Tuesday, January 18, 2005

How to Get it Right

Mark Pinsky writing for the Columbia Journalism Review talks about his experiences as a religion writer for the Orlando Sentinel in getting to know that exotic life-form known as the Christian evangelical. Some excerpts:

For the first time in my life, I was living in a sea of believing, faithful Christians, and the cold shock felt like total immersion. As on the West Coast, I learned a lot on the job, interviewing ministers, leaders, and lay people. I attended church services more often than many Christians - some months more often than I attended my own synagogue. But the most intense part of my education came from outside the job, apart from the mediation of a reporter's notebook. At PTA meetings, at Scouts, in the supermarket checkout line, and in my neighborhood I encountered evangelicals simply as people, rather than as subjects or sources of quotes for my stories. Our children went to the same birthday parties. We sat next to each other in the bleachers while the kids played recreational sports. Our family doctor went on frequent mission trips and kept a New Testament in each examining room. In the process, I learned about the Great Commission, the biblical obligation of all Christians to share their faith with the once-born and the unsaved.

Evangelicals were no longer caricatures or abstractions. I learned to interpret their metaphors and read their body language. From personal, day-to-day experience I observed what John Green at the University of Akron has discerned from extensive research: evangelicals were not monolithic nor were they, as The Washington Post infamously characterized them, "poor, uneducated and easy to command." Like Ned Flanders, they are more likely to be overzealous than hypocritical, although there is certainly some of the latter. They don't march in lockstep to what Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell or Focus on the Family's James Dobson tell them, and they hold surprisingly diverse views on many issues. While making common cause politically, their theological differences range from the subtle to the significant. For evangelicals, religion is not just for Sundays - or Election Day.

This epiphany - it would be hard to call it anything else, except maybe a revelation - transformed the way I approached my beat. I discarded the traditional way of structuring my stories. No more, "While some wacko evangelical leaders over here say this, these rational secularists and moderate mainliners over there say that," with an author or academic in the middle tossed in for balance. While symmetrical, this is so schematic that it makes the result predictable and unrevealing. Instead, I decided to treat evangelicals as a discrete universe. I started to write about them in a way that would be interesting and informative to my suburban, Sunbelt readers - and to me. That is, "Some evangelicals say this, but others disagree," and why and what that means.

Despite the blustering of some leaders, I think I know why grass-roots evangelicals do not feel triumphant about the [election] results. True, in states like Florida they see Republican control of all branches of government, from Tallahassee to Washington, D.C. Conservatives and Christians dominate the AM radio dial, and the Fox News Channel leads the local cable television ratings. But despite all this, many of my evangelical friends and neighbors still feel besieged, beleaguered, and, to some degree, powerless.

The threat they cannot defeat at the polls is a pervasive, popular culture they consider to be, for the most part, a toxic mix of loveless sexuality and senseless violence. As a parent, a media consumer, and - in my heart - a blue-stater, I have to agree with them on this point, adding to the mix only my personal (elitist?) complaint: pop culture's relentless stupidity.

This is not to say that I agree with them on much else, politically or theologically. Yet neither does it keep me from understanding the sincerity of their beliefs, or from reporting them fairly. I may be flattering myself, but over time I think I have developed a relationship of mutual trust and mutual respect with the evangelical community and its leaders. Of course, that doesn't mean they've given up trying to bring me to Jesus. That's what evangelicals do, it's in their spiritual DNA, and I'm okay with that.

Kudos to Mr. Pinsky for his willingness to immerse himself in the culture he's reporting on and for exhibiting so much security in his own convictions that he doesn't feel threatened by those of others. Would that every journalist who writes on Christianity be as equally conscientious in their wish to get the story right rather than just reinforce Hollywood stereotypes.

Thanks to No Left Turns for the tip.


Lest anyone think that the Left is comprised of highly caring, highly educated, exemplars of reasoned discourse check out Michelle Malkin's column from the other day in which she shares some of her e-mail. Michelle is a conservative who sometimes takes controversial positions, but the sheer loathesomeness of the hate that she elicits is beyond all rational explanation. There are a lot of demented, embittered people out there on the Left, people in an advanced stage of spiritual and moral putrefaction, and she and Ann Coulter seem to draw them like sicko-magnets.

We suppose there are people just as bad on the Right, but the point is that ever since the sixties we've been told that hatred was the monopoly of the Right and that the Left was the party of peace, love, compassion, and justice. If you still believe that after the recent election campaign go to Malkin's site to be deprogrammed.

Meanwhile, as long as you're reading Malkin, check this story out. It's chilling. We wonder: Did the authorities interrogate the cleaning crew? What did they learn? We also wonder why we haven't heard about this through MSM news outlets.

The Algerian Model

Bill Roggio at The Fourth Rail directs our attention to a piece written by Amir Taheri in Arab News which offers striking parallels between what we see happening in Iraq today and what happened in the early '90s in Algeria. Part of Taheri's column follows:

For more than 10 years the terrorists held the initiative, attacking where and when they wished, forcing the government's forces into a defensive posture. The terrorists specialized in mass killings. In Bin Talha, a suburb of the capital Algiers, for example, they cut the throats of some 800 people, mostly women and children, in a single night. They also targeted the ordinary personnel of the army and the police, in the hope of discouraging young Algerians from enlisting in government forces.

The Algerian terrorists never came up with anything resembling a political program. They just killed people. They killed children on their way to school. They chopped the heads of Christian monks and Muslim muftis. They murdered trade unionists, political leaders, and journalists. They captured teenage girls and forced them into temporary marriages with "the holy warriors." They seized hostages, burned schools and hospitals, blew up factories and shops, and did all they could to disrupt the economy. At times they pulled off spectacular coups, for example by murdering the country's president, and its most prominent trade union leader.

The terrorist campaign had started in the mid-1980s with a bandit, named Mustafa Bu-Ali, wreaking havoc in the environs of the capital. By 1990, however, the terrorists and their political allies had established themselves as a force in national politics. In 1991 they came close to winning power with a mixture of violence and electoral fraud. By 1992, however, they had reverted to a strategy of murder and mayhem.

They pursued two objectives. The first was to destroy the Algerian Army by killing as many recruits as they could in the hope that this would provoke mass desertions. The second was to prevent the holding of any elections. "Democracy means the rule of the people," Antar Zu'abri, one of the most notorious of the terrorist chiefs, killed in action in the 1990s, liked to say. "Those who want the rule of the people defy the rule of God, which is Islam."

By 1994 the terrorists seemed to be close to victory. At least, Francois Mitterrand, France's president at the time, thought so. In a statement he said Paris was prepared to work with an "Islamic" regime in Algiers. At least four provinces and parts of the capital Algiers were deemed too dangerous for government forces to enter.

On some occasions the terrorists demonstrated their strength by engaging government forces in big battles, including one in Jijel which involved both the Algerian Navy and Air Force. Visiting Algiers in March 1994 I was struck by the mood of doom and gloom at almost every level of government. European ambassadors confided their fear that the terrorists might seize power at any time. A segment of the elite was urging negotiations with the terrorists, which meant discussing terms of surrender.

After a long moment of tergiversation in which the Algerian leaders did not know quite how to deal with the threat, they stumbled on a strategy almost by instinct. They soon realized that the terrorists lacked a significant popular base. But it was also clear that a majority of Algerians had adopted a wait-and-see attitude, hating the terrorists in secret but too frightened of them to make a clear stand against them in public. The key, therefore, was to mobilize the "silent majority" to demonstrate the isolation of the terrorists.

The most effective way to do that was to hold elections. Few people are prepared to die, and even fewer are willing to kill in support of their political opinions. But almost everyone is ready to vote. The task of a civilized society is to render the expression of political opinions easy. The terrorists made it difficult because they demanded of the people to kill and died. The Algerian leaders decided to make it easy by asking the people to vote.

The turning point came in 1995 when Algeria organized its first ever pluralist and direct presidential election. This is was not an ideal election. The candidates were little known figures that had appeared on the national political scene just a couple of years earlier. None presented a coherent political program. To make matters worse the terrorists did all they could to prevent the election. They burned down voter registration bureaus and murdered election officers. Masked men visited people in their homes and shops to warn that going to the polls would mean death.

And, yet, when polling day came it quickly became clear that the terrorists, in the forlorn attempt at stopping democracy, were, as in so many other instances in history, facing certain defeat. Never in my many years of journalism had I seen such enthusiasm for an electoral exercise anywhere in the world. The "silent majority" spoke by casting ballots, not because it particularly liked any of the candidates but because it wanted to send a message to the terrorists that they had no place in Algeria.

That one election did not make Algeria a democracy. Since then Algeria has held three more presidential and a dozen local and parliamentary elections. None of these exercises have been perfect, and Algeria may need dozens more elections, which means many more years, before it can achieve the standards set by mature democracies. But the Algerian exercise has made one fact clear: The only way to defeat terrorism is by involving the mass of the people through elections.

Algeria was the first major Arab country to be attacked by Islamist terrorists on a large scale. It is also the first to defeat them.

The Algerian experience holds many lessons for Iraq today. The terrorist insurgents operating in Iraq pursue the same strategy as their Algerian colleagues in the 1990s. Zarqawi and other terror chiefs are also trying to disrupt elections while, by killing recruits, preventing the formation of an Iraqi national army. Copy-catting their Algerian counterparts, the terrorists in Iraq have also assassinated many high profile officials and politicians. But like the Algerians, they, too, will learn that in a democracy no individual is indispensable.

Iraq's first ever free election, scheduled for Jan. 30, will confront the terrorists with the people's power just as Algeria did in 1995. This is why it is vital that the election be held on time and in as many parts of the country as possible. Using elections to defeat terrorism could become the key to the future of several other Arab countries.

The similarities between the two situations are indeed striking, but we have good reason to hope that the results in Iraq will surpass those in Algeria. Algeria did not have the amount of foreign assistance that Iraq has nor was it as wealthy a country nor was its population as well-educated.

The radical Islamists have a dream of creating Taliban-like states, first throughout the Muslim world, and ultimately across the globe. They tried in Algeria and lost. They've been thwarted in Pakistan. Libya seems to have lost interest. They succeeded for a time in Afghanistan and were deposed. They've succeeded in Iran and Syria for the time being. But failure in Iraq, coming so close to the loss of Afghanistan, would be devastating to their hopes.

Iraq is only one battle in this long war, and Islamist failure there won't mean the end of Islamo-fascism, but it will considerably diminish their prospects for ultimate success. The stakes could scarcely be higher.

Good News From Iraq No.19

Arthur Chrenkoff's fortnightly installment of Good News From Iraq is up. This is Chrenkoff's 19th edition and his work cannot be praised enough. Ranging from developments with the coming elections to the economy to security with lots of others in between, Chrenkoff gives us a massive amount of information that the MSM cannot be bothered to report since it doesn't fit their defeatist philosophy. Don't miss it.