dotCommonweal: “Mercy-ing: A Starting Point for Dialogue”

In the Qur’an, God’s mercy is referenced most often in Sura Maryam, which recounts the stories of Mary, Jesus, and other Biblical characters familiar to Christians. This painting, completed by the author, features an image of Mary with the word “al-Rahman” written upon her womb. The painting is intended to spread awareness and spark conversation about the place of Mary, and the importance of mercy, in both Christianity and Islam.
In the Qur’an, God’s mercy is referenced most often in Sura Maryam, which recounts the stories of Mary, Jesus, and other Biblical characters familiar to Christians. This painting, completed by the author, features an image of Mary with the word “al-Rahman” written upon her womb. The painting is intended to spread awareness and spark conversation about the place of Mary, and the importance of mercy, in both Christianity and Islam.

My newest blog post on dotCommonweal. Start reading here and then continue by clicking “Read more.”

Amid all the excitement from the unprecedented interview with Pope Francis published by Jesuit journals worldwide, many Catholics may have missed one of the Pontiff’s more subtle communiqués: a letter sent to the head of al-Azhar University, a highly respected institution for Sunni Islamic scholarship. Unsurprisingly, and in line with the humble style of Francis’s papacy, the Vatican did not widely announce that he had sent the letter; the press only learned of the message—which was delivered by the Vatican ambassador to Egypt and expressed his hope for “mutual understanding between the world’s Christians and Muslims in order to build peace and justice”—when Ahmed al-Tayyeb, al-Azhar’s Grand Imam, made the sentiment of the letter known to the world.

While the letter’s content (only some of which was shared with the media) is not groundbreaking, Francis’ gesture has been perceived by some, like Father Hani Bakhoum, secretary of the Alexandria Patriarchate of the Catholic Copts, to signal a desire for resumption of dialogue between the Vatican and al-Azhar. The two institutions engaged in bi-annual talks until 2011 when al-Azhar officials cited comments made by Pope Benedict as justification to discontinue the dialogue. (Read more about the freezing of the talks here.) Upon Francis’ election to the papacy, Imam al-Tayyeb sent a message to the pope, congratulating him and indicating al-Azhar’s renewed desire to restart talks.

Read more.

The Oslo Opportunity, Part 3: ‘Counter-jihad’ crusaders

The terror attacks in Norway occurred on foreign soil, but they have a disturbing connection to our own country and those who perpetuate fear of Islam here.

To understand the link, we need to look no further than Anders Behring Breivik’s anti-Muslim 1,500 page manifesto, which cites a number of leaders active in the Islamophobia campaign in America and uses their ideology to shape his.  The New York Times did a great piece about anti-Muslim thought in the U.S. and its role in the attacks.

I’ve written before only briefly about some of the self-defined freedom-fighters in Breivik’s manifesto, so I’d like to provide a bit more information about them here.

55 citations: Robert Spencer

“Well this is the politically correct falsehood that is taught every where that Islam is a religion of peace that’s been hijacked.  Islam is actually unique among the religions of the world in having a developed doctrine, theology, and legal system that mandates

Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer

warfare against unbelievers.” 

One of the most influential Islamophobes in America, Spencer was cited 55 times and his blog was referenced 107 times.  Spencer runs the hate blog www.jihadwatch.com, co-founded the hate group Stop Islamization of America, and has authored many books including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam.  He frequently appears FOX News and the 700 Club, and his above quote can be heard here:

 

After it came out that Spencer was cited throughout Breivik’s manifesto, NBC Nightly News did this segment about American Islamophobes, particularly Spencer:

 

1 reference: Pamela Geller

“This mosque is offensive, humiliating, it’s demeaning to the 3,000 innocent victims that lost their lives.  Without Islam, this attack would never have happened.”

In his manifesto, Breivik commented on Geller’s good character, in addition to referencing her blog 11 times.  Geller made a name for herself last summer as she led the campaign against the Park 51 Islamic Center in Manhattan.  Also a leader of Stop Islamization of America (there is also a European sister organization) and a frequent FOX contributor, she is planning an anti-Muslim protest on the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.  She constantly claims that she is not against Muslims, only against Islam, “the ideology that inspired these jihadist attacks.” See both quotes in this video.

 

Though I hate giving her site more hits, you should also check out her blog Atlas Shrugs.

15 citations: Walid Shoebat

“All Islamist organizations in America should be the number one enemy—all of them.” 

The Department of Justice has hired Walid Shoebat, a self-proclaimed former Muslim terrorist and Christian convert, to educate law enforcement about Islam.  He is also a

Walid Shoebat

frequent speaker at churches, universities, and on cable news shows. Recently, CNN exposed Shoebat as a bigot and fraud—there is no record of the terrorist attack he claims to have committed.

Shoebat’s tactic—claiming to be a former Muslim—is a smart one.  If people ask him how he knows Islam is evil, he can say, ‘Trust me! I know! I was Muslim’ and leave it at that.

As seen in the next video, he encourages law enforcement to consider all major Muslim institutions as enemies, including the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA, located in Plainfield, Indiana), all Muslim Student Associations (MSA), and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

 

1 reference: Brigitte Gabriel

“Believe what the radicals are saying because it’s the radicals that matter.”

“I come from the Middle East, I was born and raised there, I walk into a grocery store in Arlington, Virginia and speak Arabic and hear what they’re saying and understand it. … So when I speak about certain things about the Middle East or the religion itself… I hope

Brigitte Gabriel

that you would give me enough credit to know that what I’m talking about in warning what’s coming to the United States will be at least considered as someone who comes from the Middle East and understands the culture and can read the Qur’an in Arabic … as much as Osama bin Laden can.” (The grammatical errors and run-ons are Gabriel’s quote.)

The leader of a group called ACT! For America, Gabriel claims to have grown up around hostile Muslims in Lebanon, giving her that “trust me” credential as well.  Also considered an ‘expert’ by the cable shows that features her, she claims that Muslims are trying to infiltrate the U.S. government.  Read a major New York Times article about her here, and watch the CNN interview in which she made the above comments.

 

Other American Islamophobes like Frank Gaffney, David Horowitz, and Daniel Pipes were also cited by Breivik.  All these anti-Muslim activists (most of whom lack any credentials to be speaking authoritatively about Islam) are not simply fringe figures, leading fringe thought groups.  Thanks to FOX News’ willingness to give these people a voice, their ideas have become more mainstream in the past year particularly.

It is frightening to think that the anti-Muslim ideology that drove Breivik to attack in Norway is growing up and being nurtured right here in America.

Only Breivik is responsible for his violent actions.  But people like Spencer, Geller, Shoebat, and Gabriel—those with a loud and powerful voices—cannot disregard their influence, especially when they are spewing hate and targeting a particular group.  These bloggers, writers, and talking-heads want influence, want to be heard.  So they cannot be surprised when someone takes their message and acts on it.  Though these anti-Muslim leaders don’t advocate violence and condemned it after the Norway attacks, they don’t provide an alternative method to combat the problem of Islamic fundamentalism they see.  And while they don’t condone Breivik’s methods, they sympathize with his message and mission.  (Doesn’t this posture sound a lot like the one they accuse Hamas-sympathizing Muslims of?)

As Dr. Marc Sageman, a former CIA officer and forensic psychiatrist said in the New York Times article I mentioned earlier, “rhetoric is not cost-free.”  We should have learned this after Gabby Giffords was shot last year, during a time in which political partisanship was at its peak in America.  Let’s hope these anti-Muslim leaders change their tone and rethink their words before we find ourselves cleaning up from a similar attack in the U.S.

Tomorrow, I’ll look at the conservative media’s hypocritical response to the attacks and Breivik’s claim that he’s Christian.

Examples of empathetic journalism

This post is about the importance of “empathetic journalism.”  This past summer, I spent a considerable amount of time writing about this topic, but I was never happy with anything I’d written.  During the past few weeks and months, however, I’ve stumbled upon a few great examples that discuss empathetic journalism, so I’ll post them here along with some of my own reflections.

“Nicholas Kristof: Journalism and Compassion”

I recently listened a program about New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof’s unique view of journalism.  For him, journalism should be about more than fairness, objectivity, and truthfulness–it should also be about empathy.  As journalists we must work with an empathetic attitude if we hope to better connect with our subjects and better tell their stories.  Additionally, we want our readers to connect empathetically with the subject, which requires us to present the story in a more personal way. Empathy isn’t only the mechanism but also the end goal, too.  Bringing empathy into journalism is necessary if we want journalism and the news to really inform and change our actions.

Nick Kristof

This quote from Nick relates well to my writing on this blog:

“I think that you’re more persuasive when you acknowledge that you have changed your views and you explain how that process happened.”

He acknowledges that admitting you were wrong is a little embarrassing, but that in the end it helps others consider your position if they don’t initially accept it.  You can show the reader that you were once in their place and that we don’t have to be afraid to change our minds. We don’t have to cling on to our old views, even if they seem safer.

I have written in this way on my blog–talking about how my views have changed–but I wasn’t all that conscious about how this kind of writing could enhance my ability to persuade.  Thanks to Kristof’s advice, I’m going to write this way more often.  By admitting my own past misperceptions and trying to uncover the ones I still have, I give license to others to do the same.

Kristof makes some other important points that I will only mention here.  If you want to hear more, listen to the program!  He talks about…

…how stories about particular individuals engender the most compassion–and therefore, action–in a reader.

…why he doesn’t oppose sweatshops in the developing world.

…why you shouldn’t always believe the claims of victims.

You should also check out Kristof’s columns and blog on nytimes.com.

Al-Jazeera English

A few weeks ago, I attended a discussion at Georgetown entitled, “Reporting from the Front Lines: Covering the Human Side of Conflict.”  Three reporters for Al-Jazeera English shared their experiences about reporting from conflict zones like Gaza, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and specifically discussed the importance of covering the “human stories” that enfold–sometimes invisibly–amid conflict.  Other broadcast outlets, especially Western ones, often avoid covering individuals’ stories (for a number of reasons I will not address here) but Al-Jazeera English makes that its mission.  AJE is trying to fill a void left by Western media by increasing coverage on the ground of global issues; giving voices to the powerless by focusing on the human story; and providing viewers with an opportunity to empathize with others and get a glimpse into their daily lives.

One of the panelists was Sherine Tadros, whose reports I have watched.  One of the few journalists inside Gaza during the winter 2008-2009 war, she was tasked with finding the stories of individuals to accompany the more general breaking news pieces produced by another Al-Jazeera colleague, Ayman Mohyeldin.  Her assignment, which often manifested itself in visits to the dead and wounded in hospitals, required a lot of empathy and made it impossible for her to shut out her emotions.  Curious about how I might deal with these kinds of situations if I’m every lucky enough to do foreign correspondent work, I asked her how she dealt with the emotional lows.

Al-Jazeera, "the Island" in Arabic

She told me that during her assignments she was able to hold it together, but that when she returned to her hotel in the evenings she would get very upset.  Rather than letting that hold her back, however, she used her sadness as motivation.  It drove me to wake up earlier or work harder to tell the story better the next day, she said.  I tucked that little piece of advice away if I should ever need it, remembering to channel my sadness and anger and fear into something productive, something that will–directly or indirectly–help those suffering.

If you’ve never gone to Al-Jazeera for your news, I highly recommend it.  You can also get daily email alerts called “News You May Have Missed,” which contain stories that often go uncovered by American or mainstream Western media.

City Stories

This summer I worked for City Stories camp, a journalism and story-telling camp for low-income elementary school students in Indianapolis.  Along with another co-

Teaching camera basics

counselor and eleven current and former Y-Press journalists, I organized and led two-weeks session that gave kids not only the ability to document the people and places in their communities, but also the opportunity to look at those things empathetically. Camp was also a lesson in understanding and empathy for us as leaders.  As we immersed ourselves in these communities that are often labeled as being “bad neighborhoods” or “dangerous places,” our initial misperceptions were eliminated as we got to know shop owners, community members, and most of all, the campers.

I strongly encourage you to check out the extra-ordinary work that the campers and counselors did this summer.  You can find the audio slideshows (multi-media pieces combining photography and in-depth interview audio) on the Y-Press website or by clicking this link.  Some of my favorites are “317 Ink,” “Big Sam,” and “Carniceria Guanajuato.”

Storyboarding

I also wrote a two pieces about City Stories camp for What Kids Can Do, another organization I worked for in the last year, in addition to producing two audio slideshows featuring the counselors’ voices.  (The first, more general piece about summer learning can be found here along with the audio slideshows, and a more detailed story about City Stories here.)

Final quotes for thought

“This empathetic mission gives the writing a warmth, and–not incidentally–it helps…all these writers get away with saying certain unflattering things about their subjects, because it’s clear the overall project of their writing is not a malicious or demeaning one. I like that.  And as a reporter, I understand it.  I have this experience when I interview someone, if it’s going well and we’re really talking in a serious way, and they’re telling me these very personal things, I fall in love a little.  Man, woman, child, any age, any background, I fall in love a little. They’re sharing so much of themselves.  If you have half a heart, how can you not?” -Ira Glass in the introduction to The New Kings of Nonfiction

“The personal narrative of a human being is the way to create empathy on the other side.” -Robi Damelin, an Israeli woman whose son was killed by a Palestinian.  She now works to bring Israelis and Palestinians together through their shared experiences of loss.

Some of the campers and counselors at a City Stories event in August.