God botherers needed in newsrooms

It is a fatal mistake to overlook the role of theology in geo-politics

By Tim Marshall, May 7, 2009

In the heart of most newsrooms is a God-shaped hole. Most journalists are not grounded in even basic theology, which means we risk misunderstanding the impact of religion on a raft of stories from Bosnia to Baghdad to Beeston. The global growth of Christianity, the rise of Hindu nationalism and the theology of revolutionary movements are often overlooked.

I was reminded of this on hearing that the Egyptian government is to kill all swine in the country to “combat” swine flu. The 400,000 pigs are owned by Christians who have an uneasy relationship with the majority population. I made a bad joke in the newsroom: “Maybe they will only kill the first born,” and was met with the sort of blank look I get when, offered a biscuit, I respond with the Christian saying: “Get thee behind me Satan!”.

So far so inconsequential, but in our post-Christian society, journalists’ failure to have religious knowledge, alongside an understanding of history and politics, means we frequently fail to explain how, for example, the Al Qaeda franchise has a global agenda and strategy, and that the label “anti-Western” covers another truth: that the jihadists are anti Hindu, Buddhist, Jew, Christian and Baha’i.

This is well explained in a new book, Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion (Oxford University Press). It quotes the commander of the attack on Khobar in Saudi Arabia who killed several Europeans: “then we found several Hindu dogs and cut their throats… the manager was a vile Hindu”. When this attack is mentioned, most stories will repeat that it was an attack on “‘Westerners”. This is said of the Bali bombing and fails to recognise that the attack took place in Indonesia’s only majority Hindu territory and was linked to the UN backing for East Timor’s independence — which, in turn, was linked to the bombing of the UN HQ in Baghdad. There are many other examples.

Anyone who studies the philosophy of the Al Qaeda franchise quickly discovers it is open about its agenda. The world is divided into the House of Islam and the House of War. The strategy is to de-stabilise the “apostate” leaders of Muslim countries, unite all Muslim lands under one ruler and then move on the House Of  War. The attempts to achieve this can be seen in the attacks in Saudi, Jordan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kenya, et al. The book examines Al Qaeda’s public pronouncements. This is Bin Laden in 2001: “This war is fundamentally religious. Those who try to cover this crystal clear fact… are deceiving the Islamic nation.”

Our blind spot also affects our coverage of Iran. Unless you understand the Persian Shia you can’t understand the Iranian nuclear debate. There are two schools of thought. First, that Iran is rational and so would never use a bomb, knowing the consequences to itself. Or: the religious leadership genuinely believes that God’s plan is for Iranian Islam to dominate the world, so martyrdom is rational to usher in the return of the Hidden Imam.

The above contests the mantra that “our foreign policy is to blame”. Sure, it’s a factor in what is happening. But to discount the theology of the main actors on the stage is to miss one of the fundamental truisms of our time: that God is on a winning streak.

Tim Marshall is foreign editor of Sky News

Last updated: 4:06pm, June 2 2009