Covering Islam in the courtroom

Zacarias Moussaoui's trialWhile the differences between movements may be fascinating, the tie that binds, violence, sort of supersedes that. That’s why I don’t think reporters should go out of their way to report any discrepancies in ideologies just out of opposition to Bush, he’s a politician and he knows exactly what he’s doing.

The question remains, do reporters? Is there any particular case in which we are not being well enough informed about different extremist ideologies? And don’t these also relate to the goals of the organization head as much as the religious compulsion?

Posted by Vox Dilecti at 1:53 am on September 22, 2006

In other words, do reporters understand the discrepancies in the various forms of Islamic ideology? In the world of Islamic extremism, which is often accurately associated with terrorism, are the adherents acting on religious compulsion, or to fulfill the will of their leaders?

Vox Dilecti’s astute comment highlights complicated but very important questions that reporters are sorting out as the U.S. legal system struggles to respond to a group of people bent on destroying Western society in the name of religion. A reporter’s job is by no means easier, but unlike lawyers, reporters must be succinct and easy to read.

While space limitations seem to impede the typical Associated Press or Reuters report, writers at The Atlantic operate under looser constrictions (although thankfully I’ve noticed that there seems to be some word-count discipline going on under the new editor, James Bennet). If you have time, take a look at the October Atlantic for “Prophetic Justice,” Amy Waldman’s article exploring the ethics of how the United States is prosecuting suspected terrorists. The material is a bit thick — this is an article about the law, after all — but Waldman is quite thorough and writes at a very high level of understanding. Here’s the article’s lengthy subtitle:

The United States is now prosecuting suspected terrorists on the basis of their intentions, not just their actions. But in the case of Islamic extremists, how can American jurors fairly weigh words and beliefs when Muslims themselves can’t agree on what they mean?

In nearly 10,000 words, Waldman takes us on a tour of the U.S. government’s prosecution of potential terrorists. In a keen insight, she compares recent terrorist trials with the 1925 Scopes trial: when you’re putting a person’s beliefs on trial, you are wading into the circus business.

To take the argument a step further, when reporters attempt to explore an individual’s or group’s beliefs, are they likewise attempting some form of monkey business?

In their exploration of Islam, the recent terrorism trials have had a similar, if perhaps less circuslike, feel. The prosecution introduces beliefs into evidence, and the defense challenges the meaning or significance of those beliefs. Expert witnesses in Islam then fight pitched battles of interpretation for each side. Some of the experts are mainstream scholars, others outliers with unconventional views. Together, they make up a small but often lucrative cottage industry where their expertise can command $200 an hour or more. In the courtroom, they create a theological thicket that may be shaped as much by their own agendas and perspectives as by the facts of the cases.

Jurors have been schooled in the difference between fatwa (religious edict), and fatah (conquest). They have had tutorials in the history of Islam, from the angel Gabriel’s revelation of the Koran to the Prophet Muhammad to the rise of Osama bin Laden. They have learned about the meaning of bida, or innovation; the authentic chain of transmission for a hadith; and the virgins awaiting a martyr in paradise.

Such a thorough judicial disquisition of a religion has no modern parallel in America. Unless religious beliefs bear directly on guilt — the use of the illegal drug peyote in religious rituals, for example — they are generally barred from trials as prejudicial. Why have the rules changed? Because, as Aziz Huq, a lawyer at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, puts it, in recent times no other religion has been “so intimately linked in the public mind to violence.” Since 9/11, judges have given lawyers wide latitude to bring religion into the courtroom.

Waldman’s essay focuses on legal matters, but the preceding paragraphs are worth discussing from a journalistic perspective. In the same comment thread that Vox Dilecti posted in, Don Neuendorf proposed a Nobel Prize (or a Pulitzer?) for any journalist who can simplify the multiple facets of Islam.

Does it really have to be that complicated for journalists covering developments in the Middle East? I don’t want to issue a blanket statement on all news articles that deal with Islamic terrorism, because some are very good, but we’ve managed to chronicle some of the more problematic articles.

Take, for instance, Solomon Moore’s dramatic Los Angeles Times piece on two Shiite militias and how since February they have killed thousands of Sunnis in Iraq. This is a huge story, but its significance is downplayed. A reader without some understanding of the differences between these two groups may conclude only that two rival Iraqi groups, one with connections to Iran, are duking it out.

Waldman writes:

Jurors have been schooled in the difference between fatwa (religious edict), and fatah (conquest). They have had tutorials in the history of Islam, from the angel Gabriel’s revelation of the Koran to the Prophet Muhammad to the rise of Osama bin Laden. They have learned about the meaning of bida, or innovation; the authentic chain of transmission for a hadith; and the virgins awaiting a martyr in paradise.

Is it too much to ask that reporters covering the development of Islamic terrorism help explain those differences, or why Shiite death squads are accompanied by clerical figures who approve executions of Sunnis? To ask it another way: Are the appetites of Americans too shallow, eliminating any type of mass market for accurate, precise coverage that deals with tough theological issues?

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Newsweek misses church ladies, again

A  Gardner   Newsweek   11 24 1952The new issue of Newsweek is out, which means that I, once again, have waited a bit too long to make a comment on the previous issue. I think I’ll do it anyway, since it appears that the magazine is going to do the same cover story every year about this time.

The topic, once again, was women and leadership (visit Newsweek‘s site to see the current illustrations), and here is the way the package was described in one of the main headlines and second decks:

Leading the Way

These women are poised to be the next generation of leaders in their fields — whether it’s sports, business, finance, politics or the arts. In their own words, they tell how they got where they are and where they hope to go next.

All of this was very similar to last year’s cover on the same basic subject, the one with St. Oprah on it, under the headline “How Women Lead.” Click here if you want to flash back to what this blog had to say about that one. It would be good if you did that, since I really need to write the same post all over again.

Last year, I was amazed that Newsweek could produce a massive neo-People package about American women in leadership roles and almost totally ignore the gigantic role that women play in pews and now pulpits in organized religion. Yes, the magazine’s leaders missed the church ladies. They even missed the proudly feminist elements of the liberal mainline Protestant world, which meant that they sure as heck missed the huge role that women play in conservative religious groups. Take the pro-life movement, for example.

Well, this year’s cover was different.

This year, Newsweek — as best I can tell — completely ignored the role that women play in religious life.

It’s amazing. I didn’t think it could be done. The cover package contains all the usual topics, such as “Twenty Top Women on Leadership,” “Women Leaders: Lessons We Have Learned,” “Moms Mean Business,” “Science and the Gender Gap” and “Women Leaders: 10 Power Tips.” You’d think there would be room for faith in there somewhere.

Last year, some of the women featured talked about the role of faith in their lives, at least a little bit. This year, I couldn’t even find a few secondary references. Did I miss something?

So I’ll end this somewhat cynical tirade with a flashback to a 2005 Wall Street Journal piece by Christine Rosen that stated the obvious:

This fall, the entering class of rabbinical students at the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative institution, is 34% female. At Hebrew Union College, a Reform seminary, women are nearly half the student body. At many Protestant seminaries, women pastoral students now outnumber men, and between 1983 and 2000 the number of women who identified themselves as clergy tripled. It seems that Catholic scholar Leon Podles’s prediction of a few years ago, that “the Protestant clergy will be a characteristically female occupation, like nursing, within a generation,” may soon prove true.

Pulpits aren’t the only places that women dominate. According to a recent survey, the typical U.S. congregation is 61% female. Women are also the force behind most lay organizations and volunteer activities and make up the majority of church employees.

And I will say once again what I said then. This trend is linked to at least three of the biggest stories out there on the religion beat. You’d have to be blind not to see the links. And those stories? The declining number of men in mainline pews. The general statistical decline of the liberal mainline and the groups that feature the largest numbers of women in ordained leadership roles. The rise of the new evangelicals and other conservative forms of faith, with strong — but less obvious — leadership roles for women. A new question: Have the evangelicals leveled off in growth, especially among men?

These stories are still out there. Does anyone at Newsweek know that?

Wait a minute! In the Newsweek illustration of Martina Navratilova, is she wearing a cross? There’s the religion element of the cover story. I missed that, at first. Go to the website and check it out.

UPDATE: Newsweek instructed us to take down the illustrations, even though I tried to attribute them as part of our coverage of the package. I did the best I could to find a fitting substitute.

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Please. Pretty please. Can we ask Katie …

image1945536So what are the questions that faithful GetReligion readers would like to ask Katie Couric?

You think I’m joking? Click here to head to the new Couric & Co. site:

“Dear Katie …”

Is there a question you’re burning to ask Katie? This is your chance. Send us an e-mail with your question — one question per e-mail, please — and over the next several days we’ll sift through them and ask Katie to answer them.

A few ground rules:

Questions must be serious and substantive. (But witty and substantive will also be accepted.) No questions about hair, makeup, shoes or wardrobe. Please. Pretty please.

Questions must be brief and to the point. We may edit them for length, clarity and, yes, grammar.

And so forth and so on.

As you would expect, I am tempted to email in the tmatt trio. You may remember them.

(1) Are the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of the Sacrament of Marriage a sin?

Yes, it is true that these are questions I use when trying to find out where Christian leaders fall on a doctrinal (not political) scale from left to right, from progressive to traditionalist. And, yes, the issue for a journalist is not what she believes, but how accurately she can cover the beliefs of others, including those with whom they strongly disagree.

Yet is is precisely where Couric’s religious critics have faulted her in the past and I assume they are now watching her every move like hawks. Also, social, cultural and religious issues have long dominated most polls and debates about media bias.

I have to admit that I have not been watching the CBS Evening News lately. I would be interested in knowing if any major religion stories have been covered on her watch. I assume that the pope story drew some serious air time. Any comments from GetReligion readers?

Any questions that you would like to ask Katie? I would assume that the out-of-bounds instructions — “hair, makeup, shoes or wardrobe” — would also include questions about camera angles and legs.

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Why not hire O.J. as the crime reporter?

simonand garfunkelIf you had a reporter who was an abortion-rights activist, spoke publicly against religious conservatives and George Bush, and wept openly at a recent Simon and Garfunkel concert, what beat would you assign her?

Certainly not music — and certainly not the Supreme Court, right?

Think again. The New York Times has no problem at all with keeping Linda Greenhouse in just that plum beat.

Ever since she marched in a 1989 abortion-rights rally, readers who don’t share her political opinions have questioned Greenhouse’s coverage of politically divisive court rulings.

NPR’s awesomely named David Folkenflik had a fascinating story on All Things Considered that raises new issues arising from a June speech Greenhouse gave at Harvard:

Greenhouse went on to charge that since then, the U.S. government had “turned its energy and attention away from upholding the rule of law and toward creating law-free zones at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Haditha and other places around the world — [such as] the U.S. Congress.”

She also observed a “sustained assault on women’s reproductive freedom and the hijacking of public policy by religious fundamentalism. To say that these last few years have been dispiriting is an understatement.”

A few weeks after that speech, the Supreme Court knocked down some of the government’s assertion of executive powers involving detainees at Guantanamo. And the court will soon hear arguments in an abortion case.

I think it’s interesting that this speech was given in June to 800 people and the first most anyone has heard about it is months later. Greenhouse’s political biases aren’t exactly hidden, but it is also surprising that she’s this open about her leftist views.

I noted problems Greenhouse had in covering a January abortion ruling, but her personal biases aren’t necessarily reflected in her coverage.

Still, it’s hard to imagine a reporter with similarly extreme conservative views having such a plum position at the Times or winning a Pulitzer.

Folkenflik’s piece had a few other great nuggets:

Sandy Rowe, editor of the Oregonian and a past chairwoman of the executive committee of the Pulitzer Prize board. Rowe praises Greenhouse’s work — but questions her judgment.

“If she or any other reporter stakes out a strong position on an issue that is still evolving both in society and before the courts, yes, I think that is problematic,” Rowe says.

Greenhouse tells NPR, “I said what I said in a public place. Let the chips fall where they may.”

Again, can anyone imagine where the chips would fall for a New York Times Supreme Court reporter who equated abortion to murder?

Jack Nelson, former Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, blanches at hearing of Greenhouse’s remarks, but agrees with her tough critique of the White House.

“If I was the Washington bureau chief and she was my Supreme Court reporter, I might have to answer to the editors in L.A. for that,” Nelson says. “But I would do my best to support her.”

Asked if he would defend Greenhouse had she said something he disagreed with, however, Nelson laughed — and said he would take issue if she had backed Bush policy.

What is Jack Nelson thinking? He would support reporters who expressed one bias but not another? People who’ve read surveys of reporters personal political views aren’t necessarily surprised by such statements, but shouldn’t these people be keeping these things secret?

Anyway, great story idea. It will be interesting to see if Times editors take any action here.

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Revenge of VeggieMadonnaGate!

12743 detailWe have entered a quiet stage in the VeggieTales/Madonna wars involving what religious believers can and cannot say on NBC. I have held off for a couple of days since the last update in order to watch for developments in this story and, sure enough, we had some more over the weekend.

The big news is that NBC has changed its VeggieTales story, after earlier changing its Madonna story.

The even bigger news is that the Los Angeles Times reported this change in very blunt language, beginning with the headline that read (take a deep breath), “NBC Issues New Explanation for ‘VeggieTales’ Cuts: After first blaming time constraints, the network says some references to God were edited out of the kids’ series to avoid advocating any religion.”

Bravo. Alas, NBC executives offered this confession in the form of a press release.

The new statement came in the wake of mounting criticism from advocacy groups that questioned why NBC had asked the creators of “VeggieTales” to take out the references.

“NBC is committed to the positive messages and universal values of ‘VeggieTales,’” the statement said. “Our goal is to reach as broad an audience as possible with these positive messages, while being careful not to advocate any one religious point of view.”

This is a really interesting claim, since the key statement that has been banned is the VeggieTales motto used at the end of each episode, which is: “Remember kids, God made you special and he loves you very much.”

This statement was removed to avoid advocating “any one religious point of view.” This would be the controversial doctrinal point of view which maintains that God loves children. Of course, NBC leaders may have assumed that the statement that “God made you special” could be taken as an attack on evolution. That’s the ticket. Meanwhile, I should stress that Bob the Tomato does not do anything faith-specific while making this closing benediction, such as falling on his knees and making the sign of the cross. Bob the Tomato (see second image) does not have knees or arms.

The Los Angeles Times article also quoted some statistics that may or may not be raising eyebrows in NBC office suites.

So far, “VeggieTales” has been very successful for NBC in a Saturday morning time slot that has traditionally been difficult for the networks. Thanks to Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber, NBC saw its biggest ratings jump last weekend in Saturday morning children’s programming since 2003. …

In May, NBC Universal entered into a venture with Scholastic Corp., Corus Entertainment Inc., Classic Media/Big Idea Inc. and ION Media Networks to create a Saturday morning block of programming called Qubo. A week ago, in its second week of broadcast, Qubo averaged 402,000 children between the ages of 2 and 11. “VeggieTales” at 10 a.m. was the most watched of the Qubo shows, averaging 430,000 kids, a 16% jump from the previous weekend.

In other coverage of this controversy, The New York Times offered the most interesting spin on the ironic conflict at NBC between the Veggies and Madonna. Check this out:

NBC has drawn protests this week from religious conservatives over the content of two television shows, but for different reasons — in one instance for excluding references to God and in the other for possibly including religious imagery.

The disputes, over the network’s proposed broadcast of a Madonna concert that includes a crucifixion scene and over its cutting religious references from the animated children’s show “VeggieTales,” have some critics charging that NBC maintains a double standard toward Christianity.

bilde 01Note that the heart of the story is that conservatives are protesting, not that NBC leaders have taken several different public positions on both of these programming decisions in recent weeks.

It’s an especially nice touch to suggest that many traditional Christians are upset about the concert segment in which Madonna hangs on a disco-mirrored crucifix because it contains too much religion. This is something like saying that Muslims were upset about the Danish cartoons because they contained too much religion, as opposed to the fact that they contained religious content that they considered offensive.

Anyone who is interested in knowing more about the actual edits that NBC demanded in the VeggieTales episodes may way to check out this report in The Tennessean, which caught up to this — for that Nashville newsroom — local story last weekend. VeggieTales creator Phil Vischer offered some nice details.

Eliminated lines from one episode included “Calm down. The Bible says we should love our enemies.” In another episode, Vischer said, NBC allowed the line “the Bible says Samson got his strength from God.” But the next line — “And God can give us strength, too” — was out.

The changes included cuts in dialogue where characters utter the word “God” and were so last-minute and awkward, Vischer said, that in some cases “it makes the stories not work very well.” For the sign-off, where the original words were simply voiced-over, “the lips don’t match, so it kind of looks like a Japanese cartoon with lips moving” out of synch with the words, he said.

Actually, that sounds pretty funny to me. I can see Bob and Larry having lots of fun with that effect.

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Purpose-driven response

Rickwarren 01Well, friends, I am back from my honeymoon. I have declared it the Best Honeymoon in the History of the World — but I don’t have much to compare it to. Tanned, rested and ready, I am. And married. And operating under a new name. So many changes.

Please bear with me as I get back up to speed on media coverage of religion. You’ll be pleased to know I had the chance to read the entire Time cover story on the Prosperity Gospel while away, so I look forward to highlighting that.

In the meantime, I have to share my favorite comment received in response to a recent posting on a Wall Street Journal story about Rick Warren’s church growth methodology:

RICK WARREN’S COMMENT
I hate to spoil the party, but the Wall Street Journal article was filled with errors and incorrect statements. Actually there were too many errors to mention all of them.

Journalist are often rushed, so instead of taking the time to fact check everything, the repeat things they read from previously printed articles, without bothering to confirm if it was actually true. So errors get repeated.

For the record:
1. I have never encouraged any pastor to kick out any member of any church. In fact, in the Purpose Driven Church training, we teach the EAXCT OPPOSITE. Leaders must love everyone in the flock and lead them gently. The premis of the entire article was absurd in this respect.

2. I have never taught any pastors to “remove the pews” or any of the other claims mentioned. My staff got a real laugh out of that

3. I have never “preached in sandals” in 26 years as a pastor. Anyone who has attended Saddleback would know that. But the WSJ reporter read that error somewhere and didn’t check it.

4. Over 400,000 pastors worldwide have taken the Purpose Drive Church training over the past 26 years. resulting in tens of thousands of testimony letters about the positive effects.

This article tried to make a “TREND” out of 3 or 4 failures at implimentation. Anecdotes are not trends. How about the hundreds of thousands of healthy churches on the other side of the scale?

5. A failure at implimentation does not mean a failure of the concept. It’s just poor leadership.

I could go on, but people believe what they want to believe. rick warren

Particularly in light of the spelling and grammatical errors, I wasn’t sure it was really Rick Warren. But the IP address checks out, for what it’s worth.

I thought Suzanne Sataline’s article delivered what it promised — a picture of congregants who don’t get on board with the Purpose Driven message. I wonder if Warren delivered these complaints to the paper and to what effect. Anyone know?

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Who outed George Allen?

george allen2The apparent destruction of the presidential ambitions of Sen. George Allen, R-Va., has been interesting to watch. The story goes several layers deep, and I’ll do my best to probe the more interesting, religion-oriented ones in this post. Feel free to post your thoughts on how religion was played in the hundreds of articles written on the politician who has been dubbed the darling of the religious right and a clone of President Bush.

The candidate one would think would benefit the most from Allen’s implosion is Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, but that remains to be seen. Check out what The Revealer wrote Monday on the issue:

The liberal blogs, Salon, and now the mainstream media (AP) have been making hay out of Allen’s bigotry, but the media that matters in this case won’t be public. It’ll be email. It’ll be telephone calls. It’ll be the quiet, behind-the-scenes conferencing by Christian Right powerbrokers who are about to pull the rug out from Allen.

Nailing down who pulled, or will pull, the rug out from Allen’s presidential hopes is tricky, but one thing is for sure, it was not the mainstream media. As best I can tell, The New Republic (as tmatt likes to say, that right-wing rag to which we link a lot) started it all with a couple of Ryan Lizza articles on April 27 and May 15 that addressed Allen’s “race problem.” Here we found out that Allen had a long association with the Confederate flag, among other sketchy things.

Then Allen famously uttered “macaca” (video) and all hell broke lose on his campaign, including renewed speculation that he could be Jewish. That ended up being true, but Allen didn’t appreciate it very much, as revealed in this snarky Washington Post piece by the religious right’s favorite columnist (sarcasm on), Dana Milbank:

At a debate in Tysons Corner yesterday between Republican Allen and Democrat [Jim] Webb, WUSA-TV’s Peggy Fox asked Allen, the tobacco-chewing, cowboy-boot-wearing son of a pro football coach, if his Tunisian-born mother has Jewish blood.

“It has been reported,” said Fox, that “your grandfather Felix, whom you were given your middle name for, was Jewish. Could you please tell us whether your forebears include Jews and, if so, at which point Jewish identity might have ended?”

Allen recoiled as if he had been struck. His supporters in the audience booed and hissed. “To be getting into what religion my mother is, I don’t think is relevant,” Allen said, furiously. “Why is that relevant — my religion, Jim’s religion or the religious beliefs of anyone out there?”

“Honesty, that’s all,” questioner Fox answered, looking a bit frightened.

“Oh, that’s just all? That’s just all,” the senator mocked, pressing his attack. He directed Fox to “ask questions about issues that really matter to people here in Virginia” and refrain from “making aspersions.”

“Let’s move on,” proposed the moderator, George Stephanopoulos of ABC News.

Yes, let’s — but not before we figure out what that was all about. Turns out the Forward, a Jewish newspaper, reported that the senator’s mother, Etty, “comes from the august Sephardic Jewish Lumbroso family” and continued: “If both of Etty’s parents were born Jewish — which, given her age and background, is likely — Senator Allen would be considered Jewish in the eyes of traditional rabbinic law, which traces Judaism through the mother.”

george allenSo as the Post and others play catch-up on the story that Allen is not a very good person and is sensitive about his heritage, one has to wonder what instigated it all. Was it just an unfortunate falling of the cards that instigated Salon investigations and subsequent catch-up stories (followed of course by the Associated Press and the Post) into whether Allen used the N word while playing football at the University of Virginia? The mainstream media have been all over the “live” events, such as the video and Allen’s reaction to the Jewish question, but they’ve done little hard reporting, which has been reserved to less mainstream left-of-center publications.

Is this a liberal attempt to oust a senator with hopes of regaining a Senate Majority? A smart Democrat would save this material for 2008 in order to throw the GOP presidential nomination process into chaos. Who is attempting to out what appears to be at worst a closet, or at best a former, racist and possible bully, before he became the religious right’s standard-bearer?

Ryan Lizza’s articles in The New Republic didn’t happen in a vacuum. I doubt he woke up one morning and thought, “I need to investigate Sen. Allen’s racial attitudes.” I also doubt that Michael Scherer of Salon thought, “I will call all of Sen. Allen’s teammates from his time as the quarterback of the University of Virginia to find out if he said some racist things back in the day.”

And to cap it all off, the issues raised in the book by Allen’s sister, Jennifer, in her book Fifth Quarter: The Scrimmage of a Football Coach’s Daughter, have been around for six years (surviving Allen’s first election) and no one seemed to notice until now. So what gives?

Who is out to trash a potential leading candidate of the religious right?

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Waiting on the perfect righteous human being

19bHere is your first assignment as we start a new week. It has to do with the most amazing quotation from last week.

First, open Google. Now, insert — in direct quotation marks — the phrase “perfect righteous human being.” Search in the News category.

Now, what did you find? Not much.

This phrase is, of course, taken from the final act of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s dramatic address at the United Nations. Click here for the full text, but here are the crucial quotes:

“I emphatically declare that today’s world, more than ever before, longs for just and righteous people with love for all humanity; and above all longs for the perfect righteous human being and the real savior who has been promised to all peoples and who will establish justice, peace and brotherhood on the planet.

“O, Almighty God, all men and women are your creatures and you have ordained their guidance and salvation. Bestow upon humanity that thirsts for justice, the perfect human being promised to all by you, and make us among his followers and among those who strive for his return and his cause.”

Does that sound familiar? Did you see this passage played over and over on the evening newscasts and debated on the niche-market shows on cable?

You didn’t?

To grasp the importance of what is happening in these paragraphs, please head on over to The New Republic (that right-wing rag to which we link quite a bit) and read the fairly recent cover story titled “Ahmadinejad’s Demons: A child of the revolution takes over” by Matthias Kuntzel.

Now, back to the United Nations. Try to imagine what would have happened if President George W. Bush had ended his U.N. address with a call for the second coming of Jesus Christ and pledged that he would strive to see this event come to pass, sooner rather than later. Imagine the mainstream media response. Do you think this would be mentioned in major media? Do you think journalists would jump to cover that topic (as well they should)?

Andrew Sullivan states the obvious, quite well, beginning with an appeal for readers to read the quotes in question a second time:

Ahmadinejad is calling upon God to bring about the coming of the Twelfth Imam (“the perfect human being promised to all by you”), who heralds the Apocalypse. He is also saying that he will “strive for his return.” It is the most terrifying statement any president of any nation has made to the U.N. We have a dictator on the brink of nukes, striving to accelerate the Apocalypse. Think of the Iranian regime as a nation-as-suicide-bomber. And anything serious we can do to prevent it may only make matters worse. No wonder Ahmadinejad smiles. Paradise beckons.

So why have newspaper readers and television viewers not been swamped with coverage of this part of this address? Why is that Google News search so wimpy?

Here is what Joel C. Rosenberg has to say over at National Review. I think you will not be surprised to learn that his argument, when boiled down to its essentials, is this: Too many people in the mainstream media simply do not get religion. But, beyond that, there is a good chance that many journalists are simply afraid to dig into the details of Ahmadinejad’s beliefs and his own unique faith journey (which includes some literal minefields).

It is, you see, much, much easier to stick to writing stories about the Left Behind novels. Saith Rosenberg:

American journalists aren’t asking Ahmadinejad about his Shiite religious beliefs, his fascination with the coming of the Islamic Messiah known as the “Twelfth Imam” or the “Mahdi,” his critique of President Bush’s faith in Jesus Christ and encouragement of President Bush to convert to Islam, and how such beliefs are driving Iranian foreign policy.

Time‘s cover story and exclusive print interview with Ahmadinejad never broached the subject of his eschatology. Nor did [Brian] Williams. Nor did [Mike] Wallace. Nor does a just-released book, Confronting Iran: The Failure of American Foreign Policy And the Next Great Crisis in the Middle East, by British Iran expert Ali M. Ansari. Nor does almost any of the saturation coverage Ahmadinejad is receiving.

Journalists aren’t typically shy about asking tough, probing questions about the religious views of world leaders. President Bush has been grilled at length about being an evangelical Christian and how this informs his foreign policy, particularly with regards to Israel and the Middle East. Clearly the pope’s views of Christianity and Islam are now under fire. Why such hesitancy when it comes to the religious beliefs of a leader who has called for the Jewish state to be wiped off the planet and urges fellow Muslims to envision a world without the United States?

Good question. Of course, you knew that’s what we would think here at GetReligion.

Image: A devotional picture of Ali, the first Imam of the Shiites.

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