What David Brooks said! Yes, religion is part of the Islamic State wars

Yes, religion is part of the Islamic State wars

From time to time, I receive private emails from readers who think this website's insistence that mainstream journalists need to cover both sides of doctrinal debates between Muslims is, to be blunt, just a clever way of bashing Islam.

Why else should journalists, for example, need to listen to and then quote what Islamic State leaders have to say about the role of women or the need for tough blasphemy laws in the modern world? We already know the radicals are wrong, so why be guilty of "false balance" and accurately quote what they are saying?

Why indeed? I would argue that journalists cannot cover the facts in these stories -- such as the gruesome executions of James Foley and Steven Sotloff -- without quoting the religious language in these religious debates. The bottom line: It is not prejudice against Islam to cover both sides of crucial debates between Muslims.

This brings me to the end of that stunning column today by David Brooks of The New York Times, the one about the powerful theological symbolism involved in beheading someone. This is editorial content, but journalists need to read it. The key passage, from my point of view:

Our revulsion makes us different from the religious zealots who are prone to commit or celebrate acts like beheadings. The zealots often hew to a fringe of their faith that  holds that the spirit and the body are at war with each other. They have a tendency to extreme asceticism, to seek to deny themselves pleasures of the living world, to celebrate the next world at the expense of this world, to oscillate between masochistic self-flagellation, when they think they have been sensual, and bouts of arrogant spiritual pride, when they convince themselves they have risen above the senses. It doesn’t matter to them what they do to their enemy’s body, because this physical reality is not important.

If ISIS is to be stopped, there will probably have to be some sort of political and military coalition. But, ultimately, the Islamists are a spiritual movement that will have to be surmounted by a superior version of Islam. 

Yes, I know that this implies that modernity -- symbolized by the world of Western journalism -- gets to argue that there is a "superior version of Islam," which is precisely the worldview that many Muslims, and not all of them radicals, reject. Yes, there is a tension there.

I am simply saying (yes, there is an echo in here) that you cannot cover the facts in these stories while simply ignoring the religious content because it makes you uncomfortable or because it makes some Muslims uncomfortable. All faith groups have topics that, when push comes to shove in the public square, make them uncomfortable.

This brings me to the piece at CNN that ran under the headline: "ISIS vs. mainstream Muslims: The media battle." It opens with this passage about the work of Barak Barfi, who used the news-media pulpit to speak -- on behalf of the Sotloff family -- directly to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his forces in the Islamic State.

... Barfi stood outside the Sotloff family's Miami home, with dozens of microphones and cameras thrust before him, and stepped into a fierce war of words between ISIS and the rest of the Muslim world.
"I am ready to debate you with calm preachings," Barfi told al-Baghdadi, directly addressing him in Arabic. "I have no sword in my hand and I am ready for your answer.”

Speaking briefly to CNN on Thursday, Barfi said he doesn't expect the reclusive ISIS leader to accept the invitation. But his challenge had other aims, the young scholar said. "The Muslim and Arabic world needs to realize the threat that ISIS poses to their communities," he said. "Everything in the statement was meant to send a message."

There is more in his pronouncement to ISIS:

Barfi said he is not Muslim himself, but has studied Islam in depth. Couching his argument with several citations of the Quran, Barfi said al-Baghdadi violates the faith's tenets.

"Where is your mercy?" Barfi asked al-Baghdadi on Wednesday. It was an allusion, Barfi later said, to a speech in which the ISIS leader referred to Ramadan as the "month of mercy." ...
Barfi cited several passages from the Quran, which Muslims believe to be a direct revelation from God. "I know the Quran, and it teaches: Fight for the sake of God, do not exceed the bounds. Verily God does not love the aggressor," Barfi said.

Muslim scholars said the key part of this passage, which forms the backbone of Islam's "just war" theory, is that, while self-defense is allowed, violent aggression, especially against innocents, is a grave sin.

This story contains key voices on one side of this debate and that is good. It also contains experts that, for CNN, represent the ongoing fight against ISIS. That's good. But what is missing?

Other than telling readers that Islamic State leaders believe Allah wants them to establish a new caliphate, what does this story tell us about the arguments being used by ISIS? What do they claim are the facts? Other than threats and force, why do millions of believers embrace the vision offered by these and other Islamic radicals? Why is it appealing?

The CNN report notes: 

In the modern battle for the soul of Islam, ISIS propaganda can be as potent as swords, according to counterterrorism officials.

True, true. At some point, however, journalists will need to let readers hear the voices on both sides of this essentially religious argument. Is the goal to understand what is happening, or not?

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