Can ballots and technology win souls?

kids koran hamasI was surprised that Peggy Noonan did not do much with the echo of the “ending tyranny” theme in President Bush’s State of the Union address, the almost messianic theme that had been so controversial in the 2005 address.

Still, she made it clear that she thinks that some tensions remain on that issue, saying of the president:

He asserted more than he persuaded, and he chose to redeclare his beliefs rather than argue for them in any depth. If you believe, as he does, that the No. 1 priority for the American government at this point in history is to lead an international movement for political democracy, and if you believe, as he truly seems to, that political democracy is in and of itself a certain bringer of world-wide peace, than this speech was for you. If not, not. It went through a reported 30 drafts, was touched by many hands, and seemed it.

However, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen has written a column that I believe points at a major story that is developing linked to this administration’s understanding of the role of faith in the blood-soaked Middle East and, now, in the world as a whole.

It seems to me that when people as diverse and talented as Cohen and Noonan are worried about the same basic issue, it’s time to pay attention. I wonder how many evangelicals are thinking twice about the president’s belief that mere democracy can destroy tyranny and evil. What if people who hate democracy — or, at least, the concepts codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — win in a majority vote?

Thus, Cohen writes of the recent Palestinian vote:

The mistake of the Bush administration is to think, based on not much thinking to begin with, that people are people — pretty much the same the world over. This is why the president extols democracy. It must be what everyone wants because it is what everyone here wants. To denigrate this kind of talk suggests racism — You mean we are not all the same? — or a musty neocolonialism. But the hard truth is that culture and religion matter, and we should not expect moderation just because that’s how we would react. Toto knows the truth. The Middle East is not Kansas.

The leaders of Hamas brim with the word of God and the certainty of their cause. From here on they will lie about their ultimate aim and smilingly assure us that what they have always said they no longer mean.

Well, you know you are in an interesting and disturbing age when you can leap straight from a Cohen column in the Washington Post to a cover story in the Weekly Standard without skipping a beat.

GetReligion readers may have missed this scary essay by retired U.S. Army officer Ralph Peters, in part because the cover title and the headlines offer no clue whatsoever that religion plays a major role in it. Just look for the headline “The Counterrevolution in Military Affairs” and then make sure that you keep reading until you hit the subheadline “Wars of Faith” (in the print edition, that is).

On one level, Peters’ article is about America’s urgent drive to develop a highly technological military for fast-moving combat on a large scale, while our world is increasingly dominated by conflicts involving “flesh, faith and cities.” The symbol of the real world today is what he calls the media-based “liturgy” of the suicide bomber, that brilliant combination of human will and explosives.

Not a single item in our trillion-dollar arsenal can compare with the genius of the suicide bomber — the breakthrough weapon of our time. … We refuse to comprehend the suicide bomber’s soul — even though today’s wars are contests of souls, and belief is our enemy’s ultimate order of battle. We write off the suicide bomber as a criminal, a wanton butcher, a terrorist. Yet, within his spiritual universe, he’s more heroic than the American soldier who throws himself atop a grenade to spare his comrades: He isn’t merely protecting other men, but defending his god. …

Our enemies act on ecstatic revelations from their god. We act on the advice of lawyers.

gaza hamas demonstrationIt is, Peters writes, hard to fight solitary prophets hiding in crowds of fellow believers with a military that worships computers and satellites. America’s leaders do not believe that they are involved in a religious war. However, our enemies believe that they are involved in a religious war against us.

Noonan is worried that America cannot automatically install democracy and defeat tyranny.

Cohen is worried that our government fails to understand the power of faith, especially a faith that is opposed to the freedoms of the West.

Peters is afraid our military leaders do not understand that cruise missiles cannot defeat prophets. This is where his article reaches a crescendo that, to me, seems to be aimed straight at the White House and the military elites that answer to it.

Hang on, because this gets blunt.

A dangerous asymmetry exists in the type of minds working the problem of Islamist terrorism in our government and society. On average, the “experts” to whom we are conditioned to listen have a secular mentality (even if they go to church or synagogue from habit). And it is a very rare secular mind that can comprehend religious passion — it’s like asking a blind man to describe the colors of fire. …

Those who feel no vital faith cannot comprehend faith’s power. A man or woman who has never been intoxicated by belief will default to mirror-imaging when asked to describe terror’s roots. He who has never experienced a soul-shaking glimpse of the divine inevitably explains religion-driven suicide bombers in terms of a lack of economic opportunity or social humiliation. But the enemies we face are burning with belief, on fire with their vision of an immanent, angry god. Our intelligentsia is less equipped to understand such men than our satellites are to find them.

All of our technologies and comforting theories are confounded by the strength of the soul ablaze with faith.

There is much, much more to read on this theme in Peters’ essay and he does move on to other issues. But you can read that on your own. Nevertheless, the emphasis on faith trumping modernity and technology never goes away. Do not read this article right before you go to bed.

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Canonizing Father Jack

DanforthPulpitWashington Post reporter Peter Slevin found a Republican he likes. He profiles former Senator John Danforth and his campaign to reduce the influence of the religious right.

It’s on the Style pages, the section of the paper in which a story will not run unless it’s snide. And that explains the beginning of the piece:

Jack Danforth wishes the Republican right would step down from its pulpit. Instead, he sees a constant flow of religion into national politics. And not just any religion, either, but the us-versus-them, my-God-is-bigger-than-your-God, velvet-fist variety of Christian evangelism.

As a mainline Episcopal priest, retired U.S. senator and diplomat, Danforth worships a humbler God and considers the right’s certainty a sin. Legislating against gay marriage, for instance? “It’s just cussedness.” As he sees it, many Republican leaders have lost their bearings and, if they don’t change, will lose their grip on power. Not to mention make the United States a meaner place.

In any case, if you want to read about how Danforth supports embryonic stem-cell research, thought the Terri Schiavo case was about appeasing the Christian Right and thinks homosexual marriage is fine, you should check out the article. If you want to know more about the specific religious views that motivate Danforth’s political agenda, look elsewhere. Speaking of gay marriage, this paragraph made me laugh:

In Missouri, where Danforth won five statewide elections, a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage passed overwhelmingly last year. Yet he believes most people would say no if asked, “Do you believe we should just be nasty and humiliate people and degrade them because of sexual orientation?”

Well, yes, I imagine most people who oppose gay marriage would say no if asked that question. The article does repeatedly concede that Danforth’s time in office — when conservatives did not exert such influence within the Republican Party — was also the time when Republicans didn’t have nearly as much political clout. Unfortunately the article fails to make a convincing argument as to why Republicans should listen to Danforth’s views on religious influence.

The idea that the religiously motivated political views of one group should be replaced with the religiously motivated political views of another group could have been explored more substantively.

Either way, reporters should probably be more careful than Slevin was at letting such strong personal feelings show through. Even on the Style pages.

Photo credit: Donovan Marks, Washington National Cathedral.

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Alito and that red vs. blue pew ghost thing

WCAP23701092336The Washington Post pulled out all the stops — on a weekday, no less — to offer the inside story of how the splintered Democrats failed to keep the dreaded Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. from reaching the U.S. Supreme Court.

Is the story haunted by religion ghosts? Does it offer yet more evidence that the “pew gap” is alive and well and shaping how at least some would-be centrist Democrats present themselves to the public? Can you say Gov. Tim “I worked as a missionary when I was a young man” Kaine? I knew you could.

But back to the Alito mega-drama. Let’s look at four selected clips from this piece by reporters Lois Romano and Juliet Eilperin, in the order that they appear in the script. I will ignore the hints at the abortion issue being the key, since they are everywhere. Hang on and we will get to that later.

First, following Hill protocol, Alito went to see Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who is some people consider mildly anti-abortion.

Reid banned staff members from the meeting with Alito. The men talked about a number of issues, and at one point Reid mentioned that Alito would be the fifth Roman Catholic on the court. Reid’s remarks shocked Alito, who promptly told his handlers about the conversation, which they saw as a veiled suggestion that Alito’s religion would influence rulings on issues such as abortion.

Do you think that issue was hovering in the air? Do you think the White House was ready to pounce? Do you think groups on the right already had the counter-fundraising letters written and ready to mail?

Were groups on the left just as fired up and ready to tee off on anyone who waffled?

The liberal advocacy groups wanted nothing less than the Democratic leadership to take up a fight — and penalize those who were fence-sitting. Roberts had been given a pass, but Alito was a different story. He would be replacing O’Connor, often the centrist vote on a divided court. But energizing Democrats was a challenge. Many simply didn’t have the stomach for a fight they would probably lose.

A couple of weeks after the announcement of Alito’s nomination, Reid summoned leaders from the groups to his office to discuss strategy with several top senators opposed to Alito, including Schumer. “We are not the enemy,” Schumer told the lobbyists. “Stop going after moderate, red-state Democrats and start going after the Republicans.”

Now, we know that the red state vs. blue state thing is a bit of a myth and that the reality — red zip codes vs. blue zip codes — is more complex. But you know that the senators who live with this reality are very aware that these moral questions and, yes, religious questions matter to many of America’s most highly motivated voters on the left and right.

roe wideweb  430x285 1Just ask Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.). This brings us to the most testy, tense moment in the whole piece.

As the hearings played out in Washington, Nelson was startled to see quarter-page ads in the Omaha World-Herald and the Lincoln Journal Star sponsored by the conservative group Focus on the Family. “Will Sen. Ben Nelson listen to Ted Kennedy or the people of Nebraska?” asked the ads, which showed head shots of Nelson alongside the Massachusetts liberal.

Facing a tough 2006 midterm race in the conservative state, Nelson was furious and complained to the group’s president, James Dobson. He assured Dobson that so far nothing had emerged that would prevent him from voting for Alito — and suggested that Dobson thank him publicly at the right time. On Jan. 21, four days after Nelson announced his support for Alito, the group ran new ads: “Thank you Sen. Ben Nelson … for listening to the voice of Nebraskans.”

Oh to be a bug somewhere in the telephone system during that call. Or was it a personal meeting? I, for one, would like to know. Do you think that there is any chance that either side taped that call? Just kidding. Maybe.

And finally, there is this moment in modern public relations, when a key leader on the left finds what he believes is the “smoking gun” that will nail Alito. The day is Nov. 14.

On the front page of the Washington Times was a story leaked by the White House about a 1985 job application in which Alito had written, among other things, that “the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion.” By 7:45 a.m., 8,000 reporters received e-mails with a link to the story.

Wow. That is a lot of reporters and, media-bias investigators will quickly note, we can assume that about 90 percent or more of those reporters are personally (althought not automatically professionally) in favor of abortion rights. However, there is one interesting phrase in that paragraph from the Post. Note that, in the post-Harriet Miers world, it is the White House that finds that anti-abortion quote and circulates it, as opposed to, let’s say, Norman Lear.

So the White House was convinced that abortion would, somehow, be a plus with its base. Meanwhile, the left was just as convinced that abortion would be a big, big, smoking-gun-plus with its base and, thus, that:

… Alito’s views on abortion should be a focal point of the opposition, but it was not a strategy their Democratic allies in the Senate embraced. Heading into the 2006 elections, the last thing they wanted was to look like a party supporting abortion on demand.

I could go on and on. It’s hard to miss the politics of the “pew gap” in this one.

Can you imagine the ghosts that will flock to Capitol Hill if there is one more opening on the high court?

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In gods we trust

ribbon2Every year since 1953, an extremely mysterious Christian group called The Fellowship has hosted a National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. At $400+ a pop, tickets for the breakfast are some of the hottest in town (don’t worry, it’s free on C-SPAN for us plebeians). Leaders of Christian groups across the country make sure to attend, as do dignitaries from around the world. Every president has attended for the last 50 years. Tables are full of senators and Congress members.

In any case, the Associated Press’ Frederic Frommer reports on a dramatic change with this year’s event, being held this morning:

WASHINGTON — The annual National Prayer Breakfast will be co-chaired by Sen. Norm Coleman, the first time in memory that a Jew will lead the gathering, and at a time when some rabbis have expressed misgivings about what they see as the event’s overtly Christian tone. . . .

Coleman, a Minnesota Republican, raised some eyebrows himself at last year’s breakfast when he said, “I have a profound respect for the tangibility and accessibility of God that my colleagues find in Jesus.”

A New Jersey rabbi in attendance, Shmuel Goldin, was taken aback by that, and by registration material that said “Jesus Christ transcends all religions.” He wrote to Coleman to express his concerns.

So a private Christian group hosts a popular prayer breakfast and has now decided to make it overtly interfaith. The article also says that Coleman is making sure that there will be no explicitly Christian pamphlets.

I find it endlessly fascinating that stories like presume there are no problems with Christian organizations or functions becoming interfaith. My Lutheran peeps abhor events like this — not only because they tend to confuse the religious and political spheres but because they always require a watering down of religious doctrines. We’re Lutheran for a reason and we don’t believe that all paths are equally valid, contrary to the predominant American viewpoint. People think we’re awful and horribly unpatriotic because of this. Fox News’ theological heavyweight Bill O’Reilly once accused us of not being Christian on account of our views against participating in civil religious gatherings. Opposition to syncretism is hardly unique to Lutherans and yet the folks who find Druid drum circles to be an unseemly addition to Vespers are invisible to many reporters.

Anyway, the article goes on to repeatedly quote the rabbi wondering why there were so many references to Jesus at last year’s breakfast if the prayer event was nondenominational. Beyond the vagueness of the term nondenominational (which makes a great argument against its use by anyone at any time), does an event hosted by an evangelical, if secretive, Christian group need to include adherents of other religions? Let’s see:

Foundation officials referred questions to former Rep. Jim Slattery, D-Kan., who conceded that phrases such as “spirit of Jesus” could be offensive to Jews but noted the significance of Coleman’s role this year.

“It makes a statement that this is an event for Jews and Muslims and Christians and Hindus and Buddhists,” said Slattery, who has worked with the foundation on the breakfast.

Well there you go. Pray to whichever god or gods you want. As long as you have similar political objectives, it’s all good.

In order to even begin making sense of this story, reporters simply must understand and inform readers how this National Prayer Breakfast embodies civil religion, as opposed to the Christian religion. Religion professor Rowland Sherrill defined civil religion as “the mysterious way that religion, politics, ideas of nationhood, patriotism, etc. — energized by faith outlooks — represent a national force.”

pancakeExamples of civil religion include the invocation of a non-specific God at political events (“God bless America!”) and the quotation or reference of sacred texts in political speeches. We are quite accustomed to biblical references, but President Bush has begun including the Koran in his political rhetoric. His second inaugural highlighted the truths of the Koran, for instance. He called Islam a “noble faith” at his most recent State of the Union speech. Civil religion has its own hymns, such as the Star Spangled Banner, and venerates past political leaders and deceased veterans of wars. Since the terrorist attacks of 2001, the nation has seen a rise in religious events gathered by political leaders. These events have become increasingly interfaith.

The changes happening to this breakfast gathering this morning are emblematic of the changes happening with American civil religion, and highlight the need for reporters to study this pervasive phenomenon. For an absolutely excellent primer on civil religion, try this one prepared specifically for reporters by FACS.

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The faith that makes a terrorist tick

Osama bin LadenSometimes I wonder how often journalists covering Islamic terrorism actually get to interview a terrorist. That’s a scary proposition in many ways. One way or another, those responsible for giving the public a clear understanding of Islamic terrorism must understand the religious underpinnings of terrrorists’ worldview and moral philosophy.

For those disinclined to understand the terrorists personally — or unable to reach them in the rocky coves of Afghanistan or Pakistan — a well-researched book seems to be the next best option, as noted earlier in this space.

This book review by Los Angeles Times writer Tim Rutten on Knowing the Enemy Jihadist Ideology and the War on Terror by Mary Habeck digs into the broad subject of Islam and where jihadis get their religious philosophy. It isn’t pretty:

Because Habeck is deadly serious about the jihadis’ religiosity, she is scrupulous about their relationship to contemporary Islam. It would be “evil,” she argues, to contend that a billion-plus Muslims supported or desired the mass murder that occurred on 9/11. Nor is it correct to conflate jihadi ideology with Islamist politics, such as those of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party. On the other hand, she writes, it “would be just as wrong to conclude that the hijackers, Al Qaeda and the other radical groups have nothing to do with Islam.”

Nor can the jihadis’ key beliefs be dismissed as “the marginal opinions of a few fanatics. The principal dogmas that they assert … have roots in discussions about Islamic law and theology that began soon after the death of Muhammad and that are supported by important segments of the clergy today.”

Here an American reader confronts the necessity of reaching beyond the undergraduate impulse that equates a facile acceptance with tolerance. It’s a step that requires the recognition, as the philosopher Richard Rorty once put it, that some ideas, like some people, are just “no damn good.”

Reporters are not inclined to dismiss ideas merely because they “are just ‘no damn good.’” In covering terrorism, the argument that “one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter” is very attractive, particularly if one is attempting to write articles that are not biased in one direction or another. But those types of comparisons are fraught with moral inconsistencies.

Here’s a bit of information that I had not seen elsewhere and should be considered when people call for us to withdraw our military from Iraq to appease the terrorists:

One of Habeck’s more interesting insights concerns the violent jihadis’ tendency to borrow strategies directly from the narratives contained in the Koran and hadith. For example, Bin Laden’s recent offer of a “truce” with the United States actually recapitulates a tactic Muhammad is said to have employed to conquer the tribe that controlled Mecca.

The real import of Habeck’s book is its suggestion that because the jihadis really believe what they say they do — and act on it — studying their texts and comments could yield the effective anti-terrorism that so far has eluded George W. Bush’s administration.

I suggest reading the article and then the book if one has the time. The implications to getting the Islamic terrorism threat wrong are staggering for both journalists and our nation’s leaders.

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The Bush doctrine: Heaven on earth?

mountainI was busy writing a column last night and didn’t watch the State of the Union. However, I think it’s safe to predict that, once again, there will be lively debate among some conservatives about President Bush’s restatement of his claims that American can, almost literally, create peace on earth.

Here is the key section of the speech, taken from the text posted at the New York Times (which includes some wonderful interactive links to related documents):

Abroad, our nation is committed to a historic long-term goal. We seek the end of tyranny in our world. Some dismiss that goal as misguided idealism. In reality, the future security of America depends on it. On Sept. 11, 2001, we found that problems originating in a failed and oppressive state 7,000 miles away could bring murder and destruction to our country. Dictatorships shelter terrorists and feed resentment and radicalism, and seek weapons of mass destruction. Democracies replace resentment with hope, respect the rights of their citizens and their neighbors and join the fight against terror. Every step toward freedom in the world makes our country safer, so we will act boldly in freedom’s cause.

Far from being a hopeless dream, the advance of freedom is the great story of our time.

It isn’t hard to figure out who Bush is pointing toward with his “some dismiss that goal” reference and, in this case, he is underlining a public disagreement with a certain conservative columnist. That would be Peggy Noonan, an outspoken Christian who also knows a thing or two about writing presidential speeches. A year ago, Noonan penned a post-SOTU piece that stunned many on the right, especially the religious right. Click here to flash back to that Wall Street Journal column. Meanwhile, here is a sample:

Ending tyranny in the world? Well that’s an ambition, and if you’re going to have an ambition it might as well be a big one. But this declaration, which is not wrong by any means, seemed to me to land somewhere between dreamy and disturbing. Tyranny is a very bad thing and quite wicked, but one doesn’t expect we’re going to eradicate it any time soon. Again, this is not heaven, it’s earth.

This morning, another outspoken conservative — Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher of the Dallas Morning News — lit into the top Texan against tyranny with a similar online comment.

The key question: Is there such a thing as a bad democracy? Or, stated another way, does the creation of democracies automatically defeat tyranny in a region? After 12 months of balloting in the Middle East, Dreher has some doubts:

What the president said was complete nonsense. “Dictatorships shelter terrorists?” Shoot, the Palestinians just elected terrorists! And you don’t think Palestinian democracy “feed(s) resentment and radicalism?” It’s their raison d’etre! And there is absolutely no reason to conclude that democracies will join the fight against terror. Some will — and some will foment terror, if that is the wish of their people.

Perhaps Noonan will write again in a day or so. Watch this space (or the Journal‘s archives section).

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So a reporter walks into a church (rimshot)

microphone smlThank you, thank you, thank you, to all of the GetReligion readers out there who sent me comments and emails last night about a hilarious correction linked to a Newsweek story by reporter Susannah Meadows entitled “Cut, Thrust and Christ: Why evangelicals are mastering the art of college debate.”

We will get to that punch line in a minute, but first you need to know the context. The subject of the story is the high-quality debate team at the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. Read closely and it isn’t very hard to figure out that the seed for this sometimes snippy story is — surprise, surprise — changes at the U.S. Supreme Court and a change in the atmosphere there on issues linked to the usual moral and cultural issues linked to the sexual revolution.

The Liberty team is currently ranked No. 1 in the country, above Harvard (14th) and all the other big names. But for the evangelicals, there’s a lot more at stake than a trophy. Falwell and the religious right figure that if they can raise a generation that knows how to argue, they can stem the tide of sin in the country. Seventy-five percent of Liberty’s debaters go on to be lawyers with an eye toward transforming society. “I think I can make an impact in the field of law on abortion and gay rights, to get back to Americans’ godly heritage,” says freshman debater Cole Bender.

Debaters are the new missionaries, having realized they can save a lot more souls from a seat at the top — perhaps even on the highest court in the land.

Heavens above, there is even a Karl Rove sighting in the article.

But this article will, I imagine, be remembered for the previously mentioned correction. It seems that, during the interview with Falwell, Meadows did not grasp one of the good reverend’s evangelical metaphors. Perhaps it was a bad phone connection or a bad audiotape. Thus, the online version of the story has this ending:

Correction: In the original version of this report, Newsweek misquoted Falwell as referring to “assault ministry.” In fact, Falwell was referring to “a salt ministry” — a reference to Matthew 5:13, where Jesus says “Ye are the salt of the earth.” We regret the error.

This, in turn, provided a timely ending for my Scripps Howard News Service column this week, which offered what I hope was a calmer, newsier take on my GetReligion post last weekend about the First Things blog item in which Father Richard John Neuhaus complains that the mainstream journalists that he meets from time to time are “not always the sharpest knives in the drawer.”

I still think that Neuhaus needed to be more careful before he clicked “send” on such a sweeping attack on journalists in general and those who cover religion news in particular. Nevertheless, he does have some points to make and some witty anecdotes for inclusion in what I called “the journalistic genre of ‘laugh to keep from crying’ miscues about religion.”

Now, Newsweek has added a great kicker. Anyone else out there have some favorite rimshot lines? Remember, keep ’em clean (this is a family friendly religion-news critique blog) and it helps if you can give us a URL or two for future reference.

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Depicting Muhammad

kanyeYes, Kanye West posed as Jesus Christ on the cover of Rolling Stone. And, like he’s a Pat Robertson-in-training, the grandstanding worked. Media outlets splashed the news everywhere. So it was nice to see the way Rashod Ollison analyzed young Kanye for the Baltimore Sun:

Perhaps he meant it as a symbol of personal suffering. Maybe he wanted to present young hip-hop heads with an updated image of the Son of God. Whatever his motives, Kanye West again has accomplished what he set out to do: Get people to talk.

About him.

On the cover of February’s Rolling Stone, which hit news stands last week, the brash, egomaniacal rapper-producer poses as Jesus Christ. In the profile shot, he wears a crown of thorns. Blood runs down his face; his expression conveys anguish, vulnerability, a steely resilience.

It’s all so pedestrian, humorless and downright boring.

Exactly. And please note the scary Rolling Stone headline about God’s Senator while you’re at it. Remember when that magazine was actually cool? It hasn’t been since Hunter S. Thompson’s liver finally got larger than his cranium and they put P.J. O’Rourke out to pasture. Of course, for a long time now rock and roll culture has been less about subverting authority and more about moving units, so a minor controversy over disrespecting a tolerant religion is a valued as marketing ploy rather rather than a daring artistic decision. But as a few pundits noted, if Kanye wanted to be really rebellious, he would pose as Muhammad. Then we would see where the rubber meets the road when it comes to real artistic conviction.

Plays and movies mocking or blaspheming Islam, as opposed to Christianity, are almost unheard of. Movies praising Islam, even, are difficult to make. Syrian-born director Moustapha Akkad, who was killed a few months ago in the terrorist bombing in Jordan, faced extreme opposition for The Message, for instance. (Random political trivia: former mayor, then councilman, Marion Barry was shot in 1977 in a hostage situation where Muslim radicals made demands against the movie.)

Which brings us to the present and the huge story on other continents about the decision of a Danish newspaper to run political cartoons that made a humongous error in the eyes of Muslims. They contained images of Muhammad. All images of Muhammad are prohibited in Islam, but these cartoons were of the Ted Rall variety rather than the Marmaduke variety.

In response, masked gunmen stormed an EU office in Gaza. Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Denmark. Libya closed its embassy in the Danish capital. Palestinians burnt Danish flags while Hamas and Hezbollah and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood demanded an apology. Former President Bill Clinton told Davos attendees that he worried anti-Islam sentiment would replace anti-Semitism and condemned “these totally outrageous cartoons against Islam.” The Danish newspaper received a bomb threat. Boycotts have cost Danish companies $55 million.

messageAs I said, big story. Deutsch Welle had a good update that also provided some perspective about EU concerns over freedom of the press and protection of fundamental religious values. It even mentioned media issues:

Arab League Secretary General Amr Mussa, in Tunis for a meeting of Arab interior ministers, decried the “double standards” in the European media.

“We see double standards in the European media, which is fearful of being accused of anti-Semitism but which invokes freedom of expression for a caricature on Islam,” Mussa told reporters.

Most Arab governments have vocally condemned the series of 12 cartoons, which show the prophet as a wild-eyed knife-wielding Bedouin flanked by two women shrouded in black.

It’s fascinating to note how the Arab League leader notes the standards of European media in his attempt to sway political opinion. Fascinating because, of course, the standards for religious tolerance in Muslim news outlets likely would not merit Western sympathy. I also found this passage from the Khaleej Times to be illuminating:

Qatar-based scholar, Dr Yousuf Al Qaradawi, has urged the United Nations to act to prevent the defamation of the prophets or religious figures from any religion, anywhere in the world. He was speaking in Arabic on Qatar Television. “We Muslims consider it as a major crime to abuse or denigrate any prophet, including Jesus and Moses. Any Muslim who is doing this will not continue as a Muslim,” Qaradawi is reported to have said.

It would be nice for reporters to ask other Muslim scholars if this is true. Do Muslims consider it a major crime to denigrate Jesus and other religious figures? Have they commented on the Rolling Stone cover, for instance? Are Muslims decrying anti-Semitic comments from Hamas leaders?

Reporters should also explain why Muslims are demanding that the Danish government apologize for the actions of a few of its citizens. A guided tutorial through the Koran would give reporters a lot of information about Muslim views on the separation of mosque and state.

And reporters and editors in this country should show a bit more interest in this story. It won’t just be Denmark where Western views of freedom of the press run up against Islam’s desire to protect its major prophet. And I’m not just saying that because I am afraid to put up a picture of Muhammad.

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