Seeking facts in the Cairo flames

GetReligion, as we frequently remind readers, is not a religion-news site. It’s a weblog about how the mainstream press struggles — with good and bad results — to cover religion news, including hidden or even obvious religious “ghosts” in stories that are not obviously about religion.

Some readers “get” this and some do not. We have our share of folks, for example, who can’t even get the journalism angle down and remain committed to filling our comments pages with debates about doctrinal issues (as opposed to making valid journalistic points — citing facts and sources — about whether reporters and editors are covering doctrinal disputes in an accurate manner).

But, as the flames burn on in Egypt, here is an example of a note from a reader — Norman, by name — who does indeed “get” it.

According to The Telegraph, “Muslim mobs attack Chrisian churches.”

For the Washington Post, by contrast, what occurred were “Clashes between Muslims and Coptic Christians … in one of the most serious outbreaks of violence the country’s interim rulers have faced since taking power in February.”

In one formulation, the aggressor is quite clear, while in the other we have a “clashes” between two groups. I suppose being murdered does make you party to a clash between competing forces, in a way …

Now, that’s a valid point. As always, the coverage of these latest tragedies has been confused on several crucial point, often sliding into a kind of moral equivalency model symbolized by the dreaded “sectarian” label.

The truth, of course, is hard to capture in the simple words of a headline. It also does not help when journalists swamp their stories in vague labels that mean nothing — the usual “moderate,” “conservative,” ultra-conservative” and “fundamentalist” fog. That’s a problem that we simply have to keep discussing here.

There is so much coverage of the Egypt riots out there that I cannot deal with it all. However, I urge readers to keep the following issues in mind — subjects frequently discussed here — as you keep following these events.

* There is no one Islam. At the moment, these events involve players from at least four or five different Islamic camps. There are Muslims who are helping defend the churches, while others are attacking. There’s the Islamic Brotherhood establishment, which may or may not have its people on the street under full control. Are they or are they not involved with the radical Salafists who appear to be inciting these conflicts? Then there are the military-police authorities. Then there are the leaders of the reform movement in Egypt, etc., etc.

* Note the heavy emphasis on rumors. This is what can happen in a culture with no free and accurate press. Cellphones ring. Rumors spread. Reporters cannot or will not verify. Mobs form. Police “arrive late.” Members of various religious minority groups suffer and die. Churches burn. Repeat. This is a story that must be reported. Rumors become the reality.

* Look for signs that Egypt actually has courts, at the moment. The government keeps holding “reconciliation” meetings, but no one is every placed on trial for these crimes. Of course, it is a problem when you have Christians involved in these hellish events in a nation that is currently being ruled by a coalition made up of Muslim groups with often clashing concepts of Sharia law.

So what is a reporter to do? You have to quote the government authorities, even if you know that their reports are often whitewashed. You have to search for voices on both sides and attempt to describe their various degrees of involvement in the events themselves. You cannot settle for labels.

You can watch that struggle going on in the following New York Times piece by David D. Kirkpatrick, a reporter with a long GetReligion-reputation for doing precisely this kind of hard work. Yes, he has “sectarian tensions” in the lede, but this story at least attempts to show how tensions inside Islam are a key element in these events. As always, he is also very clear about providing sources for his information. Here’s the top of the report:

CAIRO – A night of street fighting between hundreds of Muslims and Christians left at least 12 people dead and two churches in flames on Sunday in the latest outbreak of sectarian tensions in the three months since the revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak.

By lifting the heavy hand of the Mubarak police state, the revolution unleashed long-suppressed sectarian animosities that have burst out with increasing ferocity, threatening the recovery of Egypt’s tourist economy and the stability of its hoped-for transition to democracy.

Well, that’s one way to say it.

As I said the other day in a post on Syria, the dark side of the Arab spring still seems to be a totally new concept to American editors and producers. Any Coptic Christian or any human-rights activist with experience studying Egypt, knew that events of this kind were coming.

The question, as always, is this: What happens to the rule of law? Will fair trials be held? Will courtroom justice be done, even if that means radical Muslims going to jail for violence against members of religious minorities (including some victims in competing groups of Muslims)?

This reality is seen near the top of Kirkpatrick’s report:

The Egyptian authorities vowed a swift response. The military council governing the country announced military trials for 190 people arrested in the violence. Civilian authorities promised increased security at houses of worship and a new ban on demonstrations outside such institutions. The interim prime minister, Essam Sharaf, canceled a trip abroad to preside over an emergency cabinet meeting, and Egypt’s most respected Muslim religious authority, the sheik of Al Azhar, denounced the violence.

“Egypt has already become a nation in danger,” Justice Minister Abdel Aziz al-Gindi said after the cabinet meeting, vowing to strike “with an iron hand” to preserve national security.

But by nightfall thousands of unsatisfied Christians — members of the indigenous Coptic Orthodox minority that makes up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population — gathered in protest outside the state television building, closing a main thoroughfare. Adapting the chants and tactics of the Tahrir Square sit-in and exercising their new freedom of assembly, the Copts accused the military government of indifference; called for the resignation of the military leader, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi; and vowed not to leave.

To prevent renewed violence, an overwhelming force of hundreds of heavily armed soldiers and riot police officers occupied the Cairo neighborhood where the clashes took place. …

Feel free to compare this Times report with some of the vague, thinner, simplistic church-attacks coverage that came before it. Feel free to offer us URLs for other information.

Here is my big question: At this point, has the story of the Arab spring evolved into a story about the possible extinction of the ancient Christian churches of the Middle East (and how America responds to that emerging reality)? I fear that we now face a human-rights implosion in the region, based on this reality: It doesn’t matter what your law says if police will not stop a riot and convict those who led it.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Roberto

    I found the “sectarian tensions” nonsense in the lede so off-putting that I found it difficult to credit the rest of the report, especially how the rest of it told a sadly by-now familiar tale: rumors of some offense against Islam by the Copts prompts the formation of mob; churches get torched; Copts die; Copts decide that a nail can only take so much from the hammer; and, voila!, “sectarian tensions.”

  • liberty

    I fear that you are correct about the ‘Arab Spring’ having serious potential to destroy historic Christian communities in the region.

    What I wonder is… will we ever know? It seems that the press can’t grasp how to tell the story truthfully – so instead they vaguely report (‘sectarian clashes’) or they don’t report it at all.

    The whole idea of an oppressed minority being Christian and the oppressors being Muslim just doesn’t seem to fit with the accepted press narrative.

    Because this is against the accepted narrative (Christians = bad, Muslims = good) many in the media will justify their response to this story with something along the lines of “This isn’t a serious story when compared to other issues int he region.” or “We don’t want to inflame islamaphobia in our readers so we choose not to cover it.”. Even worse… they fear being accused of islamaphobia themselves and so rather than chance an accusation from the PC police they self censor.

  • David Rupert

    When i read the reports, all I saw is that this woman’s ‘conversion’ was being withheld by the christian church. Of coure, they slanted it to blame Christians for the mob.

  • tmatt

    Because this is against the accepted narrative (Christians = bad, Muslims = good) …


    OK, but that’s simplistic. I know the Kirkpatrick-level pros know that is simplistic, in part because THERE IS NO ONE ISLAM, in Egypt or anywhere else.

    I remain convinced that they fear covering the true divisions INSIDE Islam, because that would mean having Muslim on the bad side as well as on the persecuted side.

    It’s not just Christianity, after all. It’s a variety of religious minorities.

  • bob smietana

    Hey Terry:

    The Telegraph reported that 190 people have been arrested and will be tried by military tribunals. That will be a story to watch.

    Who is the “they” in your comment?
    “I remain convinced that they fear covering the true divisions INSIDE Islam, because that would mean having Muslim on the bad side as well as on the persecuted side.”

  • tmatt

    They means some MSM reporters, having rejected Liberty’s sweeping, simplistic indictment.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The Boston Globe had a story on page 3–the Washington Post story. The headline on it was “12 Die in Egypt Religious Clashes.”
    Like in the excerpts you gave here, no indication of how many of the dead were Christian. There was mention in one story I read about a Christian being found dead in the rubble of one of the two churches destroyed. How many others??? And of the 190 arrested, how many were Christian and how many Moslem?? …

  • Jerry

    I think your comments about courts and other effective ways of dealing with the criminals is key and that is what I’m going to be looking for in any followup news reports that we get. I’m not sanguine about the odds of decent followup stories, but I can hope.

  • Julia

    St Louis Post Dispatch:

    Pretty straight-forward use of AP article that makes it clear which group attacked which group.

    Church Burning Deepens Tumult of Egypt Transition

    The attack on the church was the latest sign of assertiveness by an extreme, ultraconservative movement of Muslims known as Salafis, whose increasing hostility toward Egypt’s Coptic Christians over the past few months has met with little interference from the country’s military rulers.
    Salafis have been blamed for other recent attacks on Christians and others they don’t approve of. In one attack, a Christian man had an ear cut off for renting an apartment to a Muslim woman suspected of involvement in prostitution.

    Then a non-committal blurb on an AP photo not saying who did what to whom:
    Mideast Sectarian Clashes

    Egyptians gather next to a building belongs to Christians set on fire during clashes between Muslims and Christians in the Imbaba neighborhood of Cairo Sunday, May 8, 2011. Two churches in western Cairo were set on fire during clashes between Muslims and Christians triggered by rumors of an interfaith romance that left nine dead in some of the worst sectarian tension since the ouster of the president in a popular uprising. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Since the riots are rooted in an apostasy controversy that has so easily inflamed Egyptian Moslems one wonders why the media hasn’t Googled up and used polls on that topic in Egypt.
    Recently, the Pew organization (considered very reliable by most of the media) released some dismaying poll findings about Egypt. They found that 84% agree with the Koran’s injunction that those who leave Islam should be executed. This was reported by Reuters. Also, Wikipedia and a Vancouver, Canada newspaper did a report on the Pew poll and both raised a question the American media apparently refuses to touch–Where exactly is “mainstream” Islam?????
    Would more polling give an answer the media is determined not to hear or publish???
    Indeed,has any American Islamic leader ever been directly asked by a reporter whether they spurn the Islamic apostasy teaching???

  • tmatt


    URL on the Pew Numbers.

    Now. OK?

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Sorry-I don’t know how to paste URLs around. Just Google what I did “Egypt Apostasy Poll Pew Reuters Factbook” and you’ll get a number of stories on the poll along with other statistics on the poll that show dismaying majorities in Egypt for some of the Islamic teachings we find most repulsive–and will probably carry over into who gets elected there.

  • Julia


    1)Highlight the URL by left clicking & running the arrow over
    the URL letters – keep pressing down on the left side of the mouse until the highlighting is done
    2)Right click & choose “copy”
    3)Go to Get Religion’s blank comments box
    4)Right click & chose “paste”.

    Real simple.

  • Bob Smietana

    Pew numbers are here.

    Indeed,has any American Islamic leader ever been directly asked by a reporter whether they spurn the Islamic apostasy teaching???

    Here in Nashville, yes, a number of times. The answers has always been that people are free to believe or not believe as they choose.

  • Bill P.

    Here is my big question: At this point, has the story of the Arab spring evolved into a story about the possible extinction of the ancient Christian churches of the Middle East (and how America responds to that emerging reality)?

    Great question. The answer to the first part seems to be yes, and fortunately some journalists are willing to tell the story. And from this 2009 Sunday Times report, Christian religious leaders have been calling attention to the fate of Christians in the Middle East for the past few years.

    How all this gets reported by many in the MSM, however, raises questions.

    I can’t help but wonder if some reporters see Christianity as something not worth defending. After all, many Christians oppose positions that are supported by a good number of left-leaning journalists—same-sex marriage, birth control, abortion, etc. I wonder how many crises of conscience occur in newsrooms as a same-sex marriage supporting reporter has to portray Christians as victims. Can this view of Christianity as the underdog fit into their worldview? I don’t mean this in any abstract sense. I work with professionals—raised Christian—who are not shy about their disdain for Christian orthodoxy (or, at least how they (mis)understand it). To them, Christianity is aggressively hateful and regressive and it should go away.

    So back to the referenced Sunday Times story. Here’s some snippets that show a progression from the main story to one that blames the victim.

    Pope Benedict XVI urged Christians in the Middle East to hold on to their faith and traditions at an open-air Mass attended by 50,000 worshippers.

    He told them to work with other religions to enrich their daily lives and counter violent ideologies. “Be faithful to your roots,” he said yesterday in his homily at Amman’s largest football stadium.

    For years the Church has been alarmed by the declining presence of Christians in the Holy Land and the wider Middle East. It says that they have been driven out by war, economic hardship and the growing influence of Muslim fundamentalist groups.

    According to the official statistics, Christians now form less than 2 per cent of Jordan’s overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim population, down from about 30 per cent in the Fifties.

    The tour is his first trip to the Middle East as pontiff and is being closely watched by Jewish and Muslim leaders around the world.

    The Pope angered Muslims three years ago when in a speech he quoted a medieval text that characterised some of Islam’s teachings as “evil and inhuman”.

    He later said that the comments were misinterpreted and did not reflect his own views.

    When he arrived in Jordan, the Pope expressed his “deep respect” for Islam and said that he hoped that the Catholic Church would be a force for peace.

    However, he upset some Jordanians when he spoke of the “inseparable bond between the Church and the Jewish people” during a stopover at Mount Nebo, from where Moses glimpsed the promised land.

    The story is 579 words. 101 of these words comprise cherry-picked, dubious “background” material about how Benedict XVI has “angered Muslims” and has since had to backtrack. Can you imaging how this sounds to the casual reader who may not know the details of the Regensburg Address, or other related nuances?

    Maybe I’m just showing my own bias here, and if so, I apologize. But I wonder how many Western reporters has what it takes to set their bias aside and tell the story of what’s really happening to Christians throughout certain areas of the Middle East, and elsewhere, without having to demonize Christianity in the process.

  • R.S.Newark

    You may admire Kirkpatrick but when a writer uses and relys on the word “sectarian”as adescriptive for religion or religious any thoughtful person knows, or ought to know the jig is up. It’s a weasel word isn’t it? So commonly used to describe the basicly religious war that continues in a smaller way in North Ireland. Get Religion ought to know this better then anyone. In the case of North Ireland “sectarian” was used as a screed word to hide the unfortunate hate protestant England had – and continues to have – for Catholics…anywhere. There’s too much to say about it to contiue here.

  • R.S.Newark

    Neither Protestantism nor Christianity, or for that matter Islam of whatever stripe can remotely be termed: “Secterarian”.

  • R.S.Newark

    Similiar reporting will be coming out from the sadness now occuring in northen Nigeria…perhaps it already has. Undoubtedly, the same weasel word meant to deflect and assuage feelings of those not directly involved in being killed will be used.

  • Julia

    I have no proof for it, but judging from how “colorful” liturgical church services in the West are often described in news articles, non-religious journalists may have difficulty taking seriously the indigenous religious folks in the Near East with even more “colorful” robes, strange hats and and “spooky” funny-sounding religious services.

    After all, chant-like music is the favorite backdrop for all those Hollywood movies about possession, children of the devil, albino killer monks, etc. I’m guessing that many reporters see the indigenous Christians of the Near East as alien to them as the Salafi Muslims.

    The quaint and “colorful” robes and church services associated with the recent British royal wedding, on the other hand, are seen by Americans as admirable, cultural pageantry like the changing of the guards – so not alien.
    After all, we’ve also seen the main participants in bikinis and swimming trunks.

  • Julia

    Roberto said:

    Copts decide that a nail can only take so much from the hammer; and, voila!, “sectarian tensions.”

    In normal media stories, doesn’t that constitute defending yourselves from attackers?

  • Julia

    Last comment re: MSM attitudes toward ancient Christianity.

    My sons took me to a live performance of Carmina Burana for Mothers’ Day.

    Reminded me yet again that the favorite spooky music for American horror and religiously-weird movies is the opening and closing of that marvelous Carl Orff piece written in the 1930s, I think. The text of Carmina Burana is drinking, wenching and “woe is me” songs in Latin and primitive German & French written by students in the 1200s & 1300s and found in a German monastery in the 1800s.

    The huge opening is named “O Fortuna”. You should immediately recognize it if you go to the link below. Fortuna is the Roman goddess of fate and luck; her wheel of fortune rewards and punishes men without any discernible pattern or reason. The piece has nothing at all to do with weird Christian religion nor does any other song in the entire collection of student songs.

    However, because “O Fortuna” is in ancient Latin and sounds chant_like, the Hollywood folks think it’s perfect to set the mood for spooky, scarey, religious-themed movies.

    Actually, Carmina Burana is about failure to pay bar bills, losing your virginity, gathering your rosebuds while you may, losing your shirt gambling, and a swan complaining while roasting on a spit in the tavern (at 35:).

    The use of “O Fortuna” in movies is the perfect example of the typical American conception of ancient Christian rituals (whether Latin or Greek or Aramaic, etc) – weird and scarey and alien. I’ve heard parts of the Mass used that way, too. News reporters are part of American culture and often exhibit this attitude in reporting on ancient liturgies.
    This may partly explain the lack of conern about disappearing indigenous Christians in the Near East.

    English translation:

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Bob–Thanks for putting the link. And isn’t it very chilling that Islamic leaders here IN AMERICA–let alone in Moslem countries — wouldn’t vigorously spurn the concept of killing anyone who leaves their faith. And how much has the media delved into this attitude among leaders of what they prefer to portray as a “religion of peace.”
    Also, I have never seen an in-depth interview with refugee Middle East Christians about what it was like to live in a country which is majority Islamic.
    Julia–thanks for the info on cutting and pasting URLS–I will make a hard copy of your info and use it the next time I try to move an URL.