Islam

Why the whole 'Is President Obama a Christian?' controversy just won't die

Why the whole 'Is President Obama a Christian?' controversy just won't die

This week's "Crossroads" podcast focuses on the Frankenstein question in American public life that has left journalists shaking their heads and muttering, "It's alive, it's alive!"

I am referring, of course, to the whole Gov. Scott Walker and the "Is President Barack Obama a Christian?" thing. Then that media storm -- click here for my previous post -- led into the silly "Does Scott Walker really think that he talks with God?" episode.

Then again, am I alone in thinking that some rather cynical political reporters are creating these monsters and trying to keep them alive? Whatever. I remain convinced that Obama is what he says he is: A liberal Christian who made a profession of faith and joined the United Church of Christ, a denomination that has long represented the left edge of free-church Protestantism.

Anyway, host Todd Wilken and I ended up spending most of our time talking about the subject that I am convinced is looming behind the whole "Is Obama a Christian" phenomenon, especially this latest flap with Walker. Click here to listen in on the discussion.

Believe it or not, this brings us to a discussion of a question that quietly rumbled through the Southern Baptist blogosphere the other day: Forget the question of whether the 21 Coptic Christians who were beheaded by the Islamic State should be declared as Christian martyrs? Were they actually Christians in the first place?"

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Now we're talking big news: ISIS attacks museums (plus Christians and other believers)

Now we're talking big news: ISIS attacks museums (plus Christians and other believers)

The story began with reports in "conservative" and religious media, which, tragically, is what happens way too often these days with issues linked to religious liberty and the persecution of religious minorities (especially if they are Christians).

Earlier in the week I saw this headline at the Catholic News Agency: "Patriarch urges prayer after at least 90 Christians kidnapped in Syria." The story began:

With reports circulating saying that ISIS forces have kidnapped at least 90 Christians from villages in northeast Syria, Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan said prayer is the only possible response.

“Let’s pray for those innocent people,” Patriarch Younan told CNA over the phone from Beirut Feb. 24. “It’s a very, let’s say, very ordinary thing to have those people with such hatred toward non-Muslims that they don’t respect any human life,” he said, noting that the only reaction to Tuesday’s kidnappings is “to pray.”

Alas, none of these believers were cartoonists. However, as the days went past the numbers in these distressing reports -- especially this soon after the 21 Coptic martyrs video --  began to rise.

I kept watching the major newspapers and, while I may have missed a crucial report or two, I did see this crucial story from Reuters -- always an important development in global news -- that represented a major escalation of the coverage, with several crucial dots connected. Do the math.

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Godbeat progress? Yes, the White House summit on violent extremism drew lots of ink, but ...

Godbeat progress? Yes, the White House summit on violent extremism drew lots of ink, but ...

I ended my first post last week by urging readers to pay attention to the media coverage generated by the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism. If you did, you know that the gathering generated more reporting, analysis and opinion than any of the week's other events. That was as it should be. Because as head GetReligionista Terry Mattingly opined, Muslim-linked terrorism in general, and the Islamic State in particular, is the "biggest religion story in the world, right now."

Will all the scrutiny focused on the issue lead to an upsurge of attention to the broader coverage of religion? More on this below. But first a snapshot of the week that was for those who did not keep up.

Summit coverage tended to focus as much on what President Barack Obama did not say as on what he did say.  Critics blasted the president for not directly linking recent attacks in Copenhagen, Paris and elsewhere to some murderous impulse they argue lies at the heart of Islam. If you do not define the problem precisely, you have no hope of overcoming it, this line of reasoning maintains. Supporters argue that the president is playing it smart both diplomatically and militarily by not loudly proclaiming Islamic theology and mainstream practice the sole cause of the violence. Why pick a fight, insists this side of the debate, with all the world's approximately 1.5 billion Muslims and Muslim-led governments, whose cooperation is needed, when the problem is just a fanatical fringe?

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New York Times revisits Catholic-bred beheading victim James Foley's reported conversion to Islam

New York Times revisits Catholic-bred beheading victim James Foley's reported conversion to Islam

Four months ago, I raised questions after The New York Times reported that Islamic State beheading victim James Foley made a sincere conversion from Catholicism to Islam during his captivity.

Given the circumstances, I asked whether Foley's "conversion" really should be presented as a fact.

At the time, the Times reporter who wrote the story defended the newspaper's characterization of Foley's conversion.

 

Rome bureau chief Jim Yardley's 1,500-word story tackles important questions concerning Foley's faith that the original Times story ignored.

Let's start at the top:

VATICAN CITY — The Islamic State’s beheading in August of the journalist James Foley stirred global outrage, fury and despair. But for many of his fellow Roman Catholics, Mr. Foley’s death in Syria transformed him into a symbol of faith under the most brutal of conditions.
One Catholic essayist compared him to St. Bartholomew, who died for his Christian faith. Others were drawn to Mr. Foley’s account of praying the rosary during an earlier captivity in Libya. Even Pope Francis, in a condolence call to Mr. Foley’s parents, described him as a martyr, according to the family.
Then came an unexpected twist: It turned out that Mr. Foley was among several hostages in Syria who had converted to Islam in captivity, according to some freed captives. What had been among some Catholics a theological discussion of faith and heroic resistance quickly shifted to a different set of questions:
Is any conversion under such duress a legitimate one? Why would a man who had spoken so openly about his Catholic faith turn to Islam? Given his circumstances, is it even surprising if he did?

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What does it mean to ask: Is Islam a 'religion of peace'?

What does it mean to ask: Is Islam a 'religion of peace'?

DAVID ASKS:

Where is the Muslim peace movement? Put another way, if Islam is a peace-loving religion where are the Muslim voices for peace?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

“Islam is a religion that preaches peace,” U.S. President Barack Obama told CBS last September, and likewise President George W. Bush’s mosque speech after 9-11 said “Islam is peace.” Yet there’s continual violence committed in the name of Islam. Analysts are abuzz over a major article in The Atlantic by Graeme Wood, who contends the bloodthirsty Islamic State Caliphate is thoroughly grounded in one understanding of end-times theology and “governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers.” Wood cites especially the research of Princeton University’s Bernard Haykel.

In this tangled discussion one point is obvious: This great world religion is embroiled in an increasingly dangerous internal conflict as an expanding faction of militant “Islamists” or “jihadis” works to abolish Muslim thinkers’ consensus across centuries about justifications for violence, the proper conduct of warfare, and who has the authority to decide such matters. John Esposito, a Georgetown University expert, calls it a “struggle for the soul of Islam.”

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That must-read think piece: The Atlantic listens to the voices of the Islamic State

That must-read think piece: The Atlantic listens to the voices of the Islamic State

After reading (finally) Graeme Wood's much-discussed cover story at The Atlantic -- "What ISIS Really Wants" -- it seems to me that he is saying there are two people who are dead wrong when it comes to evaluating the religion component in the campaign to create the Islamic State. These two people, of course, have followers.

First of all, there is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi himself, who has been declared the leader of the caliphate that is at the heart of the Islamic State's claim that it's approach to Islam is just and true and that all faithful Muslims must embrace it or be declared as apostates. Truth be told, there are a few million Muslims who agree with him, but millions and millions of Muslims who disagree.

The other person who is wrong, when it comes to ISIS, is President Barack Obama, who has famously stated that "ISIL is not Islamic." Like the views of the self-proclaimed caliph, this is a absolute statement that draws support for many people, including some Muslims in the West, but is rejected out of hand by many, many other Muslims -- including the leaders of ISIS.

This brings me to the first of several passages in the Wood piece -- which is a work of analysis, not news reporting -- that I believe should be taken seriously by journalists who are trying to cover this debate. The ISIS leaders insist, he notes:

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Islam, media self-censorship, The New York Times and beyond

Islam, media self-censorship, The New York Times and beyond

Cowardice, political correctness, or social constraints? What lays behind the phenomena of self-censorship in the media these days?

Writing in The Weekly Standard, Tom Gross argues that the refusal by The New York Times to come clean on the targets of militant Islam is a congenital defect. Inconvenient facts simply do not appear in reports in The Times if they conflict with its worldview.

Commenting on the Gray Lady’s coverage of the terrorist attack in Copenhagen, Gross writes:

At the present time, over a dozen hours after other media (such as The Guardian) reported prominently on the specifically anti-Semitic nature of [the Feb. 14] attack in Copenhagen and on the fact there was a Bat Mitzvah going on in the synagogue while it was being attacked (with over 80 people including many children inside), the lengthy report on the New York Times website on the Copenhagen shootings doesn’t mention the word “anti-Semitism” once. Instead New York Times correspondent Steven Erlanger writes in his piece “anti-Muslim sentiment is rising in Europe.”

Nor does The New York Times mention the bat mitzvah.

There are not so many Jews in Denmark and not many bat mitzvahs -- it seems the terrorist had done his research carefully. Yet the New York Times website home page says, at the time of writing, that the shooting was “near a synagogue.” No, it wasn’t near a synagogue. It was at a synagogue. The synagogue was the target. Which is why a Jew guarding the synagogue was shot dead.

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New York Times opens door to coverage of what ISIS is saying about Islamic faith

New York Times opens door to coverage of what ISIS is saying about Islamic faith

Before I get to a New York Times piece on efforts to counter Islamic State recruiting programs, let me respond to the many people who have sent me emails asking for my reaction to the massive piece in The Atlantic by Graeme Wood entitled "What ISIS Really Wants."

Well that piece is very long and very serious and, to be honest, I have not read all of it yet. I have been in a series of long meetings in New York City -- linked to my future work at The King's College as Senior Fellow for Media and Religion -- and I have not been able to give Wood's piece the attention that it deserves. I plan to buy a copy today and read in on the train back to Baltimore.

However, the thesis of the piece is clear in the online discussions that have surrounded it: Whatever the Islamic State is, it is a movement that is rooted in its own understanding of Islamic faith, practice and tradition. Thus, it is engaged in a bloody critique of other forms of Islam, as well as the modern and postmodern West. (Click here for a massive Rod "friend of this blog" Dreher post on Wood's piece, and others linked to it.)

Meanwhile, this same subject -- the debate INSIDE Islam about ISIS and its approach to the faith -- shows up in the very interesting A1 piece in the Times that ran under the headline "U.S. Muslims Take On ISIS’ Recruiting Machine."

This piece operates on two levels, with most of the content focusing on the ISIS process of "grooming" potential recruits online with attention and, later, even gifts. In this context "grooming," the story notes, is a term "more often used in relation to sexual predators."

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NPR's new religion correspondent reports on 'extreme anti-theism' as possible motive in Muslim deaths

NPR's new religion correspondent reports on 'extreme anti-theism' as possible motive in Muslim deaths

Welcome to the Godbeat, Tom Gjelten!

Gjelten made his debut this week as NPR's new religion correspondent.

The veteran journalist previously served as national security and international affairs correspondent there. 

He joined NPR as labor and education reporter in 1982 and later did international reporting stints as the Latin American correspondent based in Mexico City and the Central Europe correspondent based in Berlin.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, who spent more than a decade covering religion for NPR, was a favorite of your GetReligionistas. According to Facebook, she's now working on a book on how to do midlife well.

Gjelten's first piece as religion correspondent concerns the case of three young Muslims who were gunned down in Chapel Hill, N.C., last week. (See previous GetReligion posts related to that case here and here.)

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