Explaining Muslim disagreements

sunnishiteLike a gazillion other people, I’ve started reading The Christian Science Monitor each morning. That’s because former hostage Jill Carroll has been telling her story on its pages over the last week and a half.

Each installment has been very interesting, if too short. But something in yesterday’s account really caught my eye:

I could also see that Shiites were high on their list of enemies. Once, when attempting to explain the historical split between Sunnis and Shiites, Abu Nour, the leader of my captors, stopped himself after he referred to “Shiite Muslims.”

“No, they are not Muslims,” Ink Eyes said. “Anyone who asks for things from people that are dead, and not [from] Allah, he is not a Muslim.”

He was referring to Shiites appealing to long-dead Islamic leaders to intercede with God, asking for miracles such as curing the sick. It’s a practice similar to that of Catholics praying to saints.

Wow! I have been trying so hard to find examples of doctrinal disagreements between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. This is the very first doctrinal difference I’ve seen.

It shouldn’t take a brutal kidnapping for reporters to share such information. These disagreements should be fleshed out in all major papers. And not just doctrinal disagreements but also any other factors that have spawned conflict over the ages. This story, which is ostensibly about Sunni and Shiite conflict, fails to explain the divide. So does this story, published today — although it does mention sectarian violence repeatedly.

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Take my wives, please!

polygamyisutahsome As I’m weeks away from my own impending nuptials, the thought of marrying more than one person seems awful — like residing in the Fifth Circle of Hell. Spouses are like noses. If you have more than one, people look at you funny.

But my fiance’s father dropped a bombshell on me a few months ago: the in-laws have polygamous ancestors. Which is not all that surprising considering they have been Mormon for generations.

So I was delighted to read this Salt Lake Tribune comprehensive breakdown of presidential contender Mitt Romney’s polygamous ancestry. Written by Thomas Burr, the article not only details the polgyamy, but explains it in a historical and religious context and analyzes the political fallout. Not bad!

I had no idea how vast Romney’s polygamous past was. His great-grandfather fled to Mexico after the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints renounced the Principle in 1890 so that Utah could join the union. His family tree includes six polygamous men with 41 wives:

Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith said he had received a revelation from God that men were encouraged to have multiple wives.

The doctrine was a return to a practice predating Jesus Christ. Not all Mormon men took multiple brides, but many did. Smith is thought to have had as many as 29 wives at one point.

Mitt Romney’s ancestors converted to Mormonism as the church was starting to spread in the 1830s and 40s. His great-great-grandfather, Miles Romney, eventually took on 13 wives, including the niece with the same name of his first wife, Elizabeth Gaskell.

. . . Parley P. Pratt was one of the influential LDS Church leaders during the early years. He married 12 times, though his first wife died before he took a second. A former husband of one of his plural wives eventually killed Pratt.

. . . Miles Park Romney took five brides, though one left him and the church. According to an American Heritage magazine story in 1964, he married one woman, Millie Eyring Snow, after the LDS Church’s 1890 “manifesto” renouncing polygamy. The two never had any children.

Parley Pratt! You can’t marry women who already have husbands! Anyway, the article goes on to analyze whether the polygamous past will have any fallout for Romney, citing polls and political analysts who think he’ll be fine. I thought Kate O’Beirne of the conservative National Review had the best line about the whole thing:

Should Mitt Romney join a 2008 race that included John McCain, Rudy Giuliani, Newt Gingrich and George Allen, the only guy in the GOP field with only one wife would be the Mormon.

Polygamists were also in the news earlier this week when a small group of children rallied in defense of their family makeup at a protest in Utah. I thought I would point out the different fashion reviews. Here’s AP:

Dressed in flip-flops and blue jeans, bangs drooping over their eyes, the teens at Saturday’s rally talked on cell phones and played rock music, singing lyrics written to defend their family life.

Here’s Reuters:

Most of the young men who spoke wore slacks, shirts and ties; the women wore long dresses and blouses.

Come on! There were only a dozen kids there! How could these details be so different? Also, what image were the reporters trying to convey using these different details? And which one is true?

Photo via NoveltyWearsOff on Flickr.

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A faulty Sunday school lesson

FirstBaptistWatertownOh the confusing tales that we journalists weave, except when we attempt to deceive by making them too simple.

Did you hear that Thomson Financial has begun using computer-generated stories? Yes, some of what journalists used to do is now being done by computers. I can’t say that’s surprising, because of the cut and paste, let’s get that data out there nature of some journalism.

This type of technology is a long way off from replacing religion reporters — except, perhaps, when you ignore the details of a slightly complicated story and write a formulaic article with a shocking headline that confirms stereotypes and misreports the facts.

When I first stumbled across an Associated Press article about the firing of a longtime Sunday School teacher because her Baptist church had adopted a “literal interpretation” of the Bible’s teaching on women in the church, I knew something was amiss. Here is a report from Dan Harris of ABC News, who is not a regular religion reporter, that is only slightly more detailed than the AP’s:

Aug. 21, 2006 — After 54 years of classes, a New York Sunday school teacher is getting an unexpected lesson in theology: She lost her job because of her sex.

Mary Lambert, 81, has been a member of the First Baptist Church in Watertown, N.Y., for 60 years. She had her wedding on the premises, raised her kids in its halls and taught Sunday school at First Baptist for more than five decades.

But she recently received a letter from the church board notifying her that the board had voted unanimously to dismiss her from her post. The letter referred to her sex as one of the reasons for her dismissal, quoting the Bible’s First Epistle to Timothy, which states: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.”

Actually if Harris had bothered to dig any further, he would have discovered a more complex story that is messy and involves church politics, factions, and what appears (at least to outsiders) as petty squabbling. I also have a suspicion that this article did not surprise his editors because it confirmed all their worst stereotypes. This article would set off alarm bells in the head of any editor with even the slightest understanding of the theology behind conservative church policies.

I won’t make any claims of knowing the full story, but after reading this letter from the church’s pastor, the Rev. Timothy LaBouf, it’s obvious that Lambert was not fired simply because she is a woman. A convenient fact that Harris and the AP left out of their articles is that, according to this letter from the church’s deacon board, which includes women, a large percentage of the Sunday school teachers at First Baptist Church, Watertown, N.Y., are women. They are not being fired.

Judging from LaBouf’s letter, it appears the church fired Lambert for making a fuss earlier this year — that ended up in the local media — about changes being made by a new pastor:

We had originally intended to include the various multifaceted reasons for the dismissal in our [correspondence;] however after legal review it was recommended that we refrain from including issues that could be construed as slander and stick with “spiritual issues” that govern a church, which the courts have historically stayed out of. With threats of lawsuits in the past we wanted to try hard to not go down that road again. I am sure you can understand why we would desire to exercise caution.

Yes, Pastor LaBouf, we all understand. However, your church’s sneaky actions did not make it easy for reporters and this seems to have backfired. But that is no excuse for reporters failing to dig out some of the nitty gritty facts and report them.

But why should we expect that level of detail from news reporters? It’s clear that reporters, including the author of this Reuters story, read the letter but chose to omit its details. What other facts have been left out?

It’s really not that complicated a story, unless you ignore facts to downgrade it to a level that could be written by a computer. Just remember, reporters, facts keep journalists in business.

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Death to bankers!

butcherthosewhomockislamThe New York Times ran a rather shocking article on British Muslim calls to violence. The hook is that the Antiterrorism Act of 2006 makes it a crime to glorify or encourage political violence but that some Muslim leaders are doing just that without government reprisal.

One of them is Atilla Ahmet, leader of the Islamist group Supporters of Shariah. In meetings with supporters and in interviews, the British-born Mr. Ahmet speaks freely about what he considers the necessity for violent action, both here and abroad, to avenge what he considers unjustified attacks on Muslims abroad.

“You are attacking our people in Muslim countries, in Iraq, in Afghanistan,” Mr. Ahmet said, referring to the British and American governments. “So it’s legitimate to attack British soldiers and policemen, government officials, and even the White House.”

Mr. Ahmet, a 42-year Briton of Cypriot descent, went on to include bank employees as legitimate targets “because they charge interest,” which he says is in violation of Islamic law.

There’s a lot to cover in an article about violent religious threats, ranging from legal issues to civil rights. And I think it’s a great article with a lot of juicy quotes — about killing people.

Everyone knows that there is a major religious component to the current terror headlines. So stories like this one should be all over the place. Reporters shouldn’t need a law punishing violent speech to report on what’s happening inside mosques and on websites. How about more articles on Muslim finance and how it compares to Christian and Jewish beliefs regarding usury?

Let’s see more stories on the sermons in Sunni and Shia mosques in Iraq, American Muslim sermons, etc. How do Muslims choose which mosque to attend? What are the major doctrinal divides in the religion?

Photo of a British Muslim protest via lakerae on Flickr.

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Reading Washington Times tea leaves

scarletmitt 1 It’s true. One of the reasons people inside and outside the Beltway read The Washington Times is to find out what Republican strategists are thinking. It’s interesting to find out what makes it into the official GOP talking points and what does not.

I always see the Times before I see The Washington Post, for the simple reason that I live in a blue-collar neighborhood on the south side of Baltimore that is not considered ritzy enough for home delivery of the Post. One will often see events in the Republican world in one of these papers and not in the other, and you can guess which is which.

So it was interesting to note this headline today in the Times, atop a story filed from Los Angeles by Christina Bellantoni: “Romney golden to GOP in blue state.” It states the obvious about the charismatic Gov. Mitt Romney:

Mr. Romney is eyeing a White House bid as he finishes his last few months in the Massachusetts governor’s mansion, and made his case to state party activists this weekend at the California Republican Convention. They loved him — cheering wildly for a stump speech that closely resembled a stand-up routine and later praising him as someone with the right kind of fiscal and conservative values.

“He’s got the charisma Kennedy had and the morals we wish Kennedy would have had,” said Republican Donee Chabot of Los Angeles, who works in real estate.

But I was also struck by this obvious paragraph:

Another Republican privately worried Mr. Romney’s Mormon faith would be a deterrent. The activist said Mormonism will be a difficult thing for the nation to get behind, a tougher religion to sell than President Kennedy’s Catholicism.

Now, where do you think Bellantoni — or her editors — played this interesting statement? Is there, or is is there not, some symbolism in this placement?

Just asking. In terms of journalism and story structure, it seemed rather strange to me.

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That shocking generation gap

british muslims“British Muslim Leaders Facing Generation Gap,” a Los Angeles Times headline informed us on Thursday. Is this news to anyone? Aren’t most leaders in Western cultures facing a generation gap of some kind or another? I know for a fact that there are gaps between generations [insert snarky comment here].

But this has tugged at my curiosity. Do Muslim leaders in Middle Eastern and South Asian countries face similar generation gaps? Or is traditional Islam passed seamlessly from generation to generation? While I’m less certain about this than I am about Western generation gaps, somehow I doubt it.

The article says elders are turning in youngsters to the police for expressing extremist ideas. The elders expressed shock and amazement over the extremist views of some in the younger generation:

[Muhammed Abdul] Munim, the currency trader, said the anger was such that he had heard some “extreme, extreme views” from younger people, either in conversations after soccer matches or hanging out at the fried chicken and pizza joints that dot Muslim neighborhoods here.

“From comments like, ‘If I had a bomb, I’d drop it on the U.S.,’ or, ‘If I had a bomb, I’d drop it on Israel,’” he said, before stopping himself. He added, “In the current climate, I don’t want to mention too many things.”

Numerous questions come to mind regarding these quotes, and stats cited earlier in the piece regarding the percentage of Muslims that sympathize with terrorism. Does a young Muslim saying he wants to commit an act of violence necessarily implicate him as a terrorist sympathizer? Switch the roles around to a rapper in the United States saying he wants to kill the police. What is the difference?

Is a young person expressing hate that unusual? It doesn’t help that young Muslims expressing extremist views have acted upon them. And that’s where the rubber meets the road.

So instead of reporting on how elderly Muslims are frustrated that their kids don’t understand or listen to them anymore (or visa versa) go out, dig deeper and find the root of this hatred. And no, I don’t want to hear that it’s because they have problems finding adequate work. There’s more to terrorism than a lack of jobs.

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What next, a jihad for Christ?

nicodemusI was reading this completely engrossing CNN story on Malika el Aroud, the widow of suicide bomber Abdessater Dahmane. He was one of the two fellows who killed Ahmed Shah Massoud, head of Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, by pretending to be broadcast journalists. Their camera hid an explosive. Anyway, she now lives in Switzerland with her new husband running a fan website for Osama bin Laden.

The story says she grew up as a rebellious kid in Belgium but then had a change of heart:

Her life changed dramatically after she was expelled from school for striking a teacher who el Aroud said uttered a racial taunt. She descended into a whirlwind of unsuitable men, drugs, alcohol and nightclubs until she tried to kill herself with a drug overdose.

She said she then became a born-again Muslim and embraced a fundamentalist interpretation of the religion. The strict laws gave her a sense of boundaries. It was in this circle that in 1999 she met and married the man who would kill Massoud.

Born-again Muslim? Isn’t that a curious phrase? What do you think about applying such a Christian description to another religion? I see other people, though not mainstream reporters, have used the phrase before, too. I’m wondering if Mrs. Suicide Bomber used that phrase or whether the reporter reworded what she said.

For those not in the know, here is where the phrase came from in the Gospel of John:

There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

What do you think about using the “born again” language for non-Christians?

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Failing to cover a journalistic crime

PhotoshopCSAltering photographs is nothing new, especially in this digital era. When applied to the news business, it is a Jason Blair-style crime along the lines of plagiarism and fabrication — maybe worse because altered images are sometimes difficult to detect and images are so powerful. The media watchdogs have largely failed in covering this issue of altered and staged photographs, and they are failing the public.

Here is Stephen A., commenting on an earlier post on the Reuters photographer:

Larry is right to point to LGF. The blogs have torn apart the pathetic and biased coverage of the conflict.

Not only the doctored (plural) pictures used by Reuters, but the use of misleading pictures, has been exposed. Such as the woman, dressed in the same outfit, mourning the destruction of her home, only the pictures were taken in front of two separate buildings two weeks apart, and passed off as two incidents. I won’t spell out the motives here.

Posted by Stephen A. at 12:07 pm on August 8, 2006

Why has this incident — and what appear to be other incidents — received so little coverage? Where is Howard Kurtz? Is he too busy interviewing Katie Couric? The usually on-the-ball media critics at National Public Radio’s On the Media have not yet mentioned the scandal.

Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times wrote a powerful column on this subject Saturday. Here’s a snippet:

There are, however, two problems here, and they’re the reason this controversy shouldn’t be allowed to sputter to its inglorious conclusion just yet: One of these has to do with the scope of what strongly appears to be wider fabrication in the photojournalism Reuters and other news agencies are obtaining from their freelancers in Lebanon. The other is the U.S. news media’s grudging response to the revelation of Hajj’s misconduct and its utter lack of interest in exploring whether his is a unique or representative case.

Thus far, only a handful of relatively brief stories on this affair have appeared in major American papers. The Times picked up one from the Washington Post, which focused mainly on the politics of Johnson’s website. The New York Times, which ran one of Hajj’s photos on its front page Saturday, reported that it has published eight of his pictures since 2003, but none were altered. It then went on to quote other papers about steps they take to detect fraudulent images. No paper has taken up the challenge of determining whether there’s anything dodgy about the flow of freelance photos Reuters and other news agencies — including the Associated Press, which also transmitted images made by Hajj — are sending out of tormented Lebanon.

It’s too bad this is an opinion column listed under entertainment news, because this altering and staging of photographs is one of the biggest media scandals of the year. Rutten, who comments on issues relating to the media, even picks up on a religion ghost that is sure to draw some controversy:

It’s worth noting in this context that there is no similar flow of propagandistic images coming from the Israeli side of the border. That’s because one side — the democratically elected government of Israel — views death as a tragedy and the other — the Iranian financed terrorist organization Hezbollah — sees it as an opportunity. In this case, turning their own dead children into material creates an opportunity to cloud the fact that every Lebanese casualty, tragic as he or she is, was killed or injured as an unavoidable consequence of Israel’s pursuit of terrorists who use their own people as human shields. Every Israeli civilian killed or injured was the victim of a terrorist attack intended to harm civilians. That alone ought to wash away any blood-stained suggestion of moral equivalency.

So why is this issue not being explored more thoroughly? All The New York Times managed to come up with is an article looking at the complexities of altering photographs. The only thing that I learned here was that the Soviet Union had an entire department devoted to altering photos. Time‘s Arts section had a much more honest, if brief, look at the subject — but with little investigation and more pondering.

Perhaps this is because a blogger uncovered, and continues to uncover, altered and staged photographs. Are the big media outlets tired of being scooped by bloggers? Perhaps it is because people alter photographs more often than anyone is willing to admit, particularly at big media institutions. As a person who used to do a bit of sports photography in college, I know how often photos are edited and cut down to create the most dramatic effect. At one point does one cross the line into altering or staging an image that violates basic journalistic ethics?

Why have the media given the Reuters photographer, whom they say is freelance, what essentially amounts to a free pass? He was caught trying to make an image of war more dramatic, and clumsily at that. He says it was an oversight, but that does not explain why he was altering the photo. Does he sympathize with Hezbollah? What about his photographs that were picked up by the Associated Press? Does AP need to pull those photos?

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