NYTimes’ riveting portrait of a Christian in Afghanistan

The New York Times’ amazing profile of a Christian convert in Afghanistan is a must-read piece of journalism, generating much attention — and deservedly so — on social media:

KABUL, Afghanistan — In a dank basement on the outskirts of Kabul, Josef read his worn blue Bible by the light of a propane lantern, as he had done for weeks since he fled from his family in Pakistan.

His few worldly possessions sat nearby in the 10-by-10-foot room of stone and crumbling brown earth. He keeps a wooden cross with a passage from the Sermon on the Mount written on it, a carton of Esse cigarettes, and a thin plastic folder containing records of his conversion to Christianity.

The documents are the reason he is hiding for his life. On paper, Afghan law protects freedom of religion, but the reality here and in some other Muslim countries is that renouncing Islam is a capital offense.

Josef’s brother-in-law Ibrahim arrived in Kabul recently, leaving behind his family and business in Pakistan, to hunt down the apostate and kill him. Reached by telephone, Ibrahim, who uses only one name, offered a reporter for The New York Times $20,000 to tell him where Josef was hiding.

“If I find him, once we are done with him, I will kill his son as well, because his son is a bastard,” Ibrahim said, referring to Josef’s 3-year-old child. “He is not from a Muslim father.”

For Josef, 32, who asked to be identified only by his Christian name to protect his wife and young child, the path to Christianity was only one segment on a much longer journey, a year of wandering that took him through Turkey, Greece, Italy and Germany, seeking refuge from Afghanistan’s violence.

As you may recall, GetReligion just recently featured this headline:

The story on the Afghanistan convert prompted this email from a reader:

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Bowe Bergdahl: Calvinist, Buddhist, Muslim seeker?

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While most of the DC Beltway journalists do that dance that they do (Will the vaguely legal Taliban prisoner swap hurt Democrats in 2014 elections?!), there are some interesting religion-beat questions hiding between the lines in the story of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

As a jumping-off point, consider the following rather bizarre passage in this New York Post report:

As a teen, the home-schooled son of Calvinists took up ballet — recruited to be a “lifter” by “a beautiful local girl,” Rolling Stone reported, “the guy who holds the girl aloft in a ballet sequence.” The strategy worked: Bergdahl — who also began dabbling in Budd­hism and tarot card reading — soon moved in with the woman.

A BBC explainer has some of that information, but with a few more specifics:

Sgt Bergdahl was born to the couple on 28 March 1986 in Idaho, where his father worked in construction. He and his younger sister, Sky, were home schooled by their devout Calvinist parents, instructed in religion and morality.

Sgt Bergdahl was taught to shoot a rifle and ride horses by age five, and reportedly grew interested in adventure tales.
At age 16, he became interested in fencing and ballet, and moved in with the family of a local girl studying dance who instructed him in Buddhism and Tarot.

It appears to me that these media sources were paraphrasing from some earlier document or story, which I have not been able to find yet. Note, for example, the difference — in the ballet, Buddhism and tarot card reference — between Bergdahl “moving in with the woman” and, at age 16, his move to live “with the family of a local girl.” A vague difference, but important from a moral perspective.

This is especially true in light of that “devout” attachment to the “Calvinist” label.

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Was Kabul shooting over religion? Shouldn’t someone ask?

Q: What question has no answer? A: The one you don’t ask.

In Thursday’s shooting of several people at a Christian hospital in Kabul, the question would be: Could it have anything to do with their religion?

True, the answer doesn’t rest neatly on the surface. The shooter — horrifically, a policeman assigned to guard the hospital — didn’t shout the usual “Alahu Akbar” before gunning down Dr. Jerry Umanos and two visitors at CURE International Hospital. Nor have any organizations like the Taliban claimed responsibility.

So reporters need to look for clues. And there are a few scattered throughout news stories on the atrocity — clues that, thus far, don’t seem to have drawn journalistic curiosity.

The reports do have some positives, especially from a GetReligion standpoint. Most acknowledge the Christian nature of the hospital, its workers, and the Pennsylvania-based agency that runs it. The stories bring out the good done by the medical missionaries in Afghanistan. And they quote Jan Schuitema, the doctor’s widow, on her grief laced with idealism.

An example from CBS News:

“We don’t hold any ill will towards Afghanistan in general or even the gunman who did this,” she said speaking outside the family’s home in Chicago Thursday, her son, Ben Umanos, by her side. “We don’t know what his history is.”

She said that Umanos went to Afghanistan because he saw the need there, she said.

“Our family and friends have suffered a great loss and our hearts are aching,” she said. “While our hearts are aching for our loss, we’re also aching for the loss of the other families as well as the loss and the multiple losses that the Afghan people have experienced.”

Such eloquent quotes should have set reporters’ cliched “nose for news” tingling. But no, we get other cliches — “foreign,” “foreigners,” “Westerners” — that skirt religious considerations. And we get them with numbing repetition.

* “The shooting at Cure International Hospital in western Kabul was the latest attack on foreign civilians in the Afghan capital this year,” says CBS News.

* The latest in a string of attacks against Western civilians here,” the  New York Times said.

* “The shooting at Cure International Hospital in western Kabul was the latest in a string of deadly attacks on foreign civilians in the Afghan capital this year,” reports the New York Daily News.

* “Over the past three months, as Afghanistan is in the midst of electing a new president, 20 foreigners have been killed in separate attacks targeting civilians,” according to an NPR correspondent. “The attacks have occurred at a popular restaurant, an upscale hotel and other venues where foreigners congregate.”

The Los Angeles Times dipped into a think-tanker’s writings about civilians:

“They can be seen as the soft underbelly of the intervention, an easy way to hit Western governments rather than trying to fight well-armed NATO forces, and potentially a highly effective way of driving foreign aid and influence out of Afghanistan,” Kate Clark, country director for the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a Kabul-based research organization, wrote recently.

One quote, two cliches.

Yes, other “foreigners” have been attacked recently. Just since March, four journalists have been shot. But the hospital shooting poses extra questions.

What do Islamist militants reportedly hate about “Western” values, even in secular stories? The welfare of women, for one. Some current articles highlight topics like women in sports, education, law enforcement and Afghanistan’s parliament. And CNN explores the kind of influence that Afghan women could wield on the upcoming national election.

Afghan children, too, take a fair amount of attention in news articles. The stories look sympathetically at child labor, marriage, recreation programs, and child casualties in the ongoing war.

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To use or not to use: Journalists and the word ‘Islam’

Do you ever get the impression, when reading mainstream news stories, that some editors have created formal policies describing when reporters who cover terrorism stories can or cannot mention the words “Islam” or “Muslim”?

I understand what these journalists are trying to do. Their goal, in the post 9/11 world, is to make sure that news consumers understand that there is no ironclad, automatic connection between Islam and the actions of some Muslims who commit acts of violence and terror in the name of their religion.

The problem is that trying to hide the religion ghosts in these stories often results in tone-deaf coverage that ignores the obvious. It’s like the editors are saying, “We know that you know what we are saying here, but we don’t want to say it and, besides, you know the facts so just read the facts into the story and everyone will feel better in the long run.”

Take, for example, this Washington Post story about the fear that stalks students at the American University of Afghanistan — especially female students — as the day nears when U.S. troops retreat and the Taliban almost certainly return to power.

What is the cause of this logical fear? Right up front, readers learn:

KABUL – It is easy to drive past the American University of Afghanistan, barricaded by blast walls and guard towers. There is no sign, no American flag, no emblem.

But those who slip through its nondescript door enter a tiny corner of this country that is unique, wondrous and heavily subsidized by U.S. taxpayers. Young men and women mingle freely, in contravention of the country’s conservative social norms. Some female students walk around unveiled, a break with custom that is unthinkable elsewhere in the country.

This long A1 news feature, literally, never mentions the words “Islam” or “Muslim.” Apparently there are scary generic “conservatives” in this blood-soaked land and then generic — what? — enlightened “progressives” or “secularists”?

Lost in the fog is the real issue addressed in the story, which is that millions of Muslims in Afghanistan hate what is happening inside the doors of this institution of higher learning and millions of other Muslims embrace the alternative worldview taught in these classrooms. What we have here is a clash between two different approaches to one of the world’s most powerful and important faith traditions and it’s hard to write about that reality without talking about the doctrines and traditions of Islam. It helps to talk about the obvious.

With that reality in mind, click here and read an early New York Times report about the latest bloodbath in the heavily Muslim northern half of Nigeria.

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Major Nidal Hasan talks about faith, like it or not

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Some may disagree, but I think we have reached the point where we can say that journalists in the mainstream press are going to have trouble keeping the religion angle out of the coverage of the Fort Hood trial of U.S. Army psychiatrist Major Nidal Hasan.

It will be hard to stay faith-free, now that Hasan wants to be granted the death penalty — to die the death of a martyr. He also has offered his apologies that he didn’t do a better job of representing his holy cause during his act of what the White House at one point called “workplace violence.”

Hasan, of course, has stated that his attack on his Army colleagues at Fort Hood was an act to protect other Muslims, an act carried out after his own solitary preparations to act on what he believed were his duties as a Muslim. It’s crucial to stress the degree to which he stood apart from other Muslims, other than some contacts on the Internet.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to talk about his motives without getting into the religious details of the life of this troubled believer, especially since Hasan is acting as his own lawyer and spokesperson.

But Reuters, among others, is giving it a try. Here’s a key chunk of one report from the courtroom:

Hasan, who opened fire on unarmed soldiers days before he was to be deployed to Afghanistan, also told the jury he switched sides in what he called America’s war on Islam, saying, “I was on the wrong side.” He has previously said he was protecting fellow Muslims from imminent threat.

He spoke quietly from his wheelchair, taking off a green knit cap when the court was in session.

The standby defense team wants to avoid being forced by the court to help Hasan achieve the death penalty, calling such a goal “repugnant to defense counsel and contrary to what our professional obligations are.”

At this point, it would really help to explain to readers why Hasan wants to die, while the representatives of the military want him to live. Why do I think that?

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