Are we too addicted to soundbites to discuss religion seriously?

February 10, 2008

Pope Benedict XVIArchbishop of Canterbury Rowan WilliamsThe uproar over Archbishop Rowan Williams and sharia law brings up a question we’ve asked before with Pope Benedict — are we too addicted to soundbites to discuss complex religious issues in public? Both have tackled difficult issues in nuanced speeches, only to see — rightly or wrongly — that what they thought was their message did not come across.

The Guardian says Williams was naive to discuss such a complex argument in public: “This was the stuff of seminars and was never going to register in the mass market without being boiled down into soundbites. The archbishop did not do that, ensuring others would. As a result, this most humane of men finds himself being caricatured as supporting the severing of limbs.”

Do you think religious leaders should simplify their message when they speak in public? Or do we — the media, politicians, bloggers, readers — have to make more of an effort to understand them?


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Yes we are addicted to sound bites but no, I do not think one can blame the public or even media for this episode (well outlets like The Sun we know, and it too, serves its purpose).

The ABC spoke of this some time back -I am not sure if his entire speech is still online on the original link but it was reported e.g. here.

He is well aware of the sound byte culture and also the immediacy of the new media. As he said then:

Unwelcome truth and necessary and prompt rebuttal are characteristic of the web-based media. So are paranoid fantasy, self-indulgent nonsense and dangerous bigotry. The atmosphere is close to that of unpoliced conversation — which tends to suggest that the very idea of an appropriate professionalism for journalists begins to dissolve.

And also
Actual human discourse happens within a number of contexts, not in some sort of unified public forum. Actual human learning about most things that matter happens in overlapping sets of relations and conversations. In human life generally, information, significant and otherwise, is shared in such overlapping networks, and absorbed at different levels over time. The journalistic assumption, though, follows a market pattern, in which a product is refined and distributed to a public defined for these purposes as concerned only to acquire it. And where that product is ‘information’, the model is particularly problematic.

So there is a tension at the heart of the journalistic enterprise. Its justification is that it promises to deliver what other sources can’t, information that is needed to equip the reader or viewer or listener for a more free and significant role as a human agent. But at the same time, it is bound to a method and a rhetoric that treats its public as consumers and the information it purveys as a commodity – which is therefore selected, packaged, and, to that degree, inevitably slanted. This unavoidable ‘marketising’ of the process has the effect of creating yet another interest group, the professional producers of information, whose power as suppliers in the market restricts the freedom of others.

We learn significant things in varieties of overlapping communities; and we learn them at different paces. Some things can be mastered quickly, almost instantaneously, some take significant time. And I suspect that the difficulty most of the modern media finds in handling religion is not simply some sort of hostile bias to belief as such, but the extreme difficulty of representing in an ‘urgent’ medium experience or awareness that is apprehended in common practice over time. Which is why, incidentally, the recent BBC series, ‘The Monastery’, succeeded in such a remarkable way; it was about what can be known only by taking time, in company. Perhaps observers of religious broadcasting should concentrate not on the time or space given to simple and static representations of religious views and activities but on how this method of following the ‘real time’ of religious knowing and experiencing can be fostered.

He just blew it for various reasons, not least in failing to recognise that the public has indeed learnt various things about the media (including the sectarianism of some of its reporters); the CofE; the ABC incuding his politics, theology, priorities and modus operandi; the problems in the Anglican Communion and how the ABC himself has handled it; the distablishment debate; Islam vis a vis Christianity; sharia etc. in various “overlapping communities” and it wasn’t about to share his opinion which seemed to be based on the most theortical, academic and unrepresentative of sources. (Anyone who quotes Tariq Ramadan on Islam is seriously amiss; anyone who thinks itjihad is anything but a supreme minority view is in a parallel universe etc. etc)

From what I have been able to piece together:

The context of the lecture series is here in a suitably ignored press release/explanation.

The ABC knew the lecture would be public to some degree and controversial and did not release the text in advance, granting instead an exclusive interview on the BBC which he totally stuffed up (and I do not think he was entirely misquoted on that, and that just got the ball rollign).

He delivered a lecture which, given his usual truckloads of caveats etc even some in the audience found hard to follow. One can perhaps “explore and tease” in written form but if you want to engage an audience which includes journalists, you are better of highlighting your main points and referring people to the text for details.

Melanie Phillips (yeah I know she can get shrill) reported it this way:
In a major lecture this evening, which I attended, he argued for an accommodation between English law and Islamic sharia law: an end to the ‘legal monopoly’ of English law, in order to allow people to choose between Islamic and English law for the resolution of disputes and the administration of marriage, divorce, inheritance and other matters. This incendiary proposition was nevertheless expressed in the lecture in language so convoluted and ambiguous — ‘nuanced’ is, I think, the current expression of choice — that many in the audience admitted they didn’t have a clue what on earth he was actually saying. So nervous was Lambeth Palace, however, that the press would sensationalise his remarks, it tried to control the reaction by restricting embargoed copies of the text so that few papers would be able to report the lecture — and instead giving an exclusive interview with Dr Williams to BBC Radio Four’s World at One.

What is more, as the lecture itself was appalling. As commenters have noted it presented a view which was
* incoherent (as many commenters have noted, it’s as if Williams wants to have his cake and eat it too)

* unworkable

* unrealistic

* potentially dangerous and/or nothing more than capitulation, and

* coming from a senior Christian leader, totally perplexing.

What is more, it is only the ivory tower multicultural intellectuals and the “primitivist” Muslims – some of whom hide in those bastions of law and academia – who want such recognition.

The average Muslim on the street has never read the Koran, barely goes to mosque, isn’t going to fret about sh***ing in the direction of Mecca and is not about to force their underage daughter into a marriage with a mentally disabled man to get a passport or whatever. But they are still Muslims who are grateful for the freedoms and opportunities provided them, and happy to get on with their lives, raising and providing for a family and contributing to community and public life without these loons telling them what is good for them. They have enough problems dealing with their loons in their midst without having Williams and friends providing more inroads for them.

I for one am grateful for the backlash, and that it has come from all quarters.

Posted by saint | Report as abusive

Oops sorry for the typos/spelling/grammar errors

Posted by saint | Report as abusive

Their messages would be simple if they were based on and backed up by scripture.

Posted by bisquit | Report as abusive

If Ministers of God are truly born again, they will commit their ways to the Lord since they are representing Christ. If they speak without a note, it should be an overflow of that which is true and that is the word of God.
If he truly represents Christ why not encourage the use of Christian laws and principles. How can you represent Christ and be lobbying or weighing other religion’s to the extent of considering their ways of life. He is not a lay person. He is the Arch Bishop of England that is serious.
It is not what we eat the defiles us but what comes out of our mouth.
His support for so many things has led to reduction in membership.

Posted by Kate A | Report as abusive

Having these discussions in public is what the world really needs. To help this we also need ‘the media’ (and the chattering classes on the Internet) to use a little intelligence and analysis before blurting out poorly extracted sound bites.

The alternative of self-censorship and secrecy is the stuff of elitism and ignorance which gave us the religious institutions in their most stuffy form that have ‘ruled’ for so long.

Posted by Nic Fulton | Report as abusive

Are we too addicted to sound bites to discuss religion seriously? I say no!

In current times, why it is that Christians should be considerate, soften words and be accommodating towards Muslims, when in turn they show us all the disrespect – when entering countries governed by sharia law. We cannot practice our religious rites – or bring in anything of a different faith in such a country.

We as people, as a nation should speak out about the wrong doings of certain religious institutions, and if it means our own, then so be it.

As a Christian myself, I cannot condone taking someone else’s life, limb or anything else. I am warranted to be forgiving, loving and to be charitable.

When Muslims call for someone’s head, we are comfortable and content with the saying, but if you so much try to criticize anything, we should be afraid of nationwide bombings or unending marches? Can we not detest and voice our concerns regarding this – come on – this is your country – speak up!

Posted by Thurlo | Report as abusive

Yes, I think we live in the soundbite (or byte) era – Williams is a sound, principled man, who believes in harmony between religions. He has helped keep British christanity moderate, so we do not fall prey to the fundamentalism that is sweeping across America.

His only fault is to be intellectual and thoughtful, not simply a moronic scripture-spouting ranter.

Posted by Thorgrimm | Report as abusive

We are not too addicted to soundbites. We are just fed up of the incoherent dribble put out by the various “Religous” movements that ensconse themselves in ivory towers and are not subject to the exposure of the daily realities of life, logic or science.

Posted by Nick Riley | Report as abusive

It is true that the bish didn’t advocate chopping off hands or stoning, but the fact remains that while the ordinary values of Islam are tolerated they are not really wanted here, and I for one find them rather abhorrent frankly. To name but a few issues, I don’t believe that a man’s evidence should have double the weight of a woman’s, I don’t believe that women should not be allowed to visit cemeteries, and as for having to cover their heads or faces, it is discrimination pure and simple. What is more sinister is that I suspect Williams’ comments arise partly from the “united front” being slyly fought by religious groups to protect their vested interests, in a world which is increasingly rejecting the complete and utter nonsense that all religion represents. He should be out of a job, and hopefully one day soon nobody will be needed to replace him.

Posted by Matthew | Report as abusive

Religious leaders are like all other leaders in that they have to be politicians in order to survive. The bishop got his presentation wrong in this case, but what’s new? Most of the UK public are familiar with the double-talk of politicians (and journalists) so are quite capable of seeing through the “complexity” of a politician’s proposal to the simple truth beneath.

Posted by Mike T | Report as abusive

Sound bytes have become the norm for getting one’s message across throughout the world of politics. It has been a mainstay of business in advertising campaigns for decades and that it now has become part of our political and even spiritual lives should come as no surprise to any one, least of all to a man of Rowan William’s intellect and education.
Archbishop Rowan Williams may be humane, moderate, compassionate and intellectual, he may well possess all the finest virtues, as well as having the support of the British clergy. He has however failed abysmally to maintain any form of control or influence over the church at large, he has failed to ensure that the Anglican community remain a vital part of our modern society and has, in his acceptance of the radical and repressive views of Peter Akinola of Nigeria, become responsible for further erosion of British participation in an institution that seems to have become irrelevant to many. In short, his leadership, however well intended has been weak and divisive. For that reason alone he should resign.

Posted by J John M Twiss | Report as abusive

Lets’ discuss the bigotry, homophobia and moral hypocrisy that exists within the relgious organisations.

Let’s discuss the bloody and ruthless history of the church, where people had money extorted from them, even when they themselves were poor. where opponents were summarily put to death in the most horrific ways.

Let’s discuss a Catholic church founded on cosa nostra principles and born out of the mafia-type organisations of ancient Rome.

Let’s discuss the massive numbers of people tortured and murdered by the church over the last 1000 years or so.

Let’s talk about the abuse and obliteration of the doctrine of Jesus Christ via the power and financial preoccupations of what is a corrupt and morally bankrupt organisation.

Let’s really talk!

Posted by Keith M Warwick | Report as abusive

BTW Tom, just read your article here. I am still going to challenge you on Ramadan.

This after all is the man whom 6 million French heard unable to condemn stoning of adulterous women
(a) because he knows it is permitted under sharia (be it attitude or codified law; even Turkey tried to introduce criminal penalties for divorce in recent years) and
(b) because then it would be impossible to speak to Muslim communities (and one recalls the self-censorship/imposed censorship of the Danish cartooms here.)

Transcript from Paul Berman in The New Republic of June 4, 2007,

Sarkozy: A moratorium … Mr Ramadan, are you serious?

Ramadan: Wait, let me finish.

Sarkozy: A moratorium, that is to say, we should, for a while, hold back from stoning women?

Ramadan: No, no, wait … What does a moratorium mean? A moratorium would mean that we absolutely end the application of all of those penalties, in order to have a true debate. And my position is that if we arrive at a consensus among Muslims, it will necessarily end. But you cannot, you know, when you are in a community … Today on television, I can please the French people who are watching by saying, “Me, my own position.” But my own position doesn’t count. What matters is to bring about an evolution in Muslim mentalities, Mr Sarkozy. It’s necessary that you understand …

Sarkozy: But, Mr Ramadan …

Ramadan: Let me finish.

Sarkozy: Just one point. I understand you, but Muslims are human beings who live in 2003 in France, since we are speaking about the French community, and you have just said something particularly incredible, which is that the stoning of women, yes, the stoning is a bit shocking, but we should simply declare a moratorium, and then we are going to think about it in order to decide if it is good … But that’s monstrous – to stone a woman because she is an adulterer! It’s necessary to condemn it!

Ramadan: Mr Sarkozy, listen well to what I am saying. What I say, my own position, is that the law is not applicable – that’s clear. But today, I speak to Muslims around the world and I take part, even in the United States, in the Muslim world … You should have a pedagogical posture that makes people discuss things. You can decide all by yourself to be a progressive in the communities. That’s too easy. Today my position is, that is to say, “We should stop.”

Sarkozy: Mr Ramadan, if it is regressive not to want to stone women, I avow that I am a regressive.

Pedagogical postures strike me as a bit of appeasement and creeping dhimmitude and not exactly good news for Muslim women even in the West, some of whom are already suffering.

And as I have said on plenty of blogs, from this distance, the reacton of the British public is they don’t want pluralist jurisdictions, they want Napier.

Anyway, I think it is also worth exploring this theoretical notion permeating parts of academia at the moment about a ‘market place of religions’ in a secular space and
*how that is supposed to work in a country with established church like Britain,
* and how that does/doesn’t contribute to ‘social cohesion’

This seems to have informed some of William’s comments and is getting some traction amongst the elites and perhaps finding its way into policy etc.

Also, what I would like to see more journos tackle be it in the context of the Williams’ outroar or elsewhere – and God forbid it would come from the head of the CofE – is some decent comparative theology and how theology informs our world views and has informed our cultures.

E.g. Trinity and Incarnation cannot be equated with anything in Islam (totally shirk) or Vedhic religions (which tend to pantheism or atheism…) but does inform ones outlook and understanding of what it means to love ones neighbour etc which in turn has influenced Western culture, law etc.

Islam being ‘submission to the inevitable’ does tend to fatalism, Vedhic and other Eastern religions tend to resignation etc etc. and each of these outlooks has bearings on how one perceives justice, ethics etc.

Posted by saint | Report as abusive

Tariq Ramadan is a very complex character. Born in Switzerland of Egyptian parents, he is part scholar, part preacher, part community organiser, part anti-globalisation campaigner, part Muslim reformer and part Muslim traditionalist. I saw him make that moratorium argument at a Paris press conference several days before the debate with Sarkozy, and then watched him on television. He was juggling several of his roles at the same time. He clearly wanted to finesse the stoning argument in order to keep some influence in the Muslim world, where he fears he would be ignored by the people he wants to convince if he led a frontal assault on their beliefs.

Sarkozy, who is probably France’s best political debater, nailed him by making a denunciation of stoning a litmus test and hammering away at him over it. Ramadan, who is quite eloquent himself, was cornered — this was the first (and possibly the only) time I’ve seen him like that. He was playing the bridge-builder between Europe and the Muslim world, but he couldn’t keep up the juggling act. It was a master stroke on Sarkozy’s part — how can someone preach religious values and not be against stoning?

Ramadan has other “on the one hand, on the other hand” positions. On the headscarf, for example, he says no girl should be forced to wear it or to take it off.

That said, he does represent an effort to adapt Islam to modernity. It’s too halting an effort for many westerners, but it seems to be a bridge to help some young Muslims in Europe to feel they can be both Muslim and European. He is part of a reform movement that says sharia should be more about religious and moral values and less about slavishly following rules formulated by scholars centuries ago. What he seems to have in mind — although he has not said this in this way, as far as I know — is that western Muslims should become something like the evangelical Christians in the U.S. They should be integrated into the democratic system but bring their religious values to play in the political arena. That is a conservative position in terms of western democratic politics, but a reform view seen from the background of Muslim history (where Muslims usually are not the minority).

That’s still a juggling act, and there’s a lot to criticise about it, but it’s one that’s moving in a western direction. And if this appeals so much to young Muslims in Europe, maybe the more pressing question to ask is how and why European countries have failed to integrate them better.

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive

Thanks for that fantastic reply Tom. You probably explained my unease about Ramadan better than I (that’s why you’re a journo I guess).

It’s what you called the “fear he would be ignored by the people he wants to convince if he led a frontal assault on their beliefs.” Williams to a tee.

And where does that fear of leading “a frontal assault” come from? Not just a pedagogical stance, it comes from some trendy theorizing at the moment. Theorizing which is translating into incremental appeasement (like “a little bit of sharia”) which is what the “primitivists” as Williams call them, use and exploit to push for more and more. Because they are far more sophisticated than that “primitivist” label suggests. Speak out and even if you are a moderate Muslim, you are usually faced with death threats. Give in an inch and they take a mile.
Think Hezbollah in Lebanon…soon you are facing a cancer that destroys a country from the inside…and have to rely on an army on the street to keep the civilian peace.

The devil as you said, is in the details. I think the Pope was right when he said something to the effect that it’s better to deal with the world as it is then with the way academia conceives it (and I’m not a Catholic :-))

However, do the favourite academic plaything and reframe: where does that Muslim fear of having one’s beliefs criticized, lampooned or parodied come from? Where does resistance to reform come from?

It also comes from within Islam itself. From its view of the Koran, from the teachings of the Koran and the Hadith, from its view of Allah, it’s view of Allah vis a vis history, its anthropology (or lack thereof, good grief someone ask what Williams meant about the “Abrahamic” view of man in the image of God, because if he is thinking “Abrahamic religions” by academia’s definition, then Islam does not have a view of man in the image of God. like Christianity), from it hermeneutical principles etc Which is why theology itself matters.

And it also comes from its history. In as much as one can say Christianity – given its foundation and roots, was never taught to live as a majority, one could say Islam was never taught to live as a minority.

Frankly I don’t see Islam can be reformed without ditching some of the basic foundations of Islam itself. Which is why religious freedom – in the form of freedom to convert and freedom to APOSTASIZE is critically important, a matter which Williams simply glossed over.

And it may also mean that one of the best defenses is….(I will leave that for you…)

Also, why is it Europe’s problem to integrate Muslims or any other migrants (I say this as the child of migrants myself in a country known for the diversity in its migrants). What do European Muslims perceive as their obligations towards integration? Why don’t we hear about that? (Not what do they need, or what gabfests and education sessions they run but what do they see as their obligations towards fitting in? e.g if migrants, do they see one of their obligations as learning the language? Do first generation European born Muslims see one of their obligations as being a facilitator and bridge for their parents generation? etc)

Anyway apologies for getting off topic. I do enjoy this blog and your items in particular. And thanks again for taking the time to respond. Very much appreciated.

Posted by saint | Report as abusive

Oh and BTW – I specifically put Muslims and migrants together as while there have been some small long standing Muslim communities in Europe it’s still an “alien” religion to Europe with few converts. And the issues of integration have come to the for with recent generations of migrants. I think I am right to assume that?

Posted by saint | Report as abusive

Too many points here to address all of them, but here are a few reactions:

1. Ramadan’s fear of alienating conservative Muslims by confronting them head on is not the result of any trendy theorising. It’s human relations 101. If someone berates me, I’m not going to listen. That’s why abusive comments here get binned in a flash.

2. Anyone moving from one country to another has to adapt, especially if the societies are as different as Muslim and western societies. They’ve been doing it for millennia and there’s no reason to say it cannot be done now. Lots of Englishmen thought the Irish couldn’t integrate there, or Protestant Americans thought that Catholic immigrants couldn’t integrate in the U.S. Thoughts, ideologies and religions also adapt — look at they ways Christianity has developed in Africa, for example, or how different Islam has turned out in Indonesia compared to Saudi Arabia. So I don’t buy arguments that Islam is by definition incapable of adapting to the West or incompatible with democracy. That doesn’t mean it’s easy or that individuals don’t like to hang on to their habits. It can take a generation, or several generations, to integrate. But if the will, the pressure and the opportunity are there, people can integrate and they can reinterpret their beliefs to fit the new situation.

Turkey is an interesting case here. The Islamist parties there campaigned to institute sharia law in the 1980s and 1990s, something the ruling military refused to allow. They were even banned. Seeing they had no hope of realising that dream, the Islamists shifted gears, scrapped the dream of an Islamic republic and said they wanted more democratic freedoms — because that would at least ease some of the official secularism and, for example, let women wear headscarves at universities. They even wanted to join the European Union, because they saw it would help ensure democracy against the military that has always been ready to intervene. What has come out is a conservative democratic government with Muslim values. They’re sometimes called “Muslim Democrats” like the Christian Democrats of post-war Western Europe. Some Turks might not want to vote for a “Muslim Democratic Party” (a minority, apparently, going by the last election) and like to go back to strict secularism. But at least this evolution has taken place within a democratic context. It is the counter-example to those who say Islam is per se incompatible with democracy.

3. Immigrants have the duty to integrate and the ones who isolate themselves and don’t learn the local language are failing there. But they also need to have work, education and opportunities for advancement to make their new life a success. Here in France, they are told that the motto is liberty, equality and fraternity. Muslims coming here are certainly freer than before, but discrimination means they often have less equality and fraternity. There are two sides to the integration equation and both have to do their part.

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive

Again thanks.
1. You misunderstood me.

2. I think you read more into my comment than was there. Certainly our oldest Muslim communities here (almost as old as European settlement) are so integrated some would barely know they are there.

However I will say that each wave of migrants, is different not least because they are migrating for different reasons and into different contexts and with different expectations and in different numbers. And I am noticing some differences as well as problems which emerge when new groups reach a critical mass. Like good old jihadism – not of the deep inner spiritual struggle sort – and which has simply always been part of the history of Islam.

Turkey is interesting particularly the way which their political parties(and the Americans and Brits) have used EU membership to push their own agendas. But it does rely on that army, that state run religion, that “Turkishness.” And given the shifting demographics – higher birth rates in the more conservative east etc – and outside influence…will be interesting.

The biggest Muslim democracy would be just north of us. But the nature of Islam on many of the islands – bar the larger more developed ones – is not far removed from animism.

Posted by saint | Report as abusive

3. OK – I don’t know what other countries migration policies are. But barring refugees who are taken in for humanitarian reasons, migrants are usually taken in on basis of economic need (eg we have work, we need help) or opportunity (e.g. you want to start a business and show as you can? Come on over) or family (marriage etc).

If there is no work or opportunity for new migrants than is the immigration level too high? Or is there not enough emphasis on say employer sponsored migrants – migrants who can walk into a job? etc etc Are the migration policy settings right?

Posted by saint | Report as abusive

I’m no expert on immigration policy. It’s a fact in a globalised world and many western countries need immigrants to help finance their pension systems. But I can’t give you much help in figuring out how to strike the balance between too few and too many!

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive