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Muslim vs. Christian in the Central African Republic?: Get Religion, February 11, 2014 February 17, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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The pictures and reports out of Central African Republic are grim. The country is in the grips of a civil war that is pitting predominantly Muslim tribes against Christian and Animist tribes. The violence is especially fierce around the city of Bangui, the capital. The city is home to a Muslim minority of migrants from the East and North and neighboring Chad as well as soldiers of the Séléka militia of former President Michel Djotodia.

The carnage around Bangui has received great play in the French press — most likely because that is where the reporters are. Muslims have gathered at the city’s airport to seek protection from African Union and French troops, while in the city individual Muslims and Christians have been murdered by rival mobs. Le Monde and Le Figaro reported on one particularly gruesome incident, which both newspapers saw as emblematic of the country’s collapse into chaos.

The French newspapers have done a sterling job in reporting on this unfolding crisis. One of the ways their work has stood out is that they did not come to Bangui unencumbered with knowledge about the country’s past. A former French colony, the Central African Republic’s squalid history (remember Emperor Bokassa I?) is not new news. The French press has refrained from describing this as a religious civil war — but has treated the fighting as a tribal and political clash with religious overtones.

Yes, their is an al Qaeda angle, and the CAR is on the tenth parallel — the front line between Islam and Christianity in Africa. But the French press has not resorted to the easy answer of religious hatred driving this conflict.

So what’s been happening?

On Wednesday the country’s interim president, Catherine Samba-Panza, attended a military parade in the capital. A man watching the review was seized by some of the soldiers and accused of being a spy for the Séléka militia. In full view of Western reporters and some government ministers the man was beaten to death.

Le Figaro wrote:

La scène a duré de longues minutes pendant lesquelles des soldats de l’armée régulière, certains en uniforme, ont lynché à coups de pieds, de briques, de barres de fer l’un des leurs, accusé d’être un ancien Séléka, la rébellion à majorité musulmane. L’assassinat, mercredi en plein jour et en public, a engendré une fureur et un plaisir effarant dans la troupe. La vue du corps démembré a fait l’effet d’une fête.

Ce massacre d’un homme mercredi à Bangui n’était pas un simple massacre de plus dans une ville qui en a déjà connu beaucoup. C’est le symbole d’un pays qui ne parvient pas à calmer ses esprits, à juguler les vengeances. «C’est un drame, un mauvais signal. Je ne comprends même pas comment on peut être aussi bête et aussi méchant», assure, affligé, un officier français.

The scene lasted several minutes. Soldiers of the regular army, some in uniform, lynched a man they accused of being a former member of the Muslim Séléka militia, kicking him and beating him with bricks and iron bars. The assassination on Wednesday in broad daylight and in public  created a furor as well as great pleasure for the the crowd. < The sight of dismembered body created a party atmosphere.

The massacre of a man Wednesday in Bangui was not a simple killing in a city that has already experienced many more deaths. It is the symbol of a country that fails to calm his mind, to curb revenge. “This is a tragedy, a bad signal. I do not even understand how people can be so stupid and so mean,” said a distressed French officer.

The Washington Post‘s reporter in Bangui has also written of the fear gripping the city. In a story entitled “Tens of thousands of Muslims flee Christian militias in Central African Republic” published the day after the lynching, the Post offered vignettes that illustrated the dire situation facing Muslims in Bangui. These human interest angles made this piece stand out — and demonstrated the value of having a reporter on the spot. Well done.

But the article also illustrated the dilemma of reporters and editors covering a story from the ground but neglecting to offer context and history. The article begins:

Tens of thousands of Muslims are fleeing to neighboring countries by plane and truck as Christian militias stage brutal attacks, shattering the social fabric of this war-ravaged nation.

In towns and villages as well as here in the capital, Christian vigilantes wielding machetes have killed scores of Muslims, who are a minority here, and burned and looted their houses and mosques in recent days, according to witnesses, aid agencies and peacekeepers. Tens of thousands of Muslims have fled their homes.

The cycle of chaos is fast becoming one of the worst outbreaks of violence along Muslim-Christian fault lines in recent memory in sub-Saharan Africa, tensions that have also plagued countries such as Nigeria and Sudan.

The brutalities began to escalate when the country’s first Muslim leader, Michel Djotodia, stepped down and went into exile last month. Djotodia, who had seized power in a coup last March, had been under pressure from regional leaders to resign. His departure was meant to bring stability to this poor country, but humanitarian and human rights workers say there is more violence now than at any time since the coup.

The article does state the violence is not all on one side:

Christians have also been victims of violence, targeted by Muslims in this complex communal conflict that U.N. and humanitarian officials fear could implode into genocide. Several hundred thousand Christians remain in crowded, squalid camps, unable or too afraid to return home.

But attacks on Muslims in particular are intensifying, aid workers said.

To which I would write — “Yes, but … ” and point to the contrasting tone of the French stories.

The attacks on the Muslim minority are appalling, but there is no explanation from the Post as to why the attacks are taking place now — and why they are so vicious. The language used in this story — though understandable to American ears — does not paint a true picture of what is going on. It is tribe against tribe — tribes who happen to be predominantly Muslim or Christian or Animist — that is driving this.

The violence we are witnessing began not in the past few weeks but in December 2012 when a coalition of rebel groups from the eastern CAR called Séléka (primarily composed of Muslim ethnic Gula bolstered by Chadian and Sudanese volunteers) launched an assault on the government of President François Bozizé, an ethnic Gbaya.

This civil war has forced nearly one million people to flee their homes, a majority of them from the northwestern region of the CAR that borders Cameroon and Chad, with over 370,000 displaced persons now in Bangui Reuters reported last month. The U.N. reports approximately 2.2 million people, more than half of the country’s population, are in immediate need of humanitarian assistance

Following Séléka’s seizure of power in Bangui in April 2013, the organization’s leader, Michel Djotodia, was elected as interim president. Séléka, although officially disbanded by Djotodia, was accused by Human Rights Watch and several other NGOs of engaging in a regime of terror against their opponents, systematically killing, raping, torturing Gbayas (who are mostly Christian).

In response to Bozize’s ouster and the violence that followed, President Bozize organized an anti-Séléka village based militia called the anti-Balaka that are concentrated in Bangui and in the northwest, Liberation reports. Agenzia Fides reported on January 27 there were significant numbers of non-Christians, followers of animist and indigenous African religions, among the  anti-balaka militias.

… not all members of Séléka are Muslims and above all the majority of the anti Balaka militia are not Christians. These militias existed before the seizure of power of the coalition Seleka in March 2013. According to a survey published by the newspaper Ouest France, which interviewed a member of the anti Balaka, self-defense groups were created in the north of the Country at the instigation of former President Bozizé (overthrown in March 2013) to protect the people from bandits raging in the region.

“Before the anti Balaka fought street bandits because the police and the army were incapable of fighting them”, explains Fr. Jean Marius Toussaint Zoumalde, a Capuchin of the convent in Saint-Laurent in Bouar (north-west). According to the Capuchin most of the members of these militias “are animists, not Christians. Their marabouts give them amulets (gri -gris) to protect them from bullets. They are young people who for years have protected their villages and their territories”.

The anti Balaka are present in all communities whether they are animists, Christians or Muslims. But most of them are animists.

Why this excursion into CAR politics? Because the Post is not telling the full story about the war in the CAR. While American ears can hear Muslim v Christian and comprehend their meanings — I would expect most would tune out if presented with a story about the Séléka and the anti-Balaka militias.

The writers at Get Religion seek to raise omitted or distorted religion angles in news stories. That does not mean we see religion as the key issue in every story. Religion is one of many factors in human experience. The Post has, in my opinion, put too much emphasis on faith at the expense of other issues missing the nuance of the interplay between faith and politics.

First published at Get Religion.

Schiavo Redux: Get Religion, January 21, 2014 January 30, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Abortion/Euthanasia/Biotechnology, Get Religion.
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A French court has ordered a Reims hospital to provide nutrition and hydration to 38-year old quadriplegic Vincent Lambert, who has been in a state of minimal consciousness (en état de conscience minimale) for five years following a motorcycle accident.

Last Thursday a tribunal administratif overruled the wishes of the hospital, Lambert’s wife and some of his siblings who wanted to cut off intravenous feeding. The court sided with his parents and his other siblings, who as observant Catholics, objected to euthanizing him. Le Monde reports the Lambert case will reopen the contentious debate about euthanasia, the value of life and human dignity in France.

Have we not heard this before?

The Lambert case has a number of parallels with Terri Schiavo saga in America: a spouse ready to move on vs. Catholic parents not ready to let go; no clear statement of the patient’s wishes, conflicting medical terminology of persistent vegetative state v. minimal consciousness; political intervention by Congress and partisan debates in the French parliament; and a high profile role played by Catholic bishops. While it is early days yet, the most striking difference is the different decisions reached by the courts.

In Florida the courts came down on the side of death, even though the presumption of the law is in favor of life, while in France they have chosen life, even though euthanasia is legal.

The hospital authorities can now appeal against the decision before France’s Constitutional Council. The French press reports the Lambert case comes amidst a growing social and political debate over legalizing assisted suicide and euthanasia. President Francois Hollande this week entered into the fray, saying he favored the legalization of euthanasia, but covered his bases by saying it was appropriate only under strict government scrutiny.

A 2005 law permits passive euthanasia, where a person causes death by withholding or withdrawing treatment necessary to maintain life. According to Aujourd’hui en France the court ruled against death as Lambert’s condition was not terminal.

Le tribunal a notamment «jugé que la poursuite du traitement n’était ni inutile, ni disproportionnée et n’avait pas pour objectif le seul maintien artificiel de la vie et a donc suspendu la décision d’interrompre le traitement». La juridiction a par ailleurs estimé que «c’est à tort que le CHU de Reims avait considéré que M. Lambert pouvait être regardé comme ayant manifesté sa volonté d’interrompre ce traitement».

The court’s ruling “held that continuing treatment was neither unnecessary nor disproportionate and was not intended only for the artificial preservation of life and accordingly suspended the decision to stop treatment.” The court further held that “it is wrong for [the hospital] to have decided that Mr. Lambert could have been regarded as having expressed a desire to discontinue treatment.”

Le Figaro explained the court in Chalons-en-Champagne ruled against ending Lambert’s life as he was neither “sick nor at the end of life … “, « ni malade ni en fin de vie ».

The French newspapers I have seen have done an excellent job is covering this story. The Aujourd’hui en France story quotes doctors and family members on both sides of the debate, a spokesman for the French Episcopal Conference, and the politician who introduced the 2005 euthanasia law to parliament.

Le Figaro and Le Monde are equally even handed in the sourcing of their stories and in the description of Lambert’s condition and the court ruling.

How different the French reporting on Vincent Lambert has been so far compared to the job the American press did with the Terri Schiavo case. It will be fascinating to see if the New York Times and other outlets on this side of the Atlantic pick up the story, and whether they use the phrase “brain dead” — a legal not medical term the French press have so far avoided.

First printed in Get Religion.

Viva la Eurorévolution: Get Religion, December 3, 2013 December 3, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism, Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Ukrainian Orthodox (Kiev Patriarchate), Ukrainian Orthodox (Moscow Patriarchate).
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Religion ghosts haunt the stories out of Kiev this week, but the Western press has yet to hear their shrieks.

The events unfolding across the Ukraine — protests against the government’s move away from Europe towards Russia — are not faith stories as defined by editorial desks in London and New York, but the clash of nationalism and politics in Eastern Europe cannot be understood without reference to religion.

The Guardian‘s reporter in Kiev has described the scene on Monday morning:

Throngs of anti-government protesters remained in control of parts of central Kiev on Monday morning, as police kept their distance and Viktor Yanukovych’s government pondered its next move. After huge protests on Sunday, during which several hundred thousand people took to the streets of Kiev to call for the president’s removal, protesters erected makeshift barricades around Independence Square – the hub of the 2004 Orange Revolution. Nearby, the main City Hall building was taken over by protesters without police resistance on Sunday evening.

Many of the windows were smashed and “Revolution HQ” was daubed in black paint on its stone Stalinist facade. Inside, hundreds of people milled around receiving refreshments; many who had travelled from the regions to Kiev were sleeping on the floor.

The independent Eastern European press has characterized the street protests as a revolution.  Lviv’s Vissoki Zamok, stated that nine years after the Orange Revolution, “the Eurorevolution” was underway.

It is symbolic that on December 1, the anniversary of the referendum in favor of independence that took place 22 years ago, Ukraine was once again the theater of mass demonstrations in support of its sovereignty, the rights of its citizens and its European future.

Why is this happening? Protestors have taken to the streets to denounce President Viktor Yanukovych for refusing to sign an association and free-trade agreement with the European Union at the Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius on November 29.

In a front page above-the-fold editorial on Monday the Parisian daily Le Monde stated:

Demonstrations of love for the European Union are sufficiently rare these days for them to be rather arresting. Absorbed by the debt crisis, the struggle for more growth and lower unemployment, the rise of populism and the management of its enlargement, the union has forgotten that it retains a formidable power of attraction. For people who do not benefit from the rule of law, Europe symbolizes the hope for freedom, democracy, and modernity.

This is the message sent to us by tens of thousands of Ukrainians who have been gathering day after day to protest on the squares of Kiev and the other cities of the country.

Reading Le Monde‘s editorial and related news coverage one might think les citoyens of Kiev were linked arm in arm marching to the seats of power singing La Marseillaise. But an American might well ask why a trade treaty would spark such an uproar. What is going on here?

It is in the secondary stories that we see glimpses of the religion ghosts. Reuters reports that when attacked by riot police, some protestors took refuge in an Orthodox cathedral and barricaded themselves inside a monastery.

Around 100 Ukrainian pro-EU protesters took refuge from police batons and biting cold on Saturday inside the walls of a central Kiev monastery. With a barricade of benches pushed up against a gate to keep police out, protesters – who had rallied against President Viktor Yanukovich’s decision to reject a pact with the European Union – checked their wounds in the pre-dawn light.

Some attended a 6 a.m. service in the lilac and gold St. Michael’s Cathedral on the monastery grounds after which a group of bearded, black-robed monks approached protesters to hear of their encounters with police and urge them not to seek revenge. “They gave us tea to warm us up, told us to keep our spirits strong and told us not to fight evil with evil,” said Roman Tsado, 25, a native of Kiev, who said police beat him on his legs as they cleared the pro-EU rally.

Further down in the story Reuters tells us what sort of church it was that gave shelter to the protestors.

The Ukrainian Orthodox cathedral, where the faithful light candles before gilded icons of saints, was destroyed during the religious purges of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and rebuilt after independence.

What Reuters neglects to mention is which Ukrainian Orthodox church belongs to. St Michael’s belongs to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kiev Patriarchate — not the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate.

What of it you might well ask. There are three principal churches in the Ukraine. One under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church, or Moscow Patriarchate; an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church or the Kiev Patriarchate; and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church.

And the three churches have taken differing stands on the protests, with the Kiev Patriarchate and the Greek Catholics backing the country’s realignment towards Europe, while the Moscow Patriarchate backs the president’s alignment with Vladimir Putin’s regime in Moscow.

Speaking at the Heritage Foundation in Washington last month Patriarch Filaret of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate) was reported to have said:

[T]he Ukrainian Churches would benefit from an Association Agreement. For one thing, it would place the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) in a new situation. With Ukraine committed to Europe and continued independence, that Church would have to decide which side it was on – that of Russia, or that of the Ukrainian people. By siding with Russia, the UOC-MP would assume the role of a fifth column for a hostile state. If, on the other hand, it sided with the Ukrainians, it would be obligated to unite with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate (UOC-KP) into a single Ukrainian Orthodox Church, independent of Moscow.

Statements released by the three churches in the wake of the uprising illustrate these religio-political calculations. The Kiev Patriarchate and the Greek Catholic Church have lent their support to the demonstrations — and as Reuters reports opened its churches to protestors as a safe haven from the police. The Moscow Patriarchate in Kiev has backed President Yanukovich — and its call for calm echoes the president’s public statements to date.

By raising these religion points, I am not stating the Eurorevolution is being driven by religion. I am arguing that a well rounded news report should touch upon the religion angles in this story — provide the context for a Western reader to understand. Not all of the protestors are motivated by religious fervor — but religion lies close below the surface of national politics east of the Oder and a good reporter should relate this information to his readers.

First printed in Get Religion

As on a darkling plain – Prozac and France: Get Religion, November 29, 2013 November 29, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Matthew Arnold, Dover Beach, stanza 3, (1867)

More bad news for France.

The lede in the back cover story (page 22) in the Nov 26, 2013 issue of Le Monde reports: « La France a perdu un record. Mais personne ne s’en plaindra. » (France has lost a record, but no one will be complaining.)

The article entitled « La France n’est plus leader dans la consommation d’antidépresseurs » reports La belle France has lost its coveted status as Europe’s number one country for pill-popping.

Parmi les champions d’Europe de la consommation d’antidépresseurs en tout genre, le pays est maintenant largement distancé dans sa fringale de psychotropes. Selon le rapport 2013 de l’Organisation de coopération et de développement économiques (OCDE) sur la santé (« Health at a Glance 2013 ») publié le 21 novembre, l’Hexagone se situe même sous la moyenne des 23 pays du classement, ex aequo avec l’Allemagne ! Une prouesse au pays de la « sinistrose ».

Once among the European champions in the consumption of antidepressants, the country has lost ground in its consumption of psychotropic munchies. According to the 2013 report “Health at a Glance” from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development published on Nov 21, l’Hexagone (France) is even below average of the 23 countries ranked, and is tied with the land of gloom, Germany. Quite a accomplishment!

The article reports that France is tied with Germany and Slovenia in 15th place in consuming 50 doses per 1000 people per day, while Iceland reigns supreme with 106 doses per day. The French are now less depressed than the Danes (4), Swedes (5), Portuguese (6), British (7), Belgians (9),  Spanish (10), Norwegians (11),  and Luxembourgers (12).

Greece did not turn in any data, the article adds, but notes the number of suicides in that country has risen 45 per cent from 2007 to 2011.

It is in its discussion of the “why” — why the increase in the use of antidepressants that this piece strays into Get Religion land.  Quoting Gaétan Lafortune, the coordinator of the report, Le Monde writes:

La crise? « l’idée que la récession, le chômage ont plongé certains individus dans une profonde détres se », note M. Lafortune.

The crisis? “We can not rule out the idea that the recession and unemployment has plunged individuals into deep depression,” notes Mr. Lafortune.

However, he adds that in Germany where there is “almost full employment” the use of “antidepressants increased by 46 per cent between 2007 and 2011″, while the “lucky country” of Australia is second on the list of antidepressant consumers. Le Monde further muses on the apparent lack of correlation between economic well-being and consumption of antidepressants, finally coming to the conclusion the increase is due to the lack of stigma surrounding mental illness and over prescription of pills by physicians.

Perhaps, but is there not a religion ghost here as well? Could, or should, Le Monde have addressed the question whether the decline of religious faith, the moral ennui and entropy that has taken hold of Europe been considered? Would the discussion of the “why” been improved by a question or comment or two from psychologists or religious leaders addressing the issue of the meaning of life?

France is after all the land of Sartre, Camus and existentialism. Whether it was couched in faith, philosophy or psychology this story would have been stronger with a discussion of the “why” that moved beyond materialism.

“[F]or the world, which seems,” Matthew Arnold wrote in stanza four of Dover Beach,

To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night

First posted in Get Religion.

Who’s afraid of les jeunes of France?: Get Religion, July 16, 2013 July 16, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Islam, Press criticism.
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Nick: Are you all right?

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

George: Show her where we keep the … euphemism.

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

Honey: We’ll be back, dear.

Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transport Minister, Frédéric Cuvillier told i-Télé on Saturday, July 13 he had no knowledge of criminal delinquents “stripping the victims” following the Brétigny-sur-Orge train disaster, as rumors indicated yesterday. The minister reported “isolated incidents”, “a person arrested” for the “attempted theft of laptop”  and a stated a “small group of firefighters received a rough welcome”. ” But “real acts” [of violence]? No,” The minister added that “to his knowledge” there had been no “stripped of victims.” Immediately after the accident, according to witnesses interviewed by Le Monde, about thirty youths from the area tried to steal the bags and cellphones of the victims. They also stoned firefighters. Then they were moved out of area by the CRS. The clashes continued for some time afterwards.

An American reader, were he unfamiliar with the euphemisms used by the European press, might well assume a gang of juvenile delinquents was involved. Perhaps the Sharks and Jets? The deployment of the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS) to disperse the gangs and the mention of stone throwing are likely to solidify the impression in the average reader those involved were Muslim youth of Arab, North African or African extraction.

Is the press doing its job when it resorts to this sort of short hand? I believe not. Not every French delinquent is Muslim. But for fear of causing offense to those who are perpetually aggrieved, the euphemism “youth” gives the impression that all criminals are young Muslims — or all Muslim youth are criminals. The attempt to avoid stigmatizing some members of a disaffected minority serves to stigmatize all.

Lousy reporting plays its part in poisoning social relations between communities. Who’s afraid of the youths of France? The AFP for one.

First printed in Get Religion

Missing the grasshopper in the stem cell debate: Get Religion, December 7, 2012 December 8, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Abortion/Euthanasia/Biotechnology, Get Religion, Roman Catholic Church.
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Master Po: Ha, ha, never assume because a man has no eyes he cannot see. Close your eyes. What do you hear?
Young Caine: I hear the water, I hear the birds.
Master Po: Do you hear your own heartbeat?
Young Caine: No.
Master Po: Do you hear the grasshopper that is at your feet?
Young Caine: Old man, how is it that you hear these things?
Master Po: Young man, how is it that you do not?

D0 you remember “Kung Fu?” From 1972 to 1975 ABC broadcast the story of Caine, a Sino-American Shaolin monk tramping across the old West in search of enlightenment and his half-brother. Following upon the martial arts craze of the early 1970′s, “Kung Fu” also instructed America in  the wisdom of the East. Like the Charlie Chan movies of an earlier generation, each episode episode included a faux pearl of oriental wisdom — a philosophical bromide designed to expand the viewer’s conscious.

The deep thought from this episode, young grasshopper, is the distinction between seeing and perceiving. One can see but still be blind to the world around you. Let’s take this lesson and apply it to Wednesday’s reports in the press on the embryonic stem cell vote in the French Senate. (How’s that for a transition …)

In several posts at GetReligion I have lauded the European advocacy model of reporting, where a news story is unashamedly presented from a particular partisan political view. Read the coverage about the same issue in Le Figaro (right), Le Monde (center) and Liberation (left) and you will have a good appreciation of a subject.  (So long as they are not talking about the United States.) My accolade for a partisan press is premised on there being a conversation — a dialogue between the reader and the newspapers — where all the facts are presented and disparate interpretations are offered for the intelligent reader to assess.

This model does not work well, however, when newspapers devote different space and resources to a story — or when an important perspective is ignored. Le Figaro, Le Monde and Liration — generally considered to be France’s newspapers of record — offered good first day stories on the Senate vote but fell down in the follow up. The politics were done well, the moral issues were not. Here is some background:

The major newspapers reported that the French Senate on 4 Dec 2012 passed the first reading of a bill to overturn the country’s ban on embryonic stem cell research. In 2004 France outlawed research on fetal stem cells and the ban was re-affirmed on ethical grounds in 2011 by the conservative government. The new Socialist government, however, has backed a bill allowing the research.

The parties of the left, the Socialists, Radicals, Communists, all voted in favor, while the conservatives split. The final vote was 203 to 74 — 63 conservative senators were either not present for the vote, or abstained.

All three of the major French newspapers had extensive quotes from senators for and against the measure. Liberation had the most extensive coverage, Le Figaro the least — but from a journalistic perspective all did a solid job as a reader could understand and assess the arguments proffered by both sides. The government and it supporters held that fetal stem cell research would be a boost to French science, would lead to scientific discoveries that would save lives, and would be strictly regulated by the government allowing no “commodication” of stem cells.

The conservatives said fetal stem cell research was immoral, scientifically unnecessary and contradicted established government policy.  From Le Figaro:

« “Il s’agit d’un revirement à 180 degrés » a protesté Dominique de Legge (UMP).  « Les cellules souches adultes ne sont-elles pas une alternative crédible à la recherche sur l’embryon? » s’est-il demandé.

Roughly translated — “This is a 180 degree turnabout,” protested Dominique de Legge of the conservative Union pour un Mouvement Populaire party. “Are not adult stem cells a viable alternative to embryos for research,” he asked.

And:

Jean-François Copé, président proclamé de l’UMP, a dans un communiqué publié avant le début de la discussion vivement critiqué le texte.« Ce projet de la gauche est un renversement complet de la logique actuelle du Code civil qui garantit le respect de la vie et de la dignité humaine », a-t-il estimé.

Jean-Francois Cope, president-elect of the UMP was strongly critical of the bill. In a statement released before the debate he stated: “This project of the Left is a complete reversal of the current logic of our Civil Code which guarantees respect for life and for human dignity.”

The second day stories took a geographic turn, with regional newspapers reporting on how their senators voted. What was nt reported was the news the French Episcopal Conference denounced the bill on ethical grounds. Outside  the Catholic press, I found one mention of the church’s response — in Le Telegramme, a conservative paper from Brittany.

Le Croix, is a “Catholic” newspaper but not a “church” newspaper. By this I mean it is a general interest newspaper, with approximately 100,00 subscribers — roughly a third the size of the big three — and is written from a Catholic intellectual and moral perspective. It covered the senate debate in detail, but also ran a story on the reaction from the hierarchy.

The article “Mgr d’Ornellas juge« choquant » le vote du Sénat autorisant la recherche sur l’embryon” stated the Archbishop of Rennes, Msg. Pierre d’Ornellas was “shocked” by the vote.

Speaking on behalf of the French Episcopal Conference, the archbishop said the church objected to the vote on moral and political grounds.

« L’embryon humain a le droit d’être protégé … », indique Mgr d’Ornellas selon qui le Sénat « a remis en cause ce respect ».

“The human embryo has a right of protection,” Msg. d’Ornellas said, and the Senate “has challenged this respect.”

And:

« Cela est choquant. Et un tel changement est opéré sans même qu’un véritable débat ait eu lieu.»

“This is shocking. And such a change is being made without any real debate taking place.”

Msg. d’Ornellas saved his best argument for last. For goodness sakes, even the Germans do not allow experimentation on embryonic stem cells, protested the archbishop.

« L’Allemagne maintient l’interdiction de recherche sur l’embryon humain. Faudra-t-il que ce soit l’Allemagne qui soit en avance dans le respect dû à l’être humain ? »

“Germany maintains the ban on human embryo research. Will Germany be ahead of us in the respect due to human beings?”

None of this saw the light of day except in Le Croix and other Catholic outlets. All three of the majors reported on the ethical questions raised in the Senate debate — but I’ve not found where they followed up with a report on the the source of these ethical questions — the Catholic Church.

Here is one of the problems of advocacy reporting — the omission of news that does not fit into the worldview of the editorial board of a newspaper. When there is a multitude of voices, there can be a multitude of angles for a story. But as this story demonstrates — it can also lead to the silencing of important aspects of a story. We hear the birds. We hear the water, but do not hear or see the grasshopper at our feet.

First printed at GetReligion.

Whistling in the dark about Islam and reform: Get Religion, December 3, 2012 December 3, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Civil Rights, Get Religion, Human Sexuality --- The gay issue, Islam, Press criticism.
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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.

First printed in Get Religion.

Michelle Obama as Political Art: Get Religion, August 31, 2012 August 31, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Politics, Press criticism.
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Is this Spanish news magazine cover of Michelle Obama art or porn? Is it racist and sexist? Or is it a political fantasy of the noble savage, an incisive commentary on the centrality of Mrs. Obama’s sexuality in the presidential election campaign? Is it Granada I see or only Asbury Park in this profile of the First Lady?

The cover ignited a firestorm of controversy and prompted accusations of racism in the “black blogosphere”, the Huffington Post reported. But behind the fun over the racy cover lay an article that exemplified a secular worldview — a philosophical construct about the meaning and purpose of life that sees the acquisition of power as the chief aim of life and where God is absent (or far off on the margins.)

But before I become too airy fairy let’s start with the fun. On 9 Aug 2012 Fuera de Serie, a weekly magazine insert of the Madrid business daily Expansión published a profile of Michelle Obama. The article “Michelle se como a Obama” was illustrated by a cover painting of the First Lady draped in an American flag and posed in the style of a famous 19th century painting — Portrait d’une Négresse on exhibition at the Louvre by French artist Marie-Guillemine Benoist (1800).

On 29 August the magazine published the full text of the story and some background to the cover in an online piece entitled “La polémica desnudez de Michelle Obama”.

The initial controversy was missed by the American press, but animated African-American publications and blogs.  The Huffington Post put the story into play within the mainstream press, shortly followed by Le Monde and other American and European publications. But their coverage focused on the cover, not the content of the article.

The Huffington Post was not pleased. It quoted one blogger as saying:

“By choosing to use such a jarring image to tell the story of how America’s first lady “seduced the people of the United States” and “stole the heart of Barack Obama,” as Fuera de Serie describes her,” writes Brande Victorian of Madame Noire, “it’s clear the magazine agrees with that mentality and wants to spread the message loud and clear: todavía estamos esclavos. We are still slaves.”

It cited other black interest publications who voiced similar objections, and likened the furore to the 2008  New Yorker cover that portrayed Michelle and Barack Obama as afro-centric terrorists.

Some European observers saw this negative reaction as an example of America’s lubricious Puritanism — a sentiment best summarized by Pascal Bruckner in last year’s Dominique Strauss-Kuhn affair.

It’s not enough though to describe [America] as puritanical because what governs [America] is a twisted puritanism which, after the sexual revolution, talks the language of free love and coexists with a flourishing porn industry.

Le Monde was less censorious than the Huffington Post and suggested the cover might not be so bad. It said the Portrait d’une Négresse was a celebration of the abolition of slavery and a symbol of liberation, of modernity, of freedom.  It also gave the artist, Karine Percheron Daniels, space to deny charges of racism.

In my eyes, the image I created is of a beautiful woman with a beautiful message. For the first time in history the First Lady of the United States is a black woman who proudly displays her femininity (nudity), her roots (the slave) and her power (first lady of the United States embraced by the American flag). … I’m not racist. I’m trying with my art to show the beauty not the dirt.

So what is going on here? And where is the GetReligion ghost in all of this? Let’s go inside the story and see.

Like the cover painting, “Michelle se como a Obama” and “La polémica desnudez de Michelle Obama” are artistic interpretations of the meaning of Michelle Obama. Facts are present, but the meaning of these facts are a construct of the author who frames the article from the very beginning as a hagiography. Michelle Obama is a secular left-liberal saint, whose:

popularity ratings exceed those of her husband, President Barack Obama. Experts even suggest that she will be the key to the reelection of Democrat in November elections. But how the first lady has managed to [steal the hearts] of the American people?

The article answers this question by contrasting Saint Michelle with the Wicked Witch of the West: Sarah Palin. While “attractive” and “quintessentially America” the former Alaska governor was also “vulgar, predictable, uneducated and arrogant.”

Mrs. Obama in contrast is “sleek, friendly, outgoing, direct, sometimes irreverent, and mother of two daughters.”  A woman whom nine out of ten voters believe “shares their values and understands their problems,” Fuera de Serie said. The article continues along these lines before moving to the heart of the story — the “why” of Michelle Obama.

Michelle is the daughter of Fraser Robinson, a worker who earned her living scrubbing floors in a water treatment plant in the city of Chicago, at the rate of $ 479 per month.

And it was this solidarity with the workers that drove the young Michelle to go on to Princeton and Harvard Law School and with Barack champion the cause of the poor and oppressed and right the “injustices” of the Bush Administration.

From the humble streets of their city [Chicago] emerged a community spirit, the spark that drove her husband to pursue his presidential dream …  even though politics was “a waste of time” that would detract from [Barack Obama’s] responsibilities as a father and husband.

And like any good story from the Lives of the Saints, the article recounts tales of the miraculous and promises of divine intervention through the invocation of the saint’s name. For you see Michelle Obama is a better campaigner than her husband, one expert voice told Fuera de Serie, and her “passion and drive have triggered fantasies” that if her husband loses to Mitt Romney in the Fall, Michelle can carry forward the banner of change.

Let me step back a moment and say I am not denigrating or advocating the re-election campaign of President Barack Obama, nor am I slighting the First Lady. My target is this dreadful news profile of Mrs. Obama that is so over the top, so ludicrous, so one-sided that it is more likely to lead to ridicule than to admiration of its subject.

And absent from this entire story is any sense of what lay behind the family values and ethics of the parents that reared the young Michelle Robinson on Chicago’s South Side. Belief in God? Belief in history? We have snippets and slogans that hint at solidarity with the masses, but nothing else. The Michelle Obama in this article is identical to the artists portrait on the cover — a stylized fantasy that represents a cause, but is not representative of a person.

So GetReligion readers, tell me, is this racist, sexist, or vulgar? Is it beautiful, ennobling, a celebration of hope and change for a better world? Or am I taking a shovel to a souffle — seeing shadows and specters where none exist? What say you?

First printed in GetReligion.