Concerning moderates and the mob

udhrThe cartoon controversy (far too weak a word at this point) is causing some interesting divisions on the right as well as the left. The debate that I think deserves the most serious news coverage concerns the role of Islamic moderates and what they do or do not believe about the freedoms of the West.

When it comes to brand-name conservatism in the United States, it’s hard to get more solid than the Wall Street Journal editorial page and Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer. Yet, at the moment, there are some interesting conflicts in what they are saying about this clash of cultures.

Perhaps it is a matter of emphasis. Perhaps they are talking about different issues within the larger crisis. That’s the point.

In a Hot Topic editorial, the Journal lays out the history of the crisis and places a heavy emphasis on the role of Muslim governments in fanning the flames. Thus, the headline reads: “Clash of Civilization — The dictators behind those Muslim cartoon protests.” Perhaps what we are seeing is, most of all, a conflict within Islam and not a conflict between Islam and the West, symbolized by the Bill of Rights. Thus, here is a long statement of the Journal thesis:

… (Mass) demonstrations almost never represent mainstream public sentiment in the West. Why then should we take it as given that they do among Muslims? Every society has its silent majorities, but it’s only in democracies that those majorities exercise a decisive influence. If Islamic societies seem premodern and violent, this surely has something to do with the fact that most Muslim countries today are places where there is no democracy; where silent majorities stay silent; where, to adapt W.H. Auden, “only the man behind the rifle has free speech.”

So it has been in the case of the cartoons, which were first published in September, to the fairly muted protests of Danish Muslims. Ambassadors of 10 Muslim countries demanded that the Danish government “take all those responsible to task,” apparently forgetting that, unlike in their own countries, Danish authorities do not serve as press censors. Around the same time, an Egyptian newspaper reprinted the cartoons without drawing any noticeable wrath from Muslim clerics.

It was only after a December meeting of the 56 member states of the Organization of Islamic Conferences — all but a handful of which are dictatorships or absolute monarchies — that the “outrage” really took wing.

Thus, totalitarian leaders promoted coverage of the cartoons as a way of showing what would happen to Islam if Western-styled freedoms came to the Arab world. What we are seeing, according to the Journal, is not the “proverbial rage of the Arab street. It’s an orchestrated effort by illiberal regimes, colluding with fundamentalist clerics, to conjure the illusion of Muslim rage for their own political purposes.”

billofrightsAccording to this point of view, those seeking progress must cheer for democracy and the rise of a moderate, modernized Islam. Thus, things are going well in Iraq and the bottom line is simple: Stay the course. The problem is not with Islam itself, but with those who want to use violence for political ends.

Krauthammer, on the other hand, is not impressed with what he is hearing out of the moderates — in Europe, in American newsrooms or in the Islamic world. He notes that the moderates are united in their opposition to violence. But what if that is not the real issue? What if the key issues are the freedom of the press and the role of Islamic law in the future of Europe? In that case, says Krauthammer:

What passes for moderation in the Islamic community — “I share your rage but don’t torch that embassy” — is nothing of the sort. It is simply a cynical way to endorse the goals of the mob without endorsing its means. …

Have any of these “moderates” ever protested the grotesque caricatures of Christians and, most especially, Jews that are broadcast throughout the Middle East on a daily basis? The sermons on Palestinian TV that refer to Jews as the sons of pigs and monkeys? The Syrian prime-time TV series that shows rabbis slaughtering a gentile boy to ritually consume his blood? The 41-part (!) series on Egyptian TV based on that anti-Semitic czarist forgery (and inspiration of the Nazis), “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” showing the Jews to be engaged in a century-old conspiracy to control the world?

A true Muslim moderate is one who protests desecrations of all faiths. Those who don’t are not moderates but hypocrites, opportunists and agents for the rioters, merely using different means to advance the same goal: to impose upon the West, with its traditions of freedom of speech, a set of taboos that is exclusive to the Islamic faith. These are not defenders of religion but Muslim supremacists trying to force their dictates upon the liberal West.

Meanwhile, he is not impressed with the American media moderates who seem to want to look the other way and avoid the core issues, a set of issues that might be called the Bill of Rights or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

So there are two issues here. The first is the role of the mob. The moderates agree that the mob cannot be endorsed. However, are the goals of the mob wrong? Are the beliefs of the mob wrong? Does the mob have the right point of view, when it comes to freedom of speech and religion? Is the mob on the right side of history?

This is where journalists can do some digging. What do the American moderates truly believe? What do the Muslim moderates actually believe on these issues?

Meanwhile, says Krauthammer:

The mob is trying to dictate to Western newspapers, indeed Western governments, what is a legitimate subject for discussion and caricature. … The Islamic “moderates” are the mob’s agents and interpreters, warning us not to do this again. And the Western “moderates” are their terrified collaborators who say: Don’t worry, we won’t. It’s those Danes. We’re clean. Spare us. Please.

Would The New York Times agree or disagree? For that matter, would The Wall Street Journal agree or disagree? How about the White House?

Yes, there are divisions on the right as well as on the left. Journalists have work to do, finding the cracks in the “moderate” middle.

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Did you think you would live to see this?

Swedish Flag   MYes, I know that it is the newspaper of a far-right political party, a fringe group that wants strict immigration controls and has little or no mainstream role in Swedish politics.

But did you ever think that you would live to see this news story? The Swedish government has shut down a newspaper website, reacting to its stance in favor of publishing cartoons of Muhammad. Here is Islam Online‘s take on the same story:

The site’s host, Levonline, pulled the plug on the website of the Swedish Democrats’ SD-Kuriren newspaper after consulting with the government. It is believed to be the first time a Western government has intervened to block a publication in the growing row.

Kuriren editor Richard Jomshof said the government was breaking the law.

“We have to do something about it. This is illegal. They can’t do this just because we are a small magazine,” he told the BBC News website.

Once again, government officials have found themselves in a double bind. They are for free speech. But they are not for free speech by small groups of offensive people or, at least, people who are willing to offend the wrong religious groups.

Once there was a saying that free speech does not include the right to shout “Fire!” (or, perhaps, “Burn, baby, burn!”) in a crowded building. Now, it seems, there is no right to shout “We disagree with your doctrine!” in a small, crowded nation. This is what that press theory sounds like in practice:

Swedish Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds described Kuriren’s move as “a provocation” by “a small group of extremists.”

“I will defend freedom of the press no matter what the circumstances, but I strongly condemn the provocation by SD-Kuriren. It displays a complete lack of respect,” she said in a statement.

However, it should be noted that there are press reports that the SD-Kuriren website is — at the moment — back online via a backup server. (Then again, maybe not.) In the age of the World Wide Web, you can put servers anywhere. But, up until now, I think most people would have assumed that Sweden was the kind of place where offensive people, just to be safe, wanted to locate their servers. As a friend of mine said today: You mean there is something that is too offensive for the Swedish government?

By the way, here is my understanding of where many mainstream American newspapers are at the moment. They are confused and conflicted. Click here for a National Journal look at the Catch-22.

flag danishOr, once again, let’s take The New York Times as the MSM outlet of record.

In the past, it has been the position of the Times that it is censorship, in reality if not in law, for government officials to deny government money to artists and communicators who wanted to produce offensive speach that offended religious groups. Perhaps the Times is gaining a new appreciation for the power of religious images, in this current debate. However, it would seem that the long-established stance of the Times editorial board would lead it to argue that it would be censorship for the Swedish government (or the Danes) to deny actual government funds to artists and communicators who wanted to prod, provoke and offend religious orthodoxies.

Then again, perhaps this does not apply to all religions.

Then again, perhaps — for the Times editorial board, and editorial-page leaders in some other zip codes — journalists are not artists and communicators.

One final comment, after looking at the controversial flags together: Do flags burn better in certain parts of the world when they have crosses on them? Just asking.

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Not getting it, again

nytIt’s not the first time I’ve written about The New York Times not getting it. Sadly, this is not the first time the NYT has missed it (remember the Holocaust).

So says Andrew Sullivan:

So we now discover that the hideously offensive and blasphemous cartoons — so blasphemous that CNN, the New York Times, and the Washington Post won’t publish them … were reprinted last October. In Egypt. On the front frigging page. No one rioted. No editor at Al Fager was threatened. So it’s official: the Egyptian state media is less deferential to Islamists than the New York Times. So where were the riots in Cairo? This whole affair is a contrived, manufactured attempt by extremist Muslims to move the goal-posts on Western freedom. They’re saying: we determine what you can and cannot print; and there’s a difference between what Muslims can print and what infidels can print. And, so far, much of the West has gone along. In this, well-meaning American editors have been played for fools and cowards. Maybe if they’d covered the murders of von Gogh and Fortuyn more aggressively they’d have a better idea of what’s going on; and stared down this intimidation. The whole business reminds me of the NYT‘s coverage of the Nazis in the 1930s. They didn’t get the threat then. They don’t get it now.

I’ve become more and more convinced of the importance of this issue. After some thought, I don’t feel, like Sullivan, that the NYT or the Post should print these cartoons. It would only inflame the situation and accomplish little.

But it does matter that extremist Muslims have been able to whip up a huge frenzy over how the Danes — I repeat, the Danes — have allegedly insulted an entire religion and now this group, whoever they may be, are attempting to make a free democratic state bow to their wishes.

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The Danes are confused (me too)

dk sggflLet me offer many thanks to the Divine Ms. M and young master Daniel Pulliam for doing so much in the past few days to keep us in touch with the tidal wave of stories about the Danish cartoons. I literally do not know where to begin and, during five days of travel, I have felt somewhat stunned and confused by what I am reading. I am home again and starting to catch up.

What I am feeling is precisely what I felt in the weeks and months after the murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, a freethinker who would, under ordinary circumstances, be an icon in places like New York City and Hollywood.

Here is how I would state the question that is at the heart of my confusion: Why is it suddenly liberal for liberals to think that conservatives are out of line for defending the free speech rights of liberals?

Apparently I am not alone in my confusion.

Over at the Los Angeles Times, reporter Jeffrey Fleishman has written a news feature story about the waves of confusion — mixed with some rage — that are sweeping over Denmark. This is a good piece to read if you are wondering where this whole story began, because it does flashback to the beginning and offer timely background materials.

At one point, Fleishman pauses to paint the scene in broad strokes that verge on analysis. But I think his reporting backs it up. The key, if you read between the lines, is this: the future of the European Union is tied to this crisis. That is the political issue that is an obvious stalking horse for the larger clash of cultures.

Danes suspect that the furor over the cartoons has been co-opted by the wider anti-Western agenda of Middle East extremism. Yet they believe the media images of fury over the drawings have cracked the veneer of their nation and exacerbated a debate about immigration, freedom of expression, religious tolerance and a vaunted perception of racial harmony often disputed by immigrants.

Denmark is a small portrait of Europe’s struggle to integrate a Muslim population that has doubled since the late-1980s and dotted the continent with head scarves and back-alley mosques. … Recent polls reveal a country of torn emotions and doubt. The Danish People’s Party has gained 3 percentage points, but so has its nemesis, the Radical Left Party. A newspaper headline this week blamed President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair for not supporting Denmark through the ordeal. And nearly 80% of Danes believe a terrorist attack looms.

Or consider this reaction from Flemming Rose, the editor who commissioned the cartoons to make a point that journalists and artists were self-censoring themselves in their depictions of Islam and debates about Islam. He argues that Islam should not be treated differently than Christianity or other religions, when it comes to parody and satire. Under normal circumstances, this is a “liberal” statement.

“I think it’s problematic when a religion tries to impose its taboos and rules on the larger society,” he said. “When they ask me not to run those cartoons, they are not asking for my respect. They’re asking for my submission. … To me, those cartoons are saying that some individuals have hijacked, kidnapped and taken hostage the religion of Islam to commit terrorism.”

Then again, the meaning of the word “Islam” is “submission,” as in the statement that true peace is found through submission to the teachings of Islam.

What does this mean? That is one of the points of debate within Islam. Do the Danes want to submit to the laws of Islam? Does Europe? Stay tuned.

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Tip: follow the money

Jesusbus2So evangelical leaders are front and center in a public relations campaign launched this week. Editors and reporters are giving the campaign heavy coverage because the evangelical leaders are surprising them by calling for reduced carbon dioxide emissions. Laurie Goodstein’s New York Times story yesterday hit the major points:

Despite opposition from some of their colleagues, 86 evangelical Christian leaders have decided to back a major initiative to fight global warming, saying “millions of people could die in this century because of climate change, most of them our poorest global neighbors.”

Among signers of the statement, which will be released in Washington on Wednesday, are the presidents of 39 evangelical colleges, leaders of aid groups and churches, like the Salvation Army, and pastors of megachurches, including Rick Warren, author of the best seller “The Purpose-Driven Life.”

This is obviously a worthy news story, even if it is an orchestrated PR campaign (more on that later) and Goodstein writes a good account, even if it is lacking in explaining the religious motivations of both the the signers and those who oppose the effort. However, I find it interesting how news coverage of religious adherents is biased in favor of political action. If a religious group does something political — be it protesting cartoons published in Denmark or signing a petition for reduced carbon dioxide emissions — it is ensured heavy coverage. And this makes it seem like the groups have a large relative size and impact. But what about those religious adherents who are more focused on, well, religious notions of salvation, eternal life, doctrine and creeds? They simply aren’t noticed unless they engage in politics. Not that we haven’t discussed this gripe before . . .

In any case, the Chicago Tribune‘s Frank James covers the religious angle a bit more than Goodstein but struggles with accurately conveying evangelical views on the issue. Check this paragraph out, for instance:

But environmental issues have proved divisive within the body of believers who identify themselves as evangelicals. Some who believe the world is in the “end times,” with a return of Jesus imminent, have not seen the necessity of protecting the environment for the long term. Others, meanwhile, have taken the view espoused by the evangelicals who unveiled their campaign Wednesday, that humans were given dominion over the Earth with the responsibility to protect it.

Got that? You either believe Armageddon means environmental issues are meaningless or that God wants humans to protect the earth. Leaving aside the fact that I’m not sure many prominent evangelicals actually hold the first view (and he doesn’t name any who do), James surely doesn’t think he’s accurately conveyed the views of evangelicals.

Both stories quoted the Rev. Jim Ball of the Evangelical Environmental Network. I remembered his name from the What Would Jesus Drive? campaign of a few years ago. During research for my book on the interfaith movement, I found that the idea for the evangelical network came from non-evangelical interfaith environmentalist activists who strategically decided to reach out to the politically powerful group. The What Would Jesus Drive? campaign was run by Fenton Communications, which is also responsible for the Alar apple scare of the 1980s and, more recently, MoveOn.org advertisements. The Evangelical Environmental Network itself, which has many evangelical partners, is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which isn’t really known for funding evangelical efforts.

I haven’t done research on the Evangelical Climate Initiative, but it definitely has ties to the What Would Jesus Drive? campaign run by Fenton Communications. Hopefully some reporters covering this story will not just parrot the press releases being issued and will look deeper into the genesis of this campaign. And no matter what they find, following the money is always a good idea.

Update: Through a completely egregious error on my part, for which I have nothing but excuses, I missed the fact that Goodstein does mention the funding:

The Evangelical Climate Initiative, at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars, is being supported by individuals and foundations, including the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Hewlett Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation.

The initiative is one indication of a growing urgency about climate change among religious groups, said Paul Gorman, executive director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, a clearinghouse in Amherst, Mass., for environmental initiatives by religious groups.

Interfaith climate campaigns in 15 states are pressing for regional standards to reduce greenhouse gases, Mr. Gorman said. Jewish, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox leaders also have campaigns under way.

My earlier mention of Pew was with regard to the Evangelical Environmental Network. So it would be interesting to see how, exactly, the two groups are related. It would also be interesting to see what, if any, ties there are to the Tides Foundation and Fenton Communications. Precisely who is orchestrating this interfaith campaign?

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A double standard at the BBC and NYT?

ruscha double standard2Andrew Sullivan has been unrelenting in his criticism of The New York Times for calling the Muhammad cartoons “callous and feeble cartoons, cooked up as a provocation by a conservative newspaper exploiting the general Muslim prohibition on images of the Prophet Muhammad to score cheap points about freedom of expression.”

Sullivan slams NYT editors for being cowards on this issue and calls them out for publishing images of the Virgin Mary constructed out of dung — but not the Danish cartoons.

An underlying theme in this issue — as pointed out by National Public Radio’s Bob Garfield — is the great lengths that Western European media have been sympathetic and accommodating to Muslims around the world and how they’ve basically lost patience with Islam for reacting this way.

Exactly how accommodating has the press been in Europe?

Sullivan points to a letter (via Andrew Stuttaford at National Review‘s The Corner) in the Times from Will Wyatt, former BBC chief executive, who addresses the inconsistency between the BBC’s history of Islam and Christianity. Here’s what Wyatt had to say:

Sir, I applaud the BBC’s news treatment of the Danish cartoons (report, Feb 4). On its website, however, the cultural cringe is evident and double standards obtain. In its history of Islam we read: “One night in 610 he (Muhammad) was meditating in a cave on the mountain when he was visited by the angel Jibreel who ordered him to “recite” … words which he came to understand were the words of God.” This is written as fact, no “it is said” or “Muhammad reported”. Whenever Muhammad’s name is mentioned the BBC adds “Peace be upon him”, as if the corporation itself were Muslim.

How different, and how much more accurate, when we turn to Christianity. Here, Jesus’ birth “is believed by Christians to be the fulfilment of prophesies in the Jewish Old Testament”; Jesus “claimed that he spoke with the authority of God”; accounts of his resurrection appearances were “put about by his believers”.

Go judge for yourself. Here is a link to the BBC’s history of Muhammad and here is a link to the BBC’s history of Christianity. Since when does a secular news organization follow the name of Muhammad with (peace be upon him), or even worse, the acronym (pbuh).

I’ve been wondering why fewer American publications have chosen to publish the cartoons, if simply for their news value. Offending someone certainly has not held them back from publishing gruesome and offensive photos in the past (think Sept. 11 photos or the aforementioned pieces of “art”). I chose not to publish the cartoons on my own blog for reasons of fear (sad, I know), and it’s comforting for me to know that I was not the only one who held back for such reasons. Here’s what The Phoenix had to say:

There are three reasons not to publish the Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed with his turban styled as a bomb and the other images that have sparked violent protests and deaths throughout Europe, the Middle East, West Asia, and Indonesia:

1) Out of fear of retaliation from the international brotherhood of radical and bloodthirsty Islamists who seek to impose their will on those who do not believe as they do. This is, frankly, our primary reason for not publishing any of the images in question. Simply stated, we are being terrorized, and as deeply as we believe in the principles of free speech and a free press, we could not in good conscience place the men and women who work at the Phoenix and its related companies in physical jeopardy. As we feel forced, literally, to bend to maniacal pressure, this may be the darkest moment in our 40-year publishing history.

Compare that explanation with what NPR’s Ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin had to say (hint: “balance considerations of taste”). Are American media organizations running scared?

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Coming soon to The New York Times

Darwin1Here is a story that I predict will draw quite a bit of coverage. At least, I hope it will.

It seems that 412 congregations in 49 states have decided to observe “Evolution Sunday.” You can click here to see a letter for the clergy who are leading the charge.

Most of these congregations are members of oldline Protestant church denominations, such as the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Unitarian Universalist Association, the Episcopal Church, etc. etc. However, there also are some Roman Catholic parishes in the list and a Baptist church or two, including one in Georgia.

Now, as most GetReligion readers have noticed, I have stated several times that I have many close friends who are at the heart of the whole science and free speech debates in academia. You all know that and you know that I am interested in seeing the press carry a wide range of stories about these debates.

Three cheers for diversity and balance. This is why I think that this event could be a wonderful chance to let progressive people in modern and postmodern pulpits and pews explain what they believe and why they believe it.

It will be interesting to see how many of them say that they believe, when push comes to shove, that God has guided the process of evolution. This, of course, raises questions about whether they believe that mankind is the result of a random and unguided process that did not have, well, us in mind (or words to that effect). In other words, it will be interesting to see how many of these believers believe in Darwinian orthodoxy, as defined in almost all academic and legal settings.

A Google search for “Evolution Sunday” does not yield much at this point. Please keep us posted if you see any worthwhile coverage.

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Lex orandi, lex credendi

cinemaA dear friend of mine got married a few weeks ago in a service at a traditional Episcopal sanctuary. She’s not Episcopalian but she didn’t want to get married at her own church. That’s because her congregation meets for worship in a movie theater.

Los Angeles Times reporter David Haldane writes a piece about such churches that meet in movie theaters:

We’d be lost without the screen,” said [Pastor Wes] Beavis, the 43-year-old leader of Destiny People Christian Church, which holds services at the theaters each week. The screen, he said, plays a central spiritual role. “The great thing about it is that it’s huge. We fill it with my messages, PowerPoint presentations, words to songs and great images of nature.”

The 5-year-old, 150-member congregation is among a growing number nationwide offering salvation Sunday mornings where popcorn is the usual fare. The trend is especially pronounced in Southern California, experts say, combining, as it does, two popular activities: going to movies and attending church.

The piece is fine, in the sense that it’s an interesting bit of reporting on a growing phenomenon. Haldane ticks off the cost-savings and convenience of a once-a-week rental of the local multiplex over the construction or rental of a sanctuary, for instance. However, I was struck by the complete lack of critical analysis. Churches aren’t built the way they are as a matter of tradition, although that plays a part. The way one constructs a church — location of the baptismal font; the size of the altar; the stained glass, icons and permanent art — all indicate the theology of the congregation.

Haldane quotes the pastor of one of the movie theater churches saying the theater screen plays a central spiritual role, which is most certainly true. Unfortunately, he didn’t explore what that spiritual role is and whether it has theological benefits and costs.

A reporter with knowledge of the various rites performed in sanctuaries would immediately have thought to ask what happens when a parishioner dies. Where and when is the funeral? How and where, exactly, are baptisms performed? What happens when a parishioner wants to get married on a Saturday afternoon during the matinee?

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