Tag Archives: Islam

Washington déjà vu: ‘Hearts and Minds’ rears its head again

“The casual use and misuse of the phrase ‘hearts and minds’ should be guarded against.” – Sergio Miller, Small Wars Journal, 2012

President Obama was unaware of or undeterred by that warning when in a February 18 Los Angeles Times op-ed piece he wrote: “Our campaign to prevent people around the world from being radicalized to violence is ultimately a battle for hearts and minds.”

To many American journalists and their audiences the campaign’s more immediate strategy was not voiced in his remarks: stopping ISIS and other jihadist organizations and individuals from killing people around the world. Many had hoped to discover it.

Moreover, the administration is faring badly in the media battle against the terrorist organization ISIS, particularly in the social media. The task of leading our battle was handed to CSCC, the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications. This bureaucratic entity has not found ways to compete with the gruesomely bloody materials released by ISIS that immediately go viral. The suggestion that CSCC should expose the nihilistic destructiveness through competitively vivid releases has not yet been acted upon. Our Department of State wallows in goody-two-shoe mini-lectures as responses as well.

A day before his op-ed appeared, Department of State spokesperson Marie Harf insisted that a short-term strategy would not prevent the radicalization to violence the president hopes to thwart. Instead, she proposed that “we have to combat the conditions that can lead people to turn to extremism.

“We can’t kill every terrorist around the world, nor should we try. How do you get at the root causes of this?…It’s really the smart way to combat it.”

The president expanded on her view in his op-ed: “Groups like al-Qaida and ISIL exploit the anger that festers when people feel that injustice and corruption leave them with no chance of improving their lives. The world has to offer today’s youth something better.”

The president’s take offers only one reason young people turn to the “violent extremism” he deplores. One day after his LA Times piece, the New York Times introduced readers to another in a font-page story by Mona El-Naggar: “From a private school in Cairo to ISIS killing fields in Syria.”

It tells the story of Islam Yakem who, “As a young man wanted to be a fitness instructor. He trained relentlessly, hoping that his effort would bring him success, girlfriends and wealth. But his goals never materialized. He left that life (in a middle-class Cairo neighborhood) and found religion, extremism and, ultimately, his way into a photograph where he knelt beside a decapitated corpse on the killing fields of Syria, smiling.”

The materialistic element of the American Dream and capitalism—“success, girlfriends and wealth”—had failed him, so he turned to the religious and spiritual dream offered by a segment of Islam, the holy jihad against Islam’s enemies. This is a “root cause” of “violent extremism” neither Obama nor Harf confront.

Brian Whitaker, former Middle East editor of the Guardian and author of “Arabs Without God: Atheism and Freedom of Belief in the Middle East,” did. In a 2014 article for the Guardian he wrote: “Compulsion in religion is the ideological foundation stone of ISIS and Islamist movements in general. Believing they have superior knowledge of God’s wishes for mankind such groups feel entitled – even required –to act on his behalf and punish those who fail to comply with the divine will. In doing so, of course, they do not claim to be seeking power for themselves but merely trying to make the world more holy.”

The terms Whitaker uses to describe the “mission” and actions of groups like ISIS remind us of similar terms which National Socialists used to sanctify the mission of their movement. At the core was the belief, first expressed by an obscure 19th century poet: “Am deutschen Wesen soll die Welt genesen.” It requires several translations to get the gist of it: “The German spirit shall heal the world”—“The German way of life shall cure the world”—“German values shall cure the world.”

And young Muslims, recruited to jihadist movements, are sold the absurd notion that they will, by killing and self-sacrifice, bring the “superior” way of life, spirit and values of Islam to the world, and if not accepted, impose or force them upon the world.

Economic hardship and denial of opportunity contribute to their escape from the often grim reality of life in a Paris or Cairo suburb. But when Harf offered as a cure what her critics described mockingly as a “Jobs for Jihad Delinquents Program ,” they made a solid point, based on the most documented example in history. When Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in January of 1933, there were six million unemployed, or one third of the country’s workforce. Six years later, the number was down to 300,000.

And just then, in 1939, young Germans marched off to the holy war to bring German values to the East and slaughter the millions of Jews, Slavs, and Gypsies not fit or willing to embrace them. A job in a Hamburg factory or Munich brewery was just a job, but this lifted them into something bigger than themselves and their jobs, something good and sacred. They believed that absurdity and committed atrocities, as the ISIS murderers believe another absurdity and inflict their atrocities.

Obama might gain credibility in leading a world-wide campaign “to offer today’s youth something better” (his words in the op-ed) if he started with offering America’s underprivileged youths, say those in West Virginia’s poorest county, some better things: better schooling, better housing, better opportunities for jobs. Today, in McDowell County*, young people escape from despair into drugs and petty crime. They are not killing others; they are destroying their own lives as they watch their communities crumble. And their values? As Brecht put it: “First the stomach, then morality.”

Why do the young jihadists, from Islamic and non-Islamic countries, Muslims and non-Muslims, accept that the evil they commit is really for a greater good? Harf and Obama have not looked at answers that do not please them, answers they cannot accept, answers that run against what others have learned from history, from the history of Islam itself and from the history of destructive movements in other cultures and societies.

The president and Harf may not agree with Henry Ford’s infamous “history is bunk,” but they sound as if they want to act on it. They might want to remember, however, that Fascism had to be defeated before a Marshall Plan could help change the society that embraced it. A T-shirt for sale on the internet claims that “revolution starts in the mind.” That is true of change as well.

*See the excellent “50 Years into the War on Poverty, Hardship Hits Back,” by Trip Gabriel, The New York Times. April 20, 2014.

How many Muslim readers hath the New York Times?

A note on the paper’s decision not to show the Charlie Hebdo cover after the attack

The decision of The New York Times not to depict the cover of Charlie Hebdo after ten of the French magazine’s journalists had been murdered by Islamic terrorists has drawn much deserved criticism in the United States and abroad, in comments from the editorial page editor of the Denver Post to a reporter’s charge of “cowardice” in the German newsweekly DER SPIEGEL.

Within the ranks of Times editors the decision not to depict the cover, which showed a tearful Prophet Muhammad holding up a “Je Suis Charlie” sign, was defended by Executive Editor Dean Baquet:

“My first most important job is to serve the readers of The New York Times, and a big chunk of the readers of The New York Times are people who would be offended by showing satire of the Prophet Muhammad…That reader is a guy who lives in Brooklyn and is Islamic and has a family and is devout and just happens to find that insulting.”

Some might be surprised that among Brooklyn’s Muslim population (3.73% or 95,000 out of 2.5 million) there can be found a “big chunk” of the Times’ readership. Among them would be the paper’s Public Editor Margaret Sullivan who voiced her disagreement with Baquet’s decision and observed:

“The cartoon itself, while it may disturb the sensibilities of a small percentage of Times readers, is neither shocking nor gratuitously offensive.”

It’s got to be either that “big chunk” of Times readers potentially offended by the cover, or just a “small percentage” among them whose sensibilities would have been disturbed. Curious minds do indeed want to know and may not be satisfied with a Bill Clintonian explanation: depends on what your definitions of “big chunk” and “small percentage” are.

Danziger on Charlie Hebdo

I knew George Wolinski, but not closely. He saw the humor in everything, and probably even the black humor in the disaster than befell his last day on earth. If he got to meet with the murderers in heaven or wherever he might have pointed out that for all their expense and fear they accomplished nothing. They gave him a famous death rather than some waning, weakening thing, succumbing to Alzheimers. He might have written a note to be passed to God or Allah or whoever, saying something to the effect, look, these guy are idiots, make them work in the kitchen for a few years, that should do it.

Political cartoonists are heartened by stupidity in government especially the kind than is provided by politicians wrapped up in their own bull. We appreciate it more than most journalists when a candidate, especially for a re-election he or she does not merit, tries to deflect press attention from their abysmal records in office by lying and smiling to the voters. Paul Conrad, one of the deans of the cartooning field, working for the Los Angeles Times for many years, said that when Nixon resigned, “I wept.” Nixon has after all provided the Conrad family with bread and shelter for many years.

This perverse pleasure, which admittedly doesn’t seem to help the nation forward toward better government, still has a use. Prompted by some goofy or evil politician, a good cartoon can quickly show that we are not fooled. Editorialists temporize and try to answer their own questions, but the cartoons, if done right, are like an ice cube down the back of your shorts, uncomfortable and surprising, embarrassing and mortifying. Meant as a joke, but just a bit too harsh to forgive.

And too many ice cubes down too many shorts will result in a reaction, so a bit of judgment is needed.

Which is the problem with the Paris killings. Men like my colleague Wolinski didn’t believe in much of anything, certainly nothing religious. He and his editors were not just irreligious, they were anti-religious, and not just once in a while, but nearly every issue. They could not understand how anyone could take the claims of  religions seriously, and so they didn’t themselves. The practices of Islam, the proscriptions against most of the physically enjoyable parts of life, especially when you live among the best wine and the most intriguing women on earth, strike men like Wolinski as illogical at best and inhuman at worst. The Puritan ethic, the idea that to find anything more enjoyable than contemplation and worship of a Supreme Being, was to insult that Being. Fundmental Islam seemed to take that to the limit.

Should Charlie Hebdo have limited their insults to the Islamic faiths? Should they have looked for more intricate ways of amusing their readers at the expense of what they thought were stupid, irrational beliefs? Should they have, as a friend said, “stooped to subtlety”? Would their message been lost if the purposely and rather childishly insulting nature of their magazine had been tempered?

Curiously, here in the land of the free, political cartoonists are well used to self-control, if not self-censorship altogether. At the top of the list of subjects to be gentle about is religion. The American attitude is to let people alone in their minds, despite the hard charging right wing sections of the current GOP. And there is an American practicality in this. Barry Goldwater used to say that you can’t legislate morality, and he was righter than he thought. Force in almost any activity generates a counter force. Forced thinking doesn’t change the mind of anyone. Thus, reason most of us in the US, why try? Living a happy life despite attempts by others to prevent your enjoyment of it is the best response, and living well is the best revenge.

Until these murders, the satires on various faiths in Charlie Hebdo were pretty much without effect. The Jews were attacked and the paid no attention. The Catholic Church went about its archaic ceremonies unimpressed. If there was a difference in the radical Islamists it was that in France, they are poor and largely unemployed. And although there is no justification for the killings, there is an argument to be made that making immigration possible as the French have done to many peoples, and then treating immigrants poorly is bound to have a reaction.

So far the discussion and review of this bloody event has been to frame it as a freedom of expression issue. Well, it’s not that simple. Freedom is a wonderful idea, but reality has always trumped ideas. And the reality of human existence in these times is that a lot of people are crazy and believe insane things. And that there are a lot of guns and ammunition about.



Journalist imitates Sergeant Schultz: “I know Nozzink” about the Paris attacks

“It’s not the internet that is ailing journalism. We’re killing ourselves, thin in our coverage, and often intellectually lazy and shallow.”  – The Journalism Iconoclast

Right after the January 7 murderous attacks on the satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo” and a kosher supermarket in Paris, TV and internet commentators regaled or outraged us with immediate analyses of what these attacks might mean. Predictably enough, conservative pundits saw in them another attack on Western values by radical Islam while liberal and left ones emphasized the “blowback” element of Islamic rage against the West’s often violent interference in the politics and culture of Muslim countries.

Comments, lacking information about the attackers’ inspiration and motivation, were therefore mostly recycled hot air. But one internet journalist outdid many others in intellectual laziness and shallowness the Journalism Iconoclast decries. And that was the onetime Washington Post and MSNBC wunderkind Ezra Klein, now Editor in Chief of the VOX media website.

On the day of the attack Klein posted the following:

“These murders can’t be explained by a close reading of an editorial product (the Muhammad cartoons in ‘Charlie Hebdo’) and they needn’t be condemned on free speech grounds. They can only be explained by the madness of the perpetrators, who did something horrible and evil that almost no human beings anywhere ever do, and the condemnation doesn’t need to be any more complex than saying unprovoked mass slaughter is wrong.”

Unprovoked incuriosity and ignorance are wrong too, if not lethal, and Klein is guilty of both. How could a journalist, on the day of the Paris mass slaughter, immediately adopt a “Nothing to see here folks, now move along” stance when media had not even begun investigation of the Paris murderers and the path that led them to commit their “horrible” acts?

And how can an educated person (Klein earned a B.A. from UCLA in 2005) write that mass murder is an evil “almost no human beings anywhere ever do?” Is it really necessary to dispel his inane “ever” with pictures of skulls from Pol Pot’s killing fields, frozen corpses from Stalin’s gulags or piles of victims’ shoes from Hitler’s death camps? Is he not aware that the perpetrators of those slaughters were not “mad,” but followed the logic of a political ideology, as the Crusaders in the Middle Ages followed a religious one as they hacked up infidels—Muslims, Christians and Jews alike. (For a starter, I’d recommend Christopher Browning’s ground-breaking book “Ordinary Men,” which initiated historians’ focus on the role of “normal” Germans in the Holocaust, away from the “madness” of the bad and fanatical SS types as sole perpetrators.

But Klein insists, rather pedantically, that only “madness” can explain the Paris attacks. Two fine pieces of investigative journalism soon proved him wrong.  The first one was The New York Times’ front-page story on January 18, “From Scared Amateur to Paris Slaughterer.” In it readers leaned that by September 2004 the Kuachi brothers, Cherif and Said, “began going regularly to Mr. (Farid) Benyettou’s apartment to discuss the religious justifications for suicide attacks. There they talked about how to load a bomb into a truck and drive it into an American base.”  A decade later, they translated some of what they learned from their mentor into the attack on Charlie Hebdo.

A day later the German newsweekly DER SPIEGEL published on its English website a five-part report: “Terror from the Fringes: Searching for Answers into the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Attacks.” The work of ten reporters, the series asks three questions that expose the mind-numbing shallowness of Klein’s simplistic response: were the attackers angry young men? Was their anger fueled largely by problems within French society? And, were they fed a misguided interpretation of Islam? Without supplying definitive answers to any of the questions, the thoroughly researched article suggests that one explanation would not suffice to provide even fragments of answers.

Or, as might have been suggested to Klein, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but at other times it’s more .

In DER SPIEGEL readers found out that “radical Islamists and terrorists have for decades been especially active in France.” And that the the two young Kouachi brothers and their accomplice “as adolescents seemed quite normal and promising.” They also learned that Benyettou convinced them “that armed conflict was the right approach and touted the martyr’s death as a path to paradise.” Moreover, “he incited his followers to engage in jihad” and quoted holy texts and Muslim scholars.” Cherif Kouachi is quoted: “It helped to convince me.”

Had Klein waited to dismiss complex answers to a complex issue and history, he might not have reached for the “madness” defense but concluded with a sentence often attributed to Voltaire: “Where people believe absurdities, they commit atrocities.”

He might also, should he touch this topic again, read the 1990 essay in The Atlantic by Bernard Lewis: “The Root of Muslim Rage.”  Its subtitle is “Why so many Muslims deeply resent the West and why their bitterness will not easily be mollified.” But if he’s too busy, here’s Lewis:

“It should by now be clear that we are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them. This is no less a clash of civilizations – the perhaps irrational but surely historic reaction of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present and the worldwide expansion of both.”

Lewis’s stance is not an invitation to Islamophobia. To the contrary, Lewis insists that “It is critically important that we on our side should not be provoked into an equally historic but equally irrational reaction against that rival.”

Klein, who promotes “explanatory journalism,” is capable of explaining all that to his readers. For his sake and for journalism’s, let’s hope he’ll come back to the explanatory journalism he advocates but abandoned in his VOX posting on the Paris attacks.


Tennessee newspaper deals with Mosque issues

American citizens find themselves struggling to come to grips with an argument over religion, especially in terms of Islam. A plan to build a mosque near ground zero ignited a conflict that has reached mosques across the country. Kentuckians are dealing with mosque issues across the  state. But the battles aren’t just in Kentucky. Murfreesboro Tennessee has been in the political spotlight for months because some citizens are protesting plans to build a new mosque on the outskirts of town. The Murfreesboro Daily News-Journal has been covering the issue.

The controversy centers over plans to build a new 52,000 square foot facility in Murfreesboro that will include a Mosque, a pool, a gym and outdoor recreation areas. The group building the Mosque applied for and received all the permits needed to build the mosque. Once that happened, a number of people mounted an opposition to the proposed Mosque site. In the last few weeks, construction materials were vandalized at the mosque site.

“We’ve approached it like any story,” Jimmy Hart, the executive editor at the Daily News-Journal, said. “Our first priority is being accurate and making sure that our reporting is complete, that we’re getting viewpoints from all sides of the issue and that we’re following up. It’s an ongoing story and it’s got many facets to it.”

The story has garnered national attention. The Daily Show, Anderson Cooper 360 and Time Magazine have all been in Tennessee along with other national media as this story heats up.

“We’ve just tried to be fair to all parties in our reporting,” Hart said. “The national attention is, I guess you have to ask someone outside of this community or the state what their viewpoint is. We’re just trying to make sure our reporting is as fair and complete as possible.”

Fair and complete means that the Murfreesboro paper must take into account all aspects of the story. The national media can concentrate on the issues about religion and freedom and possible bigotry. Murfreesboro must pay attention to details, something as  simple as roads.

“ It’s a complex issue in some ways,” Hart said. “There are some concerns about the size of the facilities, the infrastructure, those have been the biggest issues from a standpoint of how can government play a role and sort of addressing the opponents as well as addressing the rights of local Muslims to build this facility.”

Hart has made sure that Murfreesboro has paid attention to one thing, the law.

“We haven’t found that (those who got the permits for the mosque) have done anything illegal,” Hart said. “They’ve had a presence in this community for at least two decades, probably three. A lot of the opposition has come across as very anti-Islam and anti-Muslim and that’s something that we’re very sensitive to.”

The national media presented Tennessee in a bad light. While controversy has swelled over the so-called Ground Zero Mosque, the controversy has centered on concerns other than bigotry. Middle Tennessee State University (located in Murfreesboro), professor Kenneth Blake has paid attention to the controversy and points to a story run by NPR.

“New Yorkers are sophisticated enough to cloak their argument in something other than religious bigotry,” Blake said. “They’ve concentrated their argument on sensitivity. The story contrasted that approach to the mosque issue in Tennessee which was characterized as just blatant bigotry.”

Blake conducts a number of polls across Tennessee and has come up with some interesting facts — some that agree with the national media’s portrayal, at least to a point. A year ago, Blake did a poll that concentrated on whether people had heard or told racial jokes about President Barack Obama. A large number of those polled responded yes.

“That was picked up by the national press and the frame was what else would you expect from Tennessee? But this was happening all across the country,” Blake said. “What we were trying to say was that sure we have evidence of this in Tennessee but if you did this poll nationwide you would come up with the same problems.”

Hart believes the story is good for both his paper and for Murfreesboro.

“What’s going on here is a microcosm of a debate that could go on anywhere in America,” Hart said. “We are considered to be the buckle of the Bible belt. This is an issue that’s not going anywhere.

“All of this stuff is part of a cultural dynamic that’s going on in this country. Yeah, we’re in the middle of something that’s going on. A group of Muslims has been living here for quite a while and wants to build a bigger mosque. It’s Muslims exercising their rights in this country. That’s a debate that has to happen.”

Blake follows the story and sees media theory playing out in his hometown.

“I think if we think in terms of agenda setting and framing, from an agenda setting standpoint, the mosque story is very high on the media agenda,” Blake said. “Conflict over mosques were already in the news.

“As far as the frame, the ‘how’ they’re covering it, what’s very much in the frame here is a sort of rights discussion. There’s this idea in the media coverage that whether you like the mosque or not, the reality is that the congregation of this mosque has every right to build it where they want it.”

Blake also sees the paper playing the story straight.

“There has been some inclusion in the frame of arguments from mosque opponents who say the process hasn’t been followed completely, maybe in the letter of the law but not in the spirit of the law,” he said.

With the ninth anniversary of the World Trade Center bombings on Sept. 11, the controversy over the proposed burning of Korans by Pastor Terry Jones, and the numerous Mosque controversies, the nation seems to be struggling to find an answer. The Daily News-Journal and Hart find themselves on the front line covering the struggle.

“We’re a nation of laws,” Hart said. “According to the law, this mosque will be built according to state and federal law. If that’s how it plays out, that’s a good thing.

“At the same time, there’s going to be a lot of scrutiny if this mosque is built. That’s the process that American Muslims are going to be faced with. As their numbers grow, it’s going to happen. You can’t ignore these things. This doesn’t happen in a vacuum.”