Yes, it’s crucial that Boko Haram kills and tortures Muslims

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Yes, we need to focus on Nigeria and Boko (“books”) Haram (“forbidden“). Again.

Why? Why keep coming back to the mainstream coverage of this story?

For starters, the scope of the story is only getting bigger with the planned — limited — intervention of the Obama White House in the efforts to find and rescue the 270-plus teen-aged girls who were abducted last month by this terrorist network. Reports about the precise number still being held as slaves and potential forced brides have varied, according to different sources that are trying to determine how many girls have or have not escaped. The vast majority of the girls are Christians, but some are Muslims.

This story has climbed out the obscure back pages dedicated to non-entertaining horrors on the other side of the world and up into the prime ink-and-video terrain noticed by the masses. I also believe that, as this has happened, mainstream journalists have been doing a somewhat better job of dealing with the religious elements of this story. We are past the stage where our most powerful newspaper can say that Boko Haram is doing mysterious things for mysterious reasons while seeking mysterious goals and that is that.

But I still think one crucial element of this story is receiving inadequate coverage. More on that at the end of this post.

To see how the coverage is changing, consider the following background material in a new Los Angeles Times story about the White House involvement:

On Capitol Hill, all 20 women in the Senate signed a letter asking Obama to pressure the United Nations Security Council to acknowledge Boko Haram’s ties to Al Qaeda and to ask the U.N. to consider international sanctions. The group has already been cut off from U.S. financial institutions. …

Boko Haram’s shadowy leader, Abubakar Shekau, has a $7-million U.S. bounty on his head. He said in a video that surfaced Monday that God had commanded him to sell women in the market, adding that girls should marry, not go to school. An April report by the International Crisis Group think tank said Boko Haram “has grown more ruthless, violent and destructive” since Shekau became leader in 2009. The group’s fighters are dispersed in northeastern Nigeria and in nearby Cameroon and Niger.

Covering the evidence of connections between this network and Al Qaeda, and the influence of the Taliban, is a step forward in that it recognizes that this is the kind of group that represents a truly radicalized form of Islamism. It allows journalists to place the religious statements by Boko Haram in a specific context.

Next, readers are told:

The sect opposes secular education and Western culture and says Nigerian schools are turning young people away from Islam. Its name translates from the Hausa language as “Western education is a sin,” and the group is bitterly opposed to democracy. The group, modeled on Afghanistan’s extremist Taliban movement, mounted an insurgency in northern Nigeria in the early 2000s, targeting symbols of government authority such as military barracks, police stations and politicians.

But it switched to civilian targets in recent years, leaving the country’s north in military lockdown. The group is blamed for attacking churches, a bus station, school dormitories and villages. In February, gunmen believed to be linked to Boko Haram killed dozens of students at a school in Yobe state, slitting the throats of some and locking others in dormitories that were then set ablaze.

Despite staging major assaults that left hundreds dead in two towns, Boko Haram gained widespread international notice only after last month’s mass abduction of the schoolgirls.

Frankly, that last statement rings rather hollow to me.

Perhaps the horrors in Nigeria failed to gain “widespread international” attention because the press didn’t know what to make of them? I mean, how many Nigerian Christians and non-radicalized Muslims need to die before Americans can be bothered with that info?

Human-rights groups — religious and secular — have been all over this story for ages.

In November, Human Rights Watch accused Boko Haram of abducting scores of women and girls, some as young as 12, to traffic them as sex slaves or to force them to become combatants.

“Witnesses described Boko Haram laying siege to towns, villages and highways; looting and burning houses, shops and vehicles; and executing and decapitating people,” the report said. The militants particularly targeted members of civilian vigilante groups that have sprung up in response.

So women and girls were vanishing when? Five or six months ago?

So what is still missing?

In the post-Sept. 11 media world, journalists have gone out of their way — as they should — to stress that the actions of radicals cannot be seen as expressions of traditional forms of Islam, even if the radicals quote chapter and verse saying that they are. The mantra has been: There is no one Islam.

That is certainly true and GetReligion has always stressed that. However, the leaders of Boko Haram claim to be drawing their inspiration from Islam. This is a claim that journalists must cover in detail, in order to let other Muslims and experts on the faith explain why competing camps INSIDE ISLAM differ with each another on issues as crucial as the education of females and the ability of faithful Muslims to take part in, and support, governments that are not built on Sharia law.

In this story, Boko Haram is called a “sect,” which would mean that it is linked to Islam but differs from traditional Islam on some key beliefs and practices. OK, that’s a start. What are the key differences, according to other Muslims?

You see, heretics believe in heresies, which are beliefs that can be described. In print. Even by journalists.

It’s time to cover the religious details of this story so that readers know more about these competing visions of Islam. It is truly crucial for readers to understand why Boko Haram is killing and kidnapping Muslims, especially girls who share books and classrooms with non-Muslims. This is a key element of this important story. Cover it, please.

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.


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