Israel a la Glenn Beck

Glenn Beck is back–at least his rallying cry is–this time in Israel. The former Fox News host headed up his “Restoring Courage” rally this week, one year after his “Restoring Honor” rally in DC last year.

The rally comes with some controversy with some of Beck’s previous statements and perceptions in Israel. Unfortunately, some coverage leading up to the event muddies our understanding of Beck’s own faith and associations. The LA Times published a fairly confusing piece where the reporter used the terms evangelical, Christian and fundamentalist interchangeably without really explaining where Beck, as a Mormon, fits in.

Perhaps it was only a matter of time before conservative American commentator Glenn Beck, viewed by many supporters as a modern-day prophet, brought his messianic message to Jerusalem.

Where’s some support for the suggestion that his supporters see him as a “modern-day prophet”? By messianic message, the reporter means what?

The visit is focusing renewed attention on the growing, and some say unlikely, alliance between right-wing Israelis and Christian fundamentalists in the U.S.

Sorry, tell me again, who are the Christian fundamentalists? Apparently the LA Times is above AP style on this one.

The support comes, in part, from a belief among some Christian fundamentalists that Jews are God’s “chosen people” and that a return of the Jewish people to the Holy Land and the rebuilding of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem are signs of the second coming. Beck, who converted to the Mormon faith in 1999, frequently discussed such end-of-the-world prophecies and biblical themes on his program.

So is Beck a Christian fundamentalist? Does he suggest these ideas as the basis for his rally? The reporter continues this theme that there is some partnership going on between American Christians and Israelis, but he pulls from a seemingly random television show in Texas, and it’s unclear why he’s connecting it to Beck’s rally.

But Ricci and others see potential fault lines in the partnership. For starters, evangelicals are often active in missionary work, something Israelis do not tolerate.

Last week, Texas-based Daystar Television Network hosted “Israel Day,” in which it broadcast live from Jerusalem. In between on-air solicitations for $1,000 pledges, the program’s hosts condemned efforts to make part of East Jerusalem the capital of a new Palestinian state, and they vowed unconditional support for Israel.

Yet at the same time, the station boasted of “bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the land of Israel.” One host said that more Jews have been converted to Christianity in the last 20 years than in the last 2,000.

Yes, I imagine that Beck has a little bit of a following among some evangelicals, but even that relationship has occasionally been dicey. Evangelicals don’t usually consider Mormons to be evangelicals the same way that Mormons don’t consider evangelicals to be Mormons. This was the lead for the Associated Press:

Conservative Christian commentator Glenn Beck capped a contentious visit to Israel Wednesday by hosting a rally next to a hotly disputed holy site in Jerusalem’s Old City.

I don’t really understand why the reporter didn’t just say that Beck is Mormon, since that seems more specific and less debated than “conservative Christian.” Overall, I’m still curious how interfaith this event is, whether it’s generically religious, generally Christian, or what? For many reasons, you can’t really lump everyone together under the “Christian fundamentalist” label as one big happy family on an Israeli mission.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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Faith-free (almost) cooking on Egyptian TV

Anyone who knows anything about religious communities — especially ethnic communities — knows that food plays a crucial role in both public and private life. Wednesday-night Lutheran church suppers (hello Garrison Keillor) in the Midwest, or in Baptist fellowship halls in Texas, have quite a bit in common with breaking-the-feast dinners during Ramadan.

Does food matter in Orthodox Judaism? In a Catholic parish in an Italian neighborhood in Brooklyn? For Hindus celebrating the seasons in Delhi? It’s almost impossible to name a religion that does not, in one way or another, include some symbolic role for food and fellowship.

Here’s a highly personal example. A few years ago, I wrote the following near the top of a Scripps Howard column about one man’s journey from Greek Orthodoxy into a charismatic Protestant ministry and ultimately back to Orthodoxy. This Orthodox deacon is now a close friend of mine. It helps to know that his mother was raised Jewish, in Poland.

“They were married in the Greek church,” said Peter Maris, 42. “She learned to speak Greek. She learned to cook Greek. She did everything she could to show her commitment to the faith.”

Then came the parish Christmas party when his mother brought a plate of Polish cookies. His father didn’t tell this story often, because it was too painful.

“Some of the women got upset,” said Peter Maris. “They told my mother, ‘What are you doing, bringing those in here? We don’t need you and we don’t need your Polish cookies. We are Greek.’ ”

The family walked out and never returned.

Why were the cookies so important on both sides of this divide?

Food matters. It has something to do with making faith incarnate in real life.

I thought of all of this when reading the Washington Post feature about Ghalia Alia Mahmoud, an unlikely new television chef in the rapidly changing land that is post-Arab-spring Egypt. Here is the top of this fascinating story:

Only in the new Egypt could Ghalia Alia Mahmoud have become a celebrity.

A woman from a poor neighborhood, she cooks in tin pots with no handles, on propane burners lit with a match, in a kitchen without measuring cups. She uses simple, cheap ingredients such as beans, pasta and vegetables, all she can afford.

In the old Egypt, Mahmoud worked as a maid. But that was before Jan. 25, the beginning of the upheaval in which the destitute and the affluent stood shoulder to shoulder in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to force the ouster of a dictator and the end of a system that celebrated the elite while a huge underclass barely subsisted.

The goal of her show is to teach basic, affordable cooking skills to the middle- and lower-class masses in Egypt, to teach ordinary people — as the story says — to “prepare dishes they can actually afford.”

A core concept is that Mahmoud will show viewers how to feed a large family a filling meal for the equivalent of $4. This is a subject that she knows all about, based on first-hand experience.

At home, she feeds 15 people in her immediate and extended family on an income that even now does not exceed $200 a month. She cooks meat just once a week, because that’s all she and her husband, a minibus driver, can afford; on the show, meat is prepared only on Fridays. …

On camera, Mahmoud is genuine and bubbly. She measures out ingredients in cheap plastic cups and buys vegetables for the show at the market in her poor neighborhood of Waraa. She wears fuchsia jackets and polka-dot aprons; her face is plump and inviting.

She reminds people of their favorite aunt, and her popularity has skyrocketed. Her Facebook page — which had to be set up by a producer, Habiba Hesham, because Mahmoud can’t afford the Internet or a computer — has drawn nearly 4,000 followers in less than two weeks. Hesham sees her as a future Oprah Winfrey, a poor girl who became an American icon.

As you would imagine, as I read this story I kept waiting — especially with the ties between the birth of her cooking show and Ramadan — for religion to enter the picture. How does one talk about the lives of ordinary Egyptians, especially those who are not numbered in the often secularized urban elites, without discussing the role of food and fasting in Islam? How did the creators of this story avoid using the word “halal”?

Surprisingly, the story’s lone reference to the religious significance of food comes near the end. While the Post team gives us no details about Mahmoud’s own religious alliances or even the ways in which her skills (and new status as a celebrity) affect the practice of her faith, readers do learn one highly symbolic detail.

It is the subtle messages on her show that carry bigger lessons than the food. She offers to teach recipes to Coptic Christians who abstain from meat and dairy products during their time of fasting. She said she does it to prove that heightened sectarian tensions, which she believes are stirred up by the government, don’t exist in Egyptian neighborhoods.

(By the way, it would have been more accurate if this paragraph had said, “their times of fasting” — plural — rather than singular. Coptic believers fast to one degree or another more than half the year, at various times.)

What kind of response has the maid-turned-chef received with these peacemaking overtures? How is her work viewed by Muslims on the cultural left and right?

Perhaps it is too early to know, since her show is only a month old. Nevertheless, some kind of reaction is likely, since food plays such a symbolic and emotional role in daily life and in religion. Also, it is clear — from the one example given — that the cook in this kitchen knows that faith and food are often mixed and cannot be separated.

IMAGE: A tourist photo of an ordinary street market in Cairo.

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Confused by labels in Egypt? Good

So, let’s say that you are very interested in the unfolding drama of political changes in Egypt. The logical thing to do is to try to find out who is who and which political/religious party is saying what, correct?

So you come across an A1 story that is built on what journalists like to call a hot “get,” an exclusive interview with a political player in which this person makes blunt and at times shocking statements.

Hopefully, the story will contain information that adds clarity to a complex drama. But that’s the problem with Egypt, right now. The views of the players are so complex that they are hard to address or label in the context of American life and thought.

So let’s say you are reading a story in which one of the leaders a powerful Egyptian party states, on the record, that:

* The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were “made in the USA” and a result of the usual cooperation between “the CIA, Israel’s Mossad intelligence service” and, using an old phrase from mid-20th century American history, the “military-industrial complex.” It helps, of course, to know that Osama bin Laden was “an American agent.”

* The Nazis didn’t kill 6 million Jews. One of the key quotes states: “The Holocaust is a lie. … The Jews under German occupation were 2.4 million. So if they were all exterminated, where does the remaining 3.6 million come from?”

* And, on a related topic, that famous book called “The Diary of Anne Frank”? It’s a fake.

So, who said this and where did this story appear? That’s going to be the confusing part, for readers who have been consuming most of the mainstream news coverage of recent events in Egypt. These quotes are from a Washington Times “get” with Ahmed Ezz El-Arab, a vice chairman of Egypt’s Wafd Party, during last week’s Conference on Democracy and Human Rights, held in Budapest.

This means that Ezz El-Arab is a leader on the “secular,” and thus “liberal,” side of the Egyptian political scene. He’s one of the good guys, in most media coverage these days.

This is a very, very confusing story and that is probably a good thing. The Times team elects to present his words in a very straightforward, unvarnished fashion (with audio links online).

So why are they confusing? I think they are interesting and confusing because they are so hard to label. Read this passage and try to assign a simple label to what this man has to say:

Mr. Ezz El-Arab said he accepted that the Nazis killed “hundreds of thousands” of Jews. “But gas chambers and skinning them alive and all this? Fanciful stories,” he added.

Mr. Ezz El-Arab also attacked the authenticity of “The Diary of Anne Frank,” which he said he studied as a doctoral student in Stockholm. “I could swear to God it’s a fake,” the Wafd leader said. “The girl was there, but the memoirs are a fake.”

And there’s much more where that came from. For example, who do his views differ from those trumpeted by the leader of Iran? Might some of these issues affect Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel? Might it be tossed out by a new Egyptian government?

… Mr. Ezz El-Arab, who chairs Wafd’s foreign-relations committee, said there is “no chance at all” that would happen. “Egypt will not go to war unless it’s attacked,” he said.

As for Iran, with whom Egypt is normalizing relations, Mr. Ezz El-Arab assailed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who also has denied the Holocaust.

“He’s a hateful character, so whatever he says can be criticized,” the Wafd leader said. “What he says about the Holocaust is true, but he doesn’t say it because it’s true. He says it out of hatred to the Israeli state.”

These are the kinds of words that tend to get Americans enraged. But are they “liberal,” or “fundamentalist”? Are they signs of hope for democracy in Egypt or are they evidence that majority rule may have a dark side in that tense land?

Believe it or not, the story includes additional information that — if anything — adds more confusion. Once again, I think that this is a good thing. You see, this secular party is now aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, or, at least, part of it.

Established in 1919 and disbanded in 1952, the Wafd Party was refounded in 1983 under reforms instituted by then-President Hosni Mubarak to allow token opposition to his dominant National Democratic Party. After Mr. Mubarak’s ouster in February, Wafd emerged as arguably the second-most powerful political party to the Muslim Brotherhood, a formerly banned Islamist group.

Last month, Wafd announced it would run jointly with the Brotherhood and 16 other blocs in September’s parliamentary elections to present a united front as Egypt forges a new government.

“For four years, in alliance, we can build a constitution based on certain principles that guarantee human rights, citizenship, no religious trend whatsoever,” Mr. Ezz El-Arab said. “Once this is established, everybody can go to the ballot box and try his luck.”

Do “human rights” include religious liberty for minorities? The end to blasphemy laws? The ability for Egyptians to convert from one religion to another without threats on their lives? Perhaps that is part of the “no religious trends whatsoever” language?

That sounds rather “liberal,” doesn’t it? Or is this what “secular” sounds like, in Egypt? In the context of Egypt, is Holocaust denial so common that it is neither “liberal” or “conservative,” “secular” or “Islamist”?

And what are readers to make of these two paragraphs? Label them, please.

Mr. Ezz El-Arab spoke of “the intelligent American elite that is ruling” and said it had responded to the “disaster” of President George W. Bush by electing Barack Obama president: “Obama is a nice face that has been brought up, the black rabbit taken out of the American hat when it was needed.”

Mr. Ezz El-Arab also claimed that, during the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, “American soldiers with double Israeli nationality and Jewish religion” stole Jewish antiquities from the Babylonian exile period and had them reburied in Jerusalem to cement the Jewish historical claim on the city.

Confused? Maybe that’s a good thing.

IMAGE: The logo of the secular Wafd Party.

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More quiet religious-liberty news

In case you have not heard, the U.S. State Department has a new ambassador at-large for international religious liberty. She is the Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook and, during her decades of ministry as a Baptist pastor and chaplain, she has had a solid history of activism on a number of interesting public issues.

To say the press coverage of this development has been minimal is a bit of an understatement. The post has been open for quite some time, leading to behind-the-scenes debates about whether the Obama White House was anxious to fill it.

The CNN report is the one most people will see — unless the Associated Press has done something and I missed it — and it is essentially a short story based on a press release. Note the lack of any interview material from Cook herself and the emphasis on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Read this paragraph carefully:

The office seeks to shine a light on everything from authoritarian regimes that impede freedom of worship for their citizens to violent extremists who work to exploit sectarian tensions.

“The Obama administration is dedicated to the rights of all people everywhere. Everyone, no matter his or her religion, should be allowed to practice their beliefs freely and safely,” Clinton said before administering the oath to Cook at a ceremony in the Benjamin Franklin Room at the State Department.

Human-rights activists, reading that, would note that there is much more to religious liberty than the “freedom of worship” and that, around the world, “sectarian tensions” would more accurately be described as the persecution of religious minorities by oppressive majorities. This wording is something like saying that the Civil Rights Movement in the American South was the result of “racial tensions” and that the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was a “sectarian leader.”

Clinton’s stronger reference to believers being able to “practice their beliefs freely and safely” echoes the kind of language that was used consistently in the Clinton administration, as will as in the White House under President George W. Bush. Cook, in fact, has close ties to the Clinton administration.

However, if you want to hear more from Cook, you will need to read the longer and more detailed report from CBN — the Christian Broadcast Network that is part of the media world of the Rev. Pat Robertson. This is another clue to the wider reality, which is that global religious liberty issues are now — alas — considered “conservative news.”

In this longer report, we read what appears to be actual coverage of the news event in question:

“We have a passionate, visionary and experienced defender of religious freedom. And we have a big stack of issues just waiting for her,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.

Clinton met Cook, a Baptist preacher from the Bronx, when she served as a domestic advisor to former President Bill Clinton.

Cook has been described as “the Harriet Tubman for women in ministry.” She helped break down barriers as the first female chaplain for the New York Police Department and the first black woman to be elected senior pastor of the American Baptist Churches of the USA. …

However, her role as ambassador may prove to be her biggest challenge “because around the world, religious freedom is under threat both by quiet intolerance and violent attack,” Clinton said.

This longer report also includes some detailed comments from Cook, either from an interview or remarks in the ceremony. In other words, it seems likely that Cook was available for those who wanted to talk with her:

“Dr. Sue J.,” as her parishioners know her, remains undaunted, saying she’s prepared to step onto a volatile world stage as Christians and people of other faiths face growing persecution.

“For this season of change to succeed, Coptic Christians must have the right to worship freely in Cairo just as Shia must never have their mosques destroyed in Bahrain,” she said. …

“Religious freedom provides a cornerstone for every healthy society,” Cook said. “In this season of the Arab Spring, we must encourage the highly religious countries of the Middle East and North Africa to guarantee full equality under the law for all religious actors.”

“Full equality under the law” is the key phrase.

One more comment on this story, due to reader interest via email. For those who are curious, many Baptist congregations have been ordaining women for decades, especially in northern churches and in African-American congregations.

However, among Protestants, some of the earliest women to be ordained were in highly conservative Pentecostal flocks. Among Southern Baptists, the ordination of women occurs most often among the so-called “moderate” congregations whose approach to faith and worship more close resembles the American Baptists, the denomination in which Cook was ordained.

How much freedom will Cook be given to do her work, especially in the tense conflicts along the “Ring of Fire” from Nigeria to Indonesia? That is a story that the mainstream press should watch carefully. But don’t hold your breath.

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Barack Obama, secret Episcopalian?

It’s so easy to make mistakes on the religion beat, especially when covering someone as complicated as President Barack Obama.

The following Haaretz newspaper story is rather old, but it has just come to our attention (care of that lurker named Douglas LeBlanc). The fact that it is several months old, for me, only makes it more interesting — because the editors of this influential Israeli publication have not run a correction. The error in it is rather jarring, almost spit out one’s morning coffee level.

However, before you read the top of the report you need to look at the video with this post and realize the number of times videos and photos such as this have appeared in news reports of various kinds around the globe.

Now, here we go.

The Anglican bishop in Israel, Suheil Dawani, petitioned the Jerusalem District Court … demanding that Interior Minister Eli Yishai return his visa, which was confiscated after it was discovered that he sold land to Palestinians.

Six months ago, Dawani, who has served as the top Anglican official in Israel since 2007, was informed that the Interior Ministry had canceled his visa and that he would be deported from the country. In the lawsuit, Dawani’s attorneys note that the Anglican Church has 90 million followers, among them U.S. President Barack Obama, former president George H.W. Bush, and former vice president Dick Cheney.

Dawani is also an official emissary of the queen of England, who holds the official title of head of the Anglican Church. By dint of his position, Dawani is a frequent guest at official state ceremonies, according to the lawsuit.

Spot the error? Yes, I know that former Vice President Dick Cheney is a United Methodist, not an Episcopalian (in the context of the United States). I mean the other error — the reference stating that President Obama is an Episcopalian. According to the story, this error was included in documents filed at the Jerusalem District Court. That makes it official?

As I hinted earlier, I assume that many journalists around the world have simply seen too many pictures of Obama and his family visiting St. John’s Episcopal Church, which is across the street from the White House. Thus, it is often called the “church of the presidents.”

However, this error does raise an interesting journalistic question, one that I was discussing with a Washington Post reporter just the other day.

The question is rather simple: Is it still accurate to say that Obama is a member of the freewheeling, at times iconoclastic denomination called the United Church of Christ? After all, it has been a long time since Obama broke his ties with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and resigned his membership at the Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side of Chicago.

Here inside the Beltway, Obama has visited St. John’s, as well as a few major African-American congregations. However, his family has never joined a church — citing security concerns. They are reported to attend frequent services at the Camp David chapel.

So, what is Obama, in terms of denominational affiliation? The UCC is — by heritage and history — a very congregational flock, even though it has a highly outspoken leadership squad at the national level. Obama is no longer a member of a UCC congregation. He has not joined another. Thus, for reporters, is it accurate to say that he remains a member of that trailblazing denomination on the left wing of mainline Protestantism?

One more question, asked with tongue in cheek: Has Obama ever met with Bishop Dawani? I mean, face to face? Just asking. Maybe the president confided his inner Anglicanism, which led to the inaccurate reference in the court document?

Stranger things have happened on the religion beat.

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Pod people: Talkin’ about the f-word

First of all, my apologies that this Crossroads podcast is arriving several days late. You see, some key members of your GetReligionista team have spend quite a bit of time on airplanes in the past week or so heading hither and yon (seeing snow on the ground as I went through the Denver airport really brought back some high-altitude memories for me).

So this is, truth be told, last week’s podcast — when the events in Egypt were much more fresh.

Still, I hope that you enjoy some additional discussion on the whole “what does fundamentalist actually mean” theme. This really is an important topic, especially when it comes to the interesting and important information in that recent Pew Research Center poll on religious and political attitudes in Arab Spring Egypt. Click here for the GetReligion post that opened that discussion.

Anyway, my interest in the poll led me to seek some clarification from the people behind this survey. As you will see, they chose to use an Arabic term in the survey that they — when jumping to English — translated as “fundamentalist.” It is a term that some Muslims have begun using when referring to “radicals” on the ultraconservative side of Islam.

But what groups fit under this umbrella? What are the doctrines associated with this term? Does anyone know? Not that I can discern.

So here is the end of my Scripps Howard News Service column — Define fundamentalist, please — that followed up on on the overarching issue, which is the cloud of acidic fog that now surrounds the word “fundamentalist.” This long slice focuses on the actual Pew data:

“Egyptians hold diverse views about religion,” stated the report.

“About six-in-ten (62%) think laws should strictly follow the teachings of the Quran. However, only 31% of Egyptian Muslims say they sympathize with Islamic fundamentalists, while nearly the same number (30%) say they sympathize with those who disagree with the fundamentalists, and 26% have mixed views on this question.”

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. Each of these stances meshes easily with alternative “fundamentalism” definitions offered by experts.

To add more complexity, 75 percent of those surveyed had a somewhat or very favorable view of the Muslim Brotherhood’s surging role in Egyptian life – a group long classified as “fundamentalist” in global reports, such as historian Martin Marty’s “Fundamentalism as a Social Phenomenon” in 1988.

While there is no Arabic word for “fundamentalist,” Pew researchers believe many Egyptians have begun applying a similar term to some groups of “very conservative Muslims,” according to James Bell, director of international survey research for the Pew Research Center.

However, he added, the complexities and even conflicts inside these new survey results make it hard to say specifically who is or who isn’t a “fundamentalist” in the context of Egypt today.

“For our Egypt survey, the term ‘fundamentalist’ was translated into Arabic as ‘usuuli,’ which means close to the root, rule or fundamental,” he explained. “It is our understanding that this Arabic term is commonly used to describe conservative Muslims. … So that’s the word that we used.”

Oh, one other fun point about that column and this podcast.

In the column, I decided to use a classic quote from the great Reformed Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga in which he offers a blunt view of what “fundamentalist” now means in the context of elite academia. For the wire service, this meant warning editors that my column contained the mild curse “sumbitch.” Why? Here’s Plantinga, in a longer version of the quote that I used:

I fully realize that the dreaded f-word will be trotted out to stigmatize any model of this kind. Before responding, however, we must first look into the use of this term ‘fundamentalist’. On the most common contemporary academic use of the term, it is a term of abuse or disapprobation, rather like ‘son of a bitch’, more exactly ‘sonovabitch’, or perhaps still more exactly (at least according to those authorities who look to the Old West as normative on matters of pronunciation) ‘sumbitch’. When the term is used in this way, no definition of it is ordinarily given. (If you called someone a sumbitch, would you feel obliged first to define the term?) Still, there is a bit more to the meaning of ‘fundamentalist’ (in this widely current use): it isn’t simply a term of abuse. In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views. That makes it more like ‘stupid sumbitch’ (or maybe ‘fascist sumbitch’?) than ‘sumbitch’ simpliciter. It isn’t exactly like that term either, however, because its cognitive content can expand and contract on demand; its content seems to depend on who is using it. In the mouths of certain liberal theologians, for example, it tends to denote any who accept traditional Christianity, including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Barth; in the mouths of devout secularists like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, it tends to denote anyone who believes there is such a person as God. The explanation is that the term has a certain indexical element: its cognitive content is given by the phrase ‘considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.’ The full meaning of the term, therefore (in this use), can be given by something like ‘stupid sumbitch whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of mine’.

On the podcast, enjoy my ex-Southern Baptist preacher’s kid reluctance to mangle the pronunciation of “sumbitch.” It’s not an academic word that I am used to using. Cheers.

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Oh, come all ye Jihadists!

And now for something completely different.

What we have here is the kind of commentary on the news that GetReligion tries to avoid, since the purpose of this blog is to offer criticism — positive and negative — of actual religion-news coverage in the mainstream press.

However, every now and then figures in the mainstream press simply say things that offer insights into what they actually think about religious issues and that, one could argue, offers insights into the coverage offered by their news organizations.

This brings us to an eyebrow-raising exchange the other day on NPR’s “On the Media” between host Bob Garfield and Aaron Zelin, who runs the website.

The topic of the broadcast was described this way:

Voices of jubilation were heard all across the American media this week following the news of Osama bin Laden’s death. But one voice not likely to be heard in the mainstream media was that of Al Qaeda supporters, who reacted to the news in online forums.

You can listen to the exchange, if you wish:

Or here is a slice of the transcript, in order to show context:

BOB GARFIELD: Was there anything on any of the sites that you frequent to suggest Al-Qaeda and its 20 years of the most violent sort of mischief has maybe come to naught?

AARON ZELIN: I’ve not seen any evidence of that. Those who already believe that bin Laden is dead cite how when the leader of the Arabs in Afghanistan in the ’80s against the Soviets died, the Jihad continued. And then they gave the example of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. He died, and the Jihad continued. So they still believe wholeheartedly that Al-Qaeda will keep on going and that the Jihad will continue, and that in the end they will be victorious.

BOB GARFIELD: Can you give me some specifics of the rhetoric that you’ve seen?

AARON ZELIN: Yeah, sure, I could give you some quotes.

“Please let them celebrate. They are celebrating their own end. Osama is in the heart of every Muslim, even those who don’t admit it publicly.”

There are some disturbing ones, such as, “I’ll cut the head of everyone who says Sheikh Osama is dead.” And then there’s this one — this is interesting: “Coming, oh, America, coming, oh, Jews, coming, oh, rejectionists” — which they’re referring to Shi’ites — “coming, oh, Kufar, secularists and apostates. Arrivals are coming and they are bringing the coffins with merciless devices.”

BOB GARFIELD: Wow. Come all ye faithful.

AARON ZELIN: Definitely. They believe in this stuff. Even if it sounds a little crazy to us, it’s not crazy to them. It’s completely rational because they have a completely different worldview.

(CUE: Audible sigh)

As the co-founder of this website — the honorable Douglas LeBlanc — put it in his note alerting us to this spew-your-coffee classic: “Why Garfield would cite a line from a joyous Christmas hymn in response to an apocalyptic list of targets — well, it boggles the mind.”

Consider my mind boggled. How do you feel about this, worthy readers?

Consider the comments pages open for interpretations of what, precisely, the NPR star was trying to say with this snarky zinger.

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Seeking facts in the Cairo flames

GetReligion, as we frequently remind readers, is not a religion-news site. It’s a weblog about how the mainstream press struggles — with good and bad results — to cover religion news, including hidden or even obvious religious “ghosts” in stories that are not obviously about religion.

Some readers “get” this and some do not. We have our share of folks, for example, who can’t even get the journalism angle down and remain committed to filling our comments pages with debates about doctrinal issues (as opposed to making valid journalistic points — citing facts and sources — about whether reporters and editors are covering doctrinal disputes in an accurate manner).

But, as the flames burn on in Egypt, here is an example of a note from a reader — Norman, by name — who does indeed “get” it.

According to The Telegraph, “Muslim mobs attack Chrisian churches.”

For the Washington Post, by contrast, what occurred were “Clashes between Muslims and Coptic Christians … in one of the most serious outbreaks of violence the country’s interim rulers have faced since taking power in February.”

In one formulation, the aggressor is quite clear, while in the other we have a “clashes” between two groups. I suppose being murdered does make you party to a clash between competing forces, in a way …

Now, that’s a valid point. As always, the coverage of these latest tragedies has been confused on several crucial point, often sliding into a kind of moral equivalency model symbolized by the dreaded “sectarian” label.

The truth, of course, is hard to capture in the simple words of a headline. It also does not help when journalists swamp their stories in vague labels that mean nothing — the usual “moderate,” “conservative,” ultra-conservative” and “fundamentalist” fog. That’s a problem that we simply have to keep discussing here.

There is so much coverage of the Egypt riots out there that I cannot deal with it all. However, I urge readers to keep the following issues in mind — subjects frequently discussed here — as you keep following these events.

* There is no one Islam. At the moment, these events involve players from at least four or five different Islamic camps. There are Muslims who are helping defend the churches, while others are attacking. There’s the Islamic Brotherhood establishment, which may or may not have its people on the street under full control. Are they or are they not involved with the radical Salafists who appear to be inciting these conflicts? Then there are the military-police authorities. Then there are the leaders of the reform movement in Egypt, etc., etc.

* Note the heavy emphasis on rumors. This is what can happen in a culture with no free and accurate press. Cellphones ring. Rumors spread. Reporters cannot or will not verify. Mobs form. Police “arrive late.” Members of various religious minority groups suffer and die. Churches burn. Repeat. This is a story that must be reported. Rumors become the reality.

* Look for signs that Egypt actually has courts, at the moment. The government keeps holding “reconciliation” meetings, but no one is every placed on trial for these crimes. Of course, it is a problem when you have Christians involved in these hellish events in a nation that is currently being ruled by a coalition made up of Muslim groups with often clashing concepts of Sharia law.

So what is a reporter to do? You have to quote the government authorities, even if you know that their reports are often whitewashed. You have to search for voices on both sides and attempt to describe their various degrees of involvement in the events themselves. You cannot settle for labels.

You can watch that struggle going on in the following New York Times piece by David D. Kirkpatrick, a reporter with a long GetReligion-reputation for doing precisely this kind of hard work. Yes, he has “sectarian tensions” in the lede, but this story at least attempts to show how tensions inside Islam are a key element in these events. As always, he is also very clear about providing sources for his information. Here’s the top of the report:

CAIRO – A night of street fighting between hundreds of Muslims and Christians left at least 12 people dead and two churches in flames on Sunday in the latest outbreak of sectarian tensions in the three months since the revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak.

By lifting the heavy hand of the Mubarak police state, the revolution unleashed long-suppressed sectarian animosities that have burst out with increasing ferocity, threatening the recovery of Egypt’s tourist economy and the stability of its hoped-for transition to democracy.

Well, that’s one way to say it.

As I said the other day in a post on Syria, the dark side of the Arab spring still seems to be a totally new concept to American editors and producers. Any Coptic Christian or any human-rights activist with experience studying Egypt, knew that events of this kind were coming.

The question, as always, is this: What happens to the rule of law? Will fair trials be held? Will courtroom justice be done, even if that means radical Muslims going to jail for violence against members of religious minorities (including some victims in competing groups of Muslims)?

This reality is seen near the top of Kirkpatrick’s report:

The Egyptian authorities vowed a swift response. The military council governing the country announced military trials for 190 people arrested in the violence. Civilian authorities promised increased security at houses of worship and a new ban on demonstrations outside such institutions. The interim prime minister, Essam Sharaf, canceled a trip abroad to preside over an emergency cabinet meeting, and Egypt’s most respected Muslim religious authority, the sheik of Al Azhar, denounced the violence.

“Egypt has already become a nation in danger,” Justice Minister Abdel Aziz al-Gindi said after the cabinet meeting, vowing to strike “with an iron hand” to preserve national security.

But by nightfall thousands of unsatisfied Christians — members of the indigenous Coptic Orthodox minority that makes up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population — gathered in protest outside the state television building, closing a main thoroughfare. Adapting the chants and tactics of the Tahrir Square sit-in and exercising their new freedom of assembly, the Copts accused the military government of indifference; called for the resignation of the military leader, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi; and vowed not to leave.

To prevent renewed violence, an overwhelming force of hundreds of heavily armed soldiers and riot police officers occupied the Cairo neighborhood where the clashes took place. …

Feel free to compare this Times report with some of the vague, thinner, simplistic church-attacks coverage that came before it. Feel free to offer us URLs for other information.

Here is my big question: At this point, has the story of the Arab spring evolved into a story about the possible extinction of the ancient Christian churches of the Middle East (and how America responds to that emerging reality)? I fear that we now face a human-rights implosion in the region, based on this reality: It doesn’t matter what your law says if police will not stop a riot and convict those who led it.

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