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.

Dying on a cross in Pakistan (updated)

So it has happened again. It may be time for more showers of rose petals among some — repeat SOME — Muslims in the troubled land of Pakistan.

At this point, it would really help to watch the stunning piece of video that accompanies this post.

This is the martyred Shahbaz Bhatti, speaking for himself and for religious minorities in his homeland. Now, the goal is to search for any of these words — his key points about the blasphemy law and his own faith — in the mainstream media reports about his assassination. Good luck with that.

Meanwhile, here is the top of the Washington Post report, as an example of the early coverage.

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN – Pakistan’s federal minorities minister, a Christian, was gunned down in this capital city Wednesday in the second killing this year of a senior government official who had spoken out against the nation’s stringent blasphemy laws.

The assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti represented another severe blow to Pakistan’s beleaguered moderates, whose voices are increasingly drowned out by those of violent Muslim hardliners. The shooting came two months after the killing of Punjab province governor Salman Taseer, who, like Bhatti, argued that laws making insults to Islam’s prophet Muhammad a capital crime were wrongly used as tools to persecute religious minorities. …

Though there was no claim of responsibility for the killing, fliers found scattered on the road near the scene bore the names of what appeared to be two Islamist militant groups — the Al-Qaeda Organization and the Pakistani Taliban Punjab. The fliers condemned Bhatti as an “infidel, a cursed one” and said others who demonstrate “support of blasphemers” would meet the same fate. Bhatti’s profile had grown in recent months, after he condemned the November death sentencing of a Christian woman on the grounds that she had insulted the prophet Muhammad, an accusation he said was baseless.

Now, please remember that the goal is to focus on the journalistic issues involved in covering this case. In this case, I am left asking two basic journalistic questions:

(1) What did Bhatti, a Christian, and the late Salman Taseer, the Muslim governor of Punjab, say or do that constituted fatal insults against Muhammad? Readers need that information.

(2) In effect, did this moderate Muslim and this outspoken Christian die because of their opposition to a key element of sharia law? Did they die because they defended the basic human rights of religious minorities, such as the right to change one’s beliefs and to convert to another religion? It would help to know if mere opposition to the blasphemy law constitutes blasphemy and is, thus, an insult to the prophet. It is crucial, in particular, for American readers to know that blasphemy laws are used against Muslims that oppose elements of sharia, not just members of religious minorities that are considered “infidels” by some — repeat SOME — Muslims in Pakistan and elsewhere.

Let’s see what the New York Times has to say. The key chunk of the story states:

The gunmen were wearing traditional Pakistani garb of baggy pants and long tunic, the inspector general of Islamabad police, Wajid Durrani, said. The pamphlet found at the site warned against changes in Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy law and bore the imprint of the Taliban and al Qaeda, police officials said. It specifically named Mr. Bhatti.

Mr. Bhatti, like Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab who was gunned down Jan. 4, had campaigned for the reform of Pakistan’s blasphemy law. The law, introduced in the 1970s, calls for the death penalty for those accused of speaking against the Prophet Muhammad. …

“This is the mindset adopted in the 1980s when Pakistan and the United States were fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan,” said Athar Minallah, a liberal leader of the lawyers movement, who has condemned the killing of Mr. Taseer, and now Mr. Bhatti. “It says infidels are allowed to be killed.”

Once again we face the same questions: How did Bhatti and Taseer speak against the prophet? What did they say or do?

I am asking a quite literal question. It would help to have some direct quotes that demonstrate this kind of speech or, at the least, pinpoint the precise symbolic acts that led to their deaths. How, for example, does the law define the content of these insults? This information is not hard to find and, after reading the text of these laws on a site or two, I would like to know the nature of the crimes committed by this Christian politician and his moderate Muslim counterpart. Is defending the human rights of “infidels” insult enough?

How about the BBC? What was the key language there?

Mr Bhatti, the cabinet’s only Christian minister, had received death threats for urging reform to blasphemy laws. In January, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer, who had also opposed the law, was shot dead by one of his bodyguards.

The blasphemy law carries a death sentence for anyone who insults Islam. Critics say it has been used to persecute minority faiths. …

The minister had not been accompanied by his guards or the security escort vehicle that is standard for all Pakistani ministers, and it is not clear why.

Once again we have the same issues, plus a new problem.

“Critics say” that the law has been used to persecute minority faiths. How about, instead of the vague “critics,” a specific or two — such as the Vatican, the White House, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the Archbishop of Canterbury, etc. etc.?

And another thing. Is there any doubt, at this point, that it has been factually proven that the blasphemy laws are being used BY SOME to persecute minority faiths? Then again, are assassinations a form of persecution? If so, is the government making strong efforts to prevent this form of persecution, or are the powers that be actually divided over taking that step?

How about the Los Angeles Times? OK, but I think you can see that the patterns are already clear:

The assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, the country’s minority affairs minister, underscored the reach of extremism in a Muslim, nuclear-armed country founded on the principles of minority inclusion, as well as the government’s inability to protect its minorities.

Bhatti was an outspoken opponent of Pakistan’s blasphemy law, which makes it a crime to utter any derogatory remarks about, or insult in any way, the prophet Muhammad, the Koran or Islam. Critics of the law say it can be exploited as a means to settle scores against adversaries or persecute minorities.

Again, one can’t help but marvel at the “critics of the law say that it can be exploited” language (emphasis added by me). I think journalists can find more precise language than that to describe the facts on the ground.

Meanwhile, I actually like the careful thought behind this passage that states that this latest killing “underscored the reach of extremism in a Muslim, nuclear-armed country”, etc. The question, of course, is whether a majority of Pakistanis actually support the blasphemy laws. Has anyone seen hard, factual coverage that addresses that question?

One more time, here is my basic journalistic question: As anyone seen a mainstream news report that reports the actual words or actions that led to the deaths of Taseer and now Bhatti? Just the facts. Some facts would be good.

UPDATED: As noted by Bob Smietana, ABC News has included a snippet of the video material in its online report.

Religious liberty threats rise?

Christians are by no means the only ones targeted by Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Agence France-Presse informs readers that an imam and his son were recently convicted under the law:

A Pakistan court has jailed a Muslim prayer leader and his 20-year-old son for life on controversial blasphemy charges in the rural centre of the country, court officials said Tuesday.

The case follows the killing of Punjab provincial governor Salman Taseer by his bodyguard last Tuesday, after the outspoken politician called for reform of the law that was recently used to sentence a Christian woman to death.

Mohammad Shafi, 45, and his son Mohammad Aslam, 20, were arrested in April last year for removing a poster outside their grocery shop advertising an Islamic event in a nearby village which allegedly contained Koranic verses.

Why did they remove the poster? Why is that punishable? The story doesn’t consider the answers to such questions important, I guess. We are told that the law is sometimes used to settle personal scores and “encourages Islamist extremism.” But this case was about interfaith (or is that intrafaith?) rivalries, defense attorney Arif Gurmani says:

“Both are Muslims. The case is the result of differences between Deobandi and Barelvi sects of Sunni Muslims,” he said.

So which side is which? We’re not told. Let me make it clear that I’m only able to criticize this piece because it’s one of the few that were even written about the sentencing. It’s much worse to not even report on this fact.

Still, the story has other problems. It mentions that nobody has been executed under this law but fails to mention how frequently those prosecuted under this law are killed by mobs upon their release. It’s probably not much comfort to their families that such killings aren’t officially done by the state. The other problem is that it says only “right-wing” religious clerics have praised the assassin of Taseer. In fact, there’s been widespread support. Just because that is difficult for non-Pakistani audiences to comprehend does not mean it should be obscured.

In related news, Pope Benedict XVI has called on Pakistan to abrogate its blasphemy law. That probably won’t get as much coverage as his call to give Christian children Christian names, understandably, but it’s still newsworthy.

His words are also part of a clear attempt to support religious liberty throughout the world. It was the theme of his address to the diplomatic corps and is provoking something of a firestorm. The BBC reports that Egypt recalled its diplomat to the Vatican.

This seems like a very good time to devote coverage to broader religious liberty questions. I hope to see just that in the weeks to come.

Analyzing Pakistan’s religious divides

When Salman Taseer, the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab Province, was assassinated by one of his body guards, we looked at some of the coverage. The big problem seemed to be the overuse of the term “moderate” without any explanation of what that meant. The problem was further compounded when “moderates” were praising the assassination. There was a story last week on NYTimes.com that did provide some additional details (and provoke some additional questions). “The Islam That Hard-Liners Hate,” by Huma Imtiaz and Charlotte Buchen looks at the political significant of 2010′s attacks on Sufi shrines.

We learn that hard-line militants took responsibility for five attacks that killed 64 people. More people died in shrine attacks last year than in the previous five years combined.

The increase in attacks, and a direct effort to kill those who practice a more mystical brand of Islam, has torn the fabric of mainstream worship in Pakistan. But as worshipers continue to visit the Sufi shrines and many Sufi festivals continue in the face of threats, it also evidences the perseverance of Pakistan’s more moderate brand of Islam.

“It’s a very disturbing picture that militants have extended their targets to shrines, which are symbols of popular Islam in Pakistan and are widely visited,” said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, a professor of political science at Lahore University of Management Sciences. “However, I don’t think the militants are succeeding — thousands of people still visit the shrines despite these attacks.”

Although there is no official data, the number of people who informally follow Sufi traditions is believed to be in the millions. They have long been condemned as un-Islamic by fundamentalist groups because they worship saints and perform music and dance.

The United States, meanwhile, sees Sufi Islam as a counter force to terrorism, and has helped promote it by giving more than $1.5 million since 2001 on the restoration and conservation of Sufi shrines in Pakistan.

There is quite a bit to discuss here, isn’t there? I’m not sure how helpful it is to say that the number of people who informally follow Sufi traditions is believed to be in the millions. Earlier in the story we’re told that Sufism is Pakistan’s most popular brand of Islam. Well, Pakistan is an Islamic Republic with more than 184 million people. If it’s the most popular “brand” of Islam (perhaps it’s better to call it a movement within Islam), than certainly we would expect it to number in the millions. True, data is hard to come by, but that line is almost meaningless within the context of the story.

And the story as a whole doesn’t really explain that one can visit a Sufi shrine or follow Sufi traditions and be otherwise indistinguishable from other Muslims at the mosque on Fridays. These lines aren’t quite so bold as one might expect. Likewise, the Barelvi sect supports Sufi traditions. It’s huge in Pakistan and yet many of its clerics supported the blasphemy laws that Taseer spoke against and, further, defended his assassination.

But it’s that bit about how the U.S. Government is taking sides in a religious issue that I really wanted to highlight. I know that — inside the beltway — $1.5 million is small potatoes. But such direct funding of worship sites — something you likely wouldn’t see the feds coming close to doing inside our borders — is very interesting, no? I would really like to know more about that. Why isn’t there a First Amendment issue? Which agency provided those funds?

And if the U.S. is going to fund these worship sites, why is it so little? It seems to be the worst of all worlds — getting involved in something so that Sufis are identified with American interests but not providing enough funding to make it worth their while. I don’t know, maybe there’s more to the story — but that’s what I’d like to see. Just a little bit more explanation.

And is it fair to say that the U.S. sees Sufi Islam as a counter force to terrorism? That might be true in Pakistan. But is it true in Saudi Arabia? Do you see the U.S. supporting Sufis there? No, the U.S. views Saudi Arabia as an ally and Saudi Arabia has an official policy against all non-Wahabi Muslims (along with Christians and Jews). So perhaps that could have been better explained for the context of this story.

Still, the story provides many helpful details that show some of those blurred lines that make Pakistani politics and religion so difficult to explain quickly:

“Militancy keeps on demanding sacrifices,” Ayesha Siddiqa, a security analyst who says she is a descendant of a Sufi saint, said. “So if it’s not targeting the enemy outside, it’s targeting the enemy within.”

In the eyes of some extremists, Sufi loyalists can be viewed as cohorts of the Pakistani government. Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani and Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi both carry saint-like status because they are from prominent Sufi families that have been caretakers for shrines synonymous with the ruling elite. In turn, those in power often use such devoted followings as a tool for recruiting voters.

Pir Tayyab, a hard-line Deobandi cleric who has been associated with militant organizations, including the Pakistani Taliban, said that while it was acceptable to pray for a saint’s soul at a shrine, it is forbidden to search for God’s qualities in a saint.

“The singing and dancing that takes place at shrines is disrespectful,” he said. However, he said, bombing a shrine is also unacceptable. “It is not correct to disrespect a grave or to remove someone from his grave.”

I particularly appreciate the quotes that give a flavor for the views of clerics and analysts on various sides of the issue. More, please!

A shower of labels in Pakistan

The mainstream coverage of the shocking assassination of the Punjab governor in Pakistan is a gripping example of job reporters continue to struggle to know how to describe the clashing doctrinal and cultural armies within the complex world of Islam.

The New York Times article is, of course, must reading if you want to gospel according to the Northeast media corridor. It’s crucial to understand that most elite journalists are deeply committed to thinking that Pakistan is a predominately secular and, of course, “moderate” nation that is struggling to control a small number of radical Muslims who, in this story, are even referred to as the “religious right.”

In other words, “secular” is good and “religious” is bad. The more religious people are the more dangerous they are. That’s the rational, American point of view. Correct?

Thus, the reason this bloody event has been so shocking is because the nation’s alleged “moderate,” secular, majority has remained silent, refusing to condemn the action of the “religious” assassin. Here is the top of the Times report.

As always, when reading this pay special attention to the labels used, as opposed to any hard, factual information about what these various groups believe about crucial issues in Pakistani life.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – The emotional funeral of the assassinated governor of Punjab and the cheering of his killer in court Wednesday highlighted the intensifying struggle between secular and religious forces in Pakistan that has grown nastier than ever in the country’s history.

As the 26-year-old assassin, Malik Mumtaz Qadri, appeared before a magistrate in Islamabad, to be charged with murder and terrorism, he was showered by hundreds of supporters with rose petals and garlands. Moderate religious leaders refused to condemn the assassination, and some hard-line religious leaders appeared obliquely to condone the attack.

Meanwhile, thousands of mourners thronged to the funeral in Lahore of the governor, Salman Taseer, a prominent voice for secularism who had recently become the focus of religious fury for speaking out against the nation’s strict blasphemy laws. Many of the nation’s top politicians, including Mr. Taseer’s chief rival in Punjab and the leader of the opposition, Nawaz Sharif, did not attend the services. Neither did President Asif Ali Zardari, a friend and ally of Mr. Taseer, but out concern for his own security.

Government ministers and party officials indicated that they were dropping the campaign to change the blasphemy laws that Mr. Taseer had championed. No senior official would be drawn to comment on the religious extremist aspect of the killing at the funeral.

As the story goes on, it is clear that one of two things are true.

Either (a) the overwhelming majority of people in Pakistan support blasphemy laws, which, for example, make it illegal for a Muslim to “insult the prophet” by converting to another faith (a right protected in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

Then again, (b) it is also possible that many oppose blasphemy laws, yet know that their own government and its security forces are so divided on the issue that it is impossible to speak freely in Pakistan without being killed. Thus, the story notes:

At a market in Islamabad on Tuesday, Mr. Qadri pumped more than 20 rounds into Mr. Taseer’s back, Pakistani media reported, and yet was not fired on by any other member of the security detail, raising still more questions about whether any of the others knew of his plans in advance.

Mr. Qadri immediately surrendered, called himself a “slave of the Prophet,” and indicated that he had killed Mr. Taseer for his campaign against the blasphemy law. …

Half a dozen policemen interviewed while on duty around the city of Lahore voiced support for the assassin or refused to condemn the murder. “He acted according to his conscience,” one said. “What is done is Allah’s will,” another said.

It is interesting to note that the Times elected not to link this horrific event with another religious issue that currently has Pakistan at a boiling point. I refer to the November sentencing of Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five, to death for blasphemy. Pope Benedict XVI and many other human-rights activists have called for her release. Her case is on appeal.

All of this, of course, has little or nothing to do with religion. Keep that in mind.

The crucial question that journalists need to answer in stories on this issue cannot be answered with mere labels. What readers need is precise information. The crucial question? Instead of using labels, reporters could state whether the groups or persons discussed in this particular story support the nation’s blasphemy law, either by action or by silence. Other stories would focus on different questions, digging out information on different issues, as required.

Sadly, vague labels also dominated many other stories on this event. Consider the top of the Associated Press report:

Lawyers showered the suspected assassin of a liberal Pakistani governor with rose petals as he entered court. Some 170 miles away, the prime minister joined thousands to mourn the loss of the politician, who dared to challenge the demands of Islamic extremists.

The cheers and tears across the country Wednesday underscored Pakistan’s journey over the past several decades from a nation defined by moderate Islam to one increasingly influenced by fundamentalists willing to use violence to impose their views.

Even so-called moderate Muslim scholars praised 26-year-old Mumtaz Qadri for allegedly killing Punjab province Gov. Salman Taseer on Tuesday in a hail of gunfire while he was supposed to be protecting him as a bodyguard. Qadri later told authorities he acted because of Taseer’s vocal opposition to blasphemy laws that order death for those who insult Islam.

And Reuters? At least this story noted the wider context, which means the Bibi case — which is ironclad.

A politician gunned down over his opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws was buried on Wednesday after a murder likely to cow further those pushing for a more liberal and secular vision of Pakistani society.

Five hundred Pakistani religious scholars said that anyone who expressed grief over the assassination of Salman Taseer, governor of Punjab province, could suffer the same fate.

Taseer, a liberal politician close to President Asif Ali Zardari, had championed the cause of a Christian woman sentenced to death under the blasphemy laws which critics say are used to target religious minorities, often to settle personal scores.

Once again, what readers need is some succinct, focused information about the issues and actions that are involved in this kind of life-and-death story — not vague labels.


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