Islam

Solid, if low key, coverage of Muslim inmate executed in Alabama -- without his imam present

Solid, if low key, coverage of Muslim inmate executed in Alabama -- without his imam present

It was the kind of outrageous story that grabbed the attention of GetReligion readers, as well as old-school First Amendment liberals who care deeply about protecting religious liberty.

Plenty of journalists saw the importance of this story last week, which tends to happen when a dispute ends up at the U.S. Supreme Court and creates a sharp 5-4 split among the justices.

The question, in this case, was whether journalists grasped some of the most symbolic, painful details in this execution case in Alabama. I looked at several stories and this USA Today report — “Alabama executes Muslim inmate Domineque Ray who asked for imam to be present“ — was better than the mainstream norm. Here is the overture:

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama death row inmate Domineque Ray died by lethal injection Thursday evening with his imam present in an adjoining chamber. …

Ray was executed after an 11th-hour ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a stay of execution pending a religious rights claim. Ray, a Muslim, had argued Alabama's practice of including a Christian prison chaplain in the execution chamber was in violation of the First Amendment. Ray sought to have his imam present in the death chamber at the time of his death.

Imam Yusef Maisonet, Ray's spiritual adviser, witnessed Ray's execution from a chamber which held media and prison officials. Two lawyers accompanied Maisonet.

When the curtain opened at 9:44 p.m., Ray lifted his head from the gurney, looking into the witness room. With his right hand in a fist, he extended a pointer finger.

Maisonet appeared to mirror the gesture and murmured that it was an acknowledgement of the singular God of the Islamic faith. When asked if he had any final words, Ray gave a brief faith declaration in Arabic.

OK, I will ask: What did Ray say, in Arabic? Did he speak Arabic? If not, then the odds are very good that Ray’s final words were a memorized quote from the Koran. It would have been good to have known the specifics.

That’s an important missing detail, but not the key to this story. The big issue, in this case, was that Ray was executed without a spiritual leader from his own faith at his side. USA Today managed to get that detail — along with the crucial fact that state policy only allowed a Christian chaplain in the execution room — at the top of this report. That’s where those facts belonged.

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Media watchdog catches a whopper in New York Times feature on gay life in Lebanon

Media watchdog catches a whopper in New York Times feature on gay life in Lebanon

Sometimes you just have to wonder whether someone’s simply asleep at the wheel.

Yes, even at The New York Times, which I consider journalism's preeminent global-news operation.

I say that, despite the Times many imperfections. To which I'd add this ambitious but seriously flawed story about gays, lesbians and transsexuals trying to survive in Lebanon. Here’s its opening paragraphs.

Throughout the Middle East, gay, lesbian and transgender people face formidable obstacles to living a life of openness and acceptance in conservative societies.
Although Jordan decriminalized same-sex behavior in 1951, the gay community remains marginalized. Qatar, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen all outlaw same-sex relations. In Saudi Arabia, homosexuality can be punished by flogging or death.
In Egypt, at least 76 people have been arrested in a crackdown since September, when a fan waved a rainbow flag during a concert by Mashrou’ Leila, a Lebanese band with an openly gay singer.
If there is one exception, it has been Lebanon. While the law can still penalize homosexual acts, Lebanese society has slowly grown more tolerant as activists have worked for more rights and visibility.

What’s that, you say? You clicked on the link to the story provided above and that’s not how the lede actually reads? Instead of “Middle East,” the story now refers to the “Arab world”?

Well, you're correct. Let me explain.

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NPR gets it right about how bad things are for non-Muslims in Indonesia

 NPR gets it right about how bad things are for non-Muslims in Indonesia

Soon after the 9/11 attacks, my employers were looking for the next place where Islamic militants were hiding out and I proposed a trip to Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country -- where there was a potential massacre awaiting Christians in one of its eastern provinces. The plane tickets were all bought and plans were for me and a photographer to fly to Palu, a city in central Sulawesi, an island shaped like something between a swastika and a pinwheel.

At the last minute, a top editor cancelled the trip because he was afraid that if we were kidnapped, the newspaper didn’t have the means to rescue us. Being that journalists were getting killed in Afghanistan, it was a very real fear. But I was terribly disappointed not to go.

North Sulawesi, it turns out, is quite Protestant and reputed to have a church every 100 meters. But central Sulawesi was much more Muslim, so we planned to drive to Poso, then south to Tentena, a Christian village that was in some danger of being wiped out by Islamists. This CNN article tells of how some 7,000 Muslim guerillas were planning war on about 60,000 Christian villagers. A few years later, guerillas were using machetes to chop off the heads of young Christian girls.

The reason for this long introduction is that NPR recently did a piece on the utter lack of religious liberty for Christians in Indonesia, as illustrated by a small church outside of Jakarta that the local Muslims will not allow to open. A sample:

The city of Bogor, on the outskirts of greater Jakarta, is a conservative Muslim area with a strong Christian minority. To open a church here, Christian groups must meet a lot of requirements, including getting permission from Muslim authorities.
Starting in 2003, the Taman Yasmin Indonesia Christian Church, also known as the GKI Yasmin Church, got all the necessary legal permits. But vocal Muslim citizens opposed construction of the church and pressured the local government to cancel the permits.
The local government acquiesced to the demands. But the church group went to court, and won. On an appeal, they won again. Finally, the case went all the way to Indonesia's Supreme Court — where the church group won a third time, in 2010. But to this day, the congregation can't worship there…

Why do I bring this up? Because this NPR report contradicts the widespread media fantasy of Indonesia as this happy inter-religious paradise.

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Context, context, context: Financial media outlet flunks basics in millenials flock to astrology story

Context, context, context: Financial media outlet flunks basics in millenials flock to astrology story

How does potentially good journalism go bad? Perhaps it's when reporters fail to find (and editors fail to insist upon) more than one side to a story. Let's call it a context deficit disorder.

Today's nominee is MarketWatch.com, part of the Dow Jones media group, which no longer includes The Wall Street Journal, it should be noted. (That daily is now owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.)

MarketWatch readers are promised an explanation of "Why millennials are ditching religion for witchcraft and astrology." Instead, we're treated to what essentially is a puff-piece for some firms in the metaphysical realm without much, yes, context about whether this really is a thing.

Let's start with the introductory paragraphs. This is long, but essential:

When Coco Layne, a Brooklyn-based producer, meets someone new these days, the first question that comes up in conversation isn’t “Where do you live?” or “What do you do?” but “What’s your sign?”
“So many millennials read their horoscopes every day and believe them,” Layne, who is involved in a number of nonreligious spiritual practices, said. “It is a good reference point to identify and place people in the world.”
Interest in spirituality has been booming in recent years while interest in religion plummets, especially among millennials. The majority of Americans now believe it is not necessary to believe in God to have good morals, a study from Pew Research Center released Wednesday found. The percentage of people between the ages of 18 and 29 who “never doubt existence of God” fell from 81% in 2007 to 67% in 2012.
Meanwhile, more than half of young adults in the U.S. believe astrology is a science. compared to less than 8% of the Chinese public. The psychic services industry -- which includes astrology, aura reading, mediumship, tarot-card reading and palmistry, among other metaphysical services -- grew 2% between 2011 and 2016. It is now worth $2 billion annually, according to industry analysis firm IBIS World.

Can you say non-sequitur, gentle reader?

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Pew 'state religion' survey: Putting data in context is crucial, something The Guardian forgot

Pew 'state religion' survey: Putting data in context is crucial, something The Guardian forgot

While I'm not an expert on Transcendental Meditation, it's my understanding that having a personal mantra assigned to you by an instructor is essential to the practice of TM. Thus, if I were to select a mantra for meditating on the press and religion, it'd be "Con-text, con-text, con-text." (You know, I'm feeling better already.)

Bad meditation jokes aside, careful readers of this blog might sense that calling for context is, in fact, my mantra, or pretty close to it. A good example of why it's important -- as well as what's missing when journalism omits this -- comes courtesy of the Pew Research Center, the Washington, D.C.-based group which this week released a study on life in nations which have an official state religion.

In this country, such a choice is prohibited by the Constitution of the United States, specifically by the Bill of Rights ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, etc."). However, that sanction doesn't exist in other nations, such as the United Kingdom.

Let's begin with Britain's The Guardian, which sticks to the bare facts in its report:

More than one in five countries has an official state religion, with the majority being Muslim states, and a further 20% of countries have a preferred or favoured religion. A slim majority (53%) of counties has no official or preferred religion, and 10 (5%) are hostile to religion, according to a report by the Washington-based Pew Research Center.
Most of the 43 countries with state religions are in the Middle East and North Africa, with a cluster in northern Europe. Islam is the official religion in 27 countries in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa as well North Africa and the Middle East.
Thirteen countries -- including nine in Europe -- are officially Christian, two (Bhutan and Cambodia) have Buddhism as their state religion, and one (Israel) is officially a Jewish state. No country has Hinduism as its state religion.

Now, as you can see from the 2013 RT television clip atop this page, having a state religion doesn't always guarantee prosperous times for the faith in question. If anything, the Church of England's fortunes are less secure now than they were four years ago, but that's a story for another time.

What is germane to the Guardian report -- but also is absent there -- is any information providing context about how having a state-sanctioned religion affects the people who live in these states.

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If it's an imam trashing Jews, not all editors agree that his words are hate speech

If it's an imam trashing Jews, not all editors agree that his words are hate speech

A California imam has made some waves in recent days by suggesting all Jews be killed in an apocalyptic battle in some future time.

Needless to say, this did not go over well with some of those who viewed a video of the speech -- but its combustible content got no national coverage.

Even coverage within California was limited, causing some to wonder that had the roles been reversed -- with the speaker a rabbi or a Christian preacher, attacking Muslims -- news media professionals would have been all over the story.

The Sacramento Bee had the clearest account of the sermon with a bit of theological punch:

A Davis imam is under fire after giving a sermon last week that combined end-of-days prophecy with the current religious conflict over a Jerusalem holy site, causing critics to condemn him as anti-Semitic.
Imam Ammar Shahin on Friday gave a nearly hour-long sermon to worshippers at the Islamic Center of Davis calling for congregants to oppose restrictions placed by Israel on the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and citing Islamic texts about an end-times battle predicted by the prophet Muhammad.
The sermon included a prayer to Allah to “destroy those who closed the Al-Aqsa Mosque,” according to the translation from the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which first posted an edited clip of the sermon.
Shahin’s prayer continued, “count them one by one and annihilate them down to the very last one.”

After the Islamic Center claimed that MEMRI had misconstrued the remarks, the Bee got its own translator who sided mostly with the Center, but said the imam was unwise at best to give such a sermon.

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Coast-to-coast coverage of anti-sharia protest offers lots of heat, but little or no light

Coast-to-coast coverage of anti-sharia protest offers lots of heat, but little or no light

Arguments about religion and freedom took to the streets around the country this past weekend as a group called ACT for America staged anti-sharia law demonstrations at roughly 28 locations around the country.

I wasn’t aware of the event until I read a piece in the Seattle Times announcing the rally. The lead sentence, which began with, “Supporters of an organization considered a hate group by local Muslims will gather in Seattle on Saturday…” told me all I needed to know about the Times’ take on the event.

Once again, we have one of those news stories where editors already know who is totally good and who is totally evil (there are no variations or debates on either side, you see) and there is no need to let readers hear from other voices. It's much easier just to write an editorial.

Sadly, the Seattle paper didn’t improve things much with its post-rally story

Supporters of an organization labeled an anti-Muslim hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center gathered Saturday in downtown Seattle as part of a national “March Against Sharia,” but were outnumbered by counterprotesters who used horns, whistles and chants to drown out their message.
The counterprotest, called “Seattle Stands With Our Muslim Neighbors,” drew a few hundred people to target the much-publicized demonstration sponsored by ACT for America. That group claims Islamic Sharia law — which is not in effect in the United States -- is a threat to American values. Sharia is religious law found in the Quran, and some Muslim-majority countries use Sharia law in their legal systems.

Did other media do better?

The report from ABC-TV quoted its Seattle affiliate and a Minneapolis newspaper about the status of rallies in both those cities, then quoted an Islamic studies professor in Hamilton, Ontario to comment on what’s going on in the States. Weren’t there any Islamic studies scholars in American universities who could be quoted?

CNN’s report was only a little better: 

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Dear political reporters: Does Sanders 'Feel the Bern' over Article 6 and religious tests?

Dear political reporters: Does Sanders 'Feel the Bern' over Article 6 and religious tests?

The relationship of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) with religion is a bit vague: Born Jewish, Religion News Service in 2015 called him "unabashedly irreligious" and said he only "culturally" identifies as Jewish these days.

As mayor of Burlington, Vermont, Sanders once defended the placement of a menorah in a public square.

I devoutly hope Sanders' relationship with the Constitution of the United States is less tenuous, particularly as it relates to the last 20 words of Article 6. This is certainly an issue in the news, right now.

...no religious Test [sic] shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

Forgive the long preamble, but it's needed to set up today's other hot Donald Trump administration-related story, the question of whether or not Russell Vought will be allowed a vote by the full U.S. Senate on his nomination as deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.

Sanders may object to Vought on other points -- deadlines didn't allow a review of the full Budget Committee hearing video -- but about 44 minutes into the recording, we find a remarkable attack on the nominee centering on an article Vought wrote about 16 months ago defending Wheaton College, his alma mater, during the controversy over then-professor Lacryia Hawkins and her views on Islam.

Writing at The Resurgent, a conservative blog, Vought declared:

Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ his Son, and they stand condemned.

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Hijab hypocrisy: Why the BBC gets it

Hijab hypocrisy: Why the BBC gets it

Every now and then a piece comes out that is so insightful, one must call attention to it. I don’t usually run into stories like that on BBC’s web site but the following one made me take notice.

The headline “Why catwalk hijabs are upsetting some Muslim women” made me take notice.

A lot of us have noticed that fashion brands have been capitalizing on the hijab-like scarves that look glamorous enough but probably wouldn’t pass muster on the Islamic street. Head coverings are supposed to take one’s attention away from the woman -- whereas these scarves certainly drew attention.

So I was not surprised that some women are objecting. Better still was how the pros at BBC saw beneath it all. This passage is long, but it sets of the crucial insights.

Dolce and Gabbana, H&M, Pepsi, Nike: just a few of the big brands putting women wearing a hijab -- a traditional Islamic headscarf -- front and centre in advertising campaigns.
The hijab has long been a contentious topic of conversation; feminists, religious conservatives, secularists are some of the online communities that have engaged in passionate debate about what it represents. But this time, online and using social media, it's some Muslim women who are questioning the use of such images.
Tasbeeh Harwees, a journalist, recently wrote in the online magazine Good about a recent viral Pepsi advert starring Kendall Jenner. The advertisement was controversial because of its alleged trivialisation of street protests -- but some Muslim women took issue for a different reason, the casting of a hijab-wearing woman who photographs the rally.
"A multi-billion dollar company was using the image of a Muslim woman to project an image of progressiveness that it may not necessarily live up to," Harwees tells BBC Trending radio.

Then came some really interesting paragraphs.

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