Part. Of. The. Story. In. Kosovo.

The dictionary says what it says.

balkanize

Main Entry: bal-kan-ize …
Inflected Form(s): bal-kan-ized; bal-kan-iz-ing …
Etymology: Balkan Peninsula …
1: to break up (as a region or group) into smaller and often hostile units

Obviously, this word exists for a reason.

Anyone who knows anything about the Balkans knows that the ethnic and religious conflicts in that region are complex beyond belief, with roots that dig deep into centuries of bloody earth. The question is how journalists can describe these conflicts in language that can be understood in daily news accounts (or on the Daily Show, for that matter). How much context is enough?

Obviously, I bring this up because of the waves of headlines coming out of the Balkans right now linked to the declaration of independence in Kosovo. Obviously, before others click “comment” to note this, I should also say that I am an Orthodox Christian.

Here is my question: What do readers need to know in order to understand the emotions that are currently being unleashed in Serbia and in Kosovo, especially in northern Kosovo?

I have found myself thinking about the late A.M. Rosenthal of the New York Times. Here is my attempt, in a 1999 Scripps Howard column, to put one powerful Rosenthal remark into some historical context. The crisis mentioned in this text is, of course, linked to the hellish regime of the Communist thug Slobodan Milosevic.

The roots of this crisis are astonishingly complex, ancient and bloody. … In 1389, Serbian armies fought — virtually to the death — while losing the Battle of Kosovo, but managed to stop the Ottoman Empire from reaching into Europe. The Kosovo Plain became holy ground.

Leap ahead to World War II, when Nazi Germany tried to use Albanian Muslims and Catholic Croats to crush the Serbs. Then Communists — such as Milosevic — took over. In the mid-1990s, the United States all but encouraged Croat efforts to purge Serbs from Krajina, where they had lived for 500 years. The West has been silent as Turkey expelled waves of Eastern Orthodox Christians.

Since morphing from Communist to nationalist, Milosevic has skillfully used Serbia’s array of fears, hatreds and resentments to justify terror in Kosovo and elsewhere by his paramilitary and police units. The Serbian strongman knows that Kosovo contains 1,300 churches and monasteries, many of them irreplaceable historic sites.

Retired New York Times editor A.M. Rosenthal, who once won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting in Eastern Europe, put it this way: “I do not get emotional about the history of Kosovo. I am not a Serb. Serbs do. … Serbs are as likely to give up Kosovo willingly because the Albanians want it as Israelis are to give up Jerusalem because the Arabs want it.”

dcidjakovica8For legions of Serbs the ultimate problem centers on those 1,300 churches and monasteries and the graveyards attached to them. We are dealing with haunted and holy ground.

A newspaper reader has to look long and hard to find out anything about this side of the story. The Times does include this material in the background section of the main story:

In the 1980s, Mr. Milosevic used Serbs’ enormous sense of grievance that their ancestral heartland was now dominated by Muslim Albanians to come to power in Serbia. By 1989, he had abolished Kosovo’s autonomy, fired tens of thousands of Albanians from their jobs, suppressed Albanian language education and controlled the territory with a heavy police presence.

Ten years ago, Mr. Milosevic’s forces moved against the rebel Kosovo Liberation Army, killing a guerrilla leader and his family at their compound. As violence escalated, NATO intervened in a 1999 bombing campaign, causing hundreds of thousands of Albanians and Serbs to flee. An estimated 10,000 civilians were killed in the 1998-99 conflict, many of them Albanians, while 1,500 Serbs died in revenge killings that followed.

That’s essential information. But that is just part of the context for the emotional scenes we are seeing in the Balkans right now.

The Washington Post story, to its credit, goes much further and, near the top, mentions the specifics.

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said his country, which regards Kosovo as the cradle of its civilization and home to some of its most treasured Orthodox churches and monasteries, would never recognize the unilateral declaration.

“For as long as the Serbian nation exists, Kosovo will remain Serbia,” Kostunica said in a nationally televised address from Belgrade, Serbia’s capital. “We do not recognize the forced creation of a state within our territory.”

That states the issue in broad terms. Later, reporter Peter Finn hits us with one specific detail, to balance a number of telling anecdotes about the joy felt by the Albanians:

The NATO troops that moved into Kosovo after 78 days of airstrikes have since become guards around sealed Serb enclaves, home to 120,000 people. At a Serb monastery in Pec, called Peja by ethnic Albanians, Italian troops protect the holy site, which is surrounded by a massive new wall to shield elderly nuns from stone-throwing and other abuse by passing ethnic Albanians.

“We don’t have eye contact with them anymore, so things are better,” said one Serb woman at the church, who declined to give her name.

dcidolacThere are horrors on both sides. Treasures have been destroyed on both sides. Yes, on both sides.

The question is whether readers here in the United States have any idea why this issue is not going to go away, why northern Kosovo matters so much to its Orthodox minority. Can people live in peace under current conditions?

Look at it this way. Humanitarians around the world screamed in outrage — with good reason — when the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan. These statues were, literally, irreplaceable.

Now, click here and tour some of the destruction in Kosovo. Yes, this is a one-sided, pro-Serbia site. But just think of this in terms of art and history — like the Bamiyan Buddhas. These holy places are also irreplaceable.

Again let me state that these Serbian church websites documenting the destruction tell only part of the hellish story that is post-war Kosovo and Serbia. Of course. But the destruction goes on and the churches and the monasteries cannot be replaced. That is part of the story.

Search the news reports in the next few days and look for the material on these treasures of art and faith. While many are celebrating, others are — sheltered in tiny enclaves protected by foreign troops — in mourning. Are there enougn troops to guard all the churches in northern Kosovo? Does anyone in Europe care? How about the United States? This is part of the Kosovo equation that should be included in balanced, accurate mainstream reporting.

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Quote the Devil’s advocate?

exorcistOne of the big questions that religion writers discuss when they are in private and speak freely is this one: Are we supposed to challenge people when they claim that they have had some kind of unique, supernatural spiritual experience? Do we, somehow, try to dig into the details and challenge this kind of account?

I thought of that the other day when I was reading a Washington Post story — dateline, Poland — about the revival in parts of Europe of formal rites of exorcism.

Now stop and think about this from the point of view of a celebrity atheist. To accept an exorcism rite as, well, non-crazy, one has to embrace all kinds of beliefs about reality and life as we know it. For starters, you have to believe in supernatural evil and that implies supernatural good. That’s why it was such a major story when the Vatican released a revised exorcism rite a decade or so ago. Modernist Catholics were embarrassed, to say the least.

So Craig Whitlock’s story in the Post was interesting, in part, because it never — ever — challenged the whole idea of the rite. There are no skeptics, no modernist Catholic intellectuals who wave their hands in disgust at the whole discussion. This is a case when I really think the voice on the theological left is urgently needed. There should be debate on this issue, debate that defines and underlines key beliefs on both sides.

Here is a key chunk of the story:

The Rev. Andrzej Trojanowski, a soft-spoken Pole, plans to build a “spiritual oasis” that will serve as Europe’s only center dedicated to performing exorcisms. With the blessing of the local Catholic archbishop and theological support from the Vatican, the center will aid a growing number of Poles possessed by evil forces or the devil himself, he said. …

Exorcism — the church rite of expelling evil spirits from tortured souls — is making a comeback in Catholic regions of Europe. Last July, more than 300 practitioners gathered in the Polish city of Czestochowa for the fourth International Congress of Exorcists.

About 70 priests serve as trained exorcists in Poland, about double the number of five years ago. An estimated 300 exorcists are active in Italy. Foremost among them: the Rev. Gabriele Amorth, 82, who performs exorcisms daily in Rome and is dean of Europe’s corps of demon-battling priests.

“People don’t pray anymore, they don’t go to church, they don’t go to confession. The devil has an easy time of it,” Amorth said in an interview. “There’s a lot more devil worship, people interested in satanic things and seances, and less in Jesus.”

So, journalists out there, raise your hands if you think that Satan is real and personal. Ditto for demons, in general. How many of you agree with authoritative voices featured in this story that say Satan can work through yoga, New Age rituals and addiction to the Internet?

How many of you think the Post should have allowed skeptics to challenge the following information? Is this real?

Exorcists said the people they help can be in the grip of evil to varying degrees. Only a small fraction, they said, are completely possessed by demons — which can cause them to display inhuman strength, speak in exotic tongues, recoil in the presence of sacred objects or overpower others with a stench. In those cases, the exorcists must confront the devil directly, using the power of the church to order it to abandon its host.

Thumbs up or thumbs down. Click “comment.”

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‘Secular’ vs. ‘conservative’ Muslims?

TurkeyScarvesIf you are following the events in Turkey, you may be having trouble following all of the religious labels. Again.

For those keeping score, Turkey is a “secular” Muslim state, inspired by the secularism of Europe (think French Revolution, even). The state is secular, but it is Muslim. Yet, more traditional forms of Islam are — as elsewhere — on the rise. This makes millions of Turks afraid or even angry.

How will mainstream journalists label these Muslims? You may have noticed that coverage of Turkey tends to ignore the big labels that we see in other parts of the world — “moderate” and “fundamentalist.”

So along comes the issue of scarves, which is an even hotter issue in Turkey than it is in other parts of Europe. The recent developments in this story seem rather direct. Here is the top of a story from last weekend in the Washington Post:

Turkey’s parliament … to end a more than 80-year-old ban on women wearing head scarves at universities, acknowledging the rising influence of conservative Islam in the most determinedly secular republic of the Muslim world.

Tens of thousands of secular Turks marched in the capital, Ankara, against lifting the ban. Many brandished portraits of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded modern Turkey in 1923 with the goal of making it a Westernized, secular republic.

“Turkey is secular and will remain secular,” the protesters chanted, swinging poles bearing the red flag of the Turkish republic. … Crucially, Turkey’s military made no immediate objection to the result. Turks long have regarded generals as the guardians of Ataturk’s secular vision for their country. In the past, generals have overthrown Islamic-oriented elected governments they saw as straying from his secular goal.

Did you follow that? Normally, “secular” is good and “conservative” is bad. But is “conservative” as bad as “fundamentalist” and, again, where is the line between these groups? In other words, you get the impression that there are Muslims to the right of the conservatives in Turkey. True?

The secularists seem to be worried that they are now a minority in their own nation, protected only by the “secular” Muslims in the military. Here we go again. As a rule, American journalists tend to look down on military leaders running nations, so is “secular” bad in this case?

Now, what about the scarves themselves? To add to the confusion, it appears that there are “conservative” scarves, which are not to be confused with more traditional Islamic forms of head coverings for women.

The government news agency stressed that the style of head scarf legalized … was not necessarily Islamic. Justice and Development Party officials have promised to interpret the measure as allowing only head scarves that are tied under the chin, a style seen as traditionally Turkish rather than Islamic. The party says it will not allow women to wear more rigidly Islamic attire — veils that cover all of the hair and neck or the face, or cloaks that cover the body — in public offices.

So what is the next question? Will Muslims who are to the right of the “conservatives” eventually be allowed to wear “Islamic” scarves instead of “Turkish” scarves?

The questions go on and on. You can see some of the same language issues in the New York Times report about the same vote. But it also adds that the divide is between “secular” Turks and “observant” Turks.

That clears things up. I feel better now.

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A story that needs more reporting

jesuskrishna 01A couple of weeks ago, I highlighted K. Connie Kang’s story in the Los Angeles Times about an interfaith worship service hosted by the Los Angeles Episcopal Diocese. She wrote a detailed report that included the observation that Hindus had been invited to take communion during the service.

Well, as you may remember, a few days later the Times updated the story with a correction that softened that observation a bit:

FOR THE RECORD: Hindu-Episcopal service: An article in Sunday’s California section about a joint religious service involving Hindus and Episcopalians said that all those attending the service at St. John’s Cathedral in Los Angeles were invited to Holy Communion. Although attendees walked toward the Communion table, only Christians were encouraged to partake of Communion. Out of respect for Hindu beliefs, the Hindus were invited to take a flower. Also, the article described Hindus consuming bread during Communion, but some of those worshipers were Christians wearing traditional Indian dress.

The story — and the correction — were important because The Episcopal Church teaches that only baptized Christians are to receive communion. Pat Ashworth wrote an article for the Church Times (U.K.) about how the story was reported. Ashworthy actually interviewed Karen MacQueen, the preacher and celebrant for the service. MacQueen said that it was understood by those in attendance that Christians were to receive communion while Hindus were to receive flowers from a tray on the altar:

“One has to understand how important this is for both Christians and Hindus. For Christians, we understand that holy communion is for the baptised. Hindus, especially religious leaders, do not want to be co-opted into a situation where they are expected to act as if they are Christians.”

Ms MacQueen said that she had worked very hard to get the trust of the many Hindu leaders who were guests at the service. “The trust would have been destroyed if these leaders had thought that I would invite or expect them to receive communion at a Christian mass,” she said.

Some noted that the Times‘ correction still left the possibility that Hindus received communion at the service. Indeed, someone who identified himself as a vestry member, thurifer, chorister, subdeacon, and occasional preacher at St. Paul’s Pomona, where MacQueen is the associate rector, said the following in an online discussion:

I attended the Indian Rite Mass and received communion. No one was refused communion, and that’s the way it should be. Jesus ate with tax collectors and prostitutes. Surely he does not mind a Hindu or two at his table.

In another venue, the same observer wrote:

Yes, Communion was in fact offered by general invitation with each person invited to participate in whatever manner their conscience permitted.

Indeed, some Episcopal clergy have been quite open about their belief that communion should not be restricted to those who are baptized Christians. I’ve personally witnessed the offering of communion to all people, regardless of whether they are baptized or not, on two occasions. So I’d be curious to read more stories about where bishops stand on this practice. And it would still be nice to get some reportage on how the Episcopal Church enforces its canons.

I also came across another article about MacQueen that is begging for additional research. New American Media, which aggregates stories of interest to ethnic minorities, had an interesting angle on the service:

The Bishop of the Epsicopal diocese of Los Angeles has issued an apology to Hindus worldwide for what he called “centuries-old acts of religious discrimination by Christians, including attempts to convert them” reports India Abroad. The apology was given in a statement read to over 100 Hindu spiritual leaders at a mass from Right Reverend J John Bruno. The ceremony started with a Hindu priestess blowing a conch shell three times and included sacred chants.

This meeting was the result of a dialogue, started three years ago, between Hindu leaders and Rev. Karen MacQueen, who was deeply influenced by Hindu Vedanta philosophy and opposes cultivating conversions. “There are enough Christians in the world,” she said. “What we need to see is more Christians leading an exemplary life and truly loving their fellow man.” However the apology has triggered considerable debate among pastors across the US.

While I’m sure very few people would argue with MacQueen’s second point, I imagine quite a few people would be scandalized by her first. I suppose it’s not much of a stretch at all to go from apologizing for sharing the Gospel of Christ to saying that there are enough Christians in the world. Still, I’m kind of suspicious about this quote. Could she really have said that? I don’t know enough about the source to deem whether or not the quote is valid. Either way, I think we could use some further reporting about the theology behind the Episcopal Church’s interfaith outreach and its practice with regard to Holy Communion. And the next time the mainstream media say the conflict in the Episcopal Church is over homosexuality, keep this story in mind.

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Adventists given relief for Sabbath rest

rest on the sabbathPortland, Oregon’s major daily newspaper The Oregonian picked up on an interesting religion/law/sports story involving an Adventist school, the Sabbath and organized sports. The story appears to be seen locally as small potatoes but has some compelling implications.

A court issued an order requiring the Oregon School Activities Association (OSAA) to schedule basketball tournament games that accommodate the Sabbath traditions of the Portland Adventist Academy. The article notes that “many Adventists observe the Sabbath and do not participate in games” scheduled between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday.

I appreciate the reporter’s effort to qualify the statement that “many Adventists observe the Sabbath.” It is never good to assume that all Adventists believe the same thing, but the story could have included more detail on what this particular academy and its community believes and practices:

Jon Stride, the attorney for the Portland Adventist players, said Friday’s decision means the OSAA will, if Portland Adventist’s boys or girls team advances to one of the games in question, shift the starting time.

Stride said circuit court Judge Henry Kantor’s decision indicated the Oregon School Activities Association did not provide “sufficient evidence that providing this accommodation” — moving the game times — “would cause undue hardship.”

Tom Welter, executive director of the OSAA, could not be reached for comment Friday. Earlier, he said any decision about possibly appealing Friday’s decision would rest with the association’s executive board.

Portland Adventist in general has not participated in OSAA basketball tournaments in the face of what the suit called a requirement to swear to participate in every scheduled tournament game — even those scheduled during the Saturday Sabbath.

The Sabbath is probably the most important characteristic of Seventh-day Adventists. This fact is probably a significant reason the judge ruled the way he did. The Sabbath tradition is one of the church’s 28 fundamental beliefs and derives its moral obligation out of the Ten Commandments. Participation in any form of organized sports is out of the question for adherents of this faith, which creates a problem in a society where many high school athletics involve Saturdays full of basketball and other sporting events.

The story also misses out on explaining the significant legal implications of this order. Since it is a preliminary injunction, the legal consequences are not yet final. However, this judge is signaling that other religious organizations with similar scheduling conflicts based on their core religious beliefs might also find a friendly gavel in his courtroom.

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Show us the full faith picture

capitol Shira Schoenberg of the Concord Monitor wrote an interesting story about a Jewish Orthodox politician. Or at least her story was interesting, fascinating even, about the ritual and personal aspects of Jason Bedrick’s faith.

Schoenberg’s lede shows the reader right away that Bedrick’s tale is not that of an ordinary pol:

When Jason Bedrick was considering a run for state representative, an incumbent legislator encouraged him to shave his beard. Bedrick refused.

“I said the beard is off-limits, and that’s not the half of it,” Bedrick said.

Bedrick, an Orthodox Jew, said he wouldn’t enter churches. He wouldn’t campaign at the transfer station on Saturdays. And he wouldn’t shake hands with women. His friend said he didn’t know how Bedrick could win.

“To not shake hands with half your constituents, that qualifies me as a disabled politician,” Bedrick said.

I thought this last tidbit, about Bedrick’s faith requiring that he not shake another woman’s hand, was memorable. In the same way that “Chariots of Fire” showed viewers Eric Liddell’s refusal to compete on the Sabbath, Schoenberg underlined Bedrick’s dedication to his faith.

Schoenberg also ably detailed Bedrick’s personal faith journey. The son of a Conservative Jewish father and a Catholic mother, who converted to Judaism, Schoenberg became Orthodox not through the usual route, as she explains:

The turning point in Bedrick’s observance was when he took a trip to Israel with other college students. Bedrick decided that while in Israel, he would wear a yarmulke. He saw his tour guide wearing tzitzit, a ritual garment with fringes that Orthodox men wear under their shirt. “I thought it was an amazing concept, this garment my people have been wearing for years, to remind you to keep the commandments,” Bedrick said. So he bought a pair.

On the plane ride home, Bedrick began to reconsider his intentions to remove the yarmulke and tzitzit. “I thought, ‘I’m Jewish in Israel, but not America?’ This is my identity.” He kept the clothing and became one of two Babson College students to wear a yarmulke, Bleich said. Bedrick had already given up eating pork and shellfish, and now he started adhering more fully to the kosher dietary laws. He did not eat milk and meat at the same meal. He started walking to the rabbi’s house on Friday night, since observant Jews do not drive on the Sabbath. After college, he returned to Israel for the summer.

For all of her details about the ritual and personal aspects of Bedrick’s faith, Schoenberg mostly neglected to examine its collective aspects. How does his Orthodox faith inform his politics or social vision? Readers aren’t told.

Yes, Schoenberg notes that Bedrick is a political conservative on many issues; he favors school choice, seeks to build a culture of life, and limited government. Yet how his Orthodox faith informs his positions is unstated.

This criticism is not a quibble. With an unusual story like that Bedrick’s, the reporter ought to tell readers the full picture.

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Covering Islam remains a struggle

MuslimMosaicUSA 01You have to be pretty interested in the state of religion reporting to claim the domain name ReligionWriter.com and open up shop. That’s what freelancer Andrea Useem did.

You’re going to hear more about her in a few days, when I grab enough free time to post a new 5Q+1 interview with her, which will focus on her views of religion coverage in general and mainstream media coverage of Islam, in particular. I could include a lot of that information in this post, but then it would get really, really long.

For now, what you need to know is that Useem is a former Episcopalian who studied Quakerism and, after years of study and travel, converted to Islam. She has professional ties to all kinds of people, including Religion News Service, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, the Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, Chronicle of Higher Education, the Dallas Morning News, etc., etc. I had better stop now, before this post turns into her 5Q+1 bio.

At the moment, Useem is in the middle of some research for an RNA “webinar” on coverage of Islam. That’s why she called me the other day for a wide-ranging conversation about mainstream news coverage of Islam. Click here, if you want to read the whole interview, which I urge you to do because she is asking questions that need to be asked. It’s a real dialogue, more than a pure Q&A with, well, me, and a nice plug for GetReligion.

Here is one sample from the transcript that focuses on a crucial issue in religion writing in general:

RW: But isn’t there a problem with taking religious statements too much at face value? I think of the PBS documentary, The Muslim Americans, where Judy Woodruff interviews two Muslim teenage girls in headscarves, who are piously telling her they are never going to date before marriage. She doesn’t challenge them, and the audience is just supposed to be wowed by their commitment. But that seems so shallow. I want to know how their commitment works in real life: Do they have crushes? Are they just saying that for the camera? As a journalist, do you just report it at face-value when someone says, “I love Jesus, he saved my life”?

Mattingly: No, it’s only half the story. My point is not that religion is the sole factor, but that it has to be taken seriously. It’s a piece of the human equation.

RW: So what should the reporter’s next question be after someone says, “I did such-and-such for God”?

Mattingly: You can ask a quick question about that person’s religious life. Take the Michael Vick story. When he says he has found Jesus and is going to change his life, you can ask, “Can I call your pastor? If you’re claiming to have a religious identity, which is to some extent defined by a religious community, can I know more about that community?” If someone says “no,” they just practice all by themselves, you can at least report that.

Reporters have to push their reporting toward facts about a newsmaker’s faith.

This discussion leads us into the heart of the issue. Many Muslims do not want to talk to the press. Some fear that journalists will twist their faith or fail to get the facts right. Others fear what other Muslims will say or do in response to public comments. How can reporters find quotes that represent to complexity of modern Islam if many Muslims cannot or will not speak freely?

Then, of course, there is the ultimate issue: Whether or not to link Islamic beliefs with acts of violence. How can reporters cover the facts — the terrorists themselves trumpet their faith — without implying that this interpretation of Islam is “normal” or “right” to millions of other Muslims? This was a major concern, both to me and to Useem.

It’s crucial to remember this fact — there is no one Islam.

RW: In Jimmy Allen’s 2007 update to Bridging the Gap (text here), Allen lamented that most editors did not see 9/11 as a religious story. But in a way I agree with the editors: Is calling 9/11 an Islam story like saying the Virginia Tech massacre is an Asian-American culture story?

Mattingly: To leave out the religious content of the lives of the bombers would be strange. Let’s look at an example in Christianity. Remember the man who lived out in the woods in North Carolina after blowing up abortion clinics? He had been thrown out of several different very conservative religious groups, and was living as a kind of Christian loner. Yet the press continued to identify him as a Presbyterian. First of all, there’s like 15 different Presbyterian churches: which the heck denomination do you mean? He doesn’t strike me as a PCUSA kind of guy; the world is not full of PCUSA bombers. But for that matter, the world isn’t full of PCA conservative bombers either. In fact, the PCA had thrown Rudolph out — the Orthodox Presbyterians had thrown him out. If you want to accurately describe Rudolph’s life, you end up saying, “Here is a man who said he acted on strong religious motivations, yet the religious groups he was involved with threw him out, and here is why they said they did.” …

There, once again, is a debate that has to be covered. You can’t say Eric Rudolph blew up abortion clinics because he was a conservative Christian. You can’t say the guys flew the planes into the towers because they were conservative Muslims. There are too many other conservative Muslims who disagree with them. But the question for journalists is: What are they disagreeing about? And where are the conservative Muslims who will stand up and critique Osama’s interpretation?

Strange times. We live in a day in which conservative candidates like Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney seem to know more about the writing of, let’s say, Sayyid Qutub, than many journalists covering the Muslims who are inspired by his teachings.

Please read the whole interview and let Useem and me know what you think. And tune in a few days, when I return the favor and let her share some more of her views on religion and the news.

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No easy answers

EasyTShirtNavigating the First Amendment’s establishment and free exercise clauses when developing policies for government chaplains can be dizzying. The Washington State Department of Corrections found that out recently when trying to reach a settlement with an inmate who wanted the right to adhere to two religions at the same time. Tacoma News-Tribune reporter Ian Demsky wrote up a thorough and interesting description of the problem:

Tom Suss loves his job. A chaplain at McNeil Island prison, he’s been with the state Department of Corrections for more than 15 years. “It’s really a privilege to work there,” the 63-year-old Catholic priest said in a recent interview.

“When there’s the opportunity to facilitate someone’s realization of living differently, of making better choices, there’s just no better high than that.”

But Suss took a voluntary leave of absence at the beginning of the year because a new Corrections Department policy allowing inmates to profess multiple religions has put his faith into conflict with his duties as a state employee.

Suss is taking six weeks off and he’s not sure what to do after that. He figures his days as a state chaplain are over. The state is attempting to protect inmates’ freedom of religion and Suss’ attempt to keep his religious convictions uncompromised may be futile:

What does it mean to belong to a particular faith or tradition? Can you just say, “OK, I’m Jewish now” (or Hindu, or Catholic, or Buddhist, or whatever), or must you be accepted into that faith through certain sacraments and rituals? Is it meaningful to claim you’re both a Catholic, believing in one triune God, and at the same time a pagan, espousing the existence of many gods and goddesses? Who should get to decide?

Demsky explains that prisoners who claimed multiple religions used to have to get permission from each religion that dual membership was even permissible. In December, the rules were changed to allow inmates to claim multiple religions without any barrier. The policy revision was the result of a lawsuit settlement with an inmate who claimed that the state was violating federal law by preventing him from worshiping both as a Seventh-day Adventist and a Native American practitioner:

Not long after, Suss said, an inmate at McNeil Island decided to become both Catholic and Asatru, a movement harkening back to the pre-Christian paganism of Europe and Scandinavia.

For the priest, this presented a dilemma.

“Common sense says you cannot be a pagan Christian,” he said. “As a state chaplain, I must endorse state policy. I have to be willing to endorse this inmate’s freedom to be both religions at the same time, but my own convictions being a Catholic priest don’t allow for a Catholic to be a pagan at the same time.”

When writing about church and state issues, any angle you take can heavily influence how the issue is understood by the reader. Demsky did a great job of handling the incentives prisoners might have to take advantage of the policy:

PrisonCell

Carrell also is concerned that inmates will chose to be members of multiple religions – or even all religions – out of a desire to exploit the system, rather than from sincere conviction. For example, an inmate could profess to be Muslim to get a prayer rug to decorate his cell, or Jewish to have access to Kosher meals.

“I don’t know how somebody can be a pagan and a Catholic,” Carrell said. “That’s like being partly pregnant.”

Gary Friedman, who heads up a committee that advises the Corrections Department on religious matters, agrees. Other chaplains also have expressed concerns with the policy, he said.

“The policy change might seem like something minor to a lay person, but in prison, little things become big things,” said Friedman, who is Jewish and trained as a chaplain.

“How can they be sincere if they don’t follow the dictates of the faith they claim to have a sincere belief in?” Friedman asked. “How can they say they’re Jewish, knowing one can’t self-convert under Jewish law?”

He’s seen inmates convert to Judaism and then contact Jewish organizations seeking money.

Demsky goes to a lawyer with the Becket Fund, a Washington, D.C., law firm that defends religious expression, to get the perspective that freedom of religion is worth the risk.

The article quotes Suss saying that he could be sued for not catering to the pagan inmate who also claims Catholicism and also that it’s ridiculous that an inmate can be something in prison that he can’t be outside — but Demsky also explains how the new policy complies with current interpretations of the free exercise clause:

[Dick Morgan, assistant deputy secretary for the Corrections Department's prisons division] pointed out that the department’s policy doesn’t require anyone to perform ecclesiastical duties that run contrary to the tenets of their religion. A Catholic priest, for example, would not have to give communion to an inmate who had not been baptized, thus violating Catholic tradition.

Suss’ dilemma, however, is that he is not only a Catholic priest, but also a state employee with nonreligious duties that might conflict with his religious beliefs.

There are many complex questions and kudos to Demsky for taking the time to explore multiple avenues and areas where consciences conflict. Too many times reporters covering these issues aggressively push an agenda rather than tell the story.

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