Middle East

Deutsche Welle: Are young Turks really atheistic Turks?

Deutsche Welle: Are young Turks really atheistic Turks?

For those of you who follow international news in the former Byzantine empire, there was an interesting piece in the German broadcast network Deutsche Welle (DW) about how atheism is growing in Turkey.

For those of you who wonder why the Germans would be interested in this, do remember that 5 percent of Germany’s population (or 4 million people) are of Turkish origin. Turks began migrating to Germany in 1961, earning the sobriquet gastarbeiter or (guest workers) but since then, the relationship between these two countries has grown complicated.

Still, there’s a plenty of ties, so DW covers trends there, including religious ones.

According to a recent survey by the pollster Konda, a growing number of Turks identify as atheists. Konda reports that the number of nonbelievers tripled in the past 10 years. It also found that the share of Turks who say they adhere to Islam dropped from 55 percent to 51 percent.

"There is religious coercion in Turkey," said 36-year-old computer scientist Ahmet Balyemez, who has been an atheist for over 10 years. "People ask themselves: Is this the true Islam?" he added. "When we look at the politics of our decision-makers, we can see they are trying to emulate the first era of Islam. So, what we are seeing right now is primordial Islam." …

Which means people aren’t ready to return to the 7th century.

Diyanet, Turkey's official directorate of religious affairs, declared in 2014 that more than 99 percent of the population identifies as Muslim. When Konda's recent survey with evidence to the contrary was published, heated public debate ensued.

The theologian Cemil Kilic believes that both figures are correct. Though 99 percent of Turks are Muslim, he said, many only practice the faith in a cultural and sociological sense. They are cultural, rather than spiritual, Muslims.

Oddly, there is not a supporting paragraph that backs up the lead two sentences. How many people is 51 percent? And what about Erdogan’s attempts at the shariaization of Turkey? Turkey has been a secular republic for the past century, thanks to Kemal Attaturk, but Erdogan is trying to shift matters toward Islamic rule as fast as he can.

I’m guessing he doesn’t want to be ruled by mullahs like neighboring Iran but his shift out of secularity is a puzzle. It’s not secret that Iran’s millions of young people are weary of 39 years of “religious edicts and isolation,” as the Wall Street Journal describes it. Haven’t folks learned that theocracy doesn’t work?

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2018 Jewish Top 10 news story list spotlights anti-Semitism, as well as the genre's limitations

2018 Jewish Top 10 news story list spotlights anti-Semitism, as well as the genre's limitations

End of the year lists of best-of or most-important stories have several major deficiencies.

The first is that they are wholly subjective. While the top choice may be obvious to all, ranking the stories that round out such a list in order of importance is far less so. It’s here where personal preferences, and even guesses, take over.

Not too mention that such lists often do not distinguish between single headline-grabbing event stories and the trend, or ongoing story line, that the event underscores.

The second is that such lists tend to be completed before December ends because editors and readers have come to expect such lists to be published prior to the actual start of the new year. This means the mid- to late-December stories tend not to be included to meet deadlines.

Then there is another truth that journalists need to recognize: Often we miss some of the most important stories when they happen, but recognize their magnitude later.

All of this, in fact, is what has happened to one of the more reliable top-10 story lists — the one done annually by Rabbi A. James Rudin, the long-time Religion News Service columnist, former American Jewish Committee senior interreligious director and Pulitzer Prize-nominated author.

Rudin’s list pertains to the Jewish world, which includes the global Jewish diaspora and Israel and the Middle East. It's because Rudin’s list is confined to the relatively small Jewish world that he knows so well, that I consider his list one of the “more reliable” year-end features of this sort. 

This year — just as the top story in the Catholic world is obviously the ongoing priestly sex abuse scandal and hierarchical cover up — Rudin’s top Jewish story is also obvious.

It’s the increasing displays of anti-Semitism, including, of course, the shooting in Pittsburgh that ended with the deaths of 11 Jewish Sabbath worshippers, slain by a lone gunman with a  beef against Jews and, in particular, a Jewish community agency that helps settle immigrants in the U.S.

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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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A Hindu story of garlic and onions, and what it means for our "tribal" religious divisions in 2019

A Hindu story of garlic and onions, and what it means for our "tribal" religious divisions in 2019

Onions and garlic, slowly simmered with tomatoes and olive oil.

Does that make you hungry? It leaves me salivating. Pour it -- generously, if you don't mind -- over a heaping plate of pasta and I'm your best friend.

Perhaps that’s why I found this story out of India (first sent my way by a friend, N.K.) so interesting. It's about Hindus who reject eating onions and garlic for religiously ascribed health and spiritual reasons.

Moreover, given that it’s the end of the year, I’m also inclined to offer up this story as a metaphor for the world of religion, and its concurrent global political and social machinations, as 2019 prepares to dawn.

But first, here’s a bit of the gastronomical Hindu brouhaha story, courtesy of the liberal-leaning, India-focused news site Scroll.in.

(So you understand: In the Indian numerical system, a lakh equals 100,000; Karnataka is a state in southwest India, and ISKCON is the official name for what Westerners tend to call Hare Krishnas, a modern iteration of an ancient Hindu school of religious thought. Additionally, Ayurveda is an Indian dietary and health care system rooted in early Hindu scripture.)

The Akshaya Patra Foundation, which has been providing mid-day meals to 4.43 lakh school children in Karnataka, has refused to sign a memorandum for 2018-’19 following a directive by the state government to include onions and garlic in the food prepared for the meal, based on recommendations from the State Food Commission.

This is not the first time that the foundation has refused to follow recommended nutritional guidelines in the government scheme. The NGO had earlier refused to provide eggs in the meal saying it can only provide a satvik diet – a diet based on Ayurveda and yoga literature.

The foundation, an initiative of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness or ISKCON, has a religious prerogative of “advocating a lacto-vegetarian diet, strictly avoiding meat, fish and eggs” and considers onions and garlic in food as “lower modes of nature which inhibit spiritual advancement”.

Akshaya Patra, which claims to supply mid-day meals to 1.76 million children from 14,702 schools across 12 states in India, has flouted these norms from the beginning of its contract, failing to cater to children from disadvantaged communities, almost all of whom eat eggs and are culturally accustomed to garlic and onion in food.

But why onions and garlic? What do members of this Hindus sub-group know that the cooks of so many other global cuisines don’t or don’t care about? Even Western and natural medicine practitioners say that onions and garlic are particularly good for our health.

So what’s up?

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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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The Saudi puzzle: Here are four religion threads woven into this sordid political drama

The Saudi puzzle: Here are four religion threads woven into this sordid political drama

Saudi Arabia is, currently, for the most part a political story. Though for the sake of historical perspective, let’s not forget that, this certainly is not the first time a United States president has decided to put markets or narrow politics ahead of social justice concerns.

Ever hear of Pinochet’s Chile, Batista’s Cuba, the Shah’s Iran, or Egypt and Pakistan under any number of leaders, just to name a few?

Perhaps it's the ham-fisted manner in which our current self-styled Lord of the Manor, President Donald Trump, has handled the matter that has elevated it to its current degree? Or perhaps it’s because of social media and our rapacious 24-7 news cycle that presidents no longer can easily sidestep policies their political opponents wish to highlight?

Politics aside — if that’s even possible — there are at least four religion angles to the Saudi story that are very much worth considering, however. The first three, I confess, I’m giving short shrift because I want to reserve ample space here for a forth angle, the knottiest of the quartet I’m highlighting.

Here are the first three.

Historically, the most important angle is how the (must we still say, “apparent”?) Saudi murder and coverup of former Washington Post oped writer Jamal Khashoggi has become part of the historic rivalry between Turkey and Saudi Arabia for dominance over Sunni Islam.

Here’s a solid backgrounder from Foreign Policy that covers that history.

One wonders whether any number of other Muslim nations would have raised Khashoggi’s death to the level that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did if they lacked his Ottoman fantasies?

The Post, of course, would probably have reacted as it did no matter where Khashoggi was killed — as it should have. But would the newspaper have had the same level of information to go on if not for Erdogan’s desire — remember Turkey is no friend of a free press — to rub Saudi Arabia’s nose in the mud?

A second angle is the nail in the coffin that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman —  the petroleum-rich, absolute monarchy’s de facto ruler — has put in the Pollyanish notion that his ascendancy to power would result in a loosening of the kingdom’s myriad and ultra-conservative religious reins, particularly in their application to women.

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Beat the journalism clock: Track rising anti-Semitism via Jewish and Israeli news media

Beat the journalism clock: Track rising anti-Semitism via Jewish and Israeli news media

This past Saturday, the Jewish sabbath — just two weeks removed from the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre and 80 years to the day following Kristallnacht -- the Israeli news site Times of Israel ran the following stories on its home page. Each was about anti-Semitism; either a hateful display of it (including one new one in the United States) or warnings about its steady rise in Europe.

Because it would take too much space to explain them all, I’ll just supply the links and note the nation of origin. Please read at least a few of them to gain a sense of the level of concern.

(1) The Netherlands.

(2) The United Kingdom.

(3) Poland.

(4) Germany.

(5) Austria.

(6) United States.

A quick web search that same day uncovered a host of other stories documenting recent anti-Semitic actions, many cloaked in anti-Israel and anti-Zionist rhetoric, including this one from The Jewish Chronicle, the venerable, London-based, Anglo-Jewish publication.

A local Labour party [meaning a regional branch of Britain’s national opposition political party] confirmed it amended a motion about the Pittsburgh synagogue attack to remove a call for all forms of antisemitism to be eradicated and for Labour to “lead the way in opposing" Jew-hate.

The story, of course, included the usual explanations meant to excuse actions of this sort. And, for the record, while I do not consider all criticism of Israeli government actions to be anti-Semitic, I do believe that the line between legitimate political criticism of Israel and hatred of Israel because its a Jewish nation is frequently blurred.

I listed all the above stories to make some journalistic points. The first of them is to point out journalism’s unique internal clock.

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This weekend's think piece? It has to be Khashoggi defense of freedom of expression

This weekend's think piece? It has to be Khashoggi defense of freedom of expression

If you have spent much time studying human rights, you know that there wherever you find attacks on freedom of speech and freedom of conscience, you almost always find attacks on the freedom of religion.

You just cannot pry these issues apart, in real life.

Long ago — 1983, to be precise — Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu put it this way, during floor debates in Vancouver, Canada, about evangelism and free speech at a global assembly of the World Council of Churches. When describing apartheid government crackdowns on street preachers, he said words to this effect: One man’s evangelist preaching on a street corner is another man’s political activist.

With that in mind, I don’t think that there is any question about the link readers need to click, seeking this week’s think piece. Im talking about the final Washington Post column from the late (that certainly appears to be the case) Jamal Khashoggi. The headline:

What the Arab world needs most is free expression.”

I realize that lots of different people are saying lots of different things about this man’s life, career and political associations — past and present. I know about his role, at one time, in the Muslim Brotherhood.

This piece is still must reading. Here is how it starts:

I was recently online looking at the 2018 “Freedom in the World” report published by Freedom House and came to a grave realization. There is only one country in the Arab world that has been classified as “free.” That nation is Tunisia. Jordan, Morocco and Kuwait come second, with a classification of “partly free.” The rest of the countries in the Arab world are classified as “not free.”

As a result, Arabs living in these countries are either uninformed or misinformed.

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German Jews joining ultra-right, anti-Muslim party evokes a classic 1965 Jewish Nazi story

German Jews joining ultra-right, anti-Muslim party evokes a classic 1965 Jewish Nazi story

Return with me now to 1965, when as a newly minted journalist I read a story in The New York Times that so thoroughly impressed me that I still recall its emotional impact.

This now-legendary piece by John McCandlish Phillips was about a New York Ku Klux Klan leader and neo-Nazi, Daniel Burros, who unbeknownst to his cronies, was actually a Jew, despite his hate-filled public ranting against Jews and Israel.

The legendary reporter dug deeper and deeper In his interviews and research, until his shocking discovery. Burros threatened to kill Phillips, then committed suicide after his true identity was unmasked.

Why am I bringing this up now? Stay with me, please. I’ll explain below. There’s a paywall to read Phillips’ original piece, now a pdf document. Click here to access it. Also, I should note that GetReligion is housed at the McCandlish Phillips Journalism Institute at The King’s College in New York.

When Phillips died in 2013 — long after he left The Times, and journalism, to start a small Pentecostal Christian outreach ministry in Manhattan that still exists — his Times’ obit referred to his story as “one of the most famous articles in the newspaper’s history.” The obit also called Phillips “a tenacious reporter and a lyrical stylist.”

The article’s quality and the splash it made are certainly part of why Phillip’s story has stayed with me. But here’s another reason.

As a Jew, it seemed unfathomable to me back then that someone raised, as was I, in New York in the mid-20th century — when Jewish communal bonds were much stronger than they are today — could think and act like Burros, who at the time was just six or so years older than I was.

So why have I brought up Phillips’s story?

Because of recent stories out of Germany linking that nation’s Jewish community with rightwing, Nazi-sympathizing politics.

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