The kidnapping in Gaza of two Fox News reporters, and the significance of their subsequent “conversion” to Islam at gunpoint, vanished from the front pages after their August 27 release. But their story shows three things—that we cannot trust much “news” from the Levant, that much of the media is still oblivious to religion, and that radical Islam is spreading and deepening in Palestinian society as elsewhere in the region.
Steve Centanni, an American, and Olaf Wiig, a New Zealander, were seized on August 14 by the Holy Jihad Brigades, possibly an alias for Zakaria Dughmush’s group, also suspected in the June 25 kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilead Shalit, one of the triggers for Israel’s attacks in Gaza and Lebanon.
Their plight shows the problems of evaluating reports emanating from areas infested by terrorist groups and authoritarian governments. We know already that some “journalists” are simply propagandists, such as photographer Adnan Hajj, eventually fired by Reuters after his doctoring of photos from Lebanon was exposed.
But a larger problem is that honest local reporters have their lives threatened if they tell the truth. Palestinian journalists have been killed for reporting that reflects adversely on Hamas or Fatah. Many denounced the Fox duo’s kidnapping, and two days after their release, dozens of journalists in Gaza demonstrated outside the Palestinian Legislative Council offices, demanding an end to the intimidation that cripples their work. Centanni and Wiig made headlines because they worked for an American broadcaster: The suppression of local reporters is all too frequently ignored.
The coverage also showed the continuing cluelessness of much of our media when it comes to religion, despite its growing influence in all Middle Eastern conflicts. Centanni and Wiig were not merely kidnapped but also—something new in the Palestinian areas—forced to announce that they had converted to Islam as a condition not only of their release but of their survival.
The significance of this forced conversion has been downplayed in the media. The New York Times and the Washington Post even pronounced the two “unharmed” on release. This judgment is perverse. If Muslim prisoners in American custody were forced to convert to Christianity on pain of death or as a condition of release, the press would denounce it as virtual torture, and rightly so: No sane person would say the prisoners had suffered no harm.
This blindness also trivializes religion. Many people would sooner die than deny the commitments that shape their lives. Such beliefs lie near the heart of Christian doctrines of martyrdom, especially in the Middle East. In the Donatist controversy, the church was fractured over the question of whether and how to readmit those who under threat had denied their faith. In recent years, Christians in Sudan, Iran, Nigeria, and Indonesia have accepted death at the hands of Islamist extremists rather than convert to Islam.
And Centanni and Wiig remain at risk—like the writer Salman Rushdie, marked for death by Islamists who deem his writing blasphemous, or Abdul Rahman, a Christian convert forced to flee Afghanistan earlier this year. The two journalists, having announced their conversion, now must live as Muslims lest some imam declare them apostate and his followers take it upon themselves to carry out a sentence of death.
These conversions illustrate the growing force of radical Islam. They come against the background of wider assaults on Christians. There have been firebombings of a parish school in Ramallah, of the YMCA office in Qalqilya, of the First Baptist Church in Bethlehem, and of the home of Samir Qumsieh, who heads the only private Christian TV station in the Palestinian areas. Hamas’s explicit goal is to institute a state based on extreme sharia law. If that comes to pass, the rights of non-Muslims will be radically curtailed, and they will be required to pay a special tax, the jizya. Last year, Beth lehem councilor Hassan Al Masalmeh declared the authorities’ intention to implement such a tax. The preamble to Hamas’s 1988 founding covenant declares that not only Jews but also Christians “are smitten with vileness wheresoever they are found” unless they submit to Muslim rule and sharia. Article 13 emphasizes, “The Jews will never be pleased with you, neither the Christians, until you follow their religion.”
We can expect to see more forced conversions, and other travesties, as spreading radical Islam shapes not only terrorist groups but also governments, and we need the religious education to understand it. Currently, as reporting on the Fox duo shows, much of the media is intellectually unequipped to report on the Muslim world.