New York Times covers efforts to counter Islamic terrorism in Dagestan; skips key Muslim differences

New York Times covers efforts to counter Islamic terrorism in Dagestan; skips key Muslim differences

As parents, we try to steer our children toward activities we think will help them become better adults. Those activities are generally meant to instill in them beliefs and values similar, if not identical, to our own.

So, for example, we enroll our kids in church, synagogue, mosque or other religion-sponsored social, educational or physical activities that seek to mold their minds and bodies in accordance with our hopes and their gifts.

This happens across the board, including in the Caucasus region Russian republic -- akin to an American state, not an independent nation -- of Dagestan, about which I'll say much more in a bit.

As a Religion News Service national correspondent, in the early 1990s I stayed a few days at a pioneering atheist summer summer camp north of Cincinnati. The Camp Quest network has since grown considerable; it’s now international.

Its purpose, of course, is to imbue the children of atheists with atheist values -- though Camp Quest prefers to call its supporters non-theists, humanists or free-thinkers rather than atheists, the latter having a more negative connotation in Christian (certainly culturally and politically) America.

My point here is that atheists -- the Camp Quest marketing pitch was “beyond belief” -- seek to turn their offspring into like-minded adults just like Christians and others.

In Dagestan, a mostly Muslim region once labeled by the BBC “the most dangerous place in Europe” because of its rampant Islamic-inspired violence, parents also strive to keep their young from straying ideologically.

For Dagestani parents, the preferred activity for achieving this (at least for boys) is wrestling.

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Washington Post transportation desk digs into Christmas Wars about Metro advertising

Washington Post transportation desk digs into Christmas Wars about Metro advertising

Oh Christmas wars, oh Christmas wars, they make lawyers flock gladly.

Oh Christmas wars, oh Christmas wars, they drive the news clicks madly ...

Can somebody help me out here?

We really need some kind of Saturday Night Live worthy cold-open anthem that celebrates/mourns the role that First Amendment fights -- as opposed to waves of shopping-mall news -- now play during the weeks that lead up to the Holy Day once known as the Nativity of our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ (see "Christmas").

Most of these annual stories are sad jokes, but some have substance. The latest Washington Post report on the mass-transit advertising wars falls into the second category, raising real issues about public discourse (and the First Amendment) in our tense times.

The headline: "Is Metro waging war on Christmas? Archdiocese sues to post biblical-themed bus ads." Here's the low-key, serious overture:

The Archdiocese of Washington is suing Metro after the transit agency rejected an ad for the organization’s annual “Find the Perfect Gift” charitable campaign, which features a biblical Christmas scene.
In the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court on Tuesday, attorneys for the archdiocese argue that Metro’s ban on subway and bus ads that “promote . . . any religion, religious practice or belief” has infringed on the organization’s First Amendment rights. ...
The banner ads, designed to be placed on Metrobus exteriors, are relatively minimalist in their design. The display highlights the phrases “Find the Perfect Gift” and “#PerfectGift,” and includes a link to the campaign’s website, which encourages people to attend Mass or donate to a Catholic charitable groups. The words of the ad are overlaid on a tableau of a starry sky; in the corner are three figures bearing shepherd’s rods, along with two sheep.

As a 10-year (or more) regular on DC mass transit, I totally get why this is such a hot-button issue.

We're talking about messages displayed before some of the most tense, picky and politicized eyeballs on Planet Earth.

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After New York City terror, once more: How can Islam overcome its violent faction?

After New York City terror, once more: How can Islam overcome its violent faction?

The worst church massacre in U.S. history has all but overshadowed the prior New York City murder spree by a Muslim proclaiming "God is greatest."

But as a news theme, the earlier atrocity certainly carries long-term significance. Oddly, it occurred on the exact date the Reformation began 500 years ago, and some Muslims and non-Muslims muse that Islam needs its own Martin Luther to launch sweeping change.

The big Protestant anniversary is behind us, but for years to come the news media will be covering the moral tragedy of a faction's religiously inspired terrorism. As many pundits observe, western outsiders cannot solve Islam's internal problems. The latest insider proposal:

Writing on Reformation Day, Mustafa Akyol rejected the idea of replicating Luther in a piece titled “The Islamic World Doesn’t Need a Reformation.” (This was posted by www.theatlantic.com, which holds first rank among magazine websites for timely and provocative news analysis about religion.)  

Akyol, a Turkish journalist, TV talker and New York Times op-ed contributor, was named a fellow at Wellesley College’s Freedom Project last January. His books include the pertinent “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty” (2011). Significantly, the book is also available in Turkish, Malay and Indonesian translations.

Though Aykol rejects the “Reformation” label, he does seek to renew his faith’s less violent mainstream tradition and foster tolerance. If so, what’s the matter with the Luther paradigm? For one thing, today’s conflict-ridden Muslim countries do not resemble Luther’s original protest but the later religious bloodshed between Catholic and Protestant armies.

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May Allah be praised? Saudi women finally get to drive (for some vague, secular reason)

May Allah be praised? Saudi women finally get to drive (for some vague, secular reason)

Can anyone guess what was a major international religious event this past Tuesday?

Obviously, we're talking about Saudi Arabia’s decision to allow women to drive. Some of you may have heard a wave of applause around the world, as the Saudis were the international hold-outs on this issue.

Driving may not have a whole lot to do with religion, but Saudi Arabia's decision may say something about the lessening influence of Islamic radicals.

Ah, but here is the key for those who are concerned about religion-news coverage: I am not convinced that many scribes understood that. So let's see how some journalists explained this change. We start with BBC, the brand name in international news:

Saudi Arabia's King Salman has issued a decree allowing women to drive for the first time, to the joy of activists.
The Gulf kingdom is the only country in the world that bans women from driving. Until now, only men were allowed licenses and women who drove in public risked being arrested and fined. ...
Campaigner Sahar Nassif told the BBC from Jeddah that she was "very, very excited -- jumping up and down and laughing".
"I'm going to buy my dream car, a convertible Mustang, and it's going to be black and yellow!"

CNN noted the ruling had nothing to do with religion -- other than a ruling cabal of Wahhabi Islamists have long placed curbs on women being in any public place, including a car. So no religion, other than a symbolic change long opposed by a powerful group of Islamic leaders.

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New York Times explains Saudi Wahhabism in depth (What's Uber got to do with it?)

New York Times explains Saudi Wahhabism in depth (What's Uber got to do with it?)

The New York Times has published another in its "Secrets of the Kingdom" series on Saudi Arabia, this time delving into the Saudi monarchy's complicated political/religious pact with Wahhabi Islam.

The ultra-conservative interpretation of Sunni Islam has had quite a widespread impact on global Islam, and by extension, the non-Muslim world -- as I've noted here before.

This installment of the intermittent series -- which I've touted previously -- offers up no real secrets to those who pay serious attention to the Middle East. Still, the piece and the series in general -- a package of in-depth backgrounders picking apart different aspects of Saudi domestic policy and external influences -- strikes me as akin to a public service.

It's a highly readable primer for the uninitiated, and a detailed reminder for those of us who think we know something about the Saudi leadership's duplicitous ways. While not written by religion journalists, the series provides material every religion journalist should know.

Just how pervasive has the Saudi influence been? Here's a block from the new Times piece addressing this:

Thomas Hegghammer, a Norwegian terrorism expert who has advised the United States government, said the most important effect of Saudi proselytizing might have been to slow the evolution of Islam, blocking its natural accommodation to a diverse and globalized world. “If there was going to be an Islamic reformation in the 20th century, the Saudis probably prevented it by pumping out literalism,” he said.
The reach of the Saudis has been stunning, touching nearly every country with a Muslim population, from the Gothenburg Mosque in Sweden to the King Faisal Mosque in Chad, from the King Fahad Mosque in Los Angeles to the Seoul Central Mosque in South Korea. Support has come from the Saudi government; the royal family; Saudi charities; and Saudi-sponsored organizations including the World Muslim League, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth and the International Islamic Relief Organization, providing the hardware of impressive edifices and the software of preaching and teaching.

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Israel, Saudi Arabia and claim that once land is Muslim, that land is always Muslim

Israel, Saudi Arabia and claim that once land is Muslim, that land is always Muslim

The Jewish state of Israel and the Sunni Islamic kingdom of Saudi Arabia have a complicated relationship. Official diplomatic relations between the two are non-existent. Yet unofficial contacts not only exist but appear to be thriving

Why? Because for all the bad blood between them, both consider Shiite Iran the greater threat. It's one of those enemy-of-my-enemy hookups.

Israel would love the relationship to play out officially and in public as a grand sign to the world of its desired acceptance as a sovereign Jewish nation in the heart of the Muslim Middle East.

The Saudi monarchy has a more complex agenda, however.

Whatever it's political goals, the Saudi royals also must mollify their nation's ultra-traditional religious establishment, the staunch support of which has allowed the descendants of King Abdulaziz Al Saud to rule over the bulk of the Arabian Peninsula since the nation's founding in 1932.

Saudi Arabia is the cradle of Islam, containing the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad. Because of the kingdom's centrality to Islam, religious backing is critical to the ruling family's continued reign.

Problem is, those religious leaders show little willingness to compromise their rigid Wahhabi Muslim theology for the sake of earthly political considerations.

Here's an example of how the game is played.

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Muslims at slain priest's funeral: AP thinks they should be seen but not heard

Muslims at slain priest's funeral: AP thinks they should be seen but not heard

What a wonderful story of solidarity: Muslims joining French Catholics at the funeral of Father Jacques Hamel, uniting in sympathy for the victim of knife-wielding ISIS sympathizers. 

Let's hear the thoughts and feelings of the Muslims after the funeral. 

Or not. At least not if you read the Associated Press' account. Or those of many other media.

Muslims are mentioned six times in the AP story, including the headline. A hundred of them, just at the Rouen cathedral. And dozens more around France and Italy for Mass, "as a gesture of interfaith solidarity following the attack on the priest."

Yes, it's nice to show not that all Muslims are haters. And it's true that actions speak louder than words. But since a news story is made of words, shouldn't some Muslims have gotten to say a few of them?

I'm not even sure how much original reporting AP did here. Looks like at least some of the story is borrowed from other reports:

ROUEN, France — French media reported Tuesday that roughly 100 Muslims attended the funeral Mass of a Catholic priest slain by two men who claimed allegiance to the Islamic States, capping a week in which Muslims in various European nations attended Masses to express sympathy and solidarity.
The Archbishop of Rouen, leading Tuesday’s solemn funeral Mass, said Father Jacques Hamel tried to push away his attackers with his feet, saying "go away, Satan," remarks that underscored the horror of the murder at the altar that touched a chord throughout France.
Hundreds of priests and bishops filled the sumptuous Rouen cathedral along with many hundreds more people, including Muslims who have joined in the grieving since the murder of the 85-year-old priest, slashed by his attackers while celebrating morning Mass.

Who were those 100 Muslims? Imams?  Professors? Quranic scholars? How many mosques did they represent? Why did they feel the need to come? 

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Awards ahead? Top guns roll out quality work on Saudi life, female Arab Muslims in Olympics

Awards ahead? Top guns roll out quality work on Saudi life, female Arab Muslims in Olympics

Two of the remaining big guys in news have run some excellent long-form newspaper journalism recently looking at the social impact of conservative Islam in Saudi Arabia and across the Arab world, including its hobbling of would-be female Arab Olympic athletes.

The big guys are The Washington Post and The New York Times, two of the few remaining mainstream newspapers still able and willing to invest heavily in time-consuming, difficult to produce, international stories with global religious/cultural/political consequences.

If you haven't already, take the time to read these pieces in full. They're great reads and informative. (C'mon,  put away Pokemon Go for 20-30 minutes). The requisite links are below.

Let's look first at the Times offering.

Times veteran Middle East correspondent Ben Hubbard -- his Facebook page says he "spent weeks and weeks" in Saudi Arabia exploring Wahhabi Islam's hold on Saudi society -- opens his piece with the plight of a former muckety-muck in the kingdom's so-called religious police.)

Ahmed Qassim al-Ghamdi's world turned upside down when he began questioning what he was doing, and went public with his doubts.

Here's a chunk of Hubbard's piece that explains what happened to Ghamdi.

So he spoke out. In articles and television appearances, he argued that much of what Saudis practiced as religion was in fact Arabian cultural practices that had been mixed up with their faith.

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New York Times tackles the complex story of Saudi Arabia spreading influence and problems

New York Times tackles the complex story of Saudi Arabia spreading influence and problems

Soon after I started contributing to GetReligion last year I posted a piece that ran under the headline: "Do American newspapers have the time, space and patience to cover Saudi Arabia?" I concluded that more meaningful coverage of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), as the petroleum-rich monarchy is formally known, was needed for Americans to better understand the Middle East's interrelated array of serious problems.

I'm sure my post has nothing do with it, but I'm pleased to now write that The New York Times in recent months has published a series of probing, in depth stories on the KSA that should be required reading for all.

For religion and international affairs reporters in particular, Saudi Arabia is a critically important story to follow. That's because if for no other reason, global Muslim terrorism is a deadly, ongoing phenomenon that has no end in sight.

And guess what. The KSA's brand of deeply conservative Islam known as Wahhabism is one reason for this brutal chaos.

Journalists should learn all they can about the kingdom's exportation of Wahhabism throughout the Muslim world, including its influence on the Islamic State (ISIS), Al Queda and other jihadi groups.

The Times is as well positioned as any elite, international newspaper -- and, seriously, how many are in its league to begin with? -- to report the breath of the KSA's often negative impact on global affairs.

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