Three cheers for consistency

AntiBushDemonstratorsA group best known for its defense of the free-speech rights of traditional religious believers has decided — acting in a totally consistent manner — to get involved in the defense of a protestor for a case that most would consider “on the left,” in terms of politics. The group to which I am referring is the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

The problem with discussing the MSM coverage of this case is that I cannot find any.

Thus, here is the opening of its press release on the matter.

Hampton University in Virginia has decided not to expel at least five of seven students for passing out anti-Bush flyers without university approval. …

“While we are relieved that the students were not expelled merely for passing out flyers, the fact that Hampton punished the students at all contradicts its alleged commitment to free speech,” remarked FIRE President David French.

Seven students at the private institution faced trouble with Hampton administrators after November 2, when they and others spent about half an hour in Hampton’s student center passing out flyers on issues including Hurricane Katrina, the Sudan and the Iraq war.

Maybe the news reports are out there, but I can’t find anything to read about this fascinating case. Am I missing something somewhere?

And, not to serve as this group’s press aide, but it seems that it just won another victory in a case that kind of blurs the lines between left and right. This time around, FIRE was fighting on behalf of the free-speech rights of a Muslim who spoke out against homosexuality. Once again, I am forced to turn to the press release for information.

A Muslim student employee at William Paterson University (WPU) in New Jersey has finally been cleared of baseless sexual harassment charges. With the help of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Jihad Daniel forced the public university to officially revoke the punishment it inflicted on him after he expressed his religious opinion of homosexuality in a private e-mail to a professor.

Alas, I cannot find coverage of this case in mainstream media, even through it contains hooks linked to a number of highly controversial issues.

Doesn’t anyone out there in a newsroom or two care about the free-speech rights of minority groups and anti-war protestors? Or is there some other dynamic at work here?

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Can anyone out there speak “British”?

thumb dcameron05 1Is there anyone out there in GetReligionLand who speaks the English dialect called “British” well enough to help me break the code in the following story by John Daniszewski (God bless you) of the Los Angeles Times? It concerns the rise of the ever-so-slightly modish David Cameron as the new leader of the Tory Party at the ripe old age of 39, which is even younger than a TV cyberanchor here in the USA.

Please understand that I know all about the rising tide of secularization in modern Great Britain and I know that social issues do not play much of a role over there.

Please understand that I also know that the Brits are horrified by what many consider the rise of the insane theocrats on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Nevertheless, I sense some cultural issues lurking between the lines of this part of the story:

With British voters having given the Labor Party’s Tony Blair a third term as prime minister in May, Cameron was expected to pledge to put the Conservatives back in touch with ordinary people — just as the last three party chairmen have promised. …

The Conservative Party has been dogged by the perception that it is a declining club for white, elderly, hunt-riding, middle-class, rural and suburban southern Englanders who belong to the Church of England. (Cameron noted Tuesday that women are “scandalously underrepresented” in the party and pledged to correct that.)

Can anyone out there help me with the translation?

You see, I tend to think of the Church of England as a force on the left side of the cultural divide and, sorry, but I get that impression by reading British newspapers as well as following the political and doctrinal exploits of the Episcopal Church here in America and the Anglican Church of Canada. And what does the phrase “back in touch with ordinary people” mean in England, as opposed to here in America? Does that have religious or secular overtones in politics over there? And, if you read on, you will also notice that Cameron is using “compassionate conservatism” lingo and we all know where that came from.

Input. Need Input.

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Tell the story

suicide bomber -- femaleShe was raised as Catholic and she died as what could be the first European Muslim suicide bomber. So starts the story, as written in The New York Times, that is so thick with religious issues that go deep into history, you could start writing a intriguing book tomorrow on the situation.

Here’s how it all starts:

MONCEAU-SUR-SAMBRE, Belgium, Dec. 5 — Muriel Degauque, believed to be the first European Muslim woman to stage a suicide attack, started out life as a good Roman Catholic girl in this coal mining corner of Belgium known as the black country. She ended it in a grisly blast deep inside Iraq last month.

Ms. Degauque, 38, detonated her explosive vest amid an American military patrol in the town of Baquba on Nov. 9, wounding one American soldier, according to an account received from the State Department and given to the Federal Police in Belgium.

Her unlikely journey into militant Islam stunned Europe and for many people was an incomprehensible aberration, a lost soul led astray. But her story supports fears among many law enforcement officials and academics that converts to Europe’s fastest-growing religion could bring with them a disturbing new aspect in the war on terror: Caucasian women committed to one of the world’s deadliest causes.

And the plot thickens as we find out that European women that marry Muslim men are one the largest segment of conversions on the continent, though many are in name only, experts say. Apparently Muriel Degauque was not one of them so let the speculation begin:

Most of those in the conservative ranks are motivated by spiritual quests or are attracted to what they regard as an exotic culture.

But for some, conversion is a political act, not unlike the women who joined the ranks of South American Marxist rebels in the 1960′s and 1970′s.

“They are people rebelling against a society in which they feel they don’t belong,” said Alain Grignard, a senior official in the antiterrorism division of the Belgian Police. “They are people searching through a religion like Islam for a sense of solidarity.”

He said there were many such women married to the first wave of Europe’s militant Islamists a decade ago, and some of them followed their husbands to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. But while they supported their husbands’ militancy, he said, they never acted themselves. “This was the first,” said Mr. Grignard, “and it’s clear there could be others.”

Unfortunately I am not an expert in this, and I doubt I will ever be an expert, but I would like to be educated in the matter. Female suicide bombers have been around since a Syrian nationalist blew up her vehicle killing two soldiers in 1985 and most documented incidents have occurred by Muslims in the Middle East. But this incident is special as it is a European Catholic-turned-Muslim that is the bomber and that marks a monumental step in Europe’s transformation.

The New York Times should be a good place to start when it comes to coverage of this story, but watch other papers, like The Independent and the Christian Science Monitor, which are the only organizations at this point to have published something of their own on this story.

The NYT magazine piece Sunday on female Muslims in Europe is a solid piece of journalism that gives plenty of historical context that relates in several ways to this suicide bomber story. Reporters must tell this story of the suicide bombers, from all angles and they must get it right because if they don’t, we will have lost something.

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On the virtue of skepticism

Oh to be a reporter in Kansas these days. In early November, the Board of Education there modified state science standards to include critiques of evolutionary theory. Later in the month, a controversial Kansas University professor — the chair of the religious studies department, no less — announced he would offer a class that attacked intelligent design theory.

Only problem is, he forgot to keep a lid on his motivations for the class. Here’s how Lawrence Journal-World’s Sophia Maines covered it:

In a recent message on a Yahoo listserv — a venue where groups of people post questions and comments on a particular topic — Paul Mirecki, chairman of KU’s department of religious studies, described his upcoming course “Special Topics in Religion: Intelligent Design, Creationisms and other Religious Mythologies.”

“The fundies want it all taught in a science class, but this will be a nice slap in their big fat face by teaching it as a religious studies class under the category ‘mythology,’” Mirecki wrote.

He signed the note “Doing my part (to upset) the religious right, Evil Dr. P.”

Whoopsie! So much for encouraging intellectual inquiry and civil discussion. Ms. Maines’ piece is good but I wonder why she didn’t tell readers the name of the list-serv: Society of Open-Minded Atheists and Agnostics at the University of Kansas. Nevertheless, the Lawrence Journal-World did do a great job of posting page after page of Mirecki’s comments(.pdf) on their website for readers to evaluate.

In any case, tons of people flipped out about the comments. He apologized, his critics weren’t appeased and the university was forced to cancel the class last Thursday. And that was the end of the firestorm . . . until today. Lawrence-area media are giving heavy coverage to the latest development: Mirecki said he was driving on a rural road yesterday morning, thinking, and ended up getting beaten up by . . . Creationists. He drove himself to the hospital and reported the attack to police.

Eric Weslander, also of the Journal-World, covered Mirecki’s account but also managed to introduce another possible angle:

One of Mirecki’s most vocal critics, conservative activist John Altevogt, said he couldn’t imagine anyone he knows doing such a thing.

“This should be investigated thoroughly, and whoever did this should be punished to the full extent of the law. You don’t beat people for either their faith or their lack thereof,” he said.

But Altevogt said he was skeptical about whether Mirecki’s report was legitimate.

“He (Mirecki) has very little credibility left,” Altevogt said. “The one thing that could save his bacon is to become a martyr of sorts, or to elicit sympathy from being the victim rather than the persecutor.”

When told that some people were questioning the truth of his report, Mirecki fired back.

“The right wing wants blood, period. They’re not going to stop until they see blood. They’re not into anything else,” he said. “Whatever I do, whatever I say, they don’t believe anything because that’s the way they are… I know what happened. I got the hell beat out of me. They can say what they want.”

Far too many stories about politically-motivated attacks on professors make the news twice: first when the attack occurs and later when the attack is revealed to have been self-perpetrated. While a roving band of intelligent designers might very well have attacked Mirecki, Weslander’s approach of gently including a bit of skepticism in the story is a great use of inches.

It’s also a good reminder for reporters to question motivations on all stories. When I was studying economics, the idea that humans have incentives for just about everything was pounded into us, and I’m glad. Reporters should be healthily skeptical and consider the motivations of everyone they cover.

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The tolerant quote of the day

main cap tree borderThe following sort of reminds me of the story about Georgetown University debating the wisdom of removing crucifixes from its classrooms as a sign of that very hip Catholic school’s commitment to diversity. In the midst of the mini-media storm, it was the Muslims on campus who said the whole idea was nuts. In fact, a Muslim chaplain threatened to resign if the school took this step.

Now we have this interesting quotation, from a blunt editorial in the Cincinnati Enquirer defending public officials who take the controversial step of calling a Christmas tree a “Christmas tree” in this troubled age:

Let’s be clear. Christmas is a holiday for Christians, when believers celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus. Calling it what is, is not meant to slight those who don’t believe as Christians do.

Karen Dabdoub, president of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, was right when she told the Enquirer: “Who are we fooling? The Jews don’t put up a tree for Hanukah; the Muslims don’t put up a tree for Ramadan. It doesn’t take away from my celebration of my holiday for other people to celebrate their holiday. I don’t want anybody’s holidays to be watered-down. I think they’re all wonderful.”

Oh my. I think this attitude is called “tolerance” — “civic tolerance” (as opposed to “theological tolerance”), to be precise.

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Moving beyond the North Pole

Most of my friends recall the moment they figured out that Santa Claus wasn’t real. They would joke about the psychological harm the revelation had on their fragile 8-year-old psyches. I never experienced this because for some odd reason my wonderful parents never taught me about him. This matters not at all to me but apparently harmed my mother who now has made up for lost time with a bit of a Santa obsession. Her conception of the jolly old man is based on the Clement Moore version, of course.

My Santa revelation experience occurred later in life when I found out he was real — and important. The Dutch called him Sinterklass, which we Americans morphed into Santa Claus. But the man behind the legend is St. Nicholas, fourth century Bishop of Myra. Born into great wealth, he served God by giving away his inherited fortune and became renowned for his generosity to the poor and needy.

The most famous of many stories told about him is how he saved three girls from a life of prostitution by tossing dowry money through their windows so they could get married. Yet for a man about whom so little is verified, his legend crossed all over the world. Much of Europe (he is Greece’s patron saint) celebrates his feast day today; German children put out their shoes last night and woke to find them filled with candy and toys this morning. (The Orthodox do this too.)

Celebrations also occur today throughout the United States. St. Nicholas is one of the few saints to be recognized and popular in both Eastern and Western Christianity. It’s not uncommon to find Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran or Episcopalian churches named in his honor.

Rather than mapping their seasonal coverage directly onto the retail calendar, complete with the glowing profiles of the Sacred Santa ensconced in his Bishop’s seat at the local sanctuary mall, reporters might do well to look at how locals are marking St. Nicholas’ day. Some reporters already managed this in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington.

David Crumm, the Detroit Free Press religion writer, had a great local angle on the story with his profile of a woman who promotes the celebration of St. Nicholas.

Since the Web site was launched in 2002, Carol Myers’ nonprofit promotion of St. Nicholas has become her year-round job. Every day, she adds to the vast collection of educational materials, history and festive holiday ideas at www.stnicholascenter.org, because she is convinced there’s a growing interest in the religious traditions of Christmas. She argues that there’s far more to this season than the elves, red-nosed reindeer and talking snowmen that often overshadow the faith.

Myers’ biggest effort is promoting St. Nicholas’ feast day on Tuesday, when millions of Christians celebrate the 4th-Century saint, who was born in what is now Turkey and was famous for helping the poor.

“I’m not anti-Santa,” Myers said this week. “But, I do want people to know that this figure is based on a real person with a deep faith in God and compassion for people in need. At this time of year, I want people to focus more on compassion and less on consumption.”

On a related note, the Philadelphia Inquirer runs a feature called the Interfaith Calendar. It posts dates of import to the world’s religions. Here’s how it read for today (emphasis mine):

Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Eastern Orthodox (New Calendar), Byzantine Rite Catholic
Feast of St. Nicholas, legendary fourth-century archbishop of Myra. He is known in the East as the “Wonderworker” and as patron of the Byzantine Rite faithful. He is also the patron of children, scholars and merchants and one of the ancestors of Santa Claus. Traditionally, this was the first of the Christmas season’s gift-giving days.

Argh! How many times must we remind reporters that corporations and the Christian church use different calendars? The Christmas season for the former begins in, what, September? For the Christians, it begins on, well, Christmas. We’re still in Advent, people.

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How woman can shape the story in Europe

women's studiesAs a college student, I was often confused and frustrated that my university offered classes on women’s studies. I did not understand what the big deal was. But after a time, I learned that unique perspectives can be gained through a study of the history of women, a sociological study of women at a certain time and place or a study of female poets in the late 1800s. Such studies can lead to misperceptions if they are not properly balanced, but overall the knowledge contributed to furthering my education of how the world got to where it is now.

Such is the case with this New York Times Magazine article on female German Muslims and the challenges they face. Written by Peter Schneider, a writer based in Berlin, it pre-empts what could be a huge story in a matter of years, or even months, giving readers a roadmap of the territory, which is something magazines and their writers tend to excel. It is a frightening piece overall, that is at sometimes shocking.

Here’s the territory on which Schneider guides us:

Heavily veiled women wearing long coats even in summer are becoming an increasingly familiar sight in German Muslim neighborhoods. According to Necla Kelek’s research, they are mostly under-age girls who have been bought — often for a handsome payment — in the Turkish heartland villages of Anatolia by mothers whose sons in Germany are ready to marry. The girls are then flown to Germany, and “with every new imported bride,” Kelek says, “the parallel society grows.” Meanwhile, Ates summarizes, “Turkish men who wish to marry and live by Shariah can do so with far less impediment in Berlin than in Istanbul.”

Before the murder of Hatun Surucu there were enough warnings to engage the Germans in a debate about the parallel society growing in their midst. There have been 49 known “honor crimes,” most involving female victims, during the past nine years — 16 in Berlin alone. Such crimes are reported in the “miscellaneous” column along with other family tragedies and given a five-line treatment. Indeed, it’s possible that the murder of Hatun Surucu never would have made the headlines at all but for another piece of news that stirred up the press. Just a few hundred yards from where Surucu was killed, at the Thomas Morus High School, three Muslim students soon openly declared their approval of the murder. Shortly before that, the same students had bullied a fellow pupil because her clothing was “not in keeping with the religious regulations.” Volker Steffens, the school’s director, decided to make the matter public in a letter to students, parents and teachers. More than anything else, it was the students’ open praise of the murder that made the crime against Hatun Surucu the talk of Berlin and soon of all Germany.

In a skillful way, Schneider ties this article into the issue of terrorism and national identity that is facing European countries. Terrorist attacks in first Spain, then the London bombings and now riots in France are causing European governments to re-think their immigration policies, their police powers and even their own identities as countries, as Schneider explains:

Germans’ confidence that their nation can continue as it had been – integrating immigrants without an integration policy, remaining true to the traditional German identity, preserving the reassuring post-1945 chronology of advancing modernism – is on the line. It turns out that in the heart of German cities a society is growing up that turns modernity on its head. …

The German-Turkish author Necla Kelek sums it up this way in “The Foreign Bride”: “The guest workers turned into Turks, and the Turks turned into Muslims.”

Schneider ties it all together in this paragraph with a striking condemnation of Islam and how it must change if it is to integrate with the Western world:

Politicians and religious scholars of all faiths are right in pointing out that there are many varieties of Islam, that Islamism and Islam should not be confused, that there is no line in the Koran that would justify murder. But the assertion that radical Islamic fundamentalism and Islam have nothing to do with each other is like asserting that there was no link between Stalinism and Communism. The fact is that disregard for women’s rights — especially the right to sexual self-determination — is an integral component of almost all Islamic societies, including those in the West. Unless this issue is solved, with a corresponding reform of Islam as practiced in the West, there will never be a successful acculturation.

Can this integration happen? Coverage of this story — the eventual collision between Islam and Western societies in Europe — has been spotty here in the United States. The coverage is certainly different in Europe, but I’m not talking about major front-page take-outs in the Economist or Le Monde. I’m talking about the everyday stories that engrain an issue into a community’s consciousness (check out some examples here, here and here). If any GetReligion readers out there know of some good ones, please pass them on to us.

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Put Christmas back in the church

manager emptyThis Associated Press report is one of those “believe it or not” stories that you just have to write straight and let the readers shake their head.

Or is it just me that thinks this way, since I am one of those strange liturgical calendar kind of guys?

LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Central Kentucky’s largest church will be dark on Christmas Day, a decision drawing some criticism among the faithful.

Southland Christian Church near Lexington is joining several evangelical megachurches across the country in canceling services for the holiday, which this year falls on a Sunday. Officials at the church, where about 7,000 people worship each week, said the move is designed to allow staff members and volunteers to spend the holiday with their families.

The megachurches, which rank among the largest congregations in America, will hold multiple Christmas Eve services instead. Among the churches closed on Christmas Day are Willow Creek Community Church, the Chicago area’s largest congregation; Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Mich.; North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Ga.; and Fellowship Church near Dallas.

The move is drawing mixed reviews. Critics say it’s the day of the week — not the day of the year — that’s sacred. To them, closing the doors of the church on the Lord’s Day is unthinkable.

Some churches are scaling down their Sunday schedule on Christmas. Louisville’s Southeast Christian Church, where 18,000 people worship each weekend, is scheduled to hold one service on Christmas in the fellowship hall.

You know, I think Easter falls on Sunday as well and that can be inconvenient, too.

But, seriously, this is a wonderful example of a news story that is the mirror image of the Christmas Wars story that some of you are so tired of, it seems. (Thanks for the link, Michael.) Actually, I remain interested in the “Merry Christmas” speech battles because, like Ms. Mollie, I am interested in anything that has to do with the blurring of public speech about religion. I am interested in what happens when people call out the lawyers to settle religious issues.

But the story that interests me just as much or more is the amazing fade out of Christmas in real, live, big-sign-on-the-lawn CHURCHES. It seems that the actual traditions of Christmas are being rolled over by The Commercialized Holidays Steamroller — and the mall calendar that goes with it — inside the doors of actual churches.

So I wish the Associated Press or one of the local newspapers touched by this trend had gone a step or two further and let us know what the leaders of these megachurches were actually thinking when they made this decision.

Do Christmas rites matter? Why not? Put Christ in Christmas? How about put Christmas back in the Church? Having the Feast of the Nativity fall on a Sunday morning would seem, to me, to be a chance to do more with this holy day — the first day of the 12-day Christmas season — rather than less.

If anyone sees a report of a Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran or Eastern Orthodox congregation canceling Christmas morning services or scaling them back, please let me know.

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