Religion and Democracy at Odds for Some Afghan Youth

by Katherine Davis

In what was widely lauded as a sign of increasing stability in Afghanistan, 7 million Afghan voters headed to the polls this week.

The Taliban had pressured Afghans not to take part in the vote. They even threatened that anyone with blue ink on their finger—signifying they had voted—would be a target for violence. But, with the exception of a few minor attacks, the polling took place relatively peacefully. Many publications wrote about the event optimistically.

Thijs Berman, from the European Union’s team in Kabul, told the Associated Press, “This in itself is a victory over violence and a victory over all those who wanted to deter democracy by threats and violence.”

To be sure, the election is a large step forward for the war-torn country. These elections will replace Hamid Karzai, who has been in office since the Taliban was ousted in 2001. Karzai has now reached his term limit. In the country’s most recent elections in 2009, Karzai is believed to have rigged the vote for his own reelection. It is just one of many incidents that gives Afghanistan its reputation for being one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

Not surprisingly, the frontrunners in this year’s election are all making anti-corruption promises in their campaigns.

So as the world looks on, many hope this election will mark a new era in Afghan politics, one in which democracy reigns and a new, fairly elected leader will be able to negotiate with the United States over a withdrawal of foreign troops so that the country can peacefully rebuild.

But are these interpretations of events in the Western news media overly hopeful? Are we imposing a Western school of thought on the situation, assuming that all people—Afghans included—must want democracy?

The Atlantic’s coverage of the election offers another point of view, one which many publications fail to consider—that of some young Afghan voters.

Uri Friedman wrote, “What lessons will young Afghans—the country’s future leaders—draw from the last decade and a half of war and instability? Will they work to improve Afghan democracy and elect more effective and accountable leaders, or will they spurn the democratic process in favor of a system they perceive as superior?”

Demographically speaking, Afghanistan is an extremely young country. Nearly 70 percent of Afghans are under the age of 25. That means the majority of the country was either not born, or a small child when post 9/11 U.S. involvement in the country began. As the Atlantic explains, for many young voters in Afghanistan, “democracy” is something they can only associate with more than a decade of foreign involvement, war and corruption.

That is why for some young Afghans, alternatives to a democratic government have major appeal. The Atlantic quotes Borhan Osman, a political analyst in Afghanistan: “Religious groups have often offered as an alternative the form of an Islamic state based on sharia law. This discourse pits an ‘Islamic’ system against a democratic system.”

For a small but growing group of educated young people in Afghanistan, where more than 99 percent of the population is Muslim, Osman says, an “Islamic state” feels more patriotic than the imported, Western concept of democracy.

Osman also wrote on the Afghanistan Analysts Network, “For these youths, democratic elections are part of jahiliyya (paganism) and against Allah’s hakimiyya, the rightful sovereignty and rule of God.”

If no clear winner comes out of the April 5 elections, a run-off vote will be held in May. For now, Afghanistan is on the path to democracy. But the direction the next generation will decide to take their country in years to come has yet to be determined.

“Religion, Democracy and the Arab Awakening” April 25, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism

RD&AA poster
“Religion Democracy and the Arab Awakening,” sponsored by the USC Center for Islamic Thought, Culture and Practice, the USC Knight Program in Media and Religion and Global Post, is a one-day conference aimed at advancing knowledge and strengthening coverage of a critical topic. The conference will conclude with a keynote address by Professor Tariq Ramadan at 5 p.m. in the Annenberg Auditorium. A reception will follow.

To RSVP, visit

Hindu nationalism takes driver’s seat in Indian election

Indian billboard


MUMBAI — His face is everywhere in this coastal city of more than 12 million, India’s commercial capital and the home of Bollywood. His chosen hue is saffron, Hinduism’s most sacred color which is splashed on the glitzy billboards adorning busy overpasses, the signs of supporters at street corner rallies and the cups of chai handed out at political tea parties.

He is Narendra Modi, the leading political face of a growing Hindu nationalist movement and a leading candidate in India’s national elections, a six-week, $5 billion “festival of democracy” which gets underway Monday. Voters will elect a lower house of parliament that will represent the country’s 1.2 billion people — and NaMo, as he is known, has seized the moment.

The charismatic, gray-bearded prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and his allies say they are hell-bent on cleaning up deeply ingrained political corruption, kickstarting India’s sputtering economic growth and boosting the country’s prestige on the world stage. Modi is expected to win a seat in parliament and his party favored to secure considerably more clout in a multi-party election that could even yield a rare majority for the BJP.

But there are many critics here in Mumbai, the birthplace and traditional stronghold of the incumbent Indian National Congress, who oppose the BJP’s platform. Despite reassuring language of Hindu ideals of tolerance and acceptance, these critics say the BJP’s policies run counter to those ideals. Though the BJP has won power before, holding the majority from 1998 to 2004, there is a sense that the current nationalist wave represents a more fundamental shift in India’s identity.

“They believe in the hegemony of a particular religion, which has never been practiced in this country,” said Indian activist Simpreet Singh, who advocates for Mumbai slum dwellers facing eviction due to development projects.

Kevin Douglas Grant reports on the politics of religion in India’s upcoming elections for GlobalPost.

The Roots of Nigeria’s Religious and Ethnic Conflict

Nigerian Army forces man a checkpoint to protect Sunday Christian prayer services in Sokoto, Nigeria on April 14, 2013, where less than 5 percent of the population is Christian. (Ed Kashi/VII/GlobalPost)

Nigerian Army forces man a checkpoint to protect Sunday Christian prayer services in Sokoto, Nigeria on April 14, 2013, where less than 5 percent of the population is Christian. (Ed Kashi/VII/GlobalPost)

Modern Nigeria emerged through the merging of two British colonial territories in 1914. The amalgamation was an act of colonial convenience. It occurred mainly because British colonizers desired a contiguous colonial territory stretching from the arid Sahel to the Atlantic Coast, and because Northern Nigeria, one of the merging units, was not paying its way while Southern Nigeria, the other British colony, generated revenue in excess of its administrative expenses.

It made practical administrative sense to have one coherent British colony rather than two. It also made sense to merge a revenue-challenged colonial territory with a prosperous colonial neighbor, so the latter can subsidize the former.

The amalgamation made little sense otherwise and has often been invoked by Nigerians as the foundation of the rancorous relationship between the two regions of Nigeria. Northern Nigeria, now broken into several states and three geopolitical blocs, is largely Muslim. It was the center of a precolonial Islamic empire called the Sokoto Caliphate, and its Muslim populations, especially those whose ancestors had been part of the caliphate, generally look to the Middle East and the wider Muslim world for solidarity and sociopolitical example. The South, an ethnically diverse region containing many states and three geopolitical units, is largely Christian. The major sociopolitical influences there are Western and traditional African.

Moses Ochonu, associate professor of African history at Vanderbilt University, traces the roots of the conflict between Nigeria’s Christian and Muslim populations for GlobalPost’s Special Report, “A Bridge in Kaduna: Crossing Nigeria’s Muslim Christian Divide.”

Secularism on the decline in France

French far-right Front National (FN) party president Marine Le Pen (C) speaks during a political rally in Beaucaire in support of the local municipal FN candidate, on February 22, 2014.

French far-right Front National (FN) party president Marine Le Pen (C) speaks during a political rally in Beaucaire in support of the local municipal FN candidate, on February 22, 2014.


PARIS — When 34 percent of surveyed voters admit they agree with the ideas of a political movement that is protectionist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim and anti-Euro, France has a problem.

France’s far-right political party, Front National, has surged in popularity over the past year to its highest level in thirty years. Led by European Parliament Member Marine Le Pen, the party has bragged it could win elections in at least 15 cities this year.

Emma-Kate Symons reports on the rise of the extreme right in France for GlobalPost.



Covering the Long History of Ethnic, Religious Violence in Crimea

by Heather McIlvaine

Last week, armed men wearing military uniforms displaying no markings of nationality – but widely assumed to be Russian – seized control of Simferopol International Airport and a military airfield in Crimea, an autonomous peninsula in southern Ukraine.

On Sunday, Russian President Vladimir Putin openly sent hundreds of troops to the peninsula in response to calls for help by pro-Russian Crimean leaders. As a result, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk accused Putin of declaring war on his country, warning the world, “We are on the brink of disaster.”

With that, the media’s gaze officially shifted from weeks of bloody protests in Kiev to the escalating tensions in Crimea, a region with its own fraught ties to Russia and a long history of ethnic and religious violence.

Here, the narrative is considerably more complex than the simple East-West dichotomy that many reporters relied on to explain the events in Kiev. For the most part, the Western news media did their history homework before parachuting into Crimea.

For example, early last week, New York Times reporters identified the significance of the Muslim population in the peninsula, a group that largely was absent from Kiev coverage: “With cries of ‘Allahu akbar,’ Arabic for ‘God is great,’ thousands of protesters in the capital of Ukraine’s Crimea region, a tinderbox of ethnic, religious and political divisions, added an Islamic voice on Wednesday to the tumultuous struggle for Ukraine.”

In another article titled “Crimea’s Bloody Past Is a Key to Its Present,” the Times touched on key historical events that give much-needed context to the current conflict.

For one, Crimean Tatars – a minority group of Turkish-speaking Muslims indigenous to the peninsula – were deported en masse to Soviet labor camps in Uzbekistan after World War II and were only able to return to their homeland after the fall of the Soviet Union. (The Times didn’t reach as far back as 1783, when Russia annexed the region, beginning a centuries-long period of exile and massacre for Crimean Tatars.)

And then there’s the fact that Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev gifted Crimea to Ukraine in 1954. This was mostly a symbolic gesture at the time, but with the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, it left Crimea’s ethnic Russians feeling as if they were living in a foreign country.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that pro-Russian Crimean leaders called on Putin to intervene in what they saw as an illegitimate pro-Western government takeover in Kiev.

And it’s also clear why Crimean Tatars feel the need to add their Islamic voice to the protests: For them, the idea of Russian invasion is more than just an ideological dispute; it’s a historically familiar threat to their very identity.

Al Jazeera homed in on this aspect of Crimean Tatar identity in its reporting on the conflict, and the AP also presented key historical context. Other outlets like BusinessWeek probed the region’s close relationship with Russia.

Today, ethnic Russians make up 60 percent of the Crimean population, while Ukrainians account for 25 percent, and Crimean Tatars 12 percent.

All of this makes a quick Russian exit from Crimea seem unlikely, leaving the U.S. and Europe in a difficult position. As a Times news analysis explained, economic sanctions and political isolation proved ineffective in convincing Putin to pull troops out of Georgia when ethnic Russians were agitating for independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008. It seems unlikely the situation will be different, this time around.

Moreover, the U.S. needs Russian cooperation in dealing with Syria and Iran, and Europe may be leery of cutting off its largest supplier of natural gas.

One thing is certain: the U.S. news media will likely be covering the conflict in Crimea for a while longer. Reporters must continue to give space to historical context and cultural nuance, as many have done so far.

Because ultimately, the conflict is about identity: What does it mean to Russian or Ukrainian or Crimean Tatar? And what happens when the lines drawn around your country on the map don’t reflect that identity? Complex questions deserve thorough, intelligent answers.

Anne Frank and Antisemitism in Japan

by Grace Lim

Japanese authorities revealed on Friday that almost 300 copies of Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl had been mutilated in public libraries in Tokyo and other nearby cities. The landmark book portrays the experience of a young girl during the Holocaust, and is read all over the world. This book and other related Holocaust books were found with pages ripped out, rendering them unreadable.

The motivation behind the vandalism is still a mystery, as authorities continue the search on who did it. The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Los Angeles-based Jewish human rights group, issued a press release that reporters quoted in their stories.

“The geographic scope of these incidents strongly suggests an organized effort to denigrate the memory of the most famous of the 1.5 million Jewish children murdered by the Nazis in the World War II Holocaust,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the center’s associate dean.

“Only people imbued with bigotry and hatred would seek to destroy Anne’s historic words of courage, hope and love in the face of impending doom,” Cooper added.

BBC coverage of the event said that there has not been Jewish settlement in Japan, and the country has “no real history of anti-Semitism.” It also quotes an Israeli expert on Japanese history and culture who said that the book has been “exceptionally popular and successful in Japan.” This article emphasized the innocence of the Japanese at large, suggesting that this must be an isolated incident.

On the other hand, the New York Times report alluded to some Japanese magazine articles and books that deny the Holocaust ever happened, or that assert there is a Jewish conspiracy behind some historical events. The article refers to a 1979 book that incorrectly claimed the name of the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima meant “kill the Emperor” in Yiddish. The Times’ coverage suggests that there is some anti-Semite background in Japan, and that the Japanese are capable and culpable of such acts of vandalism.

English-language Japanese media also used accusatory tones in covering the story. Japan Today points toward a “rightward shift” in Japanese politics that could be blamed for the incident. The article accuses nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of making provocative comments about Japan’s wartime past, statements that prompted allegations of revisionism from China and South Korea. The Japan Today story also mentions a 1995 magazine article by a Japanese doctor who said the Nazi gas chambers used to exterminate Jewish people did not exist. The publisher of the magazine that published the article discontinued publication and fired the editor.

The BBC thus seems sympathetic toward the Japanese, whereas American and Japanese news media are unwilling to overlook the country’s former imperialism and its damnable behavior during World War II.

Until the is solved, it might be too soon to cite anti-Semitism as the motivation behind the mutilation of the books. But it’s also understandable why Jewish activist groups are calling the act a “hate crime.” What motivation other than anti-Semitism explains the event?

Still, as journalists we’re told to get both sides of the story, even if both sides are hard to discern. The Times and Japan Today have the right idea: shining some light on the history of anti-Jewish sentiment in Japan may help to expose the truth.

Marianne Williamson and Me

Marianne Williamson on the campaign trail, 2014. Photo by Michael Tighe

Marianne Williamson on the campaign trail, 2014. Photo by Michael Tighe

Marianne Williamson had me at hello. That jumble of first impressions—her reined-in frustration (I’d forgotten to tell her where my classroom was) fading into an I-found-you relief followed by resolute eye contact, a strong handshake and a flash of acceptance—yes, it seemed to say, we are in this together—snapped decades of my inchoate antagonism toward the one of the baby boomers’ most celebrated gurus.

Anyone not under a rock for the past 20 years knows who Williamson is. Since the 1980s, she has taught A Course in Miracles (ACIM), a how-to primer on self awareness and spiritual growth that psychologist Helen Schucman claimed to have received via divine dictation between 1965 and 1972. During the 1980s, Williamson was one among thousands of spiritual seekers studying the workbook, but her lectures brought the material to a wide audience.

Diane Winston, Knight Chair in Media and Religion, writes about Williamson’s candidacy, the spiritual left, and the news media’s religious blindspot.

Who’s He Wooing? Salman Khan’s Trickiest Dance Number

By Matt Hamilton

Last month, Bollywood star Salman Khan inflamed religious divisions when he appeared in public with prime minister candidate Narendra Modi.

Modi, from the center-right Bharatiya Janata Party, has been dogged by accusations that as governor of Gujarat, he allowed riots in 2002 between Hindus and Muslims to fester. More than 1,000 died – the majority of whom were Muslim. Despite charges of government complicity in the riots, Modi was cleared of wrongdoing by India’s highest court.

Khan, son of a Hindu mother and Muslim father, has a career that spans 25 years and includes 90 films.

The actor appeared with Modi at Uttarayan, an annual kite festival in Gujarat, and at first the headlines, like this one from the Times of India, were innocuous: “Salman Khan meets Narendra Modi in Ahmedabad.”

But images of Khan and Modi flying a kite and dining together splashed across newspapers and the internet, even on Modi’s Twitter feed. A firestorm erupted in Indian media, with the Times of India – the country’s largest newspaper by circulation – devoting more than a dozen stories to the matter.

Khan pushed back against criticism of his apparent support for such an unpopular leader among Muslims, praising Modi as a “good man” and adding that Modi need not apologize for the 2002 riots because of the judicial exoneration.

Within 10 days of Khan’s appearance with Modi, the All India Ulema Council – a coalition of Sunni Muslim sects – called for a boycott of Khan’s newest film, which was released Jan. 24.

Two weeks later, the Times of India said Khan “seemingly endorsed” Modi, and later quoted from another representative of an Islamic organization who wondered aloud in colorful language, “Did Salman feel the pain of women and children who suffered during the riots?”

When Khan’s latest film “Jai Ho” debuted to less-than-steller box office figures, the media blamed his alienating Muslim fans, one of whom told the Times of India: “Any Muslim joining Modi is condemnable.”

So why would a popular star appear with a leader who is so unpalatable to a large cohort of his fan base?

By way of explanation, Khan told a Times of India interviewer that he met with Modi “because I want to make Jai Ho tax free in Gujarat.” And reports in the TOI did confirm that Jai Ho received exemptions from the entertainment tax at the behest of the Gujarat chief minister’s office.

What was omitted from most publications – but present in the comment sections and more high-brow magazines like Open Magazine – was the apparent need Khan might have for robust political connections. He’s facing charges for a hit-and-run that killed one person more than a decade ago. “It is for the whole world to see that you are trying to support Modi so that he can return the favour later….:)” said one of many comments suggesting a quid pro quo was motivating Khan’s seeming endorsement.

And several international outlets like Reuters and The New York Times India Ink seized on the cinematic inadequacies of “Jai Ho” as an alternative explanation for the poor performance of film, in addition to the religious outcry.

Thus nuance and context – about the film’s quality, about Khan’s motives – was downplayed or omitted altogether. Instead, The Times of India opted to play up the conflict between Salman’s apparent support of Modi and resulting outcry from Khan’s Muslim fans.

It’s valid to cover this conflict – but ignoring the context and motives of the actors just generates heat for heat’s sake (and newspaper sales and clicks).

Orthodoxy’s Last Stand

By Graham Clark

A political firestorm turned literal in Kiev on Tuesday. Ablaze, the city’s Independence Square became the flashpoint of a conflict that has been heating up for more than a month. The intensifying physical violence has prompted widespread global reaction, including some surprising claims from Ukraine’s religious leadership.

Unrest in Kiev may be a chance for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to reconnect with parishioners and gain relevance in the increasingly intense battle for influence between locals and Moscow. In fact, it may be the last chance.

Ukraine has had a troubled relationship with the Bear since the Soviet Union split. In those days, the Ukrainian Orthodox church kept close ties to the Russian political leadership. An article from Kyiv Post entitled “Moscow’s Plan For Ukraine’s Church” went in-depth on how the Ukrainian church is currently tangled up in Russian politics. Orthodox Christianity is Ukraine’s most popular religious tradition by far, but adherents in the country remained overshadowed by Russian interests.

Heightening the stakes even further, the spiritual leader of Ukrainian Orthodoxy is gravely ill. In the past three years, Father Metropolitan Volodymyr been hospitalized to treat Parkinson’s disease and have a pacemaker implanted. According to a release from the Institute Of Religion And Society, “the independent status of the UOC-MP [Ukrainian Orthodox Church] now rests only on the authority of Metropolitan Volodymyr.” The power to choose his successor will soon be up for grabs.

Ukrainian op-ed writer Daniel Bilak has been chronicling the rise of Russian interests in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church since July of 2013. He goes so far as to suggest that the victor in Ukraine’s current crisis will determine the fate of Orthodox Christian churches worldwide.

How is religion being leveraged for political gain? Yesterday, global news outlets circulated commentary on Kiev’s violence from Sviatoslav Shevchuk, the head of Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church. Shevchuk condemned “the violence and the disregard of human rights and of the people’s will,” writing that, “the one who has authority bears full responsibility for what is happening in this country.”

Russian religious media have reported that monk have playing an informal role in de-escalating protests. The blog “Waging Nonviolence” also  described the Ukrainian Church’s interest in leading conflict resolution.

But that might not be the whole story.

At Saint Andrew Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Los Angeles, politics are being left off the agenda. Here, Father Vasyl Shtelen politely declines to share any personal thoughts about turmoil in Kiev. His wife Maria has slightly more to offer: “I see it on the news, on TV, but,” she said, “I don’t know. We are overseas. They have their own minds.”

Ukrainian Orthodox blogger Alexander Roman even encouraged his readers “not to dwell on the nastiness of the past (and even of the present in Ukraine).” Lacking a strong response to the era’s political upheaval, the future of Orthodox Christianity in Ukraine could be bleak.

According to the Ukrainian Greek Catholic church’s official website, one of the structures torched in Tuesday’s blaze was a makeshift chapel. In the face of Russian advances and mass violence, imagining the Ukrainian Orthodox Church reduced to ashes isn’t much of a stretch.