not necessary to note the objections that might come from religious scruples? I do not believe I am being too harsh. Though an off color topic, the story was not treated in a light tone. It was given the full BBC treatment — 1400 words including an analysis side bar. Yet the final result was one-sided and woefully incomplete.

Bottom line — a poor outing once again for the BBC.

Is it race or religion at issue in Burma?

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What is driving the violence in Burma? Race or religion? And can the two be distinguished from one another. Reports from the South East Asian nation have framed the conflict in terms of sectarian violence — but is religion really the issue here?

The English-language service of France 24 reported that Buddhist monks had staged a mass political rally in the streets of Burma’s second largest city Mandalay. But unlike the 2007 anti-government protests that sparked the unsuccessful “Saffron Revolution”, France 24 reported this week’s rally was in support of the government and against Muslim

Drawn from an AFP wire service report, France 24‘s headline read: “Buddhist monks stage anti-Rohingya rally”. The subtitle firmly anchored the story to the theme of sectarian Buddhist-Muslim clashes.

Hundreds of Buddhist monks marched in the Burmese city of Mandalay on Sunday to back President Thein Sein’s proposal to deport members of the Rohingya Muslim minority group. Fighting between the two sides has left almost 90 people dead since June.

The article stated:

“Protect Mother Myanmar by supporting the President,” read one banner, while others criticised United Nations human rights envoy Tomas Ojea Quintana, who has faced accusations that he is biased in favour of the Rohingya, following deadly unrest between Buddhists and Muslims in western Rakhine state.

This article is the best I have seen so far on the disturbances. Written from Burma, it offered comments from a leader of the monks as well as concerns from international rights groups. But the title and subtitles given by France 24 do not quite match the story written by AFP.

The leader of the protest march did not use religion as a reason for his march, but race.

Wirathu, the 45-year-old monk who led the march, claimed that as many as 5,000 monks had joined the procession, with another several thousand people taking to the streets to watch.

He told AFP the protest was to “let the world know that Rohingya are not among Myanmar’s ethnic groups at all”.

The monk, who goes by one name, said the aim was also to condemn “terrorism of Rohingya Bengalis who cruelly killed ethnic Rakhines”.

Speaking a dialect similar to one in neighbouring Bangladesh, the estimated 800,000 Rohingya in Myanmar are seen by the government and many Burmese as illegal immigrants and the violence has stoked a wave of anger across the Buddhist-majority country.

The video accompanying the France 24 story along with the text of the article quoted the leader of the monks as stressing a clash of peoples who happen to be of different faiths, than a clash of faiths. In the video Wirathu tells the camera that all Burmese “religions, sects and political parties” are united against the Rohingya.

A second AFP story from Burma suggested that race and religion may not be divisible. In an article entitled “Myanmar Christians forced to convert: rights group” a spokesman for the Chin, a predominantly Christian minority group in Burma, stated:

Rachel Fleming, another member of the [Chin] group, said Christianity does not fit with the national view that “to be Burmese, you should be Buddhist”

Where then should the emphasis be in the phrase “Rohingya Muslim minority group”? On the ethnic — Rohingya — or religious — Muslim — descriptors for this minority group? It may well be argued that this is a meaningless distinction, that the reasons for the Rohinga’s suffering are of secondary consequence to the fact of their suffering. I have some sympathy for this argument, but it is a journalist’s duty to split these hairs and dig into a story. The bottom  line is that what AFP reported is not so straight forward as the France 24 title suggested.

To paraphrase Neville Chamberlain, Burma is a far away country that we know little about — and hence care little about. Why would balancing race versus religion matter? One consequence of the Rohingya conflict is that it has become a political football in the Islamic world, with some extremist groups calling for jihad against Buddhists.

The anti-Buddhist rhetoric became so bad the Central Tibetan Administration — the Dalai Lama’s government in exile — issued a press statement denouncing the use of misleading photos to whip up anti-Buddhist sentiment in the Muslim world.

The Central Tibetan Administration based in Dharamsala is deeply disturbed and concerned over the circulation of a misleading photograph in some section of the media showing Tibetan monks in their reports on the recent violence in Myanmar involving Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims.

A photograph of Tibetan monks standing in front of a pile of dead bodies appeared in  many websites in the Muslim countries, especially Pakistan. This photo of Tibetan monks was actually taken during their relief work in Kyegudo (Yushul), eastern Tibet, after a devastating earthquake hit the region on 14 April 2010. The Tibetan monks extended remarkable service in the rescue and relief operations at the time.

The relevant department of the Central Tibetan Administration wrote a letter to a website in Pakistan (ColumPk.com, Urdu Current Affairs Portal) on 30 July to remove the photo from its website, which it did so the next day. But the photo is still in circulation, as some Muslims carrying the photo during their recent protest in Mumbai on 11 August 2012, appeared in Zee News, a leading news channel in India.

We strongly appeal to the media across the world not to use this photo, which is being circulated by miscreants to provoke conflict between the Buddhist and Muslim communities.

Pakistani pro-democracy bloggers have chronicled the use of the fake atrocity photo by Islamist extremist groups to inflame public sentiment, while retaliatory attacks on Buddhist temples in Indonesia by Muslim extremist groups in the wake of the Burmese conflict have been reported. Would these attacks have taken place if the Muslim angle were downplayed and the ethnic angle stressed? Does it make any difference? Should the press dig deeper into this story and find out what is really going on in Burma?

What say you GetReligion readers? How should this story be played out? Should reporters worry about the consequences of their stories if fanatics seize upon them for their own ends?

Bishops are Republicans, Nuns are Catholic

Archbishop Timothy Dolan has been invited to give the closing prayer at this week’s Democratic Convention in Charlotte. The New York Times reports the New York cardinal will be one of matched pair of high profile Catholics to appear on the podium before the Democratic faithful, with Sister Simone Campbell of “Nuns on the Bus” fame completing the set.

Religion reporter Laurie Goodstein’s story “At Democratic Convention, a Cardinal and an Outspoken Nun” sets the scene and offers a bit of the “why” — but I’ve seen little so far on the “how” — and outside of the religious press, not much on whether this is a good idea at all.

The Times reports the news the:

Democrats are giving a convention speaking slot to Sister Simone Campbell, an outspoken advocate for the poor and elderly, according to an aide with President Obama’s campaign who would speak only on background.

In doing so, the Democratic Party has balanced its own Catholic ticket by showcasing both Sister Campbell, who pushed for the passage of the Obama administration’s health care overhaul, and Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, who is suing the White House over a provision in the health care overhaul that requires employers to cover birth control in their employee insurance plans.

The article is framed in good cop/bad cop terms, but seeks to balance the piece by positing a degree of moral equivalence between the Dolan and Campbell’s political activities.

Cardinal Dolan, who says he is a personal friend of Representative Paul D. Ryan, Mitt Romney’s running mate. has been perceived by many Catholic commentators as being too cozy with Republicans, while Sister Campbell has been seen as being too supportive of Democratic causes. In June, she led the “Nuns on the Bus” tour to call attention to cuts affecting the poor and elderly in the budget proposed by Mr. Ryan.

The two will have different roles at the convention:

Cardinal Dolan will give the closing prayer at the convention, and Sister Campbell will speak but not offer a prayer.

And the story then r0unds off with a few paragraphs about Sister Campbell. All in all a solid story with an editorial voice that favors the nun over the cardinal. The theme of the article is that the liberal Campbell is balanced by the conservative Dolan.

What would have made the story stronger would have been a development of the why and how themes. We have surface story of the Democrats playing “me too”, inviting Dolan because the Republicans did. The import being the Democrats are seeking to curry favor with Catholic voters in the same way the Republicans have. But Campbell?

The Times article notes her support for the President’s healthcare initiative and suggests she is an alternative Catholic voice. Yet is there more? In an Aug 24 story in the New Yorker — before the invitation from the Democrats was given to Dolan, Hendrick Hertzberg wrote:

Dolan, as you may also have heard, heads up the male hierarchy’s drive to portray Obamacare as an attack on freedom of religion and is a leading enforcer in the Vatican-ordered crackdown on women religious who regard ministering to the poor and the sick as more urgent and more admirable than railing against contraception and homosexuality.

He then cites with approval the Aug 24 edition of the Carville – Greenberg Memorandum, where James Carville argues the Democrats should invite Campbell to spite Dolan and exploit the social justice agenda of the church for their political advantage.

And now, a week later, we have Campbell speaking and Dolan praying in Charlotte.  How did we get to this point? Do Dolan and and Campbell represent different wings of the same church, different views of what it means to live a Catholic life? Is it wise for the Catholic Church to allow individuals to become symbols of the conflicting views of its teachings?

Should the Catholic Church allow itself to be used by the national political parties in this way? I am not speaking of separation of church/state issues, but whether the integrity of the church, any church, is damaged when it comes in contact with secular politics. The assumption here is that it is social good for religious organizations — as opposed to religious individuals — to take a stand in the public square. Is that a valid assumption?

And should these issues be raised in the reporting on these questions? Not every story need be an essay on the merits of the marriage of politics and church leaders — but should there not be a voice offered from time to time that sees the arrangement differently? What say you GetReligion readers? Have I strayed into editorializing here by suggesting that clergy might be seen, but not heard at political conventions? Am I pushing my interpretation ahead of the simple facts of who is doing what in Charlotte — or is there a deeper truth that has yet to be revealed in the reporting of these issues?

And the title to this post? It comes from the Carville video –his mangling (deliberate?) of the old saw, “Bishops are Republicans, Nuns are Democrats.”

Michelle Obama as political art

Is this Spanish news magazine cover of Michelle Obama art or porn? Is it racist and sexist? Or is it a political fantasy of the noble savage, an incisive commentary on the centrality of Mrs. Obama’s sexuality in the presidential election campaign? Is it Granada I see or only Asbury Park in this profile of the First Lady?

The cover ignited a firestorm of controversy and prompted accusations of racism in the “black blogosphere”, the Huffington Post reported. But behind the fun over the racy cover lay an article that exemplified a secular worldview — a philosophical construct about the meaning and purpose of life that sees the acquisition of power as the chief aim of life and where God is absent (or far off on the margins.)

But before I become too airy fairy let’s start with the fun. On 9 Aug 2012 Fuera de Serie, a weekly magazine insert of the Madrid business daily Expansión published a profile of Michelle Obama. The article “Michelle se como a Obama” was illustrated by a cover painting of the First Lady draped in an American flag and posed in the style of a famous 19th century painting — Portrait d’une Négresse on exhibition at the Louvre by French artist Marie-Guillemine Benoist (1800).

On 29 August the magazine published the full text of the story and some background to the cover in an online piece entitled “La polémica desnudez de Michelle Obama”.

The initial controversy was missed by the American press, but animated African-American publications and blogs.  The Huffington Post put the story into play within the mainstream press, shortly followed by Le Monde and other American and European publications. But their coverage focused on the cover, not the content of the article.

The Huffington Post was not pleased. It quoted one blogger as saying:

“By choosing to use such a jarring image to tell the story of how America’s first lady “seduced the people of the United States” and “stole the heart of Barack Obama,” as Fuera de Serie describes her,” writes Brande Victorian of Madame Noire, “it’s clear the magazine agrees with that mentality and wants to spread the message loud and clear: todavía estamos esclavos. We are still slaves.”

It cited other black interest publications who voiced similar objections, and likened the furore to the 2008  New Yorker cover that portrayed Michelle and Barack Obama as afro-centric terrorists.

Some European observers saw this negative reaction as an example of America’s lubricious Puritanism — a sentiment best summarized by Pascal Bruckner in last year’s Dominique Strauss-Kuhn affair.

It’s not enough though to describe [America] as puritanical because what governs [America] is a twisted puritanism which, after the sexual revolution, talks the language of free love and coexists with a flourishing porn industry.

Le Monde was less censorious than the Huffington Post and suggested the cover might not be so bad. It said the Portrait d’une Négresse was a celebration of the abolition of slavery and a symbol of liberation, of modernity, of freedom.  It also gave the artist, Karine Percheron Daniels, space to deny charges of racism.

In my eyes, the image I created is of a beautiful woman with a beautiful message. For the first time in history the First Lady of the United States is a black woman who proudly displays her femininity (nudity), her roots (the slave) and her power (first lady of the United States embraced by the American flag). … I’m not racist. I’m trying with my art to show the beauty not the dirt.

So what is going on here? And where is the GetReligion ghost in all of this? Let’s go inside the story and see.

Like the cover painting, “Michelle se como a Obama” and “La polémica desnudez de Michelle Obama” are artistic interpretations of the meaning of Michelle Obama. Facts are present, but the meaning of these facts are a construct of the author who frames the article from the very beginning as a hagiography. Michelle Obama is a secular left-liberal saint, whose:

popularity ratings exceed those of her husband, President Barack Obama. Experts even suggest that she will be the key to the reelection of Democrat in November elections. But how the first lady has managed to [steal the hearts] of the American people?

The article answers this question by contrasting Saint Michelle with the Wicked Witch of the West: Sarah Palin. While “attractive” and “quintessentially America” the former Alaska governor was also “vulgar, predictable, uneducated and arrogant.”

Mrs. Obama in contrast is “sleek, friendly, outgoing, direct, sometimes irreverent, and mother of two daughters.”  A woman whom nine out of ten voters believe “shares their values and understands their problems,” Fuera de Serie said. The article continues along these lines before moving to the heart of the story — the “why” of Michelle Obama.

Michelle is the daughter of Fraser Robinson, a worker who earned her living scrubbing floors in a water treatment plant in the city of Chicago, at the rate of $ 479 per month.

And it was this solidarity with the workers that drove the young Michelle to go on to Princeton and Harvard Law School and with Barack champion the cause of the poor and oppressed and right the “injustices” of the Bush Administration.

From the humble streets of their city [Chicago] emerged a community spirit, the spark that drove her husband to pursue his presidential dream …  even though politics was “a waste of time” that would detract from [Barack Obama's] responsibilities as a father and husband.

And like any good story from the “Lives of the Saints”, the article recounts tales of the miraculous and promises of divine intervention through the invocation of the saint’s name. For you see Michelle Obama is a better campaigner than her husband, one expert voice told Fuera de Serie, and her “passion and drive have triggered fantasies” that if her husband loses to Mitt Romney in the Fall, Michelle can carry forward the banner of change.

Let me step back a moment and say I am not denigrating or advocating the re-election campaign of President Barack Obama, nor am I slighting the First Lady. My target is this dreadful news profile of Mrs. Obama that is so over the top, so ludicrous, so one-sided that it is more likely to lead to ridicule than to admiration of its subject.

And absent from this entire story is any sense of what lay behind the family values and ethics of the parents that reared the young Michelle Robinson on Chicago’s South Side. Belief in God? Belief in history? We have snippets and slogans that hint at solidarity with the masses, but nothing else. The Michelle Obama in this article is identical to the artists portrait on the cover — a stylized fantasy that represents a cause, but is not representative of a person.

So GetReligion readers, tell me, is this racist, sexist, or vulgar? Is it beautiful, ennobling, a celebration of hope and change for a better world? Or am I taking a shovel to a souffle — seeing shadows and specters where none exist? What say you?