Acceptable lies and the New York Times

The New York Times has an extraordinary article that extols the virtues of lying and doublespeak in a recent “Memo from Jerusalem.” Well, you might ask, what of it? How does a dodgy story on the Arab-Israeli conflict fall within the ambit of GetReligion? What is the religion/journalism hook you ask?

To which I respond: lying is a sin or bad manners or ethically challenged behavior from a Western perspective. Lying is not always a sin in Islam — that is to say lying to non-Muslims is not a sin, bad manners or ethically challenged behavior. The Times ties itself in knots trying to excuse lying by the Palestinians, even going so far as to raise instances of Israelis behaving badly. However, the moral equivalence argument expressed in the Times-patented insouciant world-weary tone, which holds that as both sides are dissemblers we should not cast aspersions, does not work here.

Ignorance of Islamic moral standards, or perhaps the reluctance to raise the precept of taqiyya has placed the Times in the position of endorsing cant.

Take a look at this 20 Dec 2011 article entitled “Finding Fault in the Palestinian Messages That Aren’t So Public.” The editorial voice of the story states that news agencies that translate into English the statements made in Arabic by Palestinian leaders are doing a disservice to the cause of peace.

The Times argues that statements in English that are tailored to a Western audience by Palestinian leaders that speak of peace and reconciliation should not be juxtaposed against by statements made in Arabic by the same Palestinian leaders to their constituencies that call for the destruction of Israel and death to Jews.

The article begins by observing that:

A new book by an Israeli watchdog group catalogs dozens of examples of messages broadcast by the Palestinian Authority for its domestic audience that would seem at odds with the pursuit of peace and a two-state solution.

This claim is “not new” the Times notes. As:

For years, many Israeli and Palestinian analysts have said that what Palestinian leaders tell their own people in their own language — as opposed to English-language statements tailored to opinion in the rest of the world — is the truest reflection of their actual beliefs. This has had the effect of further entrenching the sides to the conflict and undermining confidence that it can ever be resolved.

Let’s stop and think about what the Times has just said. It is true, the article concedes, that Palestinian political leaders are saying one thing to the West and another to their own people. The lede sentence in the story soft peddles the results of this lying: it “would seem at odds” with the peace process. However, the follow up sentence states this explicitly: it has had “the effect of further entrenching” Palestinian revanchist views.

The article quotes one of the lead authors of the study on Palestinian media doublespeak on why this is problematic, but the story then pivots with a sentence that sets the theme and context of the article.

Some Israelis struggle with the practice of monitoring the Palestinian news media, acknowledging the importance of knowing what is being said in Arabic, yet disturbed by how its dissemination is exploited by those not eager to see Israel make concessions.

The article offers examples of this doublespeak, but then introduces contrary Israeli and Palestinian voices that criticize the book. This criticism, however, is not that the results of the study are untrue, but that these truths are inconvenient to the political agenda of the Israeli left, which the Times also conflates as being co-equal to the cause of peace.

The Times then offers its critque.

Some of the examples publicized by the Israeli monitoring group are old ones that have been repeated over the years, and some of its interpretations are arguable.

A Palestinian critique is offered.

“This is not a serious attempt to solve the problem of incitement,” said Ghassan Khatib, the spokesman for the Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank. Mr. Khatib said that the authority had significantly reduced the level of incitement on the Palestinian side in recent years. “The question is,” he said, “are the Israelis improving or reversing in this regard?”

And the story concludes with voices from the Israeli left.

“There is peace making and there is peace building,” said Itamar Rabinovich, who served as Israel’s chief negotiator with Syria and as Israel’s ambassador in Washington, explaining why the contentious messages in Arabic are so damaging. The lack of peace building, he said, is part of the failure of the Oslo peace process that began with accords signed in 1993 but has not yet produced a Palestinian state.

In one of the most egregious examples of Palestinian doublespeak, Yasir Arafat spoke in a mosque in South Africa in May 1994, only months after the signing of the Oslo accords, and called on the worshipers “to come and to fight and to start the jihad to liberate Jerusalem.”

As the ambassador to Washington at the time, Mr. Rabinovich said he found himself in the awkward position of having to explain to anyone who would listen that jihad, usually translated as holy war, could also mean a spiritual struggle, in order to justify continuing the peace process.

Still, he said, it is not by chance that those focusing on Palestinian incitement and publicizing it are “rightist groups who use it as ammunition.”

Where is the religion hook then? It comes in the form of a religion ghost — meaning that there is a religion element to this story that is omitted. And this omission is crucial, I believe, in understanding the story.

As it is written, the Times piece is a defense of sophistry and comes across as being morally dubious at best. By excusing the doublespeak the Times engages in the “soft bigotry of low expectations” — to quote a favorite of its editorial board, President George W. Bush. It belittles those who expose this duplicity by arguing that truth telling will block a two-state solution.

Are the Palestinians masters of moral duplicity then, as the Times would have us believe? Or are they acting according to the lights of their own moral and ethical system?

Writing in the Winter edition of the Middle East Quarterly, Raymond Ibrahim discusses the concept of dissimulation [taqiyya] in Shia and Sunni ethics.

While the Qur’an is against believers deceiving other believers—for “surely God guides not him who is prodigal and a liar”– deception directed at non-Muslims, generally known in Arabic as taqiyya, also has Qur’anic support and falls within the legal category of things that are permissible for Muslims.

Ibrahim explains that Shia communities living as minorities in Sunni areas were permitted to dissemble about their religion in order to avoid persecution. But among the Sunni community,

… far from suffering persecution have, whenever capability allowed, waged jihad against the realm of unbelief; and it is here that they have deployed taqiyya—not as dissimulation but as active deceit. In fact, deceit, which is doctrinally grounded in Islam, is often depicted as being equal—sometimes superior—to other universal military virtues, such as courage, fortitude, or self-sacrifice.

Palestinian leaders have used taqiyya in their war with Israel. In an incident dismissed in the Times article as being “old” news, Ibrahim reports on a speech by Yasser Arafat that offers an example of this strategy.

More recently, and of great significance for Western leaders advocating cooperation with Islamists, Yasser Arafat, soon after negotiating a peace treaty criticized as conceding too much to Israel, addressed an assembly of Muslims in a mosque in Johannesburg where he justified his actions: “I see this agreement as being no more than the agreement signed between our Prophet Muhammad and the Quraysh in Mecca.”  In other words, like Muhammad, Arafat gave his word only to annul it once “something better” came along—that is, once the Palestinians became strong enough to renew the offensive and continue on the road to Jerusalem.

The implications of this way of thinking offend Western sensibilities, Ibrahim writes.

Yet most Westerners continue to think that Muslim mores, laws, and ethical constraints are near identical to those of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Naively or arrogantly, today’s multiculturalist leaders project their own worldview onto Islamists, thinking a handshake and smiles across a cup of coffee, as well as numerous concessions, are enough to dismantle the power of God’s word and centuries of unchanging tradition. The fact remains: Right and wrong in Islam have little to do with universal standards but only with what Islam itself teaches—much of which is antithetical to Western norms.

What then are we to make of this story about Palestinian doublespeak? The Times concedes it exists, but down plays its importance and gives prominence of place in its article to those who see the exposure of lies as being harmful to the cause of peace.

Would ascribing all divergence between what the Palestinian leaders say to the West and what they tell their own people to taqiyya answer the questions raised in this story? Or does cant play a role in any of this? What say you GetReligion readers?

But where ever the line may be found between lying to advance the faith and cant, the omission of this religion element to the story by the Times does a disservice to its readers.


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On Egypt: Trying to predict the future votes

Your GetReligionistas have the luxury — which we welcome — of doing our work in the past tense.

Our goal (statement of intent here) is to look at examples of how the mainstream press covers religion news. We try to praise the good, spot some of the ghost-shaped holes and, on occasion, attempt to correct some errors.

It would be much harder, of course, to do this work ahead of the actual coverage.

However, that is what a religious-liberty advocate named Samuel Tadros — a former leader in the Egyptian Union of Liberal Youth — did the other day, writing on behalf of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. Yes, I know that it’s a conservative think tank. You can tell that it’s conservative because it exists to defend the religious liberties of minorities, such as progressive Muslims, Baha’is, Christians, Jews, etc., a task that is properly linked to traditional liberalism. Be patient for a moment and read what he had to say — in future tense.

Note that this article ran at National Review Online on Nov. 28, under the headline, “What to Watch For in the Egyptian Elections.” That headline is a bit misleading. It should have been called, “What to Watch For in the Press Coverage of the Egyptian Elections.”

Here are his first two points:

1. The question is not whether the Islamists will win, but what the size of their victory is going to be. Contrary to the earlier narrative propagated by the Western media, the Islamist victory will not be in the 30–40 percent range. It is quite apparent to anyone that has been paying attention that their victory will be nothing short of a tsunami.

2. The real battle is not going to be between the Islamists and the imagined liberals. The struggle in most Egyptian governates will be between the Muslim Brotherhood’s Democratic Alliance and the more radical Salafist Islamic Alliance.

Noting that these early elections are actually in liberal, urban, multicultural strongholds, Tadros predicted:

If the Islamists manage to get 50 percent of this round, we should expect their overall to be in the 65 percent range.

By all means, read it all. Then click here to read the latest New York Times reporting from Cairo by a reporter who is one of the Gray Lady’s strongest assets, David D. Kirkpatrick. The headline: “Early Results in Egypt Show a Mandate for Islamists.”

Pay close attention to the numbers in this summary near the top:

The party formed by the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s mainstream Islamist group, appeared to have taken about 40 percent of the vote, as expected. But a big surprise was the strong showing of ultraconservative Islamists, called Salafis, many of whom see most popular entertainment as sinful and reject women’s participation in voting or public life.

Analysts in the state-run news media said early returns indicated that Salafi groups could take as much as a quarter of the vote, giving the two groups of Islamists combined control of nearly 65 percent of the parliamentary seats.

That victory came at the expense of the liberal parties and youth activists who set off the revolution, affirming their fears that they would be unable to compete with Islamists who emerged from the Mubarak years organized and with an established following.

There was a “big surprise”? That depends on who you were reading before the election.

Near the very bottom of this very dense and newsy report there was this ominous note:

Some members of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority — about 10 percent of the population — joked Wednesday that they would prepare to leave the country. Previously protected by Mr. Mubarak’s patronage, many have dreaded the Islamists’ talk of protecting the Islamic character of Egypt. Some Brotherhood leaders often repeat that they believe citizenship is an equal right of all regardless of sect, even chanting at some campaign rallies that Copts are also “sons of Egypt.” But Salafis more often declare that Christians should not fear Islamic law because it requires the protection of religious minorities, an explanation that many Christians feel assigns them second-class status.

Most Copts voted for the liberal Egyptian bloc, which was vying for second place with the Salafis in some reports.

In other words, this liberal bloc was vying for second in urban Egypt. And in the rest of the nation, far from the liberal strongholds that drove the Arab Spring? Results there will be even easier to predict.

Here is my one major criticism of this early Times report. It could have been improved, as my old college mentor used to say, with scissors and tape. A key element need to be moved higher.

Remember this sentence mentioned earlier?

But a big surprise was the strong showing of ultraconservative Islamists, called Salafis, many of whom see most popular entertainment as sinful and reject women’s participation in voting or public life.

That paragraph needed to include another issue, another example of traditional Islamist doctrine. It needed to include the word “dhimmitude,” with some explanation of the submissive state that almost certainly awaits some minorities under an Islamist coalition government. At this point, it is also important to remember the hard numbers in the Pew Research Center survey released last April. As I summarized that survey for Scripps Howard:

“Egyptians hold diverse views about religion,” stated the report. “About six-in-ten (62%) think laws should strictly follow the teachings of the Quran. … Meanwhile, on two other crucial questions: “Relatively few (39%) give high priority to women having the same rights as men. … Overall, just 36% think it is very important that Coptic Christians and other religious minorities are able to freely practice their religions.”

So while only 31 percent sympathize with “fundamentalist” Muslims, 60-plus percent decline to give high priority to equal rights for women and 62 percent believe Egypt’s laws should STRICTLY follow the Quran. Also, only 36 percent strongly favor religious liberty for religious minorities.

Do the Coptic people, the ancient Egyptians, need to be mentioned higher in this story? Well, they are about 10 percent of the nation’s population. At this point, African Americans are about 12.5 percent of the population here in the United States. Try to imagine how seriously journalists would take (and validly so) any electoral trend that constituted a threat to their freedom and safety, especially discussions of whether they need to flee their nation.

Stay tuned as the Egyptian voting reaches out into villages and rural areas.

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Define Egyptian ‘liberal’; give three examples

Violent, chaotic events are hard for journalists to cover — period. This means it is especially important to pay attention to second-day news reports.

Thus, I would urge readers who have not done so to read yesterday’s post on Sunday’s bloody events in Egypt: “Time to nix ‘sectarian’ in Egyptian reports.”

The big news here is that the word “sectarian” is missing in the latest New York Times report. The emphasis in this story is on the fervent laments and protests of Coptic Orthodox leaders — who are being supported by “liberal activists” who oppose the military’s current role in that tense and shattered nation.

So who are these “liberal activists”?

The bloodshed appeared to mark a turning point in the revolution, many here said. It comes just eight months after Egyptians celebrated their military as a savior for its refusal to use force against civilians demanding the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak. Confidence in the military had already been eroded by its repeated deferrals of a handover of power to civilian rule, now set to take place perhaps as much as two years after parliamentary elections, set to begin next month.

Now political liberals as well as Copts said the brutal crackdown had finally extinguished the public’s faith in the ruling military council as the guardian of a peaceful transition to democracy.

“The credit that the military received from the people in Tahrir Square just ran out yesterday,” the party leader Ayman Nour said at a news conference of prominent parties and political leaders denouncing the military. “There is no partnership between us and the council now that the blood of our brothers stands between us.”

The word “liberal” in this case seems to imply either “secular” (whatever that means in an overwhelmingly Muslim nation) or pro-Western, in terms of support for human rights, especially for minorities. Truth is, the Times never makes that clear. Is this an interfaith coalition? A coalition led by progressive Muslims who are clashing with the military, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi parties?

This is crucial information to report, if readers are to understand just how complex the Egyptian political/religious scene is at the moment. The divisions within the Islam community there must be pinpointed in order to show why the “sectarian” label is too simplistic.

And what about the other crucial question: Who initiated the violence? Once again, reporter David Kirkpatrick quotes the conflicting voices, even within the military leadership and the alleged government.

Witnesses, victims and doctors said Monday that demonstrators were killed when military-led security forces drove armored vehicles over as many as six people and fired live ammunition into the crowds. Doctors at a Coptic hospital showed journalists 17 bodies, including one with a crushed skull and others with mangled limbs. … More than 300 others were wounded in four hours of street fights, the Health Ministry said.

The military council did not explain Monday why shots were fired or why military vehicles ran over demonstrators. In a statement on state television, it appeared to distance its officers from any responsibility for the deadly clashes. The statement referred only to unspecified “unfortunate events” that “transformed peaceful protests to bloody ones.”

What is implied, in my reading, is that gangs of Islamists attacked the demonstrators — Copts and the Muslims who openly support them — which drew the military into the violence, either in support of the gangs or due to a loss of control by officers.

For Coptic leaders, the key question seems to be this: Are the nation’s civilian leaders strong enough to enforce laws that protect religious minorities? On that front, the Times reported these new developments:

The civilian cabinet, meanwhile, announced a series of long-promised measures to deter discrimination. The measures would impose jail time and large fines on anyone found guilty of discrimination on the basis of religion, with heavier penalties for government employees. And to address the legacy of cumbersome rules on permits to build churches, the cabinet said it would implement a law to standardize procedures for all houses of worship.

The minister of information also backed away from state television coverage of the protests on Sunday that urged “honorable Egyptians” to defend soldiers from a mob of armed Christians. The announcers who made those statements were “under emotional stress,” the minister, Osama Heikal, said, according to the Web site of the state-run newspaper Al Ahram.

Can the civilian leaders deliver? Stay tuned.

And over at the Los Angeles Times? Suffice it to say that it’s latest report from Cairo continues to center on “sectarian tensions.” The Copts say one thing. The police say something else. Move along.

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Time to nix ‘sectarian’ in Egyptian reports

At this point, I am getting very tired of the word “sectarian” in reports from the fiery streets of Cairo.

This is not, of course, a new topic here at GetReligion. In a recent post I noted:

A friend of mine — a religious-liberty scholar — wrote me an email and said that he is convinced that it is time for journalists to ban the term “sectarian violence.” … Calling recent events in Egypt “sectarian violence” is like “referring to an Alabama 1920’s Ku Klux Klan lynching as a ‘racial clash.’ ”

“Sectarian” does imply that there are two religious groups out there and they are fighting each other. The question, in Egypt, is whether this is an accurate description of reality.

Yet, once again, the New York Times has framed the latest outbreak of bloodshed in precisely that manner — at the top of the following report (which is now out of date due to the rising death toll):

CAIRO – A demonstration by Christians angry about a recent attack on a church touched off a night of violent protests here against the military council now ruling Egypt, leaving 24 people dead and more than 200 wounded in the worst spasm of violence since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in February.

The sectarian protest appeared to catch fire because it was aimed squarely at the military council that has ruled Egypt since the revolution, at a moment when the military’s latest delay in turning over power has led to a spike in public distrust of its authority.

When the clashes broke out, some Muslims ran into the streets to help defend the Christians against the police, while others said they had come out to help the army quell the protests in the name of stability, turning what started as a march about a church into a chaotic battle over military rule and Egypt’s future.

Please pay close attention to the shift that takes place between the second and third paragraphs. To me it seems as if the word “sectarian” is now a matter of Times copy-desk style, even if the hard details of this event actually undercut the use of that term.

“Sectarian” conflict, as in Coptic Christians vs. Muslims?

If you read the story carefully, there appear to be multiple groups of Muslims involved — Muslims helping protect the Christians, Muslims issuing appeals for “honest Muslims” to come support the government forces, Muslims in gangs that appear out of nowhere, their loyalties unknown. And which of these competing groups of Muslims represents either the dominant Muslim Brotherhood or the rising Islamist tide of the Salafi parties? Who is backed by the military?

To be honest, this David Kirkpatrick report repeatedly undercuts the simplistic “sectarian” framework. Here are several examples:

Nada el-Shazly, 27, who was wearing a surgical mask to deflect the tear gas, said she came out because she heard state television urge “honest Egyptians” to turn out to protect the soldiers from Christian protesters, even though she knew some of her fellow Muslims had marched with the Christians to protest the military’s continued hold on power.

“Muslims get what is happening,” she said. The military, she said, was “trying to start a civil war.”

And later:

The protest took place against a backdrop of escalating tensions between Muslims and Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population. Christians had joined the pro-democracy protests in large numbers, hoping for the protections of a pluralistic, democratic state, but a surge in power of Islamists has raised fears of how much tolerance majority rule will allow.

The pro-democracy protests in the Arab spring, of course, included a rather broad spectrum of Muslims, especially those who were called the young “progressives.”

There’s more:

The military and riot police, on the other hand, appeared at some points to be working in tandem with Muslims who were lashing out at the Coptic Christians. As security forces cleared the streets around 10 p.m., police officers in riot gear marched back and forth through the streets of downtown alongside a swarm of hundreds of men armed with clubs and stones chanting, “The people want to bring down the Christians,” and, later, “Islamic, Islamic.” …

By the end of the night, as clouds of tear gas floated through the dark streets and the crosses carried by the original Christian demonstrators had disappeared, it became increasingly difficult to tell who was fighting whom. At one point, groups of riot police officers were seen beating Muslim protesters, who were shouting, in Arabic, “God is Great!” while a few yards away other Muslims were breaking pavement into rocks to hurl in the direction of a group of Christians.

And finally Prime Minister Essam Sharaf directly claims:

“What’s happening is not sectarian tension,” Mr. Sharaf said in a telephone interview with state television. “It is an escalating plan for the fall and fragmentation of the state. There’s a feeling of a conspiracy theory to keep Egypt from having the elections that will lead it to democracy.” Echoing the Mubarak government’s propaganda, he added, “There are hidden hands involved and we will not leave them.”

Did you follow all of that? To make matters worse, the Times report makes it very clear that many angry voices are offering conflicting testimonies about precisely when the demonstration turned violent. So who in fact acted first, the police or the growing mob of counter-demonstrators? Who had the most to gain through this outbreak of violence?

The competing truth claims are just this stark:

State news media reported that at least three security officers had died in attacks by Christian protesters, though those accounts could not be confirmed. The protesters did not appear to be armed and they insisted they were peaceful until they were attacked.

Now, contrast that confusing New York Times story — I mean confusing in a good way, I guess, since it offers so many clashing views of what happened — with the top of the Los Angeles Times report.

In this story, the sequence of violent acts is completely different.

At least 22 people were killed in clashes between military police and Coptic Christian protesters in the latest eruption of violence highlighting Egypt’s deepening sectarian divisions since President Hosni Mubarak was driven from power in February.

In the bloodiest unrest since last winter’s uprising, authorities said, three soldiers and 19 protesters were killed Sunday when Copts threw Molotov cocktails at riot police outside the state Radio and Television Building in downtown Cairo. The chaos was further inflamed when thugs in plainclothes attacked Copts, some carrying crucifixes, as they marched along the Nile at dusk.

The violence escalated quickly and jolted what had begun as a peaceful rally by Christians to protest the recent burning by Muslims of a church in southern Egypt. Copts began hurling bottles and rocks at security forces after military vehicles plowed through demonstrators as gunshots echoed overhead and crowds scattered.

Could you follow that? So it was a two-sided clash between Coptic demonstrators and military police, yet the Copts attacked after military vehicles began running over people? And then the thugs arrived? Say what?

I genuinely sympathize with reporters on the scene who struggled to confirm basic facts in all of this chaos. Personally, I do think it is unclear who attacked first — between the mobs and the military. I do find it hard to believe that a crowd of Coptic Christians and pro-democracy Muslims, the latest mass of demonstrators to gather in this location to protest the government, first attacked a wall of military police.

But here is what I know: What happened there was not a two-sided “sectarian” battle, with Coptic believers squared off against Muslims. That image, that term, must be retired at this point. The reality on the ground is way too complex. The editors at the New York Times, for example, should try reading the facts reported by its own correspondents.

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Anwar al-Awlaki’s many faces

Anwar al-Awlaki was reportedly killed by a U.S. drone strike on Friday morning. He was as the New York Times describes him “the American-born cleric whose fiery sermons made him a larger-than-life figure in the shadowy world of jihad.”

But that is not how the New York Times always described him. It’s interesting to review the coverage he received over the years and what, if anything, that can tell us about media coverage of Islam in America.

Shortly after al Qaeda launched it’s attack on Americans using four hijacked airliners, media interest in Islam spiked considerably. This is understandable. One of the people that was sought after for interviews was none other than al-Awlaki. He was an American, spoke perfect English, used American idioms, and was well respected by many Muslims.

Here’s a New York Times piece from October 19, 2001:

Imam Anwar Al-Awlaki, spiritual leader at the Dar al-Hijra mosque in Virginia, one of the nation’s largest, which draws about 3,000 worshipers for communal prayers each Friday, said: “In the past we were oblivious. We didn’t really care much because we never expected things to happen. Now I think things are different. What we might have tolerated in the past, we won’t tolerate any more.”

“There were some statements that were inflammatory, and were considered just talk, but now we realize that talk can be taken seriously and acted upon in a violent radical way,” said Mr. Al-Awlaki, who at 30 is held up as a new generation of Muslim leader capable of merging East and West: born in New Mexico to parents from Yemen, who studied Islam in Yemen and civil engineering at Colorado State University.

It is too early to say whether their message will be heeded, or whether it is mere posturing.

The Times wasn’t alone. In those early days, you can see almost identical coverage from NPR, the Washington Post and the Baltimore Sun:

The lanky, 30-year-old father of three and a doctoral candidate at George Washington University finds himself increasingly thrust into the role of spokesman for a younger, American-born generation of Muslims.

A native of New Mexico who received his Islamic education in Yemen, his parents’ birthplace, Al-Awlaki bridges the two worlds as easily as he shifts from lecturing on the lives of the prophets to tapping phone numbers into his Palm Pilot.

National Public Radio posted the transcripts from a couple of times that al-Awlaki was on its programs. There were a couple of quotes that I found intriguing. In one exchange with host Neal Conan, al-Awlaki is asked whether religion plays an element in the conflict. He responds:

“I think that to a certain extent for practical reasons there is an element of feeling among the Muslims that they are targeted, or at least they are the ones who are paying the highest price for what’s going on. Number one, there has been a rise in negative reporting on Islam in the media since the events happened. There have been 1,100 Muslims detained in the US. There’s a bombing going on over a Muslim country, Afghanistan. So there are some reasons that make the Muslims feel that, well, it is true that the statement was made that this is not a war against Islam, but for all practical reasons, it is the Muslims who are being hurt.”

“Beyond those who, obviously, were hurt on September the 11th,” Neal interjected.

“Yes,” said al-Awlaki.

“And I know you did not mean to exclude them,” Neal said.

Neal knew that al-Awlaki did not mean to exclude them. Interesting. Then Neal asks how we address this issue. Al-Awlaki says:

“I think if the administration is trying to show and express as best it can that this is not a war against Islam, I think that around the country there’s a responsibility to make that distinction very clear and to prevent and stop any negative reporting that is happening against Islam.”

Some media outlets were up front about how their previous reporting didn’t quite hit the mark on al-Awlaki. NPR was very open about it. The Washington Post mentioned that its web site had brought in al-Awlaki to lead a chat on Ramadan and had allowed a Post videographer to chronicle a day in the life of an American imam.

One more piece that might be helpful for review was the 2010 article by the Times on two competing theories about what happened with al-Awlaki. One is that al-Awlaki was as peaceful as could be until radicalized after the 2001 attacks. He happened to know a couple of the 9/11 hijackers but there’s no reason to think that they were discussing al-Qaeda operations. The other theory is that he was a long-time agent of al-Qaeda, and his relationship with the hijackers both during his time in San Diego and in Northern Virginia was more than coincidence.

Whatever the case, I think the early coverage of al-Awlaki gives us some things to consider. For one, it’s still difficult for many in the media to write about Islam’s many layers, particularly the more dangerous layers. There are certainly exceptions but on the whole we still see Islam presented in a way we would never tolerate for reporting on Christianity and its denominations, strains and subsets. In some sense those early stories show us the distance we’ve traveled but also the distance we need to go.

The other issue is whether the trust between journalists and their readers, listeners and viewers is challenged by the reporting we’ve seen on Islamist terrorists. When a cleric such as al-Awlaki is highlighted by many major media institutions as a “moderate” who will bridge the divide in the global conflict, what happens the next time an imam is similarly presented?

Note the way, for instance, the Washington Post covered al-Awlaki’s former mosque in Northern Virginia. Keep in mind that this is a very popular mosque in the area. And in addition to this being a place that gave al-Awlaki a leadership position, two of the 9/11 hijackers attended services there, a German planner of the 9/11 attacks had the number for the mosque in his apartment and Ft. Hood shooter Nidal Hasan attended there years prior to his attack. Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, who was convicted of conspiracy to assassinate President George W. Bush and of providing support to al Qaeda, worshiped and taught Islamic studies there. A former member of the executive committee was convicted of obstruction of justice for refusing to testify about Hamas. Jeffrey Goldberg wrote that mosque leaders were political there for many years, (he quotes from one 1998 sermon: “Allah will give us the victory over our tyrannical enemies in our country. Allah, the infidel Americans and British are fighting against you. Allah, the curse of Allah will become true on the infidel Jews and on the tyrannical Americans.”). And the Post has reported that the mosque is affiliated with the Muslim American Society, which has links to the Muslim Brotherhood.

There are many other things I could mention, although I have also pointed out that these ties need not be mentioned in each of the very many stories the Post writes about the mosque. This mosque has also been highlighted globally (and controversially) by the U.S. State Department and contracted with by other federal agencies.

Anyway, I thought of all this when I read the Post‘s “Anwar al-Aulaqi’s death reopens wounds for Dar Al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church.”

It’s a good article in parts but I wonder if the headline served it well. Obviously a mosque with 3,000 members is not defined by one imam who became President Obama’s number one enemy. But neither is it a situation of one bad apple here. This mosque has a history of ties to terrorist groups. I’m not entirely sure how to handle it, but perhaps a more neutral headline and mention of some of this history would help balance the piece.

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Armenian genocide and modern memory

The Daily Beast, a news and opinion website published by Tina Brown in conjunction with Newsweek magazine, has weighed in on the diplomatic spat between Israel and Turkey. In a piece entitled “The Erdogan Doctrine“, columnist Owen Matthews argues President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling AK Party have been unfairly characterized as villainous Islamist thugs. They have actually sought to build bridges with Turkey’s minority faiths, Matthews argues.

Yet the notion of Erdogan as a Jew-hating jihadi doesn’t really fit. Just before the current standoff, Erdogan sat down to dinner with the leaders of Turkey’s religious minorities, including the Chief Rabbi of Istanbul, and promised to return thousands of properties the Turkish state had confiscated from Christians and Jews in the past century. He also made a point of praising the “vast diversity of the people that have peacefully coexisted” in Istanbul. “In this city the [Muslim] call to prayer and church bells sound together,” said Erdogan. “Mosques, churches, and synagogues have stood side by side on the same street for centuries.”

The Daily Beast is also somewhat overgenerous in describing what Erdogan has offered: only the properties of Christian and Jewish institutions seized since 1936 are under discussion. Neither the property of individual Christians and Jews confiscated by the state nor the wholesale expropriations of the 1920′s are being reviewed.

The Daily Beast also uncritically relates Erdogan’s words of religious peace and harmony .. queue the video .. without offering context. The prime minister is able to speak of religious harmony because Turkey’s religious minorities are all but extinct. In the home city of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople it would have been just as easy for Erdogan to sit down to dine with all of the city’s remaining Orthodox Christians as with its minority religious leaders. An op-ed in The Hill, “Religious Freedom for Turkey?” penned by members of US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is less sanguine about the prospects for Christians, Jews, and members of minority Muslim sects, especially the Alawites than The Daily Beast.

Turkey’s Christian minority has dwindled to just 0.15 percent of the country.  In the words of one church leader, it is an “endangered species.”  In past centuries, violence exacted a horrific toll on Turkey’s Christians and their churches.  This provides a frightening context and familiar continuity to a number of recent high-profile murders by ultranationalists.

Turkey’s Jewish community also fears a reprise of past violence, such as the 2003 al Qaeda-linked Istanbul synagogue bombings.   Societal anti-Semitism has been fueled in recent years by Erdogan’s rhetoric against Israel’s activity in the Middle East and by negative portrayals in Turkey’s state-run media.

Today, however, it is the state’s dense web of regulations that most threatens Turkey’s religious minorities.

And this brings me to the articles under examination.  The English-language editions of Turkey’s two major daily newspapers, the Hürriyet Daily News and Today’s Zaman, offer stories on the re-opening an ancient Armenian church located on an island on Lake Van in Eastern Turkey. The Hürriyet Daily News has “Historical Armenian church hosts service” from the Anatolia News Agency, the Turkish state wire service, while Today’s Zaman prepared an in-house version entitled “Armenians hold second religious ceremony at Akdamar church.”

Both pieces present a straight forward if slight account of the festivities. The Church of the Holy Cross, a tenth century Armenian Apostolic Church located on Akdamar Island in Lake Van, hosted its second religious service since it was renovated in 2007.  Between 2000-3000 attended the service and the reports note the island drew 30,000 tourists in 2010 (or are they pilgrims?) after the Turkish government reopened the building as a museum.

Where things go wrong is when the Turkish correspondents attempt to give some historical context to the story. The Hürriyet Daily News states:

The church remained as part of a monastic complex until the beginning of the 20th century. It was abandoned during World War I due to fighting along the Russian border and was left in a bad condition for many years.

While Today’s Zaman notes:

The Armenian Church of the Holy Cross was a monastic complex until 1920s, but deteriorated in condition after being abandoned during World War I. Upon a proposal by the Governor’s Office of Van and approval of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the church is expected to now host annual religious services.

Armenians who lived in this province, located on the eastern shore of Lake Van and in eastern Anatolia, were deported by Ottoman forces in 1915. Armenians say 1.5 million Armenians were killed during a systematic campaign in eastern Anatolia, while Turkey strongly rejects the claims of genocide, saying the killings came as the Ottoman Empire was trying to quell civil strife and that Muslim Turks were also killed in the conflict. There are only around 60,000 Armenians left living in Turkey, mostly in Istanbul.

Yes, the Church of the Holy Cross was abandoned during World War I. The reason why it was abandoned was because the Turkish Army sacked the monastery, killed the monks and drove off, or murdered, the Armenian population in the region.  Today’s Zaman makes note of the Armenian genocide, but states it is a contested point in history.

I very much doubt the heavy hand of the censor massaged these passages. The Daily Hurriet is the principle opposition newspaper, while Today’s Zaman backs the Islamist government. What we see here is a loss of memory. The genocide is not mentioned because its memory has not been preserved in Turkey.

Journalism is a craft, a learned trade that has a pragmatic and moral end. It informs while it also educates. If the press does not speak the truth about the past, no matter how unpalatable this past may be to nationalistic or religious sensibilities, it fails in its mission.

The bottom line: The absence of the Armenian Genocide from this story, whether through ignorance, accident or design, means that these articles fail the test of good journalism.

In his 1986 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Elie Wiesel wrote: “That I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices.”

Buildings may survive, but memory of peoples fades away. A free press should not be an accomplice.

Nota bene: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty‘s Yerevan bureau filed a report that fills in the blanks. “Thousands Attend Armenian Church Mass In Turkey

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There are two must-read articles on Syria out this week, both containing strong religion-news angles concerning the implosion of Bashir al-Assad’s police state.

The London daily The Independent does a nice job in illustrating the ambivalence Syrian Christians have for the regime and the revolt, while the German weekly Die Zeit offers a fascinating view of life inside Syria.

I have found it hard to follow the events in Syria. Most media outlets have been banned from the country, while those operating from inside the tent have been subject to various degrees of censorship.  The press reports have been contradictory at times, and a few reports appear to have been dictated by Baghdad Bob’s Syrian cousin. Would that be Damascus Dave?

Western governments appear to be equally at sea, and are relying on their intelligence services (I hope) and the media as their eyes and ears.  The reports are often hard to distinguish. On Aug 31 the British Foreign Office released a Q&A that stated: “… security forces have killed at least seven people in southern and central Syria on Tuesday 30 August when they opened fire at worshipers emerging from mosques after early prayers marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan.”

An Aug 30 story in the New York Times reported: “Security forces killed at least seven people in southern and central Syria when they opened fire at worshipers emerging from mosques after early prayers marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan.”

In the back of my head I heard Dick Enberg’s voice saying “Oh my!” after I read that.

One of the few news organizations still allowed inside Syria has been RT (Russia Today). “All is well,” the Moscow-based 24/7 news channel reports.

Actually, the disputes we are witnessing are not political but religious. Surprise.

Britain, the US and France are pushing for harsher sanctions against Syria’s President al-Assad, who is believed to have ordered the torture and death of protesters. But on the streets there seems to be no real evidence of anti-government sentiment.

Even the poorest areas of the Syrian city of Homs – which, as a gathering place for people heading into the city center on demonstrations, saw major unrest – now seems quiet and secure.

People on the streets told RT that most of the disturbances in the city are based on religious differences, not politics.  People say they are not against the government, neither are they in pursuit of any political ends.

Most of the controversy in Homs arises from differences between the Alawi and Sunni Muslims.

Now how about that.  Al-Assad is “believed to have ordered the torture and death of protestors”  … the disturbances are “based on religious differences, not politics.” … People are “not against the government …” 

This sort of hollow reporting takes me back to my youth. Once upon a time I had a subscription to Soviet Life. I could look forward each month to a jam-packed issue of glossy photo-stories featuring happy peasants playing their balalaikas, dancing in their brightly colored smocks, polishing their tractors … building socialism for the worker’s state. But that’s enough fun for now.

Turning to the good stuff, however: The report in The Independent that ran under the headline, “Life after Assad looks ominous for Syria’s Christian minority” offers some telling snapshots of religious-minority concerns in Syria. The bottom line: Life in Syria is bad, but it could be worse.

There is also, he admits, a fear that Islam might usurp the secular — albeit repressive — brand of Baathist socialist rule in Syria.

“Right now Christians can celebrate Easter. They can wear whatever they want. They can go to the church in safety and they can drink if they want to.

“They are afraid they will lose all this if the regime falls down.”

I wished there had been more space to develop this story, filling out the pro/con voices of Christians speaking about the regime. But at close to 600 words that is about as good as it gets these days in the British press for foreign religion stories.

With a circulation of almost 500,000 the Hamburg-based weekly Die Zeit is the largest German language news weekly. It has translated on its web site Wolfgang Bauer’s powerful and important 4800-word story, “Die Nato soll uns helfen!” as “Nato must help us.”

Living with a Christian family in Homs, Bauer reports on a city whose 2 million inhabitants are waging war against the Assad regime. He tells of nightly gun battles and artillery tracer shells lighting up the skies, midnight secret police arrests, hospitals turned into execution centers, schools converted into prisons, and mass demonstrations of upwards of half a million people protesting against the regime.

Television and social media has fueled the revolt Die Zeit reports. What started as a local protest against a corrupt mayor grew into an uprising against the state and cries for freedom as Syrians watch events unfold in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Religion is a factor, Die Zeit reports, but not in the way RT describes.

The city threatens to explode under the enormous pressure and tension. Almost half the residents are Sunnis, 20 percent are Alawites while the rest are Christians, Yazidi and Zaidi. The cracks between the communities are widening each day. The Syrian regime is deeply suspicious of Homs ever since it rose up in revolt against the Assad family during a 1982 insurgency by the militant Muslim Brotherhood drawn from the majority Sunni community. In response, the government tried to weaken the influence of the dominant Sunnis in Homs. It built villages around the city for families from Assad’s Alawite minority, which commands power in the government and military. The Sunnis felt encircled and threatened. Since the outbreak of the current unrest, most of the Alawites have fled from the downtown area in Homs. In the suburbs, Alawite gangs have destroyed Sunni businesses. There have been reports of deaths. The Alawites have secured the streets leading to their residential areas with checkpoints. Their street barricades aren’t manned by the military, but by Alawite civilians who now fear being massacred in a Syria without Assad. Homs now resembles Beirut in the 1980s, divided along ethnic and religious lines where it’s too dangerous for people to travel in a particular direction because they will be shot if they do so.

I’m disappointed, but not surprised that the religious angle of the Syrian revolution has not had greater play.

Even Al Jazeera has been all over the place, on this point. Banned from entering Syria, the Qatar-based network’s reports have been uneven. In an account of the Paris meeting of the opposition, Al Jazeera omitted to mention the religious issues at play. Yet in a report on Syrian refugees in Turkey printed the next day, it covered the clashes between Sunnis and Alawites in Syria. It has also seen one of its key editors quit after he charged the network’s management had abandoned its neutrality in its Syrian coverage.

Keep your eye on this channel (GetReligion), as I am confident that in the weeks to come, religion will play an important role in shaping Syria’s future. I just don’t know if it will be good or bad. And I don’t know how much solid coverage we’ll see in the mainstream press.

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God in lede and at the end (ghosts in between)

It is a principle that has been voiced many times here at GetReligion through the years: If religion is important enough to dominate a story’s lede then religious content should probably be included in the body of the story, as well.

A recent Time magazine piece about the revolt in Syria (subscription required) offers a textbook example of this syndrome, before going another step further. In this case, religion is in the lede and in the closing paragraphs. In between? The story is a ghost town, when it comes to facts about the role religion is play in this drama.

So here is the lede:

The firecrackers explode just before 10 p.m. as groups of men, in twos and threes, stream out of al-Kabir mosque after prayers. The noise signals not a celebration but the start of another of the nightly demonstrations in Rastan, a town of 65,000 halfway between Homs and Hama. The organizers of the demonstrations use fireworks to alert residents who aren’t in the mosque that a protest is about to begin.

The men and clusters of women quickly congregate near the building that once housed the dreaded state security intelligence, across the road from the mosque. The intelligence agents abandoned their post in early June after weeks of protests, when the military decided to withdraw to Rastan’s outskirts, leaving the town free of President Bashar Assad’s minions for two months. The building is now plastered with antiregime graffiti: BASHAR IS A DONKEY, BASHAR IS A TRAITOR, BRING DOWN BASHAR!

So I will ask: What is happening in the mosques? What is being said? And might that “donkey” reference have some religious significance?

More importantly, what is the brand of Islam, the basic approach, that is advocated by the religious leaders of these demonstrations, as opposed to the approach that is linked to the life and work of Bashar Assad? There is no need for this information to dominate the report.

Without that information, how can readers understand the coded symbolism in a paragraph such as this one:

After weeks of antigovernment protests, Assad’s army stormed Rastan on May 29, killing scores of people. Army tanks remain on its perimeter. Some are in its neighborhoods, and a few are just streets away from the demonstrators emerging from al-Kabir mosque. Nonetheless, the residents remain defiant. On this night, the chants start up in earnest, led by a small group of young men standing on the first-floor balcony of the intelligence building. “The people demand the execution of the President!” they roar. Their energy is infectious, the mood more festive than fearful. The crowd claps along, creating a thunderous rumble that shifts in rhythm and intensity as the protest leaders switch between slogans. “We will kneel only to God!” they cry. …

“Everybody here is a martyr in waiting,” says Ahmad, a 20-year-old in the center of the crowd.

So is the story arguing that these people are flooding out of mosques into the streets and preparing to lose their life in order to become POLITICAL martyrs? Or is this an example of an approach to public life and Islam (always remember that there are multiple views) in which there is no wall whatsoever between a political act and a religious act? The editors at Time seem to be MIA on these issues.

Thus, if you are looking for facts about the role of Islam in this complex drama there is no need to keep reading this particular report. Move along.

At the very end, there is this haunting note:

But on a warm night in Rastan, the dozen or so men gathered in a residential courtyard are not thinking about what’s next. They are dealing with what’s happening right now. Many have snippets of video on their phones that they are eager to share. Some of these show homes being shelled by soldiers. One shows a bloodied male corpse with a piece of masking tape across its chest that reads corpse no. 5. “The Syrian people have made the decision to bring down Assad and his regime, and the regime is determined to bring down the people,” says a lawyer who gives his name as Abu al-Hakami. “These are the only options.”

A few days later, shortly after 10 a.m., the cellular and landline telephone networks in Rastan suddenly cut out. The Internet also stops working. The town is isolated from the rest of the world. The tanks stationed around the perimeter of the city move into some neighborhoods. I hear several shots in the distance. “Quickly, get out of here before you no longer can,” my hostess tells me. “May God have mercy on us, and may God damn them.”

Like I said, haunted. And haunting, too.

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