To use or not to use: Journalists and the word ‘Islam’

Do you ever get the impression, when reading mainstream news stories, that some editors have created formal policies describing when reporters who cover terrorism stories can or cannot mention the words “Islam” or “Muslim”?

I understand what these journalists are trying to do. Their goal, in the post 9/11 world, is to make sure that news consumers understand that there is no ironclad, automatic connection between Islam and the actions of some Muslims who commit acts of violence and terror in the name of their religion.

The problem is that trying to hide the religion ghosts in these stories often results in tone-deaf coverage that ignores the obvious. It’s like the editors are saying, “We know that you know what we are saying here, but we don’t want to say it and, besides, you know the facts so just read the facts into the story and everyone will feel better in the long run.”

Take, for example, this Washington Post story about the fear that stalks students at the American University of Afghanistan — especially female students — as the day nears when U.S. troops retreat and the Taliban almost certainly return to power.

What is the cause of this logical fear? Right up front, readers learn:

KABUL – It is easy to drive past the American University of Afghanistan, barricaded by blast walls and guard towers. There is no sign, no American flag, no emblem.

But those who slip through its nondescript door enter a tiny corner of this country that is unique, wondrous and heavily subsidized by U.S. taxpayers. Young men and women mingle freely, in contravention of the country’s conservative social norms. Some female students walk around unveiled, a break with custom that is unthinkable elsewhere in the country.

This long A1 news feature, literally, never mentions the words “Islam” or “Muslim.” Apparently there are scary generic “conservatives” in this blood-soaked land and then generic — what? — enlightened “progressives” or “secularists”?

Lost in the fog is the real issue addressed in the story, which is that millions of Muslims in Afghanistan hate what is happening inside the doors of this institution of higher learning and millions of other Muslims embrace the alternative worldview taught in these classrooms. What we have here is a clash between two different approaches to one of the world’s most powerful and important faith traditions and it’s hard to write about that reality without talking about the doctrines and traditions of Islam. It helps to talk about the obvious.

With that reality in mind, click here and read an early New York Times report about the latest bloodbath in the heavily Muslim northern half of Nigeria.

In this case, I think the Times team really should have used the word “Islam” right up top, even in the lede. Why do I say that? Here is the top of the story:

DAKAR, Senegal – Dozens of gunmen attacked an agricultural college in northeastern Nigeria late Saturday and early Sunday, killing more than 40 students, local officials said. The attackers were thought to belong to the extremist group Boko Haram. …

The attack was the second large-scale massacre of civilians attributed to Boko Haram in less than two weeks. The Nigerian military has been pressing a scorched-earth counterinsurgency campaign against Boko Haram for four months, and appeared to have halted its attacks in the urban centers of northeastern Nigeria, while hundreds of civilians fled into neighboring Niger to escape the violence. In rural areas, though, killings by the group — including at least 143 reported deaths in the northeastern town of Benisheik on Sept. 17 — appear to be continuing unabated.

In its war against the Nigerian state, Boko Haram has singled out government institutions, especially schools, for attack. One of its tenets is that Western-style education, not based on the Koran, in conventional schools is sinful and un-Islamic. …

Uh, one of its tenets? In the local Hausa language, the name “Boko Haram” — loosely translated — means “Western education is forbidden.”

Once again, it is crucial that this story centers on a life-and-death battled linked to the control and content of education. It is impossible to understand why the conflict is taking place without grasping that this is a battle INSIDE Islam.

This fact becomes painfully clear at the very end of the story. This is the material that I think should have been used up top, perhaps even with a quick reference in the lede.

Why put Islam in the lede? Doesn’t that stress that this act of terror was linked to Islam?

Yes, and no. It helps to recall that this took place in northeast Nigeria, not in the heavily Christian southern half of the nation.

A civil servant who gave his name only as Ibrahim, for fear of retribution from the government, said in a telephone interview from Damaturu that he had lost a cousin in the attack. “I was at the mortuary from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.,” he said. “There are many grieving parents. Honestly, everybody was crying for his dear loved one.”

Ibrahim condemned the attackers. “Nobody can explain what they want,” he said. “All of the students that died today are Muslims. No single Christian was killed. This is not a religious war. These people that perpetrated this call themselves Muslims. But this is against the teachings of Islam.”

Why put Islam in the lede? In order to stress that Muslims are not united behind this group, to stress that this division inside Islam — as is tragically the case with other doctrinal disputes — often drives Muslims to kill Muslims.

It’s hard to cover the divisions inside Islam without mentioning Islam.

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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.

  • tamsin

    This is not a religious war

    except that it is. Would have been nice for the reporter to refer to the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram, in the second sentence.