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What does it mean to be transgendered in India?: GetReligion, April 18, 2014 May 9, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Buddhism, Get Religion, Hinduism, Press criticism.
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Is it possible to write intelligently about sex in the non-Western world for an American media audience? Or, is our culture so narcissistic, so incurious, so parochial that a newspaper would be wasting its time in attempting to explain the difference between our world view and their’s?

A recent spate of articles in the American press about Tuesday’s decision by the Indian Supreme Court creating a “third gender” under law prompted these musings. Stories in the Washington Post and MSNBC about the Indian court ruling are so slanted for an American audience (and these outlet’s particular audiences) that there is but a tenuous link between their reporting and reality.

The pro forma MSNBC story begins:

Transgender people in India no longer have to categorize themselves as “male” or “female” in official documents. India’s Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling Tuesday that allows hundreds of thousands of transgender people to identify themselves as a third gender. Human rights groups are lauding the decision as historic and groundbreaking.

The article follows a standard formula for legal news and provides snippets from the decision.

“It is the right of every human being to choose their gender,” the court wrote. “Recognition of transgenders as a third gender is not a social or medical issue but a human rights issue,” Justice K.S. Radhakrishnan, one of the two head judges on the Supreme Court bench, told the court.

The article notes what the implication of the ruling might be:

The high court has ordered the government to allocate public sector jobs to transgender people, known as “hijras” and include them in welfare programs.

And also offers comments from a high profile transgender activist and refers to arguments made in the brief. It then offers political and legal context to the ruling and closes with a word of hope from the LGBT community.

While India now recognizes the transgender community as a third gender, the ruling only applies to transgender people and not gays, lesbians or bisexuals. In December, the Supreme Court reversed a 2009 court order that decriminalized homosexuality, reinstating a ban on gay sex. India’s general elections will be held on May 16, and LGBT rights activists hope the new parliament will repeal the anti-gay law.

All in all the structure and tone of this story is what one would expect of an MSNBC story about an American court decision on transgender issues. Voices opposed to the ruling would have provided balance and developing the apparent contradictions between this latest ruling and the December 2013 ruling criminalizing gay sex would have been welcome.

Yet, this is not a story about America, but India. And the American left-liberal model, with all of the assumptions implicit in that world view, does not work.

First off, can we assume that an American transgendered person is the same as an Indian transgendered person, or what the article calls a hijra?

According to the leading study on India’s transgendered community, With Respect to Sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India by Gayatri Reddy, hijras are:

phenotypic men who wear female clothing, and ideally renounce sexual desire and practice by undergoing a sacrificial emasculation — that is, the excision of the penis and testicles — dedicated to the goddess Bedhraj Mata. Subsequently they are believed to be endowed with the power to confer children on newlyweds or newborn children.

Hijras do not occupy the same place in Indian culture as the transgendered do in America. First hijras are almost exclusively male to female. Second they have a quasi-religious cultural roll in Hindu society and have been present, though on the fringes of that society, for thousands of years.

Can we also assume that gender identity in America is equal to gender identity in India? In her monograph Reddy notes that by the 3rd Century (AD or CE) the view that there were three genders was being debated in Buddhist, Brahmanical and Jain thought. For Brahmans sexual identity was founded upon the presence or absence of certain primary sexual characteristics. For Buddhists it was controlled by procreation with the impotent consigned to the third sex. But the Jains argued that biology was only one marker of sexual identity. One’s psychological gender was as important as one’s physiological gender in establishing sexual identity.

And, what is the role of Islam in all of this. Hijra is an Urdu word and Indian popular culture associates hijras with those parts of India where Muslim influence is strongest.

And, how can we understand the court’s decision’s recognizing a third sex yet upholding criminal penalties for homosexuality? I am no scholar of Indian law, but could the quasi-religious understanding of the hijras be at work? It seems India’s courts are moving in an opposite direction than America’s — in the West sexual identity is tied closely to sexual activity while the Indian courts seem to separate the two.

Let me say that the issue being addressed by this post is not the moral worth of transgendered people or the rights and wrongs of the Indian court decision. Nor am I saying that every foreign news story be accompanied by a scholarly monograph.

I am asking whether it is possible to understand the issue of the hijra without a single reference to religion in the MSNBC story? Treating this story as if it were an exotic version of Bowers v. Hardwick may come naturally to an American newspaper, but it leaves the reader ignorant of what has happened.


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.

Does adultery = prostitution for the WPost?: Get Religion, January 24, 2014 January 30, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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Nothing optional—from homosexuality to adultery—is ever made punishable unless those who do the prohibiting (and exact the fierce punishments) have a repressed desire to participate. As Shakespeare put it in King Lear, the policeman who lashes the whore has a hot need to use her for the very offense for which he plies the lash.

Christopher Hitchens. God is not great: How religions poison everything. (2008) p 40.

A religion ghost rattled its chains in a national security story published by the Washington Post last week entitled: “Navy’s second-ranking civilian resigns amid criminal investigation.” The Post bookends a story about fraud with a sex angle — that equates adultery with prostitution.

It reports a senior Pentagon official has resigned following a probe into a questionable procurement deal. However, the Undersecretary of the Navy was not fired for fraud, but for adultery.

An intensifying criminal investigation of an alleged contracting scheme involving a top-secret Navy project has resulted in the forced resignation of the service’s second-ranking civilian leader, according to officials and court documents. Robert C. Martinage, the acting undersecretary of the Navy, stepped down after his boss, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, asked for his resignation “following a loss of confidence in [his] abilities to effectively perform his duties,” according to a statement the Navy released Wednesday.

Navy officials said Martinage was pressured to quit after investigators looking into his role in the top-secret program discovered that he was having an affair.

The article then relates details of a criminal probe into contracting abuses and we hear no more about adultery, though the Post attempts to pull sex back into the story frame in the closing paragraphs.


The silencer investigation is one of two unfolding Navy scandals involving alleged contracting fraud and illicit sex.

In the other case, the Justice Department has arrested two Navy commanders on charges of giving sensitive information to a major Singapore-based defense contractor in exchange for prostitutes, cash bribes and luxury travel. A senior Naval Criminal Investigative Service agent arrested in the same case pleaded guilty to similar charges last month.

Martinage’s resignation was triggered by the fraud probe, but the reason for his dismissal was his adultery. Like David Petraeus before him, Martinage was forced to resign for engaging in behavior considered immoral and unlawful by the armed services. Where he in another branch of government, though his wife would be incensed, I would be surprised if he would have been forced out.

My criticisms are not with the Post‘s reporting on the procurement scandal. Rather it is with the lack of interest in the adultery angle used to dump Martinage in light of major stories like the Petreaus scandal, “Don’t ask, Don’t tell”, as well as less well publicized incidents such as the Malmstrom missile base drug and cheating scandal. The religion ghost I see in this story is the unquestioned assumption that there are two standards of morality for government service, two different rights and wrongs. While it may be there is the right way, the wrong way and the navy way of doing things, the services nevertheless draw upon Americans to man their ranks who have been inculcated with a different moral worldview.

These dueling moralities were discussed time and again when the topic was homosexuality — “Don’t ask, Don’t tell.” Should not the Post have raised an eyebrow in its story when a senior government official was dismissed on a morals charge? Was adultery the stick with which to beat Martinage, when the real reason may have been alleged corruption or political in-fighting?

And, Is adultery comparable to prostitution? The Post links the Martinage case to the bribery of serving officers though the procurement of prostitutes by a contractor by labeling both “illicit sex”. Is this fair? Is this true?

Is the Post making a moral judgement in this case that it would not make in similar non-navy circumstances, or is it restating the navy’s view or right and wrong?

Is there not a whiff in this story of Christopher Hitchen’s warning of the hypocrisy of moralism?

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

First printed in Get Religion.

Where’s the religion at Washington’s National Cathedral?: Get Religion, January 16, 2014 January 16, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism, The Episcopal Church, Washington.
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The financial difficulties facing the Washington National Cathedral were the subject of a local news item in the Washington Post this week.

The basic story line is valid: “cathedral short of cash seeks creative ways to generate income.” But as  GetReligion editor tmatt observed in an an impromptu story conference, this piece had journalistic “holes you can drive a ’60s VW Microbus through… .”

The few errors in Anglican polity found in the story would likely distress only the perpetually aggrieved, but the real difficulty is that the Post declined to ask or explore the question: “why?”

It assumes the worldview of the liberal wing of mainline churches, making this the measure of all things religious. By not asking “why” this story could just as well be written about the troubles facing the local symphony orchestra or art museum.

I was hesitant in taking this story, however, as my theological sympathies are not with the cathedral’s leadership. The Very Rev. Gary Hall, dean of the Diocese of Washington’s cathedral, last year told the Post he was a “non-theistic Christian.” The Aug 1, 2013 story in the Style section penned by Sally Quinn quoted him as saying:

Jesus doesn’t use the word God very much,” he says. “He talks about his Father.”

Hall explains: “Where I am now, how do I understand Jesus as a son of God that’s not magical? I’m trying to figure out Jesus as a son of God and a fully human being, if he has both fully human and a fully divine set of chromosomes. .?.?. He’s not some kind of superman coming down. God is present in all human beings. Jesus was an extraordinary human being. Jesus didn’t try to convert. He just had people at his table.”

It is the glory, or the curse, of Anglicanism that the ranks of its clergy contain men and women who think this way — and others who see this as nonsense.

The divide is not merely local or new — in 2009 I interviewed the Argentine leader of the Anglican churches in southern South America and he told me that meaningful debate between left and right was not possible. He and his conservative colleagues from Africa, India and Asia believed the leader of the American Episcopal church was “not a Christian” as they understood the term.

The disdain does not go one way. Liberal American and English Anglicans have described the theological and intellectual worldview of their third world confreres as being one step above witchcraft.

The split between left and right, liberals and conservatives, progressives and traditionalists — none of these terms adequately describes the combatants — did not arise in 2003 with the election of a “gay” bishop in the Episcopal Church. While there have always been factions within the Anglican world for centuries — high/low, Evangelical/Anglo-Catholic — the latest Anglican wars began in the 30s and hit their stride in the 60s.

Fights over women clergy, premarital sex, abortion, euthanasia, contraception/family planning, divorce and remarriage, pacifism, the revision of the Book of Common Prayer, Vietnam and the civil rights movement and its various permutations of race, gender, class, ethnicity and sexual orientation have been debated ever since.

The temptation I faced was to cloak my criticisms of the underlying issues in the story with the cover of discussing proper journalism and write about bad religion rather than bad journalism. Hence, my reluctance to jump on this story.

What then is the GetReligion angle? What holes are there in this story through which I may drive my VW microbus? The lede states:

When Congress authorized the creation of Washington National Cathedral in 1893, it envisioned a national spiritual home. Decades later, it became a setting for presidential funerals, sermons by the likes of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and worship services for epic national tragedies such as Newtown and Sept. 11.

But would it have thought of tai chi and yoga mats?

The article describes a program of events and activities designed to bring people into the cathedral. The story then moves to context:

As mellow as it all sounds, the week-long public program — “Seeing Deeper” — is part of a highly orchestrated drive by the nation’s second-largest cathedral to remake itself and survive in an era when religious institutions are struggling. And what’s more institutional than a huge cathedral?

Washington National Cathedral, one of the Episcopal Church’s three major U.S. cathedrals, was already forced to halve its $27 million budget in the mid-2000s because of falling revenue before an earthquake in 2011 caused damage tallying an additional $26 million. Although it is now in the black, it must raise its roughly $13 million annual operating budget as well as the remaining $19 million for earthquake repairs.

And then moves to a discussion of the dean’s plans to raise income and attendance and to be a voice for progressive values in Washington.

What is missing from this story, though, is a nod to the reasons for the cash shortfall — apart from the occasional earthquake and economic downturn.

The article makes this assertion:

Experts say cathedrals across Europe and the United States have had to remake themselves as religious affiliation has become much looser and financial models built on membership have broken down.

But we do not hear from the experts. Is this true for all cathedrals, or just Episcopal ones? How is the Catholic cathedral in Washington doing? How are other Episcopal cathedrals handling the new faith environment Dean Hall describes in the piece? These questions should have been raised, or at least acknowledged.

Where are the facts and figures about the Washington National Cathedral’s attendance and income? They are easily found on the national Episcopal Church’s website. It reports “pledge and plate income”, the amount of money the cathedral (whose formal name is the Cathedral of SS Peter & Paul) collected from its parishioners has grown from $400,000 p.a. in 2002 to $2 million in $2012.

At the same time Sunday attendance grew over the last ten years. The figures for Dean Hall’s first year in office have not been published, but should not the story have spoken to these issues.

And, have the Anglican wars played a part in the cathedral’s financial problems? While the amount of money generated by those worshiping on site has grown, giving to support the cathedral from the wider Episcopal world has fallen off. Why?  The article states fundraising was easier for the cathedral when it sought to finish construction — an 82 year building campaign.

Could the cathedral’s whole-hearted adoption of the progressive religious and political agenda have anything to do with the little old ladies in Alabama cutting back on their gifts? The article does not ask this question.

As written, the article could have described the problems facing any graying urban institution. Swap out the names and you could recycle this as a story about an art museum, library, orchestra, ballet or other worthy cultural institution. Perhaps the real story here is that the Washington National Cathedral is not seen as a religious institution by the Post but as a temple of ethical culture?

First printed at Get Religion.

WPost whoppers about the Muslim Brotherhood: Get Religion, January 14, 2014 January 16, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Islam, Press criticism.
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Claims of bias and inaccurate reporting have dogged the Western press’s coverage of Egypt since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. A story in this week’s Washington Post entitled “In Egypt, many shrug as freedoms disappear” will do little to restore confidence.

The article eschews the classical news story format in favor of an impressions and perceptions style. Its lede states:

The charges are often vague. The evidence is elusive. Arrests occur swiftly, and the convictions follow. And there is little transparency in what analysts have called the harshest political crackdown in Egypt in decades.

But many Egyptians say they are all right with that.

There is a growing sense here in the Arab world’s largest country that the best path to stability — after three years of political turmoil — might be to do things the military’s way: crush the Islamists who made people angry enough to support a coup; silence dissent; and ask very few questions.

The article begins with an opinion as to the mood of the Egyptian people. Is this then a news analysis article or a news article?

If a news article facts and figures should follow to support the claims in the lede. What “evidence”? How many arrests and convictions? Who is being arrested and why? Which analysts claim the army’s rule has led to the “harshest political crackdown in Egypt in decades”? Who is being censored and why? These details are mostly absent.

A thematic diagram of this story suggests this is an opinion piece — a commentary offering the author’s view of the meaning of events, rather than a report on events. Following the lede we have a quote from a government spokesman defending the violent crackdown; a man in the street supporting the crackdown and a Washington-based expert explaining popular support for the crackdown.

This all leads to the central argument of the story.

The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties captured the lion’s share of the vote in Egypt’s first democratic elections two years ago. The Brotherhood had renounced violence decades earlier and gained popularity by establishing a vast network of charitable organizations.

These days, those images of benign Islamist leadership have been erased from many minds by the hyper-nationalist rhetoric promoted by the government, which has portrayed Brotherhood members as bloodthirsty terrorists bent on destroying the nation.

An assortment of disconnected facts are presented to support this argument, coupled with further pro-Brotherhood arguments from the Washington Post. Assertions are piled on assertions and dubious statements presented uncritically.

The government’s crackdown has been so pervasive — and the cult of support for military leader Abdel Fatah al-Sissi so far-reaching — that the Brotherhood has likened Egypt’s transgression to “fascism,” as have some liberal observers.

Is labeling support for al-Sissi a “cult” fair? Fascism? Is citing a foreign diplomat as a “liberal” observer appropriate? The US embassy and the former ambassador have been denounced for its pro-Brotherhood statements and have little credibility in Egypt — are Western diplomats an appropriate source on this point?

The article closes with a pessimistic quote from an Egypt expert at Harvard. Given six decades of military rule following the overthrow of King Farouk it was foolish to expect Egypt to take to democracy, he argues.

No mention of the reasons for the popular revolt against the Brotherhood are given in this story. Not only does the Washington Post not “get politics” in Egypt, it does not “get religion”.

There is no sense of context or balance in this Washington Post piece.It is ill-informed, in-curious and overtly partisan. As a news story it is an embarrassment to the Post. Not quite Walter Duranty material — but it does come close in that it too places ideology above reality.

Comparing the tone, style and use of facts in this story to a similar item published by the avowedly pro-Muslim Brotherhood Al Jazeera network will not dispel concerns the Western press are flacks who believe the Muslim Brotherhood is a force for good in Egypt.

Thirty million Egyptians would tend to disagree with this sentiment — that is how many people took to the streets to demand the army step in and remove the Muslim Brotherhood government. Egypt’s Christians along with the other religious minorities who were persecuted by the Muslim Brotherhood — e.g., murdered, churches burnt, schools ransacked — are also likely to take issue with this whitewash.

Arab commentators have also denounced the American press for offering what they see as a false narrative. Writing in the Egypt’s largest circulation daily newspaper, the pro-government al-Ahram, Abdel-Moneim Said wrote:

The one-sided version of post-30 June realities in Egypt that The New York Times presents is nothing short of a travesty.

Al-Ahram accused the Times of ignorance and deliberate bias. It viewed the unfolding political scene in Egypt through ideological lenses.

The NYT’s original sin is that it refuses to recognize the mass uprising on 30 June 2013 as a revolution whereas it does recognize as such the January 2011 uprising, which succeeded in overthrowing a tyrannical regime, even though the number of people who participated in that revolution were about half as many as those who took part in the 30 June demonstrations. In both cases, it was the military that shifted the balances on the ground and that channeled a massive grassroots movement into political processes that brought the country back from the brink of conflict and civil war. But the NYT doesn’t see it that way. In its opinion, the military’s intervention in the first case was not a coup because it eventually brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power whereas its intervention in the second case was a coup because it ushered the Muslim Brotherhood out of power and into forms of “resistance.” Not only do such double standards obscure the truth, they also give way to a number of historical misconceptions regarding the idea of “revolution” or mass uprising in general, and what has happened in Egypt in particular.

No mention of religion appears in this piece save as a descriptor for the Brotherhood. Perhaps the cult like support from the Copts for al-Sissi may have something to do with the Brotherhood’s persecution and pogroms against Egypt’s Christians? Failing to discuss religion when writing about political Islam is an oversight. Is the Washington Post guilty too of propounding a revisionist history of the Arab Spring? Is it a shill for the Muslim Brotherhood’s view of Egypt’s recent history? If this article is an example of the Post‘s reporting from Egypt, then it is guilty as charged.

First printed in Get Religion.

WPost discovers the bleeding obvious about liturgy: Get Religion, December 27, 2013 January 5, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Hymnody/Liturgy, Press criticism.
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Basil Fawlty: Can’t we get you on Mastermind, Sybil? Next contestant: Mrs. Sybil Fawlty from Torquay. Specialist subject – the bleeding obvious.

Fawlty Towers: Basil the Rat (#2.6)” (1979)

The Washington Post reports some progressive Christians are unsatisfied with contemporary worship and are seeking more traditional ways to do church.

The article “Americans turning to ancient music, practices to experience their faith” highlights the sense of incompleteness, of liturgical inadequacy felt by some Christians this Christmas.

It begins:

In our of-the-minute culture, Santa seems old-fashioned. But Christians are exploring far older ways of observing the holiday.

In the living room this week along with the pile of presents, there’s more likely to be a wreath or calendar marking Advent, the month leading up to Christmas that symbolizes the waiting period before Jesus’s birth. Christmas services largely dominated by contemporary music are mixing in centuries-old chants and other a cappella sounds. Holiday sermons on topics such as prayer, meditation and finding a way to observe the Sabbath are becoming more common.

These early — some use the term “ancient” — spiritual practices are an effort to bring what feels to some like greater authenticity to perhaps the most thoroughly commercialized of religious holidays, say pastors, religious music experts and other worship-watchers.

I find this article problematic. On the surface a reader unacquainted with this topic might assume this is a balanced story reporting on a new trend in American religion.

It offers vignettes that illustrate the phenomena and offers four voices to flesh out the story: Ed Stetzer, Brian McLaren, Nadia Bolz-Weber and a “man in the street,” or more precisely a lay Catholic woman from suburban Washington. A knowledgeable Washington Post reader might know that one of these voices is conservative: Stetzer, while McLaren and Bolz-Weber are progressive Christians.

As an aside, why does the Post omit “the Rev” before the names of the three clergy on first mention? And, is Brian McLaren an Evangelical? Is that the label he gives to himself, or is it a descriptor given him by the Post? But that is a battle for another day.

Adding Stetzer into the mix to balance McLaren and Bolz-Weber gives the impression of balance, and the pithy quotes offered by the three would lead one to believe that a cultural-religious trend is emerging in American religious life.

My concern is that this trend is about 175 years old. The article is written from a perspective that the progressive wing of the old main line churches is the fulcrum around which American religious life pivots.

“Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail” is an article that has been written several hundred times over the past fifty years, reporting on Christians from non-liturgical traditions entering the Episcopal Church due to its liturgy.

Episcopalians and other Protestants have been entering the Catholic Church since the time of John Henry Newman in large part because of a belief in the inadequacies of their tradition measured against the doctrine, discipline and worship of Rome.

And the Orthodox Churches in America over the past twenty five years  have seen an influx of ex-Protestants who are drawn to that tradition’s “ancient” liturgies and spiritual vigor.

All of what the Post describes about the dissatisfaction some are finding in their “seeker” friendly churches has been reported for decades.

Nor is this a phenomena of movement between faith traditions. Renewing the Catholic Church through the reform of its liturgy was one of, if not the greatest achievement of the papacy of Benedict XVI (from this Episcopalian’s perspective).

When he issued his Summorum Pontificum , allowing the older form of Mass t0 be used once more, Benedict restored to the church the liturgy that had shaped that church’s life for centuries — words that shaped Catholic culture, informed its teaching, instructed its arts and nourished its saints (and even a few sinners).

In a 2006 interview with Zenit, the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus spoke of the necessity of reforming modern Catholic worship:

Q: A major theme in your book is the importance of a revitalized liturgy for renewing Catholic life. How do you see that occurring?

Father Neuhaus: Don’t get me started. The banality of liturgical texts, the unsingability of music that is deservedly unsung, the hackneyed New American Bible prescribed for use in the lectionary, the stripped-down architecture devoted to absence rather than Presence, the homiletical shoddiness.

Where to begin? A “high church” Lutheran or Anglican – and I was the former – braces himself upon becoming a Catholic.

The heart of what went wrong, however, and the real need for a “reform of the reform” lies in the fatal misstep of constructing the liturgical action around our putatively amazing selves rather than around the surpassing wonder of what Christ is doing in the Eucharist.

The battle over liturgy and the aesthetics of worship recounted by Fr. Neuhaus is a live topic in many denominations.  But there is so much more to this than the latest liturgical spats.

Carved above the entrance way to a theological college I once attended was the phrase: Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi. The phrase is often expanded to Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi. Lex Vivendi and interpreted to mean: “As we Worship, So we Believe, So we Live.” Worship reveals what we believe. It is who we are. It is the foundation of our Christian identity.

In an April 15, 2010 address to the Catholic bishops of Brazil gathered in Rome, Benedict said:

Worship, however, cannot come from our imagination: that would be a cry in the darkness or mere self-affirmation. True liturgy supposes that God responds and shows us how we can adore Him. … The Church lives in His presence and its reason for being and existing is to expand His presence in the world.

What the Post has picked up round the beltway — what Benedict told the Brazilian bishops — what Anglicans are seeking to find through the Book of Common Prayer, is the divine presence.

Was the Washington Post unaware of the wider context of liturgical renewal and reform? Or is its worldview so narrow that it cannot see anything? Have they only just now discovered, as Basil Fawlty would say, the “bleeding obvious” about liturgy and church life?

First printed in Get Religion.

Pay no attention to Rand Paul (and Christian persecution too!): Get Religion, October 15, 2013 October 15, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Islam, Press criticism.
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A Washington Post Politics news blog on Senator Rand Paul’s appearance before the Value Voters Summit in Washington last week has left me perplexed. Reading the article entitled “Rand Paul: ‘There’s a worldwide war on Christianity’”tells me little about what the Kentucky senator said.

Nor am I clear as to what a news blog is for. Is it a vehicle for a reporter to express an opinion about the news, or does this new format permit a newspaper to increase the amount of news stories without having to invest the time and manpower in producing original copy?

Perhaps it was the editorial decision of the Post that what Sen. Paul said was less important than the symbolism of his presence at the meeting of conservative religious activists. Maybe it was fueled by a desire to score points against Paul through irony. It did, however, work very hard in not reporting what the Kentucky senator said nor offering context to his remarks. The headline tells us there is a war on, but does not say who is fighting.

The article begins:

There’s a war raging against Christianity, but the attackers must police themselves, says Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul (R).

“From Boston to Zanzibar, there’s a worldwide war on Christianity,” the world’s most-practiced religion, he said Friday at the Values Voters Summit, an annual conservative gathering. The intensity of attacks is so high, he later added, that it’s “almost as if we lived in the Middle Ages,” a period that included the Crusades.

Who is waging this war against Christians? Two paragraphs into a five paragraph story we are not told. In the third paragraph we learn the problem is militant Islam, and the solution lies in moderate Islam taking responsibility for their radical kin. Pushing this key fact to the midway point of the story is questionable.

As is the irony. What does the line about the Crusades mean? It is standard Islamist agitprop to blame the crusades for the ills of the Muslim world and its subsequent history of military aggression, and to harken upon the crusades as a dastardly attack on peace loving Muslims by blood thirsty Christians. Some will push this line along with claims that jihad has nothing to do with war against the nonbeliever — nothing to see here folks. Pay no attention to the fact that Islamic jurisprudence holds the doctrine of jihad demands that the “House of Islam” (Dar al-Islam) must subdue the “House of War” (Dar al-Harb, the non-Islamic world). What ever could that mean?

I grant you that if your knowledge of the era comes from Hollywood and Sir Walter Scott you might believe this claptrap. The bad-Crusaders good-Muslims line  favored by some scholars in the last century has been undermined by modern scholarship. I recommend Sir Walter Scott’s Crusades and Other Fantasies by Ibn Warraq on this point.

Writing on Commentary magazine’s webpage, Jonathan Tobin observed there was an inconsistency in Paul’s warning about the persecution of Christians by militant Islam and his isolationist foreign policy stance.

But I’ll leave my fervent disagreements with his worldview that constitutes a genuine threat to a viable U.S. foreign and defense policy aside for the moment. Let’s give him credit for speaking up on an issue of grave concern that most politicians ignore and which most of the foreign policy establishment has been actively seeking to bury.

This report by the Washington Post is an example of burying the story of the persecution of Christians. The great bulk of Paul’s speech dealt with recent examples of Muslim violence against Christians. He stated:

Ever since 9/11, commentators have tried to avoid pointing fingers at Islam. While it is fair to point out that most Muslims are not committed to violence against Christians, this is not the whole truth and we should not let political correctness stand in the way of the truth.

Yes, it is a minority of Muslims who condone killing of Christians. But unfortunately that minority numbers in the tens of millions.

And he cites a dozen examples of violence across the Muslim majority world from Zanzibar to Indonesia.

Commentary added:

Even more important, let’s address some of the criticism he has been receiving over this speech from some liberals as well as those who claim to speak for American Muslims. Whatever the political motivations for Paul’s speech (one suspects he is trying to woo Evangelicals who dislike his cool attitude toward Israel), those who deny this problem or, even worse, try to depict anyone who calls attention to Muslim intolerance as a bigot, are doing neither Islam nor Muslims any good.

It then cited a particularly egregious opinion piece in The Daily Beast entitled “Rand Paul’s Hate Speech Sounded Just Like Al Qaeda” as an example of the intellectual vacuity and moral blindness surrounding the issue of Christian persecution.

In my reporting for the religious and secular press I have written many stories about the persecution of Christians — and have heard hundreds of stories more. Today I received an email from a trusted source, a Western missionary in a majority Muslim area that has witnessed anti-Christian pogroms (one of the locales cited by Paul), asking for help in training midwives for the small Christian community. He wrote:

The government (Islamic) public hospital is killing Christian babies after being delivered. Seven recent murders we know of thus far. We need to build and staff a small maternity clinic. And train some midwives. If you know of medical professionals who might be interested, we urgently need some help in planning and making this happen.

Is this true? I trust the veracity of the person writing, but cannot verify it independently. I doubt this will ever appear as a newspaper story. Yet other stories from this place of extra-judicial murder of Christians have appeared in the press and have been condemned by NGOs. All of this is by way of saying this is an on going tragedy. It is one of the major moral and human rights issues of our day — and the Washington Post is burying it.

We do get the context in the fifth paragraph.

Paul’s speech was delivered ahead of a White House meeting between President Obama and Republican senators, including Paul, to discuss the government shutdown and impending debt ceiling breach.

But it is the wrong sort of context. Perhaps it is unfair to judge a news blog by the standards of journalism and expect balance, accuracy, professionalism, completeness and context. If they are vanity vehicles designed to deliver a stream of conscience approach to the news, then my criticisms are misplaced. If I am reading this to hear the voice of the author then the subject is secondary. But if you are relying upon this as a source of information, then the format as exemplified in this story falls short.

First printed in Get Religion.

The WaPo wants to know — who built the Second Temple?: Get Religion, May 26, 2013 May 27, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Press criticism.
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Kudos to the Washington Post for moving quickly to correct an error in Wednesday’s article on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

In a story entitled “An audacious plan at the Western Wall”, theWaPo reports on plans under consideration by the Israeli government to double the space available for worshipers at the Western Wall to accommodate the fissiparous Jewish community.

The story is well written, well researched, and offers views and statements from all parties concerned. There were, however, two things that caught my eye when I first read the story. When the article moved from  current events to background it stated King Solomon built the Second Temple. A bell went off in my head when I read that.

According to 1 Kings chapters 6-7 in the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures, Solomon built the first temple on Mount Zion. The Bible goes on to record its destruction by Nebuchadnezzar in 2 Kings 25. Archaeological and rabbinic opinions differ as to the period of the temple’s construction and destruction offering dates of 10th century BC to 587 BC v. 832 to 422 BC. The Old Testament goes on to state in Ezra chapter 5 the Temple was rebuilt and completed during the six-year of the reign of King Darius the Great — approximately 517 BC.  Flavius Josephus records that Herod the Great completely rebuilt the Temple In the first century — and it became popular known as Herod’s Temple. In 70 AD the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and leveled the temple. The lower levels of the Western Wall are all that remain of Herod’s Temple.

I jotted down this error onto a notepad thinking I would return to it later in the day for a GetReligion piece. When I returned that afternoon to the web version of the article I found a correction had been posted at the top of the story. It read:

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that King Solomon built the Second Temple. Solomon built the First Temple. The story has been updated.

The body had been corrected to say that Herod built the second temple. Not quite – – still a mistake but not as big a brick as the first printing. I put the story to one side to move to pressing business and when I returned to the article on Thursday I thought it’d been corrected once more. The new correction states (and is at the top of the article as the date of this post):

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the Jewish temple built by King Solomon. Solomon built the First Temple, not the Second. The article also incorrectly referred to Herod as the builder of the Second Temple. Although the temple is sometimes called Herod’s Temple in honor of his expansion of it, the original construction occurred centuries earlier.

The body of the story was corrected a second time too. I give them credit for fixing this error so swiftly, but it did rob me of a GetReligion story.

Did I not mention that I saw the second problem? The Washington Post fixed theGetReligion issue but left a GetPolitics problem. Just after the Herod/Solomon confusion comes this paragraph.

Muslims call the same site the Noble Sanctuary, where they built the Dome of the Rock shrine and al-Aqsa mosque, the third-holiest site in Islam, after capturing Jerusalem in the 7th century. The mount is administered by the Islamic Waqf trust, headed by the grand mufti of Jerusalem, who is appointed by the Palestinian Authority. Armed Israeli security forces that often patrol the site are a source of constant friction.

Is it fair to say that the Israeli security forces are the source of friction? Does that not place the blame the tensions on Israel? One could just as easily say Palestinian political agitation and protests, mixed with the occasional stoning of Jews worshiping at the base of the Temple Mount by Palestinians on the top, is the cause of  the tension.

The Washington Post just can’t seem to get a great a break with this story. Muslim activists claim there is no historical link between the Jews and the Temple Mount — and dispute the history set forth above and is recorded in the current version of theWashington Post article. It is impossible to satisfy everyone when reporting on Israel. Apart from the two small items I mentioned, this article does a pretty good job.

First printed in GetReligion.

Jewish Identity and the Western Wall: Get Religion, April 14, 2013 April 14, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Civil Rights, Get Religion, Israel, Judaism, Press criticism.
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You couldn’t, he thought, find three Jews in the world who would agree on what it meant to be Jewish, yet there were apparently fifty million of these people who knew exactly what it meant to be German, though many of those on deck have never set foot in Germany.

Alan Furst, Dark Star, (1991), p. 380.

Who is a Jew? What is a Jew? Who decides who is a Jew? These questions lie beneath the surface of a Washington Post story that reports on the controversy of women worshiping at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The article entitled “Women challenge Orthodox practice at Israel’s Western Wall” links the political dynamics of the pressure being brought by American Jews upon the Israeli government to accommodate non-Orthodox Jewish worship at what the Post calls “Judaism’s holiest shrine” with an Israeli local news item. Yet the story could have fleshed out the religion ghosts — telling a non-Jewish, non-Israeli audience why this is the something more than a turf battle over worship space.

Because this article is written from an American secular Jewish perspective  — the Post states its support of the protesters in its lede — only half the story is told. The presuppositions of the author — call them biases or perspectives or relative truths — prevents a reader from understanding the political and religious calculus here. It begins:

JERUSALEM — A long-running battle over worship at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest shrine, was rejoined Thursday as Israeli police arrested five Jewish women who wore prayer shawls at a morning service, contrary to Orthodox practice enforced at the site. The arrests came two days after disclosure of a potentially groundbreaking plan that could allow for non-Orthodox services to be held in the area on an equal footing with those conducted according to Orthodox tradition.

Note the verb being used in second clause of the lede sentence: “enforced”. The Post is characterizing the dispute as one of power — he who has power can enforce his will. What trajectory would the story have taken it different verb were used stating that Orthodox practice is not merely enforced but required by law? The story then moves to quotes from the women activists and an “ultra-Orthodox heckler”, before moving to the political, summarizing the history of the dispute, taking it up to recent discussions in the cabinet:

[Prime Minister] Netanyahu asked Natan Sharansky, chairman of the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency, to come up with a plan for worship at the Western Wall that would accommodate the non-Orthodox branches of Judaism that are dominant overseas. The move signaled an increasing awareness in the Israeli government that the confrontations over ritual at the Western Wall are driving a wedge between Israel and Jewish communities abroad.<

Sharansky’s solution presented to American Jewish leaders was to build a platform “south of the main prayer plaza; men and women could pray together there, and women could lead services.”

The article closes with a quote from the Western Wall Orthodox rabbi who said he was in favor of the separate facilities and an Israeli reform rabbi who is given free reign to sound off on his views on the Orthodox hegemony of Judaism in Israel.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, director of the Reform movement in Israel, said that Women of the Wall had succeeded in making religious pluralism at the shrine a major issue of Jewish concern. “The Wall has become an ultra-Orthodox synagogue,” Kariv said, adding that Thursday’s arrests sent a signal that undermined Sharansky’s proposal. “You can’t make a serious attempt to reach a compromise while maintaining a situation where the rights of one side are seriously breached,” he said.

Still, Kariv predicted that if the proposal is implemented, the area set aside for non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall “will become the main platform for the vast majority of Israelis and Jews.”

I am not a Jew and have no dog in the fight between the traditional and progressive strands of Judaism. I am concerned with good journalism, though, and find this story unbalanced and incomplete.

Unbalanced because there is no explanation as to why the Orthodox object to bare-headed women leading prayers (as the accompanying photo from the Post shows) next to a gathering of Haredi men praying. While supporters of change have their say in this story supporters of tradition do not. I should say that I know the Talmud rejects the practice — but I do not know if other non-Jews know this. Without an explanation of the religious issues a casual reader might well assume that this is an issue of power.

It was an issue of power in 1928. On the Day of Atonement that year, 28 September 1928, a riot erupted when British police torn down wooden barriers separating male and female worshipers at the Wall. Protests from Jewish communities around the world greeted this action which in turn were followed by protests from Arabs in Palestine against Jews worshiping at the Wall. The British ban on sex segregation barriers became a ban on Jews at the Wall from 1948 1967 when it was under the control of Jordan.

When Israel took control of the Temple Mount area the Wall came under the authority of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. In the 1980s American and English emigrants to Israel began the Women at the Wall movement which sparked a riot by Haredi men at the wall in 1989. In 2003 Israel’s Supreme Court disallowed women from reading publicly from the Torah or wearing traditional prayer shawls at the plaza built by the Ministry in front of the Wall. However, it held the government must build a second area for women and mixed sex groups — as well as non-Orthodox Jews — on the site of Robinson’s Arch.  Sharansky’s solution is to expand this site — which is not under the control of the Ministry.

Without explaining the religious elements — the objections of the Orthodox or the determination of Jewish women to worship at the wall rather than near — the story is incomplete. Without touching upon the history behind this section, it’s context, a casual reader might well suppose this is just about power.

What does the wall symbolize for the religious Jew or the secular Israeli? Is this a continuing chapter in the saga of who is a Jew, what does it mean to be a Jew, and who gets to say who is a Jew? Written for an American or Diaspora audience — the story is incomplete.

First published in Get Religion.

Jesus, the Mahdi and Hugo Chavez: Get Religion, March 11, 2013 March 12, 2013

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Islam, Press criticism.
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A note of condolence written by Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, upon the death of Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez has been the occasion of some of some mirth in the press. The Washington Post and the Huffington Post have made arch references to President Ahmadinejad’s statement that Hugo Chavez will be resurrected at the end of time. The Washington Post observed:

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad left Tehran today to attend Hugo Chavez’s funeral. But that’s not all — in his condolences for the former Venezuelan president, Ahmadinejad said he has “no doubt Chavez will return to Earth together with Jesus and the perfect” Imam Mahdi, the most revered figure of Shiite Muslims, according to AP. Ahmadinejad also said the three men will together “establish peace, justice and kindness” in the world, and that he is “suspicious” about the cause of Chavez’s cancer.

The Huffington Post began its story by stating:

Hugo Chavez had a friend in Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who apparently held the Venezuelan leader in such high regard that he believes he will “return on resurrection day” with Jesus Christ and will “establish peace, justice, and kindness” on earth. After Chavez’s death on Tuesday afternoon, Ahmadinejad released a statement on Wednesday to announce a day of public mourning, according to Iran’s Raja News, Ahmadinejad’s official news agency. In his message, Ahmadinejad voiced skepticism over Chavez’s “suspicious” illness and proclaimed that the 58-year-old will resurrect with Jesus one day.

The tone of these stories suggests the Iranian president is a loon. Is that fair? I don’t know if President Ahmadinejad is a loon, but the statement on his website cited by these reports is not sufficient cause for making such a claim. Let’s look at the text and see what it actually says. The translation provided by the Mehr news agency states in part:

Chavez is alive, as long as justice, love and freedom are living. He is alive, as long as piety, brightness, and humanity are living. He is alive, as long as nations are alive and struggle for consolidating independence, justice and kindness. I have no doubt that he will come back, and along with Christ the Savior, the heir to all saintly and perfect men, and will bring peace, justice and perfection for all.

The language is flowery but not inconsistent with Muslim teachings on the end of time. Like Christians, Muslims believe that at the end of time Jesus will return, the dead shall be raised and the wicked and the righteous shall be judged, and will merit a place in Heaven or Hell. How this happens and the role played by Jesus are very different in the eschatology of Islam and Christianity — that is to say they are completely incompatible. Nor are Muslims in agreement on all aspects of eschatology, the final things.

Sunnis and Shiites have a different view on the role of the Mahdi, who will arrive before the return of Jesus.  The Shiites view this person as someone who will establish order in the world and convert people to Islam before the return of Jesus.  The timeline of  particular events of the end are not completely spelled out in the Koran. However among the articles of faith in Islam is a belief in the day of judgment, when the dead shall be raised and all will be judged according to their deeds. What President Ahmadinejad said was that he believed Hugo Chavez would be judged as being righteous upon his resurrection. For a Muslim the fact of Chavez’ resurrection — as is mine or yours — is not in doubt.

The Guardian reports that some clerics have taken exception to President Ahmadinejad’s comments but these objections are about the mixing of religion and politics — and his presumption to speak for God. Who is President Ahmadinejad to claim that Chavez will be accounted righteous?

While it is good fun to beat up President Ahmadinejad, a reporter must take care not to look like an idiot or a religious bigot when doing so. In this case both Posts failed to get the story because they don’t get religion. The could have saved themselves great embarrassment by asking an expert.

First printed in GetReligion.

Romney on the Palestinian work ethic: Get Religion, July 31, 2012 July 31, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Islam, Israel, Judaism, Press criticism.
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The elected Christian is in the world only to increase this glory of God by fulfilling His commandments to the best of his ability. … Brotherly love, … is expressed in the first place in the fulfillment of the daily tasks given. … This makes labor in the service of impersonal social usefulness appear to promote the glory of God and hence to be willed by him.

Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism (1905/2002),pp. 108-9.

Reporters on the campaign trail have a difficult task. They must report faithfully on the words and actions of their subject — while at the same time rendering these words and actions interesting and intelligible to their readers. The two do not always go hand in hand as campaign handlers works very hard to make sure their candidate does not stray from a script, keeping “on message” at all times. It is a good day then, when a candidate says something new, interesting or controversial for it allows a good reporter to show his command of the craft.

The presumptive Republican Party presidential candidate has been taking some hits for comments made on his latest overseas tour. Some members of the press corp have been putting a bit of stick about in their coverage of Mitt Romney, characterizing his latest comments as insensitive gaffes. Romney is not ready for prime time is the song playing on the campaign radio right now.

A 30 July 2012 story in the Washington Post entitled “Romney faces Palestinian criticism for Jerusalem remarks as he heads to Poland” is representative of this style of reporting. But in their zeal to play gotcha with the Mittster and focus the criticisms, the five WaPo reporters credited on the story have overlooked ethical and religious ghosts that might well have made this a better piece. And what is better? Better is an article that peals away on campaign cant giving a fresh look into the mind of Mitt Romney.

Let me walk you through this story and show you what I mean. The lede begins:

JERUSALEM — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney angered Palestinian leaders on Monday when he suggested here that the Israeli economy has outpaced that of the Palestinian territories in part because of advantages of “culture.”

Palestinians said that Romney was ignoring long-running Israeli restrictions on crossings from the Gaza Strip and West Bank, which are an enormous drag on commerce.

“All I can say is that this man needs a lot of education. He doesn’t know the region, he doesn’t know Israelis, he doesn’t know Palestinians, and to talk about the Palestinians as an inferior culture is really a racist statement,” Saeb Erekat, a top aide to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, said in an interview.

Though this appears in the domestic politics section of the Washington Post, the Post’s reporters have written a story about the opinions of second-tier Palestinian government officials. An accusation of racism is leveled at the top of the story by a Palestinian official in response to Romney’s comments on culture.

The article notes Romney’s  comments on the sharp economic disparity between Israel and Palestine and recounts the words that led to the racism charge. Citing a 1998 book by Harvard economics professor David Landes entitled “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations,” Romney said:

“Culture makes all the difference. Culture makes all the difference,” Romney said, repeating the conclusion he drew from the book, by David Landes. “And as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things.”

A decision was made by the authors of this narrative to enter the story through the door of response to comments. Why? As we go deeper into the article there are signs the Romney campaign were unhelpful. It moves to denials by the Romney campaign of any “attempt to slight the Palestinians.” The article did note that Stuart Stevens, Romney’s chief strategist, pushed his boss deeper into the mire: “Reporters pressed him to explain what Romney meant by ‘culture,’ but he declined to do so.”

The action shifts to Washington with comments from the Obama campaign and World Bank officials before it moves on to the next leg of Mitt’s overseas adventure. A diagram of the article’s content and perspective would be: Key Sentence: Romney is a racist Palestinian official claims — Palestinian quote — Romney quote — Romney campaign non-explanation — Obama response critical of Romney — Expert voice critical of Romney — Close as scene moves to Poland.

The Romney campaign appears to have been unhelpful and their man comes off badly from their actions. Yet what is also missing is an inquiry by the Post into Prof. David Landes and his book — which would go a long way toward answering the question of “what is culture?”.

And it is here was have the ethical and religious ghosts to this story for Landes’ book places great stress on the role of religion in economic development.

Two avenues of inquiry immediately present themselves — corruption and Islam. Is Mitt Romney saying that the Muslim culture of the Palestinian Authority is less conducive to economic advancement than the Jewish culture of Israel? Sociologists have been debating the role of religion and economic growth for over a century — most famously we have Max Weber’s “Protestant work ethic” thesis. The National Bureau of Economic Research released a paper last year entitled “Religious Identity and Economic Behavior” that found in the U.S. there were differences between the faith groups/denominations on their attitudes toward work.

We randomly vary religious identity salience in laboratory subjects to test how identity salience contributes to six hypothesized links from prior literature between religious identity and economic behavior. We find that religious identity salience makes Protestants increase contributions to public goods. Catholics decrease contributions to public goods, expect others to contribute less to public goods, and become less risk averse. Jews more strongly reciprocate as an employee in a bilateral labor market gift-exchange game.

While Islam did not play a part in this study, recent academic studies have sought to include the attitudes toward work in the Muslim world and define an  Islamic work ethic. Is the economic success of Israel due to its Jewish culture — and are the economic failures of the surrounding states tied to their Muslim cultures?

And then there is corruption. It is odd the Washington Post article would stress the economic disadvantages of the security check points and trot out an expert to say this is a cause of the problem — some commentators have taken this idea and rather foolishly run with it even further. Why I saw it is odd is that the World section of the Post has featured articles discussing the problem of corruption for the economic, social and political development of the Palestinian Authority. A March 2012 Palestine Public Opinion Poll identified corruption as a significant problem in the PA.

73% say there is corruption in the PA institutions in the West Bank while only 62% say there is corruption in the institutions of the dismissed government in the Gaza Strip. These percentages are similar to those obtained three months ago. In the context of the recent step by the PA in the West Bank to submit corruption cases to courts, we asked the public if it thinks the PA is serious about fighting corruption: 53% said it was serious and 43% said it was not serious.

Is corruption a Muslim problem or a Palestinian problem? I don’t think so. In my own work I have reported on the problems of corruption within the Christian churches of the Palestinian Authority, and have written dozens of stories over the years about corrupt and crooked bishops from the U.S. to Africa.

Also, please hear what I am not saying — I am not saying Israeli security measures do not have some degree of harm for the Palestinian Authority’s economy — I am saying that there are other factors involved that may play as great or a greater role.

And, I am also saying the Washington Post story missed an opportunity to tell us more about Mitt Romney. There is a hundred years of sharply contested scholarship on the intersection of religion and economic advancement. Given Romney’s Mormon faith and its pronounced views on this topic I would have thought that this area would be explored in any story on culture and the economy emanating from the campaign. What we have is a rather tired and predictable story that advances a silly claim by a Palestinian functionary and partisan campaign officials. It is not really worth the time it takes to read.

What say you Get Religion readers? Did the Post miss the story? Was it justified in playing “gotcha” in light of the apparent unhelpful Romney campaign? With five reporters on the story should it have cracked open the covers of the book that formed Romney’s thinking on nations and culture? Or, because I write about religion, do I see it everywhere? Was this really just a Romney gaffe story? Or, has the press decided the trip was a failure and hence everything that arose from it must be deemed a failure?

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock. First published in Get Religion.

Tattoos, sin and Sneetches: Get Religion, December 15, 2011 December 16, 2011

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Popular Culture, Press criticism.
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The Life Style section of the Washington Post  has an interesting and well crafted story entitled “Rethinking the ink: Laser Tattoo removal gains popularity,” that reports on the flourishing tattoo removal industry. It discusses the current rage for tattoos among the American middle classes. What sets this story apart are the vignettes from those undergoing the painful and expensive procedure to have their body art removed.

And alongside stories of buyer’s remorse and shifting style we hear snippets of faith. The article does a nice job incorporating them into the narrative. But it stops short. We hear the language of faith, but no explanation as to why faith matters.

The article opens nicely. The first sentence is ambiguous, a teaser of sorts. In the second sentence the topic of tattoo removal is offered. In the third we have a confession and the fourth offers the Post’s editorial voice.

She arrives quietly, coming in from the rain after work. She lies down on her stomach atop a sleek, white reclining chair. She lifts her shirt and tugs down her jeans slightly.

It’s enough to unveil a large pink flower tattoo with fat, webby green leaves, which she’s here to have lasered off her lower back. She wants to become a mother someday, and she doesn’t want her children to see this. The process could take up to 10 sessions, she says. She pauses. Then she starts crying.

“I was only 18. It was a homemade tattoo done at a party,” says Lizeth Pleitez, 30, who quickly dries her eyes. Her voice is shaking. “I wasn’t thinking about what it meant, you know? Little did I know it meant something else — like people calling it a ‘tramp stamp.’ I’m a Pentecostal, and the body is a temple. And I felt really ashamed.”

If tattoos are the marks of an era — declarations of love, of loss, of triumph, of youthful exuberance or youthful foolishness — then tattoo removals are about regret, confessions that those landmarks are in the past. They’re about the realization that whatever you believed in with such force that you wanted it eternally branded on your skin is now foreign to you.

The article offers a discussion of the tattoo removal industry, focusing on two Washington DC area firms and then moves back to first person narratives that do a fine job of illustrating the theme of the story. The thesis of the article comes with this line:

Part of what made tattooing cool was its outlaw vibe: the Harley biker, the heavy-metal drummer, the ex-con. Part of what makes tattooing uncool is its ubiquity. Newman recently went to Rehoboth Beach, Del., for the weekend, and “every Tom, Dick and Harry had a tattoo, and it looked ridiculous. I started the removal sessions right after that.”

There are strong religious overtones to several of the confessions.

Then the burly, tattoo-faced Wayne Stokes, 34, arrives. He’s on his sixth session of a removal that might take up to 25.

He has tattoos on his face, neck, hands and chest. Both eyes are encircled by a black leopardlike Maori-inspired design, which is based on the tattoo sported by boxer Mike Tyson. The tops of his hands spell out S-U-F-F-E-R-I-N-G when he holds them side by side. The left side of his neck says “Life,” the back of his neck says “Is,” and the right side says “Pain.”

He started getting tattoos when he was 16. He says he grew up in rough neighborhoods in Baltimore, suffered abuse at the hands of his father and was threatened outside his home, too: by drugs, by peers on the streets.

“Subconsciously I was creating an image to keep people at bay and away from me. I wanted to look tough,” he says. “People ask me every day, ‘Why did you do it? Why did you put yourself through that pain of tattooing your entire face?’ I’ve realized I don’t have to keep that trauma on my body.”

He’s gone through a lot of therapy. He works as a cook, but when the tattoos are off, he wants to mentor abused kids.

Now that the painful decision to get rid of the tattoos is over, the physical pain begins. He prays in the bathroom for strength. He gets into the chair and squeezes a ball as the laser hits his skin, turning parts of it red and then frosted white as the ink crystallizes into smaller particles that will be removed by his body’s immune system over the next few weeks. The laser emits a green light, and the room smells a little bit like burned hair. “I want to look in the mirror and see myself again.”

While characters in this story from first to last couch their thoughts in religous terms, the article declines to go deeper. It appears comfortable speculating about the vagaries of style but is shy of belief. The style argument is cleverly made by reference to the Dr. Seuss’ The Sneetches.

“Belly stars are no longer in style”, said McBean.

“What you need is a trip through my Star-Off Machine.
This wondrous contraption will take OFF your stars
so you won’t look like Sneetches that have them on thars.”
And that handy machine working very precisely
Removed all the stars from their tummies quite nicely.

Then, with snoots in the air, they paraded about.
And they opened their beaks and they let out a shout,
“We know who is who! Now there Isn’t a doubt.
The best kind of Sneetches are Sneetches without!”

But while Dr. Seuss used his tale as a cautionary word against prejudice, the Post plays upon the fantastical tattoo on / tattoo off business of Sylvester McMonkey McBean. However the wit and insight brought to the question of style is lacking on the faith issues. When the young woman who identifies herself as a Pentecostal states “the body is a temple” there is no explanation that she is referring to the Bible.

The Apostle Paul argued that our bodies are not ours to do with or defile as we please. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body. (1 Cor 6:19-21)

Her words and tears may mean that she believes that by having a tattoo she has defiled her body. Her tattoo is a sign of her sin. The man who is having his face tattoos removed states he prays for strength before the procedures. The tattoos may have been his flight from reality and from God. By removing them he will be cleansed and “see myself again.”

There is not a strict prohibition on tattooing in Christianity, but it is discouraged in some quarters.  The Old Testament forbids tattooing. You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, neither shall you tattoo any marks upon you: I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:28)

Orthodox Judaism thus prohibits tattooing. The injunction is so explicit that it has not been softened in the halakhic literature. A tattoo for a Jew is tantamount to rejecting orthodoxy — and was part of the dehumanization the Nazis inflicted upon the Jews at Auschwitz.

For Sunni Muslims, tattooing is haram — forbidden.  The Hadith of Sahih al-Bukhari states: May Allah curse the women who do tattoos and those for whom tattoos are done, those who pluck their eyebrows and those who file their teeth for the purpose of beautification and alter the creation of Allah. (al-Bukhari, al-Libaas, 5587; Muslim, al-Libaas, 5538), while The Prophet cursed the one who does tattoos, the one who has a tattoo done, the one who consumes riba (usury or interest) and the one who pays it, and he forbade the price of a dog and the earnings of a prostitute, and he cursed the image-makers.  (al-Bukhari, 5032).

I offer these passages from the Jewish, Muslim and Christian Scriptures not as some sort of proof texting to establish the proposition that tattooing is a sin, but to demonstrate the topic has strong religious overtones. This is seen by the explicit language used by some of those interviewed by the Post.

The absence of context for the characters’ statements leaves this article incomplete and prevents a good article from being great.

Tattooing photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

First printed in GetReligion.