Not getting it, again

nytIt’s not the first time I’ve written about The New York Times not getting it. Sadly, this is not the first time the NYT has missed it (remember the Holocaust).

So says Andrew Sullivan:

So we now discover that the hideously offensive and blasphemous cartoons — so blasphemous that CNN, the New York Times, and the Washington Post won’t publish them … were reprinted last October. In Egypt. On the front frigging page. No one rioted. No editor at Al Fager was threatened. So it’s official: the Egyptian state media is less deferential to Islamists than the New York Times. So where were the riots in Cairo? This whole affair is a contrived, manufactured attempt by extremist Muslims to move the goal-posts on Western freedom. They’re saying: we determine what you can and cannot print; and there’s a difference between what Muslims can print and what infidels can print. And, so far, much of the West has gone along. In this, well-meaning American editors have been played for fools and cowards. Maybe if they’d covered the murders of von Gogh and Fortuyn more aggressively they’d have a better idea of what’s going on; and stared down this intimidation. The whole business reminds me of the NYT‘s coverage of the Nazis in the 1930s. They didn’t get the threat then. They don’t get it now.

I’ve become more and more convinced of the importance of this issue. After some thought, I don’t feel, like Sullivan, that the NYT or the Post should print these cartoons. It would only inflame the situation and accomplish little.

But it does matter that extremist Muslims have been able to whip up a huge frenzy over how the Danes — I repeat, the Danes — have allegedly insulted an entire religion and now this group, whoever they may be, are attempting to make a free democratic state bow to their wishes.

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Clash of uncivilized cartoons

B0000A03KN 01 LZZZZZZZEarlier this week, the divine Ms. M weighed in on the escalating story of the cartoon caricatures of Muhammad and the raging reaction in the Islamic world. Frankly, I must confess that I am feeling overwhelmed with all the coverage of this out-of-control story.

However, we are seeing some interesting patterns in the emerging MSM coverage of the story, which, to me, suggests that debates are now raging in major newsrooms. Questions that, for many months, have only been asked and debated in conservative publications are now breaking out into the mainstream.

Start by reading Tim Rutten’s Regarding Media commentary in the Los Angeles Times. It is a good thing for the media to take seriously what happens when news and commentary material offend people of faith. But is this a new issue? Rutten notes:

All this would be slightly more edifying if it didn’t reflect the destructive and dangerous double standard that the Western nations routinely observe when it comes to the government-controlled media in Islamic states. There the media is routinely rife with the vilest sort of hate directed at Jews and, less often, Christians. The “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” remain widely available in countries where nothing is published without government permission, and quotations from that infamous forgery are a staple of commentaries published across the Middle East. In recent years, government-owned television stations in Egypt and Syria have broadcast dramas that repeat the blood libel.

Where were the united and implacable Western demands for apologies?

Then there is the “Clash Over Cartoons Is a Caricature Of Civilization” essay by Philip Kennicott in the Washington Post. I read the lead of this story several times before I realized that he was not trying to be funny or ironic.

No serious American newspaper would commission images of Jesus that were solely designed to offend Christians. And if one did, the reaction would be swift and certain. Politicians would take to the floors of Congress and call down thunder on the malefactors. Some Christians would react with fury and boycotts and flaming e-mails that couldn’t be printed in a family newspaper; others would react with sadness, prayer and earnest letters to the editor. There would be mayhem, though it is unlikely that semiautomatic weapons would be brandished in the streets. Fortunately, it’s not likely to happen, because good newspapers are governed, in their use of images, by the basic principle of news value.

316 got rod stewartSay what?! Various forms of American mass media have featured many cartoons that traditional Christian believers have found offensive and mainstream editors have defended their publication — as they should — as freedom of the press. But wait, what do the words “solely designed” mean? Is Kennicott claiming that the Danish cartoonists who created the 12 images that are causing riots and bloodshed had no larger political or even religious point to make? They were not being offensive for a reason?

Meanwhile, Kennicott is sure about one thing — religious fundamentalists think this is a religious conflict and, thus, the religious fundamentalists on both sides may get what they want. Clearly, the Rev. Jerry Falwell will begin leading riots protesting South Park any day now.

… (When) forced to an impasse, the cartoon battle becomes exactly what ideologues in both worlds would like it to be: a proxy for the Clash of Civilizations. …

Religious fundamentalism forced the issue; political fundamentalism inflamed it. An apology for giving offense is now capitulation to religious tyranny; the basic instinct of moderation is equated with cowardice. A little ink on paper is inflated to proof of a basic cultural incompatibility. So political leaders here speak of “the long war,” a conflict with no sign of hope on the horizon between East and West. Now, rather absurdly, these cartoons may become part of the intellectual hardening of thought that will sustain the idea, on both sides of the cultural divide.

Meanwhile, speaking of war, the website has been carrying a wave of disturbing reports about the escalation of verbal violence on the other side of the Atlantic.

Let me stress that these reports include the obvious — that the hate speech linked to these cartoons is coming from Muslims who are often opposed by other Muslims. We are, yet again, seeing signs of fissures within the Islamic communities in these lands.

But it is also hard to ignore that the Islamists are actually saying. Who is talking about this being “a war”? Here is one update. There are too many more to mention. Late this past week:

… Mullah Krekar, the alleged leader of the Islamist group Ansar al-Islam who has been living in Norway as a refugee since 1991, said that the publication of the Muhammad cartoons was a declaration of war. “The war has begun,” he told Norwegian journalists. Mr Krekar said Muslims in Norway are preparing to fight. “It does not matter if the governments of Norway and Denmark apologize, the war is on.”

Islamist organizations all over the world are issuing threats towards Europeans. The Islamist terrorist group Hizbollah announced that it is preparing suicide attacks in Denmark and Norway. A senior imam in Kuwait, Nazem al-Masbah, said that those who have published cartoons of Muhammad should be murdered. He also threatened all citizens of the countries where the twelve Danish cartoons … have been published with death.

I think editors are having trouble pinning “hate speech” labels on their meddia counterparts in Europe. Yet that means that the Islamists must be wrong. What to do? Who to blame? You know that legions of editorial-page editors are praying that Pat Robertson will say something amazing and bail them out.

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Bono’s “homily”

bonoI’m waiting for some smart person out there to dissect Bono’s sermon Thursday morning at the National Prayer Breakfast for its theological implications and political ramifications.

I somehow ended up at the event along with Bono and his red-tinted sunglasses. I was hoping against all hopes that President Bush or his wife Laura would ask to try them on. I sure wanted to. All I can say is that Bono is a rock star for a reason. He certainly knows how to capture an audience at a charge of nearly $100 a pop.

The event garnered little attention in The Washington Post: this Associated Press report was turned around into a Reliable Source note that included this quote and a “tithing” explainer:

If you’re wondering what I’m doing here, at a prayer breakfast, well, so am I. I’m certainly not here as a man of the cloth, unless that cloth is leather. It’s certainly not because I’m a rock star. Which leaves one possible explanation: I’m here because I’ve got a messianic complex.

It’s easy to cast doubt on Bono’s sincerity. Celebrities are easy to criticize for lacking genuine motivations. But what person that has reached an international stage other than Mother Teresa can claim genuine sincerity? Can any of us truly do a work of charity out of a pure heart? Bono certainly does not shy away from admitting that he is using his rock star status to get into important people’s faces about international problems (thanks to this website for providing a transcript:

Well, I’m the first to admit that there’s something unnatural … something unseemly … about rock stars mounting the pulpit and preaching at presidents, and then disappearing to their villas in the South of France. Talk about a fish out of water. It was weird enough when Jesse Helms showed up at a U2 concert … but this is really weird, isn’t it?

You know, one of the things I love about this country is its separation of church and state. Although I have to say: in inviting me here, both church and state have been separated from something else completely: their mind.

Mr. President, are you sure about this?

It’s very humbling and I will try to keep my homily brief. But be warned — I’m Irish.

I’d like to talk about the laws of man, here in this city where those laws are written. And I’d like to talk about higher laws. It would be great to assume that the one serves the other; that the laws of man serve these higher laws … but of course, they don’t always. And I presume that, in a sense, is why you’re here.

And with that, Bono launched into his “homily” on how the laws of the United States should be in line with what he believes are God’s laws: justice and equality. Last time I checked there were more like 10 laws and the concept of loving your neighbor. Bono said to do this the United States should tithe an additional one percent of the national budget towards international aid:

I was amazed when I first got to this country and I learned how much some churchgoers tithe. Up to ten percent of the family budget. Well, how does that compare the federal budget, the budget for the entire American family? How much of that goes to the poorest people in the world? Less than one percent.

Mr. President, Congress, people of faith, people of America: I want to suggest to you today that you see the flow of effective foreign assistance as tithing … Which, to be truly meaningful, will mean an additional one percent of the federal budget tithed to the poor.

Sounds nice, but 1 percent is something like $26 billion and what international aide organization is going to manage that type of cash? Certainly not the United Nations. Maybe Bono’s up to the challenge.

This speech wasn’t destined for the front pages. The Washington Times sent a reporter to the event and Christianity Today produced a thorough report.

But at an event that was purposefully interfaith for the first time in its history, the speech kept the audience that included senators, Congress members, ambassadors and foreign dignitaries spellbound. Bono provided the message with which everyone could resonate. And did anyone there remember a word President Bush said?

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In gods we trust

ribbon2Every year since 1953, an extremely mysterious Christian group called The Fellowship has hosted a National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. At $400+ a pop, tickets for the breakfast are some of the hottest in town (don’t worry, it’s free on C-SPAN for us plebeians). Leaders of Christian groups across the country make sure to attend, as do dignitaries from around the world. Every president has attended for the last 50 years. Tables are full of senators and Congress members.

In any case, the Associated Press’ Frederic Frommer reports on a dramatic change with this year’s event, being held this morning:

WASHINGTON — The annual National Prayer Breakfast will be co-chaired by Sen. Norm Coleman, the first time in memory that a Jew will lead the gathering, and at a time when some rabbis have expressed misgivings about what they see as the event’s overtly Christian tone. . . .

Coleman, a Minnesota Republican, raised some eyebrows himself at last year’s breakfast when he said, “I have a profound respect for the tangibility and accessibility of God that my colleagues find in Jesus.”

A New Jersey rabbi in attendance, Shmuel Goldin, was taken aback by that, and by registration material that said “Jesus Christ transcends all religions.” He wrote to Coleman to express his concerns.

So a private Christian group hosts a popular prayer breakfast and has now decided to make it overtly interfaith. The article also says that Coleman is making sure that there will be no explicitly Christian pamphlets.

I find it endlessly fascinating that stories like presume there are no problems with Christian organizations or functions becoming interfaith. My Lutheran peeps abhor events like this — not only because they tend to confuse the religious and political spheres but because they always require a watering down of religious doctrines. We’re Lutheran for a reason and we don’t believe that all paths are equally valid, contrary to the predominant American viewpoint. People think we’re awful and horribly unpatriotic because of this. Fox News’ theological heavyweight Bill O’Reilly once accused us of not being Christian on account of our views against participating in civil religious gatherings. Opposition to syncretism is hardly unique to Lutherans and yet the folks who find Druid drum circles to be an unseemly addition to Vespers are invisible to many reporters.

Anyway, the article goes on to repeatedly quote the rabbi wondering why there were so many references to Jesus at last year’s breakfast if the prayer event was nondenominational. Beyond the vagueness of the term nondenominational (which makes a great argument against its use by anyone at any time), does an event hosted by an evangelical, if secretive, Christian group need to include adherents of other religions? Let’s see:

Foundation officials referred questions to former Rep. Jim Slattery, D-Kan., who conceded that phrases such as “spirit of Jesus” could be offensive to Jews but noted the significance of Coleman’s role this year.

“It makes a statement that this is an event for Jews and Muslims and Christians and Hindus and Buddhists,” said Slattery, who has worked with the foundation on the breakfast.

Well there you go. Pray to whichever god or gods you want. As long as you have similar political objectives, it’s all good.

In order to even begin making sense of this story, reporters simply must understand and inform readers how this National Prayer Breakfast embodies civil religion, as opposed to the Christian religion. Religion professor Rowland Sherrill defined civil religion as “the mysterious way that religion, politics, ideas of nationhood, patriotism, etc. — energized by faith outlooks — represent a national force.”

pancakeExamples of civil religion include the invocation of a non-specific God at political events (“God bless America!”) and the quotation or reference of sacred texts in political speeches. We are quite accustomed to biblical references, but President Bush has begun including the Koran in his political rhetoric. His second inaugural highlighted the truths of the Koran, for instance. He called Islam a “noble faith” at his most recent State of the Union speech. Civil religion has its own hymns, such as the Star Spangled Banner, and venerates past political leaders and deceased veterans of wars. Since the terrorist attacks of 2001, the nation has seen a rise in religious events gathered by political leaders. These events have become increasingly interfaith.

The changes happening to this breakfast gathering this morning are emblematic of the changes happening with American civil religion, and highlight the need for reporters to study this pervasive phenomenon. For an absolutely excellent primer on civil religion, try this one prepared specifically for reporters by FACS.

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Depicting Muhammad

kanyeYes, Kanye West posed as Jesus Christ on the cover of Rolling Stone. And, like he’s a Pat Robertson-in-training, the grandstanding worked. Media outlets splashed the news everywhere. So it was nice to see the way Rashod Ollison analyzed young Kanye for the Baltimore Sun:

Perhaps he meant it as a symbol of personal suffering. Maybe he wanted to present young hip-hop heads with an updated image of the Son of God. Whatever his motives, Kanye West again has accomplished what he set out to do: Get people to talk.

About him.

On the cover of February’s Rolling Stone, which hit news stands last week, the brash, egomaniacal rapper-producer poses as Jesus Christ. In the profile shot, he wears a crown of thorns. Blood runs down his face; his expression conveys anguish, vulnerability, a steely resilience.

It’s all so pedestrian, humorless and downright boring.

Exactly. And please note the scary Rolling Stone headline about God’s Senator while you’re at it. Remember when that magazine was actually cool? It hasn’t been since Hunter S. Thompson’s liver finally got larger than his cranium and they put P.J. O’Rourke out to pasture. Of course, for a long time now rock and roll culture has been less about subverting authority and more about moving units, so a minor controversy over disrespecting a tolerant religion is a valued as marketing ploy rather rather than a daring artistic decision. But as a few pundits noted, if Kanye wanted to be really rebellious, he would pose as Muhammad. Then we would see where the rubber meets the road when it comes to real artistic conviction.

Plays and movies mocking or blaspheming Islam, as opposed to Christianity, are almost unheard of. Movies praising Islam, even, are difficult to make. Syrian-born director Moustapha Akkad, who was killed a few months ago in the terrorist bombing in Jordan, faced extreme opposition for The Message, for instance. (Random political trivia: former mayor, then councilman, Marion Barry was shot in 1977 in a hostage situation where Muslim radicals made demands against the movie.)

Which brings us to the present and the huge story on other continents about the decision of a Danish newspaper to run political cartoons that made a humongous error in the eyes of Muslims. They contained images of Muhammad. All images of Muhammad are prohibited in Islam, but these cartoons were of the Ted Rall variety rather than the Marmaduke variety.

In response, masked gunmen stormed an EU office in Gaza. Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Denmark. Libya closed its embassy in the Danish capital. Palestinians burnt Danish flags while Hamas and Hezbollah and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood demanded an apology. Former President Bill Clinton told Davos attendees that he worried anti-Islam sentiment would replace anti-Semitism and condemned “these totally outrageous cartoons against Islam.” The Danish newspaper received a bomb threat. Boycotts have cost Danish companies $55 million.

messageAs I said, big story. Deutsch Welle had a good update that also provided some perspective about EU concerns over freedom of the press and protection of fundamental religious values. It even mentioned media issues:

Arab League Secretary General Amr Mussa, in Tunis for a meeting of Arab interior ministers, decried the “double standards” in the European media.

“We see double standards in the European media, which is fearful of being accused of anti-Semitism but which invokes freedom of expression for a caricature on Islam,” Mussa told reporters.

Most Arab governments have vocally condemned the series of 12 cartoons, which show the prophet as a wild-eyed knife-wielding Bedouin flanked by two women shrouded in black.

It’s fascinating to note how the Arab League leader notes the standards of European media in his attempt to sway political opinion. Fascinating because, of course, the standards for religious tolerance in Muslim news outlets likely would not merit Western sympathy. I also found this passage from the Khaleej Times to be illuminating:

Qatar-based scholar, Dr Yousuf Al Qaradawi, has urged the United Nations to act to prevent the defamation of the prophets or religious figures from any religion, anywhere in the world. He was speaking in Arabic on Qatar Television. “We Muslims consider it as a major crime to abuse or denigrate any prophet, including Jesus and Moses. Any Muslim who is doing this will not continue as a Muslim,” Qaradawi is reported to have said.

It would be nice for reporters to ask other Muslim scholars if this is true. Do Muslims consider it a major crime to denigrate Jesus and other religious figures? Have they commented on the Rolling Stone cover, for instance? Are Muslims decrying anti-Semitic comments from Hamas leaders?

Reporters should also explain why Muslims are demanding that the Danish government apologize for the actions of a few of its citizens. A guided tutorial through the Koran would give reporters a lot of information about Muslim views on the separation of mosque and state.

And reporters and editors in this country should show a bit more interest in this story. It won’t just be Denmark where Western views of freedom of the press run up against Islam’s desire to protect its major prophet. And I’m not just saying that because I am afraid to put up a picture of Muhammad.

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Pat Robertson has a bad week

grimAfter several days of silence, I wanted to let GetReligion readers know that, yes, we have been following all of the Pat Robertson news. The MSM coverage has, however, been rather straightforward and there was not much to comment on.

We certainly saw the New York Times story stressing that Robertson’s controversial statement about Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon might undercut plans for an evangelical tourism complex in the hills near the Sea of Galilee.

Actually, it was the edgy — some would even say snarky — Sunday Times article that caught my attention. Here’s a sample:

Ministers in Jerusalem were furious after the millionaire preacher suggested that the Israeli Prime Minister suffered a stroke in divine retribution for carving up the Holy Land in withdrawing from Gaza.

The future of the project, nicknamed Jesusland and criticised by some for commercialism in an area of undeveloped rolling hills, is now hanging in the balance. Mr. Robertson released a statement saying that he was merely pointing out the Old Testament perspective on the division of Israel.

Truth be told, I would have liked to have known who created the “Jesusland” label. Was it someone in the Israeli government or at the Sunday Times copy desk?

Then, yes, we followed the Robertson statements that led up to his hand-delivered letter of apology to Sharon. How do you hand deliver a letter to a man in a coma? To read the actual letter, click here and then here. We also saw the White House statement slamming Robertson.

But if you were looking for responses to what Robertson said, I thought it was interesting that Baptist Press released a lengthy article this week by the Rev. Paige Patterson, one of the czars of the conservative era in Southern Baptist Life, entitled “Does Israel still matter?” The goal of the essay, it seemed, was to spell out some of the basic beliefs held by the leaders of America’s largest non-Catholic flock, rather than let people assume that what Robertson was saying was the norm. Maybe there was no connection. But I thought the timing was interesting.

Through it all, many people kept talking about Robertson himself and the question of whether or not he remains a major, symbolic leader among mainstream conservatives and evangelicals. At one point, Dallas Morning News religion-beat scribe Jeffrey “Got Jeff?” Weiss sent out and note to his reader listserv that said, in part:

So does Mr. Robertson have less support today than he did a couple of decades back? Did we pay too much attention to him then? Not enough now? Vice versa?

Here what I’m asking from the list: Are you a fan of Pat Robertson? Do you have a relative or friend who is a fan? Maybe you used to like him but have been turned off by some of his statements? Or vice versa? Or you know someone in either of those positions?

However, I think that many people are missing the point of what Robertson said and why so many traditional Christians are so angry about it.

The key is not God’s point of view on Israeli real estate, although that is a hot topic. And people are not rejecting Robertson’s belief that God can judge the actions of men and women in the modern world. The key to all of this is the religious broadcaster’s suggestion — in this case and others — that he, Pat Robertson, can know and proclaim the will and the mind of God on mysteries of this kind.

Thus, I began my weekly Scripps Howard News Service column this way:

Once again, inquiring media minds wanted to know: Does the Rev. Pat Robertson’s telephone actually have a speed-dial button for the angel of death?

Which brings us to the real question: Has anyone seen anyone calling a press conference to express support for Robertson on this point? Has anyone seen a good news story in which major Christian leaders speak up to defend him or what he is saying?

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Back to our “no comment” department

Here we go again. Click here. Then click here, again and again. Then leave your comments. Your friends at GetReligion will attempt to read them if we have the strength.

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When is a leak a leak?

faucetI’ve spent a great deal of time researching media coverage of the Air Force Academy scandal that erupted last April. The press accounts, woefully one-sided, indicate that evangelical Christians are running roughshod over the rights of everyone else at the Academy.

Allegations range from the horrible — a Jewish cadet being called a slur by an unidentified classmate — to the perfectly legal in a country that protects religious freedom — Christian chaplains preaching Christian doctrine at voluntary Protestant worship services.

When the story broke nationwide last April — there had been a smattering of mostly-local coverage prior — it broke because two of the three major players in the story leaked it to the media. I know this because one of them admitted it after the fact — not because I read it any of the breathless Associated Press or Los Angeles Times coverage. The coverage also preceded the release of a report from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State — but included the same information as was contained therein. Communication between Americans United and the press were not revealed.

Yesterday, a separate player — one on the other side of the imbroglio — leaked some inconsequential information related to the case. Do media reports mention how the information was obtained? Let’s take a look at the Rocky Mountain News:

First, there was the joke, e-mailed Wednesday night. Then, the cordial reply: “looooong time no chat, bro . . .”

By Thursday, the e-mail exchange had escalated into a war of words between evangelical Christian leader Ted Haggard of Colorado Springs, who sent the joke, and activist Mikey Weinstein of Albuquerque, who is fighting what he calls religious proselytizing in the military.

The exchange took on added dimensions when Haggard’s office called the media Thursday to publicize it.

“An ambush — a cowardly ambush,” Weinstein said of the release of the e-mail exchange.

As a reporter who covers the federal bureaucracy, I would be dead in the water without leaks. When people leak to me, I assume they are doing so for a reason. That’s because they are. Revealing information due to personal conviction or to make your side in a dispute look better is, for better or worse, universal. But reporters only mention it some of the time.

chapelMedia folks need to develop some consistency in treating how they obtain information — especially considering that in this story, everyone involved was sharing the information far and wide:

Weinstein also distributed the e-mails — but only to supporters on his e-mail list. “I did not send them to the media,” he said.

Another thing that has intrigued me about the coverage is the failure to give a full picture of Weinstein, the man suing the Air Force. He is always referred to as a former Reagan official, an Albuquerque attorney and father of two Air Force Academy cadets. And those things are true. He is also a member of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, often refers to the movie The Passion of the Christ as the Jesus Chainsaw Murders or Freddy vs. Jesus, thinks that Academy leaders take their direction on evangelism directly from the White House and believes Christian cadets should be prevented from telling others they are going to hell if they don’t believe in Christ. Each of those views is perfectly legitimate for Weinstein to offer, but when they are concealed, it’s difficult for readers to understand Weinstein’s interesting religious motivation in the dispute.

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