A mission for religion reporters

the missionI have a mission for religion reporters, reporters based in the Middle East and reporters who write stories that involve Islam: Start covering the differences in radical Islam.

President Bush has been on a campaign of late to portray Islamic terrorism as monolithic. A good religion reporter would know this is not the case, so instead of telling us over and over again that Islam is a diverse religion and that Islamic radicals tend to differ on just about everything, show us. You know, it’s that maxim you learned somewhere in journalism school (or heard from a berating editor): show, don’t tell.

GetReligion readers, if you come across any articles that highlight differences in radical Islamic groups, please send them to us. The article will be posted and we will all be smarter as a result.

Newsweek‘s international editor Fareed Zakaria makes this point quite succinctly in a column in the Sept. 18 edition:

In the past two weeks President Bush has, for the first time, started describing America’s adversaries as part of “a single movement,” “a worldwide network,” with a common ideology. He notes that these groups come from different traditions but concludes that what unites them — their hatred of free societies — is more important. This kind of rhetoric does have the benefit of making the adversary seem larger and more sinister, thereby drumming up domestic support for the administration’s policies, but it comes at great cost.

To speak, for example, of Sunni and Shiite fundamentalists as part of the same movement is simply absurd. They have hated each other for almost 14 centuries. Right now in Iraq, most of the violence is the work of Shiite militias, which are murdering people they claim are Sunni extremists. How can these two adversaries be part of a unified network?

A look at Bush’s remarks on Iran will show how such a monochromatic view distorts America’s strategic thinking. Last week he spoke of Iran in the context of a worldwide movement of Shiite extremists. This movement, Bush argued, has managed to take control of a major power, Iran, and use it as a launching pad to spread its terrorist agenda.

I’m not sure the president actually believes in the transnational threat of a “Shiite crescent.” If he does, why would he have invaded Iraq and handed it over to another group of Shiite extremists? (The parties that rule Iraq — and whose militias are killing people — are conservative, religious Shiites, often with ties to Iran.) In fact, Iraqi Shiites are different from Iranian Shiites. They have separate national agendas and interests. To conflate them into one group, and then to toss in Sunni Arab extremists as comrades in arms, is bad policy. The world of Islam is extremely diverse. We should recognize and act on this diversity — between Shiites and Sunnis, Persians and Arabs, Asians and Middle Easterners — and most especially between moderates and radicals. But instead the White House is lumping Chechen separatists in Russia, Pakistani-backed militants in India, Shiite politicians in Iraq and Sunni jihadists in Egypt all together as one worldwide movement. This is, of course, exactly what Osama bin Laden has argued all along. But why is Bush making bin Laden’s case?

cracksI’ll start the list. Everyone should read this excellent (and hilarious) New Yorker piece on the top Al Qaeda source in America. (No, this article does not threaten national security. The FBI is happy to get the news out regarding how well it treats informants.)

In the article, Jane Mayer does a wonderful job of describing the life of Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl, who has been in the U.S. witness protection program for quite awhile. Fadl is special because he used to be Osama bin Laden’s money man. Fadl felt he had to leave, not because of some disdain for terrorism, but because he was scraping money off the top.

It’s fascinating reading, and this one paragraph on how Fadl’s one-time handler, Dan Coleman, was surprised to learn that Al Qaeda is not theologically monolithic, deserves particular attention:

Coleman was surprised to learn that Fadl wasn’t particularly religious. “I never saw him pray once,” he said. For Fadl, jihad was less a spiritual quest than “a socially acceptable form of bad behavior.” As Coleman put it, “You get to blow stuff up and kill people, and your colleagues and peers think you’re good. It’s fun, and you can be a hero.” Coleman acknowledged that most Al Qaeda members were deeply committed to Islam, but he said that it had been a breakthrough to realize that some were more like ordinary criminals, and could be manipulated in ways familiar to law-enforcement officials. ([L’Houssaine] Kherchtou was a pilot who worked for bin Laden for money, and he was angered when Al Qaeda refused to pay for his wife’s Cesarean-section operation.)

Read on, folks, and let me know if you see any more examples out there of cracks among Islamic terrorist groups. How many Islamic terrorists are involved in Al Qaeda because it’s an opportunity to blow stuff up? And where are the ones that can be swayed out of terrorism because of their weaknesses?

We’ve written repeatedly about those articles that talk about how most Muslims think Islamic radicals are nuts, but I’m hoping that journalists will continue to dig and explore the differences among those extremists.

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Can’t get enough ink on the pope?

newspaper stockFriends and neighbors, there isn’t a whole lot new going on with the pope story. But there sure is a whole lot of the same old same old going on. How in the world can a sane person follow it all?

That, apparently, is why God made insane cyberpeople.

So if you do not have enough reading material about Pope Benedict XVI, faith, reason, jihad, British journalism and The New York Times to last you through Easter or thereabouts, here are the links that you need.

• As you would expect, the Christianity Today folks have updated their previous weblogs covering media reports on the controversy. How thorough was the updating? Make yourself comfortable and click here. The headline says it all: “Super-Mega Weblog: Thousands of Articles, One Story.”

• For those who want to see the story through the bizarre lens of the conservative Anglican web elves up in Canada, you need to know that they have rolled out “Hate That Pope! 3.0” and “Hate That Pope! 4.0.”

Also, Binky notes that the pope’s email address, should you want to write him a note about all of this, is benedictxvi (at) vatican.va — so there.

• Someone needed to read the second epistle to Rome from the New York Times clergy — that would be the editorial page folks — and Rod “Friend of this blog” Dreher threw himself on that editorial grenade. As usual, Rod is rather blunt. How blunt is he? Here is one clip from the Times, followed by Rod’s boldface interjection:

The pope and the Vatican can also do more. For the past two years, Benedict has been a no-show at interfaith gatherings in Assisi, begun 20 years ago by his predecessor, John Paul II. Last year, he issued an edict revoking the autonomy of Assisi’s Franciscan monks, a move that was seen as a reaction against the monks’ interfaith activism. On the occasion of this year’s gathering, he issued a statement about religion and peace that was read by an envoy, but his absence spoke louder than his words.

I know the Times‘s idea of religious dialogue is a priest, a rabbi, an imam and a Buddhist monk singing “Kum-Ba-Yah” in four-part harmony, but grown-ups should ask themselves why Benedict chose to stay away from the event. Benedict was sick and tired of the local Franciscans letting it turn into a polytheistic carnival. When African voodoo priests sacrifice chickens to their pagan gods near the tomb of St. Clare, it was time to put a stop to this nonsense. Benedict is not against dialogue with other religions, but he demands that reasonable limits be set. If a Pope has to accept chicken-slaughter by voodoo priests at a Christian holy site to appease the gods of East 43rd Street, then to hell with the gods of East 43rd Street.

Come to think of it, Benedict XVI doesn’t seem like a praying-with-pagans kind of guy, as I am sure our pagan readers would agree. The Times must be thinking of Oprah.

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Failing to explain traditions

muslim datingLabels for premarital rituals are oddly controversial. Whether you call it dating, courtship, hooking up or just hanging out, these labels carry with them all sorts of baggage.

In an article in the New York Times, Neil MacFarquhar takes us into the American Muslim dating — I mean “matrimonial banquet” — scene and explains in a rather delightful way explains the intricate issues Muslim young people deal with in finding their life partners.

The 1,450-word article paints a wonderful picture of a banquet room, of pushy parents and aging singles desperately searching for a mate, but fails to explain the reasons behind the traditions that place Muslim young people in such precarious situations. Amid all the graphic details, the article falls into a series of clichéd observations on strict religious cultures.

The article comes across as a real-life American version of Bend It Like Beckham, minus the soccer.

Check out this rather revealing section:

Both the banquet earlier this month and various related seminars underscored the difficulty that some American Muslim families face in grappling with an issue on which many prefer not to assimilate. One seminar, called “Dating,” promised attendees helpful hints for “Muslim families struggling to save their children from it.”

The couple of hundred people attending the dating seminar burst out laughing when Imam Muhamed Magid of the Adams Center, a collective of seven mosques in Virginia, summed up the basic instructions that Muslim American parents give their adolescent children, particularly males: “Don’t talk to the Muslim girls, ever, but you are going to marry them. As for the non-Muslim girls, talk to them, but don’t ever bring one home.”

“These kids grew up in America, where the social norm is that it is O.K. to date, that it is O.K. to have sex before marriage,” Imam Magid said in an interview. “So the kids are caught between the ideal of their parents and the openness of the culture on this issue.”

The questions raised at the seminar reflected just how pained many American Muslims are by the subject. One middle-aged man wondered if there was anything he could do now that his 32-year-old son had declared his intention of marrying a (shudder) Roman Catholic. A young man asked what might be considered going too far when courting a Muslim woman.

We complain about this a lot here at GetReligion, and some of you have voiced concerns that we harp on it too much. That’s fine by us, but until American journalists, particularly the ones at the major trend-setting institutions, start educating the reader on Muslim tradition and philosophy, there is no reason to let up.

After reading this article, all one is left to believe is that Muslims are strangely uptight about marriage, sex and, gasp, even alcohol, and they are simply in shock with the American culture thrust upon them. We’re left to believe that it is just tradition for the sake of tradition.

There’s obviously a great deal of difference among Muslims on the importance of tradition. Can you pin that variance on anything in particular in Muslim society? Is it nationality? Or is it various Muslim religious traditions?

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It’s time for reporters to face the facts

moses tabletsLet me pause to plug an item or two over at Rod “Crunchy Con” Dreher’s blog, in large part because he has veered totally into GetReligion territory with repeated appeals for journalists to actually cover the doctrinal contents of the current story about Pope Benedict XVI and Islam.

But there is more to it than that and he takes this question to the next layer: Why are so many journalists simply afraid — or act as if they are afraid — to admit that the major world religions clash and that these differences cannot be minimalized without offending the religious believers involved in the stories (and doing shallow, inaccurate jouranlism at the same time)?

Thus, Rod writes, riffing on a Mars Hill Audio podcast by former NPR producer Ken Myers:

… I’m generalizing, but I’d say that the approach journalists take to reporting on Islam is palliative; that is, it seeks to soothe the public’s concerns about Islam by presenting it merely as a misunderstood faith. Episcopalians in hijabs and kufis. Of course it’s laudable to want to teach the public more about any faith as a way of dispelling prejudice, but when you take that approach, you run the risk of hiding aspects of that faith that the public would find offensive or unsavory. Worse, you yourself become incurious about things that about which you should be curious. And you do both the integrity of journalism and your readers a disservice by refusing to pay attention, and to ask the tough questions.

From there, Dreher leaps over to a weblog at The New Republic (that well-known right-wing rag) that offers a commentary by Jacob T. Levy on precisely the same topic.

Under the header, “Taking religion seriously,” Rod posts this sobering clip from Levy (advance warning to all Unitarian Universalists):

It seems to me that if religion is meaningful it’s serious business; if one is committed to divine truths then one is committed to the falsehood of rival claims. By my human standards “No man comes unto the father but through Me” is a terrible way to run a universe; but if there is a God I have no reason to think that His rules will conform to my contingent, twenty-first-century Western liberal human standards. And so I don’t expect religious believers to softpedal the exclusionary implications of their beliefs. I don’t think Unitarian Universalism is somehow a better religion than Catholicism or Mormonism or Orthodox Judaism just because its god seems to be so nice and inclusive; indeed, my sympathies for the aesthetic and moral-psychological experience of religious belief tends to run the other way. This is a bit like the stance of many American lapsed Catholic or many Israeli secular Jews, I incline to say, “I don’t believe in God, but the God in whom I don’t believe is a serious one!” But I don’t quite mean that. Rather, I want to say that if there is a point to religion and theology, then that point is undermined by the reluctance to draw distinctions and take them seriously.

And all the people said, “Amen.”

In other words, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity cannot be both right and wrong. The Ten Commandments can’t be suggestions and still be commandments, for those who practice Judaism. Christians do not believe that Jesus was a nice guy and Muslims do not believe that he was the Son of God. Hinduism and Mormonism are not the same faith, even if both are polytheistic. Islamic teachings about the nature of God, and the role of reason in faith, cannot be reconciled to Roman Catholic beliefs without doing violence to both faiths. Ask the pope. Ask your local imam.

I could go on and on. All of the roads to the top of the mountain called salvation cannot be the same, unless, of course, they are all wrong and there is no mountain anyway because there is no life to come or there is no such thing as salvation and/or damnation.

So it’s hard to cover stories about traditional Christians, Jews, Muslims and others if you are not willing to admit that they have a right to their beliefs and that journalists have a professional responsibility to try to get the facts about those beliefs right.

End of sermon. Thanks for the links, Rod. And I hope The New Republic does a cover story on this issue.

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So what did the Muslim leader say?

032540 184887 02OK, I’m curious.

Godbeat reporter Teresa Watanabe has a report out in the Los Angeles Times about a hot skirmish on the front lines of interfaith life. The issue? Should the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission reaffirm its selection of veteran Muslim leader Maher Hathout to receive a major human-relations award after two weeks of hot debate? Only four of the 14 commission members ended up voting for him, but that was enough — due to those who declined (were afraid?) to cast a vote.

Here’s the heart of the story:

Hathout said he was not concerned by so many abstentions and called the vote a victory for free speech, inclusiveness and a rejection of the “tactics of intimidation.”

“We will not allow untouchable and sacred cows in the midst of our democracy,” said Hathout, referring to Israel. He added that he was accepting the award for the “Jews, Christians, Buddhists, atheists and Muslims” who supported him.

The furious fight over what has normally been a quiet award selection process was sparked when some Jewish groups charged that Hathout, a 70-year-old retired cardiologist, was a closet extremist who denounced Israel as an apartheid state and was soft on terrorism. Their opposition prompted the commission to reopen its July decision selecting Hathout.

. . . The Muslim leader, in remarks before the commission vote, offered to meet in a dialogue with critics and expressed regrets for harsh language toward Israel.

Now, this raises two questions that I, as a reader, would like to see answered. The first is quite simple: What did Hathout say, that led to his statement of regret? The second is a bit more involved: What evidence did his critics present when they made a case that he was a “closet extremist”?

That is a loaded, loaded term. What was the evidence that they presented? If the Times can report the charges that they made, can the newspaper offer any hint as to the evidence they cited? In other words, can someone please tell us what Hathout has said and done that is so troubling? There are paraphrased references, but no direct quotes pinned to specific dates and places.

One can, of course, find one-sided websites that offer more than a few hints. Or readers of that right-wing rag The New Republic can click here.

Personally, I think it would have been good for the Los Angeles Times to have risked addressing these issues, in the same story in which it used that “closet extremist” label. Input, we need input.

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The nun already had a bodyguard

capt c52d840f5cfa49a3ad84cadfd75992c2 aptopix iraq bag106It is hard to know where to start today.

But let’s start here.

Sister Leonella already had a bodyguard and the gunmen in Mogadishu killed him, too. The short Associated Press report carried in the Chicago Tribune clearly states what we know — or think we know — at the moment.

Sister Leonella, 65, was shot in the back four times by pistol-wielding attackers as she left the Austrian-run S.O.S. hospital at lunchtime after finishing nursing school for trainee medics. Her bodyguard was also slain. There was no claim of responsibility for the attack, which came just hours after a leading Somali cleric condemned the pope’s remarks last week on Islam and violence.

The head of security for the Islamic militia that controls much of southern Somalia, Yusuf Mohamed Siad, said one man was arrested and a second was being sought. He said the killing might have stemmed from the uproar over the pope but emphasized that he didn’t know for sure.

. . . Several witnesses to Sunday’s shooting speculated it was tied to the furor over the pope’s discussion last week, which included quoting a 14th Century text that called some of Prophet Muhammad’s teachings “evil and inhuman.”

“I am sure the killers were angered by the pope’s speech in which he attacked our prophet,” said Ashe Ahmed Ali, a witness to the shooting.

So we are left with a rather awkward question.

Was this elderly Italian nun murdered (a) because gunmen who were too radical for the sharia law regime of Somalia were angered by Western media reports that said Pope Benedict XVI had insulted Islam? Or was her murder (b) merely an ordinary murder of a Catholic missionary in an Islamic country in which government officials have failed, perhaps due to fear of the consequences, to contain gangs of violent Islamist radicals?

So was this a pope-related murder of a nun or merely an ordinary murder of a nun?

Other questions flow from this one. Are the current media reports linked to pope-related burnings of churches in the Palestinian territories or ordinary burnings of Arab Christian churches?

leonella2And I have another question: Is this undated photo of Sister Leonella in your morning newspaper?

If it is, where is it? Is it on page one? Is it deep inside the newspaper? Was her death given its own story or was she a bullet item — sorry, but that’s a journalistic term — inside a larger story (see this New York Times example) about the violence around the world?

The Associated Press is now reporting that, as she lay dying, she forgave her attackers — saying “I forgive” over and over in Italian. Please let us know where this story played — today or tomorrow — in your local newspaper.

Meanwhile, the flood of coverage continues.

Over at Open Book, the Catholic writer Amy Welborn has posted thousands of words of commentary and, more importantly, dozens of links to texts, documents, opinions and press reports on the aftermath of the pope’s speech. I could not possibly hope to match what you will find here (What has Benedict XVI actually said about Islam?), here (Pope’s remarks on Sunday), here (U.K. analysis), here (“Stop telling me I’m violent or I’ll kill you”) and here (What role did warped media coverage play?).

Also, those Canadian Web Elves have started to collect as many of the important URLs as they can at their “Hate That Pope 1.0″ website. Check it out.

I will continue to try to ride the waves, during breaks from my day job. Please use this as an open thread to tell us what you are seeing in MSM reports. What are the television news channels doing?

UPDATE: The Christianity Today weblog is out with an updated list of URLs on pope coverage.

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Random thoughts on Veggies, Jesuits, etc.

holmes800x600Here are some random thoughts this misty Saturday morning while I’m reading the free-speech fallout on the wire services.

• I think that all over America, in zip codes blue and red, evangelical megachurches should get organized and have thousands of people pile into church buses and head over to their local NBC affiliates with signs and bullhorns and march around and around in a peaceful, nonviolent manner, chanting: “God made you special and he loves you very much! God made you special and he loves you very much! God made you special and he loves you very much!”

Won’t that scare some sense into people? Can you imagine NBC letting anyone mention God on television? The next thing you know they’ll be talking about letting Madonna hang on a mirrored cross while singing something offensive, right there on network television! Surely not. It isn’t good to offend people’s religious beliefs. The New York Times says so.

Why do I suggest this? Click here for a conservative editorial on the matter. Or click here for the views of Bob the Tomato, himself.

• And while I am on the subject of ironic forms of public protest, what would happen if leaders of the kicked-off-campus Georgetown University chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship applied to the leadership of the Jesuit school for permission to hold a public forum this week in which students and faculty would be asked to read and then peacefully discuss the text of Pope Benedict XVI’s actual speech text on faith, reason and jihad?

Perhaps the event could be held at the well-endowed Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding on the campus?

Just thinking out loud, you know. I am sure the campus administration would welcome such a request by the ousted Protestant groups to organize an ecumenical and even interfaith event focusing on the intellectual life of a man that Georgetown must realize is in the mainstream of Catholic intellectual life.

• Question: Does anyone here think that President Bush will say a word about the pope crisis? Just asking.

• Speaking of which, did you hear that the U.S. State Department has decided that Saudi Arabia isn’t such a bad place after all, when it comes to religious liberty. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is not amused.

“The Commission is simply shocked that the Department removed longstanding and widely quoted language from its report that freedom of religion does not exist in Saudi Arabia,” said Felice D. Gaer, Chair of the Commission. In July, the U.S. government confirmed a variety of Saudi policies to improve “religious practice and tolerance” — many of which were first recommended in Commission reports. However, the new State Department report shows that such policies have not yet been implemented.

This did receive some coverage, but not much.

Back to reading the wires.

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New York Times: Kiss the Koran, big guy

pope koran 01And thus it came to pass: The content of Pope Benedict XVI’s speech stopped being the story — including the fact that the speech was an attack on secularism in the West — and the reaction of many Muslim leaders became the story.

That could only lead to one conclusion, in the mandated Unitarian-Universalism of the New York Times editorial-page suite, the holy of holies for the blue-zip-code faith. All religious roads have to lead to the top of the same mountain (even if saying that is, itself, an affront to Islam as well as to traditional Christianity). Otherwise, we would have to do basic, balanced, factual journalistic coverage of people on both sides of historic, complicated, emotional, intellectual religious issues. We would have to be journalists.

There isn’t much I can say about the Times editorial ordering the pope to apologize. GetReligion doesn’t focus on editorials very often, since this site is about the news coverage of religion events and trends. Besides, Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher has already been up since dawn dissecting the editorial and some of the events linked to it. Read it all.

But Rod also mentions something amazing that happened at an event that I attended as well. Here is something to chew on, if you care about intellectual freedom, press freedom and religious liberty. (See the edited transcript.) Dreher writes:

Longtime readers of this blog will remember that I was at a Pew Forum religion conference earlier this summer, at which an Ivy League professor considered to be one of the world’s leading authorities on Islam and Islamic history declined to talk with us journalists about certain relatively minor aspects of early Muslim history on the record. Why wouldn’t he? Because he was afraid that to do so might get him killed. That is astonishing, isn’t it? That a leading scholar did not feel free in the United States of America to discuss this or that aspect of Islamic history, for fear that Muslim fanatics would hunt him down on his campus and take his life for blaspheming the Prophet. This is not an uncommon situation; ask Salman Rushdie and the Danish cartoonists. But the Times takes out against the Pope for one remark in a long speech about how violence can never be used for religious goals, only reason? Astonishing. And outrageous.

Now, it does appear that the pope will try to back down, to one degree or another. But will he go to Turkey after all? Will he take the risk?

But let’s be honest. A soft apology will not be enough for the Times editorial board. The principalities and powers in that domain will want him, when the time comes, to go further than that.

Will Pope Benedict XVI kiss the Koran?

Will he say that the Gospels are worthy of veneration and not the Koran?

That is all he has to say to insult the Times. And who will cover the news story for the newspaper of record, when this showdown takes place?

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