Islam-Muslims

Yes, Russian interests in Syria are political, but there are centuries of religious ties as well

Yes, Russian interests in Syria are political, but there are centuries of religious ties as well

As a rule, the foreign desk of The New York Times does high-quality work when covering religious stories that are clearly defined as religion stories, frequently drawing praise here at GetReligion.

However, when an international story is defined in political terms — such as Donald Trump’s decision to abandon Kurdish communities in northern Syria — editors at the Times tend to miss the religion “ghosts” (to use a familiar GetReligion term) that haunt this kind of news.

The bottom line: It’s hard to write a religion-free story about news with obvious implications for Turkey, Syria, Russia, the United States, the Islamic State and a complex patchwork of religious minorities. The Times has, however, managed to do just that in a recent story with this headline: “In Syria, Russia Is Pleased to Fill an American Void.

Included in that complex mix is the ancient Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church, based in Damascus. Let me state the obvious here: Yes, part of my interest here is rooted in my own faith, since I converted into the Antiochian church 20-plus years ago. Click here for my 2013 column — “The Evil the church already knows in Syria” — about the plight of the Orthodox Church in a region ruled by monsters of all kinds.

This brings me to this particular Times feature. One does not have to grant a single noble motive to Russian President Vladimir Putin to grasp that secular and religious leaders in Russia do not want to risk the massacre of ancient Orthodox Christian communities in Syria. And there are other religious minorities in the territory invaded by Turkish forces. This is one of the reasons that American evangelicals and others have screamed about Trump’s decision to stab the Kurds in the back.

How can the world’s most powerful newspaper look at this drama and miss the role of religion? Here is the overture:

DOHUK, Iraq — Russia asserted itself in a long-contested part of Syria … after the United States pulled out, giving Moscow a new opportunity to press for Syrian army gains and project itself as a rising power broker in the Middle East.

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Post-Beto podcast: Yes, it's time for reporters to ask about 'freedom of worship' (again)

Post-Beto podcast: Yes, it's time for reporters to ask about 'freedom of worship' (again)

First, an apology for a long delay (I have been on the road) getting to this important news topic — as in the hand grenade that Beto O’Rourke tossed, whether his fellow Democrats want to talk about it or not, into the 2020 White House race.

I am referring, of course, to his LGBT-forum statement that the U.S. government should strip the tax-exempt status of churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious groups that defend — even inside their own doors — ancient teachings on marriage and sex that do not mesh with modernized doctrines.

If you want to start a firestorm, that was the spark you would need in a nation bitterly divided on the role of religious faith and practice in the real world. Here’s the key quote:

“There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break for any institution or organization in America that denies the full human rights and full civil rights of every single one of us,” he said. …

Will journalists keep asking about this or will that job be left to members of Donald Trump’s campaign advertising team? That was the topic we discussed during this week’s Crossroads podcast (click here to tune that in).

To its credit, the team at Religion News Service did a basic follow-up report: “Buttigieg, Warren reject O’Rourke plan to link church tax status, LGBT policy.” Here’s a crucial chunk of that:

“I’m not sure (O’Rourke) understood the implications of what he was saying,” said Buttigieg, an Episcopalian who is married to a man. “That (policy) means going to war not only with churches, but I would think, with mosques and a lot of organizations that may not have the same view of various religious principles that I do.

“So if we want to talk about anti-discrimination law for a school or an organization, absolutely they should not be able to discriminate. But going after the tax exemption of churches, Islamic centers, or other religious facilities in this country, I think that’s just going to deepen the divisions that we’re already experiencing.” …

In a statement to Religion News Service on Sunday, Elizabeth Warren’s campaign also pushed back on O’Rourke’s remark.

So, for journalists who are paying close attention, it would appear that O’Rourke’s bold stance represents the left side of the Democratic Party, while Mayor Pete and Warren are trying to find a centrist stance.

Reporters: What is the content of that center stance?

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Unlike the media, Muslim leaders are downplaying China's persecution of their fellow believers

Unlike the media, Muslim leaders are downplaying China's persecution of their fellow believers

The American media, and Muslim groups, remain vigilant in championing the safety and religious liberty of Islamic believers around the world.

But what about the large population of Muslims in China, where atheistic Communists are currently inflicting what’s probably the biggest program of religious persecution anywhere? Reports on the relentless campaign to suppress or “Sinicize” Islam say that a million or more Muslims of Uighur ethnicity have been shipped to re-education camps, amid reports of e.g. forcible pork-eating or renunciation of the faith.

Mainstream journalists have performed quite well on this, despite shrinking resources for foreign coverage and China’s efforts to bar reporters from Muslim regions. But what are Muslims and Muslim nations doing? GetReligion’s Ira Rifkin wrote a Feb. 12 post noting that China’s Muslims have “been largely abandoned by their powerful global co-religionists” due to “blatantly self-serving political considerations.”

Wall Street Journal Asia columnist Sadanand Dhume aims that same complaint (behind paywall) specifically at Pakistan. Prime Minister Imran Khan is quick to denounce “Islamopobia” in the West, he wrote October 4, but “China’s wholesale assault on Islam itself elicits only silence.” He explained, “Hardly any Muslim country wants to risk angering China’s touchy rulers by criticizing their policies.”

Journalists should be quizzing Muslim spokesmen, organizations, scholars and diplomats about this noteworthy anomaly. Such calculated silence, so much in contrast with Christian and Jewish activism on religious freedom, stands out because most Muslim nations fuse religion with state interests.

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Do Africans need to repent for slave trade? This Wall Street Journal piece suggests they should

Do Africans need to repent for slave trade? This Wall Street Journal piece suggests they should

The era of slavery on American shores began 400 years ago this year when the first boatload of slaves landed in Virginia and much has been written about that anniversary. But slave ships from Great Britain, Portugal, France, the Netherlands and other countries didn’t do their work unaided.

There were hundreds if not thousands of African middlemen who procured the slaves for these ships. Are they not just as guilty as the white merchants who put them on their ships? Do these middlemen have descendants and if so, do they feel any shame at what their ancestors did?

Armed with a journalism grant, a Nigerian journalist set out to find those descendants and what she found was published Sept. 20 in the Wall Street Journal headlined “When the Slave Traders Were African.”

Not only that, but many of those descendants are bringing their faith into the question. The segment I am reproducing is long, but the Journal’s paywall makes it harder for people to read it otherwise.

This August marked 400 years since the first documented enslaved Africans arrived in the U.S. In 1619, a ship reached the Jamestown settlement in the colony of Virginia, carrying “some 20 and odd Negroes” who were kidnapped from their villages in present-day Angola. The anniversary coincides with a controversial debate in the U.S. about whether the country owes reparations to the descendants of slaves as compensation for centuries of injustice and inequality. It is a moment for posing questions of historic guilt and responsibility.

But the American side of the story is not the only one. Africans are now also reckoning with their own complicated legacy in the slave trade, and the infamous “Middle Passage” often looks different from across the Atlantic.

Records from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, directed by historian David Eltis at Emory University, show that the majority of captives brought to the U.S. came from Senegal, Gambia, Congo and eastern Nigeria. Europeans oversaw this brutal traffic in human cargo, but they had many local collaborators. “The organization of the slave trade was structured to have the Europeans stay along the coast lines, relying on African middlemen and merchants to bring the slaves to them,” said Toyin Falola, a Nigerian professor of African studies at the University of Texas at Austin. “The Europeans couldn’t have gone into the interior to get the slaves themselves.

The anguished debate over slavery in the U.S. is often silent on the role that Africans played. That silence is echoed in many African countries, where there is hardly any national discussion or acknowledgment of the issue.

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While Catholic Twitter rages, Cardinal Sarah takes a sobering look at modern church

While Catholic Twitter rages, Cardinal Sarah takes a sobering look at modern church

The West is in spiritual decline.

The Catholic church is besieged by scandal.

Society has become more secular and less religious, a collapse that can be solved through prayer.

Those are some of the takeaways from Cardinal Robert Sarah’s new book “The Day is Now Far Spent,” in which he pulls no punches about what he thinks currently ails Europe, the place where Christianity once prospered. Sarah’s diagnosis for what ails the world, but primarily the West, is deeply profound — controversial to some even — and his solutions are equally noteworthy.

“Christians are trembling, wavering, doubting,” Sarah says in the 349-page book. “I want this book to be for them. To tell them: do not doubt! Hold fast to doctrine! Hold fast to prayer! I want this book to strengthen Christians and priests.”

This book is a major statement by a cardinal whose work on theology and liturgy was at the heart of the Pope Benedict XVI era. His voice is hard to ignore and, for journalists, represents an orthodox critique of current trends, but one with more clout than angry voices in the latest storm in Catholic Twitter.

The book, translated from French and released by Ignatius Press, does just that. Before he can offer hope, Sarah outlines what he calls “the crisis of faith.” In a series of interviews with French journalist Nicolas Diat, Sarah discusses how seeking salvation is something that has been lost these days.

“Doctrinal and moral confusion is reaching its height,” Sarah writes. “Evil is good, good is evil. Man no longer feels any need to be saved. The loss of the sense of salvation is the consequence of the loss of the transcendence of God.”  

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For newsroom source lists: A female Muslim lawyer to watch on religious-liberty issues

For newsroom source lists: A female Muslim lawyer to watch on religious-liberty issues

A Pegasus Books release has this curious title: “When Islam Is Not a Religion.”

Huh? Say what?

Is the pope not Catholic? Don’t U.S. Democrats constitute a political party? (With Britain’s Conservatives and Labour that’s open to question lately.) The subtitle then explains what the book is about: “Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom.”

Author Asma Uddin’s title targets American right-wingers who are claiming Islam is not “really” a religion — but a dangerous political movement.

Islam is, in actuality, a variegated global religion that usually intermingles beliefs with politics in ways that can become problematic, just as with some variants of Christianity -- including some of those making that anti-Islam claim.

Uddin, a Pakistani-American lawyer in Washington, D.C., belongs on your prime source list (if she is not there already). Contact: asma.uddin@altmuslimah.com. For starters, this Muslim studied her civil rights specialization at the elite University of Chicago Law School.

She became the founding editor of a lively, decade-old online magazine that journalists should be monitoring, altmuslimah.com. It emphasizes hot-button gender issues in Islam (e.g. women’s rights, man-woman relationships, polygamy, harem, genital mutilation, honor killing, headscarves and burqas). You won’t want to miss articles on whether Islam, and also Christianity, can consistently be considered religions (!), like this one.

In an interview posted by her law school last year, Uddin says her altmuslimah colleagues felt “there were so many of us who wanted to be authentic to our faith, devoted to our faith, and who were struggling with issues that we didn’t always know how to fit with our lived realities. It turned out that these were conversations that people were desperate to have. The response has been overwhelming.”

Most important, Uddin is a principled defender of religious liberty across the board, naturally quick to defend the rights of fellow American Muslims but also concerned about believers in all other faiths, including those who suffer suppression in Muslim countries.

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Kosher sort-of shrimp and cheeseburgers: Do plant-based foods violate spirit of biblical law?

Kosher sort-of shrimp and cheeseburgers: Do plant-based foods violate spirit of biblical law?

Back in my Rocky Mountain days, in the 1980s, I heard an Orthodox rabbi give a fascinating talk with a title that went something like this: “The quest for the kosher cheeseburger.”

His thesis: If the result of this quest is a cheeseburger — mixing meat with a milk product — then it’s not kosher. If you end up with something that is kosher, then it isn’t a real cheeseburger. So what’s the point?

The Orthodox rabbi was using the “kosher cheeseburger” as a symbol of the efforts that many Jews make to blur the line between assimilating into what can, at times, be a hostile culture and following the traditions of their ancient faith. Can modern Jewish believers create a golden cheeseburger and eat it, too?

This is an essentially spiritual question, but it’s a question that takes on a whole new meaning with the explosion of attention now being given to plant-based meat substitutes (note the blitz of ads for Burger King’s new Impossible Whooper).

The Washington Post business team recently covered this trend and did a fine job of digging into these religious questions, starting with the headline: “Shalt thou eat an Impossible Burger? Religious doctrine scrambles to catch up to new food technology.” It’s rare to see scripture in a business lede, but this one was right on point — focusing on on a symbolic food that is totally out of bounds in Jewish tradition.

You think a kosher cheeseburger is a wild idea? How about kosher shrimp?

Leviticus 11 contains a zoo’s worth of animals. The hyrax and the monitor lizard. The katydid is there, as is the gecko. And it ends: “You must distinguish between the unclean and the clean, between living creatures that may be eaten and those that may not be eaten.”

Dietary restrictions are woven into religious texts, the Old Testament and the New, the Koran, the Vedas and the Upanishads. Some are mercifully practical, as in the law of necessity in Islamic jurisprudence: “That which is necessary makes the forbidden permissible.”

Now, Tyson executives are seeking certification from various agencies declaring their plant-based shrimp both kosher and halal. The team at the Post business desk identified the religion ghost in that equation and produced this solid thesis statement:

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Finding comfort in faith after 9/11, as well as hard questions that never fade away

Finding comfort in faith after 9/11, as well as hard questions that never fade away

Looking back at the events on Sept. 11 and its aftermath requires looking back into time and also looking within, deep into the mind, the heart and the soul.

If it’s true that time heals all wounds, 9/11 could be the exception to that adage. As a reporter for the New York Post that day, I was a witness to the deadliest terror attack on American soil.

How did I feel? What did 9/11 do to me? How did it affect the way I did my job? These are all questions I get from students each time I do a talk about the attacks.

Looking back on 18 years ago, I remember feeling angry at God. Had He allowed for this to happen? I yearned for the answer to that question. I looked to my church (I am a Roman Catholic) for adequate ways to quell my inner frustrations. I recall saying a prayer the morning after the attacks on my way to work. It was my way of trying to find some inner peace.

So I am looking back on that stunning day as a journalist and as a Christian.

The entire time, I had a job to do. I had to divide the personal from the professional. Never in my life has that been so hard to do. It wasn’t until three days later, after hearing Billy Graham speak, did I feel more at ease with what had happened. It helped me make sense of the brokenness.

Indeed, one of my first reactions had been, “God, how could you let this happen?” Of course, God didn’t let this happen. What happened that day was pure evil, the work of Islamic militants who had perverted their religion to justify death. It was the good that would later come out of the tragedy, the stories of heroism and sacrifice, that reflected God’s love.

In the weeks that followed, I covered dozens of funerals, primarily those of firefighters. I found those funeral masses both extremely sad and comforting. I participated in them. When I wasn’t taking down notes and interviewing grieving family members, I remember praying along within everyone else at each one of those services. I was grieving along with everyone else.

There was, you see, no way around the faith elements in this event and this story. That was part of the pain, as well as the basic facts.

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Here's an unusual story: Moderate French Muslims vs. the radical Islamists

Here's an unusual story: Moderate French Muslims vs. the radical Islamists

France is the canary in the mine when it comes to immigration, which is why I was interested in a piece by RealClearInvestigations on how conflicted French Muslims themselves are over some worrying trends.

France is under severe internal stress. Not long ago, GetReligion’s Clemente Lisi wrote about a report on the more than 1,000 vandalisms and thefts in 2018 at Catholic churches around France. That subject was covered by RealClearInvestigations too.

Is the Islamization of France connected to the church attacks?

Sometimes yes; oftentimes no. Let’s also say that concerns about radical Islam no longer just belong to the far political right. The concerned are now other Muslims.

PARIS — They call themselves Les Resilientes, the Resisters, and they meet every week in a couple of modest rooms in the immigrant neighborhood of Saint-Denis, on the northern outskirts of Paris. Their main purpose is to provide a refuge for women who have been victims of violence, but they are fighting another battle as well.

Though most of the Resilientes are Muslims of North African heritage, they are resisting other Muslims -- the growing influence and strength of a conservative, fundamentalist Islam in their neighborhood.

“What worries me is that it's developing; it's not retreating,” the group’s founder and president, Rachida Hamdan, told me during a visit in June to the Resilientes center, located on a charmless avenue lined with public housing estates. “More and more, for example, you see little girls wearing the veil, which I oppose because I see it as a symbol of female submission. But it's also an act of open defiance against the Republic,” she said, referring to French laws that limit wearing certain religious identifiers in public. “You see it in front of the schools, mothers telling other mothers that their children should be veiled. I've been told by 17-year-old boys that I'm not a true Muslim because I'm not veiled. Who is telling them to say things like that?”

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