Teasing readers about propaganda

alqaedaLife is like a night in a second-class hotel. It contains hints of beauty and glory with little of the reality. This is more than a paraphrase of a quote from St. Teresa of Avila. It serves as an analogy for the coverage of religion in The Washington Post‘s two-part series about propaganda in the U.S. war against Islamic terrorism.

Reporter Craig Whitlock tantalized his readers with great quotes about the influence of religion in the battle. Yet he never examined or elaborated on it. I was left frustrated, feeling as if I were allowed to look at the dessert tray but not order from it.

Early on in the first article, Whitlock described the journalistic missteps of al-Hurra, the U.S.-funded Arabic language television network. His examples included the following:

One news anchor greeted the station’s predominantly Muslim audience on Easter by declaring, “Jesus is risen today!” After al-Hurra covered a December 2006 Holocaust-denial conference in Iran and aired, unedited, an hour-long speech by the leader of Hezbollah, Congress convened hearings and threatened to cut the station’s budget.

These are two fine examples of religious and political ignorance. Yet Whitlock did not analyze or elaborate upon their implications. Did Middle-Eastern audiences, most of whom presumably are Islamic, know or sense that the network’s anchors are Christian? Were network executives unaware that some Islamic speakers would be anti-Semitic or Holocaust deniers?

Both questions are relevant. Later on in the first story, Whitlock reports that the news staff idid not mirror its audience:

None of the team members spoke Arabic. For that, they relied on Mouafac Harb, a Lebanese journalist hired as al-Hurra’s first news director.

According to former al-Hurra staffers, Harb filled the newsroom with Lebanese employees, many of whom had thin journalistic credentials. Anchors spoke in heavy Lebanese dialects, turning off viewers from other countries. On-air reporting errors were common.

“He hired his friends — this was the problem — and they didn’t have any experience,” said Magdi Khalil, a former producer who clashed with Harb. “I told him, ‘We need to improve the quality.’ He said, ‘No, no — we need to fill the air.’ He had no idea what being a news station means.”

In a telephone interview from Beirut, Harb said it wasn’t easy to persuade leading Arab journalists to come to Washington to work for a station funded by the U.S. government. He denied that his anchors and news-show hosts spoke in dialects but acknowledged that the staff was top-heavy with Lebanese.

You gotta wonder if religious differences also turned off viewers. Nearly two-fifths of Lebanon is Christian. Did Middle-Eastern viewers see al-Hurrah as not only the American channel, but also the Christian and Jewish one? It’s a real question. At the end of the story, Whitlock quotes one ordinary Middle-Eastern citizen saying the following:

On a busy shopping street in Cairo one recent evening, it was difficult to turn up loyal al-Hurra viewers. Most people said they had not heard of the station or had only a passing familiarity with it.

“I’ve watched it a couple of times, but I mostly watch al-Jazeera,” said Hayam Saad, 35, a homemaker. “There are just too many channels on the satellite dish, and people want something they can relate to.”

Other people cited al-Hurra’s strange mix of programming: old documentaries with Arabic subtitles, a program about a Jewish singing group on tour in Australia, a show on the history of bluejeans.

It’s too bad. Whitlock wrote a well-reported, interesting story. But the article’s failure to explore the role of religion made the story incomplete.

The same problem bedeviled his article about al-Qaeda’s successful use of the Internet. Just like in the first story, Whitlock began on a promising note:

Early this year, a religious radical calling himself Abu Hamza had a question for the deputy leader of al-Qaeda regarding the Egyptian secret police. “Are they committing unbelief?” he tapped on his keyboard. “And is it permissible to kill them?”

A few weeks later, an answer came from a man with a $25 million bounty on his head, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Killing the police is justified, Zawahiri replied, because they are “infidels, each and every one of them.”

This graph suggested a lot: al-Qaeda fighters are theologically curious, if blood thirsty; dependent on a wise man for theological and spiritual guidance; view religion as central to their being.

Yet Whitlock did not explore any of these angles. Instead, he wrote about al-Qaeda’s technological sophistication and power, as well as the success of a native Californian at making recruiting videos. Don’t get me wrong; each is a key part of the story. But isn’t the apparently religious-inspired enthusiasm of al-Qaeda’s members?

Sure, reporters have explored al-Qaeda’s religious beliefs before. But this story needed more religious context. Is their commitment to their brand of Islam their sole motivation? Do al-Qaeda fighters take all of their marching orders from figures such as al-Zawahiri or al-Zawahiri himself?

I’m not asking for much — a sentence here, a paragraph there. A little bit of religion coverage could have gone a long way.

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Coverage of God in the flooding

The brutality of the flooding in the Midwest is hard to comprehend unless you have seen the devastation personally. News stories about flooding generally include the details of rivers cresting, the sandbagging of levees and flood damage assessments. Occasionally a blurb regarding a church or a community’s call for God’s assistance is mentioned, but only rarely.

While coverage of the role of religion in the flooding is sparse, some of the most striking imagery coming out of the Mississippi River flooding has been of churches. See The New York Times and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Journalists have also regularly noted the human help Amish and Mennonite communities have provided alongside U.S. Marines, farmers and others as they desperately try to save their communities.

With many towns submerged along the Mississippi River over the weekend, the Associated Press was one of the only news organizations I could find that included a religion angle compelling enough to put in the lead. Here is what many newspapers outside the region used for flood coverage in their Monday morning editions:

LOUISIANA, Mo. — As the faithful gathered for church services Sunday in towns hit hard by flooding along the Mississippi River, many found comfort in word the swollen waterway had started to reach its high point.

Dozens of parishioners filled the dry Centenary United Methodist Church in Louisiana, a few blocks from floodwaters that still cover about 15 percent of the town’s neighborhoods. They prayed for aid and gave thanks for the volunteers, National Guard soldiers and prison inmates who helped the community of nearly 4,000 in recent days.

“And they all worked,” Pastor Jeanne Webdell said of the volunteers. “They worked for a cause bigger than themselves, worked to help people that most didn’t even know. And through them we could see God’s love in action.”

If there are other newspapers that have coverage of the flood with a religion angle, please let me know.

The other religion angle floating around news publications, mainly outside the Midwest, usually leads with a variation of the following headline:

Iowa Flooding Could Be An Act of Man, Experts Say

In a way, this is a “man bites dog” story. What goes unsaid in that headline is that the floods are not an act of God (or just a random act of nature). Apparently, man is the cause of these floods. Here is some of the evidence:

Enshayan, director of an environmental center at the University of Northern Iowa, suspects that this natural disaster wasn’t really all that natural. He points out that the heavy rains fell on a landscape radically reengineered by humans. Plowed fields have replaced tallgrass prairies. Fields have been meticulously drained with underground pipes. Streams and creeks have been straightened. Most of the wetlands are gone. Flood plains have been filled and developed.

“We’ve done numerous things to the landscape that took away these water-absorbing functions,” he said. “Agriculture must respect the limits of nature.”

Officials are still trying to understand all the factors that contributed to Iowa’s flooding, and not everyone has the same suspicions as Enshayan. For them, the cause was obvious: It rained buckets and buckets for days on end. They say the changes in land use were lesser factors in what was really just a case of meteorological bad luck.

Perhaps someone should point out that rivers naturally flood, and if it weren’t for the extensive system of levees and dams, few would consider living near a moving body of water, particularly one as large and powerful as the Mississippi. I guess you could say that that is the way God set it up, and man came in and tried to change things. If journalists are going to start getting literal with the blame game regarding the floods (thankfully beyond what Pat Robertson has to say), credit should be given where credit is due.

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Times questions Obama inclusiveness

obama 04In the past, I have criticized stories for lacking sufficient context and detail about religion. Today I will praise a New York Times story for exhibiting those qualities, as well as making a relevant point.

Reporter Andrea Elliott wrote about the Obama campaign’s efforts to distance itself from American Muslims. She began the story this way:

As Senator Barack Obama courted voters in Iowa last December, Representative Keith Ellison, the country’s first Muslim congressman, stepped forward eagerly to help.

Mr. Ellison believed that Mr. Obama’s message of unity resonated deeply with American Muslims. He volunteered to speak on Mr. Obama’s behalf at a mosque in Cedar Rapids, one of the nation’s oldest Muslim enclaves. But before the rally could take place, aides to Mr. Obama asked Mr. Ellison to cancel the trip because it might stir controversy. Another aide appeared at Mr. Ellison’s Washington office to explain.

“I will never forget the quote,” Mr. Ellison said, leaning forward in his chair as he recalled the aide’s words. “He said, ‘We have a very tightly wrapped message.’”

Elliott’s lede shows that this story gets religion. By talking with Ellison, Elliott highlighted the degree to which the Obama campaign, or at least some members of it, is keeping American Muslims at arm’s length: Even a Democratic Congressman, and one who volunteered to help the campaign, said he was snubbed because of his religious affiliation.

Later on in the story, Elliott provided context to understand Muslims’ frustrations with the Obama campaign, as well as those of Hillary Clinton and John McCain. The following passage deserves to be quoted at length:

Despite the complications of wooing Muslim voters, Mr. Obama and his Republican rival, Senator John McCain, may find it risky to ignore this constituency. There are sizable Muslim populations in closely fought states like Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Virginia.

In those states and others, American Muslims have experienced a political awakening in the years since Sept. 11, 2001. Before the attacks, Muslim political leadership in the United States was dominated by well-heeled South Asian and Arab immigrants, whose communities account for a majority of the nation’s Muslims … The number of American Muslims remains in dispute as the Census Bureau does not collect data on religious orientation; most estimates range from 2.35 million to 6 million.

A coalition of immigrant Muslim groups endorsed George W. Bush in his 2000 campaign, only to find themselves ignored by Bush administration officials as their communities were rocked by the carrying out of the USA Patriot Act, the detention and deportation of Muslim immigrants and other security measures after Sept. 11.

As a result, Muslim organizations began mobilizing supporters across the country to register to vote and run for local offices, and political action committees started tracking registered Muslim voters. The character of Muslim political organizations also began to change.

“We moved away from political leadership primarily by doctors, lawyers and elite professionals to real savvy grass-roots operatives,” said Mahdi Bray, executive director of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation, a political group in Washington. “We went back to the base.”

In 2006, the Virginia Muslim Political Action Committee arranged for 53 Muslim cabdrivers to skip their shifts at Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia to transport voters to the polls for the midterm election. Of an estimated 60,000 registered Muslim voters in the state, 86 percent turned out and voted overwhelmingly for Jim Webb, a Democrat running for the Senate who subsequently won the election, according to data collected by the committee.

Talk about a revealing sketch of American Muslims in political life. Elliott described Muslims by their recent history and the changing demographics of their leadership. Not to overpraise her, but the above passage was reminiscent of the great Samuel Lubell’s characterization of American religious groups in the early- and mid-twentieth centuries.

Good detail and context about religion are one thing. But those two qualities need to be tied to an important point. In this case, Elliott suggested one: Obama is hypocritical. He talks the talk about inclusion and unity. But he likely does not walk the walk. As Elliott implied,

While the senator has visited churches and synagogues, he has yet to appear at a single mosque. Muslim and Arab-American organizations have tried repeatedly to arrange meetings with Mr. Obama, but officials with those groups say their invitations — unlike those of their Jewish and Christian counterparts — have been ignored. Last week, two Muslim women wearing head scarves were barred by campaign volunteers from appearing behind Mr. Obama at a rally in Detroit.

In interviews, Muslim political and civic leaders said they understood that their support for Mr. Obama could be a problem for him at a time when some Americans are deeply suspicious of Muslims. Yet those leaders nonetheless expressed disappointment and even anger at the distance that Mr. Obama has kept from them.

“This is the ‘hope campaign,’ this is the ‘change campaign,’” said Mr. Ellison, Democrat of Minnesota. Muslims are frustrated, he added, that “they have not been fully engaged in it.”

Aides to Mr. Obama denied that he had kept his Muslim supporters at arm’s length. They cited statements in which he had spoken inclusively about American Islam and a radio advertisement he recorded for the recent campaign of Representative Andre Carson, Democrat of Indiana, who this spring became the second Muslim elected to Congress.

In May, Mr. Obama also had a brief, private meeting with the leader of a mosque in Dearborn, Mich., home to the country’s largest concentration of Arab-Americans. And this month, a senior campaign aide met with Arab-American leaders in Dearborn, most of whom are Muslim …

“Our campaign has made every attempt to bring together Americans of all races, religions and backgrounds to take on our common challenges,” Ben LaBolt, a campaign spokesman, said in an e-mail message.

Mr. LaBolt added that with religious groups, the campaign had largely taken “an interfaith approach, one that may not have reached every group that wishes to participate but has reached many Muslim Americans.”

The passage above was revealing. Obama’s own Muslim supporters believe the candidate is trying to have it both ways.

However, Elliott’s story is not comprehensive. It does not address this point made by regular GR commentator Chip:

Politico … did talk about how at previous campaign events in Seattle and in Minnesota Obama appeared with Muslims wearing traditional garb.

Elliott should have included the above exculpatory information in her story. It would have perhaps forced her to raise more subtle points. For example, Elliott would have done well addressing the questions below from Daniel:

Are there any policies — spoken/written or unsaid — that have staffers or volunteers intentionally screen the people positioned behind Obama when he speaks in front of large audiences and cameras? Is there an internal campaign policy regarding Obama and his campaign’s association with Islam?

Despite this weakness, Elliott wrote the type of story that reporters should imitate.

(Photo of Barack Obama in Council Bluffs, IA by user Barack Obama used under a Creative Commons license.)

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Pew views: Questions about Oprah America

rainbow vestments 04As you may have noticed — if you have taken a turn or two around the WWW in the past 20 hours or so (click here) — those amazingly productive people over at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life have rolled out the second half of their lay-of-the-land study of religion in the United States.

I’ll kick off the GetReligion discussion of the coverage by looking at the national stories in the New York Times and USA Today. I would also urge you to head straight over to the Pew Forum site and check out the survey for yourself. We are very much at the stage where most — repeat, “most” — of the press reports are sticking to the Forum’s own talking points.

But first let me make three comments about the main headlines, which center on this question in the survey:

[IF RESPONDENT HAS A RELIGIOUS AFFILIATION, ASK:] Now, as I read a pair of statements, tell me whether the FIRST statement or the SECOND statement comes closer to your own views even if neither is exactly right. First/next: My religion is the one, true faith leading to eternal life, OR: many religions can lead to eternal life.

Question No. 1: What is a “religion”? What is a “faith”?

I am being a bit picky here, but I suspect that if you asked a lot of people that Pew Forum question today, they would think of the great world religions. But many Christians would think more narrowly than that. Not all. Not many, perhaps. But some. What is your religion? I’m a Baptist, a Nazarene, an Episcopalian, a Catholic. Can people outside of your religion be saved? Of course. This is not the same thing, for many, as saying that they believe that salvation is found outside faith in Jesus Christ. There are others who might have a “dual covenant” view of Judaism, but not apply that belief to Islam, Hinduism, Wicca, Buddhism, etc.

Other Christians may believe that, somehow, all people will — in this life or the next — face some kind of spiritual decision about Jesus being “the way, the truth and the life.” But if you asked them if that means that only Christians will “be saved,” they will say that only God can know that. It is highly unlikely that they will say that the Bible is wrong or that centuries of Christian teaching are wrong. Yet it is unlikely that all of them — even Billy Graham — will be strictly dogmatic about what THEY know about eternity. How do they answer this Pew question?

In other words, there is a reason that the first two questions in the infamous “tmatt trio” are:

Are the biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

Question No. 2: Is the American press now officially defining “tolerance” in doctrinal terms instead of in social or public terms? In other words, to be “tolerant” now, does one have to hold a certain doctrine of salvation? Do you have to be a “universalist” on that issue and believe that all religious paths lead to the top of the same eternal mountain?

What happened to the old definition — at the heart of American church-state separation — that citizens were supposed to be tolerant of other people’s religious beliefs and allow them full rights of free speech and association? In other words, is it now “tolerant” to be intolerant of people that you do not believe to be adequately tolerant on issues of salvation? There was a time, early in American history, when one of the main points of religious toleration was to provide freedom for people to proclaim their beliefs, even if that meant evangelism by, let’s say, Baptists in a state that was led by, let’s say, intolerant Anglicans (think Virginia). This point of view influenced the freethinkers of that day, including a deist or universalist like Thomas Jefferson.

Question No. 3: Has there been much actual change in the beliefs of the more committed 40 percent of the U.S. population that tends to practice its faith in a more strict manner? For a generation or two, the Gallup Poll numbers have consistently shown that about 40 percent of all Americans are frequent worshipers and people whose beliefs impact their daily lives in a strong way.

You can read the Pew Forum data and reach the conclusion there is a lot of change in the other 60 percent and perhaps some change in younger people in the 40 percent. But I am not sure that this survey shows that the vague, foggy faith of “Oprah America” has really cracked that much deeper into the beliefs of the people who are in the pews and on their knees week after week. I am sure there is change — James Davison Hunter has been seeing warning signs for decades — and I think the Pew Forum folks are sharp enough to find it and underline it. But I still want to know more about how the “true believers” are faring in this day and age. Has there been much change there?

So with that background, let’s turn to the lede in the Times:

Although a majority of Americans say religion is very important to them, nearly three-quarters of them say they believe that many faiths besides their own can lead to salvation, according to a survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The report, the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, reveals a broad trend toward tolerance and an ability among many Americans to hold beliefs that might contradict the doctrines of their professed faiths. For example, 70 percent of Americans affiliated with a religion or denomination said they agreed that “many religions can lead to eternal life,” including majorities among Protestants and Catholics. Among evangelical Christians, 57 percent agreed with the statement, and among Catholics, 79 percent did. Among minority faiths, more than 80 percent of Jews, Hindus and Buddhists agreed with the statement, and more than half of Muslims did.

The findings seem to undercut the conventional wisdom that the more religiously committed people are, the more intolerant they are, scholars who reviewed the survey said.

stoles 01Several questions: How is that mush word “evangelical” defined? And, again, has a real tie between religious commitment and this new doctrinal toleration actually been demonstrated?

After all, a few lines later we read:

The survey confirms findings from previous studies that the most religiously and politically conservative Americans are those who attend worship services most frequently, and that for them, the battles against abortion and gay rights remain touchstone issues.

And later:

As past surveys have shown, this report found that Americans who prayed more frequently and attended worship services more often tended to be more conservative and “somewhat more Republican” than other people. Majorities of Mormons and evangelicals say they are conservative, compared with 37 percent of Americans over all. (Twenty percent say they are liberal, and 36 percent say moderate.)

This turns into politics so quickly, doesn’t it? I wish there was a survey that really went hard, in very detailed language, about the underlying doctrines.

Meanwhile, if you want a fuller survey of all the results — and the over-arching trends in the vague 60 to 70 percent of the population — turn to Cathy Lynn Grossman’s reporting in USA Today. Here is a key piece of her long story:

The survey finds U.S. adults believe overwhelmingly (92%) in God, and 58% say they pray at least once a day. But the study’s authors say there’s a “stunning” lack of alignment between people’s beliefs or practices and their professed faiths. …

Among the highlights:

* 78% overall say there are “absolute standards of right and wrong,” but only 29% rely on their religion to delineate these standards. The majority (52%) turn to “practical experience and common sense,” with 9% relying on philosophy and reason, and 5% on scientific information.

* 74% say “there is a heaven, where people who have led good lives are eternally rewarded,” but far fewer (59%) say there’s a “hell, where people who have led bad lives and die without being sorry are eternally punished.”

* 70%, including a majority of all major Christian and non-Christian religious groups except Mormons, say “many religions can lead to eternal life.”

* 68% say “there’s more than one true way to interpret the teachings of my religion.”

* 44% want to preserve their religion’s traditional beliefs and practices. But most Catholics (67%), Jews (65%), mainline Christians (56%) and Muslims (51%) say their religion should either “adjust to new circumstances” or “adopt modern beliefs and practices.”

Like I said, there are many, many, many more angles and stories to investigate. Tell us the best ones that you have seen in other media.

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Gay marriage: More religious depth, please

depthSome religion stories err because the reporter, instead of diving into the topic’s waters, skims along its surface. As a result, a reader comes away thinking he has not learned much. I certainly did not learn much after reading two recent stories about homosexuality in California.

For The Washington Post, reporter Ashley Surdin wrote about a lesbian woman who sued a medical provider for failing to inseminate her artificially. The doctor said that she denied the woman treatment because it conflicted with her religious beliefs. The case is now before the California Supreme Court. While an interesting dispute, Surdin did not give her readers much context:

“Freedom of religion absolutely protects all of their conduct in this case,” [Kenneth Pedroza, an attorney for the two doctors] said. “There are two areas in medical care where freedom of religion is invoked most clearly: in the creation of life and the termination of life.” And just as patients have rights, he said, so too do doctors.

Jennifer C. Pizer, a lawyer with the gay rights group Lambda Legal who is representing Benitez, said that while the law protects doctors who refuse certain treatments on religious grounds, it does not allow them to do so on a discriminatory or selective basis. In other words, when doctors refuse a treatment, their refusal must apply to all patients — not to a group, such as unmarried women or lesbians.

“All you have to do is imagine, for a moment, a doctor agreeing to an abortion for women of color but saying, ‘I will not’ for white women. Or a Jewish doctor saying, ‘I will do an abortion for Muslim women, but not Jewish women.’ Or vice versa,” Pizer said. “Just imagining those possibilities shows how deeply problematic such a notion would be.”

A trial court sided with Benitez in 2004, ruling that doctors in a for-profit medical group must comply with California’s anti-discrimination laws, regardless of religion. An appeals court overturned that decision one year later, finding that the previous ruling had denied the doctors’ religious rights.

These passages begs lots of questions. At what point does the doctor’s right to exercise her religion trump the patient’s right to treatment? Also, why did the lower court rule that anti-discrimination laws outweighed those of religious freedom and the second one did not?

Surely both questions deserve a sentence or two. Without a hint at an answer, the reader comes away with a two-dimensional presentation of reality. Perhaps Surdin should have distinguished, or had an authority distinguish, between rulings that allow doctors to refuse to perform abortions but not allow them to refuse to dispense contraceptives.

For The Los Angeles Times, reporter My-Thuan Tran wrote about a similar issue: wedding vendors who refuse to sell their wares to newly married same-sex couples. As you might imagine, some vendors do so for religious reasons. To her credit, Tran found a Christian minister who doubles as a wedding photographer:

Eric Nelson of Nelson Photography in Lake Forest is a wedding photographer and ordained minister through the Trinity Evangelical Christian Church.

Nelson has already booked a same-sex wedding in July, but his religious beliefs and his business sense took him in two directions.

So he’ll only be taking the photos. He will not officiate gay weddings, which he said conflict with his Christian beliefs.

“To me, it’s not about being uncomfortable,” Nelson said. “It’s a choice, like a choice of what clothes to put on in the morning.” Photographing a same-sex wedding is not the same as “solemnizing a wedding,” he said.

The south Orange County photographer-minister said he would likewise turn down officiating weddings for heterosexual couples who he knew were involved in drugs or crime. “If you come to me and I find out you don’t live in the best lifestyle and are not the type of person I would perform a wedding for, I wouldn’t do it,” he said. “I have a choice.”

Nelson’s comments are unexceptionable; many readers will agree with him, as with the idea that homosexual marriage conflicts with traditional religious teaching. I think readers would be better served, however, if Tran had probed Californians religious reasons for opposing gay marriage. It’s clear what the California Supreme Court thinks: gays today are no different from blacks 60 years ago. But it’s not clear what traditionally religious Californians think.

Of course, my call for more depth has a downside; newspapers today are short on space. But in these two stories, the lack of depth meant a loss of understanding.

NOTE: Please stick to the point of my post. All other comments will be treated with extreme prejudice.

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When religion and work are at odds

MuslimveilsReporter Chris Serres of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune had an interesting, if evergreen, topic for a recent story. Using a recent hook, he wrote about the clashes that come from efforts to assimilate immigrants in the work place.

The reader who sent the piece in saw it in the Contra Costa Times. It was significantly edited down from the original, and I’m not sure all of the edits were wise. It’s a good reminder that many people are involved in getting a story to print. Anyway, here’s how Serres begins:

Fatuma Hassan has just enough rice in her near-empty cupboards to make it through the month. The anger she felt when she lost her job in May has given way to a dull, nagging hunger.

Yet this soft-spoken 22-year-old became an unlikely hero within the Somali community when she and five of her Muslim co-workers were dismissed last month from the Mission Foods tortilla factory in New Brighton for refusing to wear a new company uniform — a shirt and pants — they consider a violation of their Islamic beliefs.

“For me, wearing pants is the same as being naked,” Hassan said, noting the prophet Mohammed taught that men and women should not dress alike. “My culture, my religious beliefs, are more important than a uniform.”

I love the anecdotal lede but it’s perhaps a bit heavy on the guilt. Still, it’s clearly a great hook to explore all of the problems countries and their immigrants face. The only problem is that the story doesn’t really do that in a way that advances the discussion. We get these nut graphs that tell us what the story is all about . . . :

Their insistence on maintaining Muslim traditions, including prayer times and modest clothing, have led to firings at several manufacturers across the state and a sharp increase in religious discrimination complaints.

The well-publicized clashes also have sparked legal and ethical debates on whether efficiency-hungry workplaces are doing enough or defiant workers are accommodating too little.

. . . but then there is no discussion of what efforts the parties have made to accommodate each other, if any. And despite being told that these clashes are sparking debate about accommodation, the story provides little evidence of that. This is a very real conflict that puts all individuals involved in tough situations. Presumably the employers are required to follow federal and state Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards, for instance. We don’t hear from them about whether their dress code was related to such regulations or not. We don’t hear if they tried to accommodate the employees. We don’t hear about the Somalis trying to work with their employers, either.

The reporter compares the Somali experience to that of Orthodox Jews, nothing that they both have distinctive food taboos, clothing and their own religious schedule. Sometimes Serres makes the case that the problem is religious bias, sometimes it’s cultural, sometimes it’s economic and then it becomes racial:

“We have a saying in Somalia that ‘he who approaches the lion does not know what a lion is,’” said Abdi Sheikhosman, a professor of Islamic law at the University of Minnesota. “Many Somalis arrive here not knowing the history of racial divide in this country. They don’t know the lion they are up against.”

The quote is dropped in without any response or context and seems to only confuse matters, particularly since no one raised the racial issue in their discrimination complaints. Presumably, though, cultural, religious, economic and other factors collide to cause these problems. It’s great that Serres doesn’t try to force one explanation if the facts on the ground suggest a more complex situation.

Another aspect to the story I liked was that it permitted conflicting analysis. Here, for instance, the Islamic law professor argues that Somalis feel their freedom is being violated:

Many Somalis come from tribes that move with their herds every six months in a constant search for safe grazing land, Sheikhosman said. Many of these nomads are fiercely independent and equate freedom with being left alone, he said.

Sheikhosman said that each time he returns to Somalia to visit his relatives, he is struck by “the general chaos of the place,” he said. At a Somali airport counter, he said, the only way to be served is to yell and push one’s way through a crowd.

“Imagine that a person comes coming from that environment is suddenly subjected to all these regulations and rules” in the workplace, he said. “He may think these are an intrusion to the freedom that he had at home. He’s not afraid to take a stand.”

The story ends, however, with opposing anecdotal evidence. An owner of a building maintenance company describes some of the problems that have arisen from hiring Somalis and how they were easily resolved. The anecdote also demonstrates that whatever may have happened in the factory example, Minnesotan employers have experience accommodating Muslim employees.

It’s a great idea for a topic. However, I wish Serres had provided a bit more critical context about the situation. An expert in religious accommodation by private employers was desperately needed, for instance. A look at how other religious disputes in the workplace have been settled would also have been nice. I kept hoping to read something from a Muslim scholar who can explain Muslim views on dress in greater detail. And I even think it would have been helpful to have some quotes from people who felt that the Somalis were being unreasonable. The story included many quotes arguing against the employers, which is fine. But for a story that is not cut and dry, it would be nice to see a bit of a response to some of the arguments advanced by the Somalis and their defenders.

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Morality-free porn coverage

picassoThe Columbus Dispatch had one of the most straightforward accounts of a porn try-out session I have ever seen in a mainstream newspaper Thursday. Substitute the subject of pornography, and you could have easily placed the story in the Wednesday afternoon farmer’s market where tomatoes and cabbage are for sale to the general public.

Here is a sample of the article:

Now, at 20, the University of Toledo student is hoping for a “comeback” in Playboy — a curious notion for someone who had to be persuaded to wear shorts, instead of jeans, to the Columbus call.

“People dare you to go off the high dive. I think this is her jump, you know?” said her mother, Jackie Lampros-Moore, waiting outside Megan’s audition room.

“It’s like: ‘If I can do this, I can do anything.’ ”

To her credit, Megan answered her interview questions confidently — or, at least, loudly — and didn’t shake as much as she thought she would.

She winked and smirked for photos in a blue bikini, then agreed to take off her top.

Here, a reporter faces a nearly impossible challenge of being objective in a news report. There is the perspective that pornography is a legitimate trade that helps women and that it should not be seen as (morally) wrong. This is the perspective that this article seems to convey to an extent. There is of course the more traditional (or feminist?) view that pornography exploits women and should not be condoned. This view is largely absent from the story but lurks between the lines.

See this quote from a mother of one of the women. I cannot say for sure whether she is proving encouragement or sarcasm:

After the five-minute audition Tuesday, Megan returned to the lobby to tell her mother that she had just been photographed completely naked.

“Oh, nice, princess!” the proud mom exclaimed.

And then, like a true amateur model, Megan headed to get a Whopper.

Most Playboy wannabes are similarly uninitiated, said Jeff Cohen, executive editor and publisher of special editions, who estimates that 90 percent of the hopefuls have never modeled.

I didn’t provide the emphasis on the word “nice.” It was included in the story.

After thinking about it over the weekend, I appreciate that this story allows the reader to draw their own conclusion. It reminds me of Stephanie Simone’s “up close and personal” look at abortion clinics. Regular readers of this blog will recognize that as quite a compliment.

On Friday, I noted that the coverage of the alleged pact between high school students all under the age of 16 to get pregnant lacked much coverage regarding morality and values. The challenge here is related, but the absence of values coverage is more stark and perhaps that’s appropriate. The characters in the Playboy story are given voices. The opposite was true in the coverage of the pregnancy “pact” stories where the characters declined to speak to reporters.

In this case, no one challenges the decision to disrobe for the cameras, and there are no apparent consequences to society. Perhaps with intimate up-close coverage as provided here, this is the best way to go. Readers are given the freedom to draw their own conclusions from a straightforward news account.

Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon completed in 1907 used under fair use rational. Copyright is claimed by Picasso’s estate.

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WaPo’s sabbath from criticism

sundayschool2 I got a confession to make. For years, I avoided reading the religion sections of weekend papers. The stories were uncritical and dull. They were about children lighting candles or people praying for peace and love.

That’s not why I read stories about religion. Good stories were about social conflict, individual sacrifice, and theological demands. They were about Jews vs. Muslims in the Middle East or Catholics vs. Protestants in Northern Ireland; Mother Teresa helping the poor on the streets of Calcutta; and disputes over what happens in abortion clinics and people do in their bedrooms. For lack of better words, religious stories were not only exciting but also complex.

Since contributing to GR, I now read the religious sections in weekend newspapers. Yet my main criticism of them, for most of their stories anyway, still stands. Take this Washington Post story by Jacqueline Salmon.

The story was about non-Christian religions that teach children their values and beliefs on Sunday. It was really two stories rolled into one, both of which were uncritical celebrations of religion.

The first story was about four religious groups that hold Sunday school for their children:

In the Hindu faith “there is nothing in the tradition which mandates Sunday as particularly sacred,” said Vineet Chander, a spokesman for the Hare Krishna movement. Formally known as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, it is a branch of Hinduism.

But in the United States, Sunday “becomes a practical choice,” Chander said.

Later we read:

The Jewish faith offers Sunday school, even though its Sabbath runs from sundown Friday through sundown Saturday. For Reform and Conservative synagogues, as well as some Orthodox ones, Sunday mornings are a time for younger children to learn about their religion and the Jewish culture in preparation for their bar or bat mitzvahs. …

Sunday religious programs for Muslim children are also a well-established tradition in the United States. The All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS), one of the largest mosques in the D.C. area, offers morning and afternoon sessions for 500 children at its Sterling location, ADAMS spokesman Rizwan Jaka said. Along with studying the Koran, the children learn Arabic, socialize, play sports and do community service work. The usual Islamic day of worship is Friday.

Let it be said that this information is interesting; I did not know each group held Sunday school. But it is not news. As Salmon notes, each group has held Sunday school for years. So why are we presented this information now? It’s confusing.

The story also skirts an issue. Each of the three religious groups presumably changed its days to educate children. None worship on Sunday. Yet now they hold school on Sunday. Were there any dissenters over this change? Were there disputes?

The second story is about secular humanists expanding their number of Sunday schools:

In May, the American Humanist Association announced the launch of the Kochhar Humanist Education Center in Northwest D.C. to develop a curriculum for the humanist equivalent of Sunday school.

Children, and eventually adults, will learn about the history of secular humanism; the basics of critical thinking; values and virtues like humility, empathy and courage; the basics of evolution; conflict resolution; human rights; and the separation of church and state.

They’ll also receive a solid grounding in the world’s religions, said Bob Bhaerman, education coordinator for the Kochhar center.

At the Washington Ethical Society, a humanist religious community on 16th Street NW with about 300 members, Sunday school is already well established. Children start in nursery school and progress through high school.

The overarching goal: “Children learn to be kind and fair and get an opportunity to create a better world for all,” Sunday school director Peggy Goetz said.

Unlike the first story, this story was news. Yet it, too, is uncritical. Are secular humanists likely to succeed? Are they tapping into religious needs that traditional religions ignore? The story needed a scholar or academic.

No good religious news story is read before bedtime. It’s the type of story that can be argued over at dinner .. provide such a thing is allowed of course.

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