Islam-Muslims

New York Times attacks anti-Muslim tensions in small-city Minnesota, but reality is more complex

New York Times attacks anti-Muslim tensions in small-city Minnesota, but reality is more complex

On the face of it, Thursday’s New York Times story about a Minnesota city that doesn’t want any more Somali refugees sounds like a racist-town-hates-Muslims kind of piece.

I decided to look deeper into it and ask a few questions the article didn’t raise to see why everyone’s so upset why a 16 percent growth in non-white residents –- and mostly Muslim ones at that -– has frazzled the populace.

As you would expect, there’s lots of information here about politics and life in the Donald Trump era — complete with red “Make Saint Cloud Great Again” hats and lots of references to locals reading conservative websites online.

However, this is also a story in which it is important for readers to pause and do some math. The bottom line: It’s simple to write a story about racist right-wing Christian bigots who don’t want any more Muslims moving in. It’s not as easy to look at some of the other factors, like overcrowded classrooms in public schools; school districts having budget money for interpreters and ESL instructors; crowded emergency rooms at local hospitals and a tax base that’s not being greatly added to by all the new arrivals.

First, here’s the opening of the story:

ST. CLOUD, Minn. — John Palmer, a former university professor, has always had a cause. For decades he urged Minnesota officials to face the dangers of drunken driving and embrace seatbelts. Now he has a new goal: curbing the resettlement of Somali refugees in St. Cloud, after a few thousand moved into this small city where Mr. Palmer has lived for decades…

On Thursdays, Mr. Palmer hosts a group called Concerned Community Citizens, or C-Cubed, which he formed to pressure local officials over the Muslim refugees. Mr. Palmer said at a recent meeting he viewed them as innately less intelligent than the “typical” American citizen, as well as a threat.

“The very word ‘Islamophobia’ is a false narrative,” Mr. Palmer, 70, said. “A phobia is an irrational fear.” Raising his voice, he added, “An irrational fear! There are many reasons we are not being irrational.”

In this predominantly white region of central Minnesota, the influx of Somalis, most of whom are Muslim, has spurred the sort of demographic and cultural shifts that President Trump and right-wing conservatives have stoked fears about for years.

So “right-wing conservatives,” and people who rally in church pews, are all basically racists?

That does appear to be the thesis of this Times article.

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Grab a company charge card: What religion reference works belong in newsroom libraries?

Grab a company charge card: What religion reference works belong in newsroom libraries?

My May 30 Memo proclaimed the third edition of the “World Christian Encyclopedia," due next year, as a “must-buy” for media organizations because it will provide current overviews and statistics about each religious group in each country on earth, and much else.

This time around, The Guy proposes other religion works media shops savvy enough to maintain reference libraries should have on hand for unexpected breaking news as well as timeless features. Writers might want some items in their personal collections. The following covers print, but some e-editions are available.

Basics

The first essential is a couple comprehensive one-volume encyclopedias or dictionaries describing all world religions, as issued by several reliable publishers. You’ll also want the hefty ($215!) “Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church.”

Save money by using a good public or college library for the multi-volume encyclopedias on religion, Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaica, Islam, etc. However, via amazon.com you could get the 1987 “Encyclopedia of Religion” for only $275. (Publishers: We really need a 21st Century equivalent of James Hastings’ less abstract “Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics” from 1913!)  

Acquire similar one-volume reference books on Catholicism and Judaism, which on some matters can be supplemented by century-old, multi-volume encyclopedias online here and here. For Protestantism, there’s the latest “Handbook of Denominations in the United States” and more comprehensive one-volume “Encyclopedia of Protestantism.” For Islam, get John Esposito’s dictionary and/or Cyril Glasse’s one-volume encyclopedia. For other world faiths, if those overview volumes do not suffice  tap experts as needed.  

 Baylor professor Gordon Melton compiles the remarkable “Encyclopedia of American Religions,” pretty much mandatory for describing gazillion offbeat sects you’ve never heard of.

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The long good-bye: The Atlantic describes the inevitable loss of Christian life in Iraq

The long good-bye: The Atlantic describes the inevitable loss of Christian life in Iraq

I remember the Nineveh Plain well. I was being driven from the Kurdish city of Dohuk in far northern Iraq to the regional capital of Erbil further south and around me in all directions stretched a flat plain. To the west were low-slung hills and in my mind I could hear the footsteps of conquering Babylonian armies as they sought to overrun the city of Nineveh in 612 BC.

Irrigated by the Tigris River, it’s actually a fertile place with crops everywhere — assuming that they’re allowed to grow.

Several millennia later, it was the ISIS armies whose footsteps were heard on this plain back in 2014 when the events at the heart of this story take place.

I must say I envy The Atlantic’s Emma Green for getting sent to Iraq to do this fascinating piece along with a photographer or two. (My 2004 trip there was entirely self-funded).

The call came in 2014, shortly after Easter. Four years earlier, Catrin Almako’s family had applied for special visas to the United States. Catrin’s husband, Evan, had cut hair for the U.S. military during the early years of its occupation of Iraq. Now a staffer from the International Organization for Migration was on the phone. “Are you ready?” he asked. The family had been assigned a departure date just a few weeks away.

“I was so confused,” Catrin told me recently. During the years they had waited for their visas, Catrin and Evan had debated whether they actually wanted to leave Iraq. Both of them had grown up in Karamles, a small town in the historic heart of Iraqi Christianity, the Nineveh Plain.

But the 2003 invasion of Iraq had changed everything, including the impression that Christians had had it easy under Saddam Hussein. Once he was gone, it was payback time.

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Is the (refreshingly) modest Aladdin movie a marketing tool for the Muslim world?

Is the  (refreshingly) modest Aladdin movie a marketing tool for the Muslim world?

I took my daughter to see the new “Aladdin” film on Wednesday. I know it’s been panned by some reviewers, but we enjoyed it.

The costumes were gorgeous but hard to place. They were an Indo-Persian mix with actresses in sari-like bodices and petticoats but also wearing head scarves that drape but don’t conceal their hair.

Turns out there may be a religion story in all that costuming but if so, reporters missed it. Folks did notice that the female heroine Jasmine was more covered up than in previous incarnations.

USA Today suggested that was no accident.

Jasmine's signature outfit from the animated "Aladdin" is iconic. You know the look: low-riding turquoise harem pants paired with a tiny off-the-shoulder top that leaves the princess' belly button out in the open.

That is not an outfit that exists in the new world of Disney's live-action "Aladdin."

"The (animated) movie was done in 1992. We wanted to modernize the movie, and some things are inappropriate these days for families," says "Aladdin" producer Dan Lin.

So there was a rule on the "Aladdin" set to make sure the movie achieved that goal: "No midriff," Lin says.

And … why? Since when has Hollywood embraced modesty? Oh, yes, when money is involved. And since the movie has that Middle Eastern setting and might appeal to audiences in that neck of the world, we can’t have anything too racy, can we?

I’m only guessing, but this is a good time to ask if Hollywood has actually gotten serious about marketing realities in the Muslim world.

Fans of elaborate costume design will likely support the filmmakers' decision to keep the famous princess more covered up. Instead of wearing monochrome bra tops and baggy pants, Jasmine is dripping in sumptuous gowns with gold detailing, elaborate trains and vibrant jewels that highlight her regality over her sexuality.

Again, huh. I’ve just finished watching the final episodes of “Game of Thrones” and “regality over sexuality” was not emphasized there. Hollywood doesn’t embrace restraint unless forced to.

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When reporters have time for a big think: Where is world religion heading, anyway?

When reporters have time for a big think: Where is world religion heading, anyway?

Baylor University historian and Christian Century columnist Philip Jenkins set forth 21st Century prospects in his book “The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity” (Oxford University Press, 2002, updated 3rd edition 2011). His work underscores a theme that has become familiar to all religion specialists, the shift of Christianity’s center of population and power away from traditional Western Europe and North America toward the “Global South,” especially in Africa and Asia.

When time permits, journalists should consider updating that scenario — with accompanying graphics. If you need a local or regional news angle, check out the links to tensions inside the United Methodist Church.

Then, for a fresh global angle, focus on the implications if Christianity is supplanted by Islam as the world’s largest religion. That brings us to data recently posted by Pew Research Center’s Jeff Diamant (a former colleague covering the religion beat).

Pew estimates that as of 2015 there were 2,276,250,000 Christians globally, compared with 1,752,620,000 Muslims. Its projection for 2060 is that the totals will be nearly even, 3,054,460,000 versus 2,987,390,000. Flip that a couple percentage points and Islam would take the lead, and current trend lines suggest Islam could become number one at some point in our century. Birth rates play a key role in this drama.

Hold that thought.

Pew is one of two major players in world religion statistics. Another, the Center for the Study of Global Christianity (CSGC) at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, projects for 2050 (not 2060) a slightly lower 2.7 billion for Muslims and significantly higher 3.4 billion for Christians. This even though CSGC figures that in this century’s first decade Islam was growing faster than Christianity, at 1.86 percent per year, as opposed to Christianity’s 1.31 percent (and a world population rate of 1.2 percent).

These two agencies of number-crunchers are friendly partners in some ventures but have some differences on method.

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SCOTUS debates heat up on death penalty, religious liberty: What word is missing here?

SCOTUS debates heat up on death penalty, religious liberty: What word is missing here?

To cut to the chase: I have just returned from a long eye exam (things are OK) and focusing on a computer screen is not going to be easy for several hours.

So let’s make this a quick post. OK?

What we have here is your basic Washington Post law-and-politics story, one running under the headline: “Last-minute execution decisions expose wide and bitter rift at Supreme Court.”

The death penalty is, of course, a hot-button issue linked to debates involving religion and morality, as well as political and legal realities. Here is the opening of this report:

The Supreme Court meets in private to decide last-minute pleas from death-row inmates to stop their executions, and what happens behind the maroon velvet curtains often stays behind the maroon velvet curtains.

But that changed Monday, with justices issuing a flurry of explanations and recriminations on cases decided weeks ago. The writings named names and exposed a bitter rift among members of the court on one of the most emotional and irreversible decisions they make.

Decisions on last-minute stays usually come with only a minimum of reasoning. But three justices issued a set-the-record-straight opinion that took aim at one of Justice Stephen G. Breyer’s dissents from a month ago. Breyer had said that the court’s conservatives deviated from “basic principles of fairness” in refusing to take more time to consider the plea of an Alabama murderer, Christopher Lee Price, who had asked to be executed by inhaling nitrogen gas rather than risk a “botched” lethal injection.

“There is nothing of substance to these assertions,” wrote Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justices Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Neil M. Gorsuch. They said that Breyer’s reasoning, which was joined by the court’s three other liberals, “does not withstand even minimal legal scrutiny.”

Now, since my eyes are under the weather, let’s let GetReligion readers look through this story through a media-criticism lens.

This story contains a lot of religion, since the court cases here involve Buddhist and Muslim prisoners and their First Amendment rights. Think religious liberty issues, without the “scare quotes.”

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Does Islam require stoning to death for adultery and gay sex, and amputation for larceny?

Does Islam require stoning to death for adultery and gay sex, and amputation for larceny?

THE QUESTION:

This month, the Muslim nation of Brunei cited religious grounds for prescribing execution by stoning for those guilty of adultery or gay sex, and amputation of hands to punish convicted thieves. Does Islam require these penalties?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

In the Muslim world there’s no consensus that the faith requires these traditional punishments in modern times, but a handful of the 57 member nations in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation have such legislation. One is the small East Asian sultanate officially named Brunei Darusslam (“Brunei, Abode of Peace”), which proclaimed these penalties six years ago. Due to the resulting uproar, the law did not go into effect until this month. When it did, the foreign minister responded to another round of international denunciations by stating that “strong religious values” form “the very foundation of the unique Bruneian identity.”

The punishments were commanded by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Brunei’s hereditary monarch, who wields absolute political and religious powers and is devoted to strict interpretation and application of shariah (Muslim law). At the same time, fabled oil revenues provide the sultan  eyebrow-raising personal wealth of some $20 billion, the world’s largest home (1,788 rooms), and largest collection of rare automobiles including a gold-plated Rolls Royce.

Regarding punishment for sexual sins, Muslims point out that long before Islam arose the Bible’s Old Testament law named execution as the penalty for adultery (Leviticus 20:10) and for same-sex relations between men (Leviticus 20:13), as well as other sins. Those passages did not state what method was to be used for execution, but rabbinic law later compiled in the Talmud specified stoning for gay relationships. Stoning was also commonly cited for adulterers.

Jewish scholars say the Bible’s various laws on execution were meant to signify and proclaim the seriousness of the misdeeds but were rarely applied in practice.

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NPR offers a series on what a radically Hindu-ized India will look and feel like

NPR offers a series on what a radically Hindu-ized India will look and feel like

Imagine if the state of Texas decided it didn’t like any reminder of its once proud independent past (it was its own nation from 1836-1845) and decided to rename Houston. Henceforth, the title, which had reflected General Sam Houston, president of the short-lived Texas republic, would become known as Bushville, after the last names of the 41st and 43rd American presidents.

The scenario may sound ridiculous, but this is close to what happened in India recently. Residents of Allahabad, a city in the northeastern part of the country that has roughly the same population as Houston, woke up one day to find out they were living in a place with another name.

NPR, which is running a series this week on how India is redefining itself through the Hindu faith, told how this happened.

Tens of millions of Hindus took a ritual dip in the Ganges River this winter as part of the largest religious festival in the world — the Kumbh Mela. For centuries, the festival has been held in various cities in northern India, including Allahabad.

But when pilgrims arrived this year for the Kumbh Mela, Allahabad had a different name.

Last year, officials from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party changed the name of Allahabad to Prayagraj — a word that references the Hindu pilgrimage site there. The name Allahabad dated to the 16th century, a legacy of a Muslim ruler, the Mughal Emperor Akbar. "Today, the BJP government has rectified the mistake made by Akbar," a BJP official was quoted as saying when the name was altered.

Name changes for cities aren’t entirely unknown. After all, in 2016, Barrow, Alaska, residents voted to change the name of their municipality back to Utqiagvik, its original Inupiaq name.

But the folks in India are onto something much deeper. This isn’t simply the renaming of Indian cities to reflect pre-British colonial heritage. This is erasing the region’s Islamic history.

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A day after Lilly Endowment news, Associated Press posts job opening ads for seven religion journalists

A day after Lilly Endowment news, Associated Press posts job opening ads for seven religion journalists

We shared the big news Wednesday about the 18-month, $4.9 million Lilly Endowment Inc. grant that will fund 13 religion journalists at The Associated Press, Religion News Service and The Conversation.

We had a few questions, too, about the specifics of the Global Religion Journalism Initiative, which RNS CEO and Publisher Tom Gallagher calls a “transformative and historic grant by Lilly.”

A few of the answers — such as the specific descriptions of the positions and where they will be based — began emerging today.

AP posted job opening ads on its careers website for seven Global Religion positions, including:

New York-based Global Editor: “an experienced journalist and news leader to lead its new Global Religion team and direct the cooperative’s coverage of religion around the world in all media formats, with a focus on explanatory and accountability reporting.”

New York- or Washington-based news editor: “this senior producer will help lead a team of journalists who cover religion around the world and will have direct responsibility for crafting video news report on religion that is rich in exclusive spot news, compelling live video and distinct, deeply reported enterprise.”

New York- or Washington-based newsperson: “a talented multiformat journalist to join its new Global Religion team and report on the intersection of politics and religion as a newsperson.”

New York-based newsperson: “a talented multiformat journalist to join its new Global Religion team and report on youth and faith as a newsperson.”

New York-based newsperson: “a talented text and digital presentation editor to join its new Global Religion team as a newsperson. … (T)his editor will direct and edit breaking news coverage, working closely with news managers and journalists worldwide to ensure AP content about religion is accurate, fast, distinctive and packaged creatively for audiences around the world.”

Cairo-based newsperson: “a talented multiformat journalist to join its new Global Religion team and report on Islamic faith and culture as a newsperson.”

Washington-based videojournalist: “a videojournalist with a history of successful television and online video storytelling to join its new Global Religion team as a videojournalist in Washington.”

As you may recall, Wednesday’s news release noted:

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