Hear no evil? (Spoken with a British accent)

democracy3I asked on Monday if it makes sense for journalists to use the word “Islamic” as an adjective to describe nouns such as “militants” or “terrorists.”

My point was not to deny that doctrinal disputes within Islam play some role in this tense and bloody world. I simply was making the observation that American media, at least, seemed to have stopped using the word “Islamist” — still common in European media. As I have understood it, “Islamist” is supposed to be used in reference to one stream of thought and action within Islam, radically combining the faith with violence and militant political demands. In other words, a highly militant and politicized version of a conservative Islam.

It appears that events have marched right on, in terms of the debates about how the press should handle these kinds of issues. Did you see the Associated Press dispatch out of London on Tuesday? The one about the advice offered to the press and the nation by the leadership team of the new Prime Minister Gordon Brown, in the wake of new terrorism plots?

(The) head of the Muslim Council of Britain, Muhammad Abdul Bari, lauded Brown and Home Secretary Jacqui Smith for the “calm and reassuring tone of their responses to the recent attacks.”

Nick Clegg, home affairs spokesman for the opposition Liberal Democrats, welcomed the change from “the somewhat breathless way Tony Blair used to always rush to try to make, frankly, political points on the back of these events.”

… The low-key Smith also stands in contrast to her pugnacious predecessor, John Reid, whose tough talk on terrorism was sometimes criticized for inflaming ethnic and religious tensions. In a speech to lawmakers Monday, Smith called terrorists “criminals whose victims come from all walks of life, communities and religious backgrounds.” Brown has spoken of “al-Qaida” attackers but not of “Islamic” or “Muslim” terrorists.

Say what?

It seems, to me, that this swings way too far in the other direction — denying that the current threats in Great Britain have anything to do with divisions and disputes inside Islam, especially conflicts rooted in efforts for Islam to adapt to the rule of law in the West. Is the Brown team suggesting that the terrorists are no longer Muslims? Should government leaders make this kind of statement about people who clearly are claiming that their actions reflect their beliefs and their interpretations of their own scriptures?

In other words, is it wise for government officials to suggest that journalists ignore the spoken and written words of the terrorists? Is the goal journalistic self-censorship?

I hope not. Surely the press would rise up against that. You think?

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One essential and troubling religious truth

rainbowvestmentsI was flipping through my copy of Newsweek the other day and came across a headline that almost made me swoon. To make matters more interesting for people who care about religion news, this little article was part of the magazine’s giant “What You Need To Know Now” spread.

The headline said: “True or False: The Major Religions Are Essentially Alike.”

According to author Stephen Prothero of Boston University, the correct answer is “false.” Prothero is, of course, the author of the new book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — And Doesn’t.

Here is now the Newsweek article opens:

At least since the first petals of the counterculture bloomed across the United States in the 1960s, it has been fashionable to affirm that all religions are beautiful — and all are true. The proof text for this happy affirmation comes, appropriately enough, from the Hindu Vedas rather than the Christian Bible: “Truth is one, the sages call it by many names.”

According to this multicultural form of wisdom, the world’s religions are merely different paths up the same mountain. But are they?

Anyone willing to deal with facts and doctrines, rather than emotions and fog, has to come to the conclusion that the various world religions clash over and over again, creating eternal divides that are real and can only be covered up by living in a state of denial, according to Prothero.

Yet that is precisely where many people — including scores of journalists — like to live. Here is the heart of the Newsweek article:

You would think that multiculturalists would warm to this fact. But instead they try to flatten out diversity by pretending that the differences between, say, Judaism and Taoism are more apparent than real. …

But understanding real religious diversity — the undeniable differences demarcated by religious boundaries — is essential to understanding the powerful role that religious beliefs, practices and institutions play in the world today.

I do not believe that we are witnessing a “clash of civilizations” between Christianity and Islam. But it is a fantasy to imagine that the world’s two largest faiths are in any meaningful sense the same, or that interfaith dialogue between Christians and Muslims will magically close the divide between them. Even Shia and Sunni Islam are in many respects quite distinct — a fact American officials might have learned before things in Iraq went awry if our public schools had not been treating this subject as taboo for generations.

Faith may or may not move mountains, but it is doubtless one of the prime movers in politics, both in the United States and (with the notable exception of Europe) abroad.

It may be scary to accept reality, he concludes, but the “world is what it is.” It is hard to build true tolerance and respect (and accurate news coverage) on lies.

This Newsweek mini-essay really stuck in my mind because of something I heard several years ago, when I had a chance to take part in a conference on religion and the news held at the University of Nebraska’s School of Journalism. The keynote speaker was Dr. Martin Marty of the University of Chicago, who has, over the past few decades, been one of the most important voices pleading with the mainstream media to do a better job of covering religion news.

During his lecture — which focused on the impact of Sept. 11, 2001, on mainstream news — Marty noted that one of the most powerful beliefs among journalists is that the number of people who cling to traditional forms of religion will decrease in the years ahead and that the number of people who embrace more liberal forms will increase. This belief does much to shape their coverage of the news.

Meanwhile, one of the core convictions of the leaders of the religious left is their conviction that the various world religions are, in the end, the same and, thus, all equally true. Many elites in our culture go even further and assume that the religion will fade — period.

Here is the key quote from a column I wrote about that Marty speech:

Thus, the West has been dominated by two big ideas.

“One idea was that every time you looked out your window, there was going to be less religion around than there was before,” said Marty. …

“The other idea was that whatever leftover religion you find, it was going to be tolerant, concessive, mushy and so on. Instead, there has been an increase in religion and the prospering religions are all extremely intense. The versions of Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism that are prospering tend to be among people who care very much about what their faith is about.”

So, combine the insights of Marty with the hard, cold fact stated by Prothero. The result will be sobering news for many mainstream journalists.

However, the world is what it is.

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Religious violence dominates Iraqi politics

burning mosque in IraqSometimes I wonder if you could interpret everything that goes on of significance in Iraq through the lens of religion. In a solid news story Thursday, The Christian Science Monitor gives us the details on what Iraqi politicians are doing these days to appeal to their constituents:

In front of a crush of Friday worshipers in one of this city’s most historic Shiite mosques, Iraqi Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi stoked the already strong sectarian fervor.

Sunni extremists “want to strike your religion, sect, and faith. They trespass on the shrines of our Imams,” he told the rapt audience that cheered in response. “We can only apologize to our people because … these grave and stunning acts continue to occur.”

As Sunni insurgents blow up Shiite shrines and Shiite militiamen burn Sunni mosques, leaders from both sides are rushing to be seen as this country’s protectors of the religious sites. Protecting the mosque now appears to be one of the few tools for politicians to gain support among a populace that has seen little progress.

The third paragraph of the story tells us a lot about the situation in Iraq, at least according to the perspective of reporter Sam Dagher. Sunnis, the minority religious group in Iraq but the group in charge under Saddam, are apparently insurgents. Shiites, who now control most of the operations of the Iraqi government, are now militiamen. Sunnis apparently have mosques that are worth targeting while Shiites have the shrines.

I kept expecting to see a pretty straightforward paragraph in the article giving a brief rundown on the very-long-running conflict between the two Islamic sects. But that was absent. Perhaps for someone well versed in Middle East politics and history this would be like giving a basic explainer on the history of the Republican and Democratic parties when writing about the Senate’s failure to move forward on immigration reform Thursday? But if I were writing that story for, say, the Russian public I would certainly include some background.

As religion-fueled violence destroys Iraq, the few American reporters left in the country are forced to choose the stories they are able to report. Most of the news in American newspapers relates to the actions of the American military or how the Iraqis are responding, or say they would respond, to the various political machinations being discussed in Washington. It’s refreshing to a local Iraqi political story in an American newspaper:

Over the past 30 days, six of Iraq’s most important Shiite and Sunni mosques and shrines have been severely damaged in bombings. Numerous other smaller sites have been attacked as well.

… In an interview Sunday at his party’s headquarters, Mr. Hakim said the government failed to act on intelligence that indicated the shrine was going to be attacked again. “There was official correspondence regarding this matter but nonetheless nothing was done to prevent the attack.”

Shiite zeal in protecting sacred sites and the use of the issue to score political gains was on full display Friday during prayers at the mausoleum and mosque of Sayyed Idriss, one of the prophet’s great grandchildren, in central Baghdad.

Unfortunately we’re seeing fewer and fewer stories like these. Also unfortunate is the assumption that American readers know the background of the conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, or on why one side would be attacking the other’s shrines and mosques. But that deficiency is balanced out for readers who know the differences.

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Why does Vanity Fair happen to good people?

TutuThere’s something vertigo-inducing about Bono’s editing an issue on Africa for Vanity Fair. The visual conflicts abound: Alongside Bono’s Guest Editor’s Letter about how many African children die from preventable diseases, a nude threesome promotes a Dolce & Gabbana purse; at the end of an editorial spread about 20 innovative covers shot by Annie Leibovitz, Dolce & Gabbana returns, using a piece of beefcake in a thong to promote a cologne. This is like reading an article in Playboy that condemns female genital mutilation.

About those innovative covers: If it seemed unlikely that President Bush would sit passively as Archbishop Desmond Tutu prayed (presumably for Bush’s soul), that’s because it didn’t happen. As Daryl Lang of Photo District News reports:

Bush was photographed April 13 in Washington while Tutu was photographed April 28 in Kobe, Japan.

Vanity Fair is making no secret of this, having posted Leibovitz’s impressive travel schedule online. The schedule reveals that none of the subjects who appear together across the 20 covers actually posed together except Bush and Condoleezza Rice.

… The print magazine, in which all the cover photos are reproduced inside, offers clues that portraits are composites, but never says so directly. “We decided that 20 different covers had a nice ring to it. That meant 20 individual photo shoots,” Graydon Carter writes in his editor’s letter.

It would be hard for a casual reader to realize that, to take one example, Sen. Barack Obama didn’t actually sit down with Muhammad Ali. Through the magic of retouching, some of the subjects actually appear to be interacting — Madonna caresses Maya Angelou’s arm, Chris Rock tugs Buffett’s ear, and Tutu actually embraces Brad Pitt. The portraits are edged with a black film border, making them appear to be processed directly from a negative.

Tutu did interact with Pitt for an interview. It starts at a parodic level of flattery:

Brad Pitt: It’s a real pleasure for me to get to speak with you.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu: You don’t know — I mean, my stock has gone up. When people knew that I was going to speak to you …

B.P. Let me say, I’ve seen all your movies, and I’m a big fan.

D.T. Thank you. God bless.

Soon enough, Pitt begins asking questions — well, really, they are declarations that sometimes end in question marks:

What is it about the great religions? Why can’t the great religions play well with each other? What are they defending? I’ll tell you my interpretation: it signifies a lack of faith to always be threatened and always to have to prove your way is the best. It seems again to be antithetical to the teachings of the individual religion.

… So certainly discrimination has no place in Christianity. There’s a big argument going on in America right now, on gay rights and equality.

… You have talked about Nelson Mandela and how he had every right, as well as South Africa itself, to come out of the apartheid machine embittered and wanting revenge and retribution. You guys came up with this radical idea — the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Quickly, you had two known routes. You could go for justice, retribution justice, as in Nuremberg. Or you could get blanket amnesty. But you came up with this idea for healing the country and a new definition of justice called “restorative justice.”

Tutu answers Pitt in a spirit that’s every bit as cuddly as the faux cover showing Tutu hugging his interlocutor.

Bono solicited several interesting essays, including a report on economist Jeffrey Sachs’ work, self-promoting details on how Bono’s (Product) Red sales have made a difference in Africans’ lives and a fascinating study of how everyone’s DNA ultimately points back to Africa.

“… I’ve always imagined that I hadn’t been a singer I would have been a journalist,” Bono writes in his Guest Editor’s Letter. “But, in truth, my bandmates saved me from disappointment, as I’m no natural editor.”

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Sir Salman, champion of free speech

Salman RushdieIn reading news articles about the decision by Great Britain to bestow knighthood on Salman Rushdie, one can’t help but wonder why in the world the British would decide to do this. I mean, all they are doing is upsetting a substantial minority of Britain’s population and inflaming Islamic sentiment around the world by honoring a man who is just a novelist. Since when should we honor people who are attacked and threatened with death for what they say or write?

Or should we?

If you read The Times‘ piece on the matter, you come away with the idea that Rushdie was just a royal pain in the neck by writing The Satanic Verses in 1988.

You all know the backstory, and the news reports paid scant attention to it. The Times had one of the more thorough accounts of what happened:

Rushdie was forced to go into hiding for almost a decade after the Ayatollah Khomeini issued the death sentence over The Satanic Verses.

On Valentine’s Day in 1989 the spiritual figurehead of the Iranian revolution pronounced on Teheran radio that: “The author of The Satanic Verses, which is against Islam, the Prophet, the Koran, and all those involved in its publication who were aware of its content, are sentenced to death.”

In Britain, the subsequent hate campaign helped to politicise and radicalise a generation of young British Muslims. The taxpayer is believed to have spent more than £10 million protecting Rushdie.

The Times focuses heavily on Pakistan, where legislators are passing resolutions demanding the removal of Rushdie’s knighthood. The article even quote an independent-sounding editor of the Middle East Economic Survey saying that Rushdie’s knighthood will be seen as “an action calculated to goad Muslims at a time when the atmosphere is already very tense and Britain’s standing in the region is very low because of its involvement in Iraq and its lack of action in tackling the Palestine issue.”

Very little ink has been spent explaining why Rushdie received this honor. Perhaps it is because of the reasons cited by the Times: The British government was trying to upset Muslims. Or maybe not.

The Washington Post‘s brief account of the affair managed to include a quote from a British government official:

Pakistani officials summoned Robert Brinkley, the British high commissioner in Islamabad, to express anger over the honor for Rushdie, which was announced along with British government honors for about 950 people on Queen Elizabeth II’s ceremonial birthday on June 16. The knighthood means that the writer, who turned 60 on Tuesday, will be known in Britain as Sir Salman.

“Sir Salman’s knighthood is a reflection of his contribution to literature throughout a long and distinguished career which has seen him receive international recognition for a substantial body of work,” Brinkley said in a statement. Noting that at least two Muslims had also received honors from the queen, Brinkley said, “It is simply untrue that this knighthood is intended as an insult to Islam or the prophet Mohammad.”

I am not a reporter who likes to take the word of government officials, and I don’t think anyone should in this case either. There’s bound to be a backstory to the decision to grant Rushdie knighthood. An angle that I would encourage reporters to look at, even if it is not the actual reason, relates to the very work we do as journalists: freedom of speech.

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The Post helps out

donate hereIn a most unusual but welcome story deep on the inside of The Washington Post‘s Metro section, Michelle Boorstein reported on how an earthquake set back a project to create a written version of a local language spoken by 5,000 people and to translate the Bible for the people on the small Solomon Island in the South Pacific. (Lost, anyone?)

Not only did Boorstein report in a straightforward manner on Alpheaus Zobule — a Richmond, Va., theology student at Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education — and his decade-long translation effort; she also reported in a sympathetic tone on the tragic day when a 8.1 magnitude earthquake destroyed his work.

Boorstein wrote about Zobule back in January, but unfortunately the story was buried on the inside of the Metro pages and I am guessing most people missed it. I searched briefly on the Post/Newsweek On Faith blog for more coverage of Zobule, but unfortunately did not see anything.

What struck me most about this most recent story was the final graph:

Since the earthquake, churches across the United States have been sending donations for Zobule’s Richmond church, Grace Covenant Presbyterian. As of Friday, the church had received $16,500, Associate Pastor Christopher J. Thomas said.

“This disaster is going to impact the translation and literacy project in a very big way,” Zobule said in an e-mail. “Community support is an important element in the project we are doing and in the next few years it is going to be a challenge. The literacy program we are running cannot continue under the circumstance.”

Donations can be sent to Islands Bible Ministries, a development organization Zobule founded in the Solomons, via Grace Covenant at: 1627 Monument Ave., Richmond, Va. 23220. Questions can be answered by Zobule at agzobulegrace@hotmail.com or Grace Covenant at thomas@grace-covenant.org.

When was the last time a newspaper the size of the Post included donation information for a religious project? Yes, there is a huge education angle to the story, but the last time I checked, the only time newspapers published donation information was for the obituaries page and, more frequently, you have to pay to get even that.

Of course this raises the question of whether the Post includes donation information for any religious charity group hit upon by hard times and covered in its news pages.

The next step, I hope, would be for the Post to follow up on this story and look more in-depth at other Bible translation efforts in communities with no written word.

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Open and unafraid

JinAtOrdinationIn his first piece for The Atlantic, Adam Minter has written an in-depth and sympathetic profile of Aloysius Jin Luxian, bishop of Shanghai, who was approved by the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association but not appointed by the Vatican. Minter begins the piece with an extended description of Jin’s return, after years of imprisonment, to the cathedral where he had been ordained:

On a June day in 1982, Father Aloysius Jin Luxian, a 66-year-old Jesuit just released from prison, walked into Shanghai’s St. Ignatius Cathedral for the first time in 27 years. In his youth, the building had been one of the great churches in East Asia, celebrated for its delicate Gothic arches and colorful stained glass. Now the color was gone, replaced by clear glass and harsh sunlight that bleached the cracked columns and tiled floor. The steeples, once among the tallest in Shanghai, were missing, as was the altar beneath which he’d been ordained, in 1945. Jin had spent nearly three decades under house arrest, in reeducation camps, and in prison, so he had few illusions about the Chinese Communist Party’s attitude toward religion. But the damage to the church was still hard to bear. St. Ignatius, he learned, had been converted to a grain warehouse during the Cultural Revolution, and the authorities had spent three days burning most of the diocese’s Catholic books in front of the church.

Minter’s report describes the difficult choices Jin had to make in the years since his return to that cathedral, especially in striving for an enculturated Catholicism. Minter explains that struggle well in an interview with Abigail Cutler of The Atlantic Online:

I think you’d be hard pressed to find any Catholic in the world who would say they thought Mao was good for Chinese Catholicism. But on the other hand, the fact that China threw out the missionaries and allowed Chinese Catholics to assume authority over Chinese dioceses was very important and remains, to this day, a matter of pride for many Chinese. So when Jin talks about the identity crisis he felt in 1949 and in the decades that followed, he’s also talking about the tension he and his peers felt under European control — the idea that if you were a Catholic, you had to be part of the European colonial enterprise. Come 1949, I think many Chinese Catholics — especially those of Jin’s generation — desperately wanted a way to assert themselves.

Minter tells a complicated story that eventually includes the Vatican’s recognition of Jin as a bishop. The high quality of Minter’s coverage is perhaps best explained in how he answers when Cutler asks whether he has a particular interest in reporting on religion:

I find it to be an interesting topic. My specific interest in Catholicism in China comes from my seeing it as the perfect laboratory through which to examine how Chinese civilization interacts with Western civilization. I think there’s probably no institution that epitomizes the West more perfectly than the Catholic Church. Certainly, it’s the oldest Western institution. The role it’s played in China — as far back as the sixteenth century — and the role it continues to play today is just fascinating to me. In addition to that, I find religion interesting in its own right; I also like talking to religious people — especially religious leaders — because they tend to be thoughtful people.

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How big is CAIR?

CAIRAudrey Hudson’s very long story in Tuesday’s Washington Times takes the Council on American-Islamic Relations to task for its alleged falling membership. The civil liberties organization struck back in a strongly worded press release the same day that says the Times is a “right-wing” newspaper that publishes “agenda-driven reporting.”

For starters, it is pretty well established that the Times is a right-leaning newspaper. But that doesn’t mean everything it publishes is right-leaning or even falls into right-left categories. And what does the right-leaning reputation of the Times have to do with its reporting on an Islamic civil rights group’s membership levels? Is it conservative to investigate an Islamic organization or to dig into its background in the Muslim Brotherhood?

Here is the nut of the story, which is harsh:

Critics of the organization say they are not surprised that membership is sagging, and that a recent decision by the Justice Department to name CAIR as “unindicted co-conspirators” in a federal case against another foundation charged with providing funds to a terrorist group could discourage new members.

M. Zuhdi Jasser, director of American Islamic Forum for Democracy, says the sharp decline in membership calls into question whether the organization speaks for American Muslims, as the group has claimed.

“This is the untold story in the myth that CAIR represents the American Muslim population. They only represent their membership and donors,” Mr. Jasser said.

CAIR barred Hudson from a recent news conference “because of her history of sloppy and agenda-driven reporting. It is unfortunate that her apparent bias leads her to ‘cook’ CAIR’s membership figures and to tarnish the journalistic reputation of the Washington Times.”

As a journalist, I do not think there is ever a reason to bar anyone from a news conference as long as they are being civil. Disagreeing or disliking a publication’s coverage of your group is not a good excuse, and if the reporter’s stories have been sloppy, CAIR should highlight those errors and explain why Hudson should be taken off the beat. It has not done this.

But I also think it was wrong of the Times to exclude a statement from CAIR executive director Nihad Awad that was sent before the article was published. All voices should be heard. Hudson, unfortunately, has been made part of the story, and that needs to be reported.

Both sides are behaving badly in this case, but ultimately, after reviewing the article and the press release, I do not see CAIR challenging any of the facts presented in the story, just the context. CAIR claims that Hudson is comparing apples and oranges in her figures, but that doesn’t counter Hudson’s report that the group is funded primarily by about “two dozen donors a year” who “contribute the majority of the money for CAIR’s budget, which reached nearly $3 million last year.”

Another problem I have with CAIR’s response is that it indirectly compares Hudson’s reporting to McCarthyism without citing any specific evidence. The head of the group cites a recent front-page article in The New York Times that quoted government officials as saying CAIR’s critics engage in McCarthyism. They don’t come out and say it, but insinuate that critics of the organization “engage in McCarthyite tactics.” So any critic of this group or anyone who attempts to look into the background of a civil rights group is a McCarthyite? Please.

The Times will continue to bear the burden of being known as a conservative newspaper, but that does not mean its articles on CAIR are automatically off the mark. For example, check this story in Friday’s Times that gives a pretty straightforward account of a report from the group citing an increase in anti-Muslim bias, which CAIR says is at an all-time high.

I don’t see how this article could fall into CAIR’s description of the paper’s McCarthite tactics. Rather than making broad generalizations about the Times‘ coverage, CAIR should address the facts in the story.

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