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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Blood and ouzo in Baghdad

GreekOuzoA one-question test: When you hear the word “ouzo,” what leaps to mind?

Right. Dancing Greeks who are celebrating something, or simply life in general.

So I was a bit concerned when I read the top of that New York Times story from Baghdad that ran with the headline “Iraq Bomber Aimed at Alcohol Sellers.”

Blood and ouzo mingled on the sidewalk outside a shattered Baghdad liquor store on Thursday after three people were killed in a car bombing directed at alcohol sellers in one of Baghdad’s most heavily protected areas.

The alcohol sellers, who have expanded their business as security in Baghdad has improved in recent months, were among the few merchants plying their trade during the Muslim holiday celebrating Id al-Adha, the end of the hajj, or annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

I assumed that there was going to be a major ghost in this story. Actually, there were several potential ghosts in the story and, frankly, I assumed that reporter Stephen Farrell would miss them.

The first, of course, is that one of the lines between “moderate” Muslims and traditional Muslims in a land like Iraq is the consumption of alcohol. We have talked about this here at GetReligion before. In a way, this ghost was the actual subject of the story.

But the bombers were almost certainly focusing on another kind of target. And that is the ghost I was afraid the Times would miss.

But I was wrong. Near the end of the piece we read:

Most of these businesses, residents say, are run by enterprising Yazidis, members of a Kurdish-speaking sect. Iraq’s Yazidis live mainly in the northwest, and their faith combines elements of Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam and includes a Peacock Angel.

Residents say the Yazidis capitalized on the past few months of relative stability to take over the liquor stores in this area. Christians once dominated the trade locally but fled to escape death threats and kidnappings by religious militants.

Mustafa Hassan, 19, a grocery stall owner, said the blast walls and checkpoints installed in the neighborhood to protect American contractors and the nearby Palestine Hotel had fostered the mushrooming alcohol sector. He said that over the past year the number of liquor stores had increased to 30 from 5.

That covers it all, although with few specifics to make the scope of the tragedy clear. In other words, the ouzo is a sign of several Western values — not all of them good, mind you — that remain under attack. Actually, it’s hard to call the Greeks and the other Eastern churches “Western,” but I think you get my point.

Farrell saw the ghosts. A tragic story, well told.

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Headstrong in belief

Prayer in CairoThe New York Times‘ Michael Slackman had a great idea for a story: the increase in public displays of piety among Egyptian Muslims. For women that means covering their heads and for men it means having a zebibah:

The zebibah, Arabic for raisin, is a dark circle of callused skin, or in some cases a protruding bump, between the hairline and the eyebrows. It emerges on the spot where worshipers press their foreheads into the ground during their daily prayers.

Again, great idea for a story. Slackman writes that as Egypt has moved from a Muslim country with secular style to a full embrace of Islam, the prayer “bumps” have become all the rage. He speaks with hairstylists, security guards and other men on the street about how they’re developed:

Observant Muslims pray five times a day. Each prayer involves kneeling and touching one’s forehead and nose to the ground. All five prayers require placing one’s head on the ground for a total of 34 times, though many people add prayers and with them, more chances to press their heads to the ground. Some people say the bump is the inevitable result of so many prayers — and that is often the point: The person with the mark is broadcasting his observance, his adherence to one of the five pillars of Islam.

But the zebibah is primarily a phenomenon of Egypt. Muslim men pray throughout the Arab world. Indeed, Egyptian women pray, but few of them end up with a prayer bump. So why do so many Egyptian men press so hard when they pray?

prayerSymbols of piety are fairly commonplace in the Arab world, Slackman writes. Everything from long beards to robes worn in the same manner as the prophet Muhammad. But the zebibah is a home grown symbol and one encouraged through peer pressure. The ending to the story had the best vignette:

There are many rumors about men who use irritants, like sandpaper, to darken the callus. There may be no truth to the rumors, but the rumors themselves indicate how fashionable the mark has become.

Not everyone has a zebibah. Plenty of Egyptians still regard their faith as a personal matter. But the pressure is growing, as religion becomes the focus of individual identity, and the most easily accessible source of pride and dignity for all social and economic classes.

“You pray, but it doesn’t come out,” said Muhammad Hojri, 23, as he gently teased his brother, Mahmoud, 21, recently while they worked in a family kebab restaurant. Muhammad has a mark. Mahmoud does not, and did not appreciate his brother’s ribbing.

“I pray for God, not for this thing on my forehead,” Mahmoud shot back.

For such a brief report from the streets of Cairo, this story about zebibahs managed to show quite a bit of diversity about religion and public life.

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Simon’s simple Mormon Q&A

11700388As the Divine Ms. M.Z. noted the other day (and Mark did, as well), many mainstream reporters who are covering the controversies about Mormonism seem to accept, as fact, that disagreements between traditional Christians and Mormon Christians are rooted in misunderstandings or bigotry.

Thus, you knew it was only a matter of time before a skilled mainstream reporter attempted to do the impossible, which is to sum up thousands of pages of complex Mormon doctrine in a user-friendly Q&A. Actually, I was afraid that an unskilled reporter would get there first.

However, the editors at the Los Angeles Times assigned this task to Godbeat specialist Stephanie Simon and she took on a few of the obvious questions, in the current climate of GOP tension between Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee.

This leads us, quickly, to the following reality. Here’s the lede:

Since he entered the race, Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney has faced questions about his Mormon faith. Last week, the former Massachusetts governor said the questions had gone too far.

He accused rival Mike Huckabee — a Southern Baptist minister — of attacking his religion by suggesting that Mormons believed Satan and Jesus were brothers. Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas, promptly apologized.

The key word, clearly, is “suggesting.”

Which then leads us to this part of the Simon Q&A:

Do Mormons believe that Jesus and Satan are brothers?

Mormon theology holds that the savior and the devil are both sons of God. Therefore, an official church website explains, “Jesus was Lucifer’s older brother.” But as former Mormon Bishop Scott Gordon points out, the faith also holds that all human beings are sons of God, which would make everyone a sibling of Christ (and of the devil). Mormons believe that Lucifer was not born evil but turned into a power-hungry glory-seeker. He opposed God’s plan for mankind and was cast out of heaven.

That leaves a major doctrinal question hanging. What is the difference between the Mormon understanding of Jesus being a son of God, as well as each and every human being, and the creedal Christian doctrine of Jesus being part of a unique Trinity?

That leads us to the heart of the entire controversy, from the point of view of traditional Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Christians.

What do Mormons believe about God?

Mormons believe the Heavenly Father is the same species as man; he has a body of flesh and bone — only more perfect than we could imagine. He’s married to a Heavenly Mother. Mormons do not accept the traditional Christian doctrine of the Trinity; they view God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit as three separate beings.

What do Mormons believe about heaven?

Mormons believe that men and women can become like God in the afterlife. This does not mean that they will replace God; he remains more perfect and reigns over all. But men and women can achieve some degree of deification and become “joint heirs with Christ,” said Gordon, president of a Mormon theology group called FAIR.

This brings us right to the edge of the question that I have been asking all along. What is the status of the Mormon doctrine of “exaltation”? Has it been changed, or merely clarified? Is it still part of Mormon theology, but rarely discussed openly?

The bottom line: I am not sure that Simon has it right, when she states that the God of this earth, of this creation, remains the God who “reigns over all.” Does modern Mormonism still teach that dedicated Mormons can become, not “like” God, but, literally, gods or Gods in their own right, with their own creations and worlds?

kimballBack in 1985, I covered the funeral of Mormon President Spencer W. Kimball (left), which included an address by Barbara B. Smith, the 10th general president of the church’s powerful Relief Society. In that sermon, she noted, and I quote from her written text:

“In the Colorado Rockies, I asked President Kimball a searching question. ‘When you create a world of your own, what will you have in it?’ He looked around at those mountains for a few minutes before he answered and then he said, ‘I’ll have everything just like this world because I love this world and everything in it.’ …

“What is our greatest potential? Is it not to achieve godhood ourselves?”

This text was typed in capital letters, which means that I do not know if that is “Godhood” or “godhood.” That may seem like a small matter, but it is not. It’s at the heart of the current conflect — the current doctrinal conflict, as opposed to a political conflict — that continues to muddy the waters in the current race for the White House.

There’s more to the Simon Q&A, and I would be interested in hearing it dissected by Mormon readers and readers who are critics of Mormonism. Clearly, much of her info came from www.lds.org, www.mormon.org and www.fairlds.org. Should she have listed a website for Mormon critics, as well? Take, for example, the North American Mission Board of the powerful Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest non-Catholic flock.

But before you click that “comment” button, please comment only on the contents of the Simon Q&A. Tell us where you think she has done a good job and where you think she has missed the mark, a bit. Let’s try not to get into another round of Mormon-bashing or apologetics.

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Oh, that’s what Christmas is about?

reason for the seasonSomeone should inform American journalists that there is something of a shift going on across the pond regarding the Christmas wars. Thanks to Jerry for sending us the following story from Reuters that should be put on the desks of The Washington Post‘s features department editors for reasons that shall be discussed later in this post.

But first, let’s see what the chairman of Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission has to say about how we should celebrate Christmas this year:

LONDON (Reuters) — Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims joined Britain’s equality watchdog Monday in urging Britons to enjoy Christmas without worrying about offending non-Christians.

“It’s time to stop being daft about Christmas. It’s fine to celebrate and it’s fine for Christ to be star of the show,” said Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

“Let’s stop being silly about a Christian Christmas,” he said, referring to a tendency to play down the traditional celebrations of the birth of Christ for fear of offending minorities in multicultural Britain.

Suicide bombings by British Islamists in July 2005 which killed 52 people in London have prompted much soul-searching about religion and integration in Britain, a debate that has been echoed across Europe.

The Reuters article seems to blame the rise of Islamic terrorism for this new hands-off approach on the religious elements of Christmas. Clearly, our friends across the Atlantic are doing some deep thinking about what it means to live in a religiously pluralistic society, but it makes me wonder why the same discussions have not happened in America. Perhaps it is an idea for some journalist to explore.

Speaking of other journalists, the Post‘s Robin Givhan wants us all to know that we should listen to our therapists and chill out about Christmas. Givhan uses a series of classic movies to show that we should all strive to remember what Christmas is really about. And it has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with religion.

So the chat shows get bogged down with experts offering tips on how to prioritize the To Do list or how to avoid debt. Therapists remind people that the real pleasures of the Christmas season are not found in a gift box. But we already know this stuff. We choose to ignore it. And then we complain about it.

At Christmas time, people need reassurance, not shopping guides and analysis. They go back to their past, which in hindsight always seems less complicated. Viewers revisit the Grinch, he of the teeny-tiny heart that grew three sizes upon learning the true meaning of Christmas, because his story grabs hold of an adult problem and wrestles it down into the simplest, most childlike terms.

And it may be that we need an annual screening of “It’s a Wonderful Life” to put our own lives in order. George Bailey learns to appreciate the life he has, instead of pining for the worldly one he once imagined.

The video clips attached to the story are a series of films that conveniently avoid famous religious scenes as well, which is too bad because the story could have at least mentioned the reason many people in Britain and in America believe we should celebrate the holiday.

Imagine an American newspaper carrying a quote like this from the Reuters story in the newspapers tomorrow morning. I think Bill O’Reilly head would explode:

Muslim Council of Britain spokesman Shayk Ibrahim Mogra said “To suggest celebrating Christmas and having decorations offends Muslims is absurd. Why can’t we have more nativity scenes in Britain?”

Talk about blowing the lid off the media’s typical Christmas wars story.

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This. Happened. In. Canada.

THS IKEA HIJAB 01When American legal scholars talk about defining limits on religious liberty, it doesn’t take long to map out the extreme borders.

If the government wants to place limits on religious freedom, the authorities are going to have to show evidence of fraud, profit or clear threat to life and health. That final condition is where things get tough, when legal authorities have to start limiting parental authority over everything from prayers of healing (think Christian Science) to non-traditional medical practices (think Jehovah’s Witnesses).

But the case unfolding right now in Canada is pretty clear-cut.

Or is it? The secular, common law is clear. How about the Sharia law?

Read it all. Hat tip (with commentary) to Rod “Friend of this blog” Dreher.

Friends and classmates of a 16-year-old girl who police say was murdered by her devout Muslim father in a Toronto suburb told local media Tuesday she was killed for not wearing a hijab.

Police said in a statement they received an emergency call at 7:55 am local time Monday from “a man who indicated that he had just killed his daughter.”

The victim, Aqsa Parvez, was “rushed to hospital with life-threatening injuries, but tragically passed away late last night.”

Her father, Muhammad Parvez, 57, was arrested at the scene and will be formally charged with murder when he appears in court Wednesday, said police.

The girl’s friends, meanwhile, told local media she was having trouble at home because she did not conform to the family’s religious beliefs and refused to wear a traditional Islamic head scarf, or hijab.

… They said she would leave home wearing a hijab and loose-fitting clothes, but would take off her head scarf and change into tighter garments at school, then change back before going home at the end of the day.

Wait — there’s one final detail.

The victim’s 26 year-old brother was also charged with obstructing police in the investigation.

Do not get me wrong. In a free society, women have a right to wear the hijab. Attempts to limit this right are going to fuel some interesting and, perhaps, disturbing cases in U.S. law — as have efforts to limit unique forms of religious attire in Europe.

But what about the right not to wear the hijab? Can authorities limit the rights of Muslim parents?

Meanwhile, watch your local newspaper tomorrow and in the days ahead to see if it covers this stunning story from Canada. Was this story on network newscasts tonight?

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About the Post’s bizarre Obama story

obama prayingI have mixed feelings about ombudsmen, but the latest effort by The Washington Post‘s Deborah Howell makes me think again about their usefulness. Howell dealt with the story the Post did a couple of weeks ago about the baseless rumors surrounding the Barack Obama presidential campaign that he is a closet Muslim. Even Post opinion cartoonist Tom Toles had a useful opinion on the piece.

Howell rightly points out the obvious problems with the story, but then goes on to quote the newspaper’s editors defending the piece and making what amount to affirmative denials that anything is wrong:

My problems with the story by National Desk political reporter Perry Bacon Jr. and the headline (“Foes Use Obama’s Muslim Ties to Fuel Rumors About Him”) were that Obama’s connections to Islam are slender at best; that the rumors were old; and that convincing evidence of their falsity wasn’t included in the story.

But there was no deliberate “smear job,” as some readers charged. The story said clearly in the second paragraph that Obama is a member of a United Church of Christ congregation in Chicago.

It is great to know that the Post is not out there to deliberately smear political candidates, but that is not the serious question that must be addressed. The big question is how such a story slides through the editing process at a major American newspaper. Are there not bigger issues about Obama than groundless rumors? Surely it deserves a mention, but it is not news that Obama is dealing with crazy claims that he is some kind of Manchurian Candidate:

Bacon referred a request for comment to Bill Hamilton, assistant managing editor for politics. Hamilton edited the story, which several top editors saw before it was published.

… Hamilton said, “Reasonable people can disagree on this. But the people I have heard from are not reasonable. What I find especially disheartening is the idea that our motives are simply assumed to have been malicious.”

This is the new world mainstream journalists live in, one that will continue to be explored in this column.

The fact that “mainstream journalists” live in a “new world” is about 10 years old and should come as no surprise to anyone. Instead of focusing on people who try to accuse the Post of malicious behavior, the Post should be more concerned about those of us who think the newspaper was merely negligent in running this story.

In some ways, the negligence charge is worse than the charge of malice. If a reporter or editor was out to hurt Obama, the newspaper could simply fire or discipline the responsible person. That this seems to come down to insensitivity and/or carelessness is even more disheartening.

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