Islam

Sen. Bernie Sanders opens up a new front in America's church-state warfare

Sen. Bernie Sanders opens up a new front in America's church-state warfare

Try to imagine the media storm if the following drama ever took place under the hot glare of television lights in a U.S. Senate hearing.

So a Muslim believer who has been nominated for a cabinet-level post is taking questions. A Bible Belt senator asks: "Do you believe that Jesus is the Son of God?"

Or perhaps a senator from a New England state -- say Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont -- asks the nominee: "Do you think Christians who believe in the Holy Trinity will be condemned because they reject the oneness of God?"

Ismail Royer knows what would happen if he faced those questions. He would defend one of Islam's core doctrines.

"I believe Jesus was a prophet of God, but not God himself," said Royer, who works at the Center for Islam and Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C. "I'd have to say that worshipping Jesus alongside God amounts to polytheism and is a rejection of the one God. There is no way that I could apologize for what I believe as a Muslim."

A purely hypothetical case? Not after a recent confrontation during a U.S. Senate budget committee hearing on the nomination of Russell Vought to serve as deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Sanders questioned a Vought article about a Wheaton College controversy, in which a professor made headlines with her claims that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. As a former Wheaton professor, Vought argued that salvation was found through Jesus -- period.

Thus, Sanders said: "You wrote, 'Muslims do not simply have a deficient theology. They do not know God because they have rejected Jesus Christ, His Son and they stand condemned.' Do you believe that that statement is Islamophobic?"

The nominee repeated his defense of this ancient Christian doctrine. Sanders kept asking if Vought believed that Muslims "stand condemned."

Once again, Vought said: "Senator, I'm a Christian …"

Faith in that Barack Obama brand

Here's good news for President Barack Obama: The slice of Americans who believe he is a Muslim is down to 11 percent, according to a new Gallup Poll. That number was up to 18 percent two years ago, in a Pew Research Center survey, after hitting 11 percent in 2009.

This time around, 52 percent of Democrats knew the president is a Protestant Christian, as opposed to 24 percent of Republicans. Only 3 percent of Democrats said Obama is a Muslim, while 18 percent of Republicans thought so. The number of Gallup respondents who answered "none/no religion" was fairly even -- 10 percent of independents, 7 percent of Republicans and 6 percent of Democrats.

In many ways, the most remarkable number in these polls is that -- after years of public professions by Obama -- nearly 137 million Americans answer "don't know" when asked to name his faith. That's 44 percent of those polled in this recent Gallup effort.

"It's clear most Democrats recognize that he is a liberal Christian or they just don't care," said Mark Edward Taylor, author of "Branding Obama: The Rise of an American Idol." Meanwhile, on the other side, Republicans are "much more likely to say that they are confused about his faith or that they doubt he is really a Christian.

"That could be what some people really mean when they say they don't know Obama's religion."

Meanwhile, there are liberals who think Obama is lying when he says he is a believer. HBO comedian Bill Maher spoke for this flock when he said: "If you woke him up in the middle of the night, or if you gave him sodium pentothal, I think (Obama would say) he's a centrist the way he is a Christian -- not really."

From this perspective, it's crucial that the president's father was a skeptical Muslim and that Obama has, at various times, described his mother as "an agnostic" and "a lonely witness for secular humanism," as well as "a Christian from Kansas," noted Taylor. Young Obama grew up with Joseph Campbell's "The Power of Myth," as well as the Bible and the Koran.

Still, there's plenty of evidence the rising politico paid attention during his years at Trinity United Church of Christ.

One thing's for sure: Obama didn't learn his call-and-response pulpit skills at Harvard Law School. He plugged into a liberal African-American congregation in order to build his South Chicago credibility, while hitting the golf links to learn how to reach into executive suites.

By the time he went national, these lessons had been fused into a powerful advertising formula driven by the words "change," "hope" and "believe." In his book, Taylor says the key is that the "believe" component centered on Obama's image, talent and personal story -- not a creed. The candidate offered "himself to America," rather than political or religious specifics.

"At no time did Obama declare, 'I am the Messiah.' Every time he stepped into the spotlight, though, he talked and acted like one," argued Taylor. "Obama created a messianic personality by being messianic. ... He preached justice, righteousness and compassion. He proclaimed the end of war and peace among nations. He prophesied the healing of the planet. Obama never told the American people that he was their Savior. He showed them his plan for redemption."

This take on faith rings true for millions of Americans. Yet millions of other Americans balk at Obama's privatized definition of "sin" as "being out of alignment with my values." In that same 2004 interview with journalist Cathleen Falsani, Obama said he was unsure about heaven and hell, but that "whether the reward is in the here and now or in the hereafter, the aligning myself to my faith and my values is a good thing."

Taylor is convinced this division -- between two very different views of faith -- is what keeps showing up in poll results about Obama and religion.

"All I know is that Obama recently played his 100th round of golf on a Sunday morning. I don't know if he went to church that Sunday morning or not," he said. "When we look at these poll numbers, perhaps what we are really seeing is the result of what these Americans think about religious faith. What they say about Obama may tell us as much or more about them as it does about Obama."

BBC leader says race trumps religion

The full-page New York Times advertisement by the Freedom From Religion Foundation was certainly blunt -- starting with its headline telling "liberal" and "nominal" Catholics that "It's Time to Consider Quitting the Catholic Church." Conservative Catholics were outraged and called the newspaper's leaders hypocrites, claiming they would never dare to run such a fierce and offensive ad that targeted believers in other faiths, especially Islam.

Sure enough, a group called Stop Islamization of America immediately produced a full-page advertisement that precisely mirrored the images and rhetoric of the anti-Catholic effort, including a headline telling "moderate" Muslims that "It's Time to Quit Islam."

Conservative Catholics were outraged -- again -- when Times leaders refused to run the anti-Muslim advertisement, claiming that to do so would endanger American troops.

Truth be told, the offended Catholics had little reason to be shocked if members of the Times hierarchy based their decisions on convictions similar to those recently aired by the leader of the British Broadcasting Corporation, another of the world's most influential news organizations.

For BBC director-general Mark Thompson, the key is to understand that Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Jews and believers in other minority religions share a "very close identity with ethnic minorities" and, thus, their beliefs deserve to be handled with special care.

Meanwhile, he said it's acceptable to subject Christians to more criticism and satire, to treat their beliefs with less sensitivity, because Christianity is a powerful, secure, majority religion -- even in an increasingly secular age.

"I think it is very different to talk about Christianity in the United Kingdom: a very broadly, literally established, but also metaphorically established, part of our kind of culturally built landscape," said Thompson, in an interview recorded for the FreeSpeechDebate.com project produced by St. Antony's College, Oxford.

Christianity, he argued, is a "broad-shouldered religion, compared to religions which in the UK have a very close identity with ethnic minorities, where, you know, it's not as if as it were Islam is randomly spread across the UK population. It's almost entirely a religion practiced by people who may already feel in other ways isolated, prejudiced against, and where they may well regard an attack on their religion as racism by other means."

Thus, Thompson said, it's appropriate for media and government leaders to use a more protective, cautious standard when judging the contents of news and entertainment that could be viewed as threatening to believers whose faith is in some real way tied to their racial identities.

On the other hand, he stressed, "I do not think that it's appropriate that there should be laws inhibiting freedom of speech in the interest of protecting religions. That doesn't mean I think necessarily you should publish or broadcast anything."

Muslims, for example, are more offended by criticism or satire of Muhammad than most Christians are of similar media products about Jesus, said Thompson, who identified himself as a moderate, practicing Catholic.

"For a Muslim, a depiction -- particularly a comical or demeaning depiction of the Prophet Muhammad -- might have the force, the emotional force, of a piece of a grotesque child pornography. One of the mistakes seculars make is, I think, not to understand the character of what blasphemy feels like to someone who is a realist in their religious belief."

Of course, debates on this subject have also been shaped by political and religious realities in an increasingly tense world. It's hard, said Thompson, to hold discussions of sacrilege and blasphemy in England and the western world without mentioning Salman Rushdie and "The Satanic Verses," his 1988 novel that was in part inspired by the life of Muhammad. The book was burned and banned in some parts of the world and, ultimately, led to a fatwa urging all devout Muslims to kill Rushdie -- who continues to live in hiding decades later.

Historian Timothy Garton Ash, who conducted the Oxford interview, said this threat of violence is a "rather nasty ace" that can be played by those who are willing to say, "I feel so strongly about that; if you say it or broadcast it, I will kill you."

Thompson responded: "Well, clearly it's a very notable move in the game, I mean without question. 'I complain in the strongest possible terms' is different from 'I complain in the strongest possible terms and I'm loading my AK47 as I write.' This definitely raises the stakes."

God, Allah and Rick Warren

At the Dome of the Rock on Jerusalem's Temple Mount, centuries of Islamic doctrine have literally been carved into the shrine's walls. Two quotations on the northwest wall will be of special interest to anyone interested in the latest whirlwind of controversy linked to evangelical superstar Rick Warren and his giant Saddleback Church.

The outer face inscription states, in part: "Praise be to God who has not taken a son and who does not have any partner in dominion. ..." On the inside, after a reference to Jesus, is written: "Peace be upon the day he was born, the day he dies and the day he is raised up alive. That is Jesus, son of Mary. ... It is not for God to take a son."

In other words, Islam proclaims a strict monotheism, while rejecting the Christian belief that God is One, yet has been revealed as God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Thus, it matters that fundamentalist critics are circulating excerpts from a recent Orange County Register report claiming that Warren and his megachurch have joined with nearby mosques to promote a "set of theological principles" -- called the King's Way -- proclaiming that "Christians and Muslims worship the same God."

Warren is never quoted affirming these crucial claims and the article also reports that leaders on both sides have agreed to cease evangelistic efforts to convert members of each other's flocks.

The preacher and bestselling author has attempted to distance himself from the online firestorm, which builds on longstanding claims by religious broadcaster Jack Van Impe that Warren has become a proponent of "Chrislam" -- an alleged attempt to blend Islam and Christianity.

Warren's defenders have, however, posted an interview transcript in which he has responded to these "Chrislam" allegations.

"Christians have a view of God that is unique," stressed Warren. "We believe God is a Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Not three separate gods but one God. No other faith believes Jesus is God. The belief in God as a Trinity is the foundational difference between Christians and everyone else."

The Saddleback leader also denied that King's Way efforts to build a "bridge" of understanding and tolerance represents a change in his Southern Baptist congregation's commitment to evangelism.

"Building a bridge" to the Muslim community, said Warren, "has nothing to do with compromising your beliefs. It's all about your behavior and your attitude toward them. It's about genuinely loving people. ... Before people trust Jesus they must trust you. You cannot win your enemies to Christ, only your friends. ... Besides, it is Christ like to treat all people with dignity and listen to them with respect."

Meanwhile, the conservative "Apprising Ministries" website has posted what it claims is a piece of a King's Way document obtained by the Register from a source close to the interfaith effort.

In its section on God, this report claims that both sides -- backed with quotations from the Bible and the Koran -- agreed that "God is one," "God is the Creator," "God is different from the world," "God is good," "God loves," "God is just" and that "God's love encompasses God's judgment."

The problem, of course, is that Christians and Muslims, as well as Jews, have for centuries proclaimed that "God is one" -- while disagreeing on whether this oneness can be reconciled with Christianity's doctrine of the Trinity.

Contacted by email, Warren insisted that public discussions of an official King's Way doctrinal statement -- as opposed to a program by that name that promotes interfaith understanding -- caught him by surprise. "Neither I, nor my staff had ever seen such a document UNTIL the article mentioned it. It wasn't created or even seen by us. ... Saddleback church as a church was not involved," he said.

However, the bitter cyber-debates continue, similar to those surrounding Warren's efforts to promote dialogues with atheists, gay-rights leaders and President Barack Obama and his supporters on the Christian left.

Asked directly if he is "promoting Chrislam," Warren released this blunt reply.

"It's the lie that won't die," he said. "Jesus is the ONLY way to salvation. Period. If I didn't believe that, I'd get into much easier line of work! But I do believe that everybody needs Jesus and I am willing to put up with false statements and misunderstandings in order to get the Gospel out."

Religion 2010 -- Rose petals in Pakistan

In terms of giant headlines and spilled ink, there is no question that the lightning strike by U.S. special forces that killed Osama bin Laden was the year's most spectacular news event, featuring a deadly brew of religion, politics and violence. Thus, it isn't surprising that members of the Religion Newswriters Association selected the death of the world's most infamous radical Muslim as No. 1 in their poll to name the year's top 10 stories on the religion beat. In addition to the symbolism of bin Laden's death in a post 9/11 world, the poll's organizers said the killing spurred “discussions among people of faith on issues of forgiveness, peace, justice and retribution.”

However, when I think about religion news events in 2011, another image from Pakistan flashes through my mind -- a shower of rose petals.

I am referring to the jubilant throngs of lawyers and demonstrators that greeted 26-year-old Malik Mumtaz Qadri with cheers, rose petals and flowers as he arrived at an Islamabad courtroom to be charged with terrorism and murder. Witnesses said Qadri fired 20 rounds into Salman Taseer's back, while members of the security team that was supposed to guard the Punjab governor stood watching.

Moderate Muslim leaders, fearing for their lives, refused to condemn the shooting and many of the troubled nation's secular political leaders -- including President Asif Ali Zardari, a friend and ally of Taseer -- declined to attend the funeral. Many Muslim clerics, including many usually identified as “moderates,” even praised the act of the assassin.

Calling himself a “slave of the Prophet,” Qadri cheerfully surrendered. He noted that he had killed the moderate Muslim official because of Taseer's role in a campaign to overturn Pakistan's blasphemy laws that order death for those who insult Islam, especially those who convert from Islam to another religion.

A few weeks later, Pakistan's minister of minority affairs -- the only Christian in the national cabinet -- died in another hail of bullets in Islamabad. Looking ahead, Shahbaz Bhatti had recorded a video testimony to be played on Al-Jazeera in the likely event that he, too, was assassinated.

”When I'm leading this campaign against the Sharia laws, for the abolishment of blasphemy law, and speaking for the oppressed and marginalized -- persecuted Christian and other minorities -- these Taliban threaten me,” said Bhatti, who was immediately hailed as a martyr by Catholic bishops in Pakistan. “I'm living for my community and suffering people and I will die to defend their rights.”

Meanwhile, the gunmen tossed pamphlets near Bhatti's bullet-riddled car that threatened him by name and stated, in part: “From the Mujahideen of Islam, this fitting lesson for the world of infidelity, the crusaders, the Jews and their aides ... especially the leader of the infidel government of Pakistan, Zardari. ... In the Islamic Sharia, the ruling for one who insults the Prophet is nothing but death.”

The assassinations of Taseer and Bhatti placed 16th in this 2011 poll. As for me, I fear that these events say as much, or more, about the future of Pakistan and trends worldwide than the long-expected death of bin Laden.

Here's the rest of the Religion Newswriters Association's top 10 list:

No. 2 -- Congress holds intense hearings on trends among American Muslims, with the House focusing on evidence of radicalism in some mosques and the Senate focusing on crimes reported against Muslims.

No. 3 -- Kansas City Bishop Robert Finn is charged with failure to report the suspected abuse of a child -- the first active American Catholic bishop to face criminal prosecution in such a case.

No. 4 -- Catholic leaders introduce a new English version of the Roman Missal, the first major change to this translation since 1973.

No. 5 -- Leaders of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) vote to allow “local option” on the ordination of partnered, noncelibate gay clergy.

No. 6 -- Pope John Paul II is beatified -- the last step before sainthood -- in a Vatican rite attended by a million-plus people.

No. 7 -- Radio preacher Harold Camping predicts the end of the world, twice.

No. 8 -- Evangelical progressive Rob Bell publishes “Love Wins,” a controversial book challenging centuries of Christian doctrine about hell and damnation.

No. 9 -- The Personhood Initiative, designed to outlaw abortion, fails at the polls in Mississippi. The number of laws restricting abortion, however, rises nationwide.

No. 10 -- Historians and readers celebrate the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible, while traditionalists, including Southern Baptist leaders, criticize the latest gender language tweaks in the New International Version.

Fundamental Breivik truths

As journalists began digging into the who, what, when, where, why and how of Anders Behring Breivik, the deputy police chief of Oslo faced a media scrum and served up the day's hottest sound bite. "What we know is that he is right wing and he is a Christian fundamentalist," he said, the morning after the hellish attack on Norway's Labor Party and on the children that were its future.

That was the English version of the quote that jumped into American news reports and wire service stories around the globe.

Breivik was officially a "Christian fundamentalist." He was also a "Christian extremist" in a New York Times headline, a "religious conservative" on an ABC newscast and a "Christian terrorist" in an Associated Press report.

However, the pivotal "fundamentalist" phrase sounded a bit different in the context of the televised Norwegian press conference that ignited this media storm, said the Rev. Arne H. Fjeldstad, a minister in the Church of Norway and a former senior editor at the major Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten. He is also one of my colleagues in the GetReligion.org project to study the mainstream media's coverage of religion news.

Translating from the Norwegian, Fjeldstad said the police claimed that Breivik was part of a "Christian, fundamentalist, extreme-right environment in Norway." The key was his violent opposition to the political policies known as "multiculturalism."

"I am not sure this police official knew what he was saying when he used the word 'fundamentalist,' " said Fjeldstad. "I think he was trying to say that this was a crazy, lunatic, radical guy on the political fringe and he is calling himself a Christian."

It's crucial to know, he added, that "fundamentalist" has literally been pulled into the Norwegian language from English -- even if there is very little history of Protestant fundamentalism in Norway.

During debates inside the Church of Norway, said Fjeldstad, the term is primarily used by liberals to describe conservatives who stress the Bible's authority as the "inspired word of God" and who defend traditional Christian doctrines on moral issues. While there are Christian groups in America who identify themselves as "fundamentalists," this is not the case in Norway.

As media around the world quickly reported, Breivik did identify himself as a Christian -- period -- on his Facebook page. He also added other details about his religious and cultural beliefs in his 1,500-page online manifesto, "2083 -- A European Declaration of Independence."

At the age of 15, Breivik apparently chose to be baptized and confirmed into the state church. However, the writings left behind by the 32-year-old radical also stress that he does not hold traditional Christian beliefs or practice the faith. Instead, he carefully identifies himself as a "Christian agnostic" or a "Christian atheist (cultural Christian)." In his manifesto, Breivik emphasizes his identity as a Free Mason, his interest in Odinist Norse traditions and his role as a "Justiciar Knight" in a new crusade against Islam.

"If you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God then you are a religious Christian," he wrote, in a passage that found its way into a few media reports. "Myself and many more like me do not necessarily have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God. We do however believe in Christianity as a cultural, social, identity and moral platform. This makes us Christian."

Breivik explicitly separates himself from conservative forms of Christianity, at one point noting: "It is therefore essential to understand the difference between a 'Christian fundamentalist theocracy' (everything we do not want) and a secular European society based on our Christian cultural heritage (what we do want).

"So, no, you don't need to have a personal relationship with God or Jesus to fight for our Christian cultural heritage. It is enough that you are a Christian-agnostic or a Christian-atheist."

In other words, noted Fjeldstad, for Breivik the "Christian" label is cultural or political -- but not a statement of personal faith in his case.

"If you are going to use the word 'fundamentalist' it must be used to describe someone who is a very conservative Christian when he is talking about the Bible and the practice of the faith," he said. Thus, a fundamentalist Christian "would always place a heavy emphasis on having a personal faith in Jesus Christ. ...

"So whatever Anders Breivik is, the last thing you can call him is a 'fundamentalist' Christian."

Few celebrating Osama's demise

In the hours after Osama bin Laden's death, cyber-scribes unleashed a Twitter storm of biblical proportions, posting epistles at rates reported to have hit 4,000 a second. Apparently, 140 characters is a great fit for Bible quotations. The most popular post-Osama Bible tweets, as charted by Stephen Smith at OpenBible.info, quickly divided into two theological camps.

Some quickly offered passages such as Proverbs 21:15, which proclaims: "When justice is done, it brings joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers." Another popular tweet was Proverbs 11:10: "When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices; when the wicked perish, there are shouts of joy."

Others, however, declined to celebrate and quoted verses such as Ezekiel 18:23: "Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign LORD. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?" Some favored Romans 12:19: "Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord."

The No. 1 verse sounded this same sobering tone: "Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice (Proverbs 24:17)."

This was the verse Public Religion Research Institute personnel spotted and quickly wove into a survey probing the national mood after the death of the world's most famous terrorist. To be specific, the pollsters asked: "Scripture says, 'Do not rejoice when your enemies fall.' Do you believe this passage applies to how Americans should react to the death of Osama bin Laden, or not?"

The result was a strong coalition that crossed religious, political and ethnic lines, with 60 percent of those polled believing this verse applied in this case. At the same time, 65 percent were sure, to one degree or another, that bin Laden was locked in hell for eternity.

However, the details of this survey -- conducted in cooperation with Religion News Service -- contained a surprise for those inclined to think that most conservative believers would be dancing in church aisles after hearing this news bulletin.

Instead, 66 percent of white evangelical Protestants said "do not rejoice when your enemy falls" applied to bin Laden -- compared to 53 percent of those from liberal "mainline" Protestant denominations. At the same time, 70 percent of those polled from "minority" churches -- mostly African-American evangelicals and charismatic Latinos -- said it was improper to celebrate in these circumstances.

Believers from the biblically conservative flocks were, however, more likely to believe God played a direct role in bin Laden's defeat, with 54 percent of white evangelicals and 51 percent of minority Christians taking that stance.

"It's a careful line that they are drawing, but that line is quite clear" in the survey results, said Robert P. Jones, chief executive officer at the Public Religion Research Institute.

Members of the more conservative religious groups, he said, seem to be saying "what transpired was guided, in some way, by the hand of God. But at the same time they're saying that this is not something that they, as believers, should be celebrating. ... That's not up to us, in other words."

Many evangelical commentators offered variations on this dual message after bin Laden's sudden demise during a U.S. raid on his secret compound in Pakistan. The response by R. Albert Mohler, Jr., the outspoken president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., was typical.

"While we should all be glad that this significant threat is now removed, death in itself is never to be celebrated. Such celebration points to the danger of revenge as a powerful human emotion. Revenge has no place among those who honor justice," he noted. "The reason for this is simple -- God is capable of vengeance, which is perfectly true to his own righteousness and perfection -- but human beings are not. ...

"All people of good will should be pleased that bin Laden is no longer a personal threat, and that his death may further weaken terrorist plans and aspirations. ... But open patriotic celebration in the streets? That looks far more like revenge in the eyes of a watching world, and it looks far more like we are simply taking satisfaction in the death of an enemy. That kind of revenge just produces greater numbers of enemies."

Define fundamentalist, please

Few hot-button, "fighting words" are tossed around with wilder abandon in journalism today than the historical term "fundamentalist." The powers that be at the Associated Press know this label is loaded and, thus, for several decades the wire service's style manual has offered this guidance for reporters, editors and broadcast producers around the world.

"fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. ... However, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.

"In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself."

The problem is that religious authorities -- the voices journalists quote -- keep pinning this label on others. Thus, one expert's "evangelical" is another's "fundamentalist." For "progressive" Catholics, in other words, Pope Benedict XVI is a "fundamentalist" on sexuality.

Anyone who expects scholars to stand strong and defend a basic, historic definition will be disappointed. As philosopher Alvin Plantinga of the University of Notre Dame once quipped, among academics "fundamentalist" has become a "term of abuse or disapprobation" that most often resembles the casual semi-curse, "sumbitch."

"Still, there is a bit more to the meaning. ... In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views," noted Plantinga, in an Oxford Press publication. "That makes it more like 'stupid sumbitch.' ... Its cognitive content is given by the phrase 'considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.' "

This linguistic fight has spread to other faiths and, thus, affects religion news worldwide.

The Orthodox side of Judaism now consists of "ultra-conservatives," "traditionalists," "ultra-Orthodox" or "fundamentalists," depending on who defines the terms. There are "fundamentalist" Hindus, as well. In Islam, journalists keep trying to draw lines between "Islamists," "Muslim radicals," "fringe groups" and a spectrum of other undefined doctrinal camps including, of course, "fundamentalists."

This confusion makes it hard for researchers with good intentions to shed light on news events in complex cultures. Take Egypt, for example, a nation in which conflicts exist between multiple forms of Islam and various religious minorities, including the Coptic Orthodox Christians who are nearly10 percent of the population.

Recent surveys by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project tried to find defining lines between political and religious groups in Egypt, after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.

"Egyptians hold diverse views about religion," stated the report. "About six-in-ten (62%) think laws should strictly follow the teachings of the Quran. However, only 31% of Egyptian Muslims say they sympathize with Islamic fundamentalists, while nearly the same number (30%) say they sympathize with those who disagree with the fundamentalists, and 26% have mixed views on this question."

Meanwhile, on two other crucial questions: "Relatively few (39%) give high priority to women having the same rights as men. ... Overall, just 36% think it is very important that Coptic Christians and other religious minorities are able to freely practice their religions."

So while only 31 percent sympathize with "fundamentalist" Muslims, 60-plus percent decline to give high priority to equal rights for women and 62 percent believe Egypt's laws should STRICTLY follow the Quran. Also, only 36 percent strongly favor religious liberty for religious minorities. Each of these stances mesh easily with alternative "fundamentalism" definitions offered by experts.

To add more complexity, 75 percent of those surveyed had a somewhat or very favorable view of the Muslim Brotherhood's surging role in Egyptian life -- a group long classified as "fundamentalist" in global reports, such as historian Martin Marty's "Fundamentalism as a Social Phenomenon" in 1988.

While there is no Arabic word for "fundamentalist," Pew researchers believe many Egyptians have begun applying a similar term to some groups of "very conservative Muslims," according to James Bell, director of international survey research for the Pew Research Center.

However, he added, the complexities and even conflicts inside these new survey results make it hard to say specifically who is or who isn't a "fundamentalist" in the context of Egypt today.

"For our Egypt survey, the term 'fundamentalist' was translated into Arabic as 'usuuli,' which means close to the root, rule or fundamental," he explained. "It is our understanding that this Arabic term is commonly used to describe conservative Muslims. ... So that's the word that we used."

Dershowitz visits Oslo (sort of)

Ask Orthodox Jews in Norway where one can find a fresh shoulder of kosher beef and they will give the same answer -- nowhere. There is more to this obscure fact than a clash between Jewish tradition and the concerns of animal-rights activists in today's Europe, Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz told a Jewish forum in Oslo. This is a symbolic fact about tensions that surround Jews in Norway.

"You live in the only country in the world today that does not permit kosher shechita," he said, at the city's Chabad House. "Shechita" is a rite in which a skilled Jew uses an extremely sharp blade to swiftly sever an animal's trachea, esophagus and the arteries and veins of the neck, allowing blood to drain out.

"They wonder why there are only 800 Jews or 900 Jews living in Norway. This is a country that permits the butchering of seals, the butchering of whales, but not this ritual slaughter -- which has been proved by every scientific means to be one of the most humane means of slaughter."

The audience grasped the big idea behind his words, since this March 25 event -- which was recorded -- was held in an outreach center for observant Jews. How can Jews honor the details of their ancient faith without keeping kosher?

However, Dershowitz noted that when he asked other Jewish community leaders about any anti-Semitic trends in Norway, all they would say is that "things are wonderful," before falling silent.

"How can things be wonderful," he added, "if you can't have your own meat? How do you deal with the meat here, do you have to bring it in from England?"

Someone in the audience quietly replied: "We don't talk about certain things."

Among First Amendment and criminal law attorneys, few are as famous and infamous as Dershowitz. He joined the Harvard faculty in 1964 and, three years later, was promoted to full professor at age 28. Even a brief summary of his courtroom career would include a gallery of clients such as porn star Harry "Deep Throat" Reems, British socialite Claus von Bulow and O.J. Simpson. In the 1970s his attempts to defend Russian dissident Anatoly Scharansky made global headlines.

Dershowitz didn't travel to Norway just to talk about dietary laws.

The goal was to lecture about legal affairs and, especially, the role of international law in Israeli-Palestinian conflicts through the years. However, the Zionist group that organized the tour -- the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem -- found that Norwegian academic leaders were not anxious to have Dershowitz lecture on their campuses, at no expense to the hosts.

The dean of the Bergen University law faculty, according to Dershowitz, said the school would "be honored to have Prof. Dershowitz give a lecture on the O.J. Simpson case, as long as he promises not to say a word about Israel." The Harvard professor has written six books about the Middle East, advocating a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian standoff.

Israel was the key, in part because of 2009 debates at Norwegian universities about a proposed boycott at Jewish Israeli scholars and others who support Israel. However, rather than focusing on recent conflicts about occupied territories, Dershowitz noted that the text defining the boycott began by saying: "Since 1948 the state of Israel has occupied Palestinian land and denied the Palestinians basic human rights."

In addition to challenging the founding of the state of Israel, the first academic leader to sign the boycott petition also offered a harsh critique of the "egocentric ... tribe-mentality" among Jews in Israel, Norway and "all over the world."

While Norwegian leaders keep talking about dialogue on these issues, said Dershowitz, it will be hard for Jewish leaders to take part in bridge-building efforts if their voices are not allowed to be heard. The only previous time in his career in which he was turned away from major universities was in "apartheid South Africa, when I was Nelson Mandela's lawyer."

The bottom line: Boycotts do not promote dialogue.

Based on recent events, Dershowitz said it appears Norwegian intellectuals want "dialogue with Hamas, but not with Dershowitz. Dialogue with Hamas, but not with Israel. … Dialogue with people that we agree with, but not with people we disagree with. This is not dialogue. This is a one-way monologue."