The rain in Spain

“Police and intelligence were working under the mental framework that Islamists would never attack Spain.”

That, to my mind, is the most damning quote to emerge from this Christian Science Monitor report on the controversy that kicked up last week when it was revealed that Spanish law enforcement had a huge amount of advance knowledge on the Madrid bombings of March 11, 2004.

The strength of the piece, like much Monitor reporting, lies not only in recounting the controversy so that readers care but in stepping back to help us make sense of it all:

They had the names. They knew when and where the men met and how they raised money. They even had the cell-phone numbers of the group’s leaders. But with all that information, police were still unable to prevent the bombings that killed 191 people in Madrid on March 11, 2004.

Spaniards have known for months that, long before the bombings occurred, police and intelligence forces here were monitoring the individuals who would carry out the attacks. But last week, El Mundo newspaper published 12 notes written by Abdelkader el-Farssaoui, imam of a mosque outside Madrid and informer to the intelligence unit of the national police, that describe with chilling specificity the members and activities of the suspected cell. Since the report, the debate over whether the police could have prevented the bombings has intensified, with the opposition Popular Party voicing demands for more hearings on the attacks.

El Farssaoui, who went by the code name “Cartagena,” began providing Spanish police with information in October 2002. He identified Serhane Abdelmajid, who would later kill himself and six associates by setting off explosives when police converged on their apartment, as the leader. In February 2003, he observed that Jamal Zougam, currently awaiting trial as a presumed author of the attacks, had joined the cell. And he recounted how Mohammed Larbi Ben Sellam, suspected of a role in the 2003 Casablanca bombings, had told him that “he didn’t understand why most were so obsessed with going to . . . Afghanistan to make jihad when the same kind of operation was possible in other countries, like Morocco and Spain.”

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Allah and Viagra

The current issue of The Economist has a nifty pair of articles about politics in Egypt and the spread of an Islamist party that originated in Egypt and may be set to come to power.

From the first story, we learn that getting out voters for a recent referendum was a bear. State-sponsored clerics “issued fatwas commanding the faithful to vote” and, reportedly, one rich supporter of the ruling NDP party “offered a Viagra tablet to every voter,” but the government only claims 53 percent turnout — and even that figure appears stuffed.

That should be a shocking figure, seeing as the people were voting to allow more than one candidate to run for president in the Egyptian elections. The reason for the low turnout was that the legislature tweaked the measure before handing it off to the people, giving itself “virtual veto power” over any candidates who might run against President Hosni Mubarak.

It was meant to keep out certain Islamist factions, who retaliated by boycotting the election. One of those parties, and the subject of the second article, is the Muslim Brotherhood. The fears that the Brothers might win in an unfixed contest are not nuts. The technically illegal Brothers have managed to win 17 “independent” seats in Parliament and both presidential and parliamentary elections are in the offing for later this year.

With a possible upset in mind, the second article turns to the history of the Brotherhood — labeled both “the mean old granddaddy of Islamist terror” and a “harmless and doddery uncle.” The author explains:

The Society of the Muslim Brothers is certainly the oldest of modern Islamist movements. Founded in Egypt in 1928, its membership had swollen to half a million by 1949. Sadly, the more eager of them tended to violence, which led to successive waves of arrests, followed by the torture and execution of top leaders. Under Gamal Abdel Nasser, some 20,000 Brothers languished in Egyptian jails.

But the simple ideas of the society’s founder, Hasan al-Banna, proved infectious nonetheless. In brief, those ideas are that Sunni Islam provides a blueprint for politics as well as worship, that the solution to social ills is a return to the pure faith, and that Islam faces enemies, be they outsiders or bad Muslim governments, who seek to thwart this renaissance.

Far from stifling such notions, persecution in Egypt and elsewhere enhanced the Brothers’ mystique, and radicalized subsequent generations of like-minded activists. Starting in 1946 with the opening of a branch in Syria, sister organizations sprouted across the globe. Algerian acolytes fought in the liberation war against the French, and later led movements to re-Arabise and Islamise Algeria. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, a Palestinian fellow-traveller who was jailed when Gaza was under Egyptian control, went on to found the Palestinians’ Islamic Resistance Movement, better known by its acronym, Hamas.

And the “harmless and doddery” bit? Well, nowadays the movement “proclaims non-violence, excepting a right of jihad in what it sees as cases of infidel intrusion into Muslim land, ie Palestine and Iraq.”

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The story that is haunting me today

Today’s Washington Post is so full of religion stories and religion haunted stories that I hardly know where to begin — from abortion rulings to the latest Koran crime update, from a reporter taking a Bible Belt trip through her past in a vanishing Virginia town to yet another stunning Catholic clergy abuse lawsuit settlement. This does not even include the religion page.

So how come the story that has haunted me all day seems to have no religion in it at all? Why do I want some other shoe to drop in this crime-beat story, just so that I am not haunted by the reality of evil? Click here to find out what I am talking about. Does this story spook anyone else? Sense the ghost?

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Tobacco, alcohol, spirituality & trouble

A brief shout out to my friend Prof. S.J. Dahlman, who sits in the desk I occupied at Milligan College and has the wonderful duty of writing about religion in the beautiful mountains of Northeast Tennessee. The last time we checked in with Jim and his “Face to Faith” column in the Johnson City Press was talking about snakes and how they are not typical of faith in the region.

Now he is writing about two other substances that, in the Southern Highlands, have an almost religious and anti-religious following — alchohol and tobacco. Now what happens when they get mixed up with native cultures?

Tobacco was a sacrament in the old Cherokee religion, the smoke a messenger carrying prayers to the spirit world. Wine is part of a sacrament in the Christian tradition, symbolizing the blood of Jesus.

Dr. R. Michael Abram, co-owner and co-curator of Cherokee Heritage Museum and Gallery in Cherokee, N.C., finds irony here. “Take those two items and put them in each other’s culture with no religious meaning,” he said by phone this week, “and both get into trouble.”

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The Pentagon has come out with its findings in re: the controversy that Newsweek kicked up several weeks ago. It isn’t exactly a straight flush [If puns could kill -- ed.] but, as the AP reports, here she blows:

The Pentagon on Friday released new details about mishandling of the Quran at the Guantanamo Bay prison for terror suspects, confirming that a soldier deliberately kicked the Muslim holy book and that an interrogator stepped on a Quran and was later fired for “a pattern of unacceptable behavior.”

In other confirmed incidents, a guard’s urine came through an air vent and splashed on a detainee and his Quran; water balloons thrown by prison guards caused an unspecified number of Qurans to get wet; and in a confirmed but ambiguous case, a two-word obscenity was written in English on the inside cover of a Quran.

The AP notes that this information was released “after normal business hours” Friday evening, which is a polite way of saying the military hopes a combination of shifts, deadlines, and the next news cycle will lessen the impact of this one. It would be nice, for instance, if it didn’t spark more deadly riots in Afghanistan.

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Update: Good news in Iran — sort of

Here is a short update on a religious liberty story that I have been trying to keep my eye on — which is hard since the MSM rarely deals with these issues. I refer to the frightening case of Hamid Pourmand, a lay pastor in Iran. To see the earlier post, click here.

This is another case where we need alternative, online media to find out what happened. The good news is that the Assemblies of God leader is not going to lose his head after all. But, as Compass Direct reporter Barbara G. Baker notes, it isn’t exactly clear how he got off. Here is a key section of her report:

An Islamic court in southern Iran acquitted Christian lay pastor Hamid Pourmand on charges of apostasy and proselytizing two days ago, declaring, “Under sharia (Islamic law), there are no charges against you.” . . .

Pourmand’s judge reportedly told him, “I don’t know who you are, but apparently the rest of the world does. You must be an important person, because many people from the government have called me, saying to cancel your case.”

But instead of dropping the charges, the judge declared he was acquitting Pourmand, a former Muslim who converted to Christianity 25 years ago, because he had “done nothing wrong” according to Islamic law.

What does that mean? That the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a good thing, all of a sudden? Check out Article 18.

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Hollywood’s naked public square

In 1997 I wrote a story for Christian Research Journal about Scientology’s expansion into Europe, where it was meeting resistance from various government officials — especially in Germany, where leaders have this well-founded thing about mass movements.

The low point of my effort to research the story occurred when the Rev. Heber C. Jentzsch, president of the Church of Scientology International, informed me that I was part of “Pat Robertson’s and Jerry Falwell’s cabal.” I found this amusing, considering that my sole interaction with both men was to ask them questions, as a reporter, roughly ten years earlier.

Nevertheless, I felt sympathy this week for Scientologist Tom Cruise as The New York Times reported on whispers among Hollywood executives that his recent behavior has been strange. Hollywood correspondent Sharon Waxman cites these examples of unusual behavior:

While promoting [War of the Worlds] over the last several weeks, Mr. Cruise engaged in an increasingly public discussion of his religion, Scientology. Then he set tongues wagging in Hollywood and elsewhere with an hourlong appearance on the May 23 “Oprah” show, during which he jumped around the set, hopped onto a couch, fell rapturously to one knee and repeatedly professed his love for his new girlfriend, the actress Katie Holmes.

Many Hollywood stars are involved with the Church of Scientology, and there is nothing particularly unusual about trumpeting a new love. But some executives at Paramount and DreamWorks have voiced concern that fans were becoming distracted from the movie, which cost some $130 million to produce.

. . . Mr. Cruise’s spokeswoman, his sister Lee Anne De Vette, said she had not heard anything negative after the “Oprah” appearance. “You’re looking at someone who’s genuinely very happy,” she said. “The response we’ve gotten back is complete enthusiasm and exhilaration for his enthusiasm and exhilaration. He’s a very happy person.”

Still, there have been other publicity hiccups related to Mr. Cruise’s increasingly public association with Scientology, the religion founded by the science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. In a series of television interviews on “Access Hollywood” last week, the star spoke at length about his passion for Scientology, at one point criticizing Brooke Shields for taking anti-depressants: Scientology considers modern psychiatry and its medications to be harmful.

. . . And Mr. Cruise’s insistence on having a Scientology tent on the set of “War of the Worlds” created a conflict at Universal, where the movie was being shot, two executives involved said. The executives, who asked not to be identified to protect industry relationships, said that Mr. Cruise, his agent Kevin Huvane and [director Steven] Spielberg all had to appeal personally to the president of Universal Studios, Ron Meyer, for the tent to be permitted on the studio lot, where no solicitation is allowed.

The studio required that the tent not be used for recruitment purposes, they said. A studio spokesman declined to comment.

“Many Hollywood stars are involved with the Church of Scientology, and there is nothing particularly unusual about trumpeting a new love,” Waxman adds. “But some executives at Paramount and DreamWorks have voiced concern that fans were becoming distracted from the movie, which cost some $130 million to produce.”

Waxman’s article is reminiscent of her earlier reportage on Mel Gibson before The Passion of the Christ became a box-office phenomenon. Together, these reports leave the impression of a common attitude among entertainment executives: Believe whatever you like, but please show the decency not to persuade anyone else to believe it.

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Noonan: Felt had his reasons

Sorry to have gone all but AWOL in the past few days due to intense teaching and editing duties at our SIJ 2005 journalism boot camp here in Washington, D.C. Let me jump in here for a moment to urge you to check out the lively exchanges on the Rt. Rev. LeBlanc’s post on Mark Felt, ethics, modern journalism and a host of other topics — with guest appearances by whistleblowers, Clinton administration fans, Nixon critics (on the left and right) and folks offering many, many other points of view.

Who knows, the debate may even circle back around to journalism!

Meanwhile, I would also like to point readers toward the new column by Peggy “friend of this blog” Noonan over at The Wall Street Journal. She has lots of questions about the granting of hero status to Felt. Here is one of the most interesting paragraphs:

(Felt’s) motives were apparently mixed, as motives often are. He was passed over to replace J. Edgar Hoover as director of the FBI by President Nixon, who apparently wanted in that place not a Hoover man but a more malleable appointee. Mr. Felt was resentful. He believed Nixon meant to jeopardize the agency’s independence. Here we have a hitch in the story. The liberal story line on the FBI was that under Hoover it had too much independence, which Hoover protected with his famous secret files and a reputation for ruthlessness. Mr. Felt was a Hoover man who joined the FBI in 1942, when it was young; he rose under Hoover and never knew another director. When Hooverism was threatened, Mr. Felt moved. In this sense Richard Nixon was J. Edgar Hoover’s last victim. History is an irony factory.

You don’t have to agree with Noonan on everything to enjoy her romp through the moral minefields in this case. And she stresses one major truth — the journalism side of this story is not over.

Amen to that, sister. Here is my question: Does anyone know if Felt is or was a smoker?

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