God in lede and at the end (ghosts in between)

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.

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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.

  • Jerry

    If you or anyone comes across a story about how much of the Syrian uprising is fueled by Sunni, Shi’a, Alawite tension, I’d love to read it.

    For any that have not looked around, Sunnis are the majority but the Assad family are Alawite where the Alawites are an offshoot of Shi’a Islam.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Once again, you can see the GetReligion reader hesitance to react to global news and complex issues involving Islam, in particular.

    Thanks for the comment Jerry. As always, you are one of our global news consumers. Keep it up.

  • Dale

    Jerry:

    Here’s a story at the Economist that briefly addresses the role of religion in the Syrian uprisings:

    The president, once widely liked, has added insult to injury. At every turn, most recently in a televised interview on August 21st, he has described the hundreds of thousands of peaceful protesters as being led by armed or religious extremists. The uprising has not been driven by religion, but Syrian society has grown more devout in recent years. The thought of martyrdom is a comfort to some.

    Unlike in neighbouring Iraq, sectarian rifts have not so far played a big role in Syria’s attempt at regime change. They exist, but Syrians pride themselves on their cosmopolitan history. “We have no problem between us,” has been a common refrain during the protests.

    Unfortunately, it’s lacking much factual backing for its conclusive statements. By what measure does the Economist determine that religion hasn’t played a “big role”? A common refrain on the street can easily depart from reality. On the other hand, I haven’t heard anything about mobs going after the minority Alawites, when that would seem the obvious target for religiously motivated Sunnis. Lastly, it’s got to be tremendously difficult for journalists to report firsthand on the motivations, religious or otherwise, of protestors who are under fire.

  • Jerry

    Dale,

    Thanks for that pointer to the story. It’s too bad that the US media does not have a story at least this good.

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    Jerry says: If you or anyone comes across a story about how much of the Syrian uprising is fueled by Sunni, Shi’a, Alawite tension, I’d love to read it.

    Strategypage has discussed this, also about how many Muslims consider Alawites and Druze as infidels.link

    But even they only summarize it quickly.

    the mix is complicated by the Turkish (Sunni) and Iranian (Shiite) factors, and Iraq prefers the heretic (Shia) Alawites…

  • MJBubba

    I have distant kin in Syria. Reuters has had the best overall coverage of Syria, by far, over the past eight months. So much so that when I see a headline from Syria, I just skip the article and go look it up later at Reuters.

  • John M.

    Tmatt,

    I’m here, and the links to Islam-related news is a big reason why. I just often feel that I don’t have much of relevance to share, so I don’t comment on the stories.

    -John