Within a day or two of moving into the editor’s office of the Presbyterian Outlook in January, 2006, I realized what overwhelming authority the office carries. Not only does that person get to preach a word to the church every week that will be read by most every person of influence – the “Editor’s Outlook” has enormous potential to influence influencers. What’s more – and this was the surprise – it’s the editor who decides repeatedly in any given day which news ought to be reported and how it should be presented.
Not only would I discuss and negotiate news-writing assignments for our award-winning news-writer, Leslie Scanlon, and other stringer reporters. My email box would fill with reports from news services – Presbyterian News Service, Religion News Service, Ecumenical News Service (and since then I’ve subscribed to Associated Baptist News Service and Episcopal News Service) – plus news releases would come from dozens of others. And it was up to me to decide – often on the fly – which ones to post and which ones to disregard.
I made such calls based upon the obvious:
· Is this of interest to our readers?
· Is this important, whether or not our readers will want to read it?
· Does it report the news responsibly or does it spin it?
· If it is a commentary, does it present its argument with credibility, whether or not I personally agree with it?
Within days I discovered the fallout of such decisions: angry letters to the editor and even cancelled subscriptions due to our coverage of a topic of concern to any of our readers. Invariably, I would take another look at the coverage being protested to assess as self-critically as possible whether it leaned too far to the right or left, was too scholarly or banal, too tall steeple or small steeple, too feminist or misogynist, too clerical or anti-clerical, too old school or new school, and the list goes on.
Before long I assessed that, indeed, the media is pervaded by bias in its reporting. However, that bias was/is less driven by ideologues than it is by
a) those who are willing to drop everything to help a journalist write the number of assigned inches of copy on deadline,
b) those who can be trusted to provide sufficient accuracy to help the writer/editor avoid accusations of inaccuracy, ineptitude, and defamation, and
c) those who help a publication or broadcast retain and even increase its audience and, ultimately, its funding (beit from commercial ads, grant funding organizations and/or deep pocket contributors).
So what does all this background have to do with a journey to Jordan?
Well, we all know that the news media have absorbed an unrelenting barrage of criticisms for its reporting of the news of the Middle East. Most of those criticisms come from those claiming that the media are manipulated either by Zionist Jews and dispensationalist Christians – OR – by anti-Israeli liberals intent on driving the Jews into the sea.
While outspoken voices on both sides of that demarcation line have cited evidence to substantiate their claims, I would suggest that more basic issues have been driving the news coverage of the Middle East:
a) the relative accessibility/inaccessibility of voices on any given topic to help writers meet their deadlines,
b) the difficulty of finding expert voices to represent their positions most effectively,
c) the audience anxiety felt by reporters and editors as they have contemplated the fallout any given story may bring to their publication/broadcast, and
d) specifically, the driving collective conscious of Americans for the past eight years, as we together have tried to come to terms with the horror of 9-11.
Getting specific to my journey to Jordan, I went on this trip in the hope of gaining insight – to be shared with my readers – regarding our post 9-11 realities. I had already toured Israel twice – both times with a Messianic Jewish tour guide – and then a third time on my own, aided mostly by Palestinian Christians. I also had toured Jordan, visiting its holy sites and tourist locations. In planning this journey I looked forward to seeing these sites again, I wanted to see Jordan through 21st century eyes.
The Jordan Tourism Board anticipated this kind of desire of journalists like me, so they planned a few briefings with leaders both from the faith community and the government. As reported in my first two blogs, I pursued one interview of my own – knowing that the JTB certainly would have tried to put the nation’s best foot forward.
Getting back to the matter of 9-11, I share the memory of so many Americans – not only of the horror of the events that transpired that day eight years ago, but also of the terrible failure of Muslims worldwide and Arabs in the Middle East to take a stand against it.
World leaders condemned the attacks immediately and decisively – that is to say – world leaders that were neither Muslim nor Arab. They remained quiet. Or, at least, that’s how it appeared in the media.
For us grieving Americans, their silence was deafening.
At first, if one were feeling generous, one might envision Muslim-Arab leaders huddling together, hoping beyond hope that the Americans had drawn the wrong conclusions. One could imagine them keeping their counsel as they awaited vindication. Surely they were exercising caution, lest they set Arab-against-Arab, Muslim-against-Muslim. “Circling the wagons” enjoys a celebrated history among us Americans; so, too, it stands to reason that they would circle their camel caravans. Accordingly, the bridge-builders among us, those regularly exclaiming “they’re really good people,” might be able to rationalize away the silence.
Then again, few of us were feeling that generous. Those horrible attacks incited rage beyond measure. Even months later, most of us (myself included) applauded when Congress declared war on Iraq, even though an airtight case for complicity in the 9-11 attacks had not been made. Guilt by association (“all those Arab Muslims terrorists”) was enough for us.
Now eight years later, the western world still awaits even the slightest expression of remorse for the horrors they visited upon us. We wonder if their religious fanaticism isn’t so ubiquitous that they simply will not stop their attacks until they accomplish total world domination: Israel driven into the sea, Europe bowing down to Mecca, Churches everywhere replaced by mosques, and democracy replaced by Sharia law.
So, with all those issues in mind, I went into the briefings on our trip and I prepared for my interview with His Highness Prince Hassan with one central question in mind: “Does there exist any will among Muslim Arabs to actually speak out against the evils of Muslim extremism, to build understanding with Christians and Jews, and together to demonstrate the conviction that the love of God leads TO the love of neighbor, not away from it?”
To put it differently, “Does the will exist here among the citizenry in general and among the politicians in particular to ‘beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks’ … so that … ‘nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more’” (Isa. 2:4)?
So I asked them.
I was embarrassed to hear their answers.
I looked pretty stupid.
My question looked stupid, because I was ignorant about the post 9-11 work that needed to be done among religious communities in their own neighborhoods.
Imams, priests and ministers did issue statements but their audience was their own congregations and those other ones in their neighborhoods. They walked from mosque to church and vice-versa to lament the evil perpetrated, to grieve the loss of life, and to reassure one another of their resolve to continue to build mutual respect and partnership where it matters most: right where they live (all politics being local).
I looked stupid because I quickly realized that I had been listening for “statements” when they were up to their ears in crisis management.
As Wafa Gousous, the Amman representative of the Middle Eastern Council of Churches, explained to us over coffee, within hours of the firing of the first shots, signaling America’s invasion into Iraq in 2003, some 100,000 Iraqi refugees flooded across the Iraqi border into Jordan (that number would grow to 500,000 over the subsequent years). They were helping penniless, displaced sojourners build a new life. And, given Jordan’s experience of having received so many refugees in the past – the post-1948 arrival of Palestinians brought so many West Bank Palestinians that they actually outnumber historic Jordanians in their country) – that they were negotiating with nations around the world to accept refugees into their lands.
Wafa Gousous (photo by Jack Haberer)
My question looked stupid also because I was forgetting what I already knew: the amazing Common Word statement issued by Muslim scholars on Oc. 13, 1997.
As Father Nabil Hadad, the Catholic director of the Inter-Faith Coexistence Center in Amman told us last Sunday, this was a “concrete theological document speaking of solidarity with Christians.”
In fact, when I caught wind of that statement two years ago, I read it as historic, maybe even history-changing. I give it high visibility in the pages of the Presbyterian Outlook. A year later, I referenced it in an editorial.
But when asking about the will to make peace, I felt stupid for not at least mentioning the Common Word statement. Then again, I can rationalize my oversight, since, I assumed it mustn’t have made much of an impact. As a matter of fact, just about nobody in the West paid any heed to it. What I thought to be ground-breaking, front-page news was covered by almost none of my colleagues – religious and secular – in the US news media. A few referenced it, but never mentioned it again. Could it be that the media’s post-9-11, anti-Muslim, anti-Arab bias was holding sway? Could it be that the publication of something good about Muslims and Arabs risked losing readers and ad sales?
Father Nabil Hadad (photo Jack Haberer)
My silent, internal rationalizations got interrupted, …and I went back to feeling stupid all the more, as Father Hadad went on to tell us about the Amman Message. Apparently the Muslim leaders in Amman wanted to spread their convictions – including blatant condemnation of religious extremism – further and more explicitly than had the Common Word document so they published this statement – it now includes signatures of 80 Imams. They are planning an international conference for Oct. 2010.
By the time I went over to the Royal Palace to interview His Royal Highness Prince Hassan, I was done with asking stupid questions. These earlier conversations told me that Arab Muslim leaders had been seeking to build understanding with us Western Christians long before 9-11 …and continuing after 9-11. And they had been speaking out against terrorism. And they had been condemning extremism. And they were trying to reclaim a centuries-long legacy of peace between Muslims, Jews and Christians in the Middle East …
Prince Hassan Bin Talal (photo courtesy of The Palestinian
Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, Jerusalem)
My background research on Prince Hassan, indeed, indicated that, back in 1994, he established The Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies. In 1995, he wrote a book that provides a scholarly and sympathetic introduction to Christianity in the Arab World. Prince Hassan is a founder and now President of the Foundation for Inter-religious and Intercultural Research and Dialogue (FIIRD) which was established in Geneva in 1999. In 2003, he launched Partners in Humanity as a joint initiative with John Marks from Search for Common Ground (SFCG), which aims to improve understanding, build positive relationships and promote dialogue between the Muslim and western worlds. He presently is President Emeritus of the World Conference of Religions for Peace.
I realized that so much of his time, serving as crown prince and chief advisor to the late King Hussein of Jordan (for 30 Years) and in the subsequent years, has been poured into building peace, respectful coexistence, mutual understanding and trust between our two peoples.
I also discovered that he did speak out quickly and vehemently against the 9-11 attack on America.
So I asked better-informed questions, and sure enough he blew my mind even further with the brilliance, the insightfulness, the graciousness and the sheer humanity in his responses.
I wonder why we haven’t been hearing from him before. I wonder why we haven’t been hearing from voices like his, especially in these past eight years. Do you think Hassan’s message was considered too inconvenient by the ratings seeking, subscription selling, ad-client-pursuing media? Could it be that any positive reporting about Muslim Arabs is just too shocking, too x-rated, too unthinkable for post-9-11 Americans to hear?
Do you think the Presbyterian Outlook will now lose readers and advertisers for having allowed something positive about Arab Muslims to leak out?
Oct. 5, 2009
PS – Stay tuned for the videotaped interview of His Royal Highness Prince Hassan. It will appear on the Outlook’s web site as soon as a few technical glitches get solved.