Several years ago, I was asked to travel to Prague to speak to the newsroom staff at Radio Liberty. The topic: Efforts to improve news coverage.
However, once I was there it became clear to me that some members of the staff wanted me to discuss a much more specific topic. Thus, I ended up in a small room with a circle of Muslim journalists linked to radio broadcasts into Afghanistan and surrounding regions. The key question: Why do American journalists insist on using "fundamentalist" and "moderate" as labels to describe Muslims, since these are terms never used by members of that faith? Don't they know these labels are offensive?
One journalist said, and I paraphrase: Do Americans basically use "fundamentalist" to describe Muslims that they don't like and "moderate" to describe Muslims that they do like?
I said: "Yes." What to do? Instead of accepting these labels, I urged them to try to use quotes that showed where different Muslim leaders stood in relation to the issue or issues being covered in a particular story. Show the spectrum of belief, in practice.
Oh, and I also read the following passage from that famous "Preserving Our Readers' Trust" self study of The New York Times self study published in 2005 (and quoted many times here at GetReligion):
Too often we label whole groups from a perspective that uncritically accepts a stereotype or unfairly marginalizes them. As one reporter put it, words like moderate or centrist "inevitably incorporate a judgment about which views are sensible and which are extreme." We often apply "religious fundamentalists," another loaded term, to political activists who would describe themselves as Christian conservatives.
I bring this up because of another Washington Post story that has punched my "moderate" alarm button. Here is the top of the report:
BEIRUT -- Syrian government forces have dramatically intensified air and ground assaults on areas held by moderate rebels, attempting to deliver crippling blows as world attention shifts to airstrikes by a U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
Since Monday, Syrian aircraft have targeted Aleppo in the north, the eastern suburbs of Damascus and southern areas near the Jordanian border, launching more than 210 airstrikes, said Rami Abdulrahman of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a group that monitors the civil war.
Noting the Aleppo reference, I really want to ask -- as an Orthodox Christian -- what the word "moderate" means in this context. Is a "moderate" a Sunni soldier who only kidnaps bishops while a truly radical Muslim actually beheads them?
Just asking. Because those archbishops (Metropolitan Mar Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim and Metropolitan Boulous Yazigi) who went missing in Aleppo long ago, before ISIS was a player anywhere near there, are still missing. I tried a #bringbackourbishops hashtag a few months ago, but it never caught on.
Meanwhile, the Post story later talks about the "moderates" and the bad guys in precisely the kind of language that so infuriated those Muslim journalists I met with in Prague. Read carefully:
Rebels and analysts say Assad’s forces are increasing their attacks to exploit what the regime sees as a window of opportunity opened by a campaign that Washington and its allies launched last month against the Islamic State, a heavily armed al-Qaeda offshoot that is also known as ISIS or ISIL. ...
The regime has stepped up aerial bombardment of the rebel-held suburbs of eastern Damascus, as well as in areas near the city of Idlib. ... Meanwhile, Assad’s military has largely avoided territory held by Islamic State militants, instead striking moderate rebel factions that could be slated to receive weapons and military training from the coalition, said Riad Kahwaji, chief executive of the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.
So what does the word "moderate" mean in this story?
Essentially, it appears to mean troops caught in between ISIS and Assad. "Moderates" are fighting with US coalition help, so they must be "moderates."
What is the content of this shallow label, in terms of Islamic beliefs and day-to-day practices? Your guess is as good as mine.