Last year WORLD examined the treatment of Christian conservatives in the press. This year, with the war in Iraq, the slant of stories about Saddam Hussein and the effort to stop
him is significant. But it's even more important over the long run that our press educators alert us to the warlike propensities of a large chunk of Islam, not just an extremist faction.
Christianity has had its belligerent eras, but the religion spread over its first three centuries through martyrdom, not aggression. Islam's expansion was different. Sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa during the first century after Muhammad's death in a.d. 632, Islam by 732 was dominant in Spain and known in China. Had Charles "the Hammer" Martel not led Christian forces that latter year to a victory over Muslim invaders in southern France, Islam might have conquered all of Europe.
Muslim military effort gained a great impetus from the Quran, which teaches that "Truly Allah loves those who fight in His Cause in battle array, as if they were a solid cemented structure" (Sura 61:4). The Quran particularly condemns pacifists: "O ye who believe! what is the matter with you, that, when ye are asked to go forth in the cause of Allah, ye cling heavily to the earth? ... Unless ye go forth, He will punish you with a grievous penalty, and put others in your place" (Sura 9:38-39; note also 4:74-76 and 61:10-12).
The early Islamic empires grew through persuasion plus force; the exact percentages are in dispute. The basic Quranic principle is that people should freely declare their allegiance to Allah, and that often happened when Islam seemed to be on an unstoppable winning streak. When those conquered have not been so obliging, in some cases they have had the choice of praising Allah or taking a sword in their gut. Most Americans know little of this, nor of how the Quran encourages war against non-Muslims.
In the face of Hitler's aggression in 1940, John F. Kennedy wrote a provocatively titled book, Why England Slept. Events and President Bush are not letting the United States sleep now, but the frequent tendency in democracies is to take naps whenever the coast is temporarily clear. Many people who enjoy having morning newspapers along with their coffee would be surprised to find that their local papers act as sleeping pills when it comes to covering not only Islam but other religions.
Such pills can be fatal, because the world is a dangerous place. Not only Islam displays militaristic tendencies. Thinking of Gandhi, we often think of Hindus as pacifists, but the Bhagavad Gita, Hinduism's favorite scripture, is in part a war poem that endorses military action. Hindu militants today speak loudly and wave very big sticks, including nuclear-tipped ones. Buddhism also is not necessarily a religion of peace, as the records of a Buddhist army that dominated medieval Japan show. A recent book documents how Zen Buddhist thought underlay Japan's buildup to an attack on Pearl Harbor.
This essay examines U.S. newspaper coverage of the three powerful non-Christian religions in the world: Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Related articles bring out some press tendencies concerning Judaism and Christianity. Drawing from an examination of several thousand newspaper articles from January 2000 to January 2003, what follows provides examples of two press tendencies-superficiality and syncretism-and raises questions about what we're missing. But we'll begin with what readers in the United States are learning about Iraq.