Friday, January 16, 2009


I found this article at the Jerusalem Post and found it something to ponder.
You arrived in Israel a few days before Operation Cast Lead was launched. How do the events in Gaza tie in to the thesis of your book?

The events that led to the operation in Gaza illustrate how people are motivated by their religion. An organization like Hamas latches onto certain things that are deep within the history and teachings of Islam, and it uses them in the modern world - by shelling Israel, for example - because it believes that this land once was Muslim land, and it's its duty to take it back. Within the Muslim community, this is going to be part of the issue forever, because its goal, of course, is to have the entire world living under Islam.

And you are certain that the press doesn't really grasp that this is a religious conflict?

In the American media, you often see the conflict reduced either to land-ownership issues or to issues related to poverty - that people who call themselves Palestinians are poor, and that Israel is largely responsible for their plight. In this respect, it doesn't seem like the Western press grasps the real story.

During what has come to be called the "second intifada," the media usually attributed the phenomenon of suicide bombing to desperation - though it often emerged that bombers and their dispatchers were educated and affluent. Is this what you mean by reducing the issue to poverty issues?

Yes, which brings us to the original point that this conflict is religious first. It is about reestablishing Islamic control. It's pretty much that simple - and that scary.

There are many reports of Christians fleeing Palestinian-run cities due to intimidation on the part of Muslims. Is this something about which the media have exhibited an equal blind spot? Is it, too, reported in a political, rather than religious, context?

Yes, if it's reported at all. In the United States, certainly, it has been given minimal coverage. The New Republic ran a piece about the shame of the lack of attention paid to what was happening to the Christians in Iraq ["Who Will Save Iraq's Christians?" by Lawrence F. Kaplan, March 28, 2006] - the group with maybe the highest number of casualties, percentage-wise, of any in that war.

The same goes on here. I don't know how many fatalities there are; I haven't been able to follow it. To be frank, I don't know where you can follow it. But I do know that the Christian population in Bethlehem has diminished radically since the Palestinian Authority took control there - and that's because it's simply not comfortable for Christians there any more, to put it mildly.

What difference does it make whether the media "get it" or not?

It matters in free societies, because people make decisions and vote based on how they understand what is happening in the world. And if you don't understand the role that religion plays, you are not going to be an informed voter or an informed citizen - one who calls up your congressman and says, "I've heard about such and such; what are you doing about it?" This is the way these things work in a free society - and the quality of your action is determined by the quality of your information. If you ignore religion, you can't act very well.

A classic example is the story of Richard Ostling, Time magazine's religious affairs editor in the 1970s. He kept telling his editors that they should be watching the Ayatollah Khomeini, whose movement was very serious. His editors responded, "Come on, Dick, it's just a religious movement."

In the fall of 1979, he was promoted, since clearly he had understood something that they had not. Since then, we've seen many more examples. The attack on the Twin Towers in 1993 wasn't understood, nor was the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000. But even before that, also in 1979, our media didn't cover the siege of Mecca well at all. That was when radical Sunnis took charge of the holiest places in Islam - the Kaaba and the Great Mosque - out of which came a whole slew of decisions made by the Saudi government. To this day, nobody seems to realize how important that was.

If your assessment that the press doesn't pay enough attention to religion is correct, how do you explain the media's critical portrayal of evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews?

The roots of that go way back [she laughs] - you know, to the Renaissance, the Reformation, the wars of religion, the Enlightenment - and all that's happened since.

Let me explain by way of an example. Following the events of 9/11, British blogger and political commentator Andrew Sullivan published a piece in The New York Times Magazine ["This is a Religious War," October 7, 2001], in which he explained that the problem behind the flying of the planes into the Twin Towers was that the perpetrators were Muslims with an exclusivist, absolutist, fundamentalist view of their religion. And he equated them with fundamentalist Christians and ultra-Orthodox Jews. This has come to be the fear among many in the West: that anybody who believes in one god or absolute truth automatically is a potential murderer. That's not only a misunderstanding of the situation. In fact, it's dead wrong.
While I am sure most of the msm journalists I have read thru the years 'don't get religion', I am not so sure that the mostly secularly based western society does either. Certainly, something to think about.

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