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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.

BBC Bias? Sharia law and Egypt: Get Religion, August 24, 2012 August 24, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Islam.
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Above all – Allah is our goal… The shari’a, then the shari’a, and finally, the shari’a. This nation will enjoy blessing and revival only through the Islamic shari’a. I take an oath before Allah and before you all that regardless of the actual text [of the constitution]… Allah willing, the text will truly reflect [the shari’a], as will be agreed upon by the Egyptian people, by the Islamic scholars, and by legal and constitutional experts…

Mohammed Mursi: Jihad Is Our Path, Death for the Sake of Allah Is Our Most Lofty Aspiration, the Shari’a Is Our Constitution. Misr-25 TV, 13 May 2012. Video clip and translation provided by MEMRI.

From time to time it is important to remind readers (and me) about GetReligion‘s mandate. This site does not seek to discuss religious issues of the moment and their intersection with politics, culture, the arts, economics and the like. It critiques press coverage of religion. The underlying issues are not central to a GetReligion story line.

Nor is this a “gotcha” site. I have made mistakes as a writer and have suffered from the deprivations sub-editors pruning and mis-titling my work. An example of a religion article that is not a proper GetReligion story is this article from the Seattle Times entitled: “Pakistani Christians flee after girl, 12, is accused of blasphemy”.

The subheading states: “A 12-year-old Muslim girl is in jail while Pakistani police investigate allegations that she burned a Quran, a crime that, if she is convicted, carries a life sentence.”

Now this is a dumb mistake. The girl is described as Christian in the article but called a Muslim in the subheading. This is not a question of the Seattle Times not getting religion, but a sub-editor’s mistake.

The mission of GetReligion is to point out what our editor TMatt calls “religion ghosts” — examples of an article misunderstanding, omitting or denigrating the role religion plays in a story. A classic example of this sort of religion ghost appears in a BBC story printed today entitled “Egypt requests $4.8bn loan from visiting IMF chief”.

The story opens:

Egypt has asked the International Monetary Fund for a $4.8bn (£3bn) loan to help revive its struggling economy. The request was made during talks in Cairo between President Mohammed Mursi and IMF chief Christine Lagarde.

Ms Lagarde said the IMF would respond quickly, while Prime Minister Hisham Qandil said he hoped the deal could be finalised before the end of the year. It is needed to cover budget deficits resulting from shrinking tourism and foreign investment revenues.

The article unfolds as a straight forward international finance story, discussing Egypt’s parlous economy, its “balance-of-payments crisis and high borrowing costs”, summarizing negotiations with the IMF, exploring possible U.S., Qatari and Saudi aid, and describing the terms of the loan:

After meeting [IMF chief Christine] Lagarde on Wednesday, Prime Minister Qandil said he expected the IMF loan would be for five years, with a grace period of 39 months and an interest rate of 1.1%.

Perhaps you are asking yourself where the GetReligion angle lies? Is this not a straight forward, somewhat dull, international economics story? Yes — but go back to the top of the article and look at the comments made by candidate Mohammed Mursi to the Muslim Brotherhood. If elected he would govern Egypt under the dictates of Shari’a law — which means a banking system without interest.

Throughout its time in opposition and underground, the Muslim Brotherhood denounced Western banking as being contrary to Shari’a. Sayyid Qutb, the ideologue of the Muslim Brotherhood interpreted the Koran’s verses on riba (interest or usury) to apply to commercial banking.  He accused banks of “eating the flesh and bones” of the poor and “drinking their sweat and blood” through the charging of interest. Hasan al-Banna, the founder of the Brotherhood, in 1947 wrote to the leaders of Muslim state calling for them to repudiate Western banking practices in favor of interest-free Islamic banking.

The religion ghost in this story is whether Mohammed Mursi will jettison his protestations about Sharia law being the cornerstone of his administration in exchange for cheap interest loans from the West to keep his economy afloat.

Reuters and the Telegraph made no mention of the religion angle in their stories also, while the AP noted that past negotiations had been stalled by opposition from the Islamists.  The Financial Times reported:

Analysts say the IMF’s loan terms could impede its acceptance by an Islamist government with populist pretences and a rhetorical commitment to thinning the gap between rich and poor.

The religious ramifications of the interest bearing loans were not omitted in the Egyptian press however. The Egypt Independent reported:

The government should not borrow from the International Monetary Fund to boost the country’s cash reserve, the Salafi Nour Party stated on Wednesday.  “Borrowing from abroad is usury,” said Younis Makhyoun, a member of the party’s supreme committee. “God will never bless an economy based on usury.”

Mahkyoun called on Prime Minister Hesham Qandil to find other ways to raise funds instead of “allowing foreigners to interfere in our affairs.” The government should reduce spending, apply an austerity policy, set a maximum wage, apply Islamic regultations to stock exchange speculations and repatriate funds siphoned abroad, Makhyoun added.

Al-Ahram reported the left was outraged too by the prospect of IMF loans.

Dozens of demonstrators, meanwhile, protested outside the Cabinet building in downtown Cairo during Lagarde’s visit. Protestors, consisting mainly of leftist and revolutionaries, called on Egypt to reject the loan.

They chanted slogans and held signs against the proposed loan –and capitalism in general – such as “No to crony capitalism,” “Down with capitalism,” and “Reject the loans.”

“Why did we have a revolution? Wasn’t it to improve the living conditions of the people? We know that the money from these loans is pilfered by the authorities and will only lead to the further impoverishment of the people,” protest organiser Mary Daniel told Ahram Online.

IMF and World Bank loans are notorious among leftist activists in Egypt, as in the rest of the world, as they are generally seen as a means of spreading capitalism throughout the world.

The state-run daily, which has the largest circulation of any newspaper in Egypt, also noted that  Islamists had been quiet.

Notably, Islamist political forces – which rejected a similar IMF loan offer last April – were nowhere to be seen in Wednesday’s protest.

In April, Egypt’s Islamist-led parliament said that the government’s economic programme failed to provide details on how the key problems facing Egypt’s economy – namely, unemployment and security – would be solved.

Some Islamists went so far as to say that such loans were haram (religiously proscribed) since they relied on interest, which is forbidden according to the tenets of Islam.

Let me offer a historical analogy. In the Fall of 1932 Adolf Hitler toned back his anti-Semitic tirades and played the bourgeois, President Paul von Hindenburg, the army and Germany’s wealthy industrialists. When he was appointed chancellor in 1933 some expected the Nazi leader’s anti-Semitism would dry up as he had achieved his goal of power.

The liberal German-Jewish playwright Carl Zuckmayer wrote at that time:

… even many Jews considered the savage anti-Semitic rantings of the Nazis merely a propaganda device, a line the Nazis would drop as soon as they reached power.

At that time it seemed reasonable that Hitler would drop the anti-Semitic rantings that had helped bring him to power as it no longer served a rational political or economic purpose. Are we seeing something similar happening in Egypt?

Is the Morsi government shedding its ideology, its fundamental commitment to a state governed by the dictates of Sharia law in return for cheap Western loans? Now that the army has been neutered, parliament dissolved and the opposition broken Mohammed Morsi can do as he likes. It would seem to make rational sense that he would drop his anti-modernist religious views now that he has a modern state to run — but will he?

Is there a religious ghost in the IMF story? Is the BBC bringing a Western secular worldview to this story that misses its inherent non-Western faith-driven elements?

Should these two stories be kept separate? Keep financial news in the business section and religion in the Saturday lifestyle supplement? Or, is there a religion angle in this finance story that must be explored in order for the reader to understand? What say you GetReligion readers?

First printed in GetReligion.

Is Reuters denying Holocaust denial? — Get Religion August 4, 2012 August 4, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Politics, Press criticism.
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Finding the line between sensation and responsible reporting can be a difficult task. There are times when the subject of a news story will say something outrageous that causes a reporter to lay down his pen and ask, “Did you really mean that?” Over the top quotes can make a story pop — providing better placement in a newspaper and a brief “buzz” for the story. It can also distort the narrative, changing the story from the issues under discussion to comments about the issues.

I’ve played this game. When writing for the Jerusalem Post a few years back I submitted a story about a call for divestment from Israel made by the General Synod of the Church of England. The article moved from the back of the newspaper to the front page after the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey told me the vote made him “ashamed to be an Anglican” — this comment ensured the story was a three-day wonder.

On another occasions I have omitted comments from a story that were equally strong — but would have distorted the story by changing the focus from the issue to offensive or dumb comments made by one of the subjects of the story.

A recent Reuters story on comments made by a Hamas spokesman following the visit to Auschwitz by an aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas brought this issue to mind. Should Reuters have given the complete quote? Should Reuters have mentioned the religious angle lying beneath the story? Let me show you what I mean. “Hamas slams Palestinian visit to ‘alleged’ Holocaust site” begins:

The Hamas Islamist group in charge of the Gaza Strip on Wednesday denounced a Palestinian official’s visit to the site of a Nazi death camp in Poland, and called the Holocaust in which 6 million European Jews perished an “alleged tragedy.”

Ziad al-Bandak, an adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas who governs in the occupied West Bank, had made a rare visit by a Palestinian official to the site of the Auschwitz death camp late last month.

“It was an unjustified and unhelpful visit that served only the Zionist occupation,” said Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for Hamas. Hamas rejects Israel’s existence and interim peace accords reached by Abbas’ more moderate Fatah group with Israel.

Barhoum further called Bandak’s visit to Auschwitz, a camp where the Nazis killed 1.5 million people, most of them Jews but also other Polish citizens, during World War Two, as “a marketing of a false Zionist alleged tragedy.”

He said he saw this as coming “at the expense of a real Palestinian tragedy,” alluding to Israel’s control over territory where Palestinians live and seek to establish a state.

The article continues with mention of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust denial and the political split within the PA between the Hamas controlled Gaza Strip and the Fatah controlled West Bank. The story closes by saying:

Bandak’s visit to Auschwitz, where he laid a wreath at the invitation of a group working for tolerance in Poland, was a rare one by a Palestinian to the death camp site. Muslim officials from other countries have also paid respects there.

Last week the AP reported on plans for the trip and included the detail that Bandak was a Christian.

Ziad al-Bandak, a Christian who advises Abbas on Christian affairs, visited prisoner blocs, gas chambers and a crematorium in the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex, which the Germans built and operated in southern Poland during their World War II occupation of the country.

Does this nugget advance the story, or does it polarize it by adding a faith dimension to Holocaust denial and Anti-Semitism?

And, the invaluable MEMRI news service provided the full quote from the Hamas spokesman, which was much stronger than the version printed by Reuters. The report entitled “PA Official’s Auschwitz Visit Evokes Enraged Responses from Hamas” said:

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said: “The visit helped Israel to spread the lie of the Holocaust, and does not serve the Palestinian cause. It has been clearly proven that the Israeli narrative [of the Holocaust] is fraudulent. [The Israelis] exaggerate what happened in order to garner international sympathy, which for years has come at the expense of the Palestinians.”

The “lie of the Holocaust” quote is extraordinary. Its omission lowers the temperature of the story. But does the omission change the story?

The traditional school of Anglo-American journalism seeks to present the world as it is, seeking to separate the reporter’s worldview from the narrative. But is that possible? In the example I offered from my own work, I demonstrated how I sought to exercise editorial judgment in preparing a story. I led with the ashamed quote in the  JPost story because I did not believe it was dumb — but others might say that it was a foolish statement that distracted from the underlying story.

Omitting mention of the Christian faith of the Palestinian statesman and downplaying the severity of the Hamas quotes, Reuters chose to exercise its editorial judgment — letting us know what it believed was important. I disagree with this judgment. To my mind the faith of Ziad al-Bandak and his position as an adviser on Christian Affairs is significant to the story as it sets up the underlying split between Hamas and Fatah — Christians are under the gun in Gaza and reports place the blame on Hamas.

I would also argue that Reuters sanitized Barhoum’s words. A story about reactions to the visit would not have been distorted by Barhoum’s extraordinary, delusional — some would say evil — comments. What say you Get Religion readers? Did Reuters let down its readers? Should it have led with the “lie of the Holocaust” or was it right to downplay these sentiments? Is Reuters denying Hamas Holocaust denial?

First printed in Get Religion.