Wake up, reporters: Some Muslims are calling for a boycott of their faith’s holiest festival

Wake up, reporters: Some Muslims are calling for a boycott of their faith’s holiest festival

Each adult believer in Islam is required to make the Hajj (pilgrimage) to the Prophet Muhammad’s holy city of Mecca at least once in a lifetime, unless unable physically or financially.

Some believers repeat this unique experience. The media usually relegate the annual ritual to news features, but this year’s event August 9- 14 is laden with spot news significance.

That’s because ongoing tensions in the Muslim world have produced a campaign to boycott the current Hajj — a nearly unimaginable break with tradition that has received scant coverage in the West. Western reporters should pursue reactions to this in their regions with Muslim sources and agencies that cater to pilgrims. How many believers have postponed Hajj visits till future years after things calm down?

The boycotters are protesting the devoutly Sunni host nation of Saudi Arabia and its ruler since 2017, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (“MBS”). The particular grievances are the Saudis’ prosecution of Yemen’s vicious civil war, ongoing hostilities with Iran and toward Islam’s minority Shia branch, and human rights violations, including the murder of a regime critic, The Washington Post ‘s Jamal Khashoggi.

An anti-Saudi analysis at foreignpolicy.com by Ahmed Twaij of Iraq’s Sanad for Peacebuilding notes that in April Grand Mufti Sadiq al-Ghariani, Libya’s chief Sunni authority, declared that making a repeat Hajj visit or the Umrah (voluntary pilgrimage to Mecca at other times of the year) is “an act of sin rather than a good deed.”

In June, a senior official with Tunisia’s Union of Imams joined boycott calls, saying Saudi income from Hajj visits “is used to kill and displace people,” as in Yemen, instead of helping the world’s impoverished Muslims. Twaij reports that “Sunni clerics around the world have also called for a boycott,” whereas past enmity toward the Saudi regime has come largely from Shia Muslims.

Most remarkable of all was a fatwa last August from Qatar’s Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who is very influential among Mideast Sunnis through his Al Jazeera TV appearances and Internet postings. His words could be interpreted as undercutting even the obligatory once-in-a-lifetime Hajj: “Seeing Muslims feeding the hungry, treating the sick and sheltering the homeless are better viewed by Allah than spending money on the Hajj and Umrah every year.”

Some of this campaign could be payback for the recent years when Saudi Arabia barred believers from Qatar and Iran from joining the pilgrimage, or helped repress a Shia uprising in Bahrain.

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Why did Ross Perot turn on George H.W. Bush, another rich Texan? Look for a religion ghost

Why did Ross Perot turn on George H.W. Bush, another rich Texan? Look for a religion ghost

Here’s the parting shot offered by Ross Perot, in an interview a few years ago with The Dallas Morning News: "Texas born. Texas bred. When I die, I'll be Texas dead. Ha!"

No doubt about it, Perot was a Texan. However, the prodigal Texan in me (my chosen label) can still remember some of the holes in the mainstream press coverage of Perot’s gadfly political career — if that was, in fact, the real goal of his crucial first White House campaign. So many journalists simply settled for saying that Perot was a Texan, when they needed to ask what KIND of Texan he was.

You see, Perot wasn’t your ordinary Texan. He wasn’t even your ordinary rich Texan in Dallas.

Perot rose to become a Highland Park Texan. He wasn’t just rich, he was a certain kind of rich within the structures of Texas life. If you want a glimpse inside that world, check out this 1976 classic from Texas Monthly: “The Highland Park Woman.”

To cut to the chase, this kind of conservative Texan — much like the liberal tribe located in Austin — is embarrassed by all those other Texans. Most of all, they are opposed to all of those, well, religious nuts out there in ordinary Texas.

So this leads me to the big question that I kept asking as I read some of the mainstream news obituaries for Perot: Why did he do it? Why did Perot turn on George H.W. Bush — from the Houston version of the Highland Park tribe — and try to take him down? What was the elder Bush’s fatal sin?

Well, let’s look back to a 1992 feature in the New York Times to find some of the information that was omitted from the Perot obits, as well as most of the coverage of his public life. Read this carefully:

Mr. Perot espoused a kind of fiscal conservatism and toward the end of his campaign a strong law-and-order theme. But he also drew cheers when he staunchly defended a woman's right to choose an abortion and when he bashed the religious right. Indeed, in the voter survey, only 34 percent of Mr. Perot's voters said they attended religious services at least once a week, compared with 42 percent in the survey sample as a whole.

Mr. Perot's army seems to include a strong libertarian streak: people seeking a measure of freedom from what they perceive as the heavy hand of institutions, religious as well as governmental. If the fundamentalist right holds sway in the coming battle for the soul of the Republican Party, Perot followers could go elsewhere.

What did Bush do wrong? Why, there may have been other sins (like Gulf War 1.0), but it was crucial that George H.W. Bush betrayed his class by abandoning his support for abortion rights, while taking other steps to court the world of religious and cultural conservatism.

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Reporters will need help from canon lawyers to correctly explain California’s confession bill

Reporters will need help from canon lawyers to correctly explain California’s confession bill

In this politically polarized world, there are issues that can drive a large wedge between people — including several that, one way or another, are tied to religion.

Immigration and abortion are two of the biggest in the Donald Trump era, issues that dominated the Supreme Court’s recently-completed term and the Democratic presidential primaries that are just underway. Then again, immigration and abortion are the issues that dominate news on the web and cable TV.

Religious freedom, an old-school liberal issue now largely taken up by conservatives, is often lost in mainstream news coverage. Lost in this coverage is an issue of such importance to Roman Catholics, that it may very well be the biggest fallout to come from years of clerical sex abuse when it comes to how it affects the law.

The California State Senate, controlled by Democrats, recently passed a bill (the first of its kind in the United States) that would compel a priest — violating centuries of Catholic law and tradition — to disclose to civil authorities any information learned in the confessional if it involves the sexual abuse of a minor committed by another priest or lay worker. The bill was supposed to head to the State Assembly later this summer, where Democrats hold a majority.

On Tuesday, on the eve of a scheduled hearing, State Sen. Jerry Hill withdrew the bill after realizing he didn’t have the votes to get it passed out of committee. Opponents may have rejoiced, but this issue is far from over. It certainly will gather steam again in future legislative sessions. That means reporters need to be better equipped to cover such an issue in a balanced and fair way.

If this bill doesn’t seem like a big deal, consider what it would have mandated: the government would have been allowed to control a religious sacrament by legally punishing a priest for not breaking the seal of confession. Passage of such a law would be a major violation of religious freedom for both the priest and the person in the confessional. It would also have a chilling effect for those seeking to go to confession, but fearing possible legal troubles.

Mainstream news coverage of this bill has been largely muted over the past few months. This bill hasn’t, for example, been made a bigger issue by national media outlets such as The New York Times. Compare that to the coverage on immigration and abortion.

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Trump, China tariffs and God's holy word: Is there really a chance of a Bible shortage?

Trump, China tariffs and God's holy word: Is there really a chance of a Bible shortage?

This Associated Press story got really wide play this week, so you — like me — may have read it in your local newspaper, assuming you still subscribe to your local newspaper (and as a journalist, I hope you do).

I’m talking about AP’s news report out of Nashville, Tenn., on Bible publishers’ concerns about President Trump’s trade war.

It’s a fascinating piece on an industry that — I’ll admit — I don’t think about as much as I used to. It’s not that I don’t consider the Bible important anymore. As a Christian, I most certainly do.

It’s just that I personally do most of my Bible reading on my iPhone and iPad these days. I don’t even own a personal copy of the Scriptures in written form anymore.

But what about those people who do? Is there really a chance of a Bible shortage?

Here’s the news from AP:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Religious publishers say President Donald Trump’s most recent proposed tariffs on Chinese imports could result in a Bible shortage.

That’s because millions of Bibles — some estimates put it at 150 million or more — are printed in China each year. Critics of a proposed tariff say it would make the Bible more expensive for consumers and hurt the evangelism efforts of Christian organizations that give away Bibles as part of their ministry.

HarperCollins Christian Publishing President and CEO Mark Schoenwald recently told the U.S. Trade Representative that the company believes the Trump administration “never intended to impose a ‘Bible Tax’ on consumers and religious organizations,” according to a transcript of his remarks provided by the publisher.

The two largest Bible publishers in the United States, Zondervan and Thomas Nelson, are owned by HarperCollins, and they incur close to 75% of their Bible manufacturing expenses in China, Schoenwald said. Together, they command 38% of the American Bible market, he said.

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'No more faith-based than Satan himself': Houston Chronicle digs into health-sharing ministry

'No more faith-based than Satan himself': Houston Chronicle digs into health-sharing ministry

Even before the Houston Chronicle’s investigative piece on a Christian health care cost-sharing ministry was published in print — at the top of Sunday’s front page — the newspaper got action.

To the tune of $129,000.

The dead-tree version of the story notes:

On Tuesday, the day this story appeared online, an Aliera claims director called Martinez and said the company had reversed its previous denials and would pay the entire claim.

But that decision does nothing to blunt the power of this hard-hitting piece of journalism, which presents the “ministry” profiled as — to use the words of the main source quoted — “no more faith-based than Satan himself.”

Christian health-care sharing is a topic we’ve covered before at GetReligion — here, here and here, for example. Elsewhere, Christianity Today’s Kate Shellnutt wrote about the future of that approach back in 2017.

The Chronicle story does an exceptional job of detailing the concerns about Trinity Health-Share, Aliera Healthcare’s affiliated health-sharing ministry.

The opening paragraphs set the scene:

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Why did Latterday-day Saints change brands? That news story (oh no) may be linked to doctrine

Why did Latterday-day Saints change brands? That news story (oh no) may be linked to doctrine

In the months since the leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced the attempt to tone down use of the word “Mormon,” I have heard two questions over and over from people outside the Latter-day Saint fold.

Yes, that sentence was somewhat long and awkward, for obvious reasons.

Question No. 1: What are they going to call The Choir.

Question No. 2: Why did Latter-day Saints leaders take this step, at this moment in time, to change their brand?

If you are interested in that first question, a long, long feature story in The New York Times — “ ‘Mormon’ No More: Faithful Reflect on Church’s Move to Scrap a Moniker” — has a fabulous anecdote that shows up at the very end. Here we go:

For many Latter-day Saints, the most important cue came from the church’s iconic musical organization, known since 1929 as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The group was on tour in Los Angeles last year, singing in Disney Hall, when a bishop asked choir leaders to begin thinking about new names.

At first many performers felt “a little uptight” about the idea, said the group’s president, Ron Jarrett. … They mulled options: the Tabernacle Choir in Salt Lake City, the Tabernacle Choir in Utah, the Tabernacle Choir of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and finally landed on the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square.

Still, the group had to manage a swath of legal issues, like how to protect copyrights and recording labels all made under the former name. Products and recordings made before 2019 will maintain the previous legal name, but new ones will not.

“For me, it has been an opportunity to really evaluate who we are and what we stand for,” Mr. Jarrett said. “I was able to say, ‘I will follow a living prophet, and our music will remain the same.’”

The singers have retired their catchy nickname, the MoTabs. They are trying out a new one, Mr. Jarrett said: the TCats, or TabCats.

I think legions of headline writers would embrace that kind of short, catchy, option, should the church’s leaders come up with an unofficial official nickname. After all, you may recall that use of the “LDS” brand was also discouraged, along with the big change in the status of “Mormon.” The Times story notes the practical implications online:

The church’s longtime website, LDS.org, now redirects to ChurchofJesusChrist.org, and Mormon.org will soon switch over, too. In May, the church stopped posting on its @MormonChannel Instagram feed and encouraged followers to move to @ChurchofJesusChrist instead.

OK, but why did this change happen?

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Frederick Brennan created 8chan, hyped eugenics and then became a Christian (-30-)

Frederick Brennan created 8chan, hyped eugenics and then became a Christian (-30-)

Destroyer of Worlds” by Nicky Woolf is a longform profile of a man who helped spread shortform jibber-jabber. The platform for this piece is Tortoise Media in London, a worthy journalistic venture with a witty name: in a culture of ceaseless notifications, pseudo-events and listicles of outrage, it strives to slow readers down with subscription-funded longform reporting.

The profile’s headline creates a hope that here is a journalist with religion literacy. It alludes to a verse from the Bhagavid Gita that theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer said he thought about during the successful test of the atomic weapon he helped create.

Tortoise editor Ceri Thomas loses no time in warning readers that in creating the Web space known as 8chan (which I have no interest in visiting), Fredrick Brennan did a very, very bad thing:

There’s no room for argument about whether hate-filled internet message boards encourage real-world violence: they do, and none more so than 8chan. It normalises racism, misogyny, and extremism — and helps turn nightmarish, loud-mouthed talk of action into reality. What kind of person would set up a site like 8chan? 

The question matters if we’re serious about trying to regulate it, or prevent similar sites coming into being. We might assume that the brains behind 8chan would belong to a committed, hard-line ideologue; someone, perhaps, we could identify and deal with. But what if other impulses are in play? How do we deal with the motivating power of poverty, disability, anger and self-loathing? Meet Fredrick Brennan.

Likewise, Woolf spends considerable time warning readers away from what is possibly the most concentrated evil (click for classic movie finale) since Terry Gilliam directed Time Bandits in 1981.

But when Woolf has an exquisite plot twist — Brennan became a Catholic — this amazingly symbolic development becomes a drive-by detail in a penultimate paragraph.

How symbolic? Brennan, who suffers from osteogenesis imperfecta (brittle bone disease), spent several years writing about his attraction to eugenics, on the theory that it could have prevented his suffering by preventing his birth. But that attraction has dimmed a bit since his conversion:

He is married, has converted to Christianity, and spends his time designing his own fonts. Asked what he would say to his 14-year-old self, he pauses. “Um. It sounds like a cliché, but it gets better. You’re not going to feel like that for ever.”

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Associated Press hits the high points — just the high points — in story on religion of 2020 Democrats

Associated Press hits the high points — just the high points — in story on religion of 2020 Democrats

Here’s your journalistic challenge: Cover the religion of the leading Democratic presidential candidates. (Some good advice here.)

Sound easy enough?

OK, let’s up the ante a bit: Meet the above challenge — and keep your story to roughly 1,000 words.

Wait, what!?

Now, you have a pretty good idea of what it’s like to be a reporter for The Associated Press, a global news organization that reaches billions and keeps most stories between 300 and 500 words.

To merit 1,000 words in the AP universe, a subject matter must be deemed extremely important. Such is the case with the wire service’s overview this week on Democrats embracing faith in the 2020 campaign. Still, given the number of candidates, that length doesn’t leave much room to do anything but hit the basics on any of the candidates.

For those who paying close attention to the race, the anecdote at the top of AP’s report will sound familiar:

WASHINGTON (AP) — When 10 Democratic presidential candidates were pressed on immigration policy during their recent debate, Pete Buttigieg took his answer in an unexpected direction: He turned the question into a matter of faith.

Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, accused Republicans who claim to support Christian values of hypocrisy for backing policies separating children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border. The GOP, he declared, “has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.”

It was a striking moment that highlighted an evolution in the way Democrats are talking about faith in the 2020 campaign. While Republicans have been more inclined to weave faith into their rhetoric, particularly since the rise of the evangelical right in the 1980s, several current Democratic White House hopefuls are explicitly linking their views on policy to religious values. The shift signals a belief that their party’s eventual nominee has a chance to win over some religious voters who may be turned off by President Donald Trump’s abrasive rhetoric and questions about his character.

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Evil, sin, reality and life as a 'Son of God': What Marianne Williamson is saying isn't new

Evil, sin, reality and life as a 'Son of God': What Marianne Williamson is saying isn't new

Early in the 1990s, I made the leap from full-time reporting in a mainstream newsroom — the Rocky Mountain News (RIP) — to teaching at Denver Seminary.

My goal was to pull “signals” from mainstream media into the world of people preparing for various ministries (key summary document here), helping them to face the ideas, symbols and stories that were shaping ordinary Americans, in pews and outside traditional religious groups. I wanted to pay attention to valid questions, even if traditional believers couldn’t embrace the media world’s answers.

In my main class, I needed a book that could open a door into what I called “Oprah America.” Thus, in 1992, I required my students to read “A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles,” by Marianne Williamson. Some of these evangelical students were not amused.

This, of course, leads us to that massive New York Times feature that ran the other day:

The Curious Mystical Text Behind Marianne Williamson’s Presidential Bid

The New Age author was drawn to an esoteric bible in the 1970s. It made her a self-help megastar. And now it has gone mainstream.

To my shock, the world’s newspaper of record dedicated large chunks of newsprint to the religious content — the doctrine, even — at the heart of Williamson’s life, ministry and her politics. I would say this story gets the equation about 75 percent right, but the Times team needed to back up a bit further in order to understand why so many Americans will — if told the roots of her thought — find her beliefs disturbing.

Hold that thought. Here’s the key question: How would the Times, and other elite media, have handled a feature about the beliefs of a Oneness Pentecostal or a faith-healing preacher who sought the presidency as a Republican? With this light a touch?

Now, here is a crucial chunk of that Times feature, which comes after a brief discussion of her remarks in the recent debates featuring a flock of Democratic candidates:

She was … drawing directly from a homegrown American holy book called “A Course in Miracles,” a curious New York scripture that arose during the heady metaphysical counterculture of the 1960s.

This is not some homey book of feel-good bromides. Rather, it is taken by its readers as a genuine gospel, produced by a Manhattan doctor who believed she was channeling new revelations from Jesus Christ himself.

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