Charles Sennott, a former bureau chief for Europe and the Middle East at the Boston Globe, mixed personal experiences with political insights to address religious fundamentalism, the war on terror and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his speech Thursday night.
Sennott remarked that fundamentalism is on the rise in all three of the world’s major religions: Islam, Christianity and Judaism. He pointed to the growing orthodox and Chabad movements in Judaism and the affects of Islamic fundamentalist movement on elections in Egypt and Palestine as signs of fundamentalism’s increasing influence.
“If we really want democracy in the Middle East, get ready for a wellspring of resentment to come back at us,” Sennott said.
Sennott said that Hamas’ dominance in recent Palestinian elections reflected growing impatience with what many Palestinians consider to be corrupt and ineffective leaders. He also said that the way to ultimately challenge fundamentalism in all religions was to increase understanding of the movements’ goals and origins.
Domestically, Sennott pointed to the presidency of George W. Bush as an example of the growth of Christian Fundamentalism.
“How is it that we have allowed the Christian right to define moral issues in such narrow terms? Why isn’t manipulating intelligence to lead us to a war a moral issue?” Sennott asked the audience. “If we’re going to have people whose faith shapes their politics, let’s challenge them on it in a respectful way.”
While Sennott was occasionally critical of the Bush administration, he was careful to avoid criticizing his faith.
“The New Testament has 2,000 references to the poor but no direct references to homosexuality. Is it a moral issue if the tax code ends up favoring the rich and creating more poverty?” he said. “I don’t mean to be disrespectful of Bush’s Christianity. But if you truly believe your Christian faith informs your policies, how can you support your tax code? It’s time to ask harder and more informed questions.”
Sennott also drew from his own experience as a foreign correspondent to describe the current state of the war on terror. While pictures taken by his brother, a photographer, flashed in the background, he spoke about how he saved the life of a man who, that same day, had attempted to kill his brother, who was taking pictures of a nearby oil fire while in the Middle East.
He has also had extensive experience with several terrorist attacks, including the first attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, when he was one of the first reporters to arrive on the scene. While investigating that incident in the Middle East, he found himself in a room with Osama Bin Laden who, he had been told, was a possible financier of the attack. Later, on September 11, 2001, after the second attack on the World Trade Center, Sennott said he knew that the “losers” who had perpetrated the earlier attacks were responsible for the act.
Additionally, Sennott was in Israel when a triple suicide bombing occurred down the street from his office. Last year, he was setting up his office in London on the day of the bombings in the Underground.
“I have had an interesting sense of being in the right place at the right time or the wrong place at the wrong time, depending on how you look at it,” he said.
The discussion, entitled “The Politics of God: How Religious Fundamentalisms are Shaping the Issues of the Day from Washington to the West Bank,” was this term’s Nossiter Family Lecture, which supports speakers from Harvard University’s Nieman Fellows. The Nieman program is a mid-career fellowship for accomplished journalists, allowing them to study for one year at Harvard.