In the last post, ReligionWriter was speaking with video and text blogger Amar Bakshi about the religious ideas he found while traveling in Britain.

In this segment, Bakshi shares the insights he gained as a roving blogger in Pakistan to explain why Osama bin Laden is so popular there, and how differing perceptions of his own religiosity affected his reporting.

ReligionWriter: A poll this month found that Osama bin Laden has a 46% approval rating in Pakistan, making him more popular than Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf (38% approval rating among Pakistanis) and U.S. President Bush (9%.) To most Americans, those numbers for Bin Laden seem absolutely horrifying. What would you say to help Americans make sense of them?

Amar Bakshi: It’s surprisingly easy from a distance to separate human tragedy from political spectacle. Just as numbers of casualties can blur in the minds of people who are far away, so the human tragedy of 9/11 can blur for people who are far away, especially if they are spoken to in a certain way about it. I think very few Pakistanis actually advocate the suffering that 9/11 represented for Americans.

To some of the people I spoke with, Osama bin Laden represents slap in the face of U.S. power and prestige and invincibility. That as political gesture appeals to people who feel America has undermined their right to self-determination, their economic prosperity — whatever their grievance is.

In Pakistan, as in many countries besides the U.S., historical memory, and the mythologization of that memory, is very powerful; Pakistanis well-remember America’s involvement in the rule of [former military leader] Zia ul Haqq. Ironically, they are objecting to the radicalization of Islam and the loss of liberty that his rule entailed — in a convoluted way, that is associated with America in the minds of Pakistanis. There are similar analogies in Iran.

RW: Is anyone who supports Osama bin Laden necessarily a violent enemy of America? Is it possible to humanize that bin Laden supporter? Is there any common ground to work with?

Bakshi: The whole pursuit of “How The World Sees America” — and for some people, I’ve learned, my approach is quite controversial — is to humanize these guys. How are you going to say 46 percent of a country of 160 million are fundamental enemies? That’s ridiculous. If you go to other countries, the numbers are just as staggering, if not more so.

To make an enemy, in our minds, of 300 or 500 million dispersed people is ludicrous. So you’re going to have to humanize. I can see the headline: ‘Humanizing Bin Laden Lovers.” Put that way, you can just dismiss the idea, but that’s far too simplistic.

There is a huge spectrum of what that support actually means. Would any of these guys lay down their lives for him? If you ask that in a poll question, I don’t think the number would be high. So what does it mean to them to support someone like bin Laden? And what is it they are searching for? These types of questions usually have very personal answers. That’s very much what this project is about: what are those personal answers?

RW: Do you mean everyone has a story like “a CIA agent killed my brother?”

Bakshi: Each act that takes place affects 100 people around that act. Social networking thought might help here. When one person dies in Afghanistan, 100 people are vividly seared by that event, and that affect ripples outward. What look from here like small mistakes can multiple quite rapidly in people’s psyches. So, sure, “the CIA agent killed my brother” is not a very likely or common scenario, but one act can have more impact than you think.

Then, of course, anti-Americanism is very much exploited by political parties, by imams wanting more power or prestige, or in organizations where anti-Americanism is a way of expressing belonging. So you might start with a rational reason for disliking America — maybe a CIA agent really did kill your brother — but this drumming up of hype can quickly lead things to spiral into the irrational.

There are two things at work here. First, we have got to figure out what policies of ours might be dangerous for us in terms of perceptions in the long term. I think that’s an important consideration, and one that we can control. Then we have to see some things for what they are: for example, political infighting in which orthodox people attack moderates by claiming they are pro-America. Really that has nothing to do with America, it’s really about moderates and extremists battling each other within their own society.


RW: Tell us a little about your own religious and cultural background. What sort of Hinduism were you raised with?

Bakshi: I went to Episcopal school, St. Albans, where I was on the vestry. My mother is a spiritual woman, but no one in my family is particularly religious. To me, religion is a way of ordering your spirituality, of disciplining it. The idea is a certain practice gets your spirituality richer or better.

I have been free to dabble in a lot of different things and read a lot of books, both as literature and for teasing out how to live life. In terms of what practice I want to use to discipline my spirituality, I haven’t decided yet, but I’m not opposed to picking one eventually.

If anything, my family is Hindu, but there are Muslim influences as well, and of course I went to Christian school, and my mother tried to send me to Hebrew school -

RW: Hebrew school?

Bakshi: I was young, and at the time, my mother thought it was a just beautiful language, with beautiful stories, and she always dreamed of going to Jerusalem. She still does.

RW: You were born and raised in Washington D.C. Before you went to India for your blog, had you been to there before?

Bakshi: Growing up my mother never really wanted me to see India or learn Hindi. My parents had just recently migrated to the U.S., they were struggling to fit in, and my mother was fighting her own gender war to define herself as a physician, and she thought Indian culture didn’t help her in that. But when I was 15 I went back to India when my mother set up a local scholarship for a girl in Mysore, where she was from. I got really interested in local crafts people and set up something called Aina Arts, which links crafts people up with art markets.

RW: You are often mistaken for a Muslim. How has that experience affected you and your reporting?

Bakshi: One reason I don’t want to talk much about my religion online is that I love being mistaken for any number of things. In Latin America, I’m taken for Latin American. When I introduce myself to Muslims, I’m assumed to be Muslim, and Hindus assume I’m Hindu; I know enough about each to hold my own.

I go to a lot of Muslim services around the world, wherever I am. It’s a great way to connect and meet people, and I don’t feel badly doing it.

RW: You mean you would go to Friday prayer at a mosque and pray yourself? As part of your reporting for the blog?

Bakshi: Yes. (Laughs.) I have gone to Friday prayer and prayed, often out of sign of respect; I would be with a bunch of people who were going to pray, and it seemed rude to say, “I’ll wait outside.” In high school, I said the prayers every day, and I wasn’t Christian. I was head prefect of my school for a while, and at every ceremony I had to give a prayer, which I ended with “Amen.” One teacher told me it was just a sign of respect.

So that’s how I interpret it. [Blending in] helps me meet a lot of people, and I earn a lot of trust as a result of being ambiguous. I have no hesitation about that, because ultimately I think it’s foolish for there to be divides on the basis of religion, and I’m perfectly happy moving between them.

RW: So you go to a madrassa in South Asia and act like a Muslim, salaam aleikum and all that, and later they find out you’re not officially a Muslim: What happens next?

Bakshi: I never lie. If someone asks me “what are you,” I say exactly what I told you: my parents are Hindu but they are spiritual; I have devout Muslim and Sikh ancestors not that far back; I went to a Christian school, and basically I haven’t decided for myself yet.

I’ll be around the most hard-core Muslim guys you can imagine, and all they’ll say to me is:”Look, brother, this is not a good way to be, you have to choose.” They won’t say, “You snuck into our mosque, how dare you.” I’m happy to have them present to me the values they find in their faith. If anything, that’s when their passion really comes out.

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Amar Bakshi has what for many people would be a dream job: the 23-year-old recent college graduate travels the world, capturing the thoughts of ordinary and not-so-ordinary people in word and image. Bakshi’s text and video blog, “How The World Sees America,” appears on Washington.Post.Newsweek.Interactive’s foreign affairs blog, Post Global. This summer, Bakshi traveled to England, Pakistan and India. He’s briefly back in his hometown of Washington D.C. before heading off to the Middle East, South East Asia and Latin America in October.

ReligionWriter caught up with Bakshi this week to ask him what role religion plays in perceptions of America and how he manages his own “ambiguous” religious identity while traveling. Part One of the interview appears today; Part Two will appear on Monday.

ReligionWriter: How did you manage to create this assignment for yourself?

Amar Bakshi: I always wanted to see more of what life was like in places where headlines were happening. CNN clips are nice, but they’re short, and I never could figure out, say, what the woman in the background’s life was all about. I was working on Post Global, and I first pitched the idea of doing something on ordinary lives through text and video. What the project needed, though, was an overriding question that would hold it all together.

At the time I was still wrestling with my experience in Zimbabwe, where I was jailed and then released while researching my senior thesis on media propaganda. One thing that haunted me from that experience was how consistently I was accused of crimes related to being American. After I left Zimbabwe, I read about how this rhetoric about America helps solidify controversial regimes around world, and also about the type of things America has done to develop that reputation. I just blurted that interest of mine out in a meeting one day, and the project clicked: it had a focus.

RW: When people overseas look at America, do they perceive it as a religious nation?

Bakshi: I’d have to say no. Religiosity in the U.S. is now embodied in Bush – he’s the symbol of religious America. Again and again I would hear from people: “I’m against the American government, and I’m for the American people.” But people tend to have more knowledge about the government than the micro-level faith of millions of Americans. A small town church doesn’t make headlines in Pakistan the way Bush’s use of the word “crusade” did. Comments like that really resonate. One of the YouTube clips I kept getting told about in England was a video from 1993 of one of our generals, General Boykin, saying about a battle with a Somali warlord, “I knew our God was bigger.”

RW: So when people overseas think of America in religious terms, they only think of the religious right?

Bakshi: Yes, but there is also a good sense of the religious diversity that America embodies. I heard from Muslims who are really opposed to U.S. government and what is happening right now to their brothers and sisters in the U.S. — there have been a lot of deportations of Pakistanis, for example. But at the same time, a taxi driver in Lahore must just as easily say, “In America Muslims do just fine. My cousins are there earning a lot of money, not being bothered.” So there is a sense of increasingly higher level of injustices, but that at root, America tolerates a lot of religious diversity.

RW: We hear that Europeans tend to see Americans as crazed religious fanatics. Did you get that sense from the British people you met?

Bakshi: In England I heard again and again a feeling of surprise at how overtly patriotic and outspokenly religious Americans seem to be. The two ideas were often conflated, especially when it comes to perceptions of U.S. foreign policy. But in England at least, people spoke with some nuance about different aspects of American religious life, rather than lumping everyone together.

RW: England is known for being much less religious than America; we hear about Anglican churches with only a handful of elderly ladies in the pews. Did you find that to be true?

Bakshi: Public display in general is much more of an American characteristic than a British one, and this applies both to patriotism and religion. England looks at America so demonstrative and crass and tacky and loud. And religiously, America often comes across in similar ways: it’s evangelical, it’s preachy.

There’s a sense around England, “If only we were less demonstrative of our beliefs, the better we could all fit into this polity.” When Jack Straw, the home minister, asked a woman to remove her face veil, there was a huge uproar, but his point was wanting to lessen those differences in public as much as possible.

RW: I have heard that British Muslims are more outwardly traditional-looking than American Muslims — that you’re more likely to see women with face veils or South Asian men in salwar khameez for example. Did you find that to be true?

Bakshi: It’s one of the first things I noticed when I got to Walthamstow or Blackburn. You walk down the street and there are bearded guys everywhere; you could be on a street in Lahore or Malegaon in India. But at the same time, there are a tremendous number of British Muslims who look just like I do, and I’m not terribly religious at all. So it’s easy to get fixated on those strong outward displays of identity.

In Blackburn, what I heard is this: outward displays help to bind together a community that felt itself under seige; identifying marks help them remember what they are fighting for. Of course everyone has a different explanation of what that is.

RW: And why exactly do British Muslims feel under siege?



Bakshi: The grievances of most were largely not religious but civil liberties-oriented grievances. I heard again and again the idea that “our friends are getting jailed, we’re scared, we don’t have jobs, there’s crime.” It wasn’t “the West is too liberal” or “Christianity is at war with Islam.” Of course there is a small minority of extremists that do hold those views, but they are not held by anywhere near a majority of British Muslims.

RW: Do you think emphasizing America’s religiosity is a way to build bridges with Muslims or others worldwide who would otherwise be anti-American?

Bakshi: Absolutely. In London I met an American guy who converted to Islam in prison and later went to Saudi Arabia. He’s not exactly normal, as he was standing in Hyde Park Speaker’s Corner saying some pretty outrageous things, but he made the case that Muslims could common cause with the religious Christian right in America to defend values he felt were being badly blasted around the world by a growing ethos he nebulously defined as consumerist and sexual. He saw a strong ally in conservative Christian American for a political and religious agenda of combating abortion and stopping sex before marriage and any number of different things. He said that as he traveled around Saudi, he advocated this strategy.

On the other hand, the people who don’t want religion in public life, who think religious displays should be tamed down, for them America’s religious center is not really seen as an ally. It’s seen as a problem of religion growing into the public sphere. In England in particular, I heard the sentiment that religious expression needs to be reigned in.

Coming Monday: Bakshi offers explanations of why Osama bin Laden is more popular than President Musharraf in Pakistan, and how his own fluid religious identity has impacted his reporting.

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When the Dallas Morning News’ award-winning religion section, one of the country’s only stand-alone faith sections, folded back into the rest of the paper in January, 2007, due to insufficient ad revenue, observers in the field worried about the decline of religion journalism. Wrote Martin Marty: “We have reason to shed a tear” because, in his view, content produced for the web tends to focus on “outrageous or attention-grabbing coverage,” thus sidelining the more complex religion topics.

Just a few months before the section folded, however, the religion team at the DMN, including long-time religion reporter Jeffrey Weiss, launched its own religion news blog, DallasNews Religion. Today Weiss is a main contributor to the blog, along with fellow religion reporter Sam Hodges and former religion editor Bruce Tomaso.

Just as the paper’s religion section was once an industry standard, so now its blog may be leading the way for print-based religion reporters, who, willingly or reluctantly, are beginning to blog.

ReligionWriter recently phoned Weiss to talk about journalistic integrity online, time management and the filter-feeder nature of blogging.

ReligionWriter: How did the blog get started?

Jeffrey Weiss: The editorial board of the Morning News started blogging three or four years ago – very gingerly, as a toe-in-the-water kind of thing. Last year, it became clear the religion section was going away. We decided, “Let’s do it.” It was something our bosses wanted us to do, and, frankly, it smelled like the future.

RW: Were you positive about the idea at the time?

Weiss: I was reluctant because I knew it would take a lot of time. Was it going to be worth the effort? Would enough people be willing to be involved? Would we have enough material? I had no answers to those questions. But some of the energy that had been devoted to the section was now available for the blog, and, actually, it’s worked out pretty well.

RW: What’s your blog’s purpose?

Weiss: It has several. First, it gets information out to people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to get to it easily. We post a very broad spectrum of stuff, from intensely local denominational meetings to Supreme Court decisions. Some days I feel like a barnacle: A barnacle sits on its pier, filters the water, pulls out the best stuff and eats it. In my case, I post it.

But we also do exclusive content. When I write a long story for the paper, I will have reported fifty pages of notes and used about five. So I post the best of the stuff that didn’t make the cut.

The blog is also about interactivity. It’s a way to have a conversation, especially with the regulars. We have probably half-a-dozen regular commenters; I think of them as the two old guys in the balcony of The Muppet Show, tossing out their opinions. Frankly, a lot of the comments aren’t that wonderful, but every so often, I’ll get a thoughtful one, where someone has taken the topic, processed it, and provided valuable new content. That’s when I think, “Boy, am I glad we’re providing a space for this.”

RW: Who do you see as your main audience?

Weiss: Ultimately, we have no way of knowing exactly who is clicking on. I know a lot of other religion journalists read it, along with denominational leaders, local pastors, and at least one chaplain in


. So we have people from all over the world, along with a local crowd.

RW: Do you pay much attention to your site statistics?

Weiss: I pay attention in this regard: the effort has to be worth it. Ultimately, we’re a business, and there has to be enough readers that our advertising department can attract advertisers, enough to justify my time. That doesn’t necessarily mean huge numbers. We’re trying to figure out: Are there things we can do to boost the numbers?

RW: Can you tell us how many visitors you get each month?

Weiss: I’m not going to do that, but I can say the numbers are much larger than they were six months ago, and they continue to creep up.

RW: How do you plan to boost traffic?

Weiss: We are trying to put key words in the headlines and make the first line really substantial, because Google is starting to index the blogs a lot better. I’m thinking more strategically; now, for example, our blog is cross-posted at [the WashingtonPost.Newsweek.Interactive multi-contributor blog,] On Faith.

RW: Do you feel like you’re in a new field now — online journalism?

Weiss: Five years from now, the distinction between print and online won’t make any difference. Am I an online journalist? Of course. Am I an offline journalist? I’m that too. Are their differences? Yes, there are. The voice I use on the blog is different from the voice I use for the front page of the paper.

RW: How’s your blog voice different?

Weiss: It’s looser, much more conversational. I’ll use Internet abbreviations like NYTimes; I’m much less attentive to AP style. I am, however, pretty careful about not expressing opinions in controversial matters. I might write that something is “interesting,” and you’ll get analysis out of me if I believe something is illogical. But you’ll never find me writing, “I believe abortion is right or wrong.” But even there, the line is a lot blurrier than it was even five years ago.

RW: Is blogging, at the end of the day, all about opinion?

Weiss: There is no predicate to the sentence that begins “blogging is all about….” Blogging is whatever the blogger wants it to be. There is plenty of straight journalism blogging out there; look at Romenesko. Is that about opinion? It’s a link-o’-links. If there’s an opinion expressed there, it’s: This is what Romenesko thinks journalists ought to look at. Blogs ought to be giving you something you don’t get in dead tree content. But whether it is opinion or analysis or just additional content, it depends on the blogger and the audience.

RW: You don’t feel badly that the blog is not more personal or point-of-view driven?

Weiss: It probably does need more voice. The convention of online writing and reading is voice-ier than dead tree. I happen to like that; I find that somewhat liberating. But writing on a blog does not mean you give up the conventions of journalism.

RW: How do you manage the time pressures of blogging?

Weiss: If you’re not careful the blog will eat you alive. You have to be aware of what your responsibilities are and what your bosses expect of you. There are time when I have to tell myself, “Stop now. Go back to the story you’re supposed to be working on.”

On the other hand, an awful lot of what we post is stuff I would have been looking at anyways, like interesting things in my e-mail in-box. I figure I do an hour or an hour and a half a day on the blog, sometimes more.

Today, for example, there are three Supreme Court decisions that have religion angles. In the old days, when we had the religion section, I might have read the decisions and done a piece on them. But the Morning News, like most other newspapers, is doing less national news. So I might instead include the decisions in our blog’s weekly newsletter,


[See the published posting here.]

RW: If you had to break it down, what percent of your time goes to blogging?

Weiss: It’s hard to say, but maybe one-fifth.

RW: Do you feel you should be paid more for a 20-percent increase in your work?

Weiss: Don’t we all? You need to make sure you’re in tune with what your boss wants.

RW: What does that mean?

Weiss: If you’re expected to produce a certain amount of content for the dead tree, then your boss has to understand that blogging doesn’t come on top of that, it comes out of it.

RW: Will the DMN blog look the same in two years or five years? What’s ahead?

Weiss: I sigh deeply, because our horizon is so close. You might as well ask me how I think newspapers will look in fifty years: I have no idea. We will be trying some different things in the nearer future. We have pictures now, maybe we’ll have videos. We’ve talked about having regular features. You look around at other blogs, and ask what they are doing that you like. I’d be surprised if our blog looks the same in six months or a year. But exactly how it’s going to change? I have no idea.

Related Content from ReligionWriter:

“Blogs: Top Religion Reporter Says Blogging is Exciting, Draining and Obligatory”

“An Independent Muslim-American Press? Texas Entrepreneur is Making It Happen”

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Walk into almost any church, and the hierarchy is visually clear: up front on a stage, pulpit or podium stands the person ready to impart wisdom. Sitting quietly in rows are the worshipers, hoping for a good sermon. Why does this arrangement sound familiar? It’s exactly the structure used to describe “old media” like newspapers: know-it-all reporters deciding what’s important for the audience to consume.

Just as bloggers are busy busting that hierarchy to bits — claiming that news and information is all about having a conversation rather than being lectured to — so some Christians see that same potential in blogs: to break down church hierarchies and draw a wider audience into an authentic conversation.

In the Jan., 2007, book from Jossey-Bass, The Blogging Church: Sharing the Story of Your Book Through Blogs, Brian Bailey, writing with Terry Storch, shares his “unabashed enthusiasm” for church blogging. He writes that blogs are:

An incredible opportunity to share the story of the church with a new generation. … Too often, the church is seen as an exclusive club for the already convinced instead of a hospital for sinners. Through blogging, you can connect with your members in an honest, relevant way. You can engage the curious, the lost, and the tire kickers.

The book provides much of the nuts-and-bolts how-tos offered in other general-audience blogging books, such as Bob Walsh’s Clear Blogging, but the authors constantly set the more technical information against a church background. For example, on the question of having more than one church blog, they write, “There is always a need for church-wide communication, but you eventually reach the point where people in the singles ministry might be uninterested in this summer’s junior high beach retreat.”

Perhaps the most humorous and original chapter is entitled “Build a Really Bad Blog,” which has ten quick ways to torpedo your own efforts. Some examples of church blogging deadly sins:

  • Start your blog without getting buy-in from church leaders;
  • Force staff members to start blogging,
  • Or, worst of all, have someone else write a post and sign the pastor’s name (think Katie Couric’s library card.)

To find out how church blogging actually works on the ground, ReligionWriter emailed church-planter Ben Arment, pastor of Reston Community Church in Reston, Va., whom Bailey and Storch praised as an innovative church blogger. Arment responded to these questions by email.

ReligionWriter: How much time does blogging add to your ministry work load?

Ben Arment: I try to be very disciplined about the time I spend blogging. I think of post subjects throughout the day, jot them down, and then publish them on the following morning. It takes me just 30 minutes a day max to write them, so not long at all. I do spend another 30 minutes each day skimming through my blog roll.

RW: Are there any specific initiatives or projects that have evolved directly out of your blog (e.g. a church member makes a suggestion, and it snowballs…)

Arment: Our church recently moved to a new location, which required raising capital for new equipment and promotional expenses. I launched “the One Hundred” project on my blog, where we asked for 100 people to contribute $250 each. We raised $28,000 in just six weeks, and many of the contributions came from my blog readers.

RW: It’s often said that blogs are a “conversation.” Do you find that to be true? In your case, does it lead directly to interacting more with your church members?

Arment: Not for me. I think our congregation enjoys reading my blog to find out what’s going on in my life. It makes me more accessible as a pastor in that way. But I post much too often to stay on the same subject for very long. The comments and feedback I receive are wonderful however.

RW: For you, has writing a blog also meant “joining the blogosphere” — that is, reading and commenting on other people’s blogs?

Arment: My blogosphere is the community of church planters across the country that I have befriended through blogging. So yes, I comment and read other church planters’ blogs on a regular basis. When I attend ministry conferences, they are a lot like “blogger reunions” because I know many of the attendees from the blog world.

RW: What’s the biggest headache you have with your blog? And what’s the thing you’re most proud of?

Arment: Occasionally, people will take their frustrations out on me in the comments section. I’ve been criticized in this public forum, which is not much fun. =) I am most proud of seeing the impact of my ideas ripple through the church community. I see other pastors using my sermon series and outreach ideas at their own churches, which is really rewarding for me.

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As a father of two and a full-time real estate developer in Austin, Texas, Shahed Amanullah has also been able to squeeze in a side-project over the last few years: opening up the American Muslim community to debate and criticism.

After 9/11 attacks, the American-born Amanullah, now 39, watched his community “circle the wagons” under a barrage of sometimes hostile attention and decided to create, a news and opinion site that would allow Muslims to discuss their own issues, on their own terms.

Although has been successful, now receiving more than 8,000 unique visitors a day and sustaining operations through a revenue-generating sister site,, Amanullah is still not satisfied. In an April, 2007, column, “Western Muslims Need a Fourth Estate,” he called for the creation of an independent Muslim press in the U.S., to

explore the religious, cultural, and political plurality within the Muslim community, hold Muslim advocacy groups, businesses, and institutions accountable for their actions, present a forum for the civilized discussion of underrepresented or even controversial opinions, and increase the ability of ordinary Muslims to defend their faith beyond bumper-sticker platitudes.

Amanullah’s forth-right embrace of debate and analysis is winning him an increasing amount of national attention. Named one of ten “young visionaries” last month by Islamica magazine, he was also tapped this month by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to advise the department on fighting terrorism.

ReligionWriter spoke with Amanullah about his impatience with “whitewashed” media articles, his favorite reporters, and his plan for putting to rest the question, “Where are all the moderate Muslims?”

ReligionWriter: Your “Fourth Estate” article has gotten a lot of attention in the American-Muslim blogosphere. Did that surprise you?

Shahed Amanullah: Yes; I didn’t think it would be news to people. Every community has a degree of internal dialogue and discussion that is healthy, and I’ve been struck by how little of that goes on in Muslim community. There’s too much emphasis on enforcing orthodoxy as opposed to respectful debate.

In the center of this storm of politics and media, we’re like a little raft tossed up on the big waves. Issues are thrust upon us; we never set the agenda. When other organizations set the agenda for us, it has a very limited scope: civil liberties or foreign policy. We constantly have to respond to things thrown at us in unfavorable terms, like the issue of extremism. A great example is the “Where are the moderates?” refrain we’ve heard since 9/11. This silence happens because there is no articulate voice. Local Muslim newspapers say, “It’s not our issue.” National Muslim organizations say, “We want to talk about civil rights instead.” There’s nothing in the middle.

RW: Which issue do see as more important: promoting dialogue among Muslims or shaping the media agenda in the non-Muslim sphere?

Amanullah: I don’t separate the two. Part of the message we need to get out to the larger media is that we’re having this discussion, that there is dialogue within the Muslim community about “What is our vision? What are our values as Muslims in America?” The wider media needs to see this conversation is happening. Because when they don’t see it, they start setting the agenda: “Muslims need to start worrying about extremism in their mosques.” If they know that dialogue is already happening, then they can take the cue from us.

RW: Do you feel mainstream journalists aren’t tapping the right sources in the Muslim community? That maybe they rely too much on national organizations like ISNA or CAIR?

Amanullah: I don’t blame journalists; they don’t have anywhere where else to go. I also don’t blame [CAIR spokesman] Ibrahim Hooper Ibrahim Hooper for his interviewing style - his job is to be a media bulldog. His job is not to provide insight that may reveal weaknesses in our community. That job belongs to analysts of the Muslim community. And right now, most people who set themselves up as media-ready analysts on Muslim affairs are not from our community.

RW: Who are you referring to?

Amanullah: Professors, whether Muslim or not, who are in their ivory towers and removed from the community. Journalists who have taken up Islam as their thing, whether it’s Tom Friedman or Daniel Pipes. So many non-Muslims put on the “Islam expert” hat, and they can get away with it, because there isn’t a Muslim alternative who says, “I’m here in the community, and I have the credentials to be authoritative.”

RW: But newspapers don’t necessarily assign evangelical reporters to cover evangelicals - and maybe they shouldn’t.

Amanullah: When you create a fourth estate, you’re not creating cheerleaders. You’re creating people who over time are going to have a reputation of being objective and analytical, critical but also giving credit where credit is due.

RW: Almost every day there are positive, Islam 101-type articles, especially from small-town papers, with headlines like, “Muslims draw closer to God during Ramadan.” Is it really fair to say Muslims are misrepresented in the media?

Amanullah: Those PR-type articles are problematic in their own way. Unless you properly deal with the larger issues, the benefit of these pieces won’t sink in for the average reader. At the national level, you get more contentious articles, assigning blame to all of us for what some of us do. What is missing are articles, either at the local or national level, that say, for example, “Here’s an interesting positive trend in the Muslim community,” acknowledging that we have issues but also that we recognize and deal with them. I don’t want to be patronized by local media or condescended to by national media.

RW: A common thread among the responses to your “Fourth Estate” article was that creating an independent Muslim media will ghettoize the community. Better, they say, for Muslims go to into mainstream journalism. What’s your response to that?

Amanullah: The role of the Muslim media would be to start the dialogue on important issues. At a certain point that percolates up to the national media. Also, it’s a training ground for analytical thinkers, whether they want to continue on into mainstream journalism or Muslim leadership.

RW: If you had 20 journalists sitting in front of you right now, who were going to cover Islam in the next few months, what would you tell them?

Amanullah: Don’t miss the very dynamic debates that can and do happen within the Muslim community. It’s not enough to report on the Muslim community as a zoo specimen: “Let’s see what happens when we poke it here.” Get into the Muslim community at a local level and find out what the debates are.

We’re at a unique time in American Muslim history, when American Islam is still being defined. When people think of Muslims as monolithic, it feeds into the impression that we’re a bunch of sleeper cell operatives. But if you can say, for example, “There’s a big debate right now about intercultural marriage,” that shows a dynamism, and that makes us human.

RW: In your view, who are the best reporters right now covering Islam in America?

Amanullah: At the metro level, Matthai Chakko Kuruvila at the San Francisco Chronicle is head and shoulders above the rest. His attitude toward covering the Muslim community is fascinating; it’s like the difference between looking at a gorilla in a zoo and being Jane Goodall, actually getting in there. At the national level, I’m fairly happy with Laurie Goodstein at The New York Times. Carla Power at Newsweek has done a really good job, and she’s been working on it for a really long time; I first talked to her in 1998. Neil MacFarquhar at The New York Times, generally, is trying to get in at the lower level as well. I really like the reporter I deal with here at the Austin American Statesman, Eileen Flynn.

RW: One could argue the Muslim press right now is looking great. We have altmuslim, first of all. We have Islamica, Illume, Azizah, Muslim Girl and others. Would you agree?

Amanullah: A community of our size should have had an independent media a long time ago, and now we should have a larger one. Of the media outlets you mentioned, only Islamica has any full-time staff that I’m aware of. We’re not talking Christian Science Monitor here. Look at the Jewish community, which has a vigorous free press. Or recently arrived immigrant communities, like the Filipino and Chinese communities — they have many more fulltime journalists. Why don’t we?

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(Below: Sally Quinn, courtesy of

Started by two leading journalists with little background in religion,‡ On Faith, the multi-contributor blog at Washington Post.Newsweek Interactive, has rocketed to prominence since it launched in November, 2006. Although said it does not have data on unique visitors to On Faith and its twin blog, PostGlobal, a similarly formatted “conversation” on global affairs, these two opinion sections together register the highest number of unique visitors after the home page, according to spring 2007 figures. as a whole receives 8 million unique visitors a month.

On Faith moderators Jon Meacham, the managing editor of Newsweek and author of a recent book on the religion of the founding fathers, and Sally Quinn, a long-time Washington reporter, pose searching questions each week, such as “Is America a Christian Nation?” to which a star-studded panel of experts — and the general public- respond. One question posted in December — Why is atheism enjoying a certain vogue? - currently has more than 1,600 comments, the majority of which are long, detailed and thoughtful.

While some religion journalists have enthused about the site, others have questioned whether, as an aggregator of opinions, it serves any news function, and whether the interfaith atmosphere favors more liberal writers. ReligionWriter put these and other questions to Sally Quinn, who spoke about the niche On Faith fills, its planned expansion, and her own “freelance polytheism.”

‡Note: Jon Meacham is the author of the 2006 book, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers and the Making of a Nation.

ReligionWriter: How did your recent interest in religion translate into the blog format of On Faith?

Sally Quinn: I did a piece for The Washington Post’s “Style” section about seven years ago about religion in Washington. I quoted one hostess saying, “Darling, no one ever talks about religion, it’s simply not done.” That piqued my interest: I realized there was an underground of religious people in Washington.

Then, of course, when Bush got into office and all this talk about evangelicals started, I realized religion had a huge impact on politics. I watched poor old [Howard] Dean and John Kerry flounder around in the South and the Midwest, trying to talk about their faith. They are Northerners, and Northerners don’t do that. It was clearly a problem. Then with 9/11 and the war in Iraq, the Sunnis versus the Shiites, the Muslims in Europe, it became clear that in foreign policy it was a big issue, and we couldn’t simply ignore it.

I decided to write a book about religion in Washington, so I started my own research. I felt we weren’t doing enough religion coverage in the Post at that time. Last summer I got the idea to do the website. I suggested it to Don Graham, and he said, “Why don’t you do it?” I said, “I don’t know anything about the internet, and I don’t know anything about religion (laughs.)” Nobody’s perfect.

As it turns out I’m moving away from the book idea. I’m taking all the stuff I would have put it in my book and putting it on the site instead.

RW: So On Faith was filling a gap inside the Beltway?

Quinn: Yes. In the old days, when you went to a dinner party, nobody would talk about going to the church or the synagogue. I’ve been shocked in last year to learn some of my friends actually go to church and synagogue. Not only that, a lot of my friends who are agnostic or atheists never admitted it. Now people are coming out and saying, “I’m an atheist.” People are much more willing to talk about it now, and I think that’s healthy.

My whole goal is to have an interfaith dialogue. People not only don’t understand each other’s religions – they don’t understand their own religions. The more you understand about another person’s faith, the more sympathetic you’ll be to them, it seems to me. You suddenly realize most religions are alike in a lot of ways, particularly in the basic tenets.

RW: I have a question for you from Jeff Weiss of the Dallas Morning News. He asks, why do you think On Faith has been so popular?

Quinn: First of all, we’ve got this amazing panel, there’s never been one like it before, with so many of the world’s leading theologians and scholars and thinkers. That’s been a big draw. Some of our panelists are rock stars in their own areas. I’m amazed – You can’t get them on the phone; they’re always doing interviews and speeches and writing books. They all have big followings, so their people who are interested read the website. A lot of schools and colleges and universities are beginning to use this as a resource, and in some cases using it as part of their curriculum.

Plus, I also think the questions are interesting. We’ve got these “guest voices.” We had a question about Mormons last week, and as a guest voice we had Bill Marriot, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, and Martha Beck, who wrote a book called Leaving the Saints – those are interesting people who have really interesting things to say.

Sometimes panelists who have written books do a guest voice, and we link to their books. It’s better than doing a book review, because people can actually see what it is and read an excerpt of the book. Then we do a question around a book.

T.D. Jakes has a book coming out about repositioning your life. I’m doing a piece about him for the Post “Style” section, and he’s doing a guest voice, and we’ll link to an excerpt of his book. The question we’re asking to the panelists is: Are you satisfied with where you are in your life now? We’ve got guest voices from Bob Schieffer, George Stephanopoulos, Tim Russert and my very own husband, Ben Bradlee, who are all at different stages of their lives: George is in his 40s, Tim is in his 50s, Schieffer’s in his 70s, and Ben is 85. At Easter time, we had Tom Hanks’ wife, Rita Wilson, who’s Greek Orthodox, do a piece about Greek Easter, and how they celebrate it for a whole week.

People know when they go to On Faith they are going to learn something and be entertained and have something to think about.

RW: Jeff Weiss, always a provocative question-asker, also has this question: “Given that most of your bloggers are on the left, are you doing more than preaching to the choir? Are minds being changed?”

Quinn: We do have evangelicals and right wingers. People like Rick Warren and T.D. Jakes are not what you’d call liberals. We’ve had Billy Graham’s daughter as a guest voice, and we’re trying to get her, or Franklin, or Billy, to be on the panel. Sometimes it’s harder to get people who are more conservative.

We have Catholic theologians, but it’s hard for us to get people who are actually in the church. We’ve reached out to many different cardinals and priests who don’t want to do it because they are worried about what they might say, or what the church might say.

So we do have a problem: A lot of people we’ve reached out to just don’t want to do it. But we do have Cal Thomas and Richard Land and Michael Otterson – people with different opinions. I’ve had a number of panelists say to me, “I never would have thought of talking to this person, much less being sympathetic. Yet when I read what they write, I say, ‘I never thought of it that way.’” I wouldn’t say minds have been changed; I would say minds have been opened.

RW: How did you manage to assemble such an all-star panel?

Quinn: I started out with Karen Armstrong, who’s a friend and a mentor to me, and Martin Marty, who’s a friend, and Elaine Pagels. The three of them are so well regarded that when I called up people and said, “Here’s who I have,” everybody else said yes. The only turndowns we’ve had are from people who are reluctant to say what they really think, or think On Faith is not a safe place to say it. Bishop Tutu is a friend, so I got him. Then Jon Meacham reached out to people he knew like Rick Warren and Richard Land. I met Susan Thistlethwaite and T.D. Jakes at Aspen last year, and it went on like that.

RW: Even if the panelists don’t write every week, how can you maintain their involvement in the long term? Won’t they get burned out?

Quinn: Next week, we have a question on atheism, “Is religion man-made?” We will reach out to Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Susan Jacoby and ask them to contribute. Christopher Hitchens, who has a new book God Is Not Great, will do a guest voice, and we’ll link to an excerpt. Then we’ll have atheist and non-atheist guest voices.

RW: I have a question here from Gary Stern, who reports and blogs on religion for The Journal News. He says he finds the On Faith questions very general and asks, “Do you ever want your contributors to go deeper and get into the nuances of belief?”

Quinn: That’s an issue we talk about every week. If we ask questions that are more specific, we get fewer responses from panelists, even though we might get a lot of hits from readers. If the questions are really specific, panelists look at it and say, “This is not my area.” So we’re constantly trying to find balance between questions that anyone can answer – like “are you satisfied with life?” – and more specific questions. Recently we had one about whether Catholics are still being discriminated against, and we had very few answers.

I would like to make a personal request to all the religion bloggers out there: Give us your ideas. I love these questions you’re asking, they are all the right questions. We’ve only been up for five and a half months, and we’re constantly reassessing. I would love to hear from people.

RW: I know some religion journalists look at On Faith and say, “It’s just opinion. It can’t help me with my reporting.” How do you think journalists can benefit from On Faith?

Quinn: I work closely with Lisa Miller, the religion editor at Newsweek. We have four religion writers at the Post – they are really ramping up the team there. We want to create a whole religion section on, where we can have their religion stories, the news wires, and things from other people, so we’d have something like a religion magazine, and On Faith would be part of that.

But you’re right, there’s not a lot of active journalism. That’s why I want to get the religion people at the Post and pull it all together, because On Faith is not really a site for hands-on journalism.

We are getting to point where we’re starting special projects. We have one coming up with imams from all over the world, and I think that’s going to be a huge news maker. We’re partnering with Georgetown University. We’re going to do all the presidential candidates in the fall — have them actually come to Georgetown and talk about their faith — and we hope that will be news making. But we’re just growing. We’re trying to come up with new ideas. I’d love to hear from journalists about how we could make it more appealing to journalists.

RW: A visitor to On Faith could literally spend hours clicking through all the commentary. Is there a point when the amount of content just becomes too overwhelming?

Quinn: You don’t have to read everything. It’s like a daily newspaper: you can go through and find what you want. I’d rather have people say there’s too much than say it’s too thin.

RW: Though one reason some people stop subscribing to newspapers is they are simply depressed by how big the papers are, how much they can’t consume.

Quinn: We keep our guest voices to about 250 words, so they’re short. We’re also starting to do more video. We had one about St. Mary’s City in Southern Maryland, which was founded by Catholics who fled persecution in England. We have a video of a Catholic guy who became a paraplegic after a car accident while a college student at Notre Dame, and how his faith has sustained him. We have this Sufi rock star, Salman Ahmad, and we’re going use his music video, and we had a woman who did [Hindu devotional] carnatic music. We’re also going to do some videos of wounded soldiers and their faith at Walter Reed.

I’m going to start doing some video interviews – what Jon Meacham calls “The Sally Show.” Video is going to make it more lively and appealing to those who just want quick hits.

Keep in mind, we don’t have a staff yet. It’s our editor, our producer and me – it’s just the three of us to keep this thing going.

RW: Are you confident you’ll be able to get the resources you need?

Quinn: Yes, absolutely.

RW: What’s your day-to-day involvement with On Faith?

Quinn: It’s 24/seven. I’m not kidding. I’m at my computer starting at 8 o’clock in the morning, and I’m in and out, but I’m here at 11 o’clock at night. It’s totally full time.

RW: Do you worry about burnout?

Quinn: I’ve never been so excited about anything I’ve done in my entire life. I am absolutely consumed by this. I just took a three-week trip around the world to study the origins of the great faiths – we went everywhere, and I learned so much: seeing these people with all different kinds of faiths, and their devotions that are so different but so similar. I find it riveting; I just can’t get enough of it.

RW: The obvious question, then, is how this has affected your own beliefs.

Quinn: I was an atheist until a year ago and a half ago, I’ve written about that. Jon Meacham talked me out of that, saying, “Don’t define yourself negatively.” I wouldn’t call myself an agnostic, only because I think we’re all agnostics – none of us knows for sure.

There are pieces of each religion I find compelling. Many things I find a turnoff. I don’t like the doctrine or rigidity of some religions. I’m very much, “Live and let live; I’ll respect you, you respect me; and we’ll all live happily ever after.” I’m now writing about book about myself, how I got where I am, instead of the book about Washington.

I so hesitate to use the word spiritual, because it’s become such a tacky pop word, but I’m much more interested in spirituality than dogma. I don’t believe in a personal God, but I believe in the Spirit. What’s magic or sacred for me – the things that give me the most joy – are my family and my friends – I know it sounds so trite – and the work I’m doing now. If you do something you think is helping people, and I believe that’s what we’re trying to do, it can be incredibly satisfying. We all have to find out in our lives what gives us sustenance, and that’s what works for me.

RW: Karen Armstrong has described herself as a “freelance monotheist” and talks about her work as a religious pursuit in and of itself. Do you ever feel that way?

Quinn: I would say I’m more of a freelance polytheist (laughs.) There’s this beautiful goddess of compassion in Tibet, and I felt, “I can believe in that.”

Yes, there is an enormous amount of fulfillment in doing this work. As Karen talks about, what we are all searching for in our lives is the divine. Before this, I did my work, I tooled along, but I wasn’t really impassioned about anything. I didn’t feel the gratitude that I do now.

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Gary Stern, religion reporter at the Gannett-owned Journal News, which serves three

New York counties, launched his blog, On Religion, last September on the newspaper’s website, Posting three to four times a day, Gary, who won the Templeton Reporter of the Year award in 2006, said his blog gets about 7,000 hits a month, a rate on par with’s 45 other blogs (except its wildly popular Yankees blog, which gets 400,000 hits a month). According to the Religion Newswriters Association’s blog page, there are 17 other active religion reporters now keeping blogs.

Last week, ReligionWriter reached Gary, who was in the middle of reading Frank Lockwood’s latest post on Bible Belt Blogger, to talk about the relationship between bloggin and reporting.

ReligionWriter: How do you start your blogging day?

Gary Stern: Honestly, every day is different. Some days I already have a list of five or six things I want to write about. Some days I have nothing, so I check the AP or go to other blogs. I get a lot of stuff from email – I’m on God-knows-how-many email lists from religious organizations; I get dozens a day.

RW: How much is reading other people’s blogs a part of your own blog?

Gary: It’s a part but a small part. I don’t want to get into the habit of relying on any one thing, either other blogs or the wires or emails. I try to go to as many sources as I can. RW: How do you decide what makes “good” material for the blog?

: That’s a difficult question. I have this vague notion of a

New York
audience, and I look for things I think would appeal to it. There are a lot of religious people around [here], but [the audience] is generally people who are interested in other faiths, relations between religious and questions of inclusiveness and tolerance. Items that either illustrate a

New York way of thinking – or an opposite way of thinking – all these things I consider appropriate. But really, there’s no formula, it’s all over the place.
RW: Do you do original reporting that only appears on your blog?

: I do, and I’d like to do more of it – it’s a time issue. A few months ago, I was able to do something I really liked a lot when the Conservative Jewish rabbis had a two-day meeting in

New York City
to decide on their policy toward homosexuality. At the end of the first day, somebody who took part in the meeting called me and described what the tenor of the meeting was like, what issues came up, etc. I wrote a 15-20 paragraph blog [entry] that I was able to get online half an hour after the meeting ending. It was information you couldn’t get anywhere else. To me, that’s ideal.
RW: Are you ever torn between posting information like that on your blog versus crafting it into a regular print story?

: In that case, with the rabbis meeting, I knew that at the second day of the meeting, those issues would be resolved, [and I would write a story about it for the print edition.] So there was no reason to hold any of that stuff back [from the blog.] For other stories, I may put some things on blog – some color, anecdotes, a couple of juicy quotes – and then save the bulk of it for the paper the next day.RW: Are you blogging in your “free time” on the job, or are you cutting back on the number of print stories you write?

: I’m not cutting back on the number of stories, but it’s taking me longer to finish them. Right now, I’m in the middle of probably six or seven stories that I haven’t been able to finish, partly as a result of having to spend 90 minutes a day on the blog. RW: Ninety minutes a day seems pretty efficient, given how often you’re posting and how polished it appears.

: I’m conscious of the blog all day. I’m thinking even before I get here: “What’s the first one going to be? Is there a photo I might want to use? How am I going to open it up?” Even when I’m working on articles for paper, I’m always thinking about the blog. I put as much time into it as I can while I’m doing other things.RW: Do you ever feel, “Now I have two jobs, but I’m being paid the same amount?”

: Everybody feels that way; it’s the state of the business. We also just started a TV show three weeks ago. I spent almost the whole day yesterday going through video for a feature I’m doing, trying to write my first script, which is a whole new world. So now I’ve got the TV show and my blog and my old job.RW: You said everyday you think about content, about art, about presentation for your blog. Do you feel like you’re the editor-in-chief of your own publication?


: That’s a good question. In the newspaper world, you’re part of a team: you have an editor, you working with the photo department, with the graphics department and who-knows-else. You’re right – the blog is my own ballgame completely. It’s entirely up to me what I’m going to cover, what kind of depth I’m going to go into, what kind of variety I’m going to offer, how it’s going to look. That’s a good thing, and a bad thing.

RW: Good because it’s exciting and bad because it’s a lot of work?

: Yes, that’s pretty much it. It’s fun, I enjoy doing it. Now and then, when I have a day to focus on the blog, I really get into it. I see why people who work on blogs full time are able to do something special, like Rocco Palmo does with his Whispers in the Loggia. But when you’re doing it on top of a traditional newspaper job, it’s just a lot of work. RW: Can you sustain the amount of work you’re doing now on the blog?

: I don’t really see that I have a choice. As long as I’m covering religion, I’ll be doing the blog. I was going crazy for a while, blogging six or seven times a day. In the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to keep to three or four. You’ve got to have some moderation.RW: Why not have guest writers that take the burden off of you?

: That’s just a question of coordination. I’ve been meaning, since probably November, to get some outside contributors, maybe some clergy from four or five faith traditions to contribute one post a month each. I still think it’s a good idea, I just haven’t had the time to it.RW: Are there other difficulties of writing a blog while working as a journalist?


: Blogs lend themselves to a point of view, so continuing to be a newspaper guy on the blog is a strange thing. People expect me to have point of view, and I continue to resist that – I wouldn’t want to do that. That makes my blog different from most of the blogs that are out there.

RW: How do you get reader feedback like that?

: A lot of people email me directly, every day, rather than comment on the blog. I don’t know why that is. RW: Do you reply to all those emails?

: I try to answer all of them, but sometimes I just can’t. Like everything, it’s a question of time.

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