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?

Print Friendly

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.

Print Friendly

IRS hits home in LAT

render unto caesarCovering a bunch of local stories that evolve into a national trend is difficult for a reporter, but Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times did it quite handily Monday in an article on how the Internal Revenue Service is keeping its eye on religious groups come political season. The article is appropriately timed. In keeping with the Times‘ profile as a national paper, focused little on anything related to New York City. Instead, Goodstein painted in broad strokes and explored trends.

Goodstein breaks little news in this article, but her thorough reporting allowed her to set the national scene that is sure to dribble out into various localities. Also look for the major TV networks to follow this one.

My only issue is that covering this topic from a local perspective is a lot more interesting, but more on that a few paragraphs down.

In a way, Goodstein’s attempt to be bipartisan stretches the article’s premise: both conservative and liberal religious groups are nervous about an IRS crackdown on the political involvement of charities and churches. But the article is quick to rehash the efforts of conservative religious groups in supposedly bringing out the vote for Bush in 2004 and does little to touch on liberal religious groups:

“The stakes for these churches are higher than ever before because of the I.R.S.’s new enforcement efforts,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “The I.R.S. is taking this very seriously, and I think it’s because the situation was spinning out of control.”

Mr. Lynn said that conservative churches in 2004 had constructed a political machine he likened to “a church-based Tammany Hall.” He said he expected their voters’ guides to be skewed to favor Republican candidates. “It’s absolutely illegal, it’s wrong and it divides churches,” he said.

Clever quotes about Tammany Hall are great, but could we go back to the basics and do a bit of showing and not telling? Otherwise all you have to do to create balance is run one side’s clever quotes against the other’s. That’s style, not substance.

Shifting to the local scene, the Los Angeles Times‘ Scott Glover and Louis Sahagun did a great job reporting on a local church facing an IRS investigation into its political activities. Oh, and the church happens to be liberal. And it gets better. The church is crying freedom of speech and religion. Check this out:

A liberal Pasadena church facing an IRS investigation over alleged politicking sounded a defiant note Sunday, with its leaders and many congregants saying the probe amounted to an assault on their constitutional rights and that they were inclined to defy the agency’s request for documents.

“These people are offended,” said the Rev. Ed Bacon, rector of All Saints Episcopal Church, after delivering an impassioned sermon about the investigation to a standing-room-only crowd of about 900. “Freedom of speech and freedom of religion have been assaulted by this act of the IRS, and I think my people want to be heard in court.”

Bacon said he would consult with attorneys and church officials before deciding a course of action but that the vast majority of parishioners with whom he spoke Sunday thought the church should resist a summons demanding copies of newsletters, e-mails and other records.

In this wonderful age of the Internet, readers have choices. While the NYT did a nice job summarizing the issue for its national audience, the LAT nailed the issue to the mat and used its particular local situation to explore the matter in a real-life situation, rather than rehash recent American political history.

Here’s a challenge to you readers: send us articles in your local newspaper that deal with IRS regulations regarding politics. Are the pastors in your area aware? Do they discuss the matter in the pulpit?

Print Friendly

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.

Print Friendly

Failing to go all out when skateboarding

skateboarding christiansAs an individual piece of journalism, last week’s Washington Post article on how a church is using a skateboarding park to share the message of the gospel is excellent. Its appropriately edgy style is matched by a straightforward accounting of the facts and a description of an hour or two spent observing the high-flying action:

In their attempt, however, to enter a culture long stereotyped as countercultural, anti-establishment and breaking the rules, church members formed the skate ministry the only way they knew how: with a volunteer committee, attendance rolls and permission slips (which ask for everything from insurance numbers to food allergies).

But the teenagers came anyway.

“They’re nice people, I mean, it’s a chill place to skate and not get in trouble,” said Steve Wood, 19, a longtime skateboarder from Lusby. “I don’t necessarily agree with the whole religion thing, but my attitude is, you know, whatever gets you through the day.”

Showalter is quick to acknowledge that he doesn’t know the first thing about skateboarding. He tries to relate to the kids, however, in appearance — wearing a crucifix stud in his left ear, a gold chain with a cross and a loud T-shirt that says, “Xtreme Faith.” He plays “edgy” Christian music while the teenagers take turns speeding up the ramp and into gravity-defying tricks.

Many of the boys said they are not regular churchgoers. The price of admission to this makeshift skate park is a five-minute sermon during a water break.

I think the Post missed an excellent opportunity to tell a much bigger story. There’s nothing unique about a church using athletics to reach young people. As a kid raised in Hoosier Land, I tagged along with my father in a program that had a slogan: “No Bible, No Basketball.”

So what’s so special about a program that attracts 40 kids on a good day to a skate park in a small community of 1,666 in southern Maryland? Are there not programs like that in D.C.’s churches? Maybe there aren’t, but as a resident of the District, I would like to know. Consider this the mirror image of tmatt’s recent problem with the Baltimore Sun.

While the Lusby, Md., setting is a fine hook for a look at how churches use sports to reach out to kids, reporter William Wan (or his editors) did not feel the need to dig into the story, which is why it ended up on page 11 of the metro section.

p.s. Next to the article, the Post asks readers to submit 400-word versions of how a time of crisis tested your faith, a person who influenced your beliefs or a life-changing event that shaped who you are spiritually. This sounds like the start of a good idea, and it will be interesting to see what the Post ends up doing.

Print Friendly

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.

Print Friendly

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?

Print Friendly

This may, strangely enough, be the quiet day

033So, what did the pope say and when did he say it?

Actually, that is not the issue right now as we finish day two of this media storm, a day dominated — to the tune of 1,000 major media reports or so — by Muslim outrage about Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks in Germany about faith, reason and jihad. Click here for an early but updated collection of public reactions to his words, gathered by the awesome Christianity Today weblog crew.

Once again, it helps to read what the pope actually said. It also helps to know that no one should doubt his grasp of the basic facts involved in a discussion of Christianity and Islam. He is a scholar on these matters. The pope will be harder to dismiss or shout down than a circle of cartoonists.

At what point do people start burning the Vatican flag or this pope’s personal crest?

Or angry Muslims could do this, I guess.

At the moment, the press is covering the reaction of the streets. For those interested in the intellectual issues that are involved, the more important moment will come when the pope himself responds — especially in light of his planned Nov. 28 trip to Turkey. What will he say about the religious rights of minorities and the recent murders of priests there?

Meanwhile, here is the Washington Post summary of the basic facts:

In the lecture, Benedict quoted extensively from a book that recounted a 14th century conversation that purportedly took place between a Persian scholar and Byzantine Christian Emperor Manuel II Paleologos on the merits of Christianity and Islam. Benedict told the audience at the University of Regensburg that the “erudite” emperor addressed the scholar “with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: ‘Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.’”

According to a transcript of the lecture on the Vatican Web site, Benedict said Manuel explained in some detail “the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul.”

Benedict did not explicitly endorse or repudiate Manuel’s views. But he repeatedly returned to the emperor’s comments on Islam, noting that Manuel was also quoted in the book as saying: “God is not pleased by blood — and not acting reasonably is contrary to God’s nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats.”

Vatican City State flagClearly looking back to the cartoon crisis, the Los Angeles Times story said:

It is not yet clear if reaction to the pope’s comments will snowball into something more violent, as was the case when a Danish newspaper published cartoons last year satirizing Muhammad. Deadly riots erupted across the Muslim world.

The pope, by contrast, is a world religious leader whose comments come in a broader context that also advocates tolerance and cultural dialogue. Rhetorically, though, the fury was spreading. … In Kuwait, a high-ranking Islamist official, Haken Mutairi, called on all Arab and Muslim states to recall their ambassadors from the Holy See and expel any Vatican diplomats “until the pope says he is sorry for the wrong done to the prophet and to Islam, which preaches peace, tolerance, justice and equality,” Agence France-Presse reported.

I guess you could state the big doctrinal question this way: Will Pope Benedict XVI be willing to kiss the Koran? Or, will he insist that he has the right to air his own views about the contents of Islam and its relationship to Christianity and other religions?

How many legions does the pope have? Good question. And will any governments in the postmodern West rally to his support — perhaps the United States or the European Union — should he decide to stand firm? What if the street reactions to his remarks, ironically, turn violent?

In terms of news coverage this may be the quiet day. It all depends on what happens (a) in the demontrations and (b) in the private debates between the traditionalists and modernists inside the Vatican.

Print Friendly