Uncovering Scientology

scientology recruiterGive me your first guess. What publication would devote nine months to report on a super-secret, cult-like group that claims millions of adherents along with some of Hollywood’s most famous people, namely Tom Cruise?

Well if you’re thinking Scientology and guessed Rolling Stone magazine, you’d be correct.

In one of the most thorough accounts I’ve ever seen on Scientology, Rolling Stone contributing editor Janet Reitman goes to great lengths to get inside the group, and she has 13,660 words to show for her work. It’s an incredibly long article, but well worth the read. I suggest chewing on it in segments. Otherwise it’s a bit overwhelming on the eyes and the morale.

Much could be said on this article. I’m hoping my fellow GetReligion bloggers will chime in when they get a chance to read the piece along with you all with comments. Please focus your thoughts toward the journalistic issues contained in the piece.

To begin with, Reitman brings the reader inside the reporting process, explaining what she had to do to obtain interviews with people inside the group and why most of the former members quoted in the story had to be renamed or mentioned anonymously (they fear retaliation, according to Reitman).

scientology crossUnlike many Rolling Stone pieces on religious issues, the article does not immediately dismiss Scientology as completely “out there.” In this case, Reitman allows the religion to speak for itself:

Scientology is also America’s most controversial religion: widely derided, but little understood. It is rooted in elements of Buddhism, Hinduism and a number of Western philosophies, including aspects of Christianity. The French sociologist Regis Dericquebourg, an expert in comparative religions, explains Scientology’s belief system as one of “regressive utopia,” in which man seeks to return to a once-perfect state through a variety of meticulous, and rigorous, processes intended to put him in touch with his primordial spirit. These processes are highly controlled, and, at the advanced levels, highly secretive. Critics of the church point out that Scientology, unique among religions, withholds key aspects of its central theology from all but its most exalted followers. To those in the mainstream, this would be akin to the Catholic Church refusing to tell all but a select number of the faithful that Jesus Christ died for their sins.

In June of last year, I set out to discover Scientology, an undertaking that would take nearly nine months. A closed faith that has often been hostile to journalistic inquiry, the church initially offered no help on this story; most of my research was done without its assistance and involved dozens of interviews with both current and former Scientologists, as well as academic researchers who have studied the group. Ultimately, however, the church decided to cooperate and gave me unprecedented access to its officials, social programs and key religious headquarters. What I found was a faith that is at once mainstream and marginal — a religious community known for its Hollywood members but run by a uniformed sect of believers who rarely, if ever, appear in the public eye. It is an insular society — one that exists, to a large degree, as something of a parallel universe to the secular world, with its own nomenclature and ethical code, and, most daunting to those who break its rules, its own rigorously enforced justice system.

ron hubbardOne thing you cannot miss in the article is the financial drive of the organization. Nearly everything costs money. Lots of money. The second thing you’ll notice is the secretive nature of the organization. The article portrays the organization as desperately attempting to squelch dissent among and outside its ranks. Finally, one definitely gets the sense that everything in the church centers on founder L. Ron Hubbard.

One thing I was wondering about was the explanation given for Hubbard’s authority. I know some people say he is (he never died, according to Scientologists, he just left his physical body) the “coolest guy ever,” but that’s not enough for me. Christians derive their faith from Jesus Christ, Muslims from Muhammad. Ron Hubbard was a science-fiction writer. What’s the spiritual draw there?

Another thing I think Reitman could have given more attention to was the legal angle. An organization of this size must leave some type of legal imprint, or crater — especially considering its battle with the IRS for tax-exempt status in 1993, and the number of people who have alleged exploitation and retaliation. Nevertheless, the size of the Scientology movement (is it even a movement?) is certainly up for debate:

Church officials boast that Scientology has grown more in the past five years than in the previous fifty. Some evidence, however, suggests otherwise. In 2001, a survey conducted by the City University of New York found only 55,000 people in the United States who claimed to be Scientologists. Worldwide, some observers believe a reasonable estimate of Scientology’s core practicing membership ranges between 100,000 and 200,000, mostly in the U.S., Europe, South Africa and Australia. According to the church’s own course-completion lists — many of which are available in a church publication and on the Internet — only 6,126 people signed up for religious services at the Clearwater organization in 2004, down from a peak of 11,210 in 1989. According to Kristi Wachter, a San Francisco activist who maintains an online database devoted to Scientology’s numbers, this pattern is replicated at nearly all of Scientology’s key organizations and churches. To some observers, this suggests that Scientology may, in fact, be shrinking.

time cover on scientologyBut discerning what is true about the Church of Scientology is no easy task. Tax-exempt since 1993 (status granted by the IRS after a long legal battle), Scientology releases no information about its membership or its finances. Nor does it welcome analysis of its writings or practices. The church has a storied reputation for squelching its critics through litigation, and according to some reports, intimidation (a trait that may explain why the creators of South Park jokingly attributed every credit on its November 2005 sendup of Scientology to the fictional John and Jane Smith; Paramount, reportedly under pressure, has agreed not to rerun the episode here or to air it in England). Nevertheless, Scientology’s critics comprise a sizable network of ex-members (or “apostates,” in church parlance), academics and independent free-speech and human-rights activists like Wachter, who have declared war on the group by posting a significant amount of previously unknown information on the Internet. This includes scans of controversial memos, photographs and legal briefs, as well as testimonials from disillusioned former members, including some high-ranking members of its Sea Organization. All paint the church in a negative, even abusive, light.

The article suggests that the organization has incredible powers of intimidation (as the South Park incident illustrates). Is this why other media organizations have not taken a closer look at the group? I wonder. Could this article change that?

Two final questions with which I leave you: why haven’t other religiously oriented publications tackled this subject? And why did Rolling Stone run with this and spend nine months and 13,660 words on it?

Time magazine devoted a cover story to the subject back in May 1991, stating that “Scientology poses as a religion but is really a ruthless global scam — and aiming for the mainstream.” (Because I am no longer a subscriber, I was unable to access the entire article, so those of you with access, let us know what you think.) Is Scientology arriving in the mainstream? And if this is true, one would think journalists would burn some shoe leather and spill some ink in order to poke away at this group that poses as a religion, yet demands incredible sums of money from its followers.

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J.J. Redick’s faith and his tattoos

redickIn high school, I was often terrified to play in organized basketball games. Don’t get me wrong, I loved to play basketball and to this day it is one of my favorite activities. But something made me go stiff the moment a referee and a coach were involved. The primary reason I survived four years of high school basketball was because of prayer and the support of my family and friends.

For this reason, faith and family have always gone together in my post-high school experiences in organized basketball, primarily as the coach of my younger brother’s junior high and junior varsity team for three years. Faith, while not significant in all ball players’ minds, certainly means a great deal to me, which is why I was thrilled to read this story by ESPN.com senior writer Pat Forde on the faith and tattoos of Duke guard J.J. Redick:

“I didn’t get tattoos so other people would say, ‘Oh, J.J.’s got tattoos. He’s got a basketball on his arm that says King of the Court,’ or something like that,” Redick said. “I got a tattoo for me. It’s a constant reminder, every day, of what God has done and what he will do in my life.”

The reminders are etched upon the senior guard’s lean torso — one on his chest, one on his abdomen.

The script lettering on his stomach reads, “Isaiah 40:31,” referring to this Bible verse: But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.

The other tattoo, on his chest, came first. It’s the Japanese word for courage, and beneath it is reference to another Bible verse, Joshua 1:9. That one reads: Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.

That’s the tat he got with grandma. And if there is one thing you can say about J.J. Redick, it’s this: He’s got basketball courage.

Courage is a tricky thing on a basketball court. Courage can quickly turn into cockiness detrimental to the team. I was privileged to see Redick drop 41 in a losing effort to Georgetown University last month, and I was struck not only by his ability to drill 3-pointers from 25 feet out with two guys in his face, but also his poise and unselfish behavior. Nevertheless, a big reason I believe Georgetown won was because Redick did not have the ball in his hands at the end of the game.

redick2Redick’s faith, his upbringing in a household of five homeschooled children, his struggles in his first two years at college — away from the comforts and protection of home — his recommitment to disciplining his life and his personal faith in God all make for a great story. While Pat Forde isn’t in your face about Redick’s faith in Christ, he certainly does not attempt to play it down or avoid it like some sportswriters are inclined to do.

Here’s more on Redick’s faith and his claim to fame as the world’s most hated basketball player (as of Saturday, he became the ACC’s all-time scoring leader to go along with his NCAA record 3-pointers and his all-time leading scorer status at Duke University):

It takes courage to embrace the burden of potential failure and hoist shots at the moments of maximum pressure. It takes courage to thrive as the most revered and most reviled college player in America. It takes courage to put your personality out there — the vulnerable poet’s side, the arrogant baller’s side, the unapologetic Christian’s side — for public dissection.

It would be so much easier to assume the dull automaton pose prevalent among today’s college basketball players. Redick doesn’t do easy.

“God’s got to be his comforter,” J.J.’s dad, Ken, said. “There’s got to be times in that spotlight, with that much pressure — and internal pressure from the Duke system of how you have to perform every day — when he couldn’t survive without faith, without being imbued with that spirit.

… After averaging 21.8 points per game last year and being named a first-team All-American, Redick decided he had earned a second trip to the tattoo parlor. That’s when he got the Isaiah 40:31 tat, to commemorate what he called “the best year of my life.”

“I regained my passion for basketball,” Redick said. “My relationships with my family members were as good as they’ve ever been — and my first two years, those were sometimes rocky. I met my girlfriend during that year and regained my spirituality.”

Read the whole article if you enjoy sports. If not, read it anyway to get a feel for one of America’s “Crunchy Christians” who has been reading, according to the article, Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life this winter. And I’ll be watching come March Madness to see whether Redick’s faith draws further attention by the media.

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Freedom to drink the tea

hallucinogenic teaHow significant was Tuesday’s unanimous Supreme Court ruling — allowing a New Mexico congregation to use a hallucinogenic tea in its religious rituals — in establishing precedent in religious-freedom law? If you read Wednesday’s Washington Post article, you would come away thinking the impact was minimal, but thankfully, the Internet gives us other sources of information. (GetReligion’s original post on the issue is here.)

Linda Greenhouse of The New York Times grasps the significance in the second paragraph of her report on the ruling:

With an opinion by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., the decision was one of the most significant applications of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 13-year-old federal statute that requires the government to meet a demanding test before it can enforce a law in a way that creates a substantial obstacle to religious observance.

That’s about it, though. The rest of the article, along with the Post article, focuses mostly on how the issue came before the Supreme Court and on Chief Justice John Roberts’ writing style (it’s refreshingly conversational and lacking in numerous footnotes, by the way).

The Los Angeles Times places the “victory for religious freedom” theme front and center and quotes K. Hollyn Hollman, the Baptist Joint Committee’s general counsel, who said the decision was “good news for religious freedom and the continuing vitality of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”

For more background on the ruling’s significance, turn to this Christianity Today article published this morning, which quotes several legal types in religious-freedom organizations. (Disclosure: a coauthor of this piece, Sarah Pulliam, is indeed my younger sister.)

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WashingtonPost.com catches a ghost

wikipedia2Every morning, my email includes a news digest from the Washington Post. The nice thing about WashingtonPost.com is that the administrative tools allow me to set up a decently nuanced set of filters beyond the usual “national,” “politics,” “sports” and other topics that MSM leaders think are important.

It will not shock you that one of my topics is “religion.” Lately, it seems — three cheers — that the filter has been getting better. Obviously, the system has been pointing me toward the obvious Godbeat stories that you know a major newspaper will cover, such as terrorists blowing up shrines, Vatican officials naming new cardinals and oldline Protestant leaders struggling with lifestyle issues. Sometimes, this net yields a truly unusual catch, like this look at a very different set of shrines, or Shriners.

Earlier this week, the following China story by Philip P. Pan showed up in my WashingtonPost.com “religion” offerings. As a mass media professor, I was hooked by the technology-shapes-content thesis captured in the double-deck headline: “Reference Tool On Web Finds Fans, Censors — After Flowering as Forum, Wikipedia Is Blocked Again.”

I dug in, assuming I would eventually hit the religion angle that the filters caught. Sure enough, there was a good one. What amazed me was how deep into the story I found what I was looking for. After all, free-speech fights always lead to matters of the soul and, thus, various offensive and “divisive” topics.

In early 2004, state-run newspapers began writing positive articles about the Chinese Wikipedia, and the coverage fueled further growth. By February, more than 3,000 people had registered as users and there were more than 5,000 entries. By April, the site was getting nearly 100,000 page requests per day. By May, the number of definitions on the site had climbed past 10,000.

Then, on June 3, 2004, people in China who tried to visit Wikipedia saw an error page instead. The government had blocked the site on the eve of the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

8884 CHINA INTERNET XGB109You can see how that would lead to problems.

Instead of backing down, the site attracted more users, and the debates intensified as people tried to hammer out their differences on subjects such as the banned Falun Gong spiritual movement, the one-child policy and even the Chinese Communist Party.

I assume that “Falun Gong” or “spiritual” was the trip point. I, for one, would have liked to have seen some reporting on how the open-forum Wikipedia site was handling Roman Catholicism in China or the gigantic evangelical house-church movement. But progress is progress. Amen.

Still, all of this reminded me of an evening back in June of 1997, when I attended a small conference in Hong Kong a few days before the handover of the province from Great Britain to China. Speaking off the record, a powerful newspaper executive in the region stressed that there were only two men in the world who truly threatened the Chinese authorities.

Of course, one of the visiting journalists immediately asked, “Who?”

He said, “Pope John Paul II and Bill Gates.”

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Rioters do not make good editors

1097517737460887800 jpg 200 1I know that the following op-ed piece isn’t hard news, but it is opinion about the shaping of the news. And I do think that some very interesting people are getting upset about the same things.

Be honest. Didn’t you do a bit of a double take when you saw a piece in the Washington Post with the headline “A Failure of the Press” and, lo and behold, it was topped with the byline “William J. Bennett and Alan M. Dershowitz”? Now that is a flash of diversity.

Sure enough, these two men do not agree on each and every issue when it comes to MSM coverage of the “war on terror.” Still, when it comes to the cartoon crisis, they do agree on some things — especially that, when it comes to the new press rules on not offending religious believers, some believers are more equal than others.

The Boston Globe, speaking for many other outlets, editorialized: “[N]ewspapers ought to refrain from publishing offensive caricatures of Mohammed in the name of the ultimate Enlightenment value: tolerance.”

But as for caricatures depicting Jews in the most medievally horrific stereotypes, or Christians as fanatics on any given issue, the mainstream press seems to hold no such value. And in the matter of disclosing classified information in wartime, the press competes for the scoop when it believes the public interest warrants it.

What has happened? To put it simply, radical Islamists have won a war of intimidation. They have cowed the major news media from showing these cartoons. The mainstream press has capitulated to the Islamists — their threats more than their sensibilities. One did not see Catholics claiming the right to mayhem in the wake of the republished depiction of the Virgin Mary covered in cow dung, any more than one saw a rejuvenated Jewish Defense League take to the street or blow up an office when Ariel Sharon was depicted as Hitler or when the Israeli army was depicted as murdering the baby Jesus.

This is familiar territory these days, but it is interesting to see a leader on the left stating this, as well as an angry alpha male on the right.

dersSo what, for the team of Bennett and Dershowitz, is the bottom line?

So far as we can tell, a new, twin policy from the mainstream media has been promulgated: (a) If a group is strong enough in its reaction to a story or caricature, the press will refrain from printing that story or caricature, and (b) if the group is pandered to by the mainstream media, the media then will go through elaborate contortions and defenses to justify its abdication of duty. At bottom, this is an unacceptable form of not-so-benign bigotry, representing a higher expectation from Christians and Jews than from Muslims.

… There should be no group or mob veto of a story that is in the public interest.

Now, if you want to see this thesis expressed in a more cynical, post-news, Comedy Central is our North Star kind of editorial feature, check out this essay by Bruce Feirstein at the New York Observer (which is not published by anyone on the cultural right, last time I checked). It seems that the new, improved and more faith-sensitive New York Times has a new “public editor,” and here is the top of his first column:

Allow me to introduce myself: I am Ali bin-Zabar, the new public editor of The New York Times. Reporting to no one but the Prophet himself, my goal here is not to defend “All the News That Fits,” but to make sure The Times publishes only “All the News That’s Halal.”

I think you get the idea.

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Shifting cartoon coverage

muslim protestsI’ve noticed a shift in the cartoon coverage and in many bloggers’ attitudes toward the image-inspired violence and arguments over whether the images should have been published by media organizations. This shift has been driven largely by events on the ground that are just too huge to ignore, particularly as the “Furor Over Cartoons Pits Muslim Against Muslim,” as a New York Times headline writer phrased it Tuesday.

As Muslims turn on Muslims, one can only imagine how this would drive Middle East reporters insane, unless they had a deep knowledge of issues relating to Islam and its culture. The NYT focuses on the compelling story of Jordanian journalist Jihad Momani and Yemen editorial writer Muhammad al-Assadi and their writings condemning the violence in response to the cartoons. Here are the key paragraphs that show the significance of these developments:

Mr. Momani and Mr. Assadi are among 11 journalists in five countries facing prosecution for printing some of the cartoons. Their cases illustrate another side of this conflict, the intra-Muslim side, in what has typically been defined as a struggle between Islam and the West.

The flare-up over the cartoons, first published in a Danish newspaper, has magnified a fault line running through the Middle East, between those who want to engage their communities in a direct, introspective dialogue and those who focus on outside enemies.

But it has also underscored a political struggle involving emerging Islamic movements, like Hamas in Gaza and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and Arab governments unsure of how to contain them.

“This has become a game between two sides, the extremists and the government,” said Tawakkul Karman, head of Women Journalists Without Constraints in Sana, Yemen. “They’ve made it so that if you stand up in this tidal wave, you have to face 1.5 billion Muslims.”

One thing this development is doing is putting to rest the idea that this conflict is somehow leading to a clash of civilizations. I posed the idea in this space two weeks ago, but I am beginning to realize that the cartoon controversy is nothing of the sort, as S. Brent Plate profoundly explains over at The Revealer:

First of all, in utilizing such a grandiose phrase as “clash of civilizations,” we (journalists and the rest of us) must remind ourselves of the rather small-scale nature of this current clash. As Juan Cole notes, the protests have, by and large, been limited. In general terms, the Muslim world numbers as much as 20% of the world’s population, so if major protests were to somehow be widespread among the Muslim population, every one of us would know about it — not through CNN, but by hearing screams and gunshots in our own backyards. I write this in Fort Worth, Texas, a place not typically thought of in relation to Islam, yet within a couple miles of here there are a half-dozen mosques, regularly attended by Muslims from North Africa, Arabia, Indonesia, and by U.S. Latinos and African-Americans. It is only a minority of Muslims who are of the Arabic race. Muslims, now and for much of history, are not the antithesis to the West, they are the West.

golden dome mosqueThe clash within Islam is even more apparent with the destruction of the golden-domed Shia shrine in Samarra early Wednesday morning. The attackers are still at large and unknown, but no matter, the incident is sparking reprisals and protests against Sunni Muslims. If the cartoon violence and protest was any measure, Iraq is about to become a very violent and dangerous place in the next week — not that it was not already a seething caldron — considering that the St. Peter’s Cathedral of the Shiite world has now been destroyed under the United States military’s watch.

Here’s the Independent‘s take:

In a number of respects civil war in Iraq has already begun. Many of the thousand bodies a month arriving in the morgues in Baghdad are of people killed for sectarian reasons. It is no longer safe for members of the three main communities the Sunni and Shia Arabs and the Kurds to visit each other’s parts of the country.

“Iraq is in a Weimar period like Germany in the 1920s which will either end with the country disintegrating or in an authoritarian government taking power,” said Ghassan Atiyyah, an Iraqi political commentator.

Was it not only a matter of time for an event of this magnitude to occur in Iraq? I would consider this one of the worst developments in the Iraq since we invaded, and it could end up setting back all the positives gained in the elections.

The article in the Independent is where I found the St. Peter’s/Golden-dome comparison. It certainly put the incident in a perspective with which I could relate. The Independent also gets the religious significance of this event when it comes to creating a sustainable government in Iraq. American papers seem to be focusing on reporting the who, what, where, when and how the bombing happened, rather than the so what? or why. Not a bad approach, considering the event did just happen, but it also can be limiting.

As it stands now, the stories posted on the New York Times and Washington Post websites do little to show the significance of the structure to Muslims. Perhaps this will change as the story progresses, but as it stands now, what is the average reader supposed to take from this story other than the massive headlines, words like “revered” and “holiest shrines” and, of course, statements from officials in Washington?

While the European press tends to be better about understanding the Middle East — as I pointed out here, I’m holding out hope that U.S. publications will get the significance. I guess we’ll see in the morning.

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Dawn Eden writes again

trump firedFor those interested in a GetReligion flashback, today’s Wall Street Journal op-ed page includes a review of the new book Fired! by actress Annabelle Gurwitch. The book sounds interesting, especially its list of 21 synonymns that people in power use in this sensitive age in place of the blunt words “You’re fired.”

However, what jumped out at me was the update — right in the middle of the review — on the backstory about the faith-based firing not that long ago of the review’s author. That would be Dawn Eden, the former superstar headline writer of the New York Post. If you want to catch up, click here for GetReligion material on the firing.

Here is Dawn’s account of her own journey into the white light of unemployment, which is a cautionary tale about all kinds of things — from not-so-tolerant libertarian editors (I speculate freely here) to the dangers of expressing one’s faith in the blogosphere.

On the day I got the ax as a copy editor, Col Allan, the editor in chief, called me into his office and told me that he was “very concerned” about my blog, where I discuss my beliefs as a Christian conservative. He then lowered the boom (those “fired” synonyms just keep coming). But the first intimation that something was up had come days earlier.

It was then that I got in trouble with my boss, and a Post reporter, by making changes in an article about in-vitro fertilization. I was merely trying to add factual balance. (When three embryos are implanted and two “take,” the third one — it seemed worth mentioning — “dies.”) The newspaper, however, thought that the changes reflected “rabid anti-abortion views,” as a Post gossip column would later put it. When my boss refused to fire me over the incident, the unsatisfied reporter found my blog, printed out certain passages and took them to the top brass.

The word then came down from on high: “When you give an interview, if you talk about being Christian, don’t mention that you work for the New York Post.” I agreed. But I had agreed to the same thing four months before, after I gave an interview to a media-gossip Web site and my comments had stirred concern at the paper. When Mr. Allan finally fired me, then, it wasn’t entirely clear whether the reason was my blog, my beliefs or my editing.

dawneden 01We have already had some lively discussions on this blog about the copy-desk issues involved in this firing. I should also mention that this is not the only story I have heard through the years in which talented journalists were shoved out the door in disputes about a newspaper’s lack of accuracy and balance in abortion coverage. Is there anyone else out there with tales that can be told without getting anyone, well, dismissed?

It’s the blog angle that struck me this time, because Dawn is, in fact, one really blunt blogger. I would imagine that she has very few fans at Planned Parenthood. As we would say in Texas, Dawn is a pistol. She also has, as we say here inside the Beltway, “fallen up” and is working as a copyeditor and columnist at the New York Daily News. Her love of a punchy headline also shows up in the title of her upcoming book on sex and singles, The Thrill of the Chaste.

So this leaves us with an old question: Do journalists have a right to talk about their faith, or their unbelief, for that matter, in the safety of cyberspace? How about in public speeches? Does it matter if this particular reporter is on the Godbeat or the political beat? Sadly, I would assume that the answer to this has more to do with the beliefs of the managing editor than of the framers of the Bill of Rights. Anyone want to talk about that? The topic comes up every few years at national gatherings of the Religion Newswriters Association.

Oh, and at the end of Eden’s WSJ review, check out her quip about Bill Maher’s venture into unintentional quotations from the Bible. Fun stuff.

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A new cartoon and a new crisis

Russian flag x2Under the best of circumstances, Russia does not have a fabulous record when it comes to freedom of the press.

Nevertheless, the closing of the city-owned Gorodskiye Vesti newspaper in Volgograd has shocked many journalists who fight hard to protect press rights. This case study also offers a new twist in the widening cartoon crisis. It is clear that the editors intended this cartoon as a statement against racism and in favor of religious toleration.

Here is a piece of reporter Kim Murphy’s story in the Los Angeles Times, which ran with the headline “Russian Paper Ordered Closed Over Religious Cartoon.”

The cartoon was not part of the series, first published by a Danish newspaper last fall and since widely reprinted, that has led to violent protests in many parts of the Muslim world. The Russian illustration portrays Muhammad, Jesus Christ, Moses and Buddha gathered around a television screen showing two groups going into battle.

“We never taught them to do that,” the caption says.

Although newspapers have been shut down and editors fired in connection with the cartoon controversy in places as diverse as the middle East and Malaysia, the Russian newspaper appeared to be the first closure of a paper in a nation without a Muslim majority. Russia has about 20 million Muslims, about 15% of the population.

The New York Times’ report by Steven Lee Myers has another detail or two, including the fact that Moses is the speaker in the caption. It is also interesting to note that the image shows a clash between two groups of rioters. At the moment, the violent protests against the Danish cartoons have been one-sided. There have been some peaceful counter-demonstrators and, in some cases, authorities have cracked down on them rather than the crowds, or even mobs, protesting the cartoons.

“Well, we did not teach them that,” Moses says in a caption as the four watch a television set showing two groups confronting each other with banners and clubs and hurling stones. The cartoon appeared on Page 5, accompanying an article on an agreement signed by regional political parties and organizations to combat nationalism, xenophobia and religious conflicts.

Volgograd’s first deputy mayor, Andrei O. Doronin, announced the closing of the newspaper, Gorodskiye Vesti, or City News, “in order not to inflame ethnic hostilities,” according to the official Russian Information Agency. He gave the newspaper a month to liquidate its assets, leaving the fate of its staff unclear.

“Ethnic hostilities”? Is that the theme here?

It could be that the closure of this newspaper is rooted in local politics, as much or more than in global tensions. But there is no positive spin to put on this story. Shutting down a newspaper or a broadcast station is a radical act, no matter where it takes place. After all, no one expected to see governments flinch in Europe, either.

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