New York Times explores Big Apple Sufism; it's real Islam, you see, only with big changes

There is much to compliment in the New York Times feature about one of the more mysterious and complex streams of Islam, a story that ran under the headline, "Sufi Sect of Islam Draws ‘Spiritual Vagabonds’ in New York."

The story clearly states, as fact, that many Muslims reject Sufism and it's willingness -- in some settings, at least -- to edit or mold Islam into forms that appeal to spiritual seekers in the early 21st Century, even in some of the edgier corners of New York City.

The the big idea of this piece is perfectly obvious, as stated in this summary statement well into this long story:

... For all its liberal trappings, Sufism cannot be detached from Islam. “Sufism isn’t just a label you wear; it’s a state of being,” said John Andrew Morrow, an Islam scholar and author. “You can’t pick and choose parts of Islam, and you can’t mislead sincere people, drawing them into Sufism without telling them this is fundamentally linked to Islam.”

That's the big question: Can you pick and choose?

The story does not hide the fact that people are, in fact, picking and choosing. There are clear elements of Islamic doctrine that have gone missing, as the Sufi converts in New York City have embraced this faith.

Again, the story does not hide this. In fact, it celebrates it. Take Annmarie Agosta, for example, who is said to have explored Paganism, Wicca and Buddhism became becoming a Sufi in 2009.

“I feel a deep responsibility to stand for the true message of Islam, which is peace, tolerance, and compassion,” Ms. Agosta said. “This is the message of Sufism.” As a lesbian advocate for gay rights and a member of a congregation in TriBeCa, she led a service to honor those killed in the Orlando, Fla., massacre this summer.
Many Americans anxious about domestic terrorism, however, are not interested in the nuances of various branches of Islam. And paradoxically, Sufis are often shunned by conservative Islam -- the sect is dismissed as a diluted version of the faith, prioritizing the esoteric over the orthodox.

Uh, "paradoxically"?

This where the story falls short. It does include the voices of experts, academics for the most part, who can critique some elements of Sufism and it's Big Apple variants. But readers never really hear traditional Muslims talk about the essentials of their faith and what happens when people mold them to fit a new culture.

So how does one make decisions about what parts of Islamic doctrine and life are essential and must be saved and what parts can be trimmed? Who has the authority to do that?

This background material is crucial:

Often caricatured as kumbaya hippies, Sufis seek divine love and connection, but their practices encompass strict worldly rules and commitments: long services, dawn and night prayers, rigorous meditation and frequent fasting -- in addition to the common Islamic practices of five daily prayers, the hajj pilgrimage and abstention from alcohol.
Sufis cluster into tarikas, or spiritual orders, that are headed by a grand sheikh who may live in Cairo, but are led day to day by a local sheikh who could live in Queens.
While few reliable estimates exist of the number of Sufis in America, Islam over all is rapidly growing. The Pew Research Center estimates that by 2050, Muslims will become the second-largest religious group in the United States, after Christians, totaling over eight million people.
Discussing that growth, Khalid Latif, chaplain of the Islamic Center at New York University, said that in the city, “there’s an absence of spirituality and stillness,” and that even in times of heightened anxiety in the West about Muslims, the center saw a steady stream of the curious. He said that for many Americans, Sufism was an appealing first step.

Also, in New York City, there is a charismatic figure who has played a crucial role in helping this happen:

Visitors, once they have removed their shoes, enter a prayer hall with a high ceiling and ornate green and gold Arabic calligraphy spelling out the Prophet Muhammad’s name decorating the walls. Books and prayer rugs are strewed about, and a table is laden with sweet Turkish tea and dates. A woman’s voice drifts across the hall, performing the public call to prayer -- a role traditionally reserved for men.
What makes the order most unusual is that its local sheikh is a woman: the former Philippa de Menil, 69, part of Texas oil aristocracy. She became a Sufi in the 1970s, and, now known as Sheikha Fariha al-Jerrahi, has led the Nur Jerrahi order since its founder’s death in 1995.
Wearing a flowing white gown, her hair half-wrapped in a blue turban, Sheikha Fariha completes the call to prayer and summons the group’s members to stand side by side, avoiding the more orthodox Islamic practice of positioning men up front.

There is more:

The order has no dress code and no rules on sexual orientation. Indeed, the order is so liberal that some members don’t even label themselves as Muslims.
This kind of unorthodox approach, said Marcia Hermansen, director of the Islamic world studies program at Loyola University Chicago, is both the root of Sufism’s appeal and its weakness. Charismatic leaders like Sheikha Fariha have spurred Sufism’s growth in America, she said, with New York in particular attracting “loosey-goosey liberal Sufism.”

Once again, the Times story does not hide this fact about the New York converts.

So what is missing? What's the problem?

Well, where are the voices of ordinary Muslims or even Sufis who disagree with some of these edits in the basic faith? Where are the traditional believers, including traditional coverts to Islam?

Try to imagine a story on Christians who want to call themselves Messianic Jews, and make major changes in the faith to make that fit, without the voices of traditional Jews.

Try to imagine a story on conservative Episcopalians who now choose to ignore their denomination's new doctrines on marriage, gender and sex, only without the voices of mainstream liberal Episcopalians defending their doctrines.

If one of the main points of the story is that one cannot pick and choose which parts of the Islamic faith to accept, why not interview some traditional Sufis and other Muslims to discuss all of this New York City picking and choosing?

Just asking.

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Houston, we have a problem in this stew of a story on a Baptist church's inclusiveness

Houston, we have a problem in this stew of a story on a Baptist church's inclusiveness

The Houston Chronicle had a big story on its front page Sunday on a Baptist church seeking ethnic inclusiveness.

At least I think that was the intended focus.

The problem is that this big story — more than 2,200 words — lacks a true focus.

Is this long-drawn-out piece about racial segregation on Sunday? Is it about the divisive debate over illegal immigration? Is it about conservative Republican politics among white evangelicals?

The Chronicle hopscotches all over the place, awkwardly tying hot topics to the church featured but never really connecting the dots in a cohesive way. 

Often, your GetReligionistas will complain that a story fails to explain where a particular scenario fits into the overall big picture. In this case, there's a whole lot of context — about immigration and Republican politics, for example — but not as much actual insight on the church. Instead of telling a story about the church, the Chronicle turns this report into a politically correct commentary on race and politics.

Let's start at the top:

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Weekend thinker: Yes, turns out we did need another study, more news on 'Nones'

Weekend thinker: Yes, turns out we did need another study, more news on 'Nones'

GetReligion readers: Please raise your hand if you have read a news report that discusses the "Nones."

OK, I imagine that this is 100 percent of you. I would think that 90-plus percent of you have read a piece in the past week or so that references, in some way, the Pew Forum's famous "Nones on the Rise" research. I would be hard pressed to name a religion-news related survey, during the past quarter century or more, that has received more coverage.

"Nones," of course, fits better in a headline than the term "religiously unaffiliated," meaning the rising number of Americans -- especially the young -- who say that they no longer affiliate with any particular religious organization, tradition or even heritage.

One of the big problems with that blast of data in 2012 is that many people see the term "None" and immediately think that it means "none," in terms of people having no religious beliefs at all or interest in their own solo, improvised, evolving version of spirituality. Yes, think Sheila and her tribe.

Personally, I think the religiously unaffiliated numbers are tremendously important and I've been following that trend -- reading scholar John C. Green and others -- for more than a decade.

We need more research on this, especially in terms of how it affects (1) marriage and family demographics and (2) which religious traditions rise and which ones fall. The bottom line: Demographics is destiny.

This brings me to a recent Religion News Service feature that I think needs to stand on its own as a weekend think piece, pointing readers toward a new study building on all of those Pew numbers. Yes, the political spin is justified. Here's how this piece opens:

(RNS) A quarter of U.S. adults do not affiliate with any religion, a new study shows — an all-time high in a nation where large swaths of Americans are losing faith.

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Man, that's a tough question: Why isn't this football coach working on Sundays?

Man, that's a tough question: Why isn't this football coach working on Sundays?

College football Saturdays are back, so let's stop and ponder a journalism mystery linked to the new football coaching regime at the University of Virginia.

The feature at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville is pretty direct, starting with the headline: "Part of the Bronco way is no work on Sunday."

Bronco is not a reference to a mascot, in Wahoo land, but to the school's new head coach -- Bronco Mendenhall. Things are not off to a good start there, so times are a bit tense. Here is the overture:

The day after Virginia’s season-opening loss to Richmond, Ruffin McNeill, the team’s associate head coach and defensive line coach, did what he’s always done. He got up and went to work Sunday morning.
Problem was, when McNeill reached the McCue Center, home of Wahoo football, nobody was there. He went home, came back later, and nobody was there.
Cavaliers coach Bronco Mendenhall told everyone in the program that his philosophy has always been to take Sunday off during the season, and come back refreshed on Monday. McNeill didn’t believe it.
“Coach Ruff went back home and told his wife Erlene, they’re really not there,” Mendenhall chuckled during his weekly press conference on Monday. “He thought the BYU staff was just tricking him.”

So, gentle readers, why does this particular head coach not work on Sundays?

Did you catch that passing reference to "BYU"?

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What does death feel like? The Atlantic gives readers some faith-free answers

What does death feel like? The Atlantic gives readers some faith-free answers

The come-hither title “What It Feels Like to Die” admittedly drew my eyes to the top paragraph of this Atlantic article. Why? I had watched my father slowly die over a period of weeks this past June and it was quite eye-opening (and depressing) watching him slowly shut down. When he even lost interest in his beloved cats,  I knew the end was near.

As the article relates, dying people are in another world weeks before the final moments and they’re not talking about it much with us. Many sense a summons to pack it up here for the big move to the Beyond. As I read through the piece, however, I noticed a gap.

“Do you want to know what will happen as your body starts shutting down?”
My mother and I sat across from the hospice nurse in my parents’ Colorado home. It was 2005, and my mother had reached the end of treatments for metastatic breast cancer. A month or two earlier, she’d been able to take the dog for daily walks in the mountains and travel to Australia with my father. Now, she was weak, exhausted from the disease and chemotherapy and pain medication.  
My mother had been the one to decide, with her doctor’s blessing, to stop pursuing the dwindling chemo options, and she had been the one to ask her doctor to call hospice. Still, we weren’t prepared for the nurse’s question. My mother and I exchanged glances, a little shocked. But what we felt most was a sense of relief.
During six-and-a-half years of treatment, although my mother saw two general practitioners, six oncologists, a cardiologist, several radiation technicians, nurses at two chemotherapy facilities, and surgeons at three different clinics—not once, to my knowledge, had anyone talked to her about what would happen as she died.
There’s good reason. “Roughly from the last two weeks until the last breath, somewhere in that interval, people become too sick, or too drowsy, or too unconscious, to tell us what they’re experiencing,” says Margaret Campbell, a professor of nursing at Wayne State University who has worked in palliative care for decades.

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Religious 'ghosts' haunt coverage of hijab controversy at Georgia State

Religious 'ghosts' haunt coverage of hijab controversy at Georgia State

Muslim college student fights for her right to wear a hijab: good, controversial piece in the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

At least until you see that much of the article was drawn from the campus newspaper, the Georgia State Signal. And both stories are haunted by religious "ghosts" -- the omission of the faith-based objections underlying the student's protest.

You’ve no doubt read about hijab cases before, often about students or office workers. Nabila Khan's story is a more extreme case, an acid test for individual freedom: the niqab, which not only covers a woman's hair and neck, but envelops her face except for her eyes. 

So her story carries a greater punch, which the Constitution adroitly summarizes:

During her first week of school, a Muslim student was asked to remove her veil by a Georgia State University teacher. She refused.
Nabila Khan, a first-year student, is now at the center of a controversy about religious freedom.
She told The Signal, the school’s newspaper, that the teacher held her back after class and asked her not to conceal her face while in class, as was written in the syllabus. Khan refused, and said she believed being required to remove her niqab violated her rights to freedom of speech and religion.
Khan said in the article that she chooses to wear the niqab, which is a veil that covers all but the eyes, to work and school.
“Many people have this misconception that, as Muslim women, we’re oppressed or forced to wear it. For me, it’s a choice. My parents never forced me to wear it,” she said.

It's a compelling, counterintuitive treatment of a news story: the head covering not as a symbol of an oppressed gender, but as an individual religious choice. But how original? Have a look at the Signal's version:

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Life after Hillary or Trump: Can public faith in American press drop even lower?

Life after Hillary or Trump: Can public faith in American press drop even lower?

Back in the early 1990s, when I began teaching journalism and mass media full-time, I used to ask my Communications 101 students a simple question: How many of you grew up in a home in which your parents subscribed to a daily newspaper?

I also asked them how many televisions were in the homes in which they were raised, which yielding some shockingly high numbers.

I would say that, semester after semester, it was normal for about 75 percent of the entering mass-communications students in that particular Christian liberal arts institution to say that there was no daily newspaper in their homes. When I asked why that was the case, the most common answer was that their parents believed that their local newspaper couldn't be trusted because it leaned way to the left and offended their beliefs as traditional Christians.

Do the math. A student who was 18-19 years old in the early 1990s would be how old today? That would be 40-ish?

I thought of this when I was reading mainstream press materials about (1) that recent blast of dire Gallup Poll numbers (click here and then here for earlier GetReligion posts) about public trust in the news and (2) the growing awareness that elite journalists have given up pretending that they can cover Donald Trump and, more importantly, the views of supporters (many of them reluctant supporters), in a fair, balanced and accurate manner. On that second topic, see this conversation-starter of a piece at The Atlantic, with the headline, "The Death of 'He Said, She Said' Journalism."

All of this factored into this week's Crossroads podcast with host Todd Wilken. Click here to tune that in.

As you would expect, we were still mulling over the ramifications of the Gallup numbers. Click here to see a Gallup executive summary of those stats. Here is the hook that drew some (but surprisingly muted) media coverage:

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The Satanic Temple comes to Salem and the Boston Globe does a puff piece

The Satanic Temple comes to Salem and the Boston Globe does a puff piece

Gotta love the new style of opinion journalism out there these days. Here we have articles that look like a news piece, present as news but are actually public relations.

Such is a recent piece in the Boston Globe about the Satanic Temple setting up shop in Salem, Mass., site of the 1692 witch trials. The Temple’s national headquarters is breaking local zoning regulations to move there, but that is brushed off. I’m not sure another house of worship –- or unworship –- could get away with that but, well, the devil is in these details.

When The Satanic Temple officially opens its doors on Friday, Salem will become home to the organization’s international headquarters.
But pitchfork-wielding mobs protesting the move seem unlikely, as the fire-and-brimstone theology of the Puritans who once populated the city has given way to a “live and let live” attitude in present day Salem.
Less than a mile from Gallows Hill -- the notorious spot where villagers executed more than a dozen people accused of witchcraft in the 1690s -- an 1882 Victorian on Bridge Street will serve as The Satanic Temple’s first physical headquarters, said Lucien Greaves, the temple’s spokesman.
“The history of Salem is also part of the history of Satanism,” Greaves said. “I feel that [Salem] is a very appropriate place for this” temple.
The Satanic Temple building, which is zoned as an art gallery, will open to the public with art installations, lectures and film screenings, said Greaves, a Cambridge resident.

Then comes the theology insert:

Dating back centuries, Satanism has been misunderstood by wide swaths of American society, Greaves said. Satanists do not worship an Antichrist, or any other deity. Rather, Satanism preaches independent thought and using evidence-based science as a basis for understanding the world, and views Satan as a literary figure representing an eternal struggle against authoritarianism.

Yes, the narrative of modern-day Satanism (at least in this case, with this circle of people) is that its followers are atheists who do not believe in the Judeo-Christian doctrine of Satan.

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In Bible Belt town split on immigration, passing glimpses of religious influence raise questions

In Bible Belt town split on immigration, passing glimpses of religious influence raise questions

As I mentioned in a recent post, Alabama ranks as the nation's second-most religious state after Mississippi, according to Gallup.

In a different post last year, I noted that Alabama's estimated 1.2 million Southern Baptists represent a quarter of the state's 4.8 million total residents. Overall, the state's number of evangelicals tops 2 million.

So yes, as I read an in-depth CNN story out today on an Alabama town split on immigration, I wondered what role faith would play in the text.

Here's the good news: The talented writer provides glimpses of religion that make it clear she understands its importance to the community.

Here's the bad news: Those glimpses are just that — glimpses. As in "a momentary or slight appearance," to quote one of the definitions. More on those glimpses in a moment.

But first, some background: Overall, it's a nice story — fair and balanced on the immigration issue itself. The CNN piece even includes a scene where a resident watches headlines on Fox News, which made me chuckle. The journalist does an excellent job of interviewing a wide variety of sources, giving each a voice and helping her audience understand where everyone is coming from. 

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