Latest box scores from France: USA 67 — Islam 19

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Voters were no longer the subjects of politics, democratic citizens deciding the fate of their country. They were objects to be counted, studied, and counted again. The proliferation of polls had allowed almost any newspaper or televisions station in the nation to measure the feelings of any population. Measurement, not democratic debate, was becoming the stuff of American politics.

– E.J. Dionne “The Illusion of Technique” in Media Polls in American Politics (1992)

The wire service AFP reports that a poll published at the end of June finds the French have a pretty high opinion of the United States, but they don’t like immigrants or Islam. The headline in the French daily Midi Libre states: “Sondage : la “famille” plébiscitée, “immigrés” et “islam” massivement rejetés” (Poll: Acclaim for the “Family”, “Immigrants” and “Islam” massively rejected.”

Those cheese eating surrender monkeys really like us, they really like us (to mix Simpsons and Sally Fields metaphors). But how is this news?

A survey carried out in late June by the CSA polling agency for Atlantico (a French news site akin to the Daily Beast or Huffington Post) measured likes and dislikes on a scale of very positive, somewhat positive, somewhat negative, very negative. Phrases like family, liberty, equality and tradition received high marks while the US was viewed with higher regard than the EU.

Les Etats-Unis évoquent quelque chose de positif pour 67 % des sondés, soit 14 points de plus que l’Union européenne (53 % positif)

Those phrases that registered the highest negative responses were Islam, immigrants, globalization and trade unions. While 67 percent of those surveyed had a positive view of America, only 19 percent had a positive view of Islam. AFP reports that Islam was the sole religion included in the good/bad survey.

Les mots recueillant le plus de désapprobation sont “islam” à 81 % (dont 38 % “assez négatif” et 43 % “très négatif”), “immigrés” à 69 % (41+28) suivis de “mondialisation” à 63 % (44+19) et “syndicats” à 61 % (40+21). Aucune autre religion n’est soumise aux sondés, ni la notion de religion en général.

Which leads to the question, what value does this have as news? What is the value of reporting on polls? And, how do you report on polls?

In the essay cited at the top of this story, the Washington Post‘s E.J. Dionne stated it is now common for reporters to question candidates about their poll numbers rather than their policies. Issues do not matter. The race is all important.

Knowledge of popular sentiment is essential for product marketing as well as politics. But without an explanation of the why, the numbers generated in a poll have slight value.

What do the French mean when they say Islam? Is it the religion or the faith’s practitioners that are unpopular? Are immigrants interchangeable with Islam in the French mind? Has this view changed over time? Would a poll that included the Catholic Church generate high negatives if asked at the height of the press frenzy surrounding the clergy abuse scandal? Is the conflict in Syria and the fear of French jihadis returning home spiking the numbers?

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Assad’s Easter and mysterious attacks on Syrian Christians

Why are Syrian Christians being targeted by Islamist rebels?

The Western press cannot agree on a reason, a review of recent reports from Syria reveals.

Can we credit the explanation given by the Wall Street Journal — that the rebels do not trust Christians — as a sufficient explanation? And if so, what does that mean? Are the reports of murders, kidnappings, rapes and overt persecution of Christians in Syria by Islamist rebels motivated by religion, politics, ethnicity, nationalism or is it a lack of trust?

Is the narrative put forward by ITAR-TASS, the Russian wire service and successor to the Soviet TASS News Agency — that the rebels are fanatics bent on turning Syria into a Sunni Muslim state governed by Sharia law — the truth?

On this past Monday, The Wall Street Journal ran a story on its front page under this headline:

Christians of Homs Grieve as Battle for City Intensifies

That story examined the plight of Syria’s Christians. The Journal entered into the report by looking at the death of Dutch Jesuit Father Frans van der Lugt, who had been murdered by members of an Islamist militia in the town of Homs.

The well-written article offers extensive quotes from a second Syrian Roman Catholic priest on this tragedy and notes the late priest’s attempt to bridge the divide between Christians and Muslims. In the 10th paragraph, the story opens up into a wider discussion of the plight of Syria’s Christians and recounts Assad’s Easter visit to a monastery — whether Catholic or some variety of Orthodox, that detail is left out.

While the fighting raged in Homs, President Bashar al-Assad showed up unexpectedly on Sunday in the ancient Christian town of Maaloula, about 30 miles northeast of the capital Damascus. The town was overrun by Islamist rebels in September and reclaimed by the Syrian army a week ago.

State media released video footage of Mr. Assad surveying smashed icons at the town’s damaged monasteries and quoted him as saying that “no amount of terror can ever erase our history and civilization.”

The fight over Maaloula, like the killing of Father Frans, both reflect the quandary of Syria’s Christians. Many feel an affinity for Mr. Assad. His Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, dominates the regime while the majority of Syrians—and opposition supporters—are Sunni Muslims.

Most Christians have become all the more convinced that only the regime can protect them after some rebels came under the sway of Islamic extremists who have attacked and pillaged their communities and churches and targeted priests and nuns.

Some Christians still seek to build bridges with both sides of the civil war, as Father Frans did. But in a landscape where religious and sectarian affiliations often define and shape the struggle, they find themselves under fire from both sides.

Many rebels say they don’t fully trust Christians, while regime supporters see those who reach out to the opposition as naive or traitors. Father Frans found himself in that position, say some close to him

What are we to make of these assertions — “some rebels” are Islamists, or that “many rebels say they don’t fully trust Christians?” Is that a fair, suffient or accurate statement of affairs?

A look at the Financial Times report on President al-Assad’s visit to Maaloula on Easter Sunday makes the argument that the Assad regime is playing up the Islamist angle for his political benefit. But it assumes the persecution is real.

President Bashar al-Assad made an Easter visit on Sunday to a historic Christian town recaptured by the army, in a rare appearance outside the capital that shows his growing confidence in state control around Damascus.

The visit also aims to portray him as the protector of Syrian minorities against a rebel movement led by Islamist forces.

The wire service stories also connect Christian fear of the rebels with support for Assad. AFP’s account closes with the explanation:

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No sex please, we’re Indian


Rape and religion returned to the front pages of India’s newspapers this week after a judge in Delhi stated premarital sex was sinful.

The Hindu reported:

Pre-marital sex is “immoral” and against the “tenets of every religion”, a Delhi court has said while holding that every act of sexual intercourse between two adults on the promise of marriage does not become rape. Additional Sessions Judge Virender Bhat also held that a woman, especially grown up, educated and office-going, who has sexual intercourse on the assurance of marriage does so “at her own peril”.

According to The Times of India, Judge Bhat, who presides over a court set up last year in response to the nationally publicized gang rape and murder wrote:

When a grown up woman subjects herself to sexual intercourse with a friend or colleague on the latter’s promise that he would marry her, she does so at her own peril. She must be taken to understand the consequences of her act and must know that there is no guarantee that the boy would fulfil his promise. He may or may not do so. She must understand that she is engaging in an act which not only is immoral but also against the tenets of every religion. No religion in the world allows pre-marital sex.

The BBC picked up this story as well. It added this explanation for Western audiences in its story “Indian judge says pre-marital sex ‘against religion’”:

Pre-marital sex remains a cultural taboo in India. Last year, a court in Delhi said live-in relationships were immoral and an “infamous product of Western culture”.

But the BBC goes no further in offering context or an explanation (it appears to be a re-write of an AFP story, which may be a mitigating factor). Even though the lede and headline of the BBC story makes explicit reference to religion, this angle is not developed. This criticism does not fall only on the BBC, the Indian press has also shied away from developing the religious angle to this story and has been content to publish only the judge’s obiter ditca.

The press has not remained silent in discussing Judge Bhat’s remarks — but the conversation has been channeled into discussions of gender and women’s rights.

Why the reticence? In a series of GetReligion posts, TMatt has addressed whether the Indian press avoids reporting on the religion and caste angles to a story. In a 2010 post entitled “Life and death (and faith) in India,” he wrote:

… I was struck by one consistent response from the audience, which I would estimate was about 50 percent Hindu, 25 percent Muslim and 25 percent Christian. When asked what was the greatest obstacle to accurate, mainstream coverage of events and trends in religion, the response of one young Muslim male was blunt. When our media cover religion news, he said, more people end up dead. Other students repeated this theme during our meetings.

In other words, when journalists cover religion stories, this only makes the conflicts worse. It is better to either ignore them or to downplay them, masking the nature of the conflicts behind phrases such as “community conflicts” or saying that the events are cased by disputes about “culture” or “Indian values.”

The Indian press as well as the BBC and the wire service reports on Judge Bhat’s decision are continuing this trend of avoiding religion in reporting. An in depth article from the Wall Street Journal last November entitled “Indian Rape Law Offers Desperate Last Resort” sticks to culture only.

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Pod people: Are Christians crazy, or just stupid?

There is little new under the sun when it comes to anti-theistic arguments. Whether it be high minded philosophical critique or rabble rousing anti-clericalism, what was old is now new.

Richard Ostling observed in his Get Religion post “Is the ‘New Atheism’ any different from old atheism?” the content of the criticism remains the same, but the tone has changed. The new atheism has taken a:

[A] tactical lurch toward emotion-laden partisanship and take-no-prisoners rhetoric that might make a Fundamentalist blush.

In this week’s Crossroads, aGet Religion podcast, Issues, Etc., host Todd Wilken and I discussed two posts that touched on anti-theism — but approached the subject from different perspectives: French media disdain for religious believers and a “heretical” Episcopal bishop.

While there have been other non-theistic Episcopal bishops, Jack  Spong of Newark was the media  darling of the ’90s. A fixture on talk shows and op-ed pages in his day, Bishop Spong was the subject of a profile written by the Religion News Service that was released in advance of his next book.

Pressed by Todd whether my dislike of the story was motivated more by my theological disagreements with Bishop Spong than journalistic concerns, I responded that I had no quarrel with Bishop Spong being Bishop Spong. What stoked my ire was the the lack of balance, hard questions of context in the RNS piece. It was more of a People magazine puff piece than journalism.

The second half of the story was a review of my criticism of two different accounts of the trial of four French West Indian immigrants in Paris, accused with kidnapping and torturing a fellow immigrant. They have denied the charge, and in their defense have claimed they were exorcising demons from their victim. The journalistic issue I saw was the discrepancy between AFP’s English and French language stories — released at the same time. The English language version noted the defendants said they were motivated to act by the tenets of their Seventh-day Adventist beliefs. But it included the information the four had been expelled from the church some time ago — and that their actions were contrary to that church’s doctrine and discipline.

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Lost in translation – AFP and the Seventh-day Adventists

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Reports on the exorcism trial currently underway in Paris suburb of Essonne cast an interesting light on the internal workings of the French wire service AFP (Agence France Presse). And these gleanings do not do it credit.

A 7 October 2013 story about four people accused of having tortured a woman while they were performing an exorcism, shows gaps between the English and French versions.  The four accused exorcists claim to be members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and were motivated by that church’s teachings when they performed their exorcism. The English-language version reports the four are ex-Adventists. The French branch of the church also states its beliefs do not support amateur exorcisms.

The French version states the four say they were motivated by their Seventh-day Adventist faith — but omits the disclaimers and distancing by the church.

What can we make of this discrepancy? The English language version of the story as published in the Sydney Morning Herald under the headline “French torture trial opens over ‘exorcism’” opens with:

Four former members of the Seventh Day Adventist Church have gone on trial for torture over a violent, crucifixion-style exorcism carried out on a 19-year-old woman. Three men and a woman are accused of tying up the Cameroonian teenager in the position of Christ on the cross and keeping her bound to a mattress for seven days in the belief that her body had been possessed by the devil.

The four, including the victim’s former boyfriend, were charged with kidnapping, acts of torture and barbarism.

Style note — the proper designation for the church is Seventh-day Adventist, to whit a dash between Seventh and day and a lower case “d” in day.

The French language version as published in Libération under the headline “Ouverture du procès des exorcistes de l’Essonne” has a very different lede.

Le procès de quatre personnes, soupçonnées d’avoir séquestré et torturé une jeune femme pour l’exorciser, s’est ouvert lundi devant la cour d’assises de l’Essonne. Les quatre accusés, qui se réclament d’un mouvement protestant évangélique, comparaissent pour «arrestation, enlèvement et séquestration avec actes de torture ou de barbarie». Ils encourent la prison à perpétuité.

The trial of four people suspected of having kidnapped and tortured a young woman in order to perform an exorcism opened Monday at the Assize Court of Essonne.The four defendants, who claim to be part of an evangelical Protestant movement, have been charged to “false imprisonment, kidnapping with torture or barbarism.”< They face life in prison.

In the English language version the four are identified as being immigrants from the French Caribbean who are “former” members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. And AFP reports the French branch of the church states the four have nothing to do with them.

The church says the people involved in the case were all expelled a year before the alleged attack and has stressed that exorcism of this kind cannot be justified by any of its teachings.

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AFP gives Maalula its due

It was my intention today to look at religion news coverage of the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. And I hope to still do that. But I didn’t come across anything particularly winsome or substantial. I’m sure there must be some good (or bad!) stuff out there. Please do pass it along.

During my search, I came across a story that I do want to commend. Mostly for just being written.

This weekend I met someone who had journeyed to Maalula and had experienced great joy there. He was telling a group of us about encountering an icon in the deepest reaches of a church there. As he told the story, someone said that they thought Maalula had been taken by Syrian rebel forces that day. Reports coming out of Maalula are horrible. Absolutely horrible. And AFP has one that begins:

Jihadists who overran Syria’s ancient Christian town of Maalula last week forced at least one person to convert to Islam at gunpoint and executed another one, residents said Tuesday.

“They arrived in our town at dawn on Wednesday and shouted ‘We are from the Al-Nusra Front and have come to make lives miserable for the Crusaders,” an Islamist term for Christians, said a still frightened woman who identified herself as Marie.

She spoke to AFP in Damascus, where she was attending the burial with hundreds of others of three Christians from Maalula killed in last week’s fighting, the long line of mourners led by a brass band playing dirges.

“Maalula is the wound of Christ,” mourners chanted as they marched through the narrow streets of the capital’s ancient Christian quarter, their voices nearly drowned out by the rattle of automatic gunfire in honour of the dead.

There was an irony in that, as the assault on Maalula came only a couple of weeks before a major feast, the Exaltation of the Cross.

With a caveat that we could do without the Alanis Morissette-style use of “irony,” a few thoughts. First, thank you for covering and featuring this prominently. I am shocked at how little news editors realize these stories are of interest and significance to many global readers. Also, thank you for the sourcing. Was someone forcibly converted at threat of being shot? Well, it’s unlikely that any reporter could say for sure. It’s appropriate to source it to “residents,” although I would like reporters to attempt to confirm the report as much as possible. We don’t get a name of the victim but we do get eyewitness accounts.

The story goes on to discuss the significance of Maalula to Christianity. It’s one of the most renowned Christian towns in Syria. Its inhabitants speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus. The story isn’t just about religion. We learn a little bit about why rebels find it strategically important.

We hear from a man who returned to Syria from the United States, where he’d run a restaurant in Washington State for 42 years. He says the worst part of what happened to Maalula was the reaction from Muslim neighbors who greeted the rebels. That is a powerful aspect to have in the story but, of course, it would be much better to hear from those same Muslim neighbors about their perspective. Were they happy? If so, why?

The piece ends with an anecdote:

The most tragic story was that of Rasha, who recounted how the jihadists had seized her fiance Atef, who belonged to the town’s militia, and brutally murdered him.

“I rang his mobile phone and one of them answered,” she said.

“Good morning, Rash rush,” the voice said, using her nickname. “We are from the Free Syrian Army. Do you know your fiance was a member of the shabiha (pro-regime militia) who was carrying weapons, and we have slit his throat.”

The man told her Atef had been given the option of converting to Islam, but had refused.

“Jesus didn’t come to save him,” he taunted.

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Who’s afraid of les jeunes of France?

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xm5zuu

Nick: Are you all right?

Honey: Of course, dear. I just want to put some powder on my nose.

George: Show her where we keep the … euphemism.

Martha: I’m sorry. I want to show you the house anyway.

Honey: We’ll be back, dear.

Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

One of the marks of the avant garde across the centuries has been an eagerness to mock the the polite sensibilities of society. Played by Richard Burton in the 1966 film version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the character George mocks Honey for offering a genteel euphemism — powder on my nose — in place of a direct request to use the toilet. While much of the power of the film comes from the performances of Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Sandy Dennis and George Segal, in its day the language and lives of its characters was considered shocking. Watching the film today we are more likely to be shocked by the unhealthy personal habits — drinking and smoking — than by the language or morality on display.

Whether it is “He who must not be named”, e.g., Lord Voldemort in the Harry Potter series or Endlösung der Judenfrage (the Final Solution of the Jewish Question), e.g., the Nazi name for the Holocaust, euphemisms as The New Criterion  has observed are a form of timidity that refuses to call untoward realities by their correct names.

The word “youths” (jeunes) when used in the press is a euphemism known to all Frenchmen. It means Muslim. The summer of 2005 saw rioting by “youths” in the HLM high-rise estates, or cités HLM, across France  and there have been recurring outbreaks of violence each summer. In May Reuters reported on the rioting in Sweden — employing the same euphemism of “youths” to describe who was involved.

The British equivalent euphemism is “Asian”. When reports of crimes by Asian youths appear in the press, no British reader believes the junior division of the Red Dragon tong, or bands of Hindus or Sikhs are involved. Asian is the press code for a Muslim from the arc of countries from Morocco to Bangladesh.

An article by AFP that formed the basis of stories in Libération, Le Monde and other Parisian dailies offers a recent example of the euphemism at work. On Saturday the New York Times reported the underlying incident:

France’s worst train accident in years, an official with the national rail company said Saturday. The crowded intercity train, leaving Paris at rush hour before a holiday weekend for the city of Limoges, jumped the tracks 20 miles south at Brétigny-sur-Orge station. The seven-car train split into two, with some cars riding up the station platform and flipping over.

Six people died, two were in critical condition and seven more were in serious condition, officials said; 21 others were still in the hospital. More than 190 people were treated at the site for lesser injuries.

The second day French stories added a twist to the tragedy. A pack of “youths” attempted to strip the dead of their belongings. Le Monde‘s print edition reported:

Le ministre des transports, Frédéric Cuvillier, a indiqué, samedi 13 juillet sur i-Télé, n’avoir pas eu connaissance “de victimes dépouillées” par des délinquants après la catastrophe ferroviaire de Brétigny-sur-Orge, comme des rumeurs en font état depuis la veille. Le ministre a fait état d’”actes isolés”, d’”une personne interpellée”, d’”une tentative de vol de portable” au préjudice d’un secouriste, de pompiers qui, par petits groupes, ont été accueillis de façon un peu rude”. Mais de véritables actes commis en bande, non, a dit le ministre qui a ajouté qu’”à (sa) connaissance, il n’y avait pas eu de victimes dépouillées. Tout de suite après l’accident, selon des témoins interrogés par Le Monde, une trentaine de venus des environs ont tenté de voler des effets des victimes, sacs, portables ou autres. Ils ont également caillassé les pompiers qui intervenaient. Puis ils ont été évacués hors du périmètre par les CRS. Les échauffourées se sont poursuivies encore quelques temps, avant de s’apaiser.
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Tintin and the Catholic Charismatics

The story so far … Intrepid reporter Tintin, accompanied by his faithful fox terrier Snowy, has travel to Brazil to report on the preparations for the Catholic Church’s World Youth Day celebrations in July. Upon his arrival Tintin finds the natives have abandoned their base communities and liberation theology for Catholic Pentecostalism. Who is behind this tragedy? Soviets, American gangsters, Jews? Can our hero rescue the church from the clutches of charismatics in Brazil?

I write in jest — this disclaimer is for the perpetually offended — nevertheless a recent story from AFP, Agency France Presse, entitled “Brazil Charismatic priests try to stem Catholic flight” could easily be transformed into a comic.

There is a cartoonish, condescending quality to this article that perpetuates anti-Catholic, anti-Pentecostal stereotypes. It does not rise to the level of Hergé’s “Tintin in the Congo“, but that was merely an 80-year old comic — this is a news story that does a second rate job in reporting on one of the major religion news stories of modern times — the rise of and reaction to Pentecostalism.

The article begins with a soft focus:

AFP – In a scene out of a pop music concert, mass at Sao Paulo’s huge Mae de Deus (Mother of God) church features spirited singing, dancing and shouting led by priests of Brazil’s rising Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement. About 6,000 faithful are seated and thousands more are standing, all waiting for the master of ceremonies and face of the movement — 46-year-old rock star Catholic priest Marcelo Rossi. With his broad smile and movie-actor good looks, the 6’4″ (1m90) former gymnast and his musicians warm up the crowd.

The article moves on to a report on church statistics and then offers comments from those who like the “rock-star” priest and a description of a service:

“Father Marcelo is charismatic and humble. You come once and you keep on coming,” said 72-year-old Olga Ribeiro, who has been following him for the past six years. “It’s a modern, dynamic mass. I had stopped going to church because I was bored,” said 58-year-old Luis Fernando Camentori.

In the middle of the service, lights go off and candles are lit. Many of the faithful burst into tears. “God will turn your pain into joy,” Rossi tells the delirious crowd. The wildly popular Rossi has already sold millions of records and books. He has his own radio and television programs, has made movies and is very active on Twitter. He has just criss-crossed the country to promote his latest book “Kairos”. In less than a month, 500,000 copies were already sold.

At this stage we hear from the experts:

“The Church in Brazil has been in crisis since the 1990s with the decline of leftist liberation theology, and its churches are becoming empty,” said Magali Cunha, a theology professor at Sao Paulo Methodist University. … While it has so far failed to stop Brazil’s Catholic exodus, “without this type of spirituality, the Catholic Church would have lost even more members,” said Edin Abumansur, head of the religion sciences department at Sao Paulo Catholic University.

The AFP’s editorial voice emerges:

And Catholic Charismatic Renewal is resorting to an arsenal of gimmicks to lure followers, including raw emotionalism, masses for cures, blessings to secure jobs or corporal expressions of faith.

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