February 3, 2014

The Mohammad cartoon controversy has resurfaced over the past week with a flutter over a tweet.

The British press appears to have come down on the side of Maajid Nawaz. Newspaper articles, opinion pieces and television chat shows have defended his right to share a cartoon depicting Jesus and Mohammad. But they have also ceded the moral high ground to his opponents — Islamist extremists — by declining to publish a copy of the cartoon that has led to death threats and calls for Nawaz to be blacklisted by the Liberal Democratic Party for Islamophobia.

What we are seeing in the British media — newspapers and television (this has not been a problem for radio) — in the Jesus and Mo controversy is a replay of past disputes over Danish and French cartoons. Freedom of speech and courage in the face of religious intolerance is championed by the press — up to a point.

The point appears to be whether being courageous could get you killed or even worse, earn the displeasure of the bien pensant chattering classes.

The Telegraph gives a good overview of the affair.

A Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate has received death threats after posting a cartoon image of Jesus and the Prophet Mohammed on Twitter. Muslim politician Maajid Nawaz tweeted a picture of a t-shirt with a crudely-drawn cartoon entitled ‘Jesus and Mo’ which he describes as an “innocuous” and inoffensive.

However the image has caused fury among some members of the Islamic community who believe images of the prophet Muhammed are forbidden. More than 7,000 people have now signed a petition calling for the Liberal Democrats to suspend Mr Nawaz. Some have even suggested a fatwa should be placed on him while others have threatened they would be “glad to cut your neck off”.

The Guardian summarized Nawaz’s motives in this subtitle to their story:

Lib Dem candidate says he aimed to defend his religion ‘against those who have hijacked it because they shout the loudest’

It explained:

The row blew up after Nawaz took part in a BBC debate where two students were wearing t-shirts depicting a stick figures of stick figure of Jesus saying “Hi” to a stick figure called Mo, who replied: “How you doin’?”

The politician, who is founder of the Quilliam Foundation, an anti-extremist think-tank, tweeted what he believes is a “bland” image and stated that “as a Muslim, I did not feel threatened by it. My God is greater than that”.

Both stories are sympathetic and are topped by striking photos of Nawaz, who is  running to be an MP for Hampstead and Kilburn. But neither article reproduces the cartoon that has led to the threats against his life. In their defence, it could be argued that a photo of Nawaz, rather than the offending cartoon was more appropriate as the article focused on the politician’s travails over the cartoon, not on the cartoon itself. A weak argument but an argument none the less.


July 12, 2013


I’d hammer in the morning, I’d hammer in the evening, All over this land, I’d hammer out danger, I’d hammer out a warning, I’d hammer out love between, My brothers and my sisters, All over this land.

So begins the first stanza of “The Hammer Song”. Written by Pete Seeger and Lee Hays, the progressive anthem had its first public performance by Seeger in 1949 at a rally in New York on behalf of the leaders of the Communist Party-USA, who were on trial for sedition. It was recorded by The Weavers in 1950 but attracted little popular interest. In 1962 Peter, Paul and Mary recorded their version, which reached the top of the charts in August of that year.  The song has continued to move away from its Communist roots and has been recorded by artists ranging from Luther Vandross to the Von Trapp Family Singers — (never knew they too were secret Communists).

My introduction to the song — and the Peter, Paul & Mary oeuvre — came in summer camp and church youth groups. In the space of 25 years “The Hammer Song”  had been sanitized — homogenized if you will.  Stalinist agitprop rendered into wholesome children’s camp fire music.

As I write this post it is Friday evening. Time for some free association and thoughts of change (and decay all around I see). What I once believed the “The Hammer Song” meant and what it’s authors meant bore no relationship to one another.  For that matter, what did “Puff the Magic Dragon” mean?

The Australian the largest daily newspaper in Australia and a part of the Rupert Murdoch media empire– this week published an expose challenging the cherished beliefs of one religious group. It took a hammer to Mypeace exposing their claims as exaggerations at best or deliberate falsehoods. The Australian press — the Fairfax newspapers The Age and Sydney Morning Herald in particular — are strongly anti-clerical, but I nevertheless was surprised to read this story entitled: “Ads for Islam ‘misquote Shaw from bogus book'”.

The article began:

Anti-“Islamophobia” advertisements due to screen on major free-to-air channels from today rely on a fabricated quote from Irish playwright and avowed atheist George Bernard Shaw, from a book that does not exist, according to the International Shaw Society.

The 30-second ads have been funded by the Sydney-based Mypeace organisation, which says it hopes to “build bridges” between Muslims and other Australians. Animated with voiceovers and with quotations displayed on the screen, they feature major historical figures including Mahatma Gandhi and Shaw praising the prophet Mohammed.

Hows that for a strong opening! And notice the small “p” in prophet in the last sentence. The BBC, to cite one outlet, in deference to Muslim sensibilities always uses a capital “P”. The story reports:

The advertisements quote Shaw proclaiming the prophet Mohammed was “the saviour of humanity” in a book he is supposed to have written entitled ‘The Genuine Islam’. But International Shaw Society treasurer Richard F Dietrich said he had compiled a complete list of Shaw’s works. which did not include the book. “I think ‘The Genuine Islam’ is bogus”, he said.

The Australian does not stop there, but goes for the kill. (more…)

June 4, 2013

Anyone who has been paying attention to debates about the future of the Boy Scouts of America knows that, when it comes to issues linked to homosexuality, there is no one “religious” perspective that journalists need to cover. Even within individual religious traditions — such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Roman Catholic Church — there are people who read the same texts and come to slightly different, or glaringly different, conclusions.

On the Christian left, for example, there is no one pro-gay theology.

On the Christian right, there is no one monolithic camp that opposes homosexuality to the same degree or for the same reasons.

It helps to see some of this written out in clear English. Thus, for a decade-plus I have recommended a helpful, and rigorously balanced, book by a gay evangelical writer, the Rev. Larry Holben, who is now an Episcopal priest. It’s called “What Christians Think about Homosexuality: Six Representative Viewpoints.” For a quick summary, in the form of two Scripps Howard News Service columns from 2000, click here and then over here.

But I raise this subject for the following reason. The other day, the oh-so-edgy Style folks at The Washington Post served up several thousand words worth of public-relations-grade material about a recent “LGBTQ Muslim and Partners Retreat.” This is one of those giant, unavoidable features that is supposed to slap humble readers in the face, starting with the photography and, of course, the symbolic details at the very start:

There was speed dating, a talent show and a baby naming.

But there was also a locked Facebook page. And a strict rule: Attendees should not disclose the retreat’s exact location.

That’s because the 85 people who gathered in the Pennsylvania woods over Memorial Day weekend had come from 19 states and three countries for a somewhat surprising event: a three-day LGBTQ Muslim and Partners Retreat.

Some wore T-shirts that read, “Muslim + Gay = Fabulous.” They prayed. They attended workshops about pioneering progressive Muslims. Ever heard of Isabelle Eberhardt, a.k.a. Mahmoud Saadi, a convert to Islam who challenged gender norms at the turn of the 20th century? And they held discussions on struggling to reconcile their faith with their sexuality, and their sexuality with their faith. (Many folks said that they face Islamophobia from inside the mainstream LGBTQ community.)

Having covered a few off-the-record events myself over the years, I think it would have been best if the Post team members had done what my editors always asked me to do under those conditions — which is to clearly state the precise conditions under which a reporter was allowed into this secret gathering. In this case, all readers were told is this:

This was the third such retreat, and it was sponsored this year by the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity, founded in January to address the needs of LGBTQ Muslims. Another sponsor was Muslims for Progressive Values, a Los Angeles-based group formed in 2007 that parallels, to some extent, Unitarian Universalism and Judaism’s reform movement, and which has nine chapters across the country and abroad.

The Washington Post was invited to attend — the first media organization to be given access.

So were some sessions off limits? Were certain participants pre-selected by the organizers to talk to the Post? Did some representatives of the newspaper take part in the conference, as well as cover it? Was the Post, in effect, (I’m thinking about the degree to which The Baltimore Sun has all but cooperated in Womenpriests rites) a participating organization in the event?

The article also makes it very clear that the version of Islam featured in this event is quite different than traditional forms of the faith.


December 3, 2012



Has anyone seen a story in the U.S. press about the opening of France’s first gay-friendly mosque? I’ve not come across anything in the U.S. mainstream media so far, but the story has received a great deal of play from the European press.

Now the cynic in me would want to feign shock at the New York Times not having picked up this story as it deals with an issue dear to its heart. However, it is the foreign policy ramifications of this story that I thought would attract the attention of the U.S. media elite — for the underlying theme of this story has been the philosophical principle behind U.S. Middle East policy. All right-thinking people — government leaders, columnists, the professoriate — believe Islam can be reformed and its tenets brought in line with the Western liberal mind. I am surprised not to have seen America’s public intellectuals jump all over this story.

On Friday Le Monde published a tight, nicely written story entitled « Une “mosquée” ouverte aux homosexuels près de Paris ». Drawing from a Reuters wire service story and its own reporting, Le Monde reported that a gay French Muslim had opened a mosque in a borrowed room on the grounds of a Buddhist dojo outside Paris.

Reuters reported:

Europe’s first gay and lesbian-friendly mosque opens on Friday in an eastern Paris suburb, in a challenge to mainstream Islam’s long tradition of condemning same-sex relationships. The mosque, set up in a small room inside the house of a Buddhist monk, will welcome transgender and transsexual Muslims and seat men and women together, breaking with another custom where the sexes are normally segregated during prayer. Its founder, French-Algerian gay activist and practicing Muslim Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed, will also encourage women to lead Friday prayers, smashing yet another taboo.

“It’s a radically inclusive mosque. A mosque where people can come as they are,” said Zahed, 35, whose prayer space will be the first in Europe to formally brand itself as a gay-friendly mosque, according to Muslim experts.

M. Zahed sounds like he has latent Episcopalian-syndrome and uses all the right sort of Christian left buzz words. The story offers a few more words of explanation from M. Zahed, negative reactions from French Muslim leaders and closes with comments from a French academic.

“The goal of these Muslims is to promote a form of Islam that is inclusive of progressive values,” said Florence Bergeaud-Blackler, an associate researcher at France’s Research and Studies Institute on the Arab and Muslim World. The push by gay Muslims for acceptance comes as a younger generation of Muslims is questioning some of the existing interpretations of the Koran as over-conservative. “Even though they are still a extreme minority, their views have a solid theological basis. So their message is not having an insignificant impact,” Bergeaud-Blackler said.

The Le Monde story goes a bit deeper. The comments from French Muslim leaders are much harsher than those reported by Reuters.

« Il y a des musulmans homosexuels, ça existe, mais ouvrir une mosquée, c’est une aberration, parce que la religion, c’est pas ça », estime Abdallah Zekri, président de l’Observatoire des actes islamophobes, sous l’autorité du Conseil français du culte musulman (CFCM).

Which I roughly translate as:

“There are Muslim homosexuals. They exist. But to open a mosque, that is an aberration because homosexuality is contrary to our religion,” said Abdallah Zekri, president of the Islamophobia (sorry AP but that’s what Le Monde calls it) Observer for the CFCM.

 Le Monde also has some choice quotes from M. Zahed as well.

« Les musulmans ne doivent pas se sentir honteux. L’homosexualité n’est condamnée nulle part, ni dans le Coran ni dans la sunna. Si le prophète Mahomet était vivant, il marierait des couples d’homosexuels. » Il rêve d’un islam « apaisé, réformé, inclusif », qui accepterait le blasphème car « la pensée critique est essentielle pour le développement spirituel ».

Which I understand to mean:

Muslims should not feel ashamed. Homosexuality is not condemned either in the Koran or in the Sunna. If the Prophet Muhammad were alive, he would marry of homosexual couples.” [Zahed] dreams of  “peaceful, reformed, inclusive” Islam which which accepts blasphemy as “critical thinking essential to its spiritual development.”

Le Monde frames the story in a sympathetic light to M. Zahed. He is the underdog seeking to reform an ossified, dyed in the wool religious establishment. The article offers both sides of the debate — M. Zahed’s beliefs and the institutional response. However, I am surprised this item has not received the New Yorker 10,000 word treatment. A Muslim who speaks like an Episcopalian I imagine would be catnip to the mainstream American media.

The Islam of M. Zahed is that of Presidents Bush and Obama. Government policy since 9/11 has been predicated on the belief that Islam is like Christianity or Judaism. Given enough time, money and jawboning, Islam can reform and accommodate itself within a secularist pluralist society.

Le Monde‘s article about M. Zahed and Islam is written from a Westernized Christian worldview. Change the location to Texas and Islam for Southern Baptists and you would have the exact same story — even down to the buzz words and phrases proffered by M. Zahed. How often is it repeated that Jesus never said anything about homosexuality?

However, Islam is fundamentally different from Judaism and Christianity and this difference is what makes it nearly impossible for Islam to reform. And, it is the consensus of Islamic scholars that Islam is in no need of reform. Writing in the Asia Times under the pen name Spengler, David P. Goldman’, stated:

Hebrew and Christian scripture claim to be the report of human encounters with God. After the Torah is read each Saturday in synagogues, the congregation intones that the text stems from “the mouth of God by the hand of Moses”, a leader whose flaws kept him from entering the Promised Land. The Jewish rabbis, moreover, postulated the existence of an unwritten Revelation whose interpretation permits considerable flexibility with the text. Christianity’s Gospels, by the same token, are the reports of human evangelists.

The Archangel Gabriel, by contrast, dictated the Koran to Mohammed, according to Islamic doctrine. That sets a dauntingly high threshold for textual critics. How does one criticize the word of God without rejecting its divine character? In that respect the Koran resembles the “Golden Tablets” of the Angel Moroni purported found by the Mormon leader Joseph Smith more than it does the Jewish or Christian bibles.

Now almost 10 years old, Spengler’s “You say you want a reformation?” remains fresh and his observations stand as a challenge to U.S. government policies that believe Islam can be transformed into another variety of American Protestantism.

Speaking at the U.N. in September, President Obama said of the Arab Spring:

“True democracy—real freedom—is hard work,” Mr. Obama said. “Those in power have to resist the temptation to crack down on dissidents. In hard economic times, countries must be tempted— may be tempted—to rally the people around perceived enemies, at home and abroad, rather than focusing on the painstaking work of reform.”

Can Islam, which allows for no distinction between church and state, reform? The academic cited in the Le Monde piece believes it can. France’s first gay mosque will be a symbol of the younger generation’s desire for an “Islam that is inclusive of progressive values,” she stated. A contrary voice speaking to Islam’s response to minority voices (past and present) would have been a welcome counterweight. And give pause to those expecting peace to break out all over the Muslim world.

November 19, 2012

I mentioned the story of Shaima Al Awadhi the other day. (Previous coverage here, here and here.) I became mildly obsessed with her after news of her unbelievably brutal killing broke in March. Al Awadhi was only 32 years old when she died and was a mother of five. She was attacked in her home, succumbing to her injuries a few days later.

Within days there were thousands of stories about her death, focused on the family’s claim that she was the victim of a hate crime. A minor movement sprung up, seeing parallels between the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Al Awadhi. Activists began to encourage people to wear hijabs in honor of Al Awadhi and as a statement against racist hate crimes.

A local CBS affiliate has the latest:

An Iraqi man whose wife was fatally beaten in their East County home last spring in what initially appeared to be a hate crime pleaded not guilty to a murder charge Tuesday afternoon.

The passive voice in the lede isn’t helpful. Appeared to whom to be a hate crime? The police always claimed they were pursuing a complicated case, even if the media ran with the “hate crime” angle.

Where the previous story resulted in national and international headlines within moments, this story has received more sparing coverage. Comparing the local coverage of Al Awadhi’s death when it was being billed as a hate crime to now is even fascinating.

Media outlets can be so good at holding other industries accountable but we tend to struggle with introspection of our own industry.

While we have no idea how Kassim Al-Himidi’s trial will turn out, it’s clear that the media botched this story. If the police had botched the investigation, I’m sure we’d have stories about that. Typically when institutions perform their duties poorly, the media are at the forefront of finding out what went wrong and issuing demands for improvement.

Shouldn’t we see those same demands for improvement when it’s the media that performed its role poorly?

Instead the AP ran a story quoting Nina Burleigh, which at first I found odd on account of her 1990s comments about sexual favors, President Bill Clinton, and abortion. But the AP was actually one of the only outlets to try to find some larger meaning in the murder of Al Awadhi. The story ended:

Author Nina Burleigh, who has written extensively about the mix of Islam and Western societies, said the case highlights the sometimes dangerous clashes that can occur when female immigrants, particularly from Islamic countries, rebel against cultural restrictions and exercise choices made available in their adopted homelands.

“These things are happening all over the place,” Burleigh said. “It’s much more openly discussed in Europe where there is more integration from these societies, where in the U.S. it’s not discussed so much partly because we have a bias toward discussing the way these cultures treat women.”…

The arrest of Alhimidi came only days after the sentencing of an Iraqi mother in Phoenix who was charged with beating her daughter because she refused to go along with an arranged marriage.

The 20-year-old woman was burned on her face and chest with a hot spoon then tied to a bed. The victim’s father and sister were also sentenced to two years of probation for their involvement.

Tablet published a piece worth reading headlined “Behind the Veil of Islamophobia: The murder of Shaima Alawadi isn’t a sign of increasing prejudice, but of writers’ credulousness.” A portion:

If the above is indeed true, the killing of Shaima Alawadi isn’t a warning sign of increasing religious intolerance, but of a shocking degree of credulousness from writers and activists. Why withhold judgment when the initial assessment conformed so neatly to an existing political narrative about the rising tide of American Islamophobia? …

The Facebook group “One Million Hijabs for Shaima Alawadi,” which was a hive of activity in the weeks following her murder, has since been taken offline. Despite some posts about women’s rights and feminism, the Islamophobia angle was what the organizers were interested in pushing. She was, it now seems, killed because she was a woman who attempted to throw off the shackles of an oppressive husband. Which makes this case doubly tragic. Just because Shaima Alawadi wasn’t killed by an American racist doesn’t mean that there isn’t cause for activist outrage.

Do any of us expect that the next time a story such as this comes out that the media will handle it differently?

September 20, 2012

From The Associated Press comes shocking news: Apparently, not all Tennesseans are Islamophobes.

You may recall CNN’s recent 9/11 anniversary report that used the Volunteer State as a launching point for making the case that “rising anti-Islamic sentiment in America troubles Muslims.” In case you missed it, I bashed that report here at GetReligion.

One of my complaints was the sensationalistic disregard for ordinary Muslim life in that Bible Belt state:

Through my work with The Christian Chronicle, I am aware of a minister in Nashville who has worked to increase communication and understanding among Christians and Muslims. I know that The Tennessean recently reported on an event at Lipscomb University, a Christian university, aimed at addressing Americans’ misconceptions about Islam. Yet CNN focuses only on the alleged radicals, not on those promoting respect and dialogue among Americans with different religious beliefs.

So imagine my surprise when I came across an AP story this week declaring that — believe it or not — the headline-grabbing uproar over a new mosque in Murfreesboro, south of Nashville, represented the exception, not the rule in Tennessee:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The two-year struggle between the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro and a group of residents who have fought a losing battle to keep it from being built paints a distorted picture of Muslim life in Tennessee, where several other mosques have opened in recent years with little or no controversy.

Although there’s likely no single cause for the conflict in Murfreesboro, the reaction of local leaders — both opponents of the mosque and those who stayed silent — may have helped extend and exacerbate it. Meanwhile, the experience of Muslims in Memphis, Chattanooga, Nashville and elsewhere in Tennessee shows that what happened in Murfreesboro is not the inevitable consequence of being Muslim in the Bible Belt.

When the Memphis Islamic Center bought land across the street from Heartsong Church, the pastor put up a sign reading, “Welcome to the Neighborhood.” Encouraged by the gesture, Islamic center leaders met with church leaders and soon formed friendships, mosque trustee Danish Siddiqui said.

In 2010, when mosque leaders realized their building would not be completed in time for the holy month of Ramadan, Heartsong stepped in and opened its sanctuary every night to its Muslim neighbors.

Quality journalism challenges misperceptions. This AP story does exactly that by noting that the Murfreesboro controversy “paints a distorted picture of Muslim life in Tennessee.” Not only that, but it also quotes actual Muslims who live in Tennessee, something that CNN neglected to do.

I came across the story on the religion headlines page of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. However, I could not find the story at a few other sites I have bookmarked, such as Yahoo’s religion page. In Googling for the story and searching for it in the LexisNexis archive, it appears to have run just on the Tennessee state wire and not on the national wire. That would mean that the AP did not deem it worthy of wider distribution, which, if true, is a shame.

The question of how much play the piece received aside, however, the writer Travis Loller and AP’s Tennessee bureau deserve kudos for a nice piece of thoughtful reporting.

Image via Shutterstock

September 6, 2012

Islamophobia is back in the news, this time courtesy of CNN.

Just in time for the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, CNN splashes this headline atop a 1,700-word report:

Rising anti-Islamic sentiment in America troubles Muslims

When you see that headline, what kind of details do you expect the story to provide? At the very least, I expect to find cold, hard facts backing up the claim made.

Not to give away the ending, but this report proves highly disappointing in quantifying the “rising anti-Islamic sentiment.” On the bright side, if you enjoy cardboard-cutout crazies, context-free conjecture and Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) talking points, you’re in for a real treat.

Perhaps not surprisingly, CNN chooses Tennessee as its launching point:

(CNN) – When the nation pauses to remember 9/11 next week, a group of Tennesseans will gather at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Franklin for a commemoration. But it will be more than that.

On the program, called “The Threat in Our Backyard,” is a lecture on Islam in public schools and a short film on Sharia finance.

It’s a program organized by people who feel the American way of life is threatened by Islam – in particular, Sharia, or Islamic law.

Sharia would bring ruin to America, says Greg Johnson, vice president of the 9/12 Project Tennessee, a sponsor of the event that advocates for shifting government back to the intent of the Constitution’s authors.

Who is Johnson? Why does he believe what he does about Sharia and Islam? Wish I could tell you, but Johnson makes just a cameo appearance at the beginning and then disappears.  Later, readers hear from a woman named Cathy Hinners, who is identified only as a “website author” and a scheduled speaker. Again, CNN provides no details on her background or why she believes what she does. The same holds true for a man named Andrew Miller, identified only as a Nashville health-care investor.

Aside from those three off-their-rocker sources (based on CNN’s tone), the report mainly focuses on the growing, raging, yet somehow vague anti-Muslim sentiment that “has been swelling across America in recent months.”

“In the 11 years since (9/11), we have retreated,” says Abdullah Antepli, the Muslim chaplain at Duke University who likes to call himself the Blue Devil Imam.

Muslims make up less than 1% of the U.S. population. Yet, say Muslim advocates, they are a community besieged.

Hate crimes against Muslims spiked 50% in 2010, the last year for which FBI statistics are available. That was in a year marked by Muslim-bashing speech over the Islamic center near ground zero in Manhattan and Florida Pastor Terry Jones’ threats to burn Qurans.

A Los Angeles Times story on a Muslim summer camp that I critiqued last week cited a similar statistic on hate crimes against Muslims. That post prompted regular GetReligion reader Passing By to provide a link to a news story noting that hate crimes against Muslims remain relatively rare. Jews, for example, were the victims of hate crimes five times more often than Muslims, according to the latest FBI statistics. Don’t look for any such context in the CNN report.

Later in the story, there’s this:

This year’s holy month of Ramadan, which ended August 19, was marred by a spate of violence at U.S. Islamic centers that included a fire, a homemade bomb and pig parts. The incidents were unprecedented in scale and scope, says the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

CAIR is an advocacy organization, not an unbiased source. I would love to have seen CNN quote an FBI agent or a Tennessee law enforcement official on the issue of anti-Muslim sentiment. Are authorities concerned about a rising tide of anti-Muslim violence? Do they believe that such a rising tide actually exists?

Similarly, I would love to have seen CNN quote a few “real people” Muslims on the issue. Do they feel threatened living in Tennessee? Are the anti-Sharia folks part of the mainstream or extremists? The CNN story lacks any middle ground.

Through my work with The Christian Chronicle, I am aware of a minister in Nashville who has worked to increase communication and understanding among Christians and Muslims. I know that The Tennessean recently reported on an event at Lipscomb University, a Christian university, aimed at addressing Americans’ misconceptions about Islam. Yet CNN focuses only on the alleged radicals, not on those promoting respect and dialogue among Americans with different religious beliefs.

Is anti-Islamic sentiment really on the rise in America? Based on CNN’s report, I couldn’t tell you.

August 20, 2012

As you would imagine, I have received a few notes seeking my take, as a journalist and as an Orthodox Christian, on the events involving that crudely named feminist band in Russia. You know, the one that drew this headline the other day in The New York Times: “Anti-Putin Stunt Earns Punk Band Two Years in Jail.”

What? The band’s actual name didn’t rate large type?

Before I address the journalism issues related to this, I would like to note that, from my point of view, this matter has at least three layers and it has been easy for folks to go rather bonkers (Hello, Madonna, and you too, Sir Paul) without really separating out the layers. So, before people get confused about where my loyalties are in all of this, let’s walk through a few specifics.

So, raise your hand if:

* You think Vladimir V. Putin is a corrupt political thug who continues to feed on Russian nationalism.

Mine is up.

* You think that, in the complex post-Soviet Russian Orthodox Church, there exists troubling corruption, mixed with flashes of courage and truly radical faith. In other words, this is a complex matter (please click here for a flashback).

Mine is up.

* You support the free speech rights of the members of P***y Riot and think that, while what these protesters said and did was foul, they had every right to demonstrate in public places in Russia.

Mine is up.

* You think that the government overreacted and, while crimes were in this case committed under Russian law (ironically, laws hailed by some on the left because of their intent to prevent offenses against Islam, Judaism, etc., as well as to majority Orthodoxy), the sentence was too harsh. The Orthodox hierarchy seems to feel the same way.

Mine is up.

* You think that crimes of some kind were committed in this case and that they should be enforced if and when when vandals invade and threaten religious sanctuaries, such as, just thinking out loud:

— Aryan Nations thugs invading Holocaust-era synagogues in Germany.

— Anti-Muslim extremists of left or right attacking mosques (say the Dome of the Rock) in order to shout profanities against the faith and the Prophet Mohammad.

— Conservative Anglicans (I am making this one up) losing their minds and attacking the altar of the liberal Cathedral of St. John the Divine during a pantheistic Gaia Mass.

Mine is up.

* You think it was bad, unbalanced and inaccurate journalism for the mainstream American press, in story after story, to essentially ignore the details of what the protesters said and did and where they did it. Thus, these stories were painfully flawed and millions of readers have no idea what actually happened.

Yes, mine is way up.

Folks, we are living in a sad age in which it is, at times, easier to find out what actually happened in major news events by watching YouTube than it is by reading the world’s major newspapers. What was this event all about for the Times team? It was politics, pure and simple — with only one layer that deserved informed coverage. The source of the strong global reaction, saith the Times:

This was partly because of the sympathetic appearance of the defendants — two are mothers of young children — and partly because their group uses music to carry its message. But it also set them in a David-and-Goliath struggle against a formidable power structure: the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church.

Trust me that I know that elements of the Church are close to Putin and the state, while others, frankly, are not. The Orthodox Church has — think invasion of Georgia — stood up to the state in public, and in other cases, behind the scene. But to say that Putin and the Orthodox hierarchy represent — on all issues — a singular, united “power structure” is radically simplistic. At the very least this is a statement that should have been reported and debated, not simply stated as secular gospel.

So what actually happened here? It is a long way into the story before readers are given any details:

… The Russian Orthodox Church issued a statement that referred to Nazi aggression and the militant atheism of the Soviet era, and said, “What happened is blasphemy and sacrilege, the conscious and deliberate insult to the sanctuary and a manifestation of hostility to millions of people.”

The case began in February when the women infiltrated the Cathedral of Christ the Savior wearing colorful balaclavas, and pranced around in front of the golden Holy Doors leading to the altar, dancing, chanting and lip-syncing for what would later become a music video of a profane song in which they beseeched the Virgin Mary to rid Russia of Mr. Putin.

Security guards quickly stripped them of their guitars, but the video was completed with splices of footage from another church.

I have yet to see a mainstream story (please inform me if I am wrong) that offers more details about what the women did and said. Did anyone actually go inside the icon screen? It is clear that the “dancing” itself took place inside the rail of the altar area and, thus, in an area reserved for clergy and those who serve the church. It’s crucial, in terms of accusations that these performance desecrated the cathedral, to know what they actually did. Once again, these are details that journalists should report in any similar case involving a synagogue, mosque, cathedral, etc. God is literally in the details.

We also live in an age in which some governments have passed laws (which I have consistently opposed, as a First Amendment absolutist) to crack down on all acts that can be seen as attacks on major faiths. These laws are, for example, often promoted as a way to prevent acts of Islamophobia.

How is this reflected in the story?

… Judge Syrova, delivering her decision, said that the political comments were spliced into the video later, and that the action in the church was therefore motivated by religious hatred. … In Washington, where Obama administration officials followed the trial closely, seeing it as a measure of Mr. Putin’s new presidency and its own troubled relations with Russia, the White House and the State Department each criticized the verdict. The State Department all but called on Russia’s higher courts to overturn the conviction and “ensure that the right to freedom of expression is upheld.”

It appears that, for the judge, this case was about the anti-religious content of this act and, literally, its sacred location — not simply a matter of freedom of expression. It appears that this judge thought that a Moscow cathedral should be protected in some way, rather like the laws that police enforce to protect American shopping malls. (Let me stress once again that I think the sentence here was way too high, yet it is clear that the judge was enforcing laws that were, in fact, violated.)

How would American police respond to the anti-Muslim equivalent of the following being screamed in, oh, a mosque on Manhattan?

… Holy sh*t, sh*t, Lord’s sh*t!
Holy sh*t, sh*t, Lord’s sh*t!

St. Maria, Virgin, become a feminist
Become a feminist, Become a feminist …

Patriarch Gundyaev believes in Putin
Bitch, you better believe in God
Belt of the Virgin is no substitute for mass-meetings
In protest of our Ever-Virgin Mary!

St. Maria, Virgin, Drive away Putin
Drive away! Drive away Putin!

Other major newspapers took an almost identical approach on this story. The Washington Post, however, did include this reference:

The judge’s recitation Friday dwelled on what sounded like an offense to the church rather than the state. She quoted at length witnesses who said they were believers deeply offended by the one-minute performance.

One witness said that the young women violated the Cathedral of Christ the Savior dress code with their short dresses and that women were expected to behave modestly in church. Another said public prayers were not permitted in the cathedral without the presence of a priest. If that wasn’t bad enough, one witness said, the performance occurred just before Lent.

OK, that’s simply a joke, a form of journalistic mockery. I have not doubt that some worshipers said that. However, anyone who has seen the video knows that the concerns mentioned by the Post were very minor, in contrast to what the protesters actually said and did. Did the judge list serious offenses? Did her remarks include actual details of what happened inside the altar area? How would we know?

The Los Angeles Times report was even worse. It seems that no one involved in the story was the least bit interested in the religion element of this story. What we have here is politics and more politics. Nothing more.

A Moscow court convicted three young punk rockers, members of the provocatively named group Pussy Riot, of “premeditated hooliganism” and sentenced them to two years in prison. The crime: a February “punk prayer” at Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral in which the balaclava-clad, mini-skirted rockers appealed for the downfall of President Vladimir Putin. …

Friday’s verdict followed a brief trial last week in which the rockers were accused of sacrilege and insulting the mores of Russian Orthodox believers.

Can readers read this and then understand the reactions of the judge and many, certainly not all, Russians? Can readers understand without knowing what was said and where it was done? Would it also help to know a bit about the history of this cathedral, which was imploded by the Communists and then rebuilt after the fall of the Soviets?

For those who want to comment, please focus, focus, focus on the content of the journalism stories themselves — or the lack of content. Links to additional info about the crimes that were committed would be appreciated. Again, do not bug me with the politics of this story. I trust that it is possible to oppose the desecration of sacred places without automatically being a supporter of Putin or an opponent of basic human rights. Right? Carefully read the top third of this post, again.

Stick to journalism, folks. Did the mainstream coverage include the crucial information readers needed to know?

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