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Koran-Offensive in Die Welt: Get Religion, April 18, 2012 April 18, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Free Speech, Get Religion, Islam, Press criticism, Terrorism.
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Who says the Germans don’t do comedy well? An article in a recent issue of Die Welt — “Koran-Offensive alarmiert Deutschlands Parteien” shows this not to be so. As I read the article, which tip-toes round the issue of radical Islam in Germany, my mind harkened back to an episode of the television series Seinfeld.

In the “Koran-Offensive” we know what Die Welt is talking about when it mentions Salafists or radical Muslims, but the paper will not say what it means. It sidles around the issue, performing a verbal silly walk that implies radical Islam is un-German, small minded, uncultured and a generally bad thing.  Die Welt knows that we know, but is reluctant to say this aloud.

What we do have is a story about the distribution of Korans that is slightly strange. The story arc tells us that freedom of religion and expression is a good thing, freedom to distribute Korans during Holy Week is a bad thing. Or, is it that those doing the distribution are the bad thing? The article is not quite sure.

It is like “The Outing” episode of Seinfeld. Whilst seated at a cafe, Jerry, George and Elaine notice that a young woman in a nearby booth eavesdropping. In a spirit of fun, Elaine speaks to Jerry and George intimating that they are a secret gay couple. The woman reappears shortly thereafter when she arrives at Jerry’s apartment on assignment from her student newspaper. During the interview, the interplay between Jerry and George strengthens her belief the two are a gay couple. They then recognize her from the coffee shop and deny they are gay, closing each of their denials with the catch phrase “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

The humor in this episode came from the interplay between George’s and Jerry’s fear of being taken for homosexuals against their fear of being homophobic. The audience knows the truth about Jerry and George, but takes pleasure in their panic.

The Die Welt article follows the same line in its Good Muslim/Bad Muslim story.

Here is the lede, taken from the English translation provided from Worldcrunch.

After more than 300,000 copies of the Muslim holy book were reportedly distributed in German cities during Christian holy week, major political parties have announced that they will push for closer monitoring of Salafist groups advocating fundamentalist Islam.

The Christian Democratic Union and the Christian Social Union, known as the Union parties, and Alliance ‘90/The Greens, have all declared their concern about the massive free distribution of the Koran launched by Ibrahim Abou Nagie, a Cologne-based businessman and preacher with Palestinian roots. According to Abou Nagie, the 300,000 copies were distributed at information booths and over the Internet, with the purchase of one copy entitling the buyer to another Koran free.

The timing of the action is thought to be a particular provocation for Christians, as thousands of the copies of the Koran were distributed around Good Friday and Easter.

Abou Nagie — one of Germany’s most influential Salafist leaders — has been charged in Cologne with inciting the public to commit illegal acts and disturbing the “religious peace.” The Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution has been monitoring Salafist groups, which is why this distribution of religious literature – normally not a cause for concern – is being seen in another light.

The article then shifts to comments from spokesmen from the major political parties, each of whom offered a version of “Not that there’s anything wrong with that (Islam).”

“I view the distribution campaign of free copies of the Koran by Salafists with great concern,” said an SDP spokesman, but added she had “fundamentally nothing against the distribution of religious literature as long as this is not associated with encouraging criminal acts or defamation.” The Green party spokesman told Die Welt. “Distributing the Koran is certainly not forbidden by the law, but this should be monitored very carefully by the police.” And a spokesman for the governing CDU/CSU parties called for “an urgent stop” to be placed on the “machinations of the growing radical Salafist movement in Germany.”

Germany’s churches were described as “maintaining a low profile”. An EKD spokesman stated that “Fortunately, in Germany it is not forbidden to distribute religious literature,”but “Of course I hope that in countries where Islam is the religion of the majority that the distribution of Bibles were allowed.” While a Catholic spokesman said the Salafists were not interested in dialogue, and view tolerance and any form of integration for Muslims as toxic.

Only the Greens seemed prepared to speak up. Its spokesman answered the question I had — why was this a problem — by saying:

the Koran campaign was “very worrisome, because calls to violence and terror have repeatedly risen from these radical Muslim splinter groups, which is why it is entirely justified for them to be watched by security authorities.”

A Green politician of Turkish descent, Cem Özdemir, added that he had a:

“problem with any religious group that puts their vision of the world above basic law, the Constitution and human rights. So that also goes for the Salafists, who do encourage violence, and whose ideology is a front for Islamic terrorism.” It was apparent, he said, “that the strategy underlying this campaign is to represent themselves as the mouthpiece of Muslims and to propagate what they would claim is the true Islam. The Salafists can’t be allowed to get away with this.”

Moderate Muslim groups said the right things in Die Welt’s narrative.

“The Koran is not some PR flyer to be handed out like mass merchandise,” Ayman Mazyek, the chair of the Central Council of Muslims, told the Catholic News Agency. Kenan Kolat, the chair of Germany’s Turkish community, said the action reminded him of Jehovah’s Witnesses. While it was not forbidden to distribute the Koran, Kolat told Die Welt that “the question to be asked are: Are the Salafists acting aggressively? Are they disturbing people?”

And a spokesman for the group giving out 300,000 Korans said?

We don’t know as their voice does not appear.

On its face the idea that distributing 300,000 Korans is a threat to public order in an open democracy seems ludicrous. The article asserts those handing out the books are not good, or acculturated westernized Muslims, but does not say what it is about the Koran getting into the hands of Germans that makes it a danger to public order.

This question is made even more curious by the Seinfeld answer given by those opposed to its distribution. “We’re against giving out the Koran, not that there is anything wrong with that.”

The answer is not the Koran, of course, but the people handing it out. But there is a reticence to make this clear save for the Greens. The BBC’s coverage of this story managed to include the objections voiced by political leaders but offered a few words of context that cleared away the absurdist Die Welt story structure.

Last summer, the president of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Heinz Fromm, said: “Not all Salafists are terrorists.  “But almost all the terrorists we know about had contacts with Salafists or are Salafists themselves.”

Is this part of the cultural cringe we see in some quarters — an ease at criticizing Western norms and culture, but a reticence to speak out about the “other”? Should Die Welt have made it clear at the top of its story the suspected link between Koran distribution and terrorism? Or would that have vilified Muslims as a whole, for the actions of a radicalized minority?

How should the press handle this? Who speaks for Islam?

What say you GetReligion readers?

First printed in GetReligion.

IVF after Death: Get Religion, March 9, 2012 March 10, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Abortion/Euthanasia/Biotechnology, Get Religion, Press criticism.
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Bottle of mine, it’s you I’ve always wanted!
Bottle of mine, why was I ever decanted?
Skies are blue inside of you,
The weather’s always fine;
For … There ain’t no Bottle in all the world
Like that dear little Bottle of mine.

I expect most GetReligion readers will recognize this passage from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The 1932 novel portrays a world without mothers or fathers. Where humanity is engineered as embryos. A world where babies are decanted not born.

An article in the German daily Die Welt entiled “Witwe kämpft um das Sperma ihres toten Mannes” (Women fights for her dead husband’s sperm) brought this book to mind — as well as the ’70’s flick the Boys from Brazil.

Die Welt has printed a sympathetic account of a 29 year old widow’s attempt to conceive a child through In Vitro Fertilization from the sperm of her deceased husband. The hook for this story is that her quest flies in the face of German laws which forbid the use of sperm or eggs from a deceased person in artificial insemination. An English version of the article can be found here.

As my colleagues at GetReligion have noted, the moral issues surrounding IVF are seldom addressed in the U.S. press. But in this German article we find no hint that there are any moral and ethical questions involved. What we have in this story is a piece about desire, with no degree of self-awareness that the article treats children as commodities.

The story begins:

Rike R.’s face radiates joy as she remembers her husband – her soulmate. Despite the tough-guy impression his multiple tattoos and piercings may have given off, he was in fact a very shy man, she recalls.

The 29-year-old woman talks about their five years together, and the fact that life gave her such a great love – something she had thought would never be hers. Her mood changes quickly, though, as she is reminded of their shattered dream of having a child together. Going over in her head the details of her husband’s recent passing, of how she held him in her arms, she begins to sob with her whole body, the tears flowing down her cheeks.

And it continues in this vein, recounting her husband, Holger’s, unsuccessful battle with cancer.

“We’d planned to have a child, and so we decided that, before chemo began, Holger would have some sperm frozen,” says the young widow. They also married, and she began hormone therapy. Things took an unexpected turn in February of this year, however, when Holger’s condition suddenly worsened dramatically. He was running a very high temperature, and could no longer eat. Just a few days later, on Feb. 11, he died.

And in paragraph six (of twelve) we reach the issue raised in the headline.

Shortly afterwards, Rike R. suffered a second shock when the clinic for reproductive medicine told her — one week before she was due to be artificially inseminated — that the hormone therapy would be stopped and that her husband’s sperm could neither be used nor handed out to her. Technically they should also destroy the sperm, doctors said, but in view of Rike R.’s present emotional fragility they would not proceed with that right away.

The clinic’s strict adherence to the rules is fueled by fears of legal repercussions should it in any way be construed as aiding and abetting a pregnancy that under German law can no longer take place. It is strictly forbidden in Germany to use the sperm or eggs of a dead person for artificial insemination. “My only hope was that I could still have our baby,” says Rike R. And she doesn’t understand why “what we so wished for together, the thing Holger deeply wanted to happen when he died and which is my only consolation now that he’s gone” can’t happen.

The author’s voice appears at this stage ..

The clinic’s position may seem heartless, but it is in accordance with German laws governing the protection of embryos. Violations are punishable, so clinics commit to using neither the sperm nor eggs of a deceased person for artificial insemination. Nor will they even release them, for fear that a person could take the sperm or eggs abroad to a country where insemination under those conditions would be legal.

The article winds down with a vow from Rike that she will fight on, and a note that her cause has been taken up by fans of a local football (soccer) club in Hamburg.

So what’s the problem? Die Welt appears to believe that there is only one side to this issue — Rike’s desire to have a child with her dead husband. There is no discussion of why German law forbids artificial insemination from the eggs or sperm of the dead. The article manipulates the reader by placing Rike’s feelings against that of the clinic’s “heartless” conformity to the law. The assumption underlying this story is that personal desire has primacy over all other considerations. Because Rike wants a child to be conceived with her dead husband, she should have a right to this child.

I find that frightening — and somewhat creepy. My reading of this tragic story is that Die Welt does not appear to hear the moral or religious chords that posthumous parenting sound. After reporting upon Rike’s desire it appears satisfied that it has done its job and abandons further discussion of “why”.

This story appears to have been written in isolation to the intellectual, legal and religious debates the issue has generated in Europe. The Catholic and Evangelical churches in Germany have released a number of joint statements that support the state’s tight controls on IVF. There is no mention of this — nor even an awareness from Die Welt that this might be germane.

Nor do we hear about the wider legal and ethical debates taking place. In 2011 the Supreme Court of New South Wales ruled that the preserved sperm of a deceased man was the property of his estate. The court held that the dead man’s wife thus held a property interest in the sperm and could use it for IVF. The husband died before he gave his express written consent for the use of his sperm after death — a requirement under Australian law. Written consent was no longer necessary prior to IVF treatment because sperm, eggs, embryos are property in Australia — the ramifications of that are extraordinary.

The U.S. Supreme Court has also been asked to decide whether children conceived through IVF after the death of their biological father are entitled to receive Social Security survivor benefits. How human are these children?

In the Caputo case, the Social Security Administration denied a claim filed by a women on behalf of her twins born 18 months after the death of their father. The issue before the court is whether children conceived after the death of their father may receive Federal welfare benefits, even though they cannot inherit personal property from the father under state intestacy laws.

We have reached the point where “Developing reproductive technology has outpaced federal and state laws, which currently do not address directly the legal issues created by posthumous conception,” the Third Circuit Court of Appeals has noted.

This article could have been done a number of different ways. If Die Welt wanted to keep away from the moral issues, it could have lightened the tone — acknowledging the existence of moral questions, but using humor or some other distraction to indicate that it was not going there.

Sonja: Oh don’t, Boris, please. Sex without love is an empty experience.
Boris: Yes, but as empty experiences go, it’s one of the best.

From Love and Death by Woody Allen (1975)

Instead we have a tearjerker tailor made for Bette Davis. There is no subtlety, no nuance, no real reporting. Die Welt would have done a much better job in placing Rike’s tragedy against the state’s reasons for not acceding to her wishes. That would have been a compelling article. Instead we have this weepy puff piece.

What say you GetReligion readers? Should Die Welt have broadened its focus? Am I being heartless? Are there two sides to this issue? How should journalists report upon the ethical implications of IVF? Are there ethical implications to IVF from the eggs or sperm of the dead? Have we made having children a fetish — or is this a natural right? Can we even speak of natural rights when they are achieved by unnatural means?

First printed in GetReligion.

Does the Holocaust belong to Jews?: Get Religion, January 19, 2012 January 19, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Judaism, Press criticism, Roman Catholic Church.
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““The canonization of the SS” is the front page headline for the 11 January issue of  the Tageszeitung, the left-liberal Berlin daily.

Illustrated by a photo of Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler inspecting members of the Estonian division of the Waffen-SS, the TAZ story reports that a bill before the Estonian parliament seeks to grant Estonian members of the SS the status of “freedom fighters.”

While similar bills failed in 2006 and 2010, “majority support appears to guaranteed” during this legislative session, the TAZ reports. A second article appears on page 4 and reports the Russian embassy in Tallinn has described the bill as “blasphemous,” while the German Green Party has criticized a “retrospective justification of the atrocities perpetrated by Hitler’s henchmen in the Soviet Union.”

Die Welt has the story also. On 12 Jan in “Estland denkt über Ehrung der Waffen-SS nach” it reported on the details — and provided a very good history of the Estonian division of the SS.  Worldcrunch offers a summary in English of the article here.

As an aside, Worldcrunch paraphrases stories, it does not translate them in a strict sense. This can lead to differences of meaning and shading. For example the Die Welt title in Worldcrunch is “Push To Honor Estonian SS Nazi Unit Sparks Outrage.” The Die Welt title in German I would translate as “Estonia is thinking about honoring the Waffen-SS after [70 years].” No “outrage” in the German title, nor does “push to honor” have the same meaning as “thinking of honoring” while the German title has “after” tagged on at the end, to which I would add “70 years” or “further tries in parliament.” Do bookmark Worldcrunch as it is a great source for overseas reporting.

Die Welt offers this additional history (my translation):

The Holocaust began in the Baltic states at the same time as Estonia was occupied by German troops. Jews had to flee the country, but as Estonia is the northernmost and easternmost of the three small states, they had the best chance to escape. Approximately three-quarters of the small Jewish population either left with the retreating Red Army or fled to Finland.

The remaining thousand who were classified as Jews according to Nazi racial criteria were killed — mainly by Einsatzkommando 1a under the command of Martin Sandberger, who until his death in late March 2010 was the last living top SS leader. At the Wannsee Conference [held on 20 Jan 1942] Estonia was declared judenfrei [free of Jews] by the Nazis after the murder of 963 people. …

In addition to the approximately one thousand Estonian Jews, at least 250 Roma and six to seven thousand Christian Estonians were killed during the German occupation. Tens of thousands of Soviet prisoners of wars as well as Jews from other states were also killed during the occupation in internment caps built on Estonian soil during the war.

Die Welt examines the Estonian SS involvement in the Holocaust and in anti-partisan campaigns, but notes:

Unfortunately all that remains of the records of this unit are three meager files in the German federal archives. There is a book about Estonians in the Waffen-SS, but it was written by an admirer of the military arm of the SS and was published by a small, far-right-leaning publisher. Its contents should clearly be viewed with caution.

However, the campaign to honor SS men as freedom fighters, supported mainly by nationalist parties in Estonia, comes from their role in trying to hold back the tide of the Red Army in the first six months of 1944. The daft legislation is expected to come before parliament in Tallinn in March.

Both newspapers do a good job in bringing this story to light. While Die Welt gives a great overview to this corner of history, the TAZ is more forthright in its condemnation. It warns against “beatifying the SS,” and reminds readers that the Simon Wiesenthal Center described the Baltic SS units as being part of the Nazi “structure of blood and death.”

There are enough religion and ethical ghosts in this story to keep me occupied for weeks. However, I want to raise a few surface items as well as a deeper issue that is being played out in Europe — who owns the Holocaust?

“Provide both sides of the story” is a mantra each journalist learns early in his career. One of the most frequent criticisms offered by GetReligion is the lack of balance in a story — of providing only one set of facts. However, is this criticism valid when dealing with Nazis? Neither paper offers space to neo-Nazis, Holocaust deniers or right-wing nationalists to defend the pro-SS legislation. Die Welt offers the history, as does the TAZ to a lesser extent, that would explain motivation, but Mr. A. Hitler is not given a platform. And I believe the papers were correct in this decision.

The TAZ use of the language of religion is significant. Religion is almost always absent from the left-wing TAZ’s pages, but its use here is more than that of an arch or facile description. To my mind it symbolizes the moral and psychological uneasiness Germans (and Estonians) feel with this issue. The SS is being beautified, being canonized as modern saints by Estonian nationalists in their crusade against the Russians and the Communist past. While the vocabulary is used, there remains strong tie here between nationalism and religion that is left unaddressed in the stories.

To my ears, the story also raises the vexed question of who owns the Holocaust? Die Welt reports that almost ten times as many Christian Estonians as Jewish Estonians were murdered by the Nazis. Yet all of the Jews were killed. Is there an equivalence of suffering here? Because more Christians died than Jews — and because the Soviets killed more Estonians than the Germans, does that give moral ownership of this issue to Estonian nationalists?  Where can the line be drawn between wholesale murder of innocents and the unique evil that was the Nazi’s Final Solution?

This episode reminds me of the “War of the Crosses” that began at Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1979. Following Pope John Paul II’s mass at the Nazi death camp, which he described as being the “Golgotha of the modern world,” local Catholics erected a small cross by Bunker 2 to honor Edith Stein — a converted Jew who had become a Carmelite nun before her death in the gas chambers.

In 1984 the controversy escalated when Carmelite nuns opened a convent in a brick building that had been used by the Nazis to store Zyklon-B gas crystals. The 26-foot cross used in John Paul II’s 1979 service was then moved by the nuns to a spot just outside the Auschwitz I wall where more than one hundred Polish partisans had been shot. Jewish leaders complained of the impropriety of Christianizing the site of the extermination of European Jewry, but the nuns refused to go.

Jewish complaints prompted a response by Polish nationalists who erected a further three hundred crosses.  The Polish parliament then ordered the extra crosses to be removed but allowed the papal cross to remain. John Paul II resolved the issue in 1993 by ordering the nuns to leave Auschwitz.

Can one be human and be impartial when writing a story about the SS? Is it wrong for Christians to dispossess Jews of the Holocaust? Who owns history and how should faith groups handle public expressions of faith in a pluralistic society? (Does the World Trade Center mosque controversy spring to mind to anyone?) How should reporters handle this issue when writing about the Holocaust and the SS? Is it even possible?

What say you GetReligion readers on this point?

First printed in GetReligion.