Battles of the Righteous

“I’m one of the people they’ve asked to prepare to be writing about the war,” says Cathleen Falsani. She’s the Sun-Times’s religion writer, and her editors are making plans. She warmed up last Friday with a column recalling the Talmudic legend that says the fate of the world, at any given time, rests in the hands of 36 righteous people, the lamed vavniks, and wondering how many might be living in Iraq. “How many menschen,” she wondered, “may be put in harm’s way because of a war so many consider, simplistically, to be between good and evil?”

It’s a war others consider, perhaps just as simplistically, to be between three religions. An essay headlined “How a War Became a Crusade” by Jackson Lears in the March 11 New York Times fretted: “But the power of providentialist thinking persists, drawing strength from the fervent beliefs of Christian, Islamic and Jewish fundamentalists. The more humane interpreters of those traditions are increasingly ignored, and the ideologues take command, convinced that they are doing God’s will.”

The press recently began making much–perhaps too much–of the angle that America is being ordered into battle by a man who thinks he’s ordered by God. If religious conviction offers clarity and resolve, the press in general hasn’t held that to be a good thing. In “The Mind of George W. Bush,” the long cover story in the April Atlantic Monthly, Richard Brookhiser comments, “Practically, Bush’s faith means that he does not tolerate, or even recognize, ambiguity: there is an all-knowing God who decrees certain behaviors, and leaders must obey.” Georgie Anne Geyer wrote in the March 7 Tribune, “There is no question now that President Bush’s intention in invading Iraq–along with his unlikely band of gray but gleamy-eyed compadres–is based primarily on religious obsession and visions of personal grandiosity.”

A terrifying revelation of September 11 was that America had been attacked in the name of Allah. It’s especially frightening to recognize that someone not only wants to kill you but thinks killing you will serve his god, and I have wondered if a calculation was made in Washington that there was no way to defeat those Islamic “evildoers” that spared their theology. The mainstream press might write quizzically of Bush’s evangelism, but Falsani observes that “there’s a Christian conservative press that thinks it’s great that he’s speaking the truth and it’s about time.” She adds, “There are people out there very, very threatened by the spread of Islam.”

If there has been such a calculation in Washington, it might be a dangerous one. “One hopes,” Martin Marty wrote in last week’s Newsweek (its theme was “Bush & God”), “that the Bush people will keep in mind that claims of God’s always being on our side are alienating to many former or would-be allies.” Essayist William Pfaff warned last week in the International Herald Tribune that a military defeat of Iraq would not draw the Islamic world closer to the West but further alienate it. “The real modernizing force in Islam today may prove to be resistance to the West, or to be more exact, resistance to the United States and Israel,” he wrote. “Al Qaeda’s activists are mostly educated people with Western experience. Their movement in another context might be called prerevolutionary, signal of a young elite’s determination to replace old and failed leaders.”

Marvin Zonis, a Middle East scholar at the University of Chicago, says much the same thing. Traveling in Europe, he E-mailed me, “Saddam has ruled Iraq in the name of the Baath Party. The only other state in which the Baath rules is Syria. The Baath was started in Lebanon by Arab Christians as an avowedly secular party. Its purpose was to bring together all Arabs–Muslims and Christians under the banner of secularism to bring about the ‘rebirth’ of the Arabs. (Baath means Renaissance in Arabic.) Both Hafez al Asad who ruled Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq were always vigorous secularists. Thus Tariq Aziz, a Christian, has been the number two guy–at least the number two public face of Iraq–for decades. Saddam has of course made concessions to the Islamic clerics because he understands their value to his rule.

“Similarly, as he has confronted the US he has built mosques and talked in terms of Muhammad and the Koran and Allah and all–a completely shabby attempt to win popular support which few in Iraq are fooled by. So we could go in and kick a lot of ass in Iraq, and what it would do would be to send more people to the banner of Islamic fundamentalism. The Arabs do not need to see a demonstration of US military power to appreciate the balance of forces. They have seen Israel defeat Arab armies since 1948 and the Palestinians forever, and they all saw on TV all the same military prowess of the US in Afghanistan that we saw.”

Zonis went on, “There is a belief on the part of many Muslims that US actions are motivated to some extent by anti-Muslim bias, but I think, to a far greater extent, there is concern about what the West in general and the US in particular does to Muslims, not because the West is Christian, but because the West is imperialist. The unmitigated support for Israel, no matter its policies, is the prime proof of the imperialism. They hate us not because of what we are–as the President likes to say–but because of what we do. We maintain Israel. We maintain corrupt and repressive rulers.”

The Civil War is remembered with affectionate irony as a war fought by pious armies that prayed to the same god. The religious context being imposed on war in Iraq makes that war seem trivial by comparison. No wonder Falsani’s editors want her on her toes. “I’d like to see somebody send a religion reporter to see what’s going on on the ground,” she says. “I’d go in a heartbeat.”

Salim Muwakkil, until last month a weekly Tribune op-ed columnist, is dead set against war with Iraq. Is this sounding like a holy war? I asked him.

“Doesn’t it seem that way to you?” he replied. “The Bush administration’s rhetoric would certainly lead you to believe that. Man, it’s heavily theological, with overtones of the intense theological grievances that the West and East have had against each other. It’s incredible–he’s playing right into what Osama bin Laden is preaching. That’s exactly the goal of Osama bin Laden–to cast this as a civilizational struggle–and it’s not that. Osama bin Laden is leading a cult of extremists that would be easily isolated if this country were sophisticated in the way it’s dealing with this issue–which it’s not.”

“One of the things I like to do when I’m writing anything,” says Falsani, “is to look at how people define themselves and how religion plays into that self-identity. In this particular warlike situation people seem to be identifying themselves in negative terms–it’s not who they are but who they’re not. They’re not saying, ‘I’m a Christian, and therefore I love Jesus Christ and believe in preferential treatment of the poor and in grace’–which in my book should be what they’re saying. It’s, ‘I’m not a Muslim. I’m not a person who’s not a Christian,’ which means X, Y, and Z.

“There’s no easy answer to situations caused by complicated definitions of self, and we really walked into one. I don’t see an easy way out.”

But isn’t this one situation that was foisted on America?

“We’re as responsible for getting into it as anyone is,” she says. “There’s not a whole lot foisted on the United States. There’s no innocent party in all of this at the end of the day. Certainly we didn’t deserve 9/11, but we were moving in this direction before that happened.

“I’m hoping in the daily coverage–if we get into the situation of daily war coverage–I’d like to at least be mindful of the language that’s used. Fundamentalist, zealot, born-again, evangelical, orthodox. And if we’re going to use them, have a well-thought-out definition of what they mean and be mindful of what they mean. That’s a conversation we haven’t had yet, and I’d like to have it.”

She goes on, “What there is of a dialogue on whether we should preemptively strike Iraq, I don’t think it’s inappropriately being talked about with religious terminology. Being faced with the extreme severity of what a war in this day and age can mean can make people think about fundamental questions, and they’re often appropriately talked about in spiritual language. [But] trying to make it a war between Christendom and the Islamic world is massively and inaccurately oversimplifying it. I think there are people who’d like to make it that on either side of the spectrum–people who can’t talk about the possibility of war in any context ever and the people who say, ‘Let’s go in and bomb the hell out of them.’ There’s a mentality on both sides that says, ‘This is about religion.'”

Was It Something He Said?

Salim Muwakkil wrote a weekly op-ed column for the Tribune for almost five years. His last column ran on February 10, an attack on war against Iraq he told me the Tribune altered “pretty significantly” from what he’d turned in.

Bruce Dold, the editorial-page editor, says he deleted the following passage: “Adolf Hitler justified the Nazi invasion and occupation of parts of Europe as a benign move to protect them from Britain’s imperial tyranny. The Nazis called it Lebensraum. We call it ‘pre-emptive self-defense.'”

Says Dold in an E-mail, “The column misapplied the term [lebensraum, which means “living space”], and in attempting to link U.S. policy to Hitler’s invasion, had an exceedingly narrow explanation of Hitler’s justification for the invasion.”

Muwakkil accepts the edit–“They had a point,” he says–but wishes he’d been given a chance to discuss it ahead of time.

Dold says he read the column so late the night the page was made up that there was no time for a discussion: “The options were to spike the column or edit it so it was suitable to run.” What ran, he says, “was still a strong anti-war piece.”

After it ran, Dold told Muwakkil he’d decided to drop him as a columnist, though he was welcome to continue as an occasional contributor. Readers noticed that Muwakkil wasn’t in the paper any longer, and public editor Don Wycliff addressed the subject in a March 6 column. Questions about Muwakkil deserved a “serious” answer, wrote Wycliff, who made his disappearance sound routine. “At almost five years, his tenure as an op-ed columnist was longer by three years than any of the other local commentators who were part of a rotating ‘wheel’ of columnists who for a time shared the same Monday space.” Dold had decided it was “time to have a different voice” in that space.

Wycliff didn’t discuss the February 10 column. “That column alone did not prompt my decision,” Dold tells me. “I had been thinking about it for some time.” Muwakkil is “a good, provocative writer, and I want to see him on the op-ed page”–but not every week.

At least publicly, Muwakkil has no complaints. He says the Tribune treated him well. “As you know,” he says, “they’ve been under a lot of pressure from many groups, in large part because of my column, and they supported me throughout all of that.” Muwakkil wrote critically of Israel’s conduct in the Middle East, and the Tribune took the heat. But then, the Tribune was also critical.

News Bites

The Tribune put its foot down last week in a long editorial that denounced “those who have tried to shape public opinion by spinning untruths, half-truths and conspiratorial accusations” about the February 17 E2 disaster.

The March 5 editorial went on, “Among the assertions: As patrons attempted to flee the club, security guards barred their exit. (Other versions: Chicago police blocked, or locked, the exit.)”

Didn’t happen. “Video images from cameras inside and outside E2’s front door show no blockage whatsoever as patrons attempt to flee,” the editorial noted. “In fact, through almost all of the key minutes, the door stands open.”

Where did that canard originate? The editorial didn’t say, but here’s a clue. The February 18 Tribune carried a lead story headlined “Locked doors prevented escape from packed club.” This story began: “Security guards blocked the exit of a South Side nightclub early Monday in a failed attempt to control a crowd panicked by pepper spray, witnesses said, creating a crushing, smothering pile-up near the door that killed 21 people.”

Toward the end of last week’s editorial, the Tribune became more forgiving: “In an event so hectic and tragic, some misinformation is inevitable,” it allowed. “In the first hours some witnesses said that guards had blocked the exit to the club, a claim that now appears to be untrue.”

“We weren’t blaming people who recounted shortly after the incident what they thought they saw,” says Bruce Dold. “But we were taking note that incorrect information was still being exploited.” As the original propagator of that incorrect information, the Tribune might have gracefully owned up.

The Tribune and Sun-Times both recently ran editorials critical of Senate Democrats who’ve blocked the nomination of Miguel Estrada to the federal court of appeals. Each editorial asserted its paper’s nonpartisanship on the subject by quoting from an editorial it had carried a few years ago when the shoe was on the other foot–when Senate Republicans were dragging their feet on President Clinton’s judicial nominations.

I went back and read those editorials. The Tribune wrote the one it quoted from in 2000, after Richard Paez had finally been confirmed to the appellate court more than four years after Clinton nominated him. Senate Republicans “have gained a reputation as procrastinators,” lectured the Tribune. “Such stalling is an affront to citizens who expect the federal courts to perform their vital functions in a timely fashion.”

Estrada was nominated by President Bush 22 months ago. Democrats ignored the nomination when they controlled the Senate, and now that they don’t they’ve stymied it by threatening a filibuster. “It’s a shameless display of partisanship,” says the Tribune, its language a little more stinging than it was three years ago.

When a newspaper cries “shame” it’s firing a big gun. The Sun-Times said about the Estrada nomination: “President Bush called the Democratic approach ‘shameful politics.’ We are not revealing a bias when we agree–the nation needs good judges from both parties.”

Five years ago, when Republicans were holding up dozens of Clinton’s judicial nominations, the Sun-Times urged the Senate “to stop playing politics” with the judicial systems. That’s as rough as the language got, and the editorial promptly reminded readers that the Republicans weren’t doing anything the Democrats hadn’t done during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush presidencies.

In the case of Estrada, the Sun-Times sounds immeasurably more vexed. “Who can look at the spectacle of the 108th Congress,” it asks, “and not believe that both justice and the basic operation of the nation is being sacrificed on the altar of ugly, obstructionist, partisan politics?”

The Tribune made a big change last week, renaming its Sports Final edition the Final edition. “For details on further enhancements,” said the page-one advisory, “please see today’s Metro section.” And still only 50 cents!

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.