Define ‘Islamist’ and please be specific

Last week, the people who produce the Associated Press Stylebook issued a few revisions. One of them was for the term “Islamist.” It used to read:

Supporter of government in accord with the laws of Islam. Those who view the Quran as a political model encompass a wide range of Muslims, from mainstream politicians to militants known as jihadi.

That entry was only added last year. In response, the Council on American-Islamic Relations actually called for the AP to drop the use of the term. GetReligion authors have long spoken out against the use of the term as imprecise shorthand for “Muslims who are not liberal.” Here’s tmatt banging that drum in a piece from last year “Define Islamist: Give Three Examples“:

I’ve read this story several times and, to me, it seems that it is impossible to make any sense out of it without a working definition of “Islamist.” The problem is that the story does not contain a definition. It is also missing a clear set of facts about what Islamists say they believe or what changes in Egyptian society they are seeking.

Thus, “Islamist” is left as a kind of buzz word that, essentially, means “really religious Muslims who are competing against liberals and leftists.” We also know that they are clashing with the troubled land’s predominately secular (whatever that means in an Islamic nation) military leaders.

So correct me if I’m wrong, tmatt, but you have to think the revision to the Stylebook is a step in the right direction. Here’s how it reads now:

An advocate or supporter of a political movement that favors reordering government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by Islam. Do not use as a synonym for Islamic fighters, militants, extremists or radicals, who may or may not be Islamists.

Where possible, be specific and use the name of militant affiliations: al-Qaida-linked, Hezbollah, Taliban, etc. Those who view the Quran as a political model encompass a wide range of Muslims, from mainstream politicians to militants known as jihadi.

An improvement, certainly. In addition to being specific about the group affiliations, though, what we really need are specifics about the doctrines in play.

I do have one thought about this term, which is that I do think it builds in some bias about what makes for the “right” kind of Islam. It is common for folks to assume a sort of universality to whatever environment they grew up in. There is an attempt by some media professionals to try to understand Islam in terms of how Christians or Jews (or secular or other folks living under the influence of legal systems heavily influenced by same) order their public and private lives. This leads to an impoverished view of Islam that downplays the lack of distinction between mosque and state.

One of the reasons why this revision is good is because it shows how many different Muslims — and certainly not just radicals — advocate reordering society in accordance with sharia. But one of the reasons why the revision is lacking is because it makes it seem like this is not necessarily inherent to Islam. If one is going to take sides on that doctrinal debate, I think there’s at least a strong argument to be made that what we call “Islamism” might  be more accurately called “Islam.”

I’m not arguing that journalists should take sides on the debate but recognize how we frame adherence to Muslim teachings. And once that realization is made — that Islam isn’t just a different regional version of Christianity or Judaism — and that it has particular and unique approaches to how religion and politics blend — then we can have a more meaningful discussion about how different groups interpret that central tenet of Islam. Otherwise, we only talk about it when it appears in a negative light or is perpetuated by the guys that are portrayed as the really bad guys.

So even more important than getting the affiliations spelled out, let’s make sure we talk about the doctrines in play and how they are interpreted by various groups.

I was reminded to write about this Stylebook issue because of an AP story I read this weekend headlined “Hamas shaves heads of Gaza youths with long hair.”

Note, no “Islamist.”

Instead we learned of “Islamic militants latest attempt to impose their hardline version of Islam on Gaza.” Early on:

(more…)

WWROD: So is atheism a belief system or not?

It’s time for another GetReligion visit to the online domain of the Ridgewood Religion Guy, as in the weblog of former Time and Associated Press religion-beat maestro Richard Ostling.

This time around, he’s digging into a classic question from the church-state wars of the past few decades, care of a reader named Tyler:

Should atheism be viewed as a religion? Do atheists view themselves as being part of a religious group?

The minute I read that question I thought of a scene in one of my all-time favorite episodes of “Northern Exposure,” called “Seoul Mates (check out the “may your dog talk” clip).”

That was the Christmas story in year three that focused on the cultural and personal roots of faith. At one point, the town’s crusty old storekeeper informs the Jewish Dr. Joel Fleischman that, while everyone else in town seems to really dig the Native American Raven pageant at Christmas time, she remains an atheist (though she retains a belief in a female divine force of some kind that has never taken human form). The doctor replies, as I recall the quote: I’ve always admired people who are atheists. I think it takes a lot of faith.

There’s a similar line, if I recall, in “Hannah and Her Sisters,” the part where the Woody Allen character faces his own mortality and begins to doubt his doubts. Right?

Anyway, Ostling replies that the key question is:

… What is “religion”? The American College Dictionary says it’s “the quest for the values of the ideal life, involving three phases: the ideal, the practices for attaining the values of the ideal, and the theology or worldview relating the quest to the environing universe.” Say what? No personal Deity there, and no not-quite-personal Supreme Being, either. Under that understanding, a devout atheist can be “religious” in the sense of holding convictions about moral duties, ultimate reality in the cosmos, and humanity’s involvement with all that. …

Atheists themselves don’t buy it, judging from a characteristic put-down posted on a movement Website: “For some strange reason, many people keep getting the idea that atheism is itself some sort of religion. … Maybe it is due to some persistent misunderstanding of what atheism is. And maybe they just don’t care that what they are saying really doesn’t make any sense.”

The Associated Press Stylebook advises, “in general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.” Following that valid principle with atheists, the apparent answers to Tyler are no, and no.

But there are some interesting complications, notes Ostling.

(more…)

The Air Force, faith and a very dangerous ‘f-word’

If anyone is interested, here is an short update on GetReligion’s recent move to Patheos. The RSS feeds seem to be working for the vast majority of users. We are still trying to get some art issues — past and present — worked out. A few tweaks continue, thanks to the patient Patheos staff. Some people think we have moved to a liberal site. Some people think we have moved to a conservative site.

Par for the course. Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?

At least once a day, I have found myself wondering to what degree I need to take into account the fact legions of new readers have not followed the six million words or so published on this blog since 2004. There’s quite a bit of history here, including some insider lingo and subjects that are so familiar that we rarely pause to explain them.

Now then, what we have here (a phrase I use quite a bit, actually) is a perfect example of one of the white stags that we have been hunting for a long time. Yes, your GetReligionistas dream of a day when many mainstream journalists will repent of their sins and decide to heed the following wisdom from the pages of the news bible known as The Associated Press Stylebook:

“fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.

“In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.”

This leads us directly to an oh-so-familiar passage in an NBC News report that, online, ran under the strange headline, “Air Force rules limit size of tattoos, role of gospel.”

So is that the role of the Christian Gospel among inked-up folks or are we talking about the gospel of tattooing? Or neither?

Whatever. This is another update from the religion wars in the U.S. military, a zone in which some evangelical officers do not seem to know how to take no for an answer, when starting discussions of faith, and some activists on the secular left seem to be seriously uncomfortable with equal-access laws and other traces of First Amendment rights among people in uniform (please note the word “traces” in that sentence).

Thus the lede:

Just days before retiring as Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Gen. Norton Schwartz issued a document designed to dictate the conduct of U.S. airmen worldwide — all violations enforceable by military law. For the first time, amid regulations on tattoo size and flag handling etiquette, it laid down the law on religious proselytizing by leaders: Don’t do it.

Section 2.11 of the 27-page Air Force Instruction AFI 1-1 Standards of Conduct is the latest salvo in a battle over religious bias and Christian proselytizing in the military branch. It calls on officers and supervisors to “avoid the actual or apparent use of their position to promote their personal religious beliefs to their subordinates or to extend preferential treatment for any religion.”

Now, if you care about church-state issues, the first thing that pops into mind is the following question: What does “proselytizing” mean?

Well, the story never tells us, which is a big problem. The definitions that can be found with a few clicks of a mouse tell us that this is a word that transcends doctrine and, amazingly enough, even religion.

pros·e·ly·tize

1. To induce someone to convert to one’s own religious faith.

2. To induce someone to join one’s own political party or to espouse one’s doctrine. … To convert (a person) from one belief, doctrine, cause, or faith to another.

So what is going on here, according to NBC? What does the word “proselytize” mean in this news report? Sure enough, a timely usage of the “f-word” tells us pretty much what we need to know.

As in U.S. public institutions more broadly, there has been a long string of battles between those in the military who want to root out religious content and others, mainly fundamentalist Christians, who argue that to do so impinges on religious freedom.

The conflicts have arisen over military leadership promoting Christian religious meetings through official channels, military courses incorporating Biblical material in coursework, officers trying to convert non-Christians and allegedly favoring “born again” Christians and using Christian doctrine and imagery in logos and official military materials and Christian prayer in official events.

The military has been sued for using Christian doctrine to recruit new members, and pressured to change logos and review course materials that incorporate Christian doctrine, and more recently, those that are anti-Islam. In 2006, after complaints by non-Christians that they were being pressured by evangelicals to convert, the Air Force issued guidelines cautioning superiors from pressing their personal religious views on subordinates. But months later they eased the guidelines after Christian conservatives argued that the guidelines restricted freedom of religion.

In this context, it is almost impossible to figure out what the word “fundamentalist” is supposed to mean. Apparently, in the world of NBC News, Christian doctrines about spreading the faith only apply to the world of Protestant Christianity defined by the Fundamentals of the Faith documents in the early 20th Century.

Please do not misunderstand: There is a serious story here and, based on the reading I have done, there are evangelicals in the Air Force who have abused their powers in the name of evangelism. But there were others who did not, yet appear to have been targeted as wrongdoers.

The key, for journalists, is to connect “faith to facts.” Readers need to know what the words mean and, most of all, they need one or two examples of behaviors that have been ruled out of bounds and those that have not. Like what?

It is wrong for an evangelical officer (or a pagan officer) to do ________.

It is not wrong for an evangelical officer (or a pagan officer) to do ________.

If an active Orthodox Jew invites a secular Jew to a Seder, is that “proselytizing”? If a gay Episcopalian, a chaplain, invites a conservative Anglican of a lower rank, also a chaplain, to a workshop on healing homophobia, is that “proselytizing”?

Like I said, this is a serious story and, when reporting hot-button stories of this kind, it is crucial that reporters talk to informed, qualified voices on both sides of the issues (and some of the folks in the middle, on this one). NBC News did not do that. No way.

Which explains that non-journalistic use of a dangerous “f-word.”