Uncovering Scientology

scientology recruiterGive me your first guess. What publication would devote nine months to report on a super-secret, cult-like group that claims millions of adherents along with some of Hollywood’s most famous people, namely Tom Cruise?

Well if you’re thinking Scientology and guessed Rolling Stone magazine, you’d be correct.

In one of the most thorough accounts I’ve ever seen on Scientology, Rolling Stone contributing editor Janet Reitman goes to great lengths to get inside the group, and she has 13,660 words to show for her work. It’s an incredibly long article, but well worth the read. I suggest chewing on it in segments. Otherwise it’s a bit overwhelming on the eyes and the morale.

Much could be said on this article. I’m hoping my fellow GetReligion bloggers will chime in when they get a chance to read the piece along with you all with comments. Please focus your thoughts toward the journalistic issues contained in the piece.

To begin with, Reitman brings the reader inside the reporting process, explaining what she had to do to obtain interviews with people inside the group and why most of the former members quoted in the story had to be renamed or mentioned anonymously (they fear retaliation, according to Reitman).

scientology crossUnlike many Rolling Stone pieces on religious issues, the article does not immediately dismiss Scientology as completely “out there.” In this case, Reitman allows the religion to speak for itself:

Scientology is also America’s most controversial religion: widely derided, but little understood. It is rooted in elements of Buddhism, Hinduism and a number of Western philosophies, including aspects of Christianity. The French sociologist Regis Dericquebourg, an expert in comparative religions, explains Scientology’s belief system as one of “regressive utopia,” in which man seeks to return to a once-perfect state through a variety of meticulous, and rigorous, processes intended to put him in touch with his primordial spirit. These processes are highly controlled, and, at the advanced levels, highly secretive. Critics of the church point out that Scientology, unique among religions, withholds key aspects of its central theology from all but its most exalted followers. To those in the mainstream, this would be akin to the Catholic Church refusing to tell all but a select number of the faithful that Jesus Christ died for their sins.

In June of last year, I set out to discover Scientology, an undertaking that would take nearly nine months. A closed faith that has often been hostile to journalistic inquiry, the church initially offered no help on this story; most of my research was done without its assistance and involved dozens of interviews with both current and former Scientologists, as well as academic researchers who have studied the group. Ultimately, however, the church decided to cooperate and gave me unprecedented access to its officials, social programs and key religious headquarters. What I found was a faith that is at once mainstream and marginal — a religious community known for its Hollywood members but run by a uniformed sect of believers who rarely, if ever, appear in the public eye. It is an insular society — one that exists, to a large degree, as something of a parallel universe to the secular world, with its own nomenclature and ethical code, and, most daunting to those who break its rules, its own rigorously enforced justice system.

ron hubbardOne thing you cannot miss in the article is the financial drive of the organization. Nearly everything costs money. Lots of money. The second thing you’ll notice is the secretive nature of the organization. The article portrays the organization as desperately attempting to squelch dissent among and outside its ranks. Finally, one definitely gets the sense that everything in the church centers on founder L. Ron Hubbard.

One thing I was wondering about was the explanation given for Hubbard’s authority. I know some people say he is (he never died, according to Scientologists, he just left his physical body) the “coolest guy ever,” but that’s not enough for me. Christians derive their faith from Jesus Christ, Muslims from Muhammad. Ron Hubbard was a science-fiction writer. What’s the spiritual draw there?

Another thing I think Reitman could have given more attention to was the legal angle. An organization of this size must leave some type of legal imprint, or crater — especially considering its battle with the IRS for tax-exempt status in 1993, and the number of people who have alleged exploitation and retaliation. Nevertheless, the size of the Scientology movement (is it even a movement?) is certainly up for debate:

Church officials boast that Scientology has grown more in the past five years than in the previous fifty. Some evidence, however, suggests otherwise. In 2001, a survey conducted by the City University of New York found only 55,000 people in the United States who claimed to be Scientologists. Worldwide, some observers believe a reasonable estimate of Scientology’s core practicing membership ranges between 100,000 and 200,000, mostly in the U.S., Europe, South Africa and Australia. According to the church’s own course-completion lists — many of which are available in a church publication and on the Internet — only 6,126 people signed up for religious services at the Clearwater organization in 2004, down from a peak of 11,210 in 1989. According to Kristi Wachter, a San Francisco activist who maintains an online database devoted to Scientology’s numbers, this pattern is replicated at nearly all of Scientology’s key organizations and churches. To some observers, this suggests that Scientology may, in fact, be shrinking.

time cover on scientologyBut discerning what is true about the Church of Scientology is no easy task. Tax-exempt since 1993 (status granted by the IRS after a long legal battle), Scientology releases no information about its membership or its finances. Nor does it welcome analysis of its writings or practices. The church has a storied reputation for squelching its critics through litigation, and according to some reports, intimidation (a trait that may explain why the creators of South Park jokingly attributed every credit on its November 2005 sendup of Scientology to the fictional John and Jane Smith; Paramount, reportedly under pressure, has agreed not to rerun the episode here or to air it in England). Nevertheless, Scientology’s critics comprise a sizable network of ex-members (or “apostates,” in church parlance), academics and independent free-speech and human-rights activists like Wachter, who have declared war on the group by posting a significant amount of previously unknown information on the Internet. This includes scans of controversial memos, photographs and legal briefs, as well as testimonials from disillusioned former members, including some high-ranking members of its Sea Organization. All paint the church in a negative, even abusive, light.

The article suggests that the organization has incredible powers of intimidation (as the South Park incident illustrates). Is this why other media organizations have not taken a closer look at the group? I wonder. Could this article change that?

Two final questions with which I leave you: why haven’t other religiously oriented publications tackled this subject? And why did Rolling Stone run with this and spend nine months and 13,660 words on it?

Time magazine devoted a cover story to the subject back in May 1991, stating that “Scientology poses as a religion but is really a ruthless global scam — and aiming for the mainstream.” (Because I am no longer a subscriber, I was unable to access the entire article, so those of you with access, let us know what you think.) Is Scientology arriving in the mainstream? And if this is true, one would think journalists would burn some shoe leather and spill some ink in order to poke away at this group that poses as a religion, yet demands incredible sums of money from its followers.

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Lack of perspective

Hindu Childrens Book 01We’ve been covering the Hindutva textbook controversy in California for a few months. The Los Angeles Times‘ Theresa Watanabe has a piece on the Hindu nationalists who are fighting to make the changes that’s worth a read.

This story has not gotten enough coverage so it’s great that Watanabe is looking into it. The impetus for the story is that the California State Board of Educaction’s five-member history-social science committee is set to recommend final action for the full board at its March 8 meeting. She begins by telling the story of Abhijit Kurup, a young Hindu who didn’t recognize his religion when he was taught about it in government schools years ago. He is joining with other Hindus in a campaign urging textbook changes.

One requested change, for instance, would say women had “different” rights than men, not fewer.

But their efforts have sparked a heated counter-campaign by scholars and others who accuse the groups of trying to fabricate history and gloss over the treatment of women and minorities in India, where Hinduism is the dominant religion. Some also contend that the requested textbook changes are so similar to those imposed by Hindu nationalist groups in India that California should not put its stamp of approval on them.

Watanabe mentions a bit about the conflict. However, she doesn’t really explain why the notion that the caste system would be portrayed as one where women had different rights instead of fewer rights is so offensive to so many people who fought or remember efforts to subvert the system. And what is not quite explored in the piece is what Hindu nationalists believe in a larger political context. She offers little perspective on the nationalists’ outsize influence — such as how large a group they are or how they are viewed in India or by Hindus here in the States. Mostly she portrays the fight as between Ivy League scholars and Hindu adherents:

“This is the first time Hindu groups are trying to protest against 300 years of prejudice,” said Madhulika Singh, a Bay Area computer networking specialist. She says her son told her he didn’t want to be Hindu anymore after studying ancient India and Hinduism in sixth grade.

I do not know Madhulika Singh, but I imagine the one Watanabe quotes is the same one who is affiliated with the Hindu Educational Foundation, a group with Hindu nationalist ties which is fighting to change the textbooks to match its particular views. Why not mention that? It doesn’t really hurt the article to mention that Singh, who makes such a powerful claim about her son’s religious identity, is also intimately involved with one of the more partisan groups in the debate. The group comes up in the very next paragraph of Watanabe’s story. Perhaps it’s just coincidence about the name, but if not, the affiliation should be mentioned.

Indeed, the issue is seen on both continents as the first major test of Hindu political clout in the United States and showcases the growing influence and political savvy of Indian Americans, now one of the nation’s fastest-growing ethnic groups. Led by the California-based Hindu Education Foundation and the Vedic Foundation in Texas, a broad-based group of temples, educators and community organizations has mobilized on the issue, drawing extensive news coverage in the Indian media here and abroad.

Okay, I have been following this story more than the average American and I have no idea what it means to say that the Vedic Foundation is a broad-based group. That doesn’t say anything. It doesn’t mean anything. Do a small minority of American Hindus affiliate with it? A majority? Something inbetween?

Not until the second to the last paragraph are readers told that not all Hindus share Hindu nationalist views about the merits of the caste system, “different” roles for men and women, whether Hinduism is polytheistic and where Hinduism originated. Watanabe ends the story by quoting a UCLA professor who think the Hindu nationalist views are ridiculous.

It reminded me of a comment from reader Ryan Overbey last month when we spoke about the issue. He blamed the problems with press coverage of this story on his view that reporters are generalists:

So suddenly the story changed from some minor changes to make CA textbooks more sensitive, to a bunch of scientifically unjustifiable changes motivated by wacky religious groups with connections to right wing politics.

It’s fairly upsetting that the press didn’t notice what was happening earlier (it was up to academic Indologists to figure out what was going on and put a stop to it). But you can chalk this up to a problem with the press generally: being for the most part generalists, they can hardly be expected to unravel a Hindutva agenda by reading a seemingly innocuous list of textbook changes. Scholars and scientists are much better at that sort of thing.

It just seems weird that after many months of this textbook battle waging on, so few reporters have had the desire to dig in and find out more about Hindu nationalists behind the fight.

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Ships sailing in opposite directions

dh1 01Sigh. Click here. Now, please take a deep breath and click here.

So who said the following and what is the context?

“As children we always knew that someone else came first because she had special needs and we were taught from when we were babies to respect and understand that. It is a hard lesson to take when you are little but as you grow older you just appreciate how important it is to think of someone else first.”

Now pause and reflect. Does anyone else out there sense a ghost?

Have a nice day.

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American tribes go to different movies

NYET18801311348This is post is so, so, so overdue that I have decided to turn that into a good thing. Indeed, I will argue that my procrastination can be seen as a form of public service to GetReligion readers.

Why? The Atlantic Monthly is a wonderful magazine and is must reading for anyone interested in religion and public life. But some of those articles are just so long, too long even, when it comes time to reading them on a computer screen. So if you are not a subscriber, I urge you — the timing is perfect — to find a subscriber and urge them to give you that copy of the January-February issue that they were just about to pitch into the recycle bin. It’s the one with Pope Benedict XVI on the cover (more on that in a moment).

There is a very important article in this issue entitled “Tribal Relations” by Steven Waldman, the CEO over at Beliefnet, and John C. Green, the University of Akron professor who is one of America’s most quoted experts on political numbers. It is part of a package — look for the “Values Racket” headline — that tries to carve up all kinds of Culture War and Red vs. Blue political myths and actually, for me, ends up making the opposite case, underlining the fact that moral and cultural issues are at the heart of American politics these days.

In their article, Green and Waldman produce mini-profiles of what they believe are the 12 religious (or non-religious or even anti-religious) tribes in American politics. The goal is to prove that America is more complex than the old Religious Right vs. Everybody Else matrix. What they end up with is something very close to the point of view argued long ago — to one degree or another — by James Davison “Culture Wars” Hunter, evangelical statistics guru George Barna, Gerald De Maio and Louis Bolce and others.

Anyone who has read GetReligion very long will recognize this theory right away: There is the true Religious Right on one side (about 12 percent) and the true-blue secularists on the other side (10 percent or so) and, in between, there is OprahAmerica.

Not everyone will agree with how Waldman and Green have defined the other folks in the Republican and Democratic tribes — the “heartland culture warriors,” the religious left, the “moderate evangelicals,” spiritual but not religious people, etc. But it was good to make this attempt, and others should spin their own versions. Anyone seeking compromises on tough moral issues has to venture into this territory, the muddy land in between the rock-ribbed religious voters who define the Republican primaries and the anti-evangelical voters who dominate the Democratic primaries and fundraising.

Here is a sample of the “Tribal Relations” material. Note the reference to “theological restructuring,” which is a kind of indirect hat tip to Hunter:

A deep-blue religious left is almost exactly the same size as the religious right but receives much less attention. John Kerry is perhaps one representative of this group, which draws members from many Christian denominations and is a product of the same theological restructuring that created the heartland culture warriors. Members of the religious left espouse a progressive theology (agreeing, for instance, that “all the world’s great religions are equally true”) and are very liberal on cultural issues such as abortion and gay marriage. About a quarter attend church weekly. The religious left is somewhat liberal on economic policy and decidedly to the left on foreign policy. Its stances on both moral values and the Iraq War — but especially the latter — have pushed it further into the Democratic camp. Seventy percent backed Kerry in 2004; 51 percent had backed Gore in 2000. The religious left was the largest — and the fastest-growing — single tribe in the Kerry coalition.

103652 brokeback l 01So you may be asking, right about now: Why is there Oscar and Brokeback Mountain art attached to this post?

That’s easy. In the weeks running up to the Academy Awards, the mainstream press has been cranking out stories about the success of this movie and how this shocking “breakout” represents a major change in American culture. The latest version of this story appeared this past week in the big-story slot on page one in USA Today. Thus, reporter Scott Bowles wrote:

Brokeback Mountain already is The Movie. The film is the punch line of jokes, the subject of Internet parodies and the front-runner for the Oscars on March 5. Oprah plugged the gay-cowboy drama on her show. Howard Stern gave it a thumbs up. “Have you seen Brokeback?” has become a dinner-party Rorschach test of gay tolerance.

Brokeback also is freighted with expectations not foisted on a film in years. It leads a raft of social-issues films that are dominating the awards season. Some hail the picture as the one that will change not only how Hollywood portrays gay characters but also how gay men and lesbians are accepted by mainstream America. Those are mighty claims for a $14 million Western seen by fewer people in the three months since its release than who saw Dancing with the Stars on television last week.

Admirers say the film is erasing Hollywood’s homosexual stereotypes and raising consciousness of gay rights. Critics say Brokeback‘s destiny is to be remembered more for its marketing than its artistic achievements.

This story does — hurrah — work in a wide range of viewpoints about the movie. Still, it is yet another example of the trend that it is writing about.

At some point, you have to ask: OK, if $70-plus million at the box office is a sign of American mainstream status, then what is $288 million or even (if you catch my drift) $370 million?

Here’s the point. If you apply the Waldman and Green matrix to movies instead of to politics, then you could reach this conclusion. Brokeback Mountain is a solid, artistic niche movie for the hard left in American life — a niche that is larger than the hard right (and is dominated by Oscar voters and Hollywood’s most loyal supporters in blue zip codes).

So who will make more movies for the other tribes? Who will find a way to make movies that combine the tribes, yet are artistic enough for Hollywood to honor? That’s the question people need to ask if they want to make mainstream movies that make lots of money and force Hollywood people to grit their teeth when it comes time for the Oscar voting.

So what else is in that must-save January-February issue of The Atlantic?

There is E.J. Dionne Jr.’s poignant attempt to wish away the Culture Wars. There is Caitlin Flanagan’s “Are You There God? It’s Me, Monica,” in which she seems to yearn for some kind of sexual morality in post-feminist America, but dares not propose one. And there is even the cover story, Paul Elie’s magnificent “The Year of the Two Popes,” which offers some critical insights into the differences between John Paul II and Benedict XVI, instead of rehashing all of the places where their views were so similar.

Like I said, find someone to give you a real copy of this magazine printed on high-quality dead tree pulp. You’ll get eye strain trying to read all of this wonderful stuff on a computer screen.

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J.J. Redick’s faith and his tattoos

redickIn high school, I was often terrified to play in organized basketball games. Don’t get me wrong, I loved to play basketball and to this day it is one of my favorite activities. But something made me go stiff the moment a referee and a coach were involved. The primary reason I survived four years of high school basketball was because of prayer and the support of my family and friends.

For this reason, faith and family have always gone together in my post-high school experiences in organized basketball, primarily as the coach of my younger brother’s junior high and junior varsity team for three years. Faith, while not significant in all ball players’ minds, certainly means a great deal to me, which is why I was thrilled to read this story by ESPN.com senior writer Pat Forde on the faith and tattoos of Duke guard J.J. Redick:

“I didn’t get tattoos so other people would say, ‘Oh, J.J.’s got tattoos. He’s got a basketball on his arm that says King of the Court,’ or something like that,” Redick said. “I got a tattoo for me. It’s a constant reminder, every day, of what God has done and what he will do in my life.”

The reminders are etched upon the senior guard’s lean torso — one on his chest, one on his abdomen.

The script lettering on his stomach reads, “Isaiah 40:31,” referring to this Bible verse: But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.

The other tattoo, on his chest, came first. It’s the Japanese word for courage, and beneath it is reference to another Bible verse, Joshua 1:9. That one reads: Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.

That’s the tat he got with grandma. And if there is one thing you can say about J.J. Redick, it’s this: He’s got basketball courage.

Courage is a tricky thing on a basketball court. Courage can quickly turn into cockiness detrimental to the team. I was privileged to see Redick drop 41 in a losing effort to Georgetown University last month, and I was struck not only by his ability to drill 3-pointers from 25 feet out with two guys in his face, but also his poise and unselfish behavior. Nevertheless, a big reason I believe Georgetown won was because Redick did not have the ball in his hands at the end of the game.

redick2Redick’s faith, his upbringing in a household of five homeschooled children, his struggles in his first two years at college — away from the comforts and protection of home — his recommitment to disciplining his life and his personal faith in God all make for a great story. While Pat Forde isn’t in your face about Redick’s faith in Christ, he certainly does not attempt to play it down or avoid it like some sportswriters are inclined to do.

Here’s more on Redick’s faith and his claim to fame as the world’s most hated basketball player (as of Saturday, he became the ACC’s all-time scoring leader to go along with his NCAA record 3-pointers and his all-time leading scorer status at Duke University):

It takes courage to embrace the burden of potential failure and hoist shots at the moments of maximum pressure. It takes courage to thrive as the most revered and most reviled college player in America. It takes courage to put your personality out there — the vulnerable poet’s side, the arrogant baller’s side, the unapologetic Christian’s side — for public dissection.

It would be so much easier to assume the dull automaton pose prevalent among today’s college basketball players. Redick doesn’t do easy.

“God’s got to be his comforter,” J.J.’s dad, Ken, said. “There’s got to be times in that spotlight, with that much pressure — and internal pressure from the Duke system of how you have to perform every day — when he couldn’t survive without faith, without being imbued with that spirit.

… After averaging 21.8 points per game last year and being named a first-team All-American, Redick decided he had earned a second trip to the tattoo parlor. That’s when he got the Isaiah 40:31 tat, to commemorate what he called “the best year of my life.”

“I regained my passion for basketball,” Redick said. “My relationships with my family members were as good as they’ve ever been — and my first two years, those were sometimes rocky. I met my girlfriend during that year and regained my spirituality.”

Read the whole article if you enjoy sports. If not, read it anyway to get a feel for one of America’s “Crunchy Christians” who has been reading, according to the article, Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life this winter. And I’ll be watching come March Madness to see whether Redick’s faith draws further attention by the media.

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Freedom to drink the tea

hallucinogenic teaHow significant was Tuesday’s unanimous Supreme Court ruling — allowing a New Mexico congregation to use a hallucinogenic tea in its religious rituals — in establishing precedent in religious-freedom law? If you read Wednesday’s Washington Post article, you would come away thinking the impact was minimal, but thankfully, the Internet gives us other sources of information. (GetReligion’s original post on the issue is here.)

Linda Greenhouse of The New York Times grasps the significance in the second paragraph of her report on the ruling:

With an opinion by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., the decision was one of the most significant applications of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 13-year-old federal statute that requires the government to meet a demanding test before it can enforce a law in a way that creates a substantial obstacle to religious observance.

That’s about it, though. The rest of the article, along with the Post article, focuses mostly on how the issue came before the Supreme Court and on Chief Justice John Roberts’ writing style (it’s refreshingly conversational and lacking in numerous footnotes, by the way).

The Los Angeles Times places the “victory for religious freedom” theme front and center and quotes K. Hollyn Hollman, the Baptist Joint Committee’s general counsel, who said the decision was “good news for religious freedom and the continuing vitality of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”

For more background on the ruling’s significance, turn to this Christianity Today article published this morning, which quotes several legal types in religious-freedom organizations. (Disclosure: a coauthor of this piece, Sarah Pulliam, is indeed my younger sister.)

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Tooning in

southpark2Just a quick note to follow-up on Old Man Mattingly’s post about different standards for Christians, Jews and Muslims. Catholic church leaders in New Zealand are calling for a boycott of television stations that plan to screen an “ugly and tasteless” episode of South Park, according to the BBC. I have seen many episodes of South Park and I can’t think of one that wasn’t ugly or tasteless. Sometimes they’re even funny.

Anyway, the problem for the church leaders is that the episode depicts the Virgin Mary in a sacrilegious way. The stations, which recently apologized to Muslims for airing the cartoons, have a different response to the Christian protests:

TV station C4 is to air the cartoon earlier than planned in response to the levels of publicity it has generated.

The episode was originally scheduled for a screening in May, but will now be shown on 22 February. . . .

Rick Friesen, head of TV Works, which runs C4, said that if Catholics felt they would be upset by South Park, then they should not watch it.

Quick style note: It really bothers and confuses me how so many reporters use Catholic when they mean Roman Catholic. Catholic means universal and Roman Catholic refers to that church based out of, well, Rome. There is a difference. Many people who are not Roman Catholic consider themselves catholic — and even Catholic sometimes.

But it looks like the New Zealand station has found a consistent strategy for dealing with potentially offensive material — apologize to Muslims and tell Roman Catholics to buzz off.

Stories like this also makes me wonder why American media are not fighting on behalf of press freedom in this ongoing cartoon controversy. We can certainly imagine that if it becomes culturally or legally impossible to make any criticism of Islam in political cartoons, religious adherents of all types will expect equal or similar treatment.

Do reporters and editors really want a world where we can’t criticize any religion in cartoons? Maybe the heroes in Team America should pay a visit to a few of our newsrooms and straighten some folks out.

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Shifting cartoon coverage

muslim protestsI’ve noticed a shift in the cartoon coverage and in many bloggers’ attitudes toward the image-inspired violence and arguments over whether the images should have been published by media organizations. This shift has been driven largely by events on the ground that are just too huge to ignore, particularly as the “Furor Over Cartoons Pits Muslim Against Muslim,” as a New York Times headline writer phrased it Tuesday.

As Muslims turn on Muslims, one can only imagine how this would drive Middle East reporters insane, unless they had a deep knowledge of issues relating to Islam and its culture. The NYT focuses on the compelling story of Jordanian journalist Jihad Momani and Yemen editorial writer Muhammad al-Assadi and their writings condemning the violence in response to the cartoons. Here are the key paragraphs that show the significance of these developments:

Mr. Momani and Mr. Assadi are among 11 journalists in five countries facing prosecution for printing some of the cartoons. Their cases illustrate another side of this conflict, the intra-Muslim side, in what has typically been defined as a struggle between Islam and the West.

The flare-up over the cartoons, first published in a Danish newspaper, has magnified a fault line running through the Middle East, between those who want to engage their communities in a direct, introspective dialogue and those who focus on outside enemies.

But it has also underscored a political struggle involving emerging Islamic movements, like Hamas in Gaza and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and Arab governments unsure of how to contain them.

“This has become a game between two sides, the extremists and the government,” said Tawakkul Karman, head of Women Journalists Without Constraints in Sana, Yemen. “They’ve made it so that if you stand up in this tidal wave, you have to face 1.5 billion Muslims.”

One thing this development is doing is putting to rest the idea that this conflict is somehow leading to a clash of civilizations. I posed the idea in this space two weeks ago, but I am beginning to realize that the cartoon controversy is nothing of the sort, as S. Brent Plate profoundly explains over at The Revealer:

First of all, in utilizing such a grandiose phrase as “clash of civilizations,” we (journalists and the rest of us) must remind ourselves of the rather small-scale nature of this current clash. As Juan Cole notes, the protests have, by and large, been limited. In general terms, the Muslim world numbers as much as 20% of the world’s population, so if major protests were to somehow be widespread among the Muslim population, every one of us would know about it — not through CNN, but by hearing screams and gunshots in our own backyards. I write this in Fort Worth, Texas, a place not typically thought of in relation to Islam, yet within a couple miles of here there are a half-dozen mosques, regularly attended by Muslims from North Africa, Arabia, Indonesia, and by U.S. Latinos and African-Americans. It is only a minority of Muslims who are of the Arabic race. Muslims, now and for much of history, are not the antithesis to the West, they are the West.

golden dome mosqueThe clash within Islam is even more apparent with the destruction of the golden-domed Shia shrine in Samarra early Wednesday morning. The attackers are still at large and unknown, but no matter, the incident is sparking reprisals and protests against Sunni Muslims. If the cartoon violence and protest was any measure, Iraq is about to become a very violent and dangerous place in the next week — not that it was not already a seething caldron — considering that the St. Peter’s Cathedral of the Shiite world has now been destroyed under the United States military’s watch.

Here’s the Independent‘s take:

In a number of respects civil war in Iraq has already begun. Many of the thousand bodies a month arriving in the morgues in Baghdad are of people killed for sectarian reasons. It is no longer safe for members of the three main communities the Sunni and Shia Arabs and the Kurds to visit each other’s parts of the country.

“Iraq is in a Weimar period like Germany in the 1920s which will either end with the country disintegrating or in an authoritarian government taking power,” said Ghassan Atiyyah, an Iraqi political commentator.

Was it not only a matter of time for an event of this magnitude to occur in Iraq? I would consider this one of the worst developments in the Iraq since we invaded, and it could end up setting back all the positives gained in the elections.

The article in the Independent is where I found the St. Peter’s/Golden-dome comparison. It certainly put the incident in a perspective with which I could relate. The Independent also gets the religious significance of this event when it comes to creating a sustainable government in Iraq. American papers seem to be focusing on reporting the who, what, where, when and how the bombing happened, rather than the so what? or why. Not a bad approach, considering the event did just happen, but it also can be limiting.

As it stands now, the stories posted on the New York Times and Washington Post websites do little to show the significance of the structure to Muslims. Perhaps this will change as the story progresses, but as it stands now, what is the average reader supposed to take from this story other than the massive headlines, words like “revered” and “holiest shrines” and, of course, statements from officials in Washington?

While the European press tends to be better about understanding the Middle East — as I pointed out here, I’m holding out hope that U.S. publications will get the significance. I guess we’ll see in the morning.

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