Conscience Before Deadlines
by Stephen Schwartz
SHKODRA, Albania — Does the mainstream media (MSM) incite the clash of civilizations (COC) between the Judeo-Christian world and Islam? At times, it seems so.
A recent example involves the small country of Albania, which is mysterious to most foreigners. I have published much on the history of mutual interfaith respect among Albanians, who are 70 percent Muslim (mainly Sunnis, but with at least a third comprising Europe's only indigenous Shias). The institution I have founded, the Center for Islamic Pluralism (CIP), seeks to promote the common interest of all monotheistic believers. I have published several articles and comments defending the rights of Greek Orthodox believers in Turkey, the sanctity of synagogues in Gaza, and other issues involving non-Muslims.
Some argue that CIP's efforts to oppose Muslim radicals when they attack other religions are meaningless, because according to such instant experts, nobody in the Muslim world listens to me or to CIP. While I do not intend this commentary as mere self-promotion, since CIP was founded last year, I have met repeatedly with Islamic clerics in the Balkans and Southeast Asia, and, as in the past, with dissident Saudis -- and I sincerely believe our work has a positive effect.
But let me not stray too far from what brought me to Albania. The April 2006 issue of First Things, an American Christian magazine of considerable influence, printed an article of mine calling on the Vatican to do more to help Albanian Catholics preserve their cultural heritage -- not in the face of Muslim aggression, but against the remnants of Communist corruption in politics and legal standards
The article called forth a generous comment from the editor of First Things, Jody Bottum, who also, however, mentioned news reports of Muslim-Catholic conflict in the northern Albanian city of Shkodra, in which Catholics were historically a majority and now make up half the population. Many Catholics have left Shkodra for other Albanian cities where economic opportunities are better. As a Catholic and anti-Communist redoubt, Shkodra continues to suffer, in its social development, from the discrimination imposed on it by decades of Marxist terror. My article, Mr. Bottum's comments, and links to the news stories about Muslim-Catholic tensions may be read here.
Given the seriousness of the matter, and the unfortunate fact that I have been repeatedly and vehemently accused of hiding the bad face of Islam, I took an opportunity -- an invitation to Britain for an event cosponsored by the Organization for the Islamic Conference (OIC), the Saudi-based international body of 57 Muslim-majority states, including the Palestinian Authority -- and have spent a week in Albania, investigating the situation for myself. (I have the further pleasure of announcing that my book The Two Faces of Islam has come out in Albanian, and used the occasion for a launch and interviews regarding it.)
As noted in Mr. Bottum's comments, the alleged conflict in Shkodra involved a bust of Mother Teresa, who is considered a national hero among Albanians. A small group of Muslims in Shkodra protested the erection of an official monument to her, as it might thus appear that the city belonged only to Catholics. It may be observed that the most aggravated reportage on this controversy came from Reuters news service, which has been widely criticized for its politicization. Reuters is infamous for referring to Arabs who commit acts of brutal violence as "militants" rather than terrorists. As usual for the MSM, some crucial comments in the Reuters reportage were solicited in bars and on the street, which may be appropriate when dealing with fires or traffic jams, but is inappropriate for journalism regarding conflicts that may result in bloodshed. But a contrasting report from Associated Press quoted Selim Muca, the leading Muslim cleric in the country, who said, "We respect the contribution of the distinguished figures of our nation, like that of Mother Teresa, who is the honor of our nation."
In Albania, Mother Teresa is omnipresent; the airport at the capital, Tirana, has been renamed for her. In Shkodra, Catholic monuments are commonplace. The style of hijab or "Islamic" covering by women often seen in Kosovo -- older women, that is, in long grey overcoats with headscarves -- is absent here; more on that below. Nearly everyone I met assured me that while there had been a brief dust-up involving some Muslim complaints about the Mother Teresa bust, nothing serious had occurred or was expected to take place. Nevertheless, a local Muslim intellectual told me the uproar reflected the desire of Muslims to make clear they, as well as Catholics, are part of the local scene, and have been so for centuries.
In a visit to a place sacred to every friend of Albanians -- the Franciscan Library of Shkodra, which was destroyed and pillaged under Communism -- I interviewed an avid young man in the brown cloth of the order. Our talk followed an afternoon mass crowded with children and adults, including men -- the latter rare in "Catholic" Spain or Italy. I had earlier heard the church bells, and as we spoke, I listened to the adhan or Muslim call to prayer, from a large mosque nearby -- the Balkan experience par excellence. An Orthodox Christian church stands only a block or two away, although the Orthodox have never had a large presence in the town.
The young Franciscan described to me how Catholics and Muslims in Shkodra, as they have for generations, join together for the holidays of each faith, and how priests in training visit mosques. And he showed me a wondrous thing: Qur'an, the sacred book of Islam, translated and printed in Albanian by Catholics early in the 20th century. They wanted to advance the literacy of all Albanians, so the Catholics printed Qur'an!
The next day I went to Tirana, where I met with a leading Sufi, shaykh Ali Pazari of the Halveti order of Islamic spirituality. The shaykh told me an equally remarkable story: in the 1920s, in poor, isolated, exotic Albania, his grandfather, who was also a leading mystic, was called the "Catholic Sufi" because he called on women to take off their hijab and go to school! Shaykh Ali repeated something I have heard from many Albanians -- that religious leaders must put the national interest first, ahead of religious issues. And he underscored that Sufism, like Catholicism, had its strongest historic roots in Shkodra.
So why should random comments in Shkodra, a town most people in the leading countries never heard of, have elicited the interest of the MSM? Rumors of an interreligious battle in a distant corner of the globe came after the scandal of the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, the global outcry over persecution of a Christian convert in Afghanistan, and similar "big stories" that present Islam in the worst possible light, as well as consistent propagandist "journalism" about Iraq -- ignoring the Saudi role in the violence there, and presenting bloodthirsty terrorists as "insurgents." These offerings by the MSM typically embody misinformation if not disinformation -- Islam does NOT ban the depiction of the Prophet, and Islam lacks a body of consistent practice regarding changes and fusions between religions, as I recently noted in TCS Daily. I have repeatedly pointed out, here and elsewhere, that Iraqis themselves do not view the killers of the innocent in Iraq as a "resistance," but as Saudi-financed Sunni aggression.
Could it be that the cynical principle, "if it bleeds it leads," and a desire to make the global situation worse -- since efforts toward its betterment would presumably conflict with the supposed "objectivity" of the MSM -- have made journalists more complicit than any government in the worldwide nightmare we all face? I am a journalist, and do not want to believe this. I have argued that reporters are "first responders" and cannot be expected to understand the nuances of Islam. But I increasingly feel I am wrong about that, because I am also a Muslim, and an American, and I want to prevent the clash of civilizations, not stand aside as more people fight and die. Nobody accepted such neutral conduct by journalists in the late 1930s, facing the challenge of fascism; nobody should accept it in the context of a planetary struggle against Islamofascism or its mirror-image, Islamophobia.
Jews say: before there is Torah, there is bread. That is, before prayer comes work to survive. But an ethical person does not justify lies by the need to earn bread. Before deadlines, there is, or must be, conscience.