If you have followed this blog from Day 1, then you are almost certainly familiar with the work of Dr. Paul Marshall of the Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House. As I mentioned during my recent visit to England, Marshall is also one of my colleagues at the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life. When you combine his writing, speaking and research, Paul is one busy man, far too busy to be a regular contributor at this site (but we can wish). However, he does have a new piece in The Weekly Standard that may as well be a GetReligion commentary -- so we will gladly treat it as such. It's called "A Conversion You Can't Refuse: And the Western media can't comprehend."
It is, of course, about the kidnapping of the two Fox News journalists, American Steve Centanni and New Zealander Olaf Wiig by the so-called Holy Jihad Brigades (click here for a previous post by the soon-to-be Ms. M.Z. Hemingway on that topic). One of the key lessions learned in this episode, according to Marshall, is that far too many journalists still do not, well, get religion.
But there are other problems. Here is a large slice of what Paul has to say:
... (Honest) local reporters have their lives threatened if they tell the truth. Palestinian journalists have been killed for reporting that reflects adversely on Hamas or Fatah. Many denounced the Fox duo's kidnapping, and two days after their release, dozens of journalists in Gaza demonstrated outside the Palestinian Legislative Council offices, demanding an end to the intimidation that cripples their work. Centanni and Wiig made headlines because they worked for an American broadcaster: The suppression of local reporters is all too frequently ignored.
The coverage also showed the continuing cluelessness of much of our media when it comes to religion, despite its growing influence in all Middle Eastern conflicts. Centanni and Wiig were not merely kidnapped but also -- something new in the Palestinian areas -- forced to announce that they had converted to Islam as a condition not only of their release but of their survival.
The significance of this forced conversion has been downplayed in the media. The New York Times and the Washington Post even pronounced the two "unharmed" on release. This judgment is perverse. If Muslim prisoners in American custody were forced to convert to Christianity on pain of death or as a condition of release, the press would denounce it as virtual torture, and rightly so: No sane person would say the prisoners had suffered no harm.
This blindness also trivializes religion. Many people would sooner die than deny the commitments that shape their lives.
Underline that point, please.
Try to picture an army of Ann Coulters -- in black leather skirts, perhaps -- forcing a pair of defenseless Muslims to convert, with swords at their throats and video cameras aimed at their faces. That would not happen, of course. At worse, Coulter would force them to listen to her do dramatic readings from her upcoming greatest hits collection. But you get the point. At Georgetown University, if would almost certainly be a thought crime to ask two Muslims to get a cup of coffee and discuss the Trinity.
Anyway, this story is not over. The two journalists now must live as Muslims -- or face a death sentence, should some imam somewhere choose to issue one.
P.S. Over at Beliefnet, Rod "Crunchy Cons" Dreher pounded out a post titled "On the failure to become martyrs," asking his readers if they thought it was wrong to convert or to fake conversion under these circumstances (forget the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights for a moment) and the result was a blitz of impassioned commentary. You can't tell me that this topic was not worth a page-one feature story or two.
Check it out.