GetReligion, burkas and the press

burkas and mini skirtEver since Doug LeBlanc and I started this blog, we have had problems explaining to some people what GetReligion is about and what it is not about. Here's the bottom line: This is a blog that tries to dissect religion-news coverage in the mainstream press. We strive to praise the good and we try to put a spotlight on stories that we believe are flawed or, perhaps, haunted by religion themes that the journalists didn't seem to realize was there. We call those missing religious elements "ghosts."

But we always stress that this is not a weblog for theological debates. We also cannot cover all the world's religion news. We don't even have the time to get to half of the stories that we wish we could feature on the blog. And television news? And international coverage? Oh man, I feel those guilt shivers already.

So we are not a religion-news blog. We are a blog about how the mainstream press covers religion.

Here's why I bring this up. A dedicated GetReligion reader and critic, Joe Perez of the Gay Spirituality & Culture blog, sent us a pointed note the other day that went like this:

Why oh why haven't you said anything about the Dutch burka ban news item from 11/17 among other stories. Those wacky liberal Europeans can't so much as frown at a Pentecostal minister's sermons without getting GetReligion exercised, but ban burkas and they get a free pass? I thought this would be a big story but the US press is ignoring it. Can you help me understand?

By the way, is that "exercised" or "exorcised"? Sorry, I could not help myself.

Actually, I have written quite a bit on this blog about some of the internal tensions in Europe these days, with the drive for multiculturalism clashing, at times, with classical liberalism. I think the legal issues raised in the burka debates are fascinating and a bit frightening for people on both sides. Clearly, this is an issue of freedom of expression and association that affects all kinds of people, even stewardesses on British Airways. What right does the state have to tell a Muslim woman that she cannot choose to wear a burka?

submission 01But there's the issue. Some women choose to wear traditional Islamic dress -- although there would be fierce debates about using "traditional" in that phrase -- and others are forced to do so, often through violence. Is it cultural imperialism for a Western government to try to protect these women by banning this public expression of Muslim faith? And while we're at it, did filmmaker Theo van Gogh need to die because he made a fierce, offensive movie (Submission) about these issues?

All of that interests me and I am glad that many newspapers have written about the issue. I, frankly, think that much of the coverage has been quite good. I have come very close to commenting on this several times -- to praise the coverage. I have circulated at least 10 of these stories among our GetReligion inner circle. However, no one has elected to write on one of them -- yet.

So I agree with Perez that this is an important story. He sent us a link to an Associated Press report that gave plenty of evidence that the issue is not going away anytime soon:

The issue has resonance throughout Europe[.] Former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw recently caused a stir by saying he wants Muslim women to abandon the full-face veil -- a view endorsed by Prime Minister Tony Blair. In France, the center-right's leading presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy has increasingly been adopting some of the rhetoric of the extreme right.

Germany, which also has a large Muslim immigrant community, has a law banning teachers in public schools from wearing head scarves, but no burqa ban.

In Holland, policies associated with the nationalist fringe in 2002 have been co-opted by the center: holding asylum-seekers in detention centers, more muscle for the police and intelligence services, and visa examinations that require would-be immigrants to watch videos of homosexuals kissing and of topless women on the beach. Everyone must learn to speak Dutch, and Muslim clerics must mind what they say in their Friday sermons for fear of deportation.

I have seen some fine stories on this topic in major news outlets. Has anyone seen a really bad one? Let us know.

Meanwhile, please try to understand when we simply cannot comment on every religion news story or trend that comes along. It usually means (a) we haven't seen the same story you have, (b) we were not struck by something highly critical or positive to say about it or (c) we were simply swamped that week in our day jobs.

Patience! And repeat after me: "It's not a religion-news blog, it's a blog about how the mainstream press covers religion."

Top photo from Muslim Refusenik

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