Becoming Bobby Jindal

OmOne of the nastiest campaign tricks in recent memory was the Louisiana Democratic Party’s attempt to derail the candidacy of Roman Catholic Bobby Jindal by quoting — out of context — statements he’d written about Protestantism. The thing I remember about the attacks is that Jindal seemed surprisingly theologically literate for a politician. Jindal explained his adult conversion from Hinduism in the New Oxford Review and the Democratic Party quoted some of it to give the impression that Jindal was a bigot. I know it’s Louisiana and all, but that’s cold.

Robert Travis Scott, writing in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, has a really interesting and well-researched story on Jindal’s religious conversion. It also has a really weird angle, although I think it works: what Jindal’s Hindu relatives in India think of his conversion. The gist of the piece is that Jindal’s conversion was aided by the open-mindedness of Hinduism combined with the lack of a significant Hindu presence in his home state of Louisiana:

His relatives’ perspective reflects a tolerant side of a religion that for thousands of years has survived philosophical transformations, rebellious counter-religions and numerous sects, only to claim them all in time as part of the infinitely flexible cosmos of Hindu faith.

“If you find and see that you get more peace of mind, more solace, in that religion, then why not change religion?” said Jindal’s uncle Subhash Gupta, a practicing Hindu. “In India, many people change to the Christian religion. And I can understand that some people maybe find Christian religion more satisfying to their needs.”

One of the religious aspects that Scott gets is that Hinduism is sort of an umbrella for differing belief systems. But I’m not sure that he accurately portrays the variety contained within Hinduism. India is officially secular but overwhelmingly Hindu. For the most part religious minorities are tolerated by Hindus. However, Hindu nationalists — who control some of the regions of India — are violently opposed to religious conversion and persecute Muslims and Christians. Not all Hindus are equally tolerant, in other words. But for a feature in a mainstream newspaper, Scott does a great job of introducing readers to some of what distinguishes Hinduism:

Jindal’s parents, Amar and Raj Jindal, are practicing Hindus and emphasize that they are monotheists. Hindus say they believe in one God, who also takes the form of a trinity.

In addition, Hinduism recognizes thousands, and by some counts millions, of deities who are considered incarnations, or avatars, of the one God, sent to Earth to right some wrong.

Few Hindus worship Jesus Christ, but they might easily accept the idea that he was an avatar. Or they might draw a parallel between their worship of various Hindu deities and the prayers that Catholics say to saints as couriers to God.

Scott describes various pieties, including choosing deities as personal guides to understanding spiritual truths and the reading of Vedas. Then he questions whether the variety of scripture in Hinduism and the lack of systematic theology influenced Jindal’s departure from Hinduism. Further, Scott suggests, Jindal may have never left Hinduism if it were practiced more widely in Baton Rouge:

Like his parents, Bobby Jindal grew up in a world in which Hindu religion was presented as a meaningful but broad-minded system of faith. But unlike them, Jindal did not grow up in a world where Hindu temples abound, where the home of almost every neighbor contains a small shrine and where typical conversations about weddings, food and social graces are laced with the vocabulary of the Hindu belief system.

The article limits its scope to how Hindus in India feel about Jindal’s conversion. It might have been interesting to have gotten more perspective from Jindal or other converts to Christianity — particularly to provide a bit more balance to Scott’s suggestions. Still, a very interesting article and much more substantive about Hinduism than we normally see.

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No-go zones in today’s multicult Britain?

r1Here we go again.

Here is another example (click here for previous discussion of a similar case) of a major story from Britain that needs — somehow — to be confirmed at a level great than the voice of one person who wields great authority. Consider the lede in the Telegraph report by Jonathan Wynne-Jones:

Islamic extremists have created “no-go” areas across Britain where it is too dangerous for non-Muslims to enter, one of the Church of England’s most senior bishops warns today.

The Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, the Bishop of Rochester and the Church’s only Asian bishop, says that people of a different race or faith face physical attack if they live or work in communities dominated by a strict Muslim ideology.

Writing in The Sunday Telegraph, he compares the threat to the use of intimidation by the far-Right, and says that it is becoming increasingly difficult for Christianity to be the nation’s public religion in a multifaith, multicultural society.

There are several issues clustered in that passage, but here is the key one for me. For a decade of so, Brits have believed that the values often called “multicult” — multiculturalism is still the term in America — were of the highest possible priority. Clearly, some people are going to have doubts. As I heard in Oxford more than a year ago, the “multicult” factor is so powerful that it often trumps feminism and, at times, even the sexual revolution. People are worried on the left as well as the right.

Thus, we read:

His comments come as a poll of the General Synod — the Church’s parliament — shows that its senior leaders, including bishops, also believe that Britain is being damaged by large-scale immigration. Bishop Nazir-Ali, who was born in Pakistan, gives warning that attempts are being made to give Britain an increasingly Islamic character by introducing the call to prayer and wider use of sharia law, a legal system based on the Koran.

And there, you can see, is the key. Is there some way to actually confirm the use of sharia in Britain and its growth is specific regions? That is crucial. That has to be reported as fact, not opinion, or the story will just spin around and around in circles.

Who will have the courage to attempt to do that reporting, before Britain slides into a segregated society without a common rule of law?

On the other side, Muslims have responded. It is crucial that Nazir-Ali is a man who knows and understands Muslim life and culture.

Bishop Nazir-Ali, whose father converted from Islam to Catholicism, was criticised by Ibrahim Mogra, of the Muslim Council of Britain. He said: “It’s irresponsible for a man of his position to make these comments.

“He should accept that Britain is a multicultural society in which we are free to follow our religion at the same time as being extremely proud to be British. We wouldn’t allow ‘no-go’ areas to happen. I smell extreme intolerance when people criticise multiculturalism without proper evidence of what has gone wrong.”

You can see the cycle beginning, right there. What are the facts? Is sharia a factor, already? If there are no-go zones, what is the hard evidence of this fact? Will government leaders allow the facts to be reported.

So many questions. We need information, not clashing opinions — alone.

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Gay Muslims dance, in Berlin

gaymuslimsunveiledThe New York Times had a fascinating story about gay Muslims in Berlin. Reporter Nicholas Kulish interviewed visitors to a gay nightclub in the Kreuzberg neighborhood and produces a piece showing how young Muslims — many of them immigrants — are navigating their sexual identity and religion:

European Muslims, so often portrayed one-dimensionally as rioters, honor killers or terrorists, live diverse lives, most of them trying to get by and to have a good time. That is more difficult if one is both Muslim and gay.

“When you’re here, it’s as if you’re putting on a mask, leaving the everyday outside and just having fun,” said a 22-year-old Turkish man who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear that he would be ostracized or worse if his family found out about his sexual orientation.

Safety and secrecy come up regularly when talking to guests, who laugh and dance, but also frequently look over their shoulders. To be a gay man or lesbian with an immigrant background invites trouble here in two very different ways.

The disc jockey — a Turkish lesbian — mixes Arabic, Greek, Balkan and Indian music in a style she calls Eklektik BerlinIstan. The space, while kitschy and international, intentionally does not have any religious symbols, the event organizer said. The neighborhood has very conservative religious values but is also home to artists and anarchists. While Berlin’s homosexual subculture has a long history, surveys show that gay men and lesbians from Muslim families face discrimination at home:

Kader Balcik, a 22-year-old Turk from Hamburg, said: “For us, for Muslims, it’s extremely difficult. When you’re gay, you’re immediately cut off from the family.”

He had recently moved to Berlin not long after being cut off from his mother because he is bisexual. “A mother who wishes death for her son, what kind of mother is that?” he asked, his eyes momentarily filling with tears.

Hasan, a 21-year-old Arab man, sitting at a table in the club’s quieter adjoining cafe, declined to give his last name, saying: “They would kill me. My brothers would kill me.” Asked if he meant this figuratively, he responded, “No, I mean they would kill me.”

What a fascinating story. It’s so nice to see a story that isn’t afraid to mention people struggling with their religious identity. What’s missing, however, is any sort of discussion with these hidden family members or any explanation of how or why Islam teaches against homosexuality. For a foreign desk story that is aiming to dispel stereotypes about Muslims, more information is needed.

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Thou shalt kill?

bobmitchum Wendy Hundley of The Dallas Morning News had a fascinating story on her hands: two teen-aged daughters were found shot to death and their father was considered the most likely culprit.

Here’s how Hundley explained the possible motives for the murders:

Police provided no clues about the motive for the killings. “There are several things we’re looking into,” said Irving police Officer David Tull, noting that the suspect faces capital murder charges.

Officer Tull said there have been some “domestic issues” with the family, but he did not elaborate.

Police did say they are looking into the possibility that the father was upset with his daughters’ dating activities.

Several paragraphs down, readers learn that the family was Muslim. That’s a possible clue about the motive for the killing, but only one. As Rod “Friend of this Blog” Dreher wrote, readers would have been well served if they had been given other clues:

Like, what? Were they dating non-Muslims? Were they behaving in any way that fits the well-established “honor killing” pattern we’ve seen among some Muslim communities in the West?

I agree with the implied first part of Dreher’s analysis. Was there a religious angle to the killings? What type of Muslims are the Said family? Where are they from? There are basic journalistic facts missing.

Sure, reporters feel uncomfortable posing these kinds of questions to their interview subjects. Whenever I have asked people about their religion and whether they attend service, I often got either an initial blank stare or a shifting of the feet.

But they are critical questions. Two young girls are dead, and their father may have killed them. Does a reporter’s discomfort really outweigh his or her search for the truth? (Then again, the reporter might not have considered asking for information about the family’s religion, which is whole another problem.)

But I disagree with the second part of Dreher’s analysis. It is unrealistic to expect a reporter on the crime beat to know about rather exotic tribal and religious customs. As someone who covered crime for two newspapers in the Bay Area, I know that determining motive is the least important part on a breaking story.

It is realistic, however, to expect editors and publishers to provide training about the various customs of groups in the community. And if reporters asked interview subjects consistently about their religious status, readers would be a lot better off.

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Al Jazeera: Conversions worse than terror

al jazeeraIf you are a Western reader, don’t be surprised if this Al Jazeera story on the increasing presence of radicals in Indonesia doesn’t fit your typical Associated Press or Reuters news story. But the cultural and religious presumptions provide insights are worth looking at briefly. Also buried within the story is a bit of news that probably could use some more reporting and explaining.

The overarching issue with this news story — as with many news stories on religious issues — is that it presumes a lot. The dominant presumption is that tolerance is good and intolerance is bad. Since tolerance is a pretty squishy term that is often left poorly defined, it does not serve any good purpose and can be used to pass off ideas that can mean many things to many people. In this case, this results in the article reading to me more like a press release from a government agency than a news story:

Indonesia is home to more Muslims than any other country, largely enjoying a reputation for tolerance and moderation.

But outbursts of violence from small but vocal minorities are challenging that perception.

In recent years radical groups have attacked bars, brothels and Christian churches. And that is causing concern for Indonesia’s government.

Al Jazeera makes great effort to make sure the English readers of this story know that these are radical minority groups that do not represent Islam. At least the Islam that represents Indonesia. But consider how this would read to a Muslim living in a Muslim-majority country? Perhaps the Arabic version of the story has a different perspective?

Remember that Al Jazeera does not officially represent any Islamic government or agency. Also note how the story only refers to terrorism once, and it is not where you would expect it. Hold onto that thought as you read the following section of the story about what one of these radical groups believe about Christian conversions:

The AAA is troubled by what it sees as an increase in conversions to Christianty.

“Conversions to Christianity in Indonesia, especially in Bandung and Jawa Barat, have become increasingly serious,” Muhammad Mukmin, from the Anti Apostasy Alliance, says.

“In my judgement I think it is a bigger evil than terrorism.”

Would the reporter on this story care to balance that comment out with a statement from one of the churches or people doing the converting? Imagine the BBC or The New York Times quoting a Christian group saying that Islamic conversions were causing terrorism and failing to balance that with an counter-statement.

It is not everyday you read a quote comparing Christian conversions with terrorism. Then again, I do remember certain prominent Christians blaming a certain group of people for the terrorist attacks of 9/11 (hint: they didn’t blame terrorists).

It is easy to criticize this story for being a poor generalization of various viewpoints and reading like a government press release, but American journalists are just as susceptible to writing stories based on the black and white premise of tolerance and intolerance.

However, beyond my nitpicking, this statement from the radical group shows that there is more than just an increase of Islamic radicalism in Indonesia. What is the unsaid story behind this one about the alleged increased number of Christian converts in Indonesia? This is after all a country that suffered a terrible nightclub bombing in 2002 and is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation. Is there change in the air?

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Details, details (in Kenya)

kenya mapAt a time when elections in other countries lead to assassinations and rioting, it is sobering how relatively peaceful election battles in the United States are. Yesterday’s news that post-election violence in Kenya led to the deaths of as many as 275 people and included the torching of a church where people had sought shelter was particularly sobering.

When people first started sending around stories about the attack, I was struck by the lack of an important detail in the reports. The New York Times had a lengthy — 1,000 words — story on the matter that neglected to mention what type of church was burned. The Associated Press didn’t mention it either. I had to surf through half a dozen stories before I found the information in a Reuters report:

The reporter said about 200 people had been seeking refuge at the Kenya Assemblies of God Pentecostal church, about 8 km (5 miles) from Eldoret in fertile Rift Valley Province.

Later, the New York Times and the Associated Press updated their stories to include this information. It is yet another reminder how wonderful the internet can be in helping reporters correct errors or supplement their stories.

The quality of the stories has improved with time but I’m still left with a few questions. One of the most thorough stories goes to great lengths to explain the nature of the divides in Kenya. President Mwai Kibaki was inaugurated for a second term on Sunday in an election that has been criticized as rigged. Kibaki is an ethnic Kikuyu:

The violence — from the shantytowns of Nairobi to resort towns on the sweltering coast — has exposed long-festering tribal resentment.

The people killed in Eldoret, about 185 miles northwest of Nairobi, were members of Kibaki’s Kikuyu tribe. … On Tuesday morning, a mob of about 2,000 arrived at the church, said George Karanja, whose family had sought refuge there.

“They started burning the church,” Karanja told the AP in a telephone interview, his voice catching with emotion as he described the scene. “The mattresses that people were sleeping on caught fire. There was a stampede, and people fell on one another.”

Karanja, 37, helped pull out at least 10 people, but added, “I could not manage to pull out my sister’s son. He was screaming ‘Uncle, uncle!’ … He died.” The boy was 11.

Karanja said victims were being hacked with machetes before being set on fire.

The Kikuyu, Kenya’s largest ethnic group, are accused of turning their dominance of politics and business to the detriment of others. Odinga is from the Luo tribe, a smaller but still major tribe that says it has been marginalized.

There are more than 40 tribes in Kenya, and political leaders have often used unemployed and uneducated young men to intimidate opponents. While Kibaki and Odinga have support from across the tribal spectrum, the youth responsible for the violence tend to see politics in strictly ethnic terms.

The context and explanation of tribal divisions is great but I am, of course, curious about the religious views of the warring factions.

Were the Kikuyu seeking refuge in a church because they were Christian? Were their attackers Christian? Kenya is a tremendously diverse country and about 45 percent Protestant, 25 percent Catholic and 10 percent Muslim. Hopefully as the coverage progresses we’ll get a few more details about how religion plays into this sad story.

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State of the law in Pakistan

back cover bhuttoIs it too late to vote, yet again, in the poll to name the most important religion-news stories of 2007?

The events keep unfolding all around us, one shock after another.

The Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was assassinated near the capital, Islamabad, on Thursday. Witnesses said Ms. Bhutto, who was appearing at a political rally, was fired upon by a gunman at close range, quickly followed by a blast that the government said was caused by a suicide attacker. …

A close aide to Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf blamed Islamic militants for the assassination, and said it was carried out by a suicide bomber. Ms. Bhutto’s death is the latest blow to Pakistan’s treacherous political situation, and leaves her party leaderless in the short term and unable to effectively compete in hotly contested parliamentary elections that are two weeks away, according to Hasan Askari Rizvi, a leading Pakistani political and military analyst.

The assassination also adds to the enormous pressure on the Bush administration over Pakistan, which has sunk billions in aid into the country without accomplishing its main goals of finding Osama bin Laden or ending the activities of Islamic militants and Taliban in border areas with Afghanistan.

No ghosts in that story at all. Right? The phrase “Islamic militants” covers it all, right now, and if that does not work then we have “extremist Islamic groups” mentioned later in the same story. All of this is, of course, linked to that great goal of the ages — a form of government in a Muslim culture that is neither an Islamist state nor a military/royal machine. Is anything else possible?

Near the end, we read another quote from inside the current regime:

The [Musharraf] aide dismissed complaints from members of Ms. Bhutto’s party that the government failed to provide adequate security for Ms. Bhutto. Ms. Bhutto herself had complained that the government’s security measures for her Karachi parade were inadequate. The government maintained that she ignored their warnings against such public gatherings and that holding them placed herself and her followers in unnecessary danger.

Asked of the bombing was planned in the country’s lawless tribal areas — where Mr. bin Laden and other Qaeda members are thought to be hiding — the aide said “must be, must be.” Militants based in the country’s tribal areas have carried out a record number of suicide bombings in Pakistani this year.

Here is my question, yet again. Is the word “lawless” accurate in that paragraph? There is no law at all, or is the form of the law the whole point?

Meanwhile, let’s also flash back to that Newsweek cover story: “Where the Jihad Lives now.” That’s the package that proclaimed Pakistan the most dangerous nation in the world.

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Think ye green (and Christ is born)!

VaticanNativity 1Merry Christmas, everyone out there in GetReligion-land who is celebrating this fine morning!

For those who are curious, most of the Orthodox here in North America celebrate Christmas on the Western calendar, so my family is sleeping in this morning after a glorious service of the Divine Liturgy that began about 10 p.m. last night and ended with a feast that got us home and into bed about 3 a.m.

But, hey, let’s read the newspapers a bit while the not-so-little-ones sleep in.

One of my favorite Christmas news games is to read the online text of the pope’s Christ Mass sermon. Then, after you do that, you read the newspaper accounts — especially the words from on high in the sacred pages of The New York Times.

Want to play along? OK, click here for the text from Pope Benedict XVI. Read it all.

Now pick a favorite passage, the passage that clearly is crucial to the pope. I think mine, this year, is about halfway into the text, where Benedict reminds us that the Cross looms over the stable. This is the Good News in a broken world:

In the stable of Bethlehem, the very town where it had all begun, the Davidic kingship started again in a new way — in that child wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. The new throne from which this David will draw the world to himself is the Cross. The new throne — the Cross — corresponds to the new beginning in the stable. Yet this is exactly how the true Davidic palace, the true kingship is being built. This new palace is so different from what people imagine a palace and royal power ought to be like. It is the community of those who allow themselves to be drawn by Christ’s love and so become one body with him, a new humanity. The power that comes from the Cross, the power of self-giving goodness — this is the true kingship. The stable becomes a palace — and setting out from this starting-point, Jesus builds the great new community, whose key-word the angels sing at the hour of his birth: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth to those whom he loves” — those who place their will in his, in this way becoming men of God, new men, a new world.

Now, as some of our readers would say, the actual message of Christmas is not news. It is old hat, which means that the goal of the wise journalist is to seek a news angle that is more relevant for modern readers than the mere message that dominated the sermon text. There has to be something here about the real world, which means politics.

So what is the newsworthy angle?

pope benedict xvi christmas 7Well, the pope does talk about a new earth, a new creation and the fact that the current creation — earth, body and soul — is not in great shape. Thus, the Times lede is:

Pope Benedict XVI reinforced the Vatican’s growing concern with protecting the environment in the traditional midnight Christmas Mass on Tuesday, bemoaning an “ill-treated world” in a homily given to thousands of pilgrims here in the seat of the world’s billion Roman Catholics.

On the day Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ some 2,000 years ago, Benedict referred to one early father of the church, Gregory of Nyssa, a bishop in what is now Turkey. “What would he say if he could see the state of the world today, through the abuse of energy and its selfish and reckless exploitation?” the pope asked, according to the Vatican’s English translation.

He expanded on the theme briefly by saying that an 11th-century theologian, Anselm of Canterbury, had spoken “in an almost prophetic way” as he “described a vision of what we witness today as a polluted world whose future is at risk.”

Now that theme is there. No doubt about it.

So read the text and try to decide if that is the major, dominant theme of this sermon. I guess it was between that and the pope’s sure-to-be-controversial words of praise for liturgical music (yet another sign of the spirit of death of Vatican II). Oh, and watch for the crucial use of the softening phrase “what he suggested”!

So a happy Christmas, one and all. And as we say in the East, “Christ is born! Glorify Him!”

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