Don’t know your Islam?

Don't know your Islam?Jeff Stein, the national security editor for Congressional Quarterly, has been doing some brilliant reporting lately. Yet it’s all so simple. Ask the leaders of our nation, particularly those in positions of power in intelligence, national security and international affairs, to explain the basic differences between Sunni and Shiite Arabs.

In his latest piece, Stein takes on Rep. Silvestre Reyes, the recently appointed chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, for his failure to understand even the most basic differences among Muslims. If we are to defeat Islamic extremists, it might help to know the differences, right? Check out this snippet:

Reyes stumbled when I asked him a simple question about al Qaeda at the end of a 40-minute interview in his office last week. Members of the Intelligence Committee, mind you, are paid $165,200 a year to know more than basic facts about our foes in the Middle East.

We warmed up with a long discussion about intelligence issues and Iraq. And then we veered into terrorism’s major players.

To me, it’s like asking about Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland: Who’s on what side?

The dialogue went like this:

Al Qaeda is what, I asked, Sunni or Shia?

“Al Qaeda, they have both,” Reyes said. “You’re talking about predominately?”

“Sure,” I said, not knowing what else to say.

“Predominantly — probably Shiite,” he ventured.

He couldn’t have been more wrong.

Al Qaeda is profoundly Sunni. If a Shiite showed up at an al Qaeda club house, they’d slice off his head and use it for a soccer ball.

That’s because the extremist Sunnis who make up al Qaeda consider all Shiites to be heretics.

A few months ago, Stein took on the Republican leaders in Congress in a widely discussed New York Times column. As I watched Stein on CNN, I wondered how well those interviewing Stein would answer the questions he poses to the politicians. How would the average religion reporter fare, or American reporters in the Middle East?

Kudos to The Washington Post for carrying this Reuters article on the CQ piece. The Post editors appropriately recognized it is big-time news when Congress’ designated top intelligence overseer doesn’t know basic differences in Islam.

The challenge of course is translating these Sunni-Shiite differences into everyday parlance. Ask simple, basic questions and include that simple, basic information. It won’t create news every single time, but it can’t hurt to ask and include the answers. Perhaps if every newscast and article on anything relating to Islam tagged the Muslims in the story by their school of thought, we would have a more informed electorate. At least it could help these poor politicians out a bit next time Stein corners them for an interview.

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The New York Times and the First Amendment, again

Local prisonThe New York Times’ Diana Henriques filed the latest installment for her series examining, as she says, how religious organizations benefit from an increasingly accommodating government. You may recall we took a look at the first four parts in October.

The first story, weighing in at almost 5,000 words, focused on regulatory exemptions for religious organizations that run social services. The second focused on rights of employees at religious organizations. The third installment was about revenue bond financing for religious groups. Part four was about the tax-exemption bounty that awaits members of the clergy.

The latest story is about an evangelical Christian program run at a prison in Iowa. It’s a very interesting and substantial story. She begins with a few evocative paragraphs:

The cells in Unit E had real wooden doors and doorknobs, with locks. More books and computers were available, and inmates were kept busy with classes, chores, music practice and discussions. There were occasional movies and events with live bands and real-world food, like pizza or sandwiches from Subway. Best of all, there were opportunities to see loved ones in an environment quieter and more intimate than the typical visiting rooms.

But the only way an inmate could qualify for this kinder mutation of prison life was to enter an intensely religious rehabilitation program and satisfy the evangelical Christians running it that he was making acceptable spiritual progress. The program — which grew from a project started in 1997 at a Texas prison with the support of George W. Bush, who was governor at the time — says on its Web site that it seeks “to ‘cure’ prisoners by identifying sin as the root of their problems” and showing inmates “how God can heal them permanently, if they turn from their sinful past.”

The story mentions one inmate — a Roman Catholic — who left the program because he felt it was hostile to his faith. Unfortunately, Henriques is so focused on her government accommodation angle that this is the only prisoner story mentioned.

The program was found unconstitutional and the group is required to repay more than $1.5 million in government funds, although the ruling has been appealed. Let me just say I completely agree with Henriques that government funding of religious programs is unconstitutional. But there’s the rub. Henriques’ stories are a bit heavy on the advocacy. We discussed some of the problems with that approach in the previous set of stories. It’s not so much of a problem in this story, but I think it affects how well she fleshes out the views of people who support taxpayer-funded religious activity:

Jay Hein, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, said the Iowa decision was unfair to the ministry and reflects an “overreaching” at odds with legal developments that increasingly “show favor to religion in the public square.”

And while he acknowledged the need for vigilance, he said he did not think the constitutional risks outweighed the benefits of inviting “faith-infused” ministries, like the one in Iowa, to provide government-financed services to “people of faith who seek to be served in this ‘full-person’ concept.”

Why not include the story of one of the inmates who felt he benefited from the program? As much as I detest the idea that my hard-earned money goes to inculcate religious views with which I disagree vehemently, I’m sure there are stories out there. And it would provide some much-needed balance.

But somehow I’m being too critical of a fantastic and well-researched story. In many ways, I think this one was the best of the series. She toned down some of the broad, unsubstantiated statements in earlier stories and explained the constitutional problems in a concise but thorough manner:

“The state has literally established an Evangelical Christian congregation within the walls of one of its penal institutions, giving the leaders of that congregation, i.e., InnerChange employees, authority to control the spiritual, emotional and physical lives of hundreds of Iowa inmates,” Judge Pratt wrote. “There are no adequate safeguards present, nor could there be, to ensure that state funds are not being directly spent to indoctrinate Iowa inmates.”

And now I’m curious what other stories we’ll see in this series.

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Revenge of the Promise Keepers

manliness alphabetWe here at GetReligion typically like just about everything the Los Angeles Times’ Stephanie Simon writes. She thrives on writing highly descriptive narratives that manage to touch on all sorts of issues, usually with religious themes. For instance, her piece on abortion still sticks in my mind and is a must read for journalists covering the subject.

That said, an article by Jenny Jarvie and Simon on manliness in Christianity missed a couple of aspects that would have painted a more complete picture. As a regular church-attending man, I appreciate that this subject is being addressed in a national newspaper. The concept of the article is relatively simple: men are disappearing from church and some people think they have the answer.

More than 60 percent of the adults in church these days are women, which, as pointed out by one of the article’s sources, means there are 13 million more women than men worshiping God on Sunday mornings. The theme of the article, as discussed by multiple sources, is “Houston, we have a problem.”

While I have a couple of issues with the article’s content, it is a wonderfully written piece full of delightful details and fun-to-read vignettes, such as the lede:

The strobe lights pulse and the air vibrates to a killer rock beat. Giant screens show mayhem and gross-out pranks: a car wreck, a sucker punch, a flabby (and naked) rear end, sealed with duct tape.

Brad Stine runs onstage in ripped blue jeans, his shirt untucked, his long hair shaggy. He’s a stand-up comic by trade, but he’s here today as an evangelist, on a mission to build up a new Christian man — one profanity at a time. “It’s the wuss-ification of America that’s getting us!” screeches Stine, 46.

A moment later he adds a fervent: “Thank you, Lord, for our testosterone!”

promise keepersThe first question I felt the authors failed to address is why and how American Christianity became this way. Where have all the men gone, and why? It’s established in the article that churches these days are more feminine — everything from the decor to the hymns — but is that because the church has become intentionally more feminine or because the men have left for other reasons and femininity has filled the gap?

Since I can think of about a dozen different variations on these questions, maybe it’s time for a follow-up article?

Second, while the disappearing men is a well-established trend and it is made clear in the article, little effort was made to tell us if this attempt to inject more manliness into Christianity is a resurgence or just a handful of men trying to apply their view of things on whoever will listen.

In other words, have the efforts of these Manly Christians brought more men to Christianity? John Eldredge’s book Wild At Heart has been around since at least I was a sophomore in college. Has that bestseller made a difference in the gender-pew gap?

That all said, the article is incredibly insightful at times. A few doubters are quoted, as well as a couple of examples that some would say are taking the Man Doctrine a bit too far. All in all, it’s a pretty straightforward balanced picture of the movement, if you can call it that.

For an example of the insightful, take the following word picture:

The 200 men in the crowd clap stiffly. Stine races through a frenetic stand-up routine, drawing laughs with his rants against liberals, atheists and the politically correct. Then Christian radio host Paul Coughlin, author of “No More Christian Nice Guy,” takes the stage. His backdrop: a series of wanted posters featuring one Jesus of Nazareth.

“Jesus was a very bad Christian,” Coughlin declares. After all, he says, the Son of God trashed a temple and even used profanity — or the New Testament equivalent — when he called Herod “that fox.”

“The idea of Jesus as meek and mild is as fictitious as anything in Dan Brown’s ‘Da Vinci Code,’” says Coughlin, 40.

So what’s with the standard portraits of Jesus: pale face, beatific smile, lapful of lambs?

manlinessThat last graph is, like, wow. With a simple sentence Simon and Jarvie subtly threaten to turn the GodMen concept on its head. And if I’m reading it right, the headline — “Manliness is next to godliness” — has the same subtle message.

Simon and Jarvie are also on to something in one of their final observations:

The ironic bit about all this rough-and-tumble manliness is that it often leads to what can only be described as touchy-feely moments.

Eldredge runs “soul-searching” wilderness retreats in Colorado that prompt men to bare their innermost needs. Men’s Fraternity gets guys talking about their psychological “wounds” and encourages them to ask their dads: Do you love me? Are you proud of me? BattleZone Ministries, based in Clovis, Calif., has posted an online video on how to pray for a man without freaking him out — but its recommended approach still involves guys laying hands on their buddy.

As a man, I appreciate that observation from Simon and Jarvie. I would also like to say, though, that there is nothing ironic about “rough-and-tumble” men wanting to find ways to dig deep into their souls. Could the perception that those are somehow mutually exclusive be a reason churches are losing their men?

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Working on 5Q+1 (Post No. 2,000)

Face of RPI   question markMay I have your attention please. According to the software we use around here, this is the 2,000th post in the nearly three years since Doug LeBlanc and I opened the cyber-doors here at GetReligion.

Actually, there have been a few posts that one of us started and never finished and it’s hard to know how those numbers figure into the count. And, back in the TypePad days, we had a little feature on the sidebar called “Short Takes” and all of those posts vanished when we went to WordPress. So who knows how many posts we have actually written.

However, this is the 2,000th post stored on the site, so I thought I’d mention this little landmark.

That’s a lot of writing and it’s been fun, interesting (at least for us) and, at times, a little frustrating. The busy journalists involved in this site wish that we could do much more than we do. And we are always trying to make improvements and we hope to make a few more around Feb. 1, our third birthday. We’re working with the folks at Pierpoint Design to try to freshen up our front page.

Also, we are going to create a semi-regular feature for the blog that we will call 5Q+1. The whole idea is that one of us will call up a journalist — either a Godbeat specialist or someone whose mainstream work frequently involves religious issues — and ask them a set of five standard questions.

Some of the people we call — or email — will be folks that we already know read GetReligion. But sometimes we’ll call people that we hope read the blog or might be willing to look it over and then talk to us. We hope that, once we get started with this, readers will suggest people for us to feature.

So what should we ask them? The Rt. Rev. LeBlanc and I had a chance to meet for lunch last week on Capitol Hill and here’s our rough draft of five basic questions.

(1) Where do you like to get your news about religion?

(2) What do you think is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just don’t get?

(3) What is the story that you’ll be watching carefully in the next year or two?

(4) Why is it important to understand the role of religion in our world today?

(5) What’s the funniest, most ironic twist that you’ve seen in a religion news story lately?

And the +1 element of the list is an opportunity for each journalist to say something to us, with a kind of “What’s going on?” wildcard question.

(6) Is there anything else that you’d like to say about religion and the news?

So there we go. Any suggestions for who we ought to talk to first? I already have a candidate, of course, and I’m trying to reach this journalist at the moment.

But what suggestions do you have for the wording on these questions? Does anyone have a totally different question you want to suggest? It goes without saying that the Divine Mrs. MZ and young master Daniel will have plenty of input, and so will the head hauncho at the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life, the Rev. Dr. Editor Arne Fjeldstad.

So what do you think?

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Pardon my French-Canadian

profanity mugI wish all newspapers had foreign correspondents. They’re such a throwback to pre-globalization, when you had to trust the eyes and ears of a lone fellow countryman in a far-off land.

Even though the Web has broken down many of the language, cultural and physical boundaries in the world, we still rely on them for their insightful analysis. And in exchange we get overly broad characterizations of complex societies. But what are you going to do?

Earlier this week Doug Struck, a Washington Post correspondent in Montreal, had a fascinating piece on Quebecois linguistics. Turns out that the terminology of choice when expressing profanity is religious:

English-speaking Canadians use profanities that would be well understood in the United States, many of them scatological or sexual terms. But the Quebecois prefer to turn to religion when they are mad. They adopt commonplace Catholic terms — and often creative permutations of them — for swearing.

In doing so, their oaths speak volumes about the history of this French province.

“When you get mad, you look for words that attack what represses you,” said Louise Lamarre, a Montreal cinematographer who must tread lightly around the language, depending on whether her films are in French or English. “In America, you are so Puritan that the swearing is mostly about sex. Here, since we were repressed so long by the church, people use religious terms.”

The story is fascinating, if you can stomach many quotes from people like Lamarre. One linguistics professor says taboo words relate to Christ, Communion wafers, vestments and elements of the altar. It all ties back to oppression from the Roman Catholic church, the article says.

The Catholic Church was overwhelmingly dominant in Quebec from early in the province’s history — England’s King George III gave the French Catholic clergy enormous power in 1774, in part to counter the growing American insurgency to the south. In the “Quiet Revolution” of the 1960s, Quebecers rebelled. They “just stopped going to church one Sunday,” as Lamarre put it.

It’s a great idea for an article, and nicely written. But for those of us who are ignorant of Quebec’s history, a bit more perspective is in order. Let’s throw in a few more sources as well. I’ve heard of the Quiet Revolution, but I could use a few quick words on what exactly is the nature of the rift between the church and the Quebecois.

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More Passion Playbook pages

9732 posterIn the past year or so, there has been all kinds of mainstream coverage — like this and especially this — of Hollywood professionals trying to find out how, in the post-Passion-earthquake world, to market mainstream movies to the so-called “Christian market.” This story has actually been out there for quite some time, but it still seems to be hot.

The other day I put up a post in reaction to a Variety piece that claimed that many L.A. players were actually following a “Passion Playbook” that offered the hot marketing tips to ring that faith-based bell at the box office.

With a wink, I said I’d be interested in someone leaking me a copy. Not long after that, after reading a bunch more and interviewing the producers of The Nativity Story, I actually took a stab — in my usual 666 words or so — at writing out a few of the playbook suggestions in a column for Scripps Howard News Service. Here’s a short look at that:

• Seek the input of historians, theologians and clergy early and often and try, try, try to nail the details. Most of all, find out how to avoid making mistakes …

• Make the story the star. In the case of the Passion, it helped that director Mel Gibson was an A-list superstar who — while already controversial in Hollywood — had made numerous films that were popular in middle America. Still, he did not cast familiar faces …

• Court the core Christian audience to create buzz that will reach pulpits and pews. Let test audiences in strategic Bible Belt markets see early versions of the film and listen to the feedback. Hire publicists who understand what sings in the parallel universe of Christian media …

• It helps if the creative team includes Hollywood professionals who are sincerely motivated to reach the “faith-based audience.”

• Remember that religious consumers like quality entertainment, but prefer not to be offended when they grab their popcorn.

I knew that the marketing reports that are out there were much larger than my little list. I’d still love to see one of these playbooks.

However, a friend of mine — Mark Joseph of the MJM Group — decided that people needed to know more of what was in the actual “Passion Playbook,” as in the strategies that were discussed among the people who actually worked with Mel Gibson on that project. It helps that Mark was one of those folks.

Thus, Joseph produced a piece the other day for Fox News that includes a few of points that I made, but adds many more. If you are a reporter who is interested in this subject and might write about it anytime soon, you may want to save this link. You’ll see that Joseph stresses certain points over what people told me. There is, in fact, no magic button you push — just as there is no magic “Hispanic market” button or “gay market” formula.

Here’s a hint at what Joseph has to say, in the wake of the early numbers for The Nativity Story:

… (To) paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen: I knew “The Passion” … and “The Nativity” is no “Passion.”

To be sure, there is indeed a “Passion” playbook, which unfortunately has not been followed since it rocked the box office in 2004. For Hollywood executives who seem to have learned many of the wrong lessons and ignored most of the right ones, here is the real “Passion” playbook, which if followed correctly is guaranteed to produce box office magic.

1) Have a major star associated with the project. Mel Gibson may only have been the director, but he was the player in the “Passion” saga. Media and the interest of the American public nearly always revolve around a person. …

2) Whenever possible, choose a story that is already well-known and loved. That way, you won’t have to spend months educating the public about who the character is or what the story is about. …

3) Spend some money on the production. Gibson spent $25 million. That’s good. People, even deeply religious people, want to see that real money has been spent on a film. There are exceptions to this. “Facing The Giants,” for example, was made for $100,000 and earned $10 million. In general, however, the faithful are sick of being condescended to with low-budget schlock.

4) Spend at least a year taking the film around the country to as many leaders of as many groups as possible. Studios are famous for refusing to show a film until just before it’s released, but news travels at a much slower speed in faith-oriented circles.

There’s a lot more in his 10-plus commandments. Clip and save.

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Where is the news hook?

Barbless Hook2Buried in the back of the local section of the Sunday Washington Post was this short story about a religious service at the Fairfax (Va.) Adult Detention Center. It’s a rather random story, and the Post has been doing more of them lately (check out this one from Sept. 9 on a skateboard ministry in southern Maryland), many of them relating to religion.

All it amounts to is a vignette that would go along nicely with an Alan Cooperman story on the merits, or lack thereof, of a federally funded faith-based initiative that works to help inmates get ready for release. Accompanying this article is a video that tells us little more than what is in the article.

Here’s a snippet of what I’m talking about:

More evidence of the divine to the five women at the 9:15 a.m. service on Tuesday: Kimberly Johnson and Kristin Bostrom sitting next to each other, praying together at a gray, metal table.

They had fought the previous day, during exercise time. The night after the fight, Bostrom prayed for Johnson. Since coming to jail in September, she’d found a closer relationship with God and a meaning and structure for such emotions as the anger she felt that night. So she prayed: Let me do God’s will, not my own. My own can’t always be trusted.

Neither woman knew the other would be in services that morning, but there Johnson was when Bostrom filed in. So Bostrom sat beside her, and the two women sang together.

Anyone at the Post know what this is all about? I really don’t mind these articles being delivered to me with my morning newspaper, but I’d like some explanation about the article’s purpose. I have no problem with the article as it stands. It’s actually a pretty decent piece of narrative writing — and hey, it’s on religion, so why should I be complaining? Its purpose is just confusing and random.

I’d like to venture that these articles are driven by the Post‘s attempt to get more video content out on the Web. If you look at the Post‘s front page, few stories lend themselves very well to video that is not already broadcast on the evening news. So they send someone, Michelle Boorstein in this case, to put together a nice little multimedia package together, and bingo, you’re being innovative on the Internet!

The problem I have with this is the lack of a news hook. Isn’t that what a newspaper is all about? Even if the subject is not new, there has to be a news angle that the Post could have found with this. What trends are out there regarding prison ministries? There is so much more that could be explored here, and the current strategy of just drawing a word picture seems to be a waste of newsprint.

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GetReligion, burkas and the press

burkas and mini skirtEver since Doug LeBlanc and I started this blog, we have had problems explaining to some people what GetReligion is about and what it is not about.

Here’s the bottom line: This is a blog that tries to dissect religion-news coverage in the mainstream press. We strive to praise the good and we try to put a spotlight on stories that we believe are flawed or, perhaps, haunted by religion themes that the journalists didn’t seem to realize was there. We call those missing religious elements “ghosts.”

But we always stress that this is not a weblog for theological debates. We also cannot cover all the world’s religion news. We don’t even have the time to get to half of the stories that we wish we could feature on the blog. And television news? And international coverage? Oh man, I feel those guilt shivers already.

So we are not a religion-news blog. We are a blog about how the mainstream press covers religion.

Here’s why I bring this up. A dedicated GetReligion reader and critic, Joe Perez of the Gay Spirituality & Culture blog, sent us a pointed note the other day that went like this:

Why oh why haven’t you said anything about the Dutch burka ban news item from 11/17 among other stories. Those wacky liberal Europeans can’t so much as frown at a Pentecostal minister’s sermons without getting GetReligion exercised, but ban burkas and they get a free pass? I thought this would be a big story but the US press is ignoring it. Can you help me understand?

By the way, is that “exercised” or “exorcised”? Sorry, I could not help myself.

Actually, I have written quite a bit on this blog about some of the internal tensions in Europe these days, with the drive for multiculturalism clashing, at times, with classical liberalism. I think the legal issues raised in the burka debates are fascinating and a bit frightening for people on both sides. Clearly, this is an issue of freedom of expression and association that affects all kinds of people, even stewardesses on British Airways. What right does the state have to tell a Muslim woman that she cannot choose to wear a burka?

submission 01But there’s the issue. Some women choose to wear traditional Islamic dress — although there would be fierce debates about using “traditional” in that phrase — and others are forced to do so, often through violence. Is it cultural imperialism for a Western government to try to protect these women by banning this public expression of Muslim faith? And while we’re at it, did filmmaker Theo van Gogh need to die because he made a fierce, offensive movie (Submission) about these issues?

All of that interests me and I am glad that many newspapers have written about the issue. I, frankly, think that much of the coverage has been quite good. I have come very close to commenting on this several times — to praise the coverage. I have circulated at least 10 of these stories among our GetReligion inner circle. However, no one has elected to write on one of them — yet.

So I agree with Perez that this is an important story. He sent us a link to an Associated Press report that gave plenty of evidence that the issue is not going away anytime soon:

The issue has resonance throughout Europe[.] Former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw recently caused a stir by saying he wants Muslim women to abandon the full-face veil — a view endorsed by Prime Minister Tony Blair. In France, the center-right’s leading presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy has increasingly been adopting some of the rhetoric of the extreme right.

Germany, which also has a large Muslim immigrant community, has a law banning teachers in public schools from wearing head scarves, but no burqa ban.

In Holland, policies associated with the nationalist fringe in 2002 have been co-opted by the center: holding asylum-seekers in detention centers, more muscle for the police and intelligence services, and visa examinations that require would-be immigrants to watch videos of homosexuals kissing and of topless women on the beach. Everyone must learn to speak Dutch, and Muslim clerics must mind what they say in their Friday sermons for fear of deportation.

I have seen some fine stories on this topic in major news outlets. Has anyone seen a really bad one? Let us know.

Meanwhile, please try to understand when we simply cannot comment on every religion news story or trend that comes along. It usually means (a) we haven’t seen the same story you have, (b) we were not struck by something highly critical or positive to say about it or (c) we were simply swamped that week in our day jobs.

Patience! And repeat after me: “It’s not a religion-news blog, it’s a blog about how the mainstream press covers religion.”

Top photo from Muslim Refusenik

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