One on One: It's religion, stupid!

US author Roberta Green Ahmanson zooms in on "media's Blind Spot."

roberta green ahmanson (photo credit: Colin Gilbert)
roberta green ahmanson
(photo credit: Colin Gilbert)
'Most people in the world take their beliefs very seriously," says Roberta Green Ahmanson. "Some deadly so." Which is precisely why the 59-year-old, California-based writer and philanthropist bemoans what she calls the media's "blind spot" in relation to religion. Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion, in fact, is the title of her newly released book (published by Oxford University Press, and co-edited with Paul Marshall and Lela Gilbert). Indeed, warns the award-winning former religious-affairs reporter and editor, and co-author of Islam at the Crossroads (Baker, 2002), there is a tendency on the part of the Western press to pooh-pooh faith as a motivating force. As a result, she asserts, citizens and voters are basing their choices and decisions on false premises. Here late last month on one of numerous visits to the Holy Land over the years - this one to celebrate Christmas - the Anglican/Episcopalian (who spent last New Year's Eve at Mumbai's Taj Mahal Palace, a target of the November terrorist attacks) found herself faced with Operation Cast Lead. In an hour-long interview at the King David Hotel on the eve of her return to the United States, Green Ahmanson who, along with her husband, Howard Ahmanson, was named by Time magazine in 2005 as among America's 25 most influential evangelicals, explained why it is necessary for the events in Gaza to be seen in their proper context - that of "reestablishing Islamic control." 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. On the contrary, people who believe in their religions are often best able to communicate with one another. The only time that line that gets crossed is when a person who believes in absolute truth also believes that his is the absolute truth, and that he is the font of that truth. Any serious Christian, Jew or, I think, even Muslim knows that he's not God or Allah or Yahweh. Any such person is able to talk to other people of faith and respect them, because they take their faith very seriously. It's not just a political or a social thing for them. It is a matter of the belief about the nature of reality. Most religions also teach that other human beings are therefore to be respected. Muslims claim that Islam teaches that, as well. In Islamic history, I think you can find Muslims who have indeed taught that. You can also find those who have not. That's the difference between Islam and other religions - that you can find both strands in it. Didn't Christianity historically have that "other strand" as well? Well, certainly not in its founding, or first 300 years. The Crusades are a straw man. You have to know history, which is that by the time the prophet Muhammad died in 632, Islam had already raised armies. Muhammad himself was a rather successful military commander. There's a new book out about this [Muhammad: Islam's First Great General, by Richard A. Gabriel, University of Oklahoma Press], in fact. The Arab armies had taken what is now Israel and Palestine. They conquered Egypt in 642; by 698, they had conquered all of North Africa. And by 722, all of Spain, other than the northern strip. In 732, they were within 100 kilometers of Paris, where general Charles Martel stopped them. So, there's been a military thread here from the very beginning. And it continued beyond that, up to 1453, when the Byzantine Empire was finally destroyed, and in 1529 and 1683, when the city of Vienna was besieged. The point is that this military strain is old and deep in Islam. Christianity has nothing like that. The Crusades were a response to that. They were too little, too late. And they did some pretty horrible things in Europe - before they ever got to the lands that had been captured by Islam - among them pogroms against the Jews, which were unconscionable. But compared to what had happened already, well, it's not comparable. Returning to more current events, in the book, you take issue with the press for ignoring the intelligent design movement. Why? In a 2005 article in the Columbia Journalism Review ["Undoing Darwin"], authors Chris Mooney and Matthew Nisbet made the argument that the media should not cover the intelligent design movement, because it's not what it says it is. Now, I don't know how one determines whether something is what it says it is. What I do know is that it's not the business of journalists in a free society. Journalists are supposed to cover what people say, do, think and talk about, then let the reader decide for himself. So, I found that article disturbing - particularly since it was published in one of the two most important journalism reviews in the US, and particularly when millions of Americans think that God created the universe. Whatever else it is, reporters ought to cover it, whether they agree with it or not. Couldn't one argue that this is more a function of politics than religion? Isn't it true that believers are associated with the Right, and non-believers - as most of the Western media - with the Left? Wouldn't the authors of the article in question also argue that scientists who deny the existence of global warming, for example, should be equally ignored? Yes, in this respect, a lot of it is political. Here it's important to note that secularism - or the notion that only secular societies can guarantee peoples not being at each other's throats - is, in itself, a kind of religious idea. Nor does it work very well. [Indian prime minister] Indira Gandhi died [in October 1984] for her faith in secularism, in fact. Though she knew her life was threatened, she wouldn't get rid of her Sikh bodyguards, and they killed her. Indeed, much of religious fundamentalism is a reaction to that very extremist secularism that characterized the late colonial period - around the time of World War I. In the Muslim world, this took the form of pan-Arab nationalism. It was certainly [Egyptian president] Gamal Abdel Nasser's project. Ultimately, however, it was people's faith, not ethnicity, that connected them. Speaking of secularism, what about the separation of church and state? Are you saying it doesn't work? No, but I think the way it's interpreted and implemented today in the US goes too far. The US attempted to be the best of all options. There was a profound respect for religion. Many of the founders were devout Christians. They were also influenced by Enlightenment thinkers. They knew that people's ability and freedom to worship God was critical to creating a virtuous society. The Declaration of Independence says: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator [emphasis added] with certain unalienable rights." So we don't have to look far for an acknowledgment that there is someone or something beyond us. That is the Founding Fathers' acknowledgment of the existence of God. You are concerned with the media's not taking such acknowledgment on the part of most of the world seriously enough. Is it really a "blind spot," however? Couldn't it be a more willful oblivion? I can't speak for what goes on in their hearts and minds. But judging by their behavior, reporters have not been willing or able to face the religious motivation behind actions like those of Hamas or Hizbullah. Newsrooms are made up of people who are pretty much secular. So, for them to say something negative about Islam, without saying something equally negative about Christianity and Judaism, goes against their grain. Equally against their grain, apparently, is acknowledging that most of the conflict in the world is about what people believe. It's the refusal to recognize this that is the media's blind spot.