BBC

This faith-free BBC report asks: Why do so many modern wives in India commit suicide?

This faith-free BBC report asks: Why do so many modern wives in India commit suicide?

Is there a nation on earth in which religious beliefs and traditions play a more important, and more complex, role in daily life than India? At the same time, journalists have told me that it's almost impossible to write about many religious topics in India, especially in the country's own media.

Why is that?

To be blunt, there are issues that, as a Muslim student told me in a "Blind Spot" book forum in Bangalore, are too dangerous to cover, at least in explicit terms. If journalists write about some religious subjects in our newspapers, he said, then "people are going to die." Thus, reporters write about "community violence," instead of conflicts linked to religion. Their local readers know how to read the code.

Another key word in this code is "traditional." Hold that thought, as we dig into a BBC report that ran online with this headline: "Why are India's housewives killing themselves?" Here is the overture:

More than 20,000 housewives took their lives in India in 2014.
This was the year when 5,650 farmers killed themselves in the country.
So the number of suicides by housewives was about four times those by farmers. They also comprised 47% of the total female victims. Yet the high number of homemakers killing themselves doesn't make front page news in the way farmer suicides do, year after year. ... The rate of housewives taking their lives -- more than 11 per 100,000 people -- has been consistently higher than India's overall suicide rate since 1997.

This is all most strange, since -- as explained by a key source, Peter Mayer of the University of Adelaide -- marriage usually is linked to lower suicide rates. So what is happening in India?

Get ready for that key code word.

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Mirror image question: No American coverage of the murder of Muslim merchant in Glasgow?

Mirror image question: No American coverage of the murder of Muslim merchant in Glasgow?

It's time, once again, to look at the mirror image of a story that is in the news. We are, of course, in the final days of Holy Week for Western churches.

Let's change the context and flip the key details to create our mirror-image case. Let's say that, somewhere in Europe, the following tragedy took place. It is days before Ramadan and a Christian merchant, extending a hand of fellowship during these tense times, posted a message extending good will and affection for his Muslim neighbors as they entered a holy season.

Hours later, in our hypothetical story, one or two Christians enter the man's shop and brutally murder him, stabbing him repeatedly and then stamping on his head.

Police quickly make it clear that this was a "religiously prejudiced" attack.

Yes, this would be a major story in Europe. But do you think it would draw significant coverage from elite newsrooms on this side of the pond? Or would it be one of those stories that is ignored, other than in alternative media sources that come with political labels attached?

Now, what is the actual story? Let's turn to the BBC, which is hardly a minor news source:

A 32-year-old man has been arrested after a Glasgow shopkeeper was killed in what Police Scotland are treating as a "religiously prejudiced" attack.
Asad Shah, 40, was found seriously injured in Minard Road, Shawlands, at about 21:05 GMT on Thursday. He died in hospital. The incident happened hours after he apparently posted social media messages wishing his customers a happy Easter.
Police said both Mr Shah and the arrested man were Muslims.
A post on Thursday from an account that appears to be Mr Shah's said: "Good Friday and very happy Easter, especially to my beloved Christian nation x!" ...

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Yo, journalists: Mother Teresa would be quick to explain that she cannot perform miracles

Yo, journalists: Mother Teresa would be quick to explain that she cannot perform miracles

Now it's on the calendar. The "saint of the gutters" will, on Sept. 4 -- the eve of the anniversary of her death in 1997 -- become a Catholic saint. The tiny nun who millions hailed as "a living saint" will officially become St. Mother Teresa.

Obviously, this announcement by the pope required journalists to describe the somewhat complicated process that led to this moment. Thus, this assignment -- trigger warning! -- required descriptions of complicated doctrinal concepts such as "prayers" and "miracles."

The key word you are looking for, as you scan the mainstream media coverage, is "intercede."

However, if you want to see a perfect example of HOW NOT to describe this process, note this passage from USA Today:

She was beatified in 2003 by Pope John Paul II after being attributed to a first miracle, answering an Indian woman's prayers to cure her brain tumor, according to the Vatican. One miracle is needed for beatification -- described by the Catholic Church as recognition of a person's entrance into heaven -- while sainthood requires two.
Francis officially cleared Mother Teresa for sainthood on Dec. 17, 2015, recognizing her "miraculous healing" of a Brazilian man with multiple brain abscesses, the Vatican said.

Note that we are dealing with paraphrased quotes. Did an official at the Vatican actually say that Mother Teresa, on her own, "healed" these two people? Or did the Vatican say that they were healed by God after believers asked Mother Teresa to pray for them, to "intercede" with God on their behalf?

Here is the key doctrinal fact that journalists need to grasp in order to get this story right: Saints pray. God heals.

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Did gunmen in Yemen kill the four Missionaries of Charity for any particular reason?

Did gunmen in Yemen kill the four Missionaries of Charity for any particular reason?

So what would Pope Francis, stepping into a media-critic role for a moment, have to say about this BBC coverage of that slaughter at the retirement home in Yemen?

We don't know what he thinks about the BBC report in particular, but it is quite similar to the other mainstream news reports about this incident that I have seen. Please watch the BBC report (at the top of this post) or read this brief BBC summary, taken from the Internet.

The key question appears to be this: Did religion have anything to do with who died and who lived in this attack? To state the matter another way: Should these nuns be considered Christian "martyrs"? Here is the entire BBC summary:

Pope Francis has condemned a gun attack on a Catholic retirement home in southern Yemen which left 16 people dead.
Four nuns from the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta, were among those killed.
Local officials in the port city of Aden are blaming the so-called Islamic State group, as David Campanale reports.

Actually, if you seek out the Catholic News Agency report about the attack you will find that Pope Francis did more than lament the attack itself. He is upset about the lack of coverage. Here is the top of the CNA story:

VATICAN CITY -- On Sunday Pope Francis lamented the world’s indifference to the recent killing of four Missionaries of Charity, calling them the ‘martyrs of today’ and asking that Bl. Mother Teresa intercede in bringing peace.

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Bait and switch? Contradictory Iran election coverage still has an uncertain ending

Bait and switch? Contradictory Iran election coverage still has an uncertain ending

Which faction came out on top in the recent Iranian elections? Was it the "reformists"?  The "moderates"? Or was it the hardline clerics who run the Islamic republic and get to decide who is allowed to stand for election?

I ask because it remains difficult, some two weeks after the late February balloting, to tell from a face-value reading of the various media reports just who emerged victorious in the voting for both the nation's unicameral parliament and its clerical consultative body. The latter officially (if not necessarily in reality) has a hand in selecting Iran's all-important supreme leader.

This election muddle underscores how essential it is for journalists to weigh voting results firmly in the context of the nation involved. Confusion is bound to follow when imprecise political labels -- such as reformists or moderates -- are borrowed from Western discourse to simplify complicated foreign political intrigues for American media followers.

The muddle also serves to underscore the dangers inherent in jumping to sweeping conclusions based on initial returns.

Moreover, I can't help but wonder whether there's an element of wishful thinking is also at play here. After all, I think most Americans, and the media they follow as well, would love to see Iran become more open to the West and tone down its anti-Western rhetoric and actions now that its nuclear agreement has been signed.

Some examples of what I mean:

Example A is this early election results story from the BBC, which includes this far too premature declaration: "This stunning election result will make a difference in Iran's engagement with the wider world."

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Media struggle to grasp what friends (including females) meant to St. John Paul II

Media struggle to grasp what friends (including females) meant to St. John Paul II

If you know much about the young Polish actor and philosopher Karol Wojtyla, then you know that his path to the Catholic priesthood was quite unusual, surrounded as we was by the horrors of the Nazi occupation and then the chains of a puppet regime marching to a Soviet drummer.

In his massive authorized biography of the St. Pope John Paul II, "Witness to Hope," George Weigel argued that a key to understanding Wojtyla is to grasp the degree to which his faith and spiritual disciplines were shaped by the lives of strong laypeople and his many friends -- male and female -- who surrounded him in academia, the underground theater and similar settings.

Once he became a priest, he spent years as a campus minister working with young adults during his graduate studies and beyond.

In other words, if you want to picture the life and times of the future Pope John Paul II (and you want to understand the material covered in this week's "Crossroads" podcast) then it's wrong to picture him in some kind of pre-seminary ecclesiastical assembly line, surrounded by other young men headed to holy orders and, yes, celibacy.

Instead, picture him trying to explain his priestly vocation to his girlfriend. Picture him carrying a canoe on a camping trip, explaining Catholic teachings on marriage and sexuality to college students of both genders (creating friendships that in many cases lasted his whole life) and holding Mass as far as possible from Communist police. Check out this sprawling made-for-TV bio-pic starring John Voight and Cary Elwes.

In other words, the more you know about Karol Wojtyla, then the less likely you are to be stunned by the wink-wink BBC reports about his years of "secret letters" to a female philosopher friend.

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Can a pope and a female philosopher have a deep friendship without, well, you know?

Can a pope and a female philosopher have a deep friendship without, well, you know?

Talk about strange. Under what circumstances is one of the most famous clips from the classic comedy "When Harry Met Sally" relevant to news reports about the life of a Roman Catholic saint who also was one of the most pivotal popes in church history? The scene features a rather blunt debate about whether men and women can be friends without having sex.

In this case, the scene is relevant because one gets the impression that some journalists in high places -- starting with the BBC -- are having trouble picturing a brilliant male philosopher-pope having a strong (we will return to this adjective question), multi-decade friendship with a brilliant, married female philosopher without it involving sex. Affection? That's another question.

The headline on one of the original BBC reports sets the stage: "The secret letters of Pope John Paul II." The key adjective is "secret," implying a secret relationship. Another BBC report used this headline: "Pope John Paul letters reveal 'intense' friendship with woman."

Vatican officials, however, note that this long friendship and, at times, professional partnership was know to those working with the Polish pope and to his biographers (even a Watergate veteran).

Here is the top of one of the BBC reports that started this mini-wave of news coverage:

Pope John Paul II was one of the most influential figures of the 20th Century, revered by millions and made a saint in record time, just nine years after he died. The BBC has seen letters he wrote to a married woman, the Polish-born philosopher Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, that shed new light on his emotional life.

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Boko Haram strikes again, in attack that burns generic children alive in their huts

Boko Haram strikes again, in attack that burns generic children alive in their huts

 It's a logical question: At this point, does it really matter whether the children burned alive in the latest Boko Haram attack were Muslims or Christians?

On one level, the answer is clearly, "no." It's clear that the forces of Boko Haram -- now loyal to the Islamic State caliphate -- kill anyone who stands in the way of their movement. Perhaps it doesn't matter whether those dying are crying out to Jesus or to Allah.

Yet I would like to argue that this detail does matter. At the very least, I think it is significant that editors at the Associated Press -- who prepare the copy read by most consumers outside of elite news markets -- think that readers do not want to know that detail.

Stop and think about that. America contains a significant number of Christians. If those who died were Christians, are we to assume that many readers would not want to know about these new martyrs and confessors, some of them children?

However, if you look at the images, it certainly appears that the village burned in this attack was a majority Muslim community. I would argue that it is just as important for American news consumers to be reminded -- again and again -- that Boko Haram is slaughtering just as many Muslims, if not more, than Christians. Why? We will come back to that.

I read the following AP report all the way through before it hit me that the identity of the victims was left completely and utterly vague, as if this fact didn't matter. Here is how the report opens:

A survivor hidden in a tree says he watched Boko Haram extremists firebomb huts and heard the screams of children burning to death, among 86 people officials say died in the latest attack by Nigeria's homegrown Islamic extremists.

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Fighting Boko Haram: 'Ghosts' haunt otherwise fine New York Times report

Fighting Boko Haram: 'Ghosts' haunt otherwise fine New York Times report

Applause for the New York Times for keeping an eye on Nigeria, which has been struggling for years with Boko Haram terrorists. But the clapping is a bit muted because of the religious "ghosts" in the latest story.

As the most populous nation in Africa -- the Times puts it at 190 million -- Nigeria can be seen as a bellwether for the rest of the continent. And rather than a dry recital of official stats and statements, the 1,370-word Times story captures the dread under which many Nigerians live:

DAKAR, Senegal — A sense of fear nags at Hauwa Bulama every time she leaves home.
She worries that suicide bombers might be lurking at the vegetable stand where she shops for her six children. They could turn up at the hospital where she takes her relatives. Any woman in a hijab could have a suicide belt under her clothes, she fears. The frequent public announcements to avoid crowded areas in her northern Nigerian city only heighten her anxiety.
"You are always afraid," said Ms. Bulama, who lives in Maiduguri, a frequent target of the ruthless Islamist insurgent group Boko Haram. "When you take your child to be immunized, you don’t know who is seated next to you. You don’t know who is hiding what."
For Ms. Bulama and countless others in northern Nigeria and across the Lake Chad region, the victories scored by President Muhammadu Buhari’s multinational campaign against Boko Haram since taking office in May have mattered little to their daily lives.

The article acknowledges that the government of President Buhari has killed many Boko Haram fighters and shrunk their areas of control. An international fighting force, which includes Chad, Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon -- with armored vehicles from the United States -- has pushed back and scattered the terrorists. Buhari has even boasted that "technically we have won the war."

Yet the conflict has created more than 2.4 million refugees, the Times reports. The 200-plus schoolgirls kidnapped in 2014 are still missing, a clear sign of poor intelligence gathering. And the suicide bombings have continued -- two more in the last two weeks.

The newspaper praises Buhari for replacing ineffective army commanders and moving headquarters into the battle zone of northeastern Nigeria. But rebuilding the military will take money, something in short supply in the wake of the slump in oil prices.

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