Over on the Big Journalism site, Bruce Carroll highlights a YouTube clip in which a Muslim adjunct faculty member at Vanderbilt University agreed under questioning in a public forum that Islam requires the death penalty for homosexuals. The Muslim, a chaplain at the university, also said that Muslims aren’t at liberty to question this teaching. In his rather vituperative blog entry, Carroll talks about how a statement like this would have been covered by the MSM and in the blogosphere if it had been made by an Evangelical Christian.
I know what he means. When I lived in Dallas, I ran across this kind of thing with some frequency. It used to drive me crazy how journalists at my own newspaper, and at other media outlets in Dallas, showed little or no interest when leading Muslim figures would say things this outrageous, or affiliate themselves closely with those in their faith who did. If influential Christians in the community had said such things, they would have been ripped, and would have deserved it. But the media have a strong tendency to want to protect minority religions, I find. Moreover, some in the media get caught up in a ridiculous form of zero-sum thinking, assuming that if right-wing Christians are up in arms over what certain Muslims say, then maybe the Muslims aren’t all wrong. It’s seeing the complexities of our religious reality through a culture-war prism, and it’s really distorting. All of us — myself included — have that temptation, and we have to resist it. Like Orwell said, it’s a struggle to see what is in front of our noses.
This is not exactly big news, I know, but I’ve noticed in myself and in others a tendency to downplay the dark side of religions and religious groups — especially minority religions — of which we approve. I have favorable views on haredi Jews and their devotion to community, and feel almost protective of them, in an odd way, because they are at least superficially countercultural in a way I like. But a secular Jewish reporter friend of mine who once covered the haredim in suburban New York spent an afternoon disabusing me of my sentimental views, and forced me to see the shadow side of all that communal devotion and piety.
I once read a Buddhist scholar, I think it was, remarking that we in the West romanticize and sentimentalize Tibetan Buddhism, in part because the Dalai Lama is such an admirable figure, and in part out of laudable and entirely justifiable sympathy with the Tibetans and their resistance to Han Chinese cultural imperialism. But, he said, there is a serious dark side to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, one that Westerners either don’t see or won’t see, because it doesn’t fit the narrative we prefer (and, perhaps, because we don’t want to give any comfort to the Chinese). We have seen something similar in reporting about Haitian voodoo. And yet, does anybody think that Appalachian Pentecostals would command nearly the same kind of respectful attention from the American news media — this, even though theirs is a minority religion, and among the poorest and least powerful of any U.S. religious demographic?
How difficult it is to try to see religions, and religious people, as they actually are, instead of how we want (or need) them to be. But how necessary!