Al Jazeera: Conversions worse than terror

al jazeeraIf you are a Western reader, don't be surprised if this Al Jazeera story on the increasing presence of radicals in Indonesia doesn't fit your typical Associated Press or Reuters news story. But the cultural and religious presumptions provide insights are worth looking at briefly. Also buried within the story is a bit of news that probably could use some more reporting and explaining. The overarching issue with this news story -- as with many news stories on religious issues -- is that it presumes a lot. The dominant presumption is that tolerance is good and intolerance is bad. Since tolerance is a pretty squishy term that is often left poorly defined, it does not serve any good purpose and can be used to pass off ideas that can mean many things to many people. In this case, this results in the article reading to me more like a press release from a government agency than a news story:

Indonesia is home to more Muslims than any other country, largely enjoying a reputation for tolerance and moderation.

But outbursts of violence from small but vocal minorities are challenging that perception.

In recent years radical groups have attacked bars, brothels and Christian churches. And that is causing concern for Indonesia's government.

Al Jazeera makes great effort to make sure the English readers of this story know that these are radical minority groups that do not represent Islam. At least the Islam that represents Indonesia. But consider how this would read to a Muslim living in a Muslim-majority country? Perhaps the Arabic version of the story has a different perspective?

Remember that Al Jazeera does not officially represent any Islamic government or agency. Also note how the story only refers to terrorism once, and it is not where you would expect it. Hold onto that thought as you read the following section of the story about what one of these radical groups believe about Christian conversions:

The AAA is troubled by what it sees as an increase in conversions to Christianty.

"Conversions to Christianity in Indonesia, especially in Bandung and Jawa Barat, have become increasingly serious," Muhammad Mukmin, from the Anti Apostasy Alliance, says.

"In my judgement I think it is a bigger evil than terrorism."

Would the reporter on this story care to balance that comment out with a statement from one of the churches or people doing the converting? Imagine the BBC or The New York Times quoting a Christian group saying that Islamic conversions were causing terrorism and failing to balance that with an counter-statement.

It is not everyday you read a quote comparing Christian conversions with terrorism. Then again, I do remember certain prominent Christians blaming a certain group of people for the terrorist attacks of 9/11 (hint: they didn't blame terrorists).

It is easy to criticize this story for being a poor generalization of various viewpoints and reading like a government press release, but American journalists are just as susceptible to writing stories based on the black and white premise of tolerance and intolerance.

However, beyond my nitpicking, this statement from the radical group shows that there is more than just an increase of Islamic radicalism in Indonesia. What is the unsaid story behind this one about the alleged increased number of Christian converts in Indonesia? This is after all a country that suffered a terrible nightclub bombing in 2002 and is the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation. Is there change in the air?

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