Originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.
By Janet Reitman
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 444 pages, $28
The Church of Scientology, founded in 1950 by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, is not a church that turns the other cheek. In the early 1990s, the Internal Revenue Service went after it for taxes; Scientology unleashed an enfilade of lawsuits and complaints that eventually brought the IRS to heel and won the church tax exemption. In “Inside Scientology,” Janet Reitman says that when the church was charged criminally in 1998 over the death of a parishioner, the organization overwhelmed the medical examiner in Clearwater, Fla.; within two years she had resigned and later suffered a nervous breakdown. According to Ms. Reitman, David Miscavige, the church’s leader, called these acts a ” ‘holy war’ of litigation.” If the English language has a more frightening phrase, I haven’t come across it.
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Filed under: Wall Street Journal, books, religion
Carl Franzen and I produced a file on Karol Józef Wojtyła (Pope John Paul II) for The Daily. Check it out here.
Filed under: Daily, religion
Originally appeared in The Daily.
In December 1945, an Egyptian peasant named Muhammad Ali Samman and his brother wandered away from their village in central Egypt, hoping to scoop up a few buckets of soft dirt to fertilize his crops. Digging next to a large boulder, Muhammad Ali found a mysterious earthenware jar about 3 feet tall. He and his brother backed away from it, worrying that it might contain a genie. Then, on further reflection, they considered that it might contain gold, and they smashed it apart, thereby releasing a force in some ways more disruptive to traditional Christianity than any genie could have been. Read the rest of this entry »
Filed under: Daily, Egypt, history, Middle East, religion
20 September 2010 • 8:56 pm
Originally appeared in The American Scholar.
The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam, by Eliza Griswold, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 317 pp., $27
The 10th northern line of latitude cuts across Africa and southern Asia, marking an arc of dirty little wars from Nigeria in the west to the Philippines in the east. Now and then these persistent conflicts get stitched up with a peace treaty or a ceasefire. But the 10th parallel is a seam between the Christian and Muslim worlds, and wounds infected with religion tend not to stay healed for long.
Journalist Eliza Griswold draws the title of her book from this latitude line, which she travels from east to west, with deviations of a few degrees in Asia, from Nigeria to Sudan to the Philippines (masochistically omitting the 10th parallel’s transit of the Western hemisphere, where she could have taken a break in Aruba). If the conquering of the American West followed a blood meridian that washed across the prairie toward the Pacific, then the 10th parallel is the line of control in a much older and more static conflict between Muslims and their local rivals, generally Christians. In a few places the religious nature of the conflict is explicit, as between Sudan’s Islamic government and its aspiring Christian splinter-state, or between Nigeria’s Muslim north and Christian and animist south. In others the religious split provides something like a context for national rivalry, between Christian Ethiopia and the alliance of Somali Islamists, for example, and the ecumenically crazy Eritrean government. Read the rest of this entry »
Filed under: American Scholar, books, religion
Thirty Ramadans after V.S. Naipaul’s visit to Qom, I visited for the Atlantic, in search of the part of Iran not gripped yet by democratic fervor. A truncated version of this piece appears here.
Tehran is on the edge of the mountains, and Qom is on a plain. For a persecuted revolutionary movement, the distinction matters, because in Iran, as in most places, the mountains are where you go to hide, and to do what you can’t do openly. This fall, after a summer of violent protests in Tehran that rattled the government and convinced it to send out hardline loyalists to club the protesters into submission, the opposition took to the hills that ring the anti-government suburbs of north Tehran. Instead of painting its messages on buildings, it painted them on rocks. Around Darband — the neighborhood where for years the northern Tehranis have fled to throw off their veils, eat co-ed picnics, and perhaps drain a thermos of whiskey — the protesters have sprayed furtive graffiti on small rocks. “Mir Hussein Mousavi,” says one, with a V for victory. Another more direct one pledges “Death to Khamenei,” Iran’s head ayatollah. Six months ago, cell-phone photos captured scenes of actual heated protest, and today those protesters trade images of these rocks, signs of a revolution gone dormant.
Filed under: Atlantic Monthly, Iran, religion
1 November 2009 • 10:26 am
In the November Atlantic, a short profile of my friend Shaikh Hassan al Burji (pictured here with his very cute kids, Ja’afar and Sara).
Filed under: Atlantic Monthly, Paraguay, religion
7 January 2009 • 12:21 am
Originally appeared in the January/February 2009 Atlantic.
Mullah Masood Akhundzada, guardian of the Shrine of the Blessed Cloak of the Prophet Muhammad, in Kandahar, is wary of guests. When his brother was the guardian, 13 years ago, he accepted an insistent visitor. Today, a youngster with a Kalashnikov shadows Mullah Masood around the shrine, just in case the visitor, Mullah Omar, or any of his friends return. Read the rest of this entry »
Filed under: Atlantic Monthly, Afghanistan, religion, war
Random House canceled publication of a novel purporting to depict the early life of the Prophet Muhammad and his child bride, Aisha.
Excerpts from Sherry Jones’s The Jewel of Medina do not make it sound like fiction worthy of the novel’s latest defender, Salman Rushdie. Denise Spellberg, an Islamic historian who reviewed the manuscript, called it “soft-core pornography,” and “ugly” porn at that. Consider a first-person passage from Aisha, who, according to some traditions, married Muhammad at age 6 and had sex with him at 9:
This was the beginning of something new, something terrible. Soon I would be lying on my bed beneath him, squashed like a scarab beetle, flailing and sobbing while he slammed himself against me. He would not want to hurt me, but how could he help it? It’s always painful the first time.
Yeesh. But do these sentences sound grotesque because of the author’s prose, or because of her subject? Read the rest of this entry »
Filed under: Atlantic Monthly, books, history, religion