Pakistan’s blasphemy law targets 11-year-old Christian

It is a common critique that residents of one country are disinterested in the goings on in other countries. But one story from this weekend spread quickly across news media and social media — albeit less so in American media than globally. The story is a sad one. I first learned about it from a news outlet called Times of India:

ISLAMABAD: An 11-year-old Christian girl has been arrested in Pakistani capital on a charge of blasphemy after she was accused of burning pages of the Quran, police said on Saturday.

Officials of Ramna police station said an FIR had been registered against Rimsha Masih, a resident of Umara Jaffar in sector G-12 in Islamabad.

The girl was arrested on Friday by personnel from a women’s police station after a man named Syed Muhammad Ummad filed a complaint against her.

The story went on to explain that local NGOs report the girl has Down syndrome. While the Times of India story, and others, spread the information about the arrest, it is frustrating how little information and context is coming through. This (Australia) story is better, but it’s still limited:

Police arrested Rimsha, who is recognised by a single name, on Thursday after she was reported holding in public burnt pages which had Islamic text and Koranic verses on them, a police official said.

A conviction for blasphemy is punishable by death in Pakistan.

The official said that the girl, who he described as being in her teens, was taken to a police station in the capital Islamabad, where she has been detained since.

Angry Muslim protesters held rallies demanding she be punished, said the official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.

“We had to register the case fairly quickly to prevent any unpleasant situation,” he added, referring to the demonstrations.

The suggestion is that charges were filed against the girl in order to protect her from the angry mob that was about to execute vigilante judgment against her. But what does this “angry Muslim protesters” mean? It would be helpful to know more about these protesters and if and how their views differ from others in the country. That the government got involved to protect her — if my reading of this report is correct — means something different than if they were leading the charge to execute a Christian 11-year-old with Down syndrome on blasphemy charges. Not a humongous difference, obviously, since she might suffer the same punishment, but a difference none-the-less.

Which brings us to this BBC report, which adds more context:

Her parents have been taken into protective custody following threats and other Christian families have fled.

It is thought that the girl has Down’s syndrome.

Paul Bhatti, Pakistan’s minister for National Harmony, told the BBC that the girl was known to have a mental disorder and that it seemed “unlikely she purposefully desecrated the Koran”.

“From the reports I have seen, she was found carrying a waste bag which also had pages of the Koran,” he said.

“This infuriated some local people and a large crowd gathered to demand action against her. The police were initially reluctant to arrest her, but they came under a lot of pressure from a very large crowd, who were threatening to burn down Christian homes.”

He said more than 600 people have fled from the Christian neighbourhood.

You’ll note that none of these reports are from American media. At the time of this writing, the reports I found were from outside American borders. Actually, as I come back in here this morning, it looks like American media is beginning to take note of this latest Pakistan blasphemy law story. There’s also this CNN International report, which gives more information and includes a quote from Muslim politicians within the country who are opposed to the blasphemy charge:

The statement from President Asif Ali Zardari called for an urgent report into the incident and said that vulnerable sections of society must be protected “from any misuse of the blasphemy law.”

“Blasphemy by anyone cannot be condoned but no one will be allowed to misuse blasphemy law for settling personal scores,” the president’s spokesperson Farhatullah Babar said.

Critics of Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws say they are being used to persecute religious minorities.

Leader of political party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and former international cricketer, Imran Khan, tweeted: “Shameful! Sending an 11yr old girl to prison is against the very spirit of Islam which is all about being Just and Compassionate.

Of course, given how widespread the support for these blasphemy laws is, it would be more helpful to have quotes from those defending them. It can be very difficult for readers outside the country to grasp the basis for and support of these capital blasphemy laws. Knowing that a few politicians carefully oppose them doesn’t exactly do much to further our understanding. Still, a helpful report and more is needed as this story progresses.

Image via Ahmadiyya Times.

Pod people: Not all ‘big’ stories are created equal

I think that I have made the following point in previous GetReligion posts, but it must be made again. One of the hardest concepts for journalists to explain to non-journalists is the concept of “what a story is.”

Some events are stories and some are not. Some events and trends are stories for specific audiences and not for others. Some events are stories on some days and not on others.

Then there is this fact: Some events and trends are stories, but they are not “big” stories.

So what turns a “story” into a “big” story?

I’m glad you asked. Like it or not, a “big” story is a story that lots of journalism editors think is a “big story.” They know one when they see one, you see. It’s a kind of instinct that comes from working in newsrooms and reading newspapers for years and years. Does this mean that the logic is somewhat circular? You betcha.

Is this fair? Not really.

For one thing, when asked about these journalistic mysteries, most editors will say that these “big story” decisions are rooted in (a) a sense of what the public wants to know and (b) what the public needs to know. Of course, it’s hard for the public to respond to certain kinds of stories — religion stories leap to mind — if these stories are either ignored or buried several clicks inside the publication. Am I the only person who cannot find the “On Faith” section in the iPad version of The Washington Post?

Moving on. Is it harder for a story to become a “big story” if editors are not interested in it? You betcha.

Is it harder for a story to become a “big story” if editors do not know anything about the groups and people that are involved? You betcha.

Some GetReligion readers may recall this anecdote from my days at the late, beloved Rocky Mountain News:

There was a stretch in the 1980s when Colorado Springs — really quick — turned into “Wheaton of the West,” a phrase I used in a column early on that I really wish I had copyrighted. Every month or so, some new group arrived at the base of Pikes Peak. …

Anyway, I’m sitting at my desk one day and a member of the business-page staff walked up and asked: “Hey, there’s some organization moving to Colorado Springs called Focus on the Family. Is that worth a brief?”

I almost fell out of my chair. I told her that this might be one of the biggest Colorado news stories of the late 20th century.

The response: No way. You see, none of the editors had ever heard of Focus on the Family. That was a niche radio show and publishing empire that was not on their radar screen.

Truth be told, the Focus on the Family move to Colorado Springs was not a “big” story. It was a “huge” story. The problem was that the people sitting in the daily news-budget meeting, the meeting in which they decided what stories went where, didn’t know that they were dealing with a national story that would send tremors through Colorado politics, culture and religion for decades to come.

I was able to convince the editors this story was bigger than a news brief, but barely. In a matter of months, they all knew who Dr. James Dobson was and they knew that Focus on the Family mattered.

I bring this up because of some interesting reactions in the comment boxes about my post the other day on the 10 biggest religion-beat stories of 2011, according to the pros at the Religion Newswriters Association. In turn, this discussion became the hook for this week’s Crossroads podcast (click here to listen to it).

The key came at this point in the RNA results list:

6. Pope John Paul II is beatified — the last step before sainthood — in a May ceremony attended by more than million people in Rome.

7. California evangelist Harold Camping attracts attention with his predictions that the world would end in May and again in October.

Say what? The Camping story was almost as “big” as the Pope John Paul II story? And it was more important than, let’s say, the following (just to pick a few choice numbers)?

12. Majority-Christian Southern Sudan achieves its independence from Northern Sudan after years of trying. Worldwide church leaders, especially in Africa, receive some credit for the outcome and they pledge continued support to the new nation. …

14. The irreverent satire “The Book of Mormon,” about a pair of non-traditional missionaries to Uganda, wins nine Tony awards on Broadway, including best musical. …

16. Hopes for an end to Pakistan’s blasphemy law are dashed when two leading advocates of religious conciliation, Salman Taseer and Shahbazz Bhatti, are assassinated two months apart.

That’s right. “The Book of Mormon” was a “bigger” story than the publicly popular assassinations of one of Pakistan’s most important Muslim progressives and the nation’s only Christian member of the cabinet.

But back to the Harold “End of the World” Camping story. In the comments pages, there was this interesting dialogue:

carl jacobs says:
January 4, 2012, at 12:24 am

Harold Camping wasn’t a big story. He was never big enough or representative enough or important enough to warrant the coverage he received. He was just a vehicle that allowed institutional mockery of the Christian faith to be passed off as a story. The collective laughter was the whole point from beginning to end. … I’m not surprised to see it on the list. A good time was had by all.

Mike O. says:
January 4, 2012, at 12:57 am

Carl, Harold Camping wasn’t just a big story, it was a huge story. Both religious and non-religious were absolutley fascinated by it. The story had legs despite your personal feelings about Family Radio’s religious interpetations. A story can’t get that much extended attention and not be called a big story — unless the adjective “big” has suddenly lost all meaning. …

carl jacobs says:
January 4, 2012, at 8:28 am

… I didn’t say it wasn’t Big and Huge. I said it wasn’t a story. There was no ‘there’ there. Or perhaps I should put it this way. The reason for the Hugeness of the Media event had nothing to do with the story as told. It wasn’t “Harold Camping has declared a date. Let’s wait for his prophesy to fail.” If it was only Harold Camping, no one would have cared. “Unknown radio personality predicts end of world” isn’t a story. How many reporters had even heard of Harold Camping before last Spring? …

Midst all the laughter, do you think there was any real concern for the people who believed Camping, and suffered genuine harm as a result? They were straight men in a comedy sketch. They were the people who made the mocking crowd think well of themselves. “Look at those fools! We aren’t fools like them!” isn’t much of a story. But it was the sum total of that event in May. When it was over, the crowd went home to seek for a different source of amusement.

The whole thing was despicable.

Now, on one level this argument was another round in the debates about whether mainstream journalists deliberately — key word there is “deliberately” — promote stories that make traditional religious believers look stupid. On another level, however, this offered a window into the mystery of why some “stories” become “big stories.”

Yes, yes, yes, I am well aware that Camping is not exactly a traditional believer and it’s insulting that many editors seemed to think that he was a crucial, representative mainstream Christian voice. On the positive side, I also know that some journalists turned this oddball story hook into a chance to explore the actual “end times” teachings of various Christian traditions. You can look at this from two different directions.

At the same time, as you’ll hear in the podcast, I freely admit that before this story broke I had never heard of Camping. Yes, he was that obscure. Please remember that I was on the religion beat in Charlotte, N.C., during the start of the whole “Pearlygate” scandal era in which just about every major religious broadcaster on Planet Earth was dissected, to varying degrees, in the mainstream press.

Thus, we must conclude that it was the subject — Flash! Another stupid end of the world prophecy! — that hooked editors. Something had to yank this obscure story out to page one, where it became a juggernaut. That’s what made this strange little story more important than (insert a truly important issue or event here).

So, I’ll conclude with a question and a lesson:

(1) GetReligion readers, come clean. How many of you had heard of Camping before this story broke?

(2) Clearly, religious leaders can learn an important lesson from this poll. If you want mainstream press coverage, buy space on billboards and ask yourself this question: “What shocking statement can I print here that will make people laugh in newsrooms?”

Enjoy the podcast.

Open thread on 2011 religion news

How long have I been away from my desk, out on the nation’s highways visiting various encampments of family members?

Well, so long that I have not had a chance to seek the comments of GetReligion readers on the results of the Religion Newswriters Association poll to determine the top 10 events and trends on the religion beat in 2011 (click here for the full press release).

Comment No. 1: Is it just me, or did anyone else think that the poll results received less ink (digital or analog) this time around? Less coverage than normal?

At the same time, this was clearly a year when there was one event that drew the most mainstream news coverage and the biggest headlines. However, this was also an event that was so important that many editors probably didn’t think of it as a religion-beat story, in and of itself.

In other words, this news story was too important to be a religion-news story. Don’t you hate it when that happens?

You can sense this paradox in the CNN Belief Blog analysis of the poll results. Here’s the top of that essay:

Washington (CNN) – The killing of Osama bin Laden was voted the top story of the year by the Religion Newswriters Association, beating out Rep. Peter King’s hearing on the radicalization of U.S. Muslims and Catholic Bishop Robert Finn’s failure to report the suspected abuse of a child.

Though on face bin Laden’s death is not a religion story, it created conversation on a number of faith topics, the RNA said.

“Faith-based groups reacted to the terrorist leader’s death with renewed sympathy for victims’ families, scriptural citations justifying the demise of evil, and hopeful prayers for peace among the nations,” stated the RNA release.

In other words, the killing of the world’s most famous Islamist radical was not really a religion story, just as bin Laden’s career was not really rooted in his religious worldview and his interpretation of Islam?

Also, this year’s poll results were, for me, a clear, but painful, illustration of harsh reality in the news biz. Some events are big stories because they are big stories. Other stories are not as important to editors because they are not as important to readers, even if the consequences of these stories may be greater in the long run.

That’s how I felt about bin Laden’s death. I mean, everyone knew that U.S. officials were going to find him sooner or later. It’s also easy to argue that his real power, his power to shape world events, had already declined sharply during his years in hiding.

Meanwhile, other bloody events were taking place in Pakistan during 2011 that I was convinced offered sharp, clear insights into the confused state of affairs in that tense, confused and potentially deadly land.

Thus, I focused my Scripps Howard News Service column on a pair of events that didn’t even make it into the RNA top 10 list. Instead, they drifted all the way down to the No. 16 slot. Thus, while opening with bin Laden’s death, I quickly offered this summary of these other religion-news events that I am convinced were the year’s most poignant and, perhaps, significant:

… (When) I think about religion news events in 2011, another image from Pakistan flashes through my mind — a shower of rose petals.

I am referring to the jubilant throngs of lawyers and demonstrators that greeted 26-year-old Malik Mumtaz Qadri with cheers, rose petals and flowers as he arrived at an Islamabad courtroom to be charged with terrorism and murder. Witnesses said Qadri fired 20 rounds into Salman Taseer’s back, while members of the security team that was supposed to guard the Punjab governor stood watching.

Moderate Muslim leaders, fearing for their lives, refused to condemn the shooting and many of the troubled nation’s secular political leaders — including President Asif Ali Zardari, a friend and ally of Taseer — declined to attend the funeral. Many Muslim clerics, including many usually identified as “moderates,” even praised the act of the assassin.

Calling himself a “slave of the Prophet,” Qadri cheerfully surrendered. He noted that he had killed the moderate Muslim official because of Taseer’s role in a campaign to overturn Pakistan’s blasphemy laws that order death for those who insult Islam, especially those who convert from Islam to another religion.

A few weeks later, Pakistan’s minister of minority affairs — the only Christian in the national cabinet — died in another hail of bullets in Islamabad. Looking ahead, Shahbaz Bhatti had recorded a video testimony (see video with this post) to be played on Al-Jazeera in the likely event that he, too, was assassinated.

”When I’m leading this campaign against the Sharia laws, for the abolishment of blasphemy law, and speaking for the oppressed and marginalized — persecuted Christian and other minorities — these Taliban threaten me,” said Bhatti, who was immediately hailed as a martyr by Catholic bishops in Pakistan. “I’m living for my community and suffering people and I will die to defend their rights.”

Meanwhile, the gunmen tossed pamphlets near Bhatti’s bullet-riddled car that threatened him by name and stated, in part: “From the Mujahideen of Islam, this fitting lesson for the world of infidelity, the crusaders, the Jews and their aides … especially the leader of the infidel government of Pakistan, Zardari. … In the Islamic Sharia, the ruling for one who insults the Prophet is nothing but death.”

So, GetReligion readers, do you have any comments on the RNA poll? Did you see any other coverage of the year’s top religion-news events that you want to share, via URLs in our comments pages? Tee off.

Persecuting Pakistani Christians

I keep thinking about all the American Christians who canceled church on Christmas Day. Terry wrote about the Iraqi Christians who’ve done the same. Except in their case, it’s under threat of death.

I’m elated that Christmas is finally here after a lengthy Advent but I am so sad that Christians in Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, among other locations, aren’t able to worship freely. Or take the horrible news out of Nigeria yesterday. What Christians there wouldn’t do to have the freedom to worship in peace.

In any case, some holiday seasons see quite a few stories aiming to undermine some aspect of Christianity. We didn’t see much of that. Neither did we see much War on Christmas-type stuff (hurray!), particularly considering that there was ample opportunity.

Certainly the plight of global Christians this Christmas has not been covered well. But I did want to highlight a package from CNN that I personally found quite interesting.

The feature piece is actually a photo essay by Gary S. Chapman, titled “The persecution of Pakistan’s Christian minority.” Brett Roegiers explained the background to the piece:

In August 2009, an angry mob of extremist Muslims torched Christian homes in Gojra, Pakistan. At least seven people were shot to death or burned alive. A few days after the attacks, American photographer Gary S. Chapman visited the area with his wife, Vivian, to document the aftermath. “I want people to see my images and feel both discomfort and compassion at the same time,” he said recently. “I want them to try and see themselves in the situation I am witnessing.” The violence in Gojra was incited by rumors of the desecration of pages of the Quran at a Christian wedding, police said. An investigation determined the allegations were baseless.

His project began in 2005 when he photographed relief efforts after a massive earthquake killed 86,000. He learned about mistreatment of Christians then and there, including rape, lack of employment and education and beatings for drinking from Muslim water fountains:

At large gatherings, the Christians would sometimes hire armed guards for protection. Despite their hardships, Chapman says many remain optimistic. “I have been encouraged by the Christians of Pakistan that remain faithful, forever hopeful in the midst of real persecution,” he said. He has been to Pakistan four times now. During one trip, he visited a woman who had taken in several Christian children orphaned by the earthquake. Shortly after he left, an arsonist set fire to her home.

He ends by noting:

“After seeing the injustices in Pakistan, I’ve learned not to take my freedom for granted concerning my faith, livelihood, or even where I live,” Chapman said. “I am thankful for everything.”

His wife Vivian Padilla-Chapman wrote an accompanying essay from her perspective. She goes through some of the heartbreaking stories. She tells about a 32-year-old father of four who saved 70 women and children from violence and death by offering them safe harbor in his house while he kept rioters at bay with a shotgun from which he discharged rounds in the air for several hours. When the mob finally left, he had only two rounds remaining:

Another family just blocks away had no such protector. Seven people, including several children, were locked into their house and burned alive. Villagers said they could hear their screams.

I’m a Christian and familiar with Jesus’ words, “Love your enemies and pray for those that persecute you,” but at that moment, those words seemed impossible. Honestly, I don’t know that I could sincerely love my enemies. I’m not sure that I could even pray for them.

Although Pakistan’s constitution guarantees religious freedom, blasphemy laws call for the death sentence of anyone who insults the prophet Muhammad or Islam. These laws are often used against Christians by jealous or disgruntled coworkers or neighbors. The incident that sparked the violence in Gojra stemmed from a rumor that a Christian had committed blasphemy at a wedding. It was never proven.

As the relief team took assessments for supplies, our interpreter, also a Christian, turned to me and said, “We see the destruction of their homes, but not the destruction of their lives. Jesus will never leave us or forsake us.”

Under the same circumstances, would I draw strength from that promise? Could I endure those kinds of struggles and hardships? I hope so.

The strong faith that undergirds this community is the kind of faith that I want to sustain me.

Reporters don’t just hear about terrible things, we’re encouraged to seek them out and report on them. When your beat involves religion, it can cause some mixed emotions. It’s interesting to me to read how these journalists react to what they’ve witnessed.

I’m no photojournalism expert, but I wanted to highlight the photo essay because of the simplicity and honesty in the pictures. Padilla-Chapman writes that her husband frequently does work for non-profit humanitarian groups. I expected to see photos that were manipulative or maudlin. They aren’t. They seem so accurate and honest.

Since I can’t use any of the Chapman photos to illustrate this post, I thought it might be worth remembering Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Christian mother of five facing a death sentence for allegedly blaspheming Mohammed. Punjab governor Salman Taseer and Federal Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti were both killed this past year for defending her and opposing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. A delegation overseeing her legal and material aid visited her on December 19 at the prison in Sheikpura where she’s being held in isolation. They say she’s not been allowed to bathe for more than two months, is unable to stand on her own, appeared confused and was afraid to accept the water they offered her to drink. But she told them she has forgiven those who accused her of blasphemy and only wants to return to her family.

Pakistan: Assassination, abduction and blasphemy

I was wondering about a reporter friend I met in Jerusalem so I stopped by her Facebook page and was surprised to see a few links to stories about the abduction of the son of Salman Taseer. Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer was assassinated at the very beginning of this year by his own bodyguard. That bodyguard was upset about Taseer’s opposition to blasphemy laws carrying the death sentence for insulting Islam. Taseer was riddled by gunshots, shot in the back. The response to his assassination, the most high-profile one since former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was killed a few years prior, was perhaps even more shocking.

The 26-year-old assassin was showered by hundreds of supporters with rose petals and garlands when he appeared in court. News reports mentioned that moderate religious leaders refused to condemn the assassination, and some clergy flat out supported the attack.

Taseer was also called a moderate or liberal Muslim. A couple of months later, the Christian federal minorities minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, was also gunned down. He was also killed for speaking out against a brutal blasphemy law. The law isn’t just theoretical. Christian Asia Noreen Bibi has been on death row under the law for some time now.

And now Taseer’s son Shahbaz has been kidnapped. My main complaint about the coverage is that it’s lacking. You can actually find hundreds of stories in the Pakistani press and in the European press. But the stories stateside are much harder to come by.

The Los Angeles Times did publish a story, which you can read here. And Time actually has an economical but informative story about the current situation facing those who oppose capital punishment for “blasphemy.” Here’s a sample:

The abduction has plunged many Pakistanis into a state of disbelief. With memories of the assassination still fresh in many minds, there are fears both for the family and for the future of a country where such incidents can take place. “Somehow, after Salmaan’s assassination, the family had picked up the pieces,” says a friend of the Taseers. “Now how does anyone cope after a horrific incident like this?” On Jan. 4, Governor Taseer — an outspoken advocate of religious tolerance — was gunned down with 27 bullets by one of his own elite bodyguards. The assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, confessed to his crime with chilling pride. “This is the punishment for a blasphemer,” Qadri declared. He belonged not to a fundamentalist or militant group but to the Sufi-leaning Barelvi school of Islam.

The reaction to the assassination was no less shocking. Within moments of Taseer’s murder, Qadri was hailed as a hero by a broad section of mainstream Pakistani society. In the months before he was killed, Taseer had been robustly campaigning against the country’s vaguely worded blasphemy laws that have been consistently invoked against religious minorities. In particular, Taseer demanded the release of Aasia Noreen, a poor farmhand, who became the first Christian woman to face the death penalty under those laws. The governor’s rare and forceful opposition was twisted and cast as an act of blasphemy itself. When Qadri appeared at court, he was garlanded and cheered by a group of lawyers.

In the ensuing months, not only has Qadri evaded conviction, but the Taseer family has also endured a series of further threats. Despite Qadri’s confession, the court has convened only fitfully, dragging out the trial. “The government set a very bad precedent in the aftermath of Salmaan Taseer’s death by not seeking to hold his murderer accountable,” says Ali Dayan Hasan, Pakistan director for Human Rights Watch. “There has been no movement on the case, and the failure to prosecute and convict the self-confessed murderer is a sign of both incompetence and an appeasement of extremists.” It is this form of surrender, Hasan says, that emboldens further lawlessness in Pakistan.

Very well written by Omar Waraich. I hadn’t realized, for instance, that Taseer’s family had faced further threats or that the trial wasn’t being run fairly.

I realize that America has its own troubles, particularly with the economy. I understand that reporters here are focused internally and obsessed with politics. But Americans also need to know what’s going on in Pakistan. Daily updates might not make sense, but covering the latest dramatic situation involving (presumably) the blasphemy laws there does make sense. It doesn’t take that much room and helps those of us stateside be less myopic about the plight of Pakistan.

Putting some info into ‘radical’

Once upon a time, it appeared that most mainstream journalists had rallied around the use of the word “Islamist” to describe the brand of Islam that has been linked to violence and terror around the world.

The key was that this was a version of Islam that was framed almost exclusively in terms of political power and the crushing of religious minorities, including, often, minorities and dissenters within Islam.

Alas, other journalists preferred to adapt the f-word from American Protestant history — that would be “fundamentalist” — to conflicts on the other side of the world involving believers who would never identify themselves with this term (while speaking languages that rarely if ever include a comparable term).

Some journalists liked the word “militant,” yet when using it they often fail to offer any hints whatsoever what these militants are choosing to be militant about. Ditto for the word “extremist.”

Now, it appears that “radical” Islam is on the rise. Here is the top of a typical Washington Post use of this new and, to my mind, unimproved label:

ISLAMABAD – Pakistan said … that it had arrested a high-ranking army officer on suspicion of connections to a radical group, a rare public acknowledgment of possible ties between members of the country’s military and the extremist organizations it is battling.

The arrest comes amid rising concern that Pakistan’s military is penetrated by Islamists who are sympathetic to insurgent groups that have declared war on the state. Last month, heavily armed fighters stormed a naval base in Karachi, an attack widely suspected to have required inside help.

Actually, that reference contains more than one of these common and almost always meaningless buzz words.

So what content can readers cling to? The key is that the arrested radical insurgent Islamist extremist — one Brig. Ali Khan — is committed part of another organization with a specific political goal:

Khan allegedly was working with Hizb ut-Tahrir, a radical group that calls for the overthrow of governments in Muslim lands and the installation of an Islamic caliphate. The group claims to be nonviolent but has been tied to militant organizations and is banned in Pakistan.

That’s all the reader is going to get, when it comes to attaching any factual content to this cloud of vague terms.

So here is my question: How many ordinary newspaper readers understand the meaning and the significance of the pivotal term “Islamic caliphate”? I mean, other than Glenn Beck listeners? A little dose of laugh-to-keep-from-crying irony there.

This is a term with precise content. Period.

At this point, all the Post team really needs is a tiny dose of history and one or two sentences of content about practical issues in daily life — treatment of women, blasphemy laws, status of religious minorities — to do the brave, rare thing, which is printing content and not mere labels.

So here is my question: In the context of Pakistan, what issues are key (other than the life-and-death debates over blasphemy)? In other words, if you were going to use the word “radical” in this way, what small doses of factual material would you use to define that term?

Another bomb; same song in Pakistan

A long, long time ago — pre-Internet, for heaven’s sake — I had a long conversation with Bill Moyers, then of CBS, about why the mainstream press has so much trouble covering religion. This was one of those occasions in which he used a striking image to describe this problem — that far too many reporters and editors are “tone deaf” to the music of religion.

Since this interview for the Charlotte News took place in 1982, Moyers still had Iran on his mind and the reporting he had done during his travels in the Muslim world.

A major obstacle that he faced, he said, was that many of his colleagues could not grasp that there is no “separation of mosque and state” in Islam. Thus, they would say that the events unfolding in Iran and elsewhere were merely political and not religious. It was hard for them to grasp that the events s they were reporting were saturated in religious images and belief.

Politics? Yes. Religion? Yes. They were covering the opera, but they could not hear the music.

I thought about that conversation while reading the latest Washington Post report from Islamabad about yet another assassination attempt, only this time the target was a much more complex figure than either Salmaan Taseer, the progressive Muslim governor of Punjab, or Shabbaz Bhatti, the only Christian member of Pakistan’s cabinet.

You will recall that both were gunned down because of their opposition to the nation’s draconian blasphemy laws. Please keep that in mind as you read through this report, starting at the top:

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – One of Pakistan’s most influential religious leaders and politicians narrowly escaped a second assassination attempt in two days Thursday as he was touring the country’s volatile northwest to address a string of rallies.

There was no immediate indication who was behind the two attacks on Sen. Fazlur Rahman, the longtime leader of a faction of the Jamiat-e-Ulema-i-Islami party. A complex and colorful figure, Rahman is strongly anti-American and once supported the Afghan Taliban, but he operates within the country’s democratic system and is mistrusted by Pakistani Taliban extremists.

“I am safe. … There is blood everywhere, and my clothes are covered with blood,” the gray-bearded Rahman told witnesses Thursday in the town of Charsadda moments after a powerful bomb exploded amid his convoy, killing 14 people and injuring at least 30. Rahman was traveling to a rally in a police van after an attack Wednesday morning.

So, at this point, no one has claimed responsibility for these attacks.

Some experts pointed at forces linked, or hired, by the United States. Others claimed that it was his strong support for sharia law that caused the attacks, again hinting at violence coming from those who, as one source puts it, “want to stop the Islamic revolution in Pakistan.” Others said that the Taliban was simply doing everything possible to sow discord and chaos in the nation. Another step toward an Islamic revolution, perhaps.

In other words, politics and religion, but mainly politics.

Then again, maybe there was another motive. Check out the next to last paragraph:

Rahman, a Sunni cleric in his 60s who wears a signature orange turban, was once an outspoken radical Islamist, but his tone moderated as he became prominent in national politics, and he emerged as a bridge between Islamic militants and the government. Yet he is also known for his independent principles, and officials said his recent call for correcting abuses of Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy law could have angered extremist groups.

You know what? That may have had something to do with it. Ask the families of Taseer and Bhatti.

Hey Post editors: Perhaps this information could have gone higher in the story? I realize that this would, again, put a heavy emphasis on a clash between some — repeat SOME — Muslims in Pakistan and the nation’s Christians, Hindus and other religious minorities (along with progressive Muslims who oppose the blasphemy laws as currently written). But that’s the reality. That’s the news.

Blasphemy laws punish Muslims, too

If asked to prepare a list of mainstream foreign correspondents who “get religion,” Pamela Constable of the Washington Post would be in my top handful of names. Simple stated, she does not look at conflicts that are packed with religious language, symbolism and actions and then automatically assume that this is the result of “tribalism” and/or vague “sectarian” forces in the culture. In the past, I have also pointed GetReligion readers toward her evocative memoir — “Fragments of Grace: My Search for Meaning in the Strife of South Asia.”

This is not to say that there are no nits to be picked in her work (or in her copy that ends up being published after her editors have done their thing).

In this case, I want to praise her recent story that ran under the headline, “Pakistani Christian official’s slaying stirs fear, discord.” At the same time, I think it contains either a sin of omission or commission, depending on how one wants to look at it, on a topic of life-and-death importance. Here is the opening of the report:

KHUSHPUR, Pakistan – For generations, this village in Punjab province has been a rare oasis of religious harmony. Muslims and Christians attend each other’s weddings and are buried in the same cemetery. Church bells and Islamic calls to prayer ring out from spires a few muddy streets apart. In recent years, a soccer tournament with mixed-faith teams became a regional attraction.

The man most identified with this achievement was Shabbaz Bhatti, the son of a local Catholic schoolmaster, who grew up to become a passionate advocate for minority rights and, two years ago, the first Christian member of the federal cabinet. When religious conflict flared elsewhere, Khushpur’s 5,000 residents felt shielded by Bhatti’s high-profile stature.

But since March 3, when Bhatti was gunned down by Islamic extremists in the capital, Islamabad, a jittery gloom has permeated his village and the poison of suspicion has begun to creep into people’s thoughts. At the soccer field last week, a sign said, “Play for Peace,” but a rifleman was posted to guard the afternoon match and not one Muslim player showed up.

At the heart of the story, of course, is a deadly political and religious question: Should Christians continue to speak out against Pakistan’s infamous blasphemy laws, or should they be silent and try to remain in hiding, so as not to provoke more killings? This latter strategy would be consistent with the underground railroad that has long existed to help those who convert from Islam to Christianity hide or escape the nation. Christians and other religious minorities in Pakistan are not in agreement on what should happen next.

It is in that context that the Post reports this crucial background material. Note the reference to the recently assassinated Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, a Muslim who spoke out against the blasphemy laws.

Christian legislators and activists close to Bhatti are eager to take to the streets and demand rights for Pakistan’s estimated 20 million Christians. Unless new leaders quickly take his place, they warn that religious minorities — including Hindus, Sikhs and Ahmadis — will retreat into fearful shells as Islamist groups grow stronger.

Christians in Pakistan have not always faced persecution. For decades, foreign missionaries ran Pakistan’s best schools and colleges. Discrimination grew in the 1980s under the “Islamization” campaign of the dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq, but religious minorities found a patron in Benazir Bhutto, the liberal leader who became prime minister twice in the 1990s.

Bhutto was assassinated in 2007 and her widower, now President Asif Ali Zardari, named Bhatti minister of religious minority affairs. He has spoken repeatedly of the need to curb religious intolerance, but after Taseer’s slaying met with unexpected public approval, his government backed off from proposals to reform blasphemy laws, which are often used to persecute non-Muslims.

Now, read the last part of that final sentence again. The blasphemy laws, we are told, are “often” used to persecute non-Muslims, as in the previously mentioned Christians, Hindus, Sikhs and Ahmadis, a sect of Islam that is considered heretical by mainstream Muslims.

The problem, I fear, is that most readers will assume that these laws are only used to persecute minorities. Truth is, it is more common for them to be used against Muslims who clash with the often-radicalized mainstream religious authorities. In other words, what we have here is a battle INSIDE the complex world of Islam, as well as a fight over the basic human rights of religious minorities, including converts from Islam to other religions.

Consider the following passage in a Guardian commentary by Shehrbano Taseer, the daughter of the late Salmaan Taseer:

The blasphemy laws were foisted on to Pakistan by the draconian General Zia ul-Haq in 1986. Since then, more than 500 Muslims, 340 Ahmadis, 119 Christians, 14 Hindus and 10 others have been charged under the laws.

Thirty-two of those accused — and two Muslim judges — have been mowed down by Islamist vigilantes. Since 4 January, the day my father was assassinated, there have been 16 known cases in which 23 people have been affected. Once a law is made in the name of religion, no one can touch it.

Do the math. Yes, this is a story about a Christian martyr and the persecution of minorities. However, it is also a story about essential human rights for Muslims who stand up for their own faith and the rights of others. Always remember that there is no one Islam. There are Muslims being persecuted by other Muslims in a battle for the heart, soul and mind of Islam, itself.

PHOTO: From the All About Pakistan website