Apostasy in the Muslim world

abdulrahmanAn Afghan court dismissed the case against a man facing possible execution for converting from Islam to Christianity, according to various reports. His release date has not been announced but could be very soon.

It is worth noting that Abdul Rahman’s case was not dismissed because of any sudden stated change of heart on whether the penalty for apostasy is death — at least among those who were in a place or position to do him in. It was dismissed on a technicality. An Afghan Supreme Court spokesman said there were problems with the prosecutor’s evidence. With some of Rahman’s next of kin testifying that he was mentally ill, he was deemed unfit for trial.

We began the conversation about media coverage of Rahman’s fate last week. One issue I highlighted was the need for reporters to understand that Rahman was facing death not for being a Christian but for being a Christian who once had been Muslim. In that previous discussion, Muslim reader Maryam, a.k.a. Umm (mother to) Yasmin, commented:

Actually (and I have memories of pointing this out before here) “sharia, or Islamic law” does not stipulate death for apostasy, and it would be nice if GR journos could take their peers to task for mindlessly repeating this mistake. Various scholars, jurists and thinkers (medieval and modern alike) vigourously disagree on the topic.

Radio Free Europe — which is funded by the United States government — made Maryam’s point. In an article about Rahman, it compared penalties for converting from Islam to penalties for committing treason against the United States:

The key issue for Muslim thinkers grappling with Islamic law and modernity revolves not around whether apostasy is a heinous crime, but how to deal with it. Islam Online, a Qatar-based site that attempts to explain Islamic issues, quoted the well-known Islamic scholar Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi as acknowledging that there is a difference of opinion on the issue even if most support the death penalty.

“All Muslim jurists agree that the apostate is to be punished,” al-Qaradawi said. “However, they differ regarding the punishment itself. The majority of them go for killing; meaning that an apostate is to be sentenced to death.”

The Christian Science Monitor‘s Rachel Morarjee and Dan Murphy provided more context. They highlight religious tension between Muslims and Christians in Egypt and Pakistan, the killing of Muslims who convert to Christianity by their own family members, attacks against Christian churches for alleged sympathy for America, etc. They point out that Afghanistan is 99 percent Muslim and that the 10,000 Christians who practice there do so in secret:

The issue of religious freedoms is one in which, as in Afghanistan, modern laws are clashing with ancient traditions. Rahman’s case illustrates a glaring contradiction between Afghanistan’s constitution, which upholds the right to freedom of religion on one hand but enshrines the supremacy of sharia law on the other.

Most mainstream schools of Islamic jurisprudence call for converts to be executed. Though the Koran promises only hellfire for apostates and also says “there should be no compunction in religion,” Islamic jurists have typically argued that execution is mandated, citing stories of comments made by the prophet Muhammad.

“The prophet Muhammad said that anyone who rejects Islam for another religion should be executed,” said Mr. Mawlavezada, the judge.

Though some liberal Islamic scholars disagree, pointing out that no such rule exists in the Koran, they have been largely silenced in Afghanistan. Last year, Afghan writer Ali Mohaqeq Nasab spent almost three months in jail last autumn for an article questioning the traditional call for execution.

So Rahman’s case has been dropped. But with so many Muslims viewing conversion from Islam to be a crime punishable by death, his future might be interesting. The issue of how Muslims deal with apostasy is not going away. Let’s hope reporters don’t forget the larger story.

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Tmatt, in Texas, with iffy WiFi (and a GOP jab)

Bluebonnets 01In a few hours, I am headed out the door on a long trip into my home state of Texas (I am a prodigal Texan) to visit several campuses in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (see a new trend story here) on behalf of the journalism program that I lead here in Washington, D.C.

The big event during the trip is the CCCU’s global forum on Christian higher education, which may or may not draw press attention.The forum will include a visit by the Soulforce Equality Ride bus, which will almost certainly draw press attention. I hope to have another chat with the Rev. Mel White.

I will spend several days on the long and flat highways of the state so I, for one, am hoping that I have my timing right for some bluebonnets (see photo). The divine Ms. M and young master Daniel (and perhaps even the Rt. Rev. LeBlanc) will, I hope, keep things buzzing during the next week or so because my Internet access may be iffy, other than during the Dallas forum.

But before I go I wanted to draw a connection between three very different stories in three very different publications that all point, in a way, to the very same theme that comes up quite frequently at this site.

So click here for the omnipresent Democratic strategist Amy Sullivan, writing in Washington Monthy about the factors that may, sooner rather than later, cause many evangelical Protestants to bolt the Republican Party.

Then click here to skip over to the Weekly Standard website to read Allan Carlson’s sobering “Social conservatives and the GOP: Can this marriage be saved?”

JesusLand2 01Wait! Before you settle in and read those two articles, read this quotation and ask yourself this question: Who wrote the following, Carlson or Sullivan?

… (All) is not well within the existing Republican coalition. Indeed, there are other indicators that the Republican party has done relatively little to help traditional families, and may in fact be contributing to their new indentured status. Certainly at the level of net incomes, the one-earner family today is worse off than it was thirty years ago, when the GOP began to claim the pro-family banner. Specifically, the median income of married-couple families, with the wife not in the paid labor force, was $40,100 in 2002, less than it had been in 1970 ($40,785) when inflation is taken into account. In contrast, the real earnings of two-income married couple families rose by 35 percent over the same years (to nearly $73,000). Put another way, families have been able to get ahead only by becoming “nontraditional” and sending mother to work or forgoing children altogether. As the Maternalists had warned, eliminating America’s “family wage” system would drive male wages down and severely handicap the one-income home. So it has happened.

Despite the economic pressures, though, such families are not extinct. They still form core social conservative constituencies such as home schooling families and families with four or more children. But again, they have little to show from the years of the Republican alliance.

Can you guess? I point this out simply to note the ongoing political irony of our age. The middle class, for the most part, continues to vote (some would say against its economic interests) for the Republican Party — primarily because of moral and social issues. Meanwhile, a rising percentage of the rich, especially along the coasts, has been voting (against its economic interests) for the Democratic Party — primarily because of moral and social issues.

No matter what some people say, these issues are not going away. To see why, click here and read Janet Hook’s “Right Is Might for GOP’s Aspirants” in the Los Angeles Times.

My question remains the same: Will editors in top-flight newsrooms allow their religion-beat specialists to help cover this story?

They should.

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The Post’s error

Balance and ProportionI wanted to share a thought that’s been bugging me amid the furor surrounding the resignation of former Washingtonpost.com blogger Ben Domenech due to evidence that he plagiarized material in his younger years.

In hiring Domenech, Washingtonpost.com was clearly looking for an alternative to Dan Froomkin, who many see as a liberal. Problem: Domenech does not have any journalism in his background and never claimed or wanted to be a journalist. At best he was a commentator who is now going to have to rebuild his career from scratch thanks to what seems to be fairly obvious and egregious cases of ripping other people’s work. But why was it that Washingtonpost.com felt it needed to go outside journalistic circles to find a conservative to counterbalance what was a fairly obvious leftward tilt of Froomkin?

The assumption that mainstream journalism could not have a conservative blogger spills into the religion arena because I believe most decision makers at the major news organizations assume that their reporters are non-religious in the same way they assume that reporters in general could not be conservative.

Ideological balance at a newspaper — particularly on opinion columns and, now that newspapers are catching up with the digital age, blogs — is critical for a media organization that wants to maintain its claim to objectivity. But if Washingtonpost.com feels it needs to go outside journalism for political balance, I wonder where the editors think they need to go if they ever feel the need for more than a handful of staffers of one religious persuasion or another. I have it on good account that it does not represent America, or the demographics of the Washington metropolitan area.

I wonder where the New York Times is looking and, most important, are religious educational institutions ready to step up and support solid journalism programs?

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Cell phones, black hats and shopping lists

BreadI saved this lovely little Baltimore Sun piece from earlier in the week, with the idea that I was going to run it on Friday, about the time that the events described in it would be unfolding. Then it hit me that this was not a wise thing to do — if Orthodox Jewish readers and bloggers were going to see it. I guess I should have posted it on Thursday.

Whatever. In this little feature called “Grocer a timely part of Shabbos tradition,” reporter Matthew Hay Brown has taken a snapshot of a moment in Orthodox Jewish life that stands for so much more. In particular, I love the detail that modern technology — that would be cell telephones — are now a crucial element of the ancient traditions of Orthodox Judaism linked to the Shabbos meal and the homey rites linked to it.

You see there are the Traditions and then there are the “traditions.” It’s all part of traditional faith making its way into modern life.

It’s a typical Friday afternoon at the supermarket in Park Heights, where families are picking up food and supplies for Shabbos while they still can. Beginning at sundown on Friday, Orthodox Jews will refrain from working, handling money, driving a car, answering the telephone and operating electrical appliances. With the din of modern life thus quieted, they will gather with family and friends, attend synagogue services, sing, dance and eat together. …

But before the calm, there is — well, if not the storm, at least a fair amount of preparation. Shabbos, which begins at sundown Friday and lasts until after nightfall Saturday, creates a distinct rhythm to Jewish life — a pulse that can be felt at Seven Mile Market. Thursdays, the business bustles with men wearing black hats or yarmulkes and women in berets, ankle-length skirts and sleeves, buying wine and braided challah bread, candles and ingredients for cholent, a slow-cooking stew.

And the cell telephones? Ah, this is the new link to the command center back at home, where the troops prepare to host friends and families in these tight-knit communities. There is something about staying within walking distance of one another that creates networks and a true social community.

So who is coming to dinner?

Rabbi Shlomo Porter clutches a crumpled shopping list in one hand and reaches into a suitcoat pocket with the other.

“This is the key,” says Porter, of the Etz Chaim Center for Jewish Learning, producing a cell phone. “You’ll see men talking with their wives, making sure they’ve got everything they need.”

Porter was picking up the last items for the 20 guests he and his wife were hosting that Friday. “We talk about a one-table Shabbos, and a two-table Shabbos,” he says. “This is a three-table Shabbos.”

Reporters can find stories very similar to this in any traditional faith that makes demands on the details of daily life — especially food.

I hope to do a column very soon on the impact of Eastern Orthodox Christian Lenten traditions on the kitchens of converts. There are Wednesday night pot-lucks at Southern Baptist churches and, my oh my, the traditional foods that are spread out for acres at any dinner on the grounds held by any Pentecostal congregation (of any ethnic stripe). Obviously, you see similar stories linked to Islam and its growth in the West.

Is this news? Not hard news, I guess. It’s just daily life soaked with faith and symbolism.

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The Da Vinci trial is a wrap

da vinci code2By April 8 we should know whether Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown is guilty of copyright infringement in Great Britain. According to reports in the Washington Post and New York Times, the judge’s questions seemed to indicate that he was not too thrilled with the plaintiffs.

Here’s the NYT:

LONDON, March 20 — The lawyer for the two men who say Dan Brown stole from their book for his novel “The Da Vinci Code” faced sharp and relentless questioning from the judge in the case during closing arguments in the High Court here on Monday.

The judge, Peter Jones, will not issue a decision for several weeks, and it is impossible to know how he will rule. But his tough questions appeared to reflect skepticism, even exasperation, toward some of the arguments put forward by the lawyer for the plaintiffs, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, two of the three authors of “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.” (The book’s other author, Henry Lincoln, is not taking part in the lawsuit.) They claim that Mr. Brown lifted the central “architecture” for his megaselling “Da Vinci Code” from their nonfiction book, published in 1982.

For instance, when the lawyer, Jonathan Rayner James, argued that Mr. Brown had “been hiding the truth” about when he and his wife, Blythe Brown, who does much of his research, had first consulted “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail,” Justice Jones stopped him short. If that were true, the judge asked, why had Mr. Brown left out “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail” from the bibliography he submitted to the publisher, along with a synopsis of “The Da Vinci Code” in January 2001 — only to include a pointed reference to the book in the finished novel a year later?

“If he’s trying to hide the fact that he’s using ‘H.B.H.G.’ in the synopsis,” the judge asked, referring to “The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail” by its initials, “what’s the point of shouting it out from the rooftops in the book?”

Rather than focusing on the possible outcome of the trial, the Post reporter Kevin Sullivan moaned and groaned in his lead about the arcane nature of the trial. I’m not sure what your regular beat is, but not everything can be as exciting and thrilling as The Da Vinci Code, Mr. Sullivan.

booksBut aside from the lead and the author’s apparently poor attention span for things arcane, I found the article to be quite thorough and worth reading:

LONDON, March 20 — The “Da Vinci Code” copyright infringement trial, which ended in a London courtroom Monday, combined lively peeks into a celebrity author’s lifestyle and hours of legal arcana so numbing that they put a white-wigged attorney to sleep within feet of the judge.

Fans of media-shy author Dan Brown learned that his inspiration to write fiction came on a Tahitian vacation when he read Sidney Sheldon’s alien-invasion thriller “The Doomsday Conspiracy.” The next day lawyers were arguing about obscure points of religious history, such as whether and why Pepin the Fat murdered Dagobert II, and what Godefroi de Bouillon was really up to during the First Crusade.

As I pointed out earlier this month, this story matters because it could have a ripple affect on novelists’ ability to write one of my most beloved genres: historical fiction.

The same could be said for the movie industry if it is true that Brown copied huge chucks of others’ work and simply changed a few words here and there. While that may be OK legally, it is certainly not OK ethically, as Molly adeptly pointed out here.

And while I disagree with much of the purported facts in Brown’s book and found convincing arguments why his version of history lacks credibility, I think what he’s done in getting people to examine the history of Christianity is tremendous, and other attempts to popularize history through fiction should not be stymied.

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Lying and stealing

plagiarismWhen I was a junior in high school, I took an independent study from the resident journalism teacher. I was supposed to study something about feminism and write a lengthy report on it. Well, I was also the yearbook editor and involved in a gazillion other things and I never really understood my assignment so when I still had another few pages to write and a deadline looming, I plagiarized significant passages from one of the textbooks I was using. It took her months to figure out where I stole the words from, but when she did, she promptly changed my grade to an F and called my parents. My mom was a fellow public school teacher and my dad was a pastor in our small town.

It was excruciatingly embarrassing to go through and my parents and siblings were deeply ashamed. This probably helps explain why my parents — in the section of the yearbook where other parents placed ads gushing over and praising their children — wrote “Mollie Kathleen — you have certainly made life challenging.

The incident left a deep impression on me. Where I had been a stellar and confident student, I became much more cautious and reserved. I realized that I was copying or plagiarizing regularly and that the deception had creeped into other areas of my life. My parents punished me, talked to me at length about the Seventh and Eighth Commandments, and told me to take the time I needed to turn my life around. Getting busted and being forced to come clean affected where I went to school, how much time I spent on my work, the career path I chose and even how I interacted with people.

Almost 15 years later, my past is not completely escapable. Editors frequently tell me I source too much information in my stories. My quotes never read as nicely as other reporters because I take them down word for word instead of cleaning them up like most folks do. And feel compelled to be very open about this incident because it seems only fair that editors and reporters know they are dealing with someone who was capable at one time of stealing someone else’s words.

And the thing is — getting busted for plagiarism was one of the best things that ever happened to me. I can not tell you how thankful I am that someone caught me and cared enough about me to hold me accountable. I can not tell you how thankful I am that my parents not only punished me but helped me overcome my problems. I became a much better student in the long run and much more honest.

I’m writing all this because today the Washington Post accepted the resignation of a blogger they had hired only a few days ago. Ben Domenech, who has written for a number of media outlets, has, it seems, repeatedly and brazenly plagiarized. And journalists get busted every few days or months for this. As the Post says:

Plagiarism is perhaps the most serious offense that a writer can commit or be accused of. Washingtonpost.com will do everything in its power to verify that its news and opinion content is sourced completely and accurately at all times.

Journalism is unique in that it relies on trust between the reader and writer. And when that trust is destroyed, the quality of the relationship suffers horribly. We also forget that, for a profession that tends to ignore or deemphasize religious influence, our journalism standards are indelibly linked to religious values of telling the truth, taking care of our neighbors, not coveting the work of others, etc.

Ben Domenech needs to take full responsibility for his errors, repent of them and change his behavior. But the good news, which he needs to hear and probably won’t hear much of as people attack him in the next few days, is that he can be forgiven for what he has done and he can rebuild trust with his colleagues, family, friends and the public.

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The Times tweaks its credo

BillKeller 01This is one of those rare weeks when I think that GetReligion readers may want to read my “On Religion” column for the Scripps Howard News Service.

In a way, it is a sequel to an earlier column about the New York Times and its internal theological debates about journalism and religion. This column also blends in a reference to executive editor Bill Keller’s must-read memo entitled “Assuring Our Credibility,” which was the subject of a classic GetReligion post by the Rt. Rev. Douglas LeBlanc that ran with the spiffy headline “The creeping menace of diverse voices.” That post includes some pretty important links, for those of you who want to dig deeper. I will include a few links in the body of the following column, as well.

Special thanks to Bill Keller himself, who sent me the full text of the speech that I heard him deliver at the National College Media Convention. I had good notes, but it is always better to have the full text. I will watch to see if the text goes online anywhere.

NEW YORK – The New York Times has for generations printed its credo on Page 1 to inspire the faithful: “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”

But times changed and the high church of journalism was challenged by radio and television news, which was followed by a tsunami of news, rumors, opinions and criticism on 24-7 cable news networks and the Internet. The result has been a subtle change in doctrine at the Times, although the Gray Lady’s motto has stayed the same.

Around-the-clock competition has “caused us to shift our emphasis from information as a commodity and play to different strengths — emphasizing less the breaking facts than the news behind the news, writing more analytically,” said executive editor Bill Keller, speaking at last week’s National College Media Convention.

“We long ago moved from ‘All the News That’s Fit to Print,’ to ‘All the News You Need to Know, and What It Means.’”

Keller’s address blended confessions about the newspaper industry’s sins with a litany of praise for journalistic virtues. Journalists at the Times, he insisted, still practice what they preach, remaining “agnostic as to where a story may lead” and maintaining standards of accuracy and fairness that prevent the “opinions of our writers and editors from leaching into our news pages.”

However, he also said he believes that “information is not what people crave. What they crave, and need, is judgment — someone they can trust to vouch for the information, dig behind it, and make sense of it.”

The question is whether critics, especially those in religious sanctuaries, will trust Keller’s team to provide an unbiased take on the news and then, as a finale, pass judgment on “what it means,” said former New York Daily News reporter William Proctor, author of “The Gospel According to the New York Times.”

“This intentional change in the motto — even if it won’t be printed by the newspaper — suggests to me that editorializing is being placed on an equal footing with straight news,” he said. The new motto seems “to be saying, ‘We’re recognizing that opinion has a larger role than the editorial or op-ed pages. In fact, opinion now has a place in the news itself.’”

200px The new york times building in new york cityMeanwhile, critics may remember Keller — who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting in the Soviet Union — as the Times columnist who once called himself a “collapsed Catholic” and lashed out at Pope John Paul II and the Vatican for rejecting female priests, gay rights, legalized abortion and the sexual revolution in general.

The struggle within Catholicism, he wrote, is “part of a larger struggle within the human race, between the forces of tolerance and absolutism. … This is, after all, the church that gave us the Crusades and the Inquisition.”

However, as executive editor, Keller produced a 2005 manifesto (PDF) urging his staff to improve religion coverage, avoid the misuse of loaded labels such as “religious fundamentalists” and hire qualified journalists who offer a diversity of “religious upbringing and military experience, of region and class.”

Journalists at the Times, he said, must strive to escape “our predominantly urban, culturally liberal orientation, to cover the full range of our national conversation. … This is important to us not because we want to appease believers or pander to conservatives, but because good journalism entails understanding more than just the neighborhood you grew up in.”

This candor is refreshing, said Jay Rosen, who leads New York University’s journalism program and has written a provocative essay entitled “Journalism is Itself a Religion.” The problem is that many journalists want to escape old-fashioned straight news, but they don’t know what to call their new product. It’s hard to distinguish between news “analysis” and “opinion” writing that reflects the beliefs of the writer.

“If I gave you a passage from the Bible and said, ‘Analyze this,’ you’re not going to know what to do with that unless you have a perspective from which you can do your interpretation,” he said.

Keller’s reference to his newspaper’s “urban, culturally liberal orientation” is a candid first step toward “identifying a worldview,” Rosen added. “But when he says that the Times needs to tell us what the news means, does that mean that it’s going to tell us what the news means from that particular perspective — that view of the world — or from some other perspective?”

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Be afraid, be very afraid

07Oh no. Are we now going to face Easter Wars (inspired by the thumping media success of the Christmas Wars)?

Here’s the news.

St. Paul City Office Boots Easter Bunny

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Easter Bunny has been sent packing at St. Paul City Hall.

A toy rabbit, pastel-colored eggs and a sign with the words “Happy Easter” were removed from the lobby of the City Council offices, because of concerns they might offend non-Christians. A council secretary had put up the decorations. They were not bought with city money.

St. Paul’s human rights director, Tyrone Terrill, asked that the decorations be removed, saying they could be offensive to non-Christians. But City Council member Dave Thune says removing the decorations went too far, and he wonders why they can’t celebrate spring with “bunnies and fake grass.”

OK, I guess that Christians are supposed to be offended that the wretched bunny and the fake eggs are getting the boot. But what if citizens were, as Christians with some sense of history, offended by the bunny in the first place?

Is that a news story? And has anyone else out there seen signs of Easter War coverage?

Meanwhile, let me post this little advertisement in a shameless display of pre-Pascha public relations. Anyone tired of bunny world can wait another week this spring and celebrate Pascha with the Orthodox. Here is a nice, simple Indianapolis Star piece on the Lent and Easter traditions in the East. Some of you have written me emails asking if I was going to mention the Orthodox traditions on these seasons.

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