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Why Do the Craziest Religious People Get the Most Attention?

And how can more moderate voices be heard?

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When it comes to the absence of moderate voices in the press, the fault lies with both moderate people of faith and with media gatekeepers. In U.S. Christianity, fundamentalist dominance of the airwaves is no accident. From the 1940’s to the 1970’s, the Federal Communications Commission gave airtime grants to the National Council of Churches, which was seen as providing a community service because it used the time for ecumenical outreach. Moderates got complacent. By contrast, evangelicals and other fundamentalists were forced to pay for airtime.  They responded by building networks and then empires that spanned the radio and television spectrum and the globe.

Jump ahead: In the age of 24-hour news and new media, fundamentalists have discovered that the way to get attention is to be dramatic. No matter how small a gathering of screaming males like the one that Christopher Hitchens in 2007 dubbed “ Rage Boy,” the cameras zoom in. As Hitchens  put it, "I have actually seen some of these demonstrations, most recently in Islamabad, and all I would do if I were a news editor is ask my camera team to take several steps back from the shot. We could then see a few dozen gesticulating men (very few women for some reason), their mustaches writhing as they scatter lighter fluid on a book or a flag or a hastily made effigy. Around them, a two-deep encirclement of camera crews. When the lights are turned off, the little gang disperses.

Unfortunately, a certain  Florida pastor and a  network of Coptic Christians seem to have learned the same lesson: build the drama and the media will come.

Finally, finally, after years of ceding center stage to fanatics, it appears that moderate Muslims and Christians are figuring out how to reclaim the media and use it in the service of more thoughtful and humane and –dare I say it—evolved versions of Abrahamic faith.

Some of the efforts are organized and funded. The  Center for Faith in Public Life, for example, distributes news and opinion from a theologically and politically progressive perspective. When Catholic nuns launched their two week bus tour to protest against the Republican budget proposal, a variety of groups including the Center helped them garner  earned media. But even more hopeful signs can be seen in the informal use of social media. Facebook groups like  The Christian Left and Christians Tired of Being Misrepresented crank out images and foster discussion that the Religious Right would hate.

In the aftermath of recent riots, Muslims in Libya organized a peace rally and used social media to convey their  dismay. “Thugs and killers don’t represent Benghazi nor Islam,” said one sign. “Terriost (sic) has no religion,” said another. “RIP, Chris,” said a third. The signs were clearly home-made and heartfelt. As a woman, I was struck that, unlike the more familiar Rage-Boy-riot crowds, the peaceful rally included women, some in hijab, others not. 

In Sydney, Australia, when fundamentalist Muslims started sounding ugly recently, the  responseof moderates was fast and public. Saturday, a young Muslim girl  spoke at a conference advocating the establishment of an Islamic caliphate – a global government of all Muslims with sharia law. Her speech hit the internet on the heels of a rally in which a preschool boy was photographed holding a sign that said, “Behead all those who insult the prophet.” Community leaders condemned the actions of the boy’s mother and emphatically stated their own opposition to radicalizing children.

But perhaps the most promising sign of all was a Twitter trend that Newsweek inadvertently put in motion. After publishing a cover article titled, “Muslim Rage” accompanied by a picture of yet another rage boy, Newsweek editors invited reactions. Instead of responding with outrage or defensiveness, many young Muslims reacted with an even more powerful weapon, humor:

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