Titling a Story on a Religious Divide

Believe TV

From my recent article on Christianity Today, published online on January 10, 2013:

The stakes have been raised for Christian satellite broadcasting in the Arab world.

On November 28, a Cairo court sentenced to death Nakhoula Basilli Nakhoula and six other Coptic Christians—who all live outside Egypt—for their alleged roles in producing The Innocence of Muslims. The film, which mocks the Prophet Muhammad, prompted violent protests worldwide.

Nakhoula is relatively safe since he and the Way, the satellite channel that broadcasted the film, are based in the United States. But the sentence drew attention to how such channels have proliferated in recent years, seeking to present the gospel to Arab Muslims by—in part—directly criticizing Islam.

“Since satellite TV is widespread across the Middle East and is uncensorable, it is obviously a key way to make the good news of the gospel available,” said Terence Ascott, CEO and founder of SAT-7.

Please click here to read the whole article, which includes testimony from Egypt based religious broadcasters SAT-7 and Coptic CTV, as well as internationally based Coptic Logos TV, and Life TV.

The location can make a difference. While the legal consequences vary from nation to nation, Islam as a religion highly discourages conversions away from the faith – certainly public ones. There is a range of response; some advocate death, others social estrangement, and some say (quoting the Qur’an, not necessarily definitively) there is no compulsion in religion.

I am comfortable with the fairness and objectivity of the article, and every source spoke on the record. But based in Egypt where almost everything religious is highly sensitive, there is one element of the story beyond my control – the title.

Every magazine takes the prerogative to title an article according to their best understanding of audience marketing. After all, it is the title which draws the reader to the content. I always suggest a title; sometimes it is accepted, sometimes it is discarded. Generally there is collaboration on the matter. Usually the choice of final title doesn’t make very much difference to me, and most often their wording is best.

This article originally was published in print, that is, for local distribution in the US market only. This means it would exist largely away from any local Egypt sensitivities.

But it was also purposed to publish online eventually. This means the article is open and available to all. The sensitivities remain.

My original suggestion was: ‘Broadcasting the Gospel in Arabic: For Christians or Muslims?’ One suggestion along the way, which I liked best, was: ‘Target Audience’.

In the print edition the final choice was: ‘Carrot or Stick?’ with a subtitle of ‘Broadcasters debate best way to reach Muslims’. And online the title became: ‘How Should Christian Broadcasters Evangelize to Muslims?’

I think these titles somewhat miss the point, because much of the existing Arabic language religious broadcasting is produced for the Christian audiences of the Middle East. Even the channels which speak more directly about Islam are watched extensively by Christians, featuring testimonies, for example, of Muslims who have become Christians. For a community in regional numerical decline, such ‘proof’ that their religion is truly from God is comforting amidst the challenges of being a minority.

Therefore, the balance necessary in choosing a title is certainly tricky. Each publication has its own standards and religious convictions, but for the evangelical audience of Christianity Today, it is a given that the message of Jesus is for all – including Muslims. Of course media should give them exposure of and invitation to the teachings of Christianity, in their own language.

Meanwhile, for most in Egypt, it is Islam which should draw the converts. It is anathema that a Muslim might leave Islam to any religion at all, and many are offended when others try to encourage the process. As the article points out, this is even more so when the attempt directly criticizes Islam or Muhammad.

Christianity Today also has another article on the subject, which highlights some navigating a middle ground. It is an interview unlikely to fully please either the Christian or the Muslim.

In America, religion is largely a private matter, with religious ideas being free game on an open market. One should respect the convictions of an individual, but religions themselves are subject to ridicule, criticism, indifference, allegiance, support, belief, or robust apologetic – as the case may be. Most Americans accept this as good and natural.

In Egypt, religion is largely a public matter, with religious ideas protected to preserve social harmony. One should allow, almost begrudgingly, an individual to harbor divergent views in his heart, but the religions themselves – at least concerning Islam and Christianity – are from God and not to be questioned. Most Egyptians accept this as good and natural.

In this light, the title options chosen for the article come from a very American perspective, designed to draw the most readership. My favored titles strive to be as neutral, yet descriptive, as possible. The content is the content, accepted by both. Hopefully all who read will get a fair picture of what is at stake.

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