The Heroic Abuser: Christian News Headlines about Saeed Abedini’s Abuse of Naghmeh Panahi

I wrote this short piece in 2016 and am now republishing an updated version, in support of Naghmeh Panahi’s decision to go public with her abuse.

Occasionally, opportunities arise to discuss domestic violence in the context of widely known families whose stories have been covered by the media. The case of Saeed Abedini and Naghmeh Panahi is one such opportunity. Discourse surrounding the Abedinis’ case reveals some of the ways the global Christian community think and talk about spousal abuse. And the fact that Saeed was himself a victim of cruel imprisonment and torture allows us to consider the ethical significance of such discourse. What happens when a persecuted Christian is revealed to be a wife abuser?

Background

On 24 September, 2021, Naghmeh Panahi (then Abedini) went public with the details of the abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband, Iranian-American Pastor Saeed Abedini, as well as how Christian leaders, who once supported her, abandoned her when she first revealed the abuse (Roys Report). From 2012 to 2016, Saeed Abedini, was imprisoned in Iran and subsequently became the public face of persecuted Christians. As Julie Roys reported today, “As part of a global #SaveSaeed campaign, millions of dollars were raised, and Saeed was freed from prison in January, 2016.”

In 2007, Saeed Abedini pled guilty to a charge of domestic assault. Yet even from a prison in Iran, he continued to abuse his wife spiritually and psychologically. In her troubling account, Naghmeh Panahi takes listeners through the timeline of Saeed’s escalating abuse of her, including the negative influence of purity culture and Saeed’s early psychological and spiritual dismantling of her which he used to establish a pattern of control and isolation, gradually extending to violent physical abuse.

In November, 2015, two e-mails which Naghmeh Panahi wrote supporters, revealing her husband’s abuse, including “physical, emotional, psychological and sexual abuse (through Saeed’s addiction to pornography),” were leaked to the public. Christian leaders, including Franklin Graham and Jay Sekulow, who had previously supported Naghmeh Panahi’s’ advocacy for her husband, now backed away from the threat she posed to their fundraising efforts for persecuted Christians.

In the sections below, I examine Christian media headlines about Saeed Abedini’s abuse of his wife Naghmeh, answering the following questions:

  1. In the initial months after Naghmeh Panahi’s e-mails were leaked to the public, what coverage did Christian media outlets give to Saeed’s abuse of his wife, relative to their reports of his imprisonment and release?
  2. What language did Christian media outlets use to identify the abuse?
  3. In what ways was abuse emphasized and/or minimized via discursive strategies?

The Power of Presentation: Telling the Abedini Story

The media are a mighty and recognized influence on minds, actions, and words. Indeed, ‘The entire study of mass communication is based on the premise that the media have significant effects’ (McQuail, 1994: 327). The choices that journalists make when writing headlines reveals their inescapable ideology and prejudice towards an event (see Edelman, 1993). In turn, these choices systematically influence how readers view these events (Price et al., 1995; Scheufele, 1999).

Headlines especially act as snapshots of media bias. MacRitichie and Seedat (2008: 339-34) explain it this way, referencing their study on headlines about traffic accidents:

Headlines are the newspapers’ tools to attract prospective buyers and imprint their individuality on what is otherwise a mass-produced product…
Headlines, which provide an indication of how an article may portray an accident, are used to convey the first and sometimes the most significant message to the news reading public …
Headlines also draw part of their influence and meaning from what is assumed to be the readers’ shared cultural, political and general knowledge. So, although headlines may sometimes seem deeply ambiguous, the surface differences may be a disguise for articulating deeper meanings and associations.

Of course, media headlines do not occur in a vacuum; media discourse both produces and perpetuates an already-present ideology. Through the production and reproduction of such discourse, communities work together to decide how events should be viewed and how social actors should be regarded. By examining these messages, which often are unconsciously absorbed, we can evaluate the extent to which the ideas we encounter are consistent with our identity and commitments, and resist the ones which are not.

Mode, Methods, and Materials

In order to answer the above questions about Christian media headlines, I relied on a variety of tools and materials, including the often illuminating tool of critical discourse analysis (CDA) (see Fairclough, 2012), which is,

a type of discourse analytical research that primarily studies the way social power, abuse, dominance, and inequality are enacted, reproduced, and resisted by text and talk in the social and political context.

(Van Dijk, 2001: 352)

In short, CDA aims to identify ideology in discourse, focusing on how certain social actors are represented, whether they are marginalized, viewed apathetically, or held up as social models. Looking at a text through the lens of CDA effectively sensitizes the reader to the inevitable moral-assessment and evaluative aspects of human speech about anyone and anything. CDA is capable of such usefulness as it involves examination simultaneously at the text level (language forms, cohesion, and text structure and their meaning potential) and at the broader levels of text production and distribution, as well as the social context in which these texts are produced.

So when we examine headlines, we consider not only their grammatical-lexical-discursive features but also look for evidence regarding the ideology at work in them. It is to ask a version of the great transcendental question: what view of the world and of reality must be seen as true by the author to account for this or that way of speaking? What kind of world does this language presuppose, does it fit?

Mode, Methods and Materials

Using Google SiteSearch, I accessed 129 Christian News Headlines from 15 news outlets between 12 November, 2015 and 2 February, 2016, using the combined search terms ‘wife’ and ‘Saeed Abedini’. After several searches using various related search terms, this combination yielded the most fruit. For comparison, I identified 322 US Newspaper and Wire headlines via the same search phrase, using Nexis, a database of UK and international news sources. In 322 headlines, there were five mentions of the Abedinis’ ‘separation,’ the rest spread fairly evenly between coverage of Saeed’s imprisonment and release and that of the other prisoners.

Christian headlines were grouped into three stages, which arose inductively from the data:

  1.  Abuse goes public:                       12 November – 8 December, 2015
    (after which all outlets ceased referring to the abuse)
  2.  Interim period:                               9 December, 2015 – 15 January, 2016
    (during which 6 outlets reported on statements Naghmeh Panahi (then Abedini) made about the Christian life)
  3.  Saeed is released:                         16 January – 2 February, 2016
  4. Abuse back in the spotlight:         18 January – 2 February, 2016

Stages 3 and 4 overlapped as various media outlets moved back and forth between reporting on Saeed’s release and the Abedinis’ spousal abuse case. For instance, Charisma News reported on Saeed’s release four times, documented Naghmeh’s hope for ‘a miracle with marriage’, returned to Saeed’s release (two articles), and then published four articles on Naghmeh’s charges and public statements, Franklin Graham’s statement, and Saeed’s response.

Findings

1. What kind of coverage do Christian media outlets give to Saeed’s abuse of Naghmeh, relative to their reports of his imprisonment and release?

Table 1 provides details of the number and timing of articles each outlet devoted to the Abedinis during the period in question. I note that all but four reported on the abuse pre-release, and the abstaining outlets reported only on Saeed’s release and did not make explicit or implicit mention of abuse in their headlines. A total of 51 headlines made some reference to the abuse, compared with 67 which reported on Saeed’s release with no mention of abuse.

Table 1. The number and timing of articles each outlet devoted to the Abedinis from 18 January – 2 February, 2016

2. What language do Christian media outlets use to identify the abuse?

Christian journalists used a wide variety of words and phrases to refer to Saeed’s abuse of Naghmeh, from the more direct ‘abuse,’ ‘marital abuse’, and ‘spousal abuse’ to the more ambiguous ‘marital woes’, ‘marriage problems,’ and ‘marital issues’ (see Figure 1). Breaking Christian News was among those using the softest language, referring only to Naghmeh’s ‘stress’ in pre-release coverage headlines and omitting any direct reference to the abuse post-release, instead making an oblique reference to Naghmeh Abedini’s ‘surprise move.’ Charisma News, on the other hand, used ‘abuse’ fairly frequently, though I will explore later how such language was countered with discursive strategies.

Figure 1. Word Cloud of Language Referring to Saeed’s Abuse of Naghmeh Pre-Release

What I found most surprising was the fact that pre-release, Christian news outlets used more direct language to refer to the abuse, this despite the fact that Saeed was still in prison and might be endangered by such reports. As seen in Figure 1, capturing pre-release references to abuse, the word ‘abuse’ appears prominently. Seven out of eleven outlets used the word ‘abuse’ in their headlines.

Figure 2. Word Cloud of Language Referring to Saeed’s Abuse of Naghmeh Post-Release

However, post-release, many of the outlets changed tactics. Aside from using a much wider range of language to reference the abuse, the most common approach was to omit any explicit reference to the abuse (see Figure 2 above), as in such headlines as:

I will explore what I believe this may mean later, but it certainly appears that the returning persecuted hero is, at least on the surface, a powerful image in the Christian community, and powerful enough to displace the widely recognized image — for the same individual — of the abusive spouse.

3. In what ways is abuse emphasized and/or minimized via discursive strategies?

I observed in the headlines corpus a wide variety of discursive strategies that Christian media outlets used to minimize Saeed’s abuse of Naghmeh and maximize Saeed’s imprisonment, suffering, and denial of the abuse. I will focus on two of the most prominent of these, including the Christian media’s emphasis on Saeed’s victimization and its placement of reference to abuse in an insignificant place in the headline.

a. Who’s the real victim?

The most conspicuous way in which the headlines minimized abuse and emphasized Saeed’s freedom was in the sheer number of headlines (52%) devoted to Saeed’s release from Iran. At first sight, the fact of his release would seem to account for the headlines. However, upon examination, this focus on release alongside a displacement of abuse was accomplished in subtler ways as well. We see this first in the way readers are reminded, even in headlines mentioning ‘abuse’ directly, that Saeed is a victim, persecuted and separated from his family for many years. Consider this headline from Christian Post, wherein Naghmeh’s filing of a ‘domestic relations case’ is set alongside Saeed’s reunion with his children.

Mention of Saeed’s suffering is not always in prominent position, as in one headline from Christianity Today (see Table 2 below). However, with few exceptions, the reader is regularly reminded of Saeed’s imprisonment, which acts as a point of comparison when considering his abuse of his wife.

In sum, the image of a persecuted, suffering hero is bolstered by reference to Saeed’s ‘years of demonic abuse’, ‘details of torture’, and ‘human rights abuses,’ language which stands in stark contrast to Naghmeh’s ‘abuse claims’ and ‘accusations’. To be sure, identifying Saeed as ‘imprisoned’ or as ‘prisoner’ may function as little more than an identifying mark, since his imprisonment is why he is known to the public at all in the first place. Yet the regular pairing of his imprisonment with the abuse element of his story has the effect of qualifying the abuse element from the outset, in some cases even potentially mitigating it. Such discourse gives the impression that Saeed is the sole real, or at least most important, victim here. Some examples can be seen in Table 2.

Christian Post
Pastor Saeed, Globally-Known Iranian Prisoner, Is Accused of Spousal Abuse — Five Ways We Can Respond

Christianity Today
Naghmeh Abedini Claims Abuse, Halts Public Support for Imprisoned Husband Saeed

Christian Headlines
Why Imprisoned Pastor’s Wife Kept Her Marital Abuse a Secret – Until Now
Iranian Pastor’s Wife Files Court Papers against Recently Freed Husband

Black Christian News
Ed Stetzer On How Christians Should Respond to Accusations That Imprisoned Pastor Saeed Abedini Has Abused his Wife

Gospel Herald
Pastor Saeed Abedini’s Wife Naghmeh Advocates for Imprisoned Husband: ‘I Cannot Deny His Love, Passion for Jesus,’ despite Marital Abuse

Religion News Service
Wife of Iran-held pastor hopes to rebuild marriage
Table 2. Examples of Christian news headlines pairing the Abedinis’ suffering

Some might argue that this is even-handed treatment; after all, both Naghmeh and Saeed suffered persecution. Notably, however, though Saeed had pled guilty to abuse before ever leaving for Iran, several outlets headlined Saeed’s persecution and abuse without mentioning Naghmeh at all, as in the following headlines:

The noteworthy feature of these headlines is not simply in their capturing Saeed’s prison torture without mention of his wife. What I ask readers to notice is the relationship these headlines bear to those headlines which mention Saeed’s abuse of Naghmeh, which are typically ‘combination’ headlines, pairing the abuse element with the tacit reminder of Saeed’s own torture and imprisonment. In other words, mention of Saeed’s abuse can and does stand alone, whereas Naghmeh’s abuse is regularly discussed in combination with Saeed’s imprisonment. Further, in the examples where Nagmeh’s abuse is mentioned but Saeed’s imprisonment is not mentioned, her abuse is still regularly undermined using other discursive strategies, as we shall see.

b. Abuse as an afterthought

In English, the first position in a clause signals the topic of that clause, the theme, that which has informational prominence. The information coming after the first participant, process, or circumstance is the rheme (see Fairclough, 2003). In headlines, the theme is the interpretive lens through which the rheme is intended to be viewed. For example, the headline below from Charisma News leads with ‘persecuted Pastor Saeed Abedini,’ placing his imprisonment in thematic position in the clause, situating Naghmeh’s actions in the more minor position of rheme (end). Beyond identifying Saeed as the one whom the public knows as the imprisoned Christian Pastor, this headline also tacitly encourages the reader to think first of Saeed’s persecution, considering Naghmeh’s actions in light of his imprisonment.

This is a pattern that Christian media outlets relied on again and again in the corpus. The table below focuses on examples of headlines which mention ‘abuse’ directly. Note the language that surrounds the word ‘abuse,’ at times setting the reader up to frame or theme the abuse in a particular way. Marital abuse is cited, claimed, alleged and accused. Despite marital abuse, Pastor Saeed Abedini’s wife “cannot deny his love, passion for Jesus.”

Christian Post
Naghmeh Abedini Halts Public Advocacy, Citing Marital abuse, Stress

Baptist Press
Abedini praises wife, denies ‘much’ of abuse claim

Christian Headlines
Saeed Abedini Disagrees with Wife’s Allegations of Marital abuse

World Magazine
Naghmeh Abedini regrets emails alleging abuse

Black Christian News
Naghmeh Abedini Regrets Sending Email Accusing Husband Saeed of Spousal abuse

CBN
Pastor Abedini Disputes Wife’s Marital Abuse Allegations

Gospel Herald
Pastor Saeed Abedini’s Wife Naghmeh Advocates for Imprisoned Husband: ‘I Cannot Deny His Love, Passion for Jesus,’ despite marital abuse
Table 3. Examples of headlines that mention abuse directly

For example, a headline that appeared in various forms was that of Christianity Today (see Christian Post example above as well), where emphasis is first placed on Naghmeh’s halting of public advocacy, the abuse mentioned as an afterthought.

We can also note Baptist Press’ emphasis on Saeed Abedini’s ‘praise’ and denial of the abuse, and Black Christian News’ thematization of Naghmeh’s regret:

And look here at this Charisma News headline, thematising Saeed’s ‘years of demonic abuse,’ a preferential treatment of Saeed’s suffering – including the ironically loaded vocabulary of ‘abuse’ for that suffering – that Christian media seldom afforded Naghmeh.

In short, even where Christian media chose the stronger term ‘abuse’, Saeed’s abuse of Naghmeh was frequently minimized via relegation to secondary position in the headlines.

Two potential exceptions I noted were from Charisma News.

In both, ‘abuse’ appears at the tail end of the thematic position, suggesting a bolder approach to coverage by this outlet than by others. However, this emphasis on Naghmeh Panahi’s suffering is undermined, in the first headline, by a more prominent reference to ‘claims.’ And in the second headline, the initial discourse marker of concession, ‘despite,’ followed by a strong declaration of epistemic certainty (‘can’t deny’), leaves the reader hanging in cheap, click-bait fashion.

Closing Remarks

I have presented evidence that suggests that in the first weeks when Saeed’s abuse of Naghmeh Panahi went public, Christian media downplayed such abuse in their coverage of the story. They did this not only in the terminology they used to refer to (or ignore) the abuse, and in the constant reminders of Saeed’s imprisonment, but also in the way they relegated Saeed’s abuse of his wife to a less significant place within the headlines. This acted as yet another form of secondary abuse of Naghmeh Panahi, which had the potential to encourage yet more shunning and denigrating of her on- and off-line, perhaps even fuel Saeed Abedini’s continued abuse. Given the ideals that Christian media purport to represent, some news outlets are at crucial points failing to engage in responsible reporting of cases involving victims of violence and, in so doing, participating in that violence.

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