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Francis links abortion with abuse, yet press doesn’t follow: GetReligion, April 16, 2014 May 9, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Abortion/Euthanasia/Biotechnology, Abuse, Get Religion, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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The Italian press has placed an interesting interpretation on Pope Francis’ Friday comments on the clergy abuse. It reports that in the pope’s mind clergy abuse of children is tied to the “abomination” of abortion. Look for this theme in the Anglo-American press and tell me if you can find it? I can’t.

Francis’ comments to the International Catholic Child Bureau meeting at the Vatican on April 11 received wide spread coverage. CNN reported:

Pope Francis made his strongest condemnation yet of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy on Friday, asking for forgiveness and pledging to impose penalties on “men of the church” who harm children.

“I feel compelled to personally take on all the evil which some priests — quite a few in number, obviously not compared to the number of all the priests — to personally ask for forgiveness for the damage they have done for having sexually abused children,” the Pope said in remarks quoted by Vatican Radio.

As an aside, I chose CNN’s story over the others because of its aesthetic and journalist quality. It is really quite good. To my mind Daniel Burke is one of the most highly skilled writers covering religion and this article shows why he deserves that accolade. The language is tight, conveying the story in a minimum of words.  The story is told well with very little fluff or filler. The article is balanced — offering comments from abuse activists while also allowing Francis to speak. The author’s views on the issue can be discerned by the layout of the story — paragraph placement is one of the key elements in constructing an article — yet there is no preaching or bombast in a topic (clergy abuse of children) that is often spoilt by opinion masking as news. A great job all round.

Yet, Burke is back in America and must rely on material provided by others when reporting on Rome. Has he been given the full story by his stringers in Rome?

For on the same day as the pope spoke to the International Catholic Child Bureau, he addressed a pro-life group. For the Italian press, the messages Francis offered on the clergy abuse scandal and abortion were intertwined. The lede to the story ”Pedofilia, il Papa chiede perdono per gli abusi commessi dai sacerdoti” in the Milan-based Corriere della Sera makes this clear. (N.b. with a circulation of over 350,000 Corriere della Sera is one of Italy’s largest and most influential newspapers. It’s main competitors are the Rome’s la Repubblica and Turin’s La Stampa.) It states:

Pope Francis has asked “forgiveness” for the child abuse perpetrated by men of the Church. In unambiguous tones, Francis said: “I am called to this burden” to “ask for forgiveness”, and to assure you that we will not take any “step back” in addressing this problem and seeing that “penalties will be imposed.” Children should be protected and have a family, the pontiff said. “They have a right to grow up with a father and mother.” And before that children must be protected in the womb, he added, because “the unborn child is the innocent par excellence.” Drawing upon the words of the Second Vatican Council Francis added “abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes.”

The Corriere della Sera article gives a fuller picture of Francis’ views on the clergy abuse scandal than the CNN piece by stressing Francis’ argument that both are crimes against children and against God.

 

It could be argued that a pope condemning abortion is not news. However, Francis was the center of a media frenzy last year when in an interview the the Jesuit publicationAmerica, he said:

“We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible.” …“The teaching of the church … is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

This was interpreted by some media outlets as evidence that Francis would change, perhaps not the substance, but certainly the tone of church teachings. The New York Times lede to its September 19 story on the interview followed this line:

Six months into his papacy, Pope Francis sent shock waves through the Roman Catholic church on Thursday with the publication of his remarks that the church had grown “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage and contraception, and that he had chosen not to talk about those issues despite recriminations from critics.

Why the silence from the Anglo-American press on the pope’s latest abortion comments? GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly has addressed the dichotomy between the coverage and reality of Francis’ views on abortion in other posts. Is there something in the mindset of American reporters that prevents them from making the link between abuse and abortion that the Corriere della Sera has made?

Vatican Radio and the Holy See Press Office / Vatican Information Service released reports on the addresses made by the pope, but these came out in separate stories. If all you had to work with were the press releases, connecting the dots may not have been obvious to US based reporters.

The “why” should also be examined in the context of “should”. Should CNN and other news outlets linked the abortion and abuse stories? Is this an editorial step too far byCorriere della Sera? Or have they offered the insight and context expected of quality newspapers?

My imperfect knowledge of the situation does not allow me to say CNN or the Corriere della Sera had it right. My instincts though tell me the Italian report gives a broader, and ultimately better, picture of what is actually happening in Rome.

Sexing up Pope Francis: Get Religion, March 26, 2013 March 27, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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My corner of Florida has been over run by college students on Spring break. While Daytona Beach, Miami and Fort Lauderdale have lost market share over the past 40-years to Texas, Mexico and points South, there are still enough kids in town this week to make the merchants smile and locals complain about “those kids” and their sex, drugs and rock and roll.

Sounds like a story pitch for a 60′s beach film — Frankie and Annette, Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue — maybe Ann-Margret and Elvis? The stories wrote themselves back then.  Sex continues to sell. Where would the tabloids or MTV be with out the Page 3 girls, the Kardashians and the denizens of the Jersey Shore?  And where would the New York Times be without homosexuality? While it is harder and harder to sell religion news stories to the trade — a “naughty vicar” story will always find a buyer.

But sex isn’t what it once was. Its omnipresence has robbed it of its marketing value, mystique (and romance). “Sexed-up” no longer refers solely to hormone drenched teens or blue movies, but in journalism it refers to improving a story to make it more palatable (more salable) to editors who in turn want to attract more readers with stronger stories.

The phrase settled into the media psyche during the second Gulf War. It is commonly believed that a 29 May 2003 report by BBC defense correspondent Andrew Gilligan broadcast on Radio 4′s Today program originated the phrase. Gilligan reported that a senior British official told him a dossier prepared by the Blair government to support the war against Saddam Hussein had been “sexed up”. Specifically the government’s “September Dossier” had made the exaggerated claim that weapons of mass destruction could be deployed by the Iraqis within 45 minutes of Saddam Hussein’s order.

Improving the story by making it sexier than the facts allow did not begin in 2003. It is long been the bane of good journalism. Its prevalence was the theme of my chat last week with Todd Wilken, the host of Issues, Etc.  In our conversation broadcast on 21 March 2013, Todd and I discussed my article “Is CNN pushing the “Dirty War” story?” posted at GetReligion and discussed the phenomena of shoddy reporting on Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio’s alleged collusion with the Argentine military junta’s crimes during the “dirty war”.  Todd asked whether I was saying that it was wrong to voice criticisms of the Pope or to ask questions about his past?

I responded that this was not the issue. The Pope and the Catholic Church should be questioned. However in this instance I argued that CNN was “pushing” the story. It had abandoned objectivity, balance, and a desire to seek out the truth for the transitory pleasures of a sexy story about potential papal perfidy.

I contrasted CNN’s work with the three main Parisian dailies: Le Monde, Le Figaro, and Liberation.  The French papers all reported the accusations of misconduct as well as the denials by the Vatican. However, they framed the stories to give Francis the benefit of the doubt. The allegations were unproven the French papers reported, but they also provided sufficient facts and context to allow readers to make up their own minds.

This is not as exciting an approach to CNN’s guilty until proven innocent but it is better journalism.

First printed in GetReligion.

Is CNN pushing the “Dirty War” story?: Get Religion, March 18, 2013 March 18, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion.
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Suggestions that Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was morally complicit in the crimes of the Argentine junta during the 1970s “dirty war” have made the rounds of the press following his election last week as pope. However, the American and French newspapers have diverged in their coverage of the story with the French reporting the accusations but giving them little credence.

GetReligion reader Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz argues some American outlets have been pushing the story.

CNN decides to keep up the appearance that there’s something wrong with Pope Francis after the Vatican has very forcefully denied any wrongdoing on his part during the Argentine Dirty War.

Given the denials put out by the Vatican and the lack of evidence to substantiate the charge’s Mr. Szyszkiewicz notes:

This is simply keeping the story alive after it should be killed. Kinda like Pius XII.

In support of his argument the sites this piece in CNN entitled “Vatican denies claim that Pope Francis failed to protect Argentina priests”. The article begins:

Vatican City (CNN) — The Vatican pushed back Friday against claims that Pope Francis failed to protect two fellow Jesuit priests who were kidnapped during Argentina’s military dictatorship. The accusations have resurfaced since the Argentine cardinal’s unexpected election to the papacy two days ago.

As pope the A book by investigative reporter Horacio Verbitsky accuses Francis, who was then Jorge Mario Bergoglio and was head of the country’s Jesuit order, of deliberately failing to protect the two priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, when they were seized by the navy. They were found alive five months later. But the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, dismissed the claims — which date back to Argentina’s so-called Dirty War from 1976 to 1983 — as false and defamatory.

The CNN story then moves to quotes from Fr Lombardi and other church spokesman rejecting the accusations made by Horacio Verbitsky. (As an aside, context as to who was making the accusations might be helpful. Verbitsky is a supporter of Pres. Cristina Fernandez Kirchner and late husband Pres. Nestor Kirchner. Pope Francis as cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires has been a vociferous critic of the Kirchners that has led the fight against gay marriage, abortion, and governmental corruption and incompetence.)

Mr. Szyszkiewicz cites this transition in the CNN story as evidence of editorial bias trumping news reporting.

Nonetheless, the incident led to rumors and allegations that Francis was complicit in the dictatorship’s appalling atrocity — that he didn’t do enough to expose it and perhaps was even partly responsible for the priests’ prolonged detention, said Jim Nicholson, a former U.S. ambassador to the Holy See.

Although the allegations against Francis have never been proved, they continue to haunt him, so much so that the human rights group Center for Legal and Social Studies in Argentina opposes Francis’ selection as pope. During the years of military dictatorship, up to 30,000 students, labor leaders, intellectuals and leftists disappeared or were held in secret jails and torture centers.

The claims against the new pope have cast a shadow over what has otherwise been widely viewed as a positive start for the new pontiff, who has embraced humility and simplicity. As pope, he will have other tough questions to deal with. He takes the helm of a Roman Catholic Church that has been rocked in recent years by sex abuse by priests, and claims of corruption and infighting among the church hierarchy.

CNN’s editorial insertion, that this casts a shadow on his papacy, is unsubstantiated. How does CNN know these allegations haunt Francis? Appearances are not against Francis but CNN. They have let their imaginations and desire for a great story drive their reporting – not a sober analysis of the facts.

The CNN piece is written in the sort of tone found in opinion journals. The New Republic, for example, published a story online entitled “When Pope Francis Testified About the Dirty War” that made the same allegations as CNN but in greater detail. It works from the transcript taken from court testimony where Francis testified as a witness and concluded Francis was not being truthful as to what he knew. It argued he did not do enough to fight the regime and acted inappropriately as superior of the Argentine province of Society of Jesus when two of its members were arrested.

The New Republic story, however, suffers from bad timing as one of the Jesuits arrested in the 70s released a statement exonerating Francis. It also is a could of, should of, kind of, may be story — long on suggestion but short of credible facts to substantiate the allegations.

I would contrast CNN’s articles with those found in the three main Parisian dailies: Le Monde, Le Figaro, and Liberation. The French papers all reported the accusations made by Mr. Verbitsky as well as the denials by the Vatican but framed the stories so as to give Francis the benefit of the doubt. The French papers provided the context as well as the facts allowing readers to decide whom they want to believe. CNN believes Mr. Verbitsky and wants you to also. That may be appropriate for an opinion magazine like the New Republic. But is there enough information out there from CNN to do this? I don’t think so

Addendum: For further background on this issue I recommend this item in the Wall Street Journal.

First printed in Get Religion

Foggy Bottom’s ‘pantywaist protocol pussy-footers’: Get Religion, September 13, 2012 September 14, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Islam, Press criticism.
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Wanted to thank me brokenly, I suppose, for so courteously allowing her favorite brother a place to have his game legs in, Eh? [said Bertie Wooster]

Possibly sir. On the other hand she alluded to you in terms suggestive of disapprobation. [said Jeeves]

She — what?

“Feckless idiot” was one of the expressions she employed, sir.

Feckless idiot?

Yes, sir.

I couldn’t make it out. I couldn’t see what the woman had based her judgement on. My Aunt Agatha has frequently said that sort of thing about me, but then she has known me from a boy.

P.G. Wodehouse, Very Good, Jeeves! (1930) p 124.

The 9/11 assaults on the U.S.  consulate in Benghazi and embassy in Cairo have jumped to center stage since the first reports came out on Tuesday. The press has continued to do a fine job of highlighting the religious and political issues behind the protests — this report from the AP on the Benghazi attack is quite good. The latest round of stories also addresses the question whether the assaults were spontaneous acts of religious outrage in response to an anti-Mohammad film, or where they planned attacks?

Yahoo! News’ The Lookout reports:

The deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya may have been a planned operation and not a spontaneous protest that turned violent, U.S. officials told the New York Times and CNN on Wednesday. Initial reports suggested that protesters in Benghazi, Libya, were angry about an online video that mocked the Muslim Prophet Muhammad, and then attacked the consulate, killing U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other foreign service workers. But now, according to the New York Times, officials suspect that “an organized group had either been waiting for an opportunity to exploit like the protests over the video or perhaps even generated the protests as a cover for their attack.”

There are reports out of Egypt that the Cairo assault was also a planned spontaneous political action that was awaiting a religious provocation — this was the opinion of my Christian Egyptian contacts on Tuesday. MEMRI states:

On September 7, 2012, Nasser Al-Qaeda, a prominent writer on the Jihadi forum Shumoukh Al-Islam suggested burning down the U.S. embassy in Egypt with all workers inside in order to pressure the U.S. to release Sheikh ‘Omar ‘Abd Al-Rahman aka the Blind Sheikh. In the post, titled “How can the U.S. embassy remain in Egypt while [the U.S.] imprisons Sheikh ‘Omar ‘Abd Al-Rahman,” Nasser Al-Qaeda wrote: “Oh people of Egypt, it is time [to launch] a powerful movement to liberate the mujahid Sheikh ‘Omar ‘Abd Al-Rahman.

In contrast to the foreign reporting, I’ve not been that impressed with the even handedness of the domestic stories. For example, Geoffrey Dickens at NewsBusters reports:

The Big Three (ABC, CBS, NBC) Wednesday evening newscasts devoted more than 9 minutes (9 minutes, 28 seconds) to the flap over Mitt Romney’s statement criticizing the administration’s handling of the Libyan crisis but spent just 25 seconds on questions regarding Barack Obama’s Middle-East policy, a greater than 20-to-1 disparity.

My colleague at GetReligion Mollie Hemingway today also tweeted a telling question:

Has anyone seen any MSM reports about why conciliatory messages from U.S. officials aren’t going over well with some Americans?

I would however like to single out for particular praise CNN’s story “Ambassador’s killing shines light on Muslim sensitivities around Prophet Mohammed” by Dan Gilgoff and Eric Marrapodi.

This well written, well researched, finely balanced piece from CNN provides the views of Sunni Muslim scholars who explain why a film portraying Mohammad in an unflattering light would provoke religious outrage.

Violence over depictions of the Prophet Mohammed may mystify many non-Muslims, but it speaks to a central tenet of Islam: that the Prophet was a man, not God, and that portraying him threatens to lead to worshiping a human instead of Allah.

“It’s all rooted in the notion of idol worship,” says Akbar Ahmed, who chairs the Islamic Studies department at American University. “In Islam, the notion of God versus any depiction of God or any sacred figure is very strong.”

“The Prophet himself was aware that if people saw his face portrayed by people, they would soon start worshiping him,” Ahmed says. “So he himself spoke against such images, saying ‘I’m just a man.’”

Do read the whole story. It will give you a good grounding in one of the religious angles in this affair.

My first post on this story also generated several thoughtful comments focusing on the statements issued via twitter from the U.S. embassy in Cairo. “The Old Bill” asked who had tweeted these comments, while “Ben” questioned the timeline. When did the Embassy release the tweet and press statement — before, during or after the compound was attacked?

By day’s end, these questions had entered the U.S. political arena as Mitt Romney criticized the administration over the tweets and statement. Foreign Policy Magazine’s “The Cable” has a solid story that looks at these issues, identifying the embassy staffer who wrote the tweet — and revealing the anger within the State Department over the content, timing and tone of the embassy tweets and statement.

People at the highest levels both at the State Department and at the White House were not happy with the way the statement went down. There was a lot of anger both about the process and the content,” the official said. “Frankly, people here did not understand it. The statement was just tone deaf. It didn’t provide adequate balance. We thought the references to the 9/11 attacks were inappropriate, and we strongly advised against the kind of language that talked about ‘continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.'”

Despite being aware of Washington’s objections, the embassy continued to defend the statement for several hours, fueling the controversy over it, a decision the official again attributed to Schwartz.

“Not only did they push out the statement but they continued to engage on Twitter and retweet it,” the official said. “[Schwartz] would have been the one directing folks to engage on Twitter on this.”

The State Department has long had a reputation of being disconnected from reality. Spiro Agnew is not the author of the title of this post — that honor belongs to a Democratic congressman from Ohio who in a 1948 speech condemned the reluctance of the State Department to engage with China over the fate to two downed airmen. The actions of its public affairs officer in Cairo has done the administration no good — adding yet another stanza to the song of the feckless idiots of Foggy Bottom.

First published in Get Religion.

Perils of a Polish Pop Princess: Get Religion, June 24, 2012 June 25, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Free Speech, Get Religion, Popular Culture, Press criticism.
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The deadly consequences of blasphemous speech have been the focus of some great writing on militant Islam and its intolerance of free thought. While I wish to take nothing away from these reports, I would urge GetReligion readers not to forget that censorship under the guise of hate speech laws is  alive and well at home.

While the consequences of insulting religion in America or Europe are nothing as to what might happen to a blasphemer in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia, the mindset that animates intolerance in the Middle East is not absent from the West. Last week a Warsaw appeals court upheld a lower court decision finding that Poland’s premier pop star had violated the country’s hate-speech laws by disparaging the Bible.

The Polish court’s ruling that singer and reality TV star Doda will have to pay a 5,000 Zloty fine (approximately $1500) for offending religious sensibilities is an example of this phenomena. However, the Polish press has done a great job in questioning the wisdom of laws that privilege the sensibilities of a politically well-connected constituency.

Who is Doda? According to a 2008 CNN  story entitled “Famous Poles through the ages” she is Poland’s Britney Spears.

Doda or Doda Elektroda or “the Polish Britney Spears” … was born in Ciechanow [in 1984], and is one of the most famous and successful pop singers in Poland.

Doda started her career at the age of 14 and became popular after her participation in a reality TV show “Bar.” In 2000, at the age of 16, [Doda] became the vocalist of the Polish rock band Virgin.

In December 2005 and October 2007, she posed nude for the Polish edition of Playboy Magazine. She also posed for CKM Magazine several times.

Doda received a Superjedynka award on National Festival of Polish Song in Opole in 2006.

In 2007, she left her record company, Virgin, to begin a solo career. Her first solo album was released in 2007 and was certified as gold on the day before its official release. In 2008, her album “Diamond Bitch” went double platinum after 60,000 copies of the album had been sold.

Her career has continued on its upward trajectory and she remains Poland’s most popular pop artist. And like Britney Spears, the tabloids love her — and she loves them. Her latest rendezvous with fame came with comments  she made in a 2009 interview disparaging beliefs in the inerrancy and historicity of the Bible.

The website for Radio Poland reported that:

Dorota Rabczewska, known to the public as Doda, was initially sentenced in January this year, having claimed in an interview that the Bible “was written by someone who was hammered on wine and who’d been smoking herbs.”

The Warsaw District Court rejected her appeal on Monday, upholding the original sentence.

Miss Rabczewska had been brought to court owing to complaints filed by Ryszard Nowak, chairman of the privately run Nationwide Defence Committee Against Sects, and Stanislaw Kogut, a senator for the conservative Law and Justice party.

In her original defence, the singer had claimed that she had not intended to offend anyone, and that the cited herbs “were certainly therapeutic ones” and the alcohol in question “sacramental wine.”

… At present, the Democratic Left Alliance party is working on a draft bill that will cut the maximum penalty for insulting religious feelings from two years imprisonment to six months.

Meanwhile, Rabczewska may not appeal to Poland’s Supreme Court, but her lawyer is considering an extraordinary appeal to Poland’s Omsbudsman on Civil Rights. An appeal to European Court of Human Rights could also be pursued.

Liberal and conservative newspapers in Poland have come out in favor of Doda’s right to speak her mind — even if what she has to say is offensive (or foolish).

Writing in the liberal Warsaw daily Gazeta Wyborcza on 20 June 2012, Wojciech Maziarski said:

Poland is in the grips of a sort of religious censorship. Doda’s statements offended and outraged many people. They sparked a scandal and provoked much protest. But it was precisely to protect such statements that democratic constitutional states created the right to freedom of opinion. Civil rights aren’t needed to protect uncontroversial opinions that meet with no disapproval. You don’t need to help those who swim with the current and fully agree with the majority opinion. Civil rights are meant as a guarantee for the very people who swim against the current and who offend their fellow citizens. Regardless of whether they’re right or not.

The conservative news site Wprost also objected to the criminalization of unpopular speech. Journalist Maciej Kawinski stated:

Every child knows the dinosaurs existed, and we have irrefutable proof that they did. The Bible, by contrast, contains both academically proven facts and myths better suited to a fantasy film than a historical chronicle. As a result I have no problem at all with someone who believes more in dinosaurs than in the Bible. Did the authors of the Bible drink wine and smoke hash? In some cultures marijuana is believed to be a ‘wisdom weed’.

Kawinski argued the court “should regard Doda’s statements as expressions of opinion and not an attempt to insult people’s religious feelings.”

The Radio Poland summary mentioned two issues I hope are addressed elsewhere in the press — the role of politicians in pushing hate speech prosecution and the role of self-appointed speech guardians. While the Catholic Church exerts tremendous influence in Poland, it was not the church that pushed the prosecution but a political action committee and a senator.

Who exactly is the Nationwide Defence Committee Against Sects and for whom do they speak? And is the senator from the conservative Law and Justice party pushing this issue for domestic political reasons? Are there parallels between Senator Kogut’s actions in the Doda affair and Senator Jesse Helms’ comments in the “Piss Christ” controversy?

On one level Doda’s words are akin to the stunts beloved by Madonna and Lady Gaga — actions that appear to have been undertaken to be provocative — and to sell concert tickets. And as such, some may question whether this is truly a free speech issue.

I find it hard to draw a line between the  stunts pulled by Doda, Madonna, and Lady Gaga, and middle brow épater le bourgeois events like Terrance McNally’s “Corpus Christi” or “Piss Christ”. Mockery of religion in art lost its edge about 75 years ago and is more often silly than profound.

These may be in bad taste and of dubious artistic merit but how can we distinguish them from writers such as Salman Rushdie or artists like Gilbert and George? What the Polish press is doing is setting the question of aesthetics to one side and concentrating on the right of a minority to speak against the views of the majority.

The stories in the Polish press — Radio Poland excluded — are advocacy stories, I should note. They recount the facts but are not shy about taking a side and stating their opinion. I salute them for speaking out — even if it is on behalf of multimillionaire pop stars. Would the press in the U.S. only challenge the pieties of this country — sexual orientation, race, gender, ethnicity — as the Polish press has done.

But is the Polish press really speaking out for the underdog here? Or, is their support for free speech misguided when it comes to deliberate attempts to be provocative? What say you GetReligion readers? Is there a place for speech codes — above and beyond slander laws — in journalism and in public discourse?

First printed in GetReligion.

CNN’s Sonora satanists scare: GetReligion, April 3 2012. April 3, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Syncretism.
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Maaro maaro sooar ko… (“Kill, kill, kill the pig…”): Mola Ram.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984).

Black and white — that is the way Hollywood likes its movies. By this I do not mean film stock but story line. Nazis are cinema gold. They will always be with us on the silver screen as they represent unrepentant evil. Steven Spielberg has been able to work Nazis into two of his Indiana Jones films, while the third saw a less well known, but equally unambiguous evil — the Thuggees and their high priest Mola Ram.

Spielberg took the story of the thugees, an Indian cult who worshiped the goddess of death — Kali — by murdering travelers and other unsuspecting victims, and mixed in a good helping of Aztec human sacrifice and devil worship to come up with a wonderful hiss-worthy villain.

Reading an article in CNN International this week on the murders of three people by members of the Santa Muerte cult brought this film to mind. The CNN presentation of Santa Muerte I found to be as flat and over the top as Spielberg’s thuggees. But what is praise worthy in a children’s movie is not always so in reporting.

The CNN story entitled “Officials: 3 killed as human sacrifices in Mexico” opens with:

Authorities in the northern Mexican state of Sonora have arrested eight people accused of killing two boys and one woman as human sacrifices for Santa Muerte — the saint of death — officials said Friday.

The victims, two of whom were age 10, were killed and their blood was offered at an altar to the saint, according to Jose Larrinaga, spokesman for state prosecutors. The accused were asking the saint, who is generally portrayed as a skeleton dressed in a long robe and carrying a scythe, for protection, he said.

Santa Muerte is a favorite among criminals and the country’s drug traffickers. The saint, though not recognized by the Catholic Church, has taken off in popularity in recent years.

Details of the case were laid out in a statement from the Sonora State Investigative Police (PEI), which described the cult as a “Satanic sect.”

The CNN story gives a surface description of what images of the saint look like, but does not anchor it to any bottom in the Mexican religious and cultural mileu. For an American reader the language, the nouns and adjectives used in this story are Christian — saint, Satanic, Catholic Church, altar. Yet, CNN also says the “saint” is “not recognized by the Catholic Church.” Which means what, exactly? Is this another St Christopher or St George — popular saints removed from the liturgical calendar of the Catholic Church in 1969 because their historicity was doubtful?

What I find more troubling, however, is the assumption in the CNN story that ritual murder is normative in Santa Muerte. Are all devotees of Santa Muerte bloodthirsty killers?

A confusion of language in the CNN story dulls this story’s impact. Compare it to the work of Adriana Gomez Licon and Felipe Larios of the Associated Press. They have done an outstanding job in reporting the facts, motives and police theories surrounding the ritual murders of two young boys and a middle-aged woman near the town of Nacozari. It avoids the sensationalism of the CNN lede by beginning its story with a look at the suspected murderers and then brings in Santa Muerte.

It was a family people took pity on, one the government and church helped with free food, used clothes, and farm animals. The men were known as trash pickers. Some of the women were suspected of prostitution.

Mexican prosecutors are investigating the poor family living in shacks outside a small town near the U.S. border as alleged members of a cult that sacrificed two 10-year-old boys and a 55-year-old woman to Santa Muerte, or Saint Death, a figure adored mostly by outlaws but whose popularity is growing across Mexico and among Hispanics in the United States.

The killings have shocked the copper mining village of Nacozari, on the edge of the Sierra Madre, and may be the first ritual sacrifices linked to the popular saint condemned by the Roman Catholic Church. Known as “flaquita,” or “the skinny one,” the figure known as Saint Death is portrayed as a skeleton wearing a hooded robe and holding a scythe, much like the Grim Reaper.

In addition to developing the crime angle, the AP story, entitled “Mexican agents probe family in 3 ritual murders” in the version run in the Seattle Post Intelligencer, also brings in expert voices to speak about Santa Muerte.

Before last week, there have only been unconfirmed reports of human sacrifices related to the figure in Mexico in recent years, said R. Andrew Chesnut, chairman of Catholic studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of the book “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint.”

Chesnut said the 2007 shooting deaths of three men appeared to be related to Santa Muerte because the bodies were abandoned at a shrine to the figure outside the border city of Nuevo Laredo. But they showed no signs of being sacrificial killings.

He said that although most Santa Muerte devotees consider killing a “Satanic aberration of devotion,” and that books about the Santa Muerte don’t mention human sacrifice, some followers are extreme.

“With no clerical authority to stop them, some practitioners engage in aberrant and even abhorrent rituals,” Chesnut said.

The bottom line for this expert is that mainstream Santa Muerte believers would consider ritual murder to be an aberration.

When Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was released in 1984 it was briefly banned in India for what was perceived to be a “racist portrayal of Indians and overt imperialistic tendencies.” The CNN story does not rise to this level, but I am nonetheless troubled by its failure to distinguish between aberrant forms of Santa Muerte and the wider religious movement.

Would a story whose main characters professed a mainstream faith be treated the same way as this Santa Muerte story? When all Muslims are tarred with a broad-brush of being Islamist terrorists, or all Christians as intolerant fanatics by the antics of Fred Phelps — intelligent readers rightly complain that this is ludicrous. Yet CNN appears to be able to get away with this sort of hasty generalization about an unpalatable and somewhat far away religious movement.

First printed in GetReligion.

Canadian honor killing and Islam: Get Religion, January 31, 2012 January 31, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Islam, Multiculturalism, Press criticism.
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An Ontario jury has convicted three members of the Shafia family — father, mother and son of an Afghan family living in Quebec — of murder in what has become Canada’s most notorious “honor killings” case. There has been some great crime and court reporting in the Shafia case, and the articles in the major newspapers are really quite good

But some of the analyses have fallen short and in a few cases come across as special pleading that there is only one legitimate view in Islam on these issues, when experience tells us that there is not a single view on the morality of honor killings in Islam — just as there is no single Islam.

“Pay no attention to the facts in these cases, trust our experts” is the line taken by CNN on this issue. While it is important to hear why some Muslim scholars believe honor killings are not condoned in Islam, one is left wondering why we do not hear from those who support this barbaric practice, or who can explain why it is such a widespread belief.

Do a little digging and you will find these voices. Do a little more digging and you will see that the legal codes of a number of Muslim-majority states do not in practice punish honor killings, or punish their perpetrators far less severely than they do others convicted of murder.

Lets look at the news reports from Canada and then the piece from CNN.

The lede sentences in the article entitled “Judge condemns ‘sick notion of honour’” in the Globe & Mail sets the scene nicely:

The murder trial of three Afghan-Canadians accused of drowning four relatives in a so-called “honour killing” came to a cathartic end Sunday afternoon as the defendants were convicted on all charges.

Before the trio were led away in handcuffs and shackles to begin automatic sentences of life imprisonment with no possibility of parole for 25 years, each proclaimed their innocence, and they were visibly upset.

Mr. Justice Robert Maranger of Superior Court was unmoved. Their crimes stemmed from “a sick notion of honour that has absolutely no place in any civilized society,” he told the packed courtroom.

… “It is difficult to conceive of a more despicable, more heinous crime. The apparent reason behind these cold-blooded, shameful murders was that the four completely innocent victims offended your completely twisted concept of honour, a notion of honour that is founded upon the domination and control of women.”

Staring hard at the defendants, the judge said: “There is nothing more honourless than the deliberate murder” of the three teenaged girls and their step-mother.

Other Canadian press accounts are equally spirited. The Toronto Star opened its account, entitled “Shafia family members guilty of first-degree murder,” with:

This is blessed Canada. They won’t be “hoisted onto the gallows,’’ But they’re going to prison for life.

Mohammad Shafia: Guilty on four counts of first-degree murder. Tooba Mohammad Yahya: Guilty on four counts of first-degree murder. Hamed Shafia: Guilty on four counts of first degree murder.

In our country, men and women are equal. A female’s life is worth as much as a male’s. In our country, femicide is homicide.

The National Post’s columnists took an even stronger line:

By using the words “honourless” and “shameless”, [Judge] Maranger was tossing back at Shafia some of the very epithets he used so often when speaking about his dead daughters.

The mass honour slaying of Zainab, Sahar and Geeti — respectively 19, 17 and 13 — and 52-year-old Mohammad, Shafia’s other, and sadly barren, wife, ranks among the worst in the sordid history of honour crimes.

Let me set the terms of the debate for this post. What I am not saying is that honor killings occur only in Islam. They occur in other religions as well.

Nor am I saying that all Muslims support honor killings. They do not, as CNN has reported.

Nor am I saying the question of religion was ignored. The major newspapers for the most part bit the bullet and mentioned the I-word — how the killers’ interpretation of their faith shaped by the cultural mileau in which they were formed could have provided a sanction for their crimes.

My question is how religion was used to explain motive in this story and whether a blanket denial that Islam supports honor killings is sufficient when the Star reported during the trial that a wiretap recorded the killer justifying his deeds by reference to his faith.

To his wife, Shafia allegedly assured that the right actions had been taken: “I say to myself, you did well. Were they to come back to life, I would do it again. No Tooba, they messed up. There was no other way. They were treacherous. They betrayed us immensely. There can be no betrayal worse than this. They committed treason on themselves. They betrayed humankind. They betrayed Islam. They betrayed our religion. They betrayed everything.”

Some articles rule out of bounds any discussion the influence Islam may have on honor killings. In other words, an appearance of unequal treatment is created where Islam is given a pass that reporters would not give to other faiths.

GetReligion reader Ray McCalla directed my attention to an article in CNN entitled “Islam doesn’t justify ‘honor murders,’ experts insist” as an example of this tendency. Mr. McCalla wrote that he kept waiting for CNN:

to find a voice who does think that honor killings are justified by Islam. But no, it was just an apologetic piece, defending “true,” moderate Islam. The subtext seems to be that the perpetrators are acting on a perverted version of Islam or just backwards culture. But is that true, or just what the Western media want to be true?

His point is well taken. The CNN story states:

Leading Muslim thinkers wholeheartedly endorsed the Canadian judge’s verdict, insisting that “honor murders” had no place and no support in Islam.

“There is nothing in the Quran that justifies honor killings. There is nothing that says you should kill for the honor of the family,” said Taj Hargey, director of the Muslim Educational Centre of Oxford in England.

This is a a good strong quote and the rest of the CNN story continues similar statements and assertions. But which constituencies do these CNN-selected Muslim scholars represent? Do all Muslim scholars share these views? What is the difference in authority between a scholar, a sheik, an imam, a mufti, a kadi? How do their views, teachings or fatwas influence the faith of Muslims?

In a 4 Dec 2008 interview with Al-Hayat TV, Wafa Sultan argued that honor crimes arose from within Islam.

The subjugation of women reduces them to a level lower than beasts – not to mention the laws of inheritance, testimony in court, the beating of a wife who refuses to go to bed with her husband, and ‘honor’ crimes. “Muhammad said in a hadith: ‘Three things spoil one’s prayer: a woman, a black dog, and a donkey.’ Do they ever give this any thought? Do they realize that Allah chose the female body for his greatest invention – creation itself? Wouldn’t it be moral to bestow upon the female body a certain holiness, instead of viewing it as impure?”

Should we take Dr. Sultan seriously? She is a Syrian-born physician and human rights activist who now lives in Southern California and was profiled by Time magazine in 2006 as one of the “100 men and women whose power, talent or moral example is transforming our world.”

How about Ayaan Hirsi Ali? Writing in the Huffington Post Canada about the Shafia case, Ms. Ali stated:

The experiences of the Shafia sisters are becoming all too familiar. A recent spate of honour violence perpetrated in the United States exemplifies the tragic incompatibility between Western liberties and radical Islam.

Can we assume that there is a common moral code across faiths? If the reporting does not lay out why these killers interpreted their faith as allowing them to kill their children, the reader is left to conclude that the killers are moral monsters, are fanatics or insane. Radical Islam, though repellent to Western sensibilities, appears to justify honor crimes, Ms. Ali argues — should not reporters attempt to explain why this is so?

First published in GetReligion.

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