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Media Analyses





NYT and CC Coming to their Senses on Mideast Christians?


It's amazing what a few pogroms can do to publications like the New York Times and Christian Century. Early in 2011, the two publications sang the praises of Yusef Qaradawi and wrote hopeful paeans about interfaith relations between Copts and Muslims in Egypt. In two weirdly similar articles, both publications portrayed Qaradawi, the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, as “committed to pluralism and democracy.”

The notion that Qaradawi was a pluralist and a democrat was a nice, pious (and reassuring) lie.

Qaradawi has no use for democracy and is no pluralist. The man has condoned female genital mutilation, called for another Holocaust to be perpetrated against the Jews by Muslim believers, and supported the fatwa calling for Salman Rushdie's murder. He also called for the execution of Muslims who left the faith. The implication of both articles was that Qaradawi would have a positive impact on Coptic-Muslim relations in Egypt.

It didn't happen. There have been a number of attacks against Christians in Egypt that make it perfectly clear that the Times and Christian Century needed to offer a course correction, which, to their credit, they are providing.

They aren't admitting that they got it wrong in February and March, but they are providing their readers with a more responsible read of events in Egypt.

Apparently, they don't want to provide any more material for an update of Laurel Leff's Buried by the Times or Robert W. Ross's So it Was True, which documented the failure of both of these publications to cover the destruction of Jews in Europe in the 1940s.

Evidence of the NYT's course correction can be seen in two pieces about Christians in the Middle East that appeared in the paper on Nov. 20, 2011.

Anthony Shadid, who helped the Times piece together its pro-Qaradawi story in February, wrote a piece that appeared in the paper's Sunday Review that suggests Christianity could very well disappear from the Middle East if current trends continue. In an elegiac piece titled “… But There's Slim Hope in History,” Shadid wrote:

Across the region, the climate seems to have grown more inhospitable, more dangerous. In places like Egypt and Syria, authorities have cynically fanned fears and biases to fortify their power. In the military's bloody response to a Christian protest in Cairo in October, Egyptian television referred to Copts as though they were foreign agitators bent on subversion, calling on “honorable citizens” to defend the army. Religious stalwarts often speak rightly of Islam's long tolerance of minorities. But these days, the talk feels condescending; minorities are asking for equality, not benevolent protection.
 
Sometimes there is not even that.
 
“They came to kill, kill, kill,” a 21-year-old named Bassam Sami told me the day after an attack last year on Our Lady of Salvation Church in Baghdad, in what amounted to Iraq's equivalent of a pogrom. Inside the church, blood smeared the walls, and scraps of flesh remained between the pews. Outside, many mourned what the massacre of 51 worshipers and two priests meant for a country that once represented a remarkable entrepôt of beliefs, customs and traditions that glided across boundaries.

This piece is a marked turnaround from article Shadid helped write in February. In this piece, Shadid documents the attitudes of Christians who do not buy into the narrative of the Arab spring being about “dignity, democracy, rights and social justice” but “hew to a far bleaker narrative of events: that their time may be running out.”

In its Nov. 20 Op-Ed section, the Times published an article by André Aciman, professor of comparative literature City University of New York Graduate Center. In his piece, titled “After Egypt's Revolution, Christians are Living in Fear,” Aciman details the failure of Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to accept responsibility for the anti-Christian violence that has taken place under its watch. After detailing how some Egyptian leaders tried to blame foreigners for the anti-Coptic violence, Aciman states that with “Mubarak gone, Copts fear that an elected Muslim majority is likely to prove far less tolerant than a military dictatorship.”

Clearly, the violence of the past few months has encouraged the New York Times to acknowledge that Christians in the Middle East are the low-cost, no cost targets of violence and hostility in the region.

Christian Century

A similar process seems to be taking place at the Christian Century, the house organ for mainline Protestantism in the U.S. In March, the magazine published two articles by Episcopal Priest Paul-Gordon Chandler about interfaith solidarity between Christians and Muslims in Egypt. In addition to portraying Qaradawi as a pluralist and a democrat, Chandler described how Muslims in Cairo protected his home from attack and asserted that Christians “were in no way threatened” during the uprising that began on Jan. 25, 2011. Subsequent events demonstrated that this is simply not the case.

Christian Century offered its course correction in an editorial titled “Arab Winter for Christians,” dated Nov. 1, 2011. The piece starts with some trenchant observations that clearly contradict the benign assessments offered earlier in the year:

The Middle East is an increasingly dangerous place for Christians. In October, Coptic Christians in Egypt were attacked by Muslims in clashes that were apparently encouraged and even carried out by the Egyptian military. The conflict left 24 people dead and over 300 wounded, raising the specter of the Arab Spring turning into a nightmarish winter for Christians.
 
An irony of Christian life amid the Arab Spring is that Christians have frequently been protected by the authoritarian regimes that are under attack. The overthrow of Hosni Mubarak's rule in Egypt earlier this year has left Christians more vulnerable to sectarian strife—not unlike what happened in Iraq, where the fall of Saddam Hussein led to violence and half the Christian population fled. In Syria, meanwhile, Christians fear that an overthrow of dictator Bashar al-Assad would remove the regime that has protected them.

Aside from an oblique reference to “extremists” offered by an expert cited in the article, the piece does not describe in much detail the problems in Arab societies that force Christians to rely on dictators to keep them safe. Nevertheless it is a vast improvement over the pious lies offered by Paul-Gordon Chandler in the pages of the magazine in March.

Going forward, the publication may eventually address the theological and sociological roots of Islamist hostility toward Christians (and Jews) in the Middle East. Such a project would not be “Islamophobic” any more than discerning the roots of Christian anti-Semitism is “anti-Christian.”

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