It is a principle that has been voiced many times here at GetReligion through the years: If religion is important enough to dominate a story’s lede then religious content should probably be included in the body of the story, as well.
A recent Time magazine piece about the revolt in Syria (subscription required) offers a textbook example of this syndrome, before going another step further. In this case, religion is in the lede and in the closing paragraphs. In between? The story is a ghost town, when it comes to facts about the role religion is play in this drama.
So here is the lede:
The firecrackers explode just before 10 p.m. as groups of men, in twos and threes, stream out of al-Kabir mosque after prayers. The noise signals not a celebration but the start of another of the nightly demonstrations in Rastan, a town of 65,000 halfway between Homs and Hama. The organizers of the demonstrations use fireworks to alert residents who aren’t in the mosque that a protest is about to begin.
The men and clusters of women quickly congregate near the building that once housed the dreaded state security intelligence, across the road from the mosque. The intelligence agents abandoned their post in early June after weeks of protests, when the military decided to withdraw to Rastan’s outskirts, leaving the town free of President Bashar Assad’s minions for two months. The building is now plastered with antiregime graffiti: BASHAR IS A DONKEY, BASHAR IS A TRAITOR, BRING DOWN BASHAR!
So I will ask: What is happening in the mosques? What is being said? And might that “donkey” reference have some religious significance?
More importantly, what is the brand of Islam, the basic approach, that is advocated by the religious leaders of these demonstrations, as opposed to the approach that is linked to the life and work of Bashar Assad? There is no need for this information to dominate the report.
Without that information, how can readers understand the coded symbolism in a paragraph such as this one:
After weeks of antigovernment protests, Assad’s army stormed Rastan on May 29, killing scores of people. Army tanks remain on its perimeter. Some are in its neighborhoods, and a few are just streets away from the demonstrators emerging from al-Kabir mosque. Nonetheless, the residents remain defiant. On this night, the chants start up in earnest, led by a small group of young men standing on the first-floor balcony of the intelligence building. “The people demand the execution of the President!” they roar. Their energy is infectious, the mood more festive than fearful. The crowd claps along, creating a thunderous rumble that shifts in rhythm and intensity as the protest leaders switch between slogans. “We will kneel only to God!” they cry. …
“Everybody here is a martyr in waiting,” says Ahmad, a 20-year-old in the center of the crowd.
So is the story arguing that these people are flooding out of mosques into the streets and preparing to lose their life in order to become POLITICAL martyrs? Or is this an example of an approach to public life and Islam (always remember that there are multiple views) in which there is no wall whatsoever between a political act and a religious act? The editors at Time seem to be MIA on these issues.
Thus, if you are looking for facts about the role of Islam in this complex drama there is no need to keep reading this particular report. Move along.
At the very end, there is this haunting note:
But on a warm night in Rastan, the dozen or so men gathered in a residential courtyard are not thinking about what’s next. They are dealing with what’s happening right now. Many have snippets of video on their phones that they are eager to share. Some of these show homes being shelled by soldiers. One shows a bloodied male corpse with a piece of masking tape across its chest that reads corpse no. 5. “The Syrian people have made the decision to bring down Assad and his regime, and the regime is determined to bring down the people,” says a lawyer who gives his name as Abu al-Hakami. “These are the only options.”
A few days later, shortly after 10 a.m., the cellular and landline telephone networks in Rastan suddenly cut out. The Internet also stops working. The town is isolated from the rest of the world. The tanks stationed around the perimeter of the city move into some neighborhoods. I hear several shots in the distance. “Quickly, get out of here before you no longer can,” my hostess tells me. “May God have mercy on us, and may God damn them.”
Like I said, haunted. And haunting, too.