Crusaders and conspiracy theories

More than a few GetReligion readers dropped us a line or two to mention the Foreign Policy report about a recent Seymour Hersh speech. The Washington Post took interest in the speech, too. Here's how reporter Paul Farhi covered it in his article "Hersh rebuked on 'crusaders':

Legendary journalist Seymour Hersh has uncovered some sinister conspiracies during his long career, but his latest revelation is drawing some puzzled reactions and angry denunciations.

In a speech this week in Doha, Qatar, Hersh advanced the notion that U.S. military forces are directed and dominated by Christian fundamentalist "crusaders" bent on changing "mosques into cathedrals."

It's first worth noting that this story was written. Hersh's comments were driving quite a bit of discussion in the blogosphere (you can read some of the multi-updated posts from Glenn Greenwald over at Salon) and it's only fitting that the speech, much less the debate, be highlighted.

In any case, the Washington Post write-up analyzes what Hersh alleged and finds it lacking. Presumably the burden of proof on these charges lies with Hersh but the reporter looks at some of the larger claims to see if there's any evidence. He lays out Hersh's charges -- that Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal is one of several senior officials who are members of supposedly nefarious Roman Catholic organizations such as Opus Dei and the Knights of Malta, that advisers to President George W. Bush took an attitude of "we're gonna change mosques into cathedrals," and that this attitude pervades a "large percentage" of the Joint Special Operations Command, and that the U.S. military is "literally" on a crusade, that military members see themselves as the protectors of Christians. Oh, and in alleging that President Obama is blind to all of these things, he said that we "need an angry black man" as president and "we didn't get one."

So after laying out those allegations, Farhi writes:

There seem to be a few problems with Hersh's assertions.

One is his allegation involving McChrystal. A spokesman for McChrystal said the general "is not and never has been" a member of the Knights of Malta, an ancient order that protected Christians from Muslim encroachment during the Middle Ages and has since evolved into a charitable organization. These days, the Knights, based in Rome, sponsor medical missions in dozens of countries. McChrystal's spokesman, David Bolger, said Hersh's statement linking McChrystal to the group was "completely false and without basis in fact."

Hersh's attempts to link the religious groups to the Pentagon, meanwhile, brought a denunciation from Catholic League President Bill Donohue, who said Hersh's "long-running feud with every American administration - he now condemns President Obama for failing to be 'an angry black man' - has disoriented his perspective so badly that what he said about the Knights of Malta is not shocking to those familiar with his penchant for demagoguery."

Further, Pentagon sources say there is little evidence of a broad fundamentalist conspiracy within the military. Although there have been incidents in which officers have proselytized subordinates, the military discourages partisan religious advocacy.

Farhi also asks Hersh about the comments and he denies that he said the "whole war" was waged as a crusade but that he does think there's a problem with this attitude in the military. The write-up puts the best construction on Hersh's claims, noting that he has a history of saying crazy things but that his written work is "typically" more well-sourced.

I might wonder if Donohue is the best person to quote, but in this case it seems fine. Perhaps a few other people could have been spoken to. It seems that if this is such a widespread conspiracy, there might be more data points to look at. Data and evidence would go a long way in a piece like this. Farhi provides a good start in his fact checking, however deferential to Hersh he may be.

You can read the transcript of the first part of the speech here.

Blake Hounsell, the reporter who broke the story at Foreign Policy notes a few problems with analyzing Hersh's comments. He writes that including that the idea that "we're gonna change mosques into cathedrals" is "an attitude that pervades ... a large percentage of the Joint Special Operations Command" is essentially unverifiable without a survey of JSOC personnel. Which will never happen. But that being, the weight of evidence suggests that JSOC has no intention of converting Muslims to Christianity and that if they did have that intention, we'd probably be hearing about it from people other than just Hersh.

How do you think a story about speeches and theories such as Hersh's should be handled? It might also be nice to learn a bit more about the fallout of speeches such as Hersh's. How was it covered in foreign media and what has the response been among Muslims?

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