Not Getting Religion: Why the Mass Media Miss the Story









The media frequently miss, or misunderstand, stories because they do not take religion seriously, or misunderstand religion when they do take it seriously. Jeff Sharlot, editor of the Revealer, New York University’s online review of religion and the press, suggests “Religion in the true, broad sense underlies, controls, permeates at least half the stories in the news, probably a lot more.”(1) Obviously, we can argue about the proportion of reports affected, but the essential point is that religion is a major factor in the modern world and, hence, in major news stories, so if reporters do not understand religion, they will be poorer reporters. To the extent that journalists do not grasp events’ religious dimensions, both global and local, they are hindered, and sometimes incapable, of describing what is happening.


Several years ago Edward Luttwak noted that analysts and commentators, including journalists, who are ever ready to “interpret economic causality, who are apt to dissect social differentiations more finely, and who will minutely categorize political affiliations, are still in the habit of disregarding the role of religion, religious institutions, and religious motivations in explaining politics and conflict, and even in reporting their concrete modalities.”(2) As CNN political analyst William Schneider has opined, “On the national level, the press is one of the most secular institutions in American society. It just doesn’t get religion or any idea that flows from religious conviction. The press is not necessarily contemptuous of serious religion. It’s just uncomprehending.”(3)


Roy Peter Clark, a Senior Scholar at the Poynter Institute, a premier center for media studies, admitted his own alienation and ignorance and noted that it makes for poor journalism:


  • “I stood on line for two hours Tuesday to vote, predicting that a big turnout of young people and new voters would push John Kerry over the top. This morning I’m looking in the mirror, wondering, as a journalist and a citizen, if there is something fundamentally myopic about how I see the world….”
  • “I am now taking seriously the theory that we mainstream journalists are different from mainstream America.
  • “Different” is too pale a word. We are alienated…. The churched people who embrace Bush, in spite of a bumbling war and a stumbling economy, are more than alien to me. They are invisible….”
  • I don’t know the difference between evangelical and charismatic, but I can argue about who has sluttier videos, Britney or Christina.
  • I know little about the “born again” experience but can celebrate the narrative structure of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.
  • I attend Catholic Mass most Sundays, but in my life as a citizen I am a thorough secularist…. My blind spots blot out half of America. And that makes me less of a citizen, and less of a journalist.” (4)


    This attitude has persisted despite the fact that on September 11, 2001, the United States was attacked by an explicitly religiously based enemy. Al Qaeda, the “World Islamic Front for Holy War Against Jews and Crusaders,” a violent apocalyptic religious network, gives an articulate theology and view of history to justify its actions in terms of Islamic practice and law. Consistently it expounds its program to unite Muslims worldwide into one people, the ummah, with one divinely sanctioned leader, a Caliph, governed by a reactionary version of Islamic law, shari’a, and organized to wage jihad on the rest of the world.(5)


    To quote its leader:

      “This war is fundamentally religious…. Those who try to cover this crystal clear fact, which the entire world has admitted, are deceiving the Islamic nation. This war is fundamentally religious….This fact is proven in the book of God Almighty and in the teachings of our messenger, may God’s peace and blessings be upon him. This war is fundamentally religious. Under no circumstances should we forget this enmity between us and the infidels. For, the enmity is based on creed…. ” Osama bin Laden, November 3, 2001.

      “It is a religious-economic war…. Therefore, religious terms should be used when describing the ruler who does not follow God’s revelations and path and champions the infidels by extending military facilities to them or implementing the UN resolutions against Islam and Muslims. Those should be called infidels and renegades…. the confrontation and conflict between us and them started centuries ago. The confrontation and conflict will continue because the conflict between right and falsehood will continue until Judgment Day.” Osama bin Laden, March 2004


    Throughout the world, its members methodically kill those opposed to its version of the Caliphate, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, left or right, American, British, Israeli, Australian, French, Indian, Algerian, Sudanese, Thai or Filipino, whether or not supported by the United Nations. Its manual begins by recalling not the birth of Israel nor the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan but “the fall of our orthodox Caliphates on March 3, 1924.” Osama Bin Laden’s November 3, 2001 videotape similarly proclaims, “Following World War I, which ended more than 83 years ago, the whole Islamic world fell under the Crusader banner….” For them, a key turning point of history is the abolition of the Caliphate and the fragmentation of the ummah by Mustapha Kamal Ataturk through his creation of modern Turkey. Their central grievance, continually expressed, is the collapse of the Islamic world in the face of “Christendom,” a collapse explained by Muslims’ apostasy from Islam and which can be reversed only by returning to their version of Islam. It consistently describes its intended targets as Christians, Jews, Crusaders, followers of the cross, Hindus, Buddhists, apostates, idolaters, infidels and polytheists—all religious loaded terms—and will frequently spare people, even Americans, if they are Muslims.


    Yet much of our media ignore or downplay this explicitly religious narrative, rationale and motive, instead referring to the network only by its nickname, “Al Qaeda” (the base), and interpreting its actions through a grid of western preconceptions such as third world liberation, alienation, economics, and the Middle East. However, bin Laden’s and Zawahiri’s complaints are set within a context of Islamic history and teaching quite distinct from the nostrums of western Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought.


    When Al-Jazeera broadcast bin Laden applauding an attack on a tanker off the coast of Yemen, the Associated Press quoted his praise for the heroism “of the faithful holy warriors in Yemen against a crusader oil tanker…. [That] hit the umbilical cord and lifeline of the crusader community….” but then offered its own guidance that Islamist terrorists “often referred to the United States as ‘crusaders.’” This attempt to equate crusaders not with Christians but with the United States was especially confusing since the tanker in question was French.(6)




    The October 12, 2002 bombing of two night clubs in Bali, killing some 200 people, was often described by the media as directed at “the West,” though it took place in Indonesia’s only Hindu majority territory and coincided exactly with bombings on the Philippine consulate in Manado, a Christian area hundreds of miles away. Al Qaeda affiliates in Indonesia had already orchestrated the bombing of dozens of Christian schools and churches on Christmas Eve 2000, while their Laskar Jihad allies had massacred thousands of Christians in eastern Indonesia.(7)


    Imam Samudra, the bombers’ field commander, tied his efforts to local Indonesian issues and said he was partly driven by “Australia’s… aggression against East Timor that removed it from Indonesia.” In his confession early in 2003, he again alleged “Australia has taken part in efforts to separate East Timor from Indonesia” as part of an “international conspiracy by followers of the Cross.”


    Bin Laden had earlier voiced exactly the same grievance. His November 3, 2001 statement asserted, “Let us examine the stand of the West and the United Nations in the developments in Indonesia…. The crusader Australian forces… landed to separate East Timor, which is part of the Islamic world.” He reiterated this complaint a month after the bombings: “We warned Australia not to join in [the war] in Afghanistan, and [against] its despicable effort to separate East Timor. It ignored the warning until it woke up to the sound of explosions in Bali.” Typically, most analysts ignored this. The Washington Post even printed the relevant paragraph with the East Timor reference missing, and with no ellipses to indicate its absence. Its version read: “We had warned Australia about its participation in Afghanistan. It ignored the warning until it woke up to the sound of explosions in Bali.”(8)


    The role of the United Nations in Indonesia and East Timor spilled over into the bombing of the UN compound in Baghdad on August 19, 2003. After the carnage, pundits worried that perhaps the UN had not distanced itself enough from the U.S. and so been caught in what were really anti-American crosshairs. Such an analysis was, of course, predicated on the assumption that Islamist terrorists could not possibly hate the UN itself, including its actions in East Timor. However, the Al Qaeda web site that claimed responsibility for the bombing was quite clear. It asked “”So why the United Nations? Number one, the United Nations is against Islam…. This issue does not need to be proved. It is clear like the light of the sun at midday.”


    Abu Farida, the Egyptian militant who drove the truck that blew up the compound, and a former top hockey player in Italy, said he had a dream that “God will give me the head of a Christian” and also that de Mello was specially targeted because he “had been used like a surgeon’s scalpel to cut East Timor from Indonesia and cut up Yugoslavia and the [UN] wanted to cut Iraq into pieces also.”(9) De Mello himself was a target because of his previous U.N. role in East Timor.




    On September 25, 2002, gunmen entered a Christian charity in Karachi, separated the Christian from the Muslim workers, bound the Christians to chairs with their hands behind their backs, taped their mouths shut, and methodically shot them in the head at point blank range. Although this was the sixth in a series of attacks aimed at Christian targets in Pakistan, much of the media played down the religious dimension in favor of a more secular storyline.(10)


    The New York Times described the killings as ending a lull in assaults on “Western targets” and quoted a police official saying that the attack was designed to drive away “Western business.” Agence France-Presse quoted a human-rights worker arguing that the violence was not against Christians but against those “striving for a tolerant society.” However, the Institute for Peace and Justice, where those killed were employed, has both Christian and Muslim staff, and has worked for 30 years with the poor and human rights groups. Consequently, the Muslims there, who worked for a Christian organization, can be assumed to be as committed as anyone to a tolerant society, but they were spared simply because they were Muslims.


    Four days later, there was yet another attack on a Christian institution, this time a hospital in Taxila. Three men threw grenades as nurses, doctors and hospital workers left the chapel at the end of a service. Taxila, like the other supposed “western targets,” in fact had few links to links to “the West,” amounting to some funding and one Swedish nurse. Nevertheless, the Financial Times reported “Although the victims were all Pakistanis, senior officials said the attack on the Christian community represented a growing threat to western interests.”(11)


    In fact, Taxila has major significance to Pakistan’s Christian community precisely because it is not associated with the west. None of the major media reported that this was where, in 1935, the “Taxila cross” was discovered. This cross is believed to date from the second century, and is valued by Pakistan’s Christians as archaeological proof of the church’s presence in the country centuries before Islam, and a millennium and a half before British colonialism. This is why, at its inauguration on November 1, 1970, the Church of Pakistan adopted this cross as its symbol. For the news media to miss this is somewhat like missing the possible religious significance of an attack on, say, the Vatican.


    Agence France-Presses did try to explore one religious angle, correctly pointing out that Taxila is also “an ancient Buddhist town” and that “some 30 Buddhist peace marchers from Japan, Central Asia and Russia are currently staying” there. But it is not entirely clear why they thought this relevant to an attack on a Christian hospital lying at the symbolic heart of Pakistan’s Church.(12)




    On November 8, 2003, a Lebanese Christian neighborhood of Riyadh was bombed. Of the seven publicly identified Lebanese victims, six were Christian, and that country’s newspapers were replete with photographs of Maronite Catholic and Greek Orthodox victims. Following the attack, Daleel al Mojahid, an al Qaeda-linked webpage, praised this killing of “non-Muslims.” In his justification of the assault, Abu Salma al Hijazi, an al Qaeda commander, took great pains to emphasize that the attack was not on Muslims: “This place was under surveillance for many months…. there were at least 300 Americans and a large group of Lebanese Christians who had tortured Muslims there, in Lebanon, during the civil war…. it was appropriate to attack this place and destroy it…. As a result, praise Allah, at least 40 Americans were killed, as well as 27 Christians from Lebanon.” (14)


    Perhaps because of a tendency to think of Arabs as exclusively Muslims, much of the media compounded the error by saying that the attack was in fact on Muslims. CNN said that “Businessmen, like expatriate Jordanian pharmacist Haldoun and his friends… now worry Muslims are also al Qaeda’s targets….” Reuters and AP described the bombing as against “fellow Muslims,” the Los Angeles Times as “against Muslims,” the Washington Times called the victims “innocent Muslims,” and the New York Times “expatriates from other Muslim countries.” CBS described “images of Muslim women and children pulled from the rubble.”(15)


    The focus on infidels emerged chillingly in a later attack in Saudi Arabia, the May 29, 2004, Khobar killings. An interview with Fawwaz bin Muhammad Al-Nashami, who commanded the Al-Quds Brigade that took responsibility for the massacre, published on the al Qaeda-linked website Sawt Al-Jihad, describes that murderous rampage. (16)


    We…found an American infidel….I shot him in the head, and his head exploded. We entered another office and found one infidel from South Africa, and our brother Hussein slit his throat. We asked Allah to accept [these acts of devotion] from us, and from him….we found a Swedish infidel. Brother Nimr cut off his head, and put it at the gate so that it would be seen by all those entering and exiting….


    We found Filipino Christians. We cut their throats and dedicated them to our brothers the Mujahideen in the Philippines. [Likewise], we found Hindu engineers and we cut their throats too, Allah be praised. That same day, we purged Muhammad’s land of many Christians and polytheists. . . . Then we went up to the next floor, found several Hindu dogs, and cut their throats…. The Indian Muslims told us that their manager was a vile Hindu who did not permit them to pray, and that he would arrive shortly. When [the manager] arrived, we verified his religion by means of his identifying documents, and we kept him with us for a short time [before killing him--PM].


    Consistently, they described their enemies, whatever their country or race or politics, as “infidels” or “polytheists.” They were especially joyful at the killing of an Italian, a Briton, and Filipinos, whose countries were participants in the coalition in Iraq. But they also killed a Swede and a South African, whose countries took no part in the invasion, and their greatest frisson seemed to come from killing Hindus, who, as purported polytheists, are even further down al Qaeda’s religious scale than “people of the book” such as Christians and Jews. They spared an American because, though he lived in the infidel power, he was himself a Muslim. They even apologized to him for getting blood on his carpet.




    Bin Laden and his confreres are indeed concerned about America, Israel, the Palestinians, Iraq and Afghanistan. But they are especially concerned about Saudi Arabia and the Al-Aqsa mosque, and continually point to attacks by infidels in Lebanon, Tajikistan, Burma, Kashmir, Assam, the Philippines, ‘Fatani,’ ‘Ogadin,’ Somalia, Eritrea, Chechnya, Bosnia, ‘Bokhara,’ Bangladesh, Turkey, Chad, Mauritania, south Sudan, Darfur, Algeria, the Philippines, Yemen, ‘Tashkent,’ Indonesia, and East Timor. They are in a global war until judgment day.


    Western media, still stuck in a narrative largely shaped by categories of first world/third world, globalization, ethnicity, the “West,” American foreign policy and Middle Eastern nationalism miss this. To the degree our views of the nature and goals of Islamofascism are shaped by the media, we are consistently misinformed about the nature of the war we are in.


    My call here is not to make journalists or others into believers, or to convince them that religion is good: we are trying to show that it is important to take religion seriously and to know about it in order to properly report the news—and also that religious beliefs and practices are varied and complex so that learning about them will take some work.




    (1) Jeff Sharlot “Killing Religion Journalism,” The Revealer, October 7, 2004.
    (2) Edward Luttwak, “The Missing Dimension,” 8-19 of Douglas Johnston and Cynthia Sampson, eds., Religion: The Mission Dimension of Statecraft (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 9-10.
    (3) Quoted by Los Angeles Times media columnist Tim Rutten, March 6, 2004.
    (4) “Confessions of an Alienated Journalist: How one journalist sees — or doesn’t see — the world.” PoynterOnline November 4 2004.
    (5) Apart from articles cited elsewhere in the notes, this chapter also draws on my “The Next Hotbed Of Islamic Radicalism,” Washington Post, October 8, 2002; “Political leaders can no longer ignore religion,” Dallas Morning News 040503; World silence over slain Muslims,” Boston Globe, 10/13/2003; “Radical Islam’s Move on Africa,” Washington Post, October 16, 2003; “The Southeast Asian Front,” Weekly Standard 04/05/2004; “Four Million: The number to keep in mind this November,” National Review Online 082704; “The Islamists Other Weapon,” Commentary, April 2005.
    (6) Paul Marshall, “This War We’re In,” National Review Online 112602, Al Jazeera 101402, AP 101402.
    (7) Paul Marshall, “Terrorism’s Not New to Indonesia,” New York Post, October 15, 2002 and “This War We’re In.”
    (8) Washington Post 110701; Al-Jazeera according to BBC Monitoring 111202; Washington Post 111302; Ibid, “To the Allies of America,” Bruce Lawrence, p. 175
    (9) The Guardian [UK] 071004 (parentheses are the Guardian’s).
    (10) See my “Motive for Massacre,” Wall Street Journal, September 27, 2002.
    (11) Daily Telegraph 080902, Financial Times 081002
    (12) Agence France-Presse 080902
    (13) Paul Marshall, “Misunderstanding al Qaeda,” Weekly Standard 12/01/2003, “War Against the Infidels: The Message Behind the Beheadings,” Weekly Standard 07/05/2004
    (14) The Middle East Media Research Institute Special Dispatch Series - No. 609, November 14, 2003
    (15) CNN 111103, Reuters 110803, AP 111103, Los Angeles Times 111203, Washington Times 111003, New York Times 111003, CBS 111203.