Tweeting Mohammad

The Mohammad cartoon controversy has resurfaced over the past week with a flutter over a tweet.

The British press appears to have come down on the side of Maajid Nawaz. Newspaper articles, opinion pieces and television chat shows have defended his right to share a cartoon depicting Jesus and Mohammad. But they have also ceded the moral high ground to his opponents — Islamist extremists — by declining to publish a copy of the cartoon that has led to death threats and calls for Nawaz to be blacklisted by the Liberal Democratic Party for Islamophobia.

What we are seeing in the British media — newspapers and television (this has not been a problem for radio) — in the Jesus and Mo controversy is a replay of past disputes over Danish and French cartoons. Freedom of speech and courage in the face of religious intolerance is championed by the press — up to a point.

The point appears to be whether being courageous could get you killed or even worse, earn the displeasure of the bien pensant chattering classes.

The Telegraph gives a good overview of the affair.

A Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate has received death threats after posting a cartoon image of Jesus and the Prophet Mohammed on Twitter. Muslim politician Maajid Nawaz tweeted a picture of a t-shirt with a crudely-drawn cartoon entitled ‘Jesus and Mo’ which he describes as an “innocuous” and inoffensive.

However the image has caused fury among some members of the Islamic community who believe images of the prophet Muhammed are forbidden. More than 7,000 people have now signed a petition calling for the Liberal Democrats to suspend Mr Nawaz. Some have even suggested a fatwa should be placed on him while others have threatened they would be “glad to cut your neck off”.

The Guardian summarized Nawaz’s motives in this subtitle to their story:

Lib Dem candidate says he aimed to defend his religion ‘against those who have hijacked it because they shout the loudest’

It explained:

The row blew up after Nawaz took part in a BBC debate where two students were wearing t-shirts depicting a stick figures of stick figure of Jesus saying “Hi” to a stick figure called Mo, who replied: “How you doin’?”

The politician, who is founder of the Quilliam Foundation, an anti-extremist think-tank, tweeted what he believes is a “bland” image and stated that “as a Muslim, I did not feel threatened by it. My God is greater than that”.

Both stories are sympathetic and are topped by striking photos of Nawaz, who is  running to be an MP for Hampstead and Kilburn. But neither article reproduces the cartoon that has led to the threats against his life. In their defence, it could be argued that a photo of Nawaz, rather than the offending cartoon was more appropriate as the article focused on the politician’s travails over the cartoon, not on the cartoon itself. A weak argument but an argument none the less.

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Pod people: Memory and revolution in Kiev

All Ukraine, All the time is not our moto at GetReligion. Though you may be excused for thinking it might be as tmatt and I have knocked out a number of stories looking at the reporting coming out of Kiev this week.

I returned to Kiev once more in this week’s Crossroads podcast. I spoke with Issues, Etc. host Todd Wilken about the religion angle to the protests in the Ukraine, arguing that the demonstrations were not intelligible without reference to the country’s political and religious history.

As tmatt has noted there have been some wonderful images coming out of the protests, especially those that showcase Orthodox clergy standing between protestors and the riot police — seeking to prevent bloodshed. There has also been some sharp political reporting as well.

The report on the funeral of protestor shot and killed, allegedly, by the security services, picked up the political symbolism of red and white banners waved by some mourners (the banned flag of Belorussia). But the religious symbolism of holding the memorial service at the cathedral of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate) rather than at the neighboring Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) escaped Western reporters.

At its most basic level, this is a conflict of nationalism with religious overtones– Russophile Ukrainians (including those who belong to the Moscow led church) against Europhile Ukrainians (including those who belong to the Kiev led church).

But the analogy is not exact.

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So what is happening with Anglican gay marriage?

Wire service reporting takes a special skill that not all writers posses. In less than 300 words, for most stories, a reporter must present the relevant facts and sufficient context to allow a reader to understand the story, while also be entertaining and interesting.

A problem arises when a wire service story substitutes analysis or opinion for news. While some stories are labeled news analysis or opinion — and as such it is proper to load a story with the author’s views of what should be rather than what is — when a news story substitutes opinion for journalism we have a problem.

An item from the Religion News Service that came across my desk yesterday illustrates this peril. In a story entitled “Church of England’s bishops defer gay marriage decision” that came in at a little under 300 words, RNS devotes only half of the story to reporting on what happened at the meeting of the Church of England’s House of Bishops and what they said and the balance to what RNS thinks we should think about the story.

And RNS neglects to mention the most news worthy portions of the report — that the bishops are hopelessly divided over the issue of homosexuality.

The lede is rather anodyne, but does mention one fact from the report:

CANTERBURY, England (RNS) With little more than two months to go before Britain’s first same-sex marriage, the College of Bishops issued a statement saying that “no change” to the Church of England’s teaching on marriage is proposed or envisioned.

Next comes a sentence providing the setting:

The statement came after an all-day meeting at Church House in central London Monday (Jan. 27) attended by 90 bishops and eight women participant observers.

And then a paragraph on the purpose:

The aim of the meeting was to discuss the recommendationsof the Pilling Report on human sexuality that was published in 2013. That report was the result of a recommendation made by church leaders at the end of the Lambeth Conference in 2008 that Anglicans should embark on a discussion process to help heal the rift on the subject of full rights for Christian homosexuals.

Followed by a quote from the report on what happens next:

“The House of Bishops will be meeting again next month to consider its approach when same sex marriage becomes lawful in England and Wales,” the statement reads.

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Finding a faith angle in the Ukraine

A spate of wire service photos from the demonstrations in Kiev may have awakened the Western press to the religious element in the protests. As GetReligion‘s editor tmatt has noted, photojournalism has led the way.

The pictures from Kiev are telling a fascinating story — but unless you know what you are seeing and can interpret the images or place them in their political and religious context, you will not understand what is happening.

The “Eurorevolution” as some Ukrainian newspapers have dubbed the protests is about economics, politics, national identity, and religion. It is being articulated in protests over a trade agreements. Yet the dispute has as just as much to do with the Soviet past and the present battle over gay rights in Russia.

However, the press has so far been unable to get its head round all this. The stories I have seen rarely address more than one of these topics at a time and then do so from an American/English perspective.

Even when there is a direct religion angle to the news, as in this story printed on Jan 27, 2014 on the website of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, western reporters on the ground appear to be unaware of the symbolism (or perhaps iconography as we are talking about the Orthodox) of what they are reporting.

The ABC story entitled “Ukraine protests: Thousands mourn slain protester in Kiev as opposition rejects president’s bid to end unrest” is an example of the Western press’ lack of comprehension of the forces at work. It states in its sub-headline:

Thousands of people have packed into a church in Kiev for the funeral of a young protester shot dead during clashes in the Ukrainian capital last week.

Then the lede reports on the clashes, notes the calls by protestors for the president to step down and then moves to the funeral of one protestor killed in clashes with the security services.

There have been violent clashes in Kiev as demonstrators demand president Viktor Yanukovych stand down for pulling out of a free trade deal with the European Union in favour of closer economic ties with Russia, Ukraine’s former Soviet overlord. The fate of the government remains unclear, with demonstrators vowing to continue protests despite the president’s offer to give top jobs to opposition leaders.

The opposition called off a massive Sunday rally out of respect for the funeral of Mikhail Zhyznevsky, whose coffin was borne through the streets of Kiev before his burial. Zhyznevsky, a Belarussian living in Ukraine, was one of three people officially recognised by the prosecutor’s office as having died from gunshot wounds after clashes last week.

Mourners spilled over into a square outside Saint Michael’s Cathedral on what would have been his 26th birthday, many bringing flowers and waving Ukrainian flags with black ribbons.

The article goes into details of the funeral noting the presence of the chief opposition leaders, and then notes the political symbolism of some of the flags flown at the funeral.

Some red and white nationalist flags from before Belarus became a Soviet republic – currently banned by the country’s authoritarian regime – were also seen at the ceremony.

The article then closes out with reports on the street protests. All of this I assume is correct, but the story leaves out so many pieces of the puzzle that a anglophone reader will not truly understand what is happening.

Among the things the ABC neglects to mention is what sort of church St Michael’s may be. It belongs to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kiev Patriarchate — not the larger Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate.

As I noted in a report last year on GetReligion, there are three principal churches in the Ukraine. One under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church, or Moscow Patriarchate; an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church or the Kiev Patriarchate; and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church.

The leaders of the three churches have taken differing stands on the protests, with the Kiev Patriarchate and the Greek Catholics backing the country’s realignment towards Europe, while the Moscow Patriarchate backs the president’s alignment with Vladimir Putin’s regime in Moscow. In late December the bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church, including its Ukrainian bishops, released a statement condemning proposals for the Ukraine to move closer to the EU at the expense of its relations with Russia.

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Does adultery = prostitution for the WPost?

Nothing optional—from homosexuality to adultery—is ever made punishable unless those who do the prohibiting (and exact the fierce punishments) have a repressed desire to participate. As Shakespeare put it in King Lear, the policeman who lashes the whore has a hot need to use her for the very offense for which he plies the lash.

Christopher Hitchens. God is not great: How religions poison everything. (2008) p 40.

A religion ghost rattled its chains in a national security story published by the Washington Post last week entitled: “Navy’s second-ranking civilian resigns amid criminal investigation.” The Post bookends a story about fraud with a sex angle — that equates adultery with prostitution.

It reports a senior Pentagon official has resigned following a probe into a questionable procurement deal. However, the Undersecretary of the Navy was not fired for fraud, but for adultery.

An intensifying criminal investigation of an alleged contracting scheme involving a top-secret Navy project has resulted in the forced resignation of the service’s second-ranking civilian leader, according to officials and court documents. Robert C. Martinage, the acting undersecretary of the Navy, stepped down after his boss, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, asked for his resignation “following a loss of confidence in [his] abilities to effectively perform his duties,” according to a statement the Navy released Wednesday.

Navy officials said Martinage was pressured to quit after investigators looking into his role in the top-secret program discovered that he was having an affair.

The article then relates details of a criminal probe into contracting abuses and we hear no more about adultery, though the Post attempts to pull sex back into the story frame in the closing paragraphs.

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Schiavo redux

A French court has ordered a Reims hospital to provide nutrition and hydration to 38-year old quadriplegic Vincent Lambert, who has been in a state of minimal consciousness (en état de conscience minimale) for five years following a motorcycle accident.

Last Thursday a tribunal administratif overruled the wishes of the hospital, Lambert’s wife and some of his siblings who wanted to cut off intravenous feeding. The court sided with his parents and his other siblings, who as observant Catholics, objected to euthanizing him. Le Monde reports the Lambert case will reopen the contentious debate about euthanasia, the value of life and human dignity in France.

Have we not heard this before?

The Lambert case has a number of parallels with Terri Schiavo saga in America: a spouse ready to move on vs. Catholic parents not ready to let go; no clear statement of the patient’s wishes, conflicting medical terminology of persistent vegetative state v. minimal consciousness; political intervention by Congress and partisan debates in the French parliament; and a high profile role played by Catholic bishops. While it is early days yet, the most striking difference is the different decisions reached by the courts.

In Florida the courts came down on the side of death, even though the presumption of the law is in favor of life, while in France they have chosen life, even though euthanasia is legal.
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Where’s the religion at Washington’s National Cathedral?

The financial difficulties facing the Washington National Cathedral were the subject of a local news item in the Washington Post this week.

The basic story line is valid: “cathedral short of cash seeks creative ways to generate income.” But as  GetReligion editor tmatt observed in an an impromptu story conference, this piece had journalistic “holes you can drive a ’60s VW Microbus through… .”

The few errors in Anglican polity found in the story would likely distress only the perpetually aggrieved, but the real difficulty is that the Post declined to ask or explore the question: “why?”

It assumes the worldview of the liberal wing of mainline churches, making this the measure of all things religious. By not asking “why” this story could just as well be written about the troubles facing the local symphony orchestra or art museum.

I was hesitant in taking this story, however, as my theological sympathies are not with the cathedral’s leadership. The Very Rev. Gary Hall, dean of the Diocese of Washington’s cathedral, last year told the Post he was a “non-theistic Christian.” The Aug 1, 2013 story in the Style section penned by Sally Quinn quoted him as saying:

Jesus doesn’t use the word God very much,” he says. “He talks about his Father.”

Hall explains: “Where I am now, how do I understand Jesus as a son of God that’s not magical? I’m trying to figure out Jesus as a son of God and a fully human being, if he has both fully human and a fully divine set of chromosomes. .?.?. He’s not some kind of superman coming down. God is present in all human beings. Jesus was an extraordinary human being. Jesus didn’t try to convert. He just had people at his table.”

It is the glory, or the curse, of Anglicanism that the ranks of its clergy contain men and women who think this way — and others who see this as nonsense.

The divide is not merely local or new — in 2009 I interviewed the Argentine leader of the Anglican churches in southern South America and he told me that meaningful debate between left and right was not possible. He and his conservative colleagues from Africa, India and Asia believed the leader of the American Episcopal church was “not a Christian” as they understood the term.

The disdain does not go one way. Liberal American and English Anglicans have described the theological and intellectual worldview of their third world confreres as being one step above witchcraft.

The split between left and right, liberals and conservatives, progressives and traditionalists — none of these terms adequately describes the combatants — did not arise in 2003 with the election of a “gay” bishop in the Episcopal Church. While there have always been factions within the Anglican world for centuries — high/low, Evangelical/Anglo-Catholic — the latest Anglican wars began in the 30s and hit their stride in the 60s.

Fights over women clergy, premarital sex, abortion, euthanasia, contraception/family planning, divorce and remarriage, pacifism, the revision of the Book of Common Prayer, Vietnam and the civil rights movement and its various permutations of race, gender, class, ethnicity and sexual orientation have been debated ever since.

The temptation I faced was to cloak my criticisms of the underlying issues in the story with the cover of discussing proper journalism and write about bad religion rather than bad journalism. Hence, my reluctance to jump on this story.

What then is the GetReligion angle? What holes are there in this story through which I may drive my VW microbus? The lede states:

When Congress authorized the creation of Washington National Cathedral in 1893, it envisioned a national spiritual home. Decades later, it became a setting for presidential funerals, sermons by the likes of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and worship services for epic national tragedies such as Newtown and Sept. 11.

But would it have thought of tai chi and yoga mats?

The article describes a program of events and activities designed to bring people into the cathedral. The story then moves to context:

As mellow as it all sounds, the week-long public program — “Seeing Deeper” — is part of a highly orchestrated drive by the nation’s second-largest cathedral to remake itself and survive in an era when religious institutions are struggling. And what’s more institutional than a huge cathedral?

Washington National Cathedral, one of the Episcopal Church’s three major U.S. cathedrals, was already forced to halve its $27 million budget in the mid-2000s because of falling revenue before an earthquake in 2011 caused damage tallying an additional $26 million. Although it is now in the black, it must raise its roughly $13 million annual operating budget as well as the remaining $19 million for earthquake repairs.

And then moves to a discussion of the dean’s plans to raise income and attendance and to be a voice for progressive values in Washington.

What is missing from this story, though, is a nod to the reasons for the cash shortfall — apart from the occasional earthquake and economic downturn.

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WPost whoppers about the Muslim Brotherhood

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Claims of bias and inaccurate reporting have dogged the Western press’s coverage of Egypt since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. A story in this week’s Washington Post entitled “In Egypt, many shrug as freedoms disappear” will do little to restore confidence.

The article eschews the classical news story format in favor of an impressions and perceptions style. Its lede states:

The charges are often vague. The evidence is elusive. Arrests occur swiftly, and the convictions follow. And there is little transparency in what analysts have called the harshest political crackdown in Egypt in decades.

But many Egyptians say they are all right with that.

There is a growing sense here in the Arab world’s largest country that the best path to stability — after three years of political turmoil — might be to do things the military’s way: crush the Islamists who made people angry enough to support a coup; silence dissent; and ask very few questions.

The article begins with an opinion as to the mood of the Egyptian people. Is this then a news analysis article or a news article?

If a news article facts and figures should follow to support the claims in the lede. What “evidence”? How many arrests and convictions? Who is being arrested and why? Which analysts claim the army’s rule has led to the “harshest political crackdown in Egypt in decades”? Who is being censored and why? These details are mostly absent.

A thematic diagram of this story suggests this is an opinion piece — a commentary offering the author’s view of the meaning of events, rather than a report on events. Following the lede we have a quote from a government spokesman defending the violent crackdown; a man in the street supporting the crackdown and a Washington-based expert explaining popular support for the crackdown.

This all leads to the central argument of the story.

The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties captured the lion’s share of the vote in Egypt’s first democratic elections two years ago. The Brotherhood had renounced violence decades earlier and gained popularity by establishing a vast network of charitable organizations.

These days, those images of benign Islamist leadership have been erased from many minds by the hyper-nationalist rhetoric promoted by the government, which has portrayed Brotherhood members as bloodthirsty terrorists bent on destroying the nation.

An assortment of disconnected facts are presented to support this argument, coupled with further pro-Brotherhood arguments from the Washington Post. Assertions are piled on assertions and dubious statements presented uncritically.

The government’s crackdown has been so pervasive — and the cult of support for military leader Abdel Fatah al-Sissi so far-reaching — that the Brotherhood has likened Egypt’s transgression to “fascism,” as have some liberal observers.

Is labeling support for al-Sissi a “cult” fair? Fascism? Is citing a foreign diplomat as a “liberal” observer appropriate? The US embassy and the former ambassador have been denounced for its pro-Brotherhood statements and have little credibility in Egypt — are Western diplomats an appropriate source on this point?

The article closes with a pessimistic quote from an Egypt expert at Harvard. Given six decades of military rule following the overthrow of King Farouk it was foolish to expect Egypt to take to democracy, he argues.

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