February 2009 presentation at the Mosque: Writing letters to the newspaper.

 
    Introduction and Background.

  My friend and colleague Aly had mentioned to my two letter-writing partners and myself that more people in the Muslim community were interested in writing letters to the paper. I am here this evening to share with you my experiences over the years in writing letter to the local paper. 

For the past nearly 20 years my friends, Medhat and Victor, neither of whom  unfortunately could be here tonight, and I have been active in writing letters to our local paper.  My first letter on the Middle East in July of 1991 was a defense of my friend Medhat who had been attacked in the paper for some of his published remarks.  Since then I have had over 70 letters published in the Journal News.  Medhat and Victor may have even published more.  

In the beginning our focus was primarily on the injustices to which the Palestinian people have been subjected for decades: Israeli land-grabbing and apartheid policies together with the official tolerance and even support of these policies by our government in defiance of multiple UN resolutions (Resolution 242 to name but one).  This intolerable situation, remains an issue even today. 

Since then, however, new issues have come into focus:  the two Iraq wars, 9/11, subsequent verbal and written stereotypes and distortions of Islam and Muslims in general, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Gaza massacres and here at home the need for a greater awareness of the Muslim community and its contributions,.  and the creation of the American Muslim Women’s Association (AMWA) in which I have played a modest role .- all these things have been a subject of interest. 

Each of the three of us – all Catholic Christians - bring a different perspective to these issues:  Medhat, today a university professor,. through his academic background and vast knowledge of the history of the Middle East as well as his firsthand experiences as part of the UN observers and inspection team in Iraq during the decade between the two wars;  Victor, who speaks with authority as an American US Navy veteran of Palestinian heritage and who has been in the area where he visited family in Bethlehem and the West Bank.  He has a personal knowledge of the history of the conflict. All three of us, as Christians, care greatly for the all the peoples of the Middle East and the justice and peace they deserve. 

As for myself, I bring the perspective of a Christian activist for justice and peace, with a background in theology and 35 years of teaching. Having visited the Holy Land while a university student in 1957 I have a deep concern about open dialog and greater appreciation and understanding of Islam and our local Muslim community. I was honored a couple of years ago by the American Muslims Women’s Association for my work in “building bridges of understanding between our communities.” 

Now, over the years the policies of our local paper have changed.  Of late there has been less focus on international events and that makes it harder to get letters published unless they have some relevance to the local community. There are ways to make this happen, however. The recent events in Gaza, for example, have demonstrated that there is a real interest still in what happens in Palestine. Our local paper took note of that and published many letters on the subject, both pro and con. 

When we write letters we have to somehow make sure that they reflect community interest and the more you can focus your letters on local interests the better.

 

Hints and techniques in writing a letter to the Editor

Introduction: Some general comments

-          In our local paper you are limited to 250 words (this is difficult and requires re-writing, editing, proofreading and discipline. Most of my letters go through at least a dozen revisions.) Note:  there is also something called a “Community View” of which I have written a couple.   This is a longer piece, limited to 750 words and is harder to get published than a 250 word letter.

-          Whatever you write should be reviewed by others to make sure it is clear to the reader. Bounce your letter off others for their criticism. Can the reader follow your thoughts in a logical manner?  Do your thoughts follow in sequence?  Do you stick to your topic and not wander all over. Keep the reader in mind.  You are trying to persuade him,  not turn him off with an angry tirade.

-          You must always give your name, town where you live, and telephone number.

Goals: 

-          to point out errors as they appear in letters, specially those that champion the actions of the Israeli government and the lack of evenhandedness on the part of our government.

-          to enlighten community readers to the fact t that there is another side to the story

-          to present a positive image of the local American Muslim and/or Arab-American community

Using sources:

It is always good to use sources that support your opinion. Make sure you give your source when you quote it.  You should use

      -    sources from respected, neutral  and objective observers when available

Note:  the best sources are always Israeli sources whenever possible (the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, progressive Jewish sources like Gush Shalom,  The Other Israel, Tikkun (in the United States) and enlightened Jewish authors like Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein,  The British newspaper  “Independent,” “The  Guardian,”  etc.

 
Admonitions: 

-          always avoid sounding “anti-American” or “anti-Jewish” Never do this.

-          Remember that It is truly patriotic to point out US foreign policy failings that betray our nation’s calling and the best of traditional American values. True patriotism is not measured by slogans, bumper stickers or the size of the American flag on your SUV.

The advantages of writing on WORD:  When you use WORD to prepare your letter

-          - go to “tools” you will see “word count” and that will tell you how many words you have in your letter.

-          - spelling mistakes will appear in red.  Proper names will also appear in red and that gives you a chance to make sure you have spelled them correctly. (The computer will not recognize many words from the Middle East conflict.) The spell check will not pick out a work that is spelled correctly but used in the wrong manner: its, it’s, there, their, they’re, etc.

-          - Green markings are helpful:  they tell you if you have written an incomplete sentence, use bad grammar, your subject and predicate don’t agree, (a singular subject with a plural verb), your sentence is clumsy and does not hang together properly.  Green also tells you that there are extra spaces between words that need to be eliminated, etc.

The appearance of your letter.

The proper use of paragraphs is important; even from a visual point of view. People are turned off by a solid block of type. Your letter should be broken up into small paragraphs. 

Three Characteristics always necessary for a good letter or composition

            1. Unity (hangs together, stays with the topic, doesn’t wander)

            2. Emphasis (your point is forcefully presented, give special attention to make your points stand out))

            3. Coherence (easily understood by the reader, logically integrated, consistent and intelligible.

The Paragraph

A paragraph is usually a group of sentences (the first is which is indented) that will develop a single topic, thought or idea. Paragraphs often employ “bridge words” to avoid abrupt transitions.  Words like ”this, that, but, still, yet, however, then, next, first, secondly, while, finally, meanwhile, therefore, consequently,” often help linking your paragraphs.

Paragraphs should not be overloaded.  People have a hard time with solid blocks of print.

Three Kinds of letters:  Examples

1. Letters that respond to a letter that has appeared in the paper with an erroneous opinion that needs to be challenged.  This is the most common event that leads to our responding to such a letter.

Here I gave  the  example of a letter that  supported Israel’s actions in Gaza.  Note how the writer uses good form and technique, but bad reasoning.

The letter is questions was “Israel must finish what it started” (share copies)

In the first sentence the writer refers to letter in the paper  to which he is responding.  He could have done it this way: “Margaret X’s opinion is sheer hypocrisy.”  He tells us to which article he is referring and gives the date the article was published.  He labels her letter “hypocrisy” Then the second sentence is his topic sentence and is important: He states that she (the writer) has “no understanding  of the circumstances that led to the  action taken  by Israel against Hamas” and implies that he is about to set the reader straight with the real facts. 

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 How to respond to such a deceptive letter:  Look for the most vulnerable points or weakness in the writer’s  letter.  Don’t try to answer every point.  Zero in on one or two errors or fallacies and address them. Example: his claim that it is Hamas’ fault that the people of Gaza are in harm’s way or that Israel is justified in doing whatever it wishes to “protect” itself.  He opens himself up to criticism by invoking the “just war theory.”  One big element in the just war theory is “proportionality” - something he completely ignores.] and something that was completely lacking in  the arrack on Gaza. (over 1200 Palestinians killed versus a handful of Israelis).  Has Israel exhausted every option before undertaking this immoral action? Hamas has already demonstrated that it can deal in a democratic manner, and so on. The rabbi is vulnerable in many ways.

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2. Letters that comment on an article that has appeared in the Journal News

Rather than a letter, there may be an article in The Journal News about which you would like to comment.  You should refer to is by the title and date as it appeared, Example given of an article entitled “Religion hijacked by men.” This provided a springboard for letters about the role of women in all religions.  (shared a copy of the letter in question)

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3. Finally, you may want to write a letter commenting on a current event that may also relate to the local community.  Note: recently, as I mentioned, our paper has tended to shy away from world events and focused more exclusively on local news.  So it’s been hard to bring up the topic of the Middle East unless we can tie it in somehow.  It’s possible, however. There’s always a way to get in through the back door.  Example:

For instance, there was a recent article about a group of firemen from Rockland County  who went  to Israel to support the Israeli invasion of Gaza.  This could have been an interesting talking point that the paper would have to acknowledge and have a hard time turning down such a letter.  This article could prompt a good letter commenting on the incident. What would happen to an Arab-American from  our local community who went to Gaza to help Hamas?

I ended my presentation by taking questions from the 50 or so men and women present. The questions were great, the prayer service devout and the reception warm and food delicious.

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Postscript:

At the end of the presentation I asked the audience if they knew what the official teaching of the Catholic Church was on Islam.  They said “NO.”

So I proceeded to read to them the text from the Second Vatican Council on Islam, commenting that Pope Benedict might have done better to review the teaching of his own church before bringing up an obscure text demeaning Islam during his visit to Germany.  Those present welcomed this statement of the Second Vatican Council and asked for copies.  Here is the text:

 


DECLARATION ON
THE RELATION OF THE CHURCH TO NON-CHRISTIAN RELIGIONS
NOSTRA AETATE
PROCLAIMED BY HIS HOLINESS
POPE PAUL VI
ON OCTOBER 28, 1965

3. The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth,(5) who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their desserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.

Over the centuries many quarrels and dissentions have arisen between   Christians and Muslims. The sacred council now pleads with all to forget the past, and urges that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding for the benefit of all, let them live together, preserve and promote peace, freedom, social justice and moral values.

  (italics mine) 

Richard Cross