Iran

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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Bloodshed in the headlines: What is the current world situation with religious persecution?

Bloodshed in the headlines: What is the current world situation with religious persecution?

THE QUESTION:

What is the current world situation with religious persecution?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The slaughter of 50 Muslims and wounding of dozens more at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, provoked horror in that pacific nation, and sorrow and disgust worldwide. Why would anyone violate the religious freedom, indeed the very lives, of innocent people who had simply gathered to worship God?

Unfortunately, murders at religious sanctuaries are not a rare occurrence. In the U.S., recall the murders of six Sikh worshipers at Oak Creek, Wisconsin (2012); nine African Methodists at a prayer meeting in Charleston, S.C. (2015); 26 Southern Baptists in a Sunday morning church rampage at Sutherland Springs, Texas (2017); and 11 Jews observing the Sabbath at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue last October.

The Christchurch atrocity was unusual in that authorities identified a white nationalist as the assailant. Most mosque attacks are not carried out by a demented individual, but by radical Muslim movements that intend to kill fellow Muslims for sectarian political purposes. The most shocking example occurred in 1979. A well-armed force of messianic extremists assaulted the faith’s holiest site, the Grand Mosque in Mecca, during the annual pilgrimage (Hajj). The reported death toll was 117 attackers and 127 pilgrims and security guards, with 451 others wounded.

After Christchurch, The Associated Press culled its archives to list 879 deaths in mass murders at mosques during the past decade. (Data are lacking on sectarian attacks upon individual Muslims, also a serious problem for the faith). Such incidents get scant coverage in U.S. news media.

2010: Extremist Sunnis in the Jundallah sect bomb to death six people and themselves at a mosque in southeastern Iran. Then a second Jundallah suicide bombing at an Iranian Shiite mosque kills 27 and injures 270.

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Malaysia bars Israeli para-athletes, loses major swim competition and major media ignored it

Malaysia bars Israeli para-athletes, loses major swim competition and major media ignored it

We hear a great deal these days, and appropriately so, about rising anti-Semitism across Europe, much of it masquerading as anti-Israel political rhetoric. For years we’ve known about the virulent anti-Semitic attitudes that permeate the Arab world and neighboring Turkey and Iran.

Nor is there any lack of probing news coverage about the spike in anti-Semitism here in the United States. Look no further than the recent Women's March on Washington for evidence.

Still, I urge you to read this recent analysis by Holocaust and anti-Semitism scholar par excellence Deborah Lipstadt to better understand this ominous state of affairs.

Lipstadt notes how even Israel’s government and some Jews unwittingly make the situation worse.

What we hear very little about, however, is the Jew hatred — and its geopolitical twin, the hatred of all things Israeli — that emanates from Malaysia.

This past Sunday — which coincided with international Holocaust Remembrance Day — the International Paralympic Committee cancelled a top-level swimming competition set for Malaysia later this year because of that nation’s refusal to allow Israeli athletes to compete in, or even enter, the Southeast Asian country.

Did you see anything about this in the mainstream media?

Speaking at the Oxford Union [in England] a week ago, prime minister Dr Mahatir Mohamed confirmed that the visa-denial was punitive but restated his country’s right to bar visitors from countries whose policies he disagreed with, adding that if the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) wanted to withdraw Malaysia’s right to host the tournament, “they can do so”. He has also previously described Jews as “hook-nosed” and suggested four million, rather than six million Jews, were killed in the Shoah [Holocaust].

The above paragraph is from London’s Jewish News, as carried by the Times of Israel news website.

As you might imagine, the Malaysia story has been followed closely by Israeli and Jewish diaspora media, along with Asian and Muslim-world news outlets.

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The New York Times wishes us a Merry Hezbollah Christmas

The New York Times wishes us a Merry Hezbollah Christmas

Well, it sounded good on paper.

A New York Times article showing us a kinder, gentler, even interfaith Hezbollah was just one of a bunch of Christmas-themed pieces that ran in the paper this past week. One standout was this depressing piece on China’s holiday crackdown on churches, orchestrated by President Xi (the Grinch) Jinping.

It was just another day for China’s 30 million underground Christians with more people tossed in jail, sanctuaries and seminaries closed for the holiday and online Bible sales prohibited. There was also this piece on the Women’s March fragmenting due to anti-Semitism.

But the strangest article was this overseas dispatch with the headline: “Christmas in Lebanon: Jesus isn’t only for the Christians.” As I will explain in a bit, the piece didn’t get the greatest reception.

BEIRUT — The Iranian cultural attaché stepped up to the microphone on a stage flanked by banners bearing the faces of Iran’s two foremost religious authorities: Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, and Ayatollah Khamenei, the current supreme leader.

To the left of Ayatollah Khomeini stood a twinkling Christmas tree, a gold star gilding its tip. Angel ornaments and miniature Santa hats nestled among its branches. Fake snow dusted fake pine needles.

“Today, we’re celebrating the birth of Christ,” the cultural attaché, Mohamed Mehdi Shari’tamdar, announced into the microphone, “and also the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.”

“Hallelujah!” boomed another speaker, Elias Hachem, reciting a poem he had written for the event. “Jesus the savior is born. The king of peace, the son of Mary. He frees the slaves. He heals. The angels protect him. The Bible and the Quran embrace.”

“We’re celebrating a rebel,” proclaimed a third speaker, the new mufti of the Shiite Muslims of Lebanon, the rebel in question being Jesus.

This being Lebanon, one can say something positive about Christianity; a luxury that Iran doesn’t allow Christians within its borders, as I wrote about recently. The audience at this event was mainly Shi’ite and an Iranian band was playing Assyrian and Persian Christmas carols; again, a luxury not allowed to Christians in Persia itself.

Nearly 30 years after the end of a civil war in which Beirut was cloven into Muslim and Christian halves connected only by a gutted buffer zone, Lebanese from all different sects now commonly mingle every day at home, at work and in public.

But few seasons frame the everyday give-and-take of religious coexistence quite like Christmastime in Lebanon.

Half the women snapping selfies with the colossal Christmas tree that stands across a downtown street from Beirut’s even more colossal blue mosque wear hijabs.

Children with veiled and unveiled mothers wait in line at the City Center mall to whisper wish lists to the mall’s Santa, and schoolchildren of all sects exchange Secret Santa gifts in class.

I wish the writer would clarify that Santa Claus isn’t a Christian concept and that the jolly Bearded One’s presence worldwide this time of year has more to do with shopping free-for-alls than religion.

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NPR offers a different take on Iranian converts to Christianity who are now marooned in Turkey

NPR offers a different take on Iranian converts to Christianity who are now marooned in Turkey

Outside of Iranian borders, Persians are increasingly forsaking Islam, usually for Christianity or atheism. That’s been going for several years in places like the Netherlands and Germany, which has welcomed many thousands of immigrants from Iran.

But not everyone fleeing the mullahs is able to get to Europe. Those who can’t end up in Iran’s next door neighbor, Turkey, which is where an NPR story on their plight starts.

From a journalism perspective, here is what we are looking for: What crucial voices are missing in this important story?

In a hotel conference room in Denizli, Turkey, about 60 Iranians sing along to songs praising Jesus mixed with Iranian pop music. When the music stops, American pastor Karl Vickery preaches with the help of a Persian translator.

"I'm not famous or rich. But I know Jesus. I have Jesus," he says, with a Southern drawl. The Farsi-speaking Christian converts shout "Hallelujah!" and clap.

Vickery, who's part of a visiting delegation from Beaumont, Texas, then offers to pray for each person in the room…

Among the parishioners are Farzana, a 37-year-old hairdresser from Tehran, and her daughter Andya, 3 … She doesn't want to give her last name because she says her family in Iran might face persecution for her conversion. Her family knows she is a convert and they're scared for their own safety inside Iran.

What might she face were she sent back?

There are hundreds of thousands of Christians in Iran. Those considered part of the native Christian communities are permitted to practice their religion with restrictions, but a Muslim converting to Christianity is considered an apostate. The Iranian government jails converts, especially those who proselytize.

It is also illegal to convert from Islam in several other Muslim-majority countries, including Saudi Arabia, and punishable by jail time or death.

According to Open Doors, persecution is “extreme” in Iran and it’s the 10th worst country in the world to be a Christian. We’re not talking just being fired from jobs or being denied a university education. We’re talking about torture and death.

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PBS story on Iran's Jews hurt by failure to fully explain what captive minorities must do to survive

PBS story on Iran's Jews hurt by failure to fully explain what captive minorities must do to survive

Captive minorities in nations ruled by all-controlling despots play by the rules — or else. Iran’s estimated 9,000-15,000 Jews, one of the world’s most ancient Jewish communities, are a case in point.

Why? Because playing by the rules is just what happened recently when a visiting PBS journalist came calling on Iran’s Jews — with Teheran’s explicit permission, of course.

You’ll recall that Iran’s leaders constantly call for Israel’s physical destruction and that Teheran funds Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas. Both proxies are also sworn to destroy Israel.

This means that Iranian Jews are between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Many of them have relatives in Israel, and the Jewish homeland is where their biblical-era ancestors fled from some 2,700 years ago, when forced into exile.

In late November, one of PBS’s premiere news platforms, “PBS NewsHour,” broadcast a piece that, like other attempts to explain the Iranian Jewish community, came up frustratingly short.

Once again, those Iranian Jews interviewed on camera said what they always say, which is that life for them in Iran is, on balance, secure — though not always perfectly so — and that Israel is their enemy simply because it's their government's enemy.

What else could they say in a nation where just one politically suspect utterance by a Jewish community member, particularly if made to a foreign media outlet, could mean devastating consequences for them and their co-religionists?

(“Special correspondent” Reza Sayah did note some of the tightly controlled circumstances in which Iran’s Jewish minority survives as second-class citizens. But PBS could have added the comments of an outside expert or two to more fully explain the Iranian context. I can’t help wonder why that didn't happen.)

Here’s the lede-in to the NewsHour story, lifted from the segment’s transcript:

Jewish people have called Iran home for nearly 3,000 years. The Trump administration and U.S. ally Israel often depict the Iranian government as composed of anti-Semitic radical Islamists bent on destroying Israel. But within Iran, many of the estimated 15,000 Jews say they're safe and happy living in the Islamic Republic. Reza Sayah takes a rare inside look at life for Iran's Jewish minority.

“Safe and happy”? Perhaps in a Potemkin village sort of way.

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Tagging refugees by religion: Does it matter whether they're Muslims or Christians?

Tagging refugees by religion: Does it matter whether they're Muslims or Christians?

Immigration tensions have tilted another European election. This time it's Italy, where right-wing populists with an anti-immigrant bent have dominated the national vote.

Immigrants? Now who might journalists be referring to when they employ that generic term?

Could they mean, in Italy's case, Muslims from such war-devastated, poverty-stricken nations as Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, plus Africa’s Sahel, the broad swath of semi-arid land just south of the Arab north that is also predominantly Muslim?

But rather than stating what seems the obvious, some global media appear more comfortable leaving the immigrants’ primary religious affiliation -- Islam -- unsaid. Instead, they provide a geography lesson.

By which I mean that the immigrants' nations of origin, such as the ones I mentioned above, are cited instead of the immigrants primary religious affiliation, even though religion is far more of factor in Italy's case than are lines on a globe.

Take this New York Times analysis. It mentions immigration from Syria, Libya and Afghanistan, but not religion. I found similar wording in stories published by The Guardian, USA Today, The Washington Post, the Associated Press and other outlets.

Here’s how the Times piece handled this aspect of the story. This is long, but essential:

The issue continues to disrupt and inflame European politics, including in Germany, Greece, the Netherlands and now Italy. With Greece, Italy has borne the brunt of recent large movements of refugees and migrants into Europe from places such as Afghanistan, Libya and Syria.
There is a strong feeling that the mainstream parties have no answer and that Italy got little help from the European Union in Brussels or from other member states. Once Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany cut off the migrant flow through Central Europe by doing deals with Turkey, neither Berlin nor Brussels seemed to care any more, and a European policy on migration is still unresolved.

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Trump and Jerusalem: New York Times analysis tells the story behind the headline

Trump and Jerusalem: New York Times analysis tells the story behind the headline

At the end of last week, the front page of the printed version of The Washington Post featured a four-column, above-the-fold photo of tightly framed, silhouetted figures dashing through  billowing black smoke and menacing red flames -- which is what you get when you burn vehicle tires.

The headline below it read: “Palestinians, Israeli troops clash over U.S. stance.” A subhead warned, “Region braces for more violence after Trump’s decision on Jerusalem.” (The online version linked to here differs.)

That Post story was an example of traditional newspaper, hard news journalism. It summarized the previous day’s body count, included the usual reaction quotes from the usual sources sprouting the usual threats and warnings we've heard time and again from both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Those quoted, in accordance with their well-known positions, either castigated or praised President Donald Trump for his decision to officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s national capital and pledge to someday, but not just now, actually move the U.S. Embassy from coastal Tel Aviv to inland Jerusalem.

What the piece failed to do, however, was to connect the dots and explain the story behind the headline by placing it in its current Middle East context. It excluded, in short, the sort of background that’s critical to understanding the latest twist in a long-running, exceedingly complicated and highly combustible story such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Is the peace process, which has been moribund at best, now forever dead? Is another Palestinian intifada, or widespread violent uprising, about to explode? Why did Trump do this now and what might we expect now that he's shattered, at least verbally, decades of U.S. Middle East policy simply by saying out loud that Jerusalem is Israel’s political capita, as it has been in reality since 1948?

Those are questions we cannot fully answer. But may I suggest that rather than relying on daily roundups or if-it-bleeds-it-leads TV reports, you pay as much or more attention to the many quality news analysis and opinion columns being penned by long-time Middle East-watchers.

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Evolution and Islam: Turkey's hot back-to-school story and (let's work it in) the specter of jihad

Evolution and Islam: Turkey's hot back-to-school story and (let's work it in) the specter of jihad

Broach the question of teaching evolution versus "creationism" in U.S. public schools, and you’re probably talking about the debate fueled by biblical literalists of varying stripes. There are also debates that include a variety of scientists who embrace most elements of evolution, but deny that scientists have proven the process is random and without meaning. Remember that famous 1996 statement by Pope John Paul II?

Now, did you know that the same argument convulses Islam, including Sunni Muslim Turkey, where it's the year’s marquee back-to-school story?

Notice that in relation to Turkey I said “argument” not “debate.”

That’s because the increasingly Islamist and authoritarian government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has settled the matter by decree. The debate, such as it was, is over. As Mel Brooks famously proclaimed, “It’s good to be the king." Or wannabe neo-Ottoman sultan, in Erdogan’s case.

In short, Turkey has eliminated the teaching of evolution from primary and high school curricula.

Need to get up to speed on this one? Then read or listen to this piece from NPR. Or you can save a few minutes and just read this excerpt from the NPR script.

At a news conference last month, Turkey's education minister announced that new textbooks will be introduced in all primary and secondary schools, starting with grades 1, 5 and 9 this fall, and the rest next year. They will stop teaching evolution in grade 9, when it's usually taught.
"Evolutionary biology is best left to be taught at the university level," Education Minister Ismet Yilmaz told reporters. "It's a theory that requires a higher philosophical understanding than schoolchildren have."

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