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

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:

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Boko Haram leader’s profile: chilling but incomplete

“His name is Abubakar Shekau. He is the leader of Boko Haram. And he has your girls.”

So begins a chilling profile in the Washington Post on the leader of Boko Haram, the Islamist gang that abducted more than 300 girls in mid-April. It’s a great start, but it isn’t sustained.

Under Shekau, Boko Haram has bombed churches and massacred people by the hundreds — and it abducted eight more girls on Monday night. Victims include not only Christians but also Muslims who don’t want his ruthless version of Sharia.

The article fills in absorbing details on the man the writer calls “both an intellectualizing theologian and a ruthless killer.” But like much other secular coverage, the profile doesn’t quite get to the bottom of Shekau’s reasons for his brutality — including the mutant breed of radical Islam his group pushes. This despite saying that “one of the few unifying factors is extremist ideology.”

Not that religious references are lacking, largely in Shekau’s own words:

“It is Allah that instructed us,” Shekau said in the video released Monday. “Until we soak the ground of Nigeria with Christian blood and so-called Muslims contradicting Islam. After we have killed, killed, killed, and get fatigue and wondering what to do with their corpses — smelling of [Barack] Obama, [George] Bush and [Goodluck] Jonathan — will open prison and be imprison the rest. Infidels have no value.”

Yet this horrendous paragraph is chased with a hand-wringing “why” question: “Where does such vengeance come from? What does he want? Who is he?” As if some terrible injustice must have driven this poor man to terrorism and kidnapping. Incredibly, the story actually offers an excuse. More on that later.

We get long but spotty background. The story says Shekau was “raised Muslim” without saying which branch of Islam. (Yes, it matters.) It says he was raised “in the heart of the former Sokoto caliphate,” an unwitting clue on the aims of Boko Haram. As the BBC says, the Sokoto caliphate once ruled parts of what is now northern Nigeria, Niger and southern Cameroon.

The profile says he became a follower of a leader named Muhammad Yusuf, but it gives no details on Yusuf — although such details are readily available online.

Still, that’s further than many accounts go in the religiophobic mainstream media. An AP story the same day tells a gripping story of how some of the girls escaped their kidnappers. But beyond saying three times that the group is made of Islamic extremists, AP doesn’t dwell on reasons for Boko Haram’s violence.

Tmatt has discussed this selective blindness often on GetReligion. He recently called out the New York Times for saying Boko Haram wants to “destabilize” Nigeria without saying why it’s trying to do so.

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Mystery solved? Has NYTimes seen light on Boko Haram?

There may be some news for GetReligion readers who have been following the “mysterious” case of The New York Times foreign desk and the history and motives of the deadly Islamist network in Nigeria popularly known as Boko (“books”) Haram (“forbidden”).

I am sorry to keep repeating some of this information, but in recent weeks it has been truly enlightening to contrast what has been published, for example, by the BBC and also The Washington Post with the “mysterious” wording approved on multiple occasions by editors at the great Gray Lady.

So here, yet again, is the crucial language from an earlier Times piece:

Boko Haram’s exact goals, beyond a generalized desire to undermine the secular Nigerian state, remain mysterious. Spokesmen purporting to be from the group sometimes release rambling videos, but these offer few clues of a coherent program or philosophy.

Again and again: Say what? In an earlier post I noted:

… (The) ultra-violent network’s official name is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, which in Arabic means “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad” and the unofficial name, Boko Haram, is usually translated as “Western education is forbidden.” A crucial fact is that, in addition to slaughtering Christians and other minorities, Boko Haram specializes in killing Muslims who cooperate with the West, especially in the education of women and children.

The goal, the “program” has been crystal clear: To kill or intimidate all who oppose Boko Haram’s truly radical approach to Sharia and to Islamic life.

So what has changed, in recent days, at the Times? First of all, the “mysterious” language is gone. And what has taken it’s place? It appears that someone has decided that these events have something to do with fights about education and, yes, religion. Consider this:

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It’s not hard! WPost offers some crucial Boko Haram facts

In the past month or two, I have been really, really hard on the editors at The New York Times because of their mysterious — that word is carefully chosen — blind spot when it comes to basic, on-the-record facts about the beliefs, motives and tactics of the radical Islamist network Boko (“books”) Haram (“forbidden”) in Nigeria.

Rather than hit you with a wave of URLs, just click here for an earlier wrap-up of some of the basics. And here is a now-classic quote that offers an example of what’s happening in one of the world’s most influential newsrooms:

Boko Haram’s exact goals, beyond a generalized desire to undermine the secular Nigerian state, remain mysterious. Spokesmen purporting to be from the group sometimes release rambling videos, but these offer few clues of a coherent program or philosophy.

That still amazes me.

In previous posts, I praised a BBC background piece that nailed down many of the essential facts. You know, like the fact that the ultra-violent network’s official name is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, which in Arabic means “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad” and the unofficial name, Boko Haram, is usually translated as “Western education is forbidden.” A crucial fact is that, in addition to slaughtering Christians and other minorities, Boko Haram specializes in killing Muslims who cooperate with the West, especially in the education of women and children.

Now, are other major newsrooms struggling with the blind spot that is seen at The Times? Yes and no. Consider this news feature in The Washington Post focusing on the history that looms over the story that is currently dominating the headlines, the kidnapping of 234 Nigerian school girls. Here is the top of that piece:

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Vox.com offers a few basic facts about Boko Haram tactics

Twice in the past month or so, I have been pretty rough on the editors of The New York Times, who seem to have added a rule to their newsroom manual of style stating that basic, public-record facts about the radical Islamist group Boko Haram cannot be be published in their newspaper. Here is a sample paragraph from the most recent Times report that I found rather, well, mysterious:

Boko Haram’s exact goals, beyond a generalized desire to undermine the secular Nigerian state, remain mysterious. Spokesmen purporting to be from the group sometimes release rambling videos, but these offer few clues of a coherent program or philosophy.

So what are the goals of Boko (“books”) Haram (“forbidden”) and what is this group’s philosophy?

Well, we are not talking about information that is very hard to find, according to helpful online explainer piece published by BBC, which is hardly an obscure media outlet. I know that I have pointed readers toward this piece before, but here’s one of its crucial passages:

The group’s official name is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, which in Arabic means “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad”. But residents in the northeastern city of Maiduguri, where the group had its headquarters, dubbed it Boko Haram. Loosely translated from the local Hausa language, this means “Western education is forbidden”. …

Boko Haram promotes a version of Islam which makes it “haram”, or forbidden, for Muslims to take part in any political or social activity associated with Western society. This includes voting in elections, wearing shirts and trousers or receiving a secular education.

So, all together now, the radicals in Boko Haram are repeatedly attacking anyone — infidels and Muslims alike — who are involved in secular, non-Islamic education or who oppose the creation of a explicitly Islamic, sharia state.

With that in mind, let’s look at an online news piece from Vox.com which demonstrated how easy it is to state the obvious, in a story that ran under the headline, “A Nigerian terrorist group just kidnapped 100 girls to keep them from going to school.”

Right at the top of this short news feature, readers are told:

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That ‘mysterious’ NYTimes stance on Boko Haram

Here we go again. There has been another horrific act of violence in Nigeria with militants bombing a bus station in Abuja, which is the capital of this painfully divided country. At this point, officials are reporting 71 deaths and scores wounded.

Here is a key piece of the New York Times report on this massacre:

Top Nigerian officials, whose offices are a short distance away, immediately attributed the bombing to the Islamist group they have been battling for years, Boko Haram.

If that turns out to be the case — and the group itself rarely acknowledges its actions — Monday’s bombing would represent a significant amplification of Boko Haram’s bloody campaign to undermine the Nigerian state. Over the last two years, it has largely confined its attacks to remote areas of the country’s northeast, killing scores of civilians in the region’s towns and villages. …

Despite frequent government claims of victory against the group, the killings have continued, with bombings, shootings and nighttime massacres of students at state schools, one of Boko Haram’s preferred targets.

Yes, here we go again. Note the reference to the frequent attacks on state schools. One can assume that a “state” school is, in this case, the opposite of some kind of a “religious” school?

Think it through. Why would militants from a group known as Boko (“books”) Haram (“forbidden”) keep attacking secular schools?

Nevertheless, later in the report the Times team repeated its mysterious mantra about this hellish conflict between these Islamist radicals and Nigeria’s secular authorities.

Boko Haram’s exact goals, beyond a generalized desire to undermine the secular Nigerian state, remain mysterious. Spokesmen purporting to be from the group sometimes release rambling videos, but these offer few clues of a coherent program or philosophy.

If that language sounds rather familiar to GetReligion readers, here is why. Just over a month ago, the Times used almost identical language in a report on another series of massacres.

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Attention NYTimes: Boko Haram has made its goals clear

There is much to commend in the recent New York Times report that ran under the simple, but blunt, headline, “Deadly Attacks Tied to Islamist Militants Shake Nigeria.”

The violence in Nigeria is, alas, a tragically old story. It’s important that the Times team has continued to cover the bloody details. It would be so easy to try to look away at this point.

LAGOS, Nigeria — Dozens were killed, including many children watching a soccer match, in a series of deadly bomb blasts in the northern Nigerian city of Maiduguri on Saturday, officials said. The Islamist group Boko Haram was blamed for the attacks, which were the deadliest in months in the sect’s birthplace.

Gunmen from the group also struck a nearby village, Mainok, at the same time Saturday evening, a local official said, storming in on trucks, burning houses and killing at least 51. The death toll from the two attacks was more than 100 and rising, officials said.

In the Maiduguri bombings, children bore the brunt of the explosions, according to the health commissioner for Borno State, Dr. Salma Anas-Kolo. The youths had gathered at a makeshift stadium in the Gomari neighborhood to watch a soccer match when a bomb went off in a pickup truck loaded with firewood, she and others said. When people in the densely inhabited neighborhood rushed to help, a second bomb exploded, according to Maikaramba Saddiq, the Maiduguri representative of Nigeria’s Civil Liberties Organization.

And it gets worse:

A hospital official in Maiduguri, who watched as charred corpses were brought in, said: “Most of the bodies we found were very young. Small. I saw a man who lost three children.” The official asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation and his position at the hospital.

Boko Haram is the key player in the campaign of terror in northern Nigeria and journalists should, by this time, know quite a bit about this network’s motivations and methods.

You would think so. However, what are readers to make of this rather mysterious section of this news report?

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BBC veteran: You know, the press just doesn’t get religion

Well, here is a gift to a GetReligionista who is on vacation.

I mean, what kind of headline would YOU write on a Press Gazette (over in U.K.) report that opens with the following:

BBC journalist Edward Stourton has said Britain’s lack of appreciation for the importance of religion across the world damages its news coverage.

Stourton, presenter on Radio 4’s religious programme Sunday, believes British journalists have a “blind spot” when it comes to religion, meaning coverage can be “skewed”. He highlighted coverage of the Ukraine crisis, the Middle East and Boko Haram in Nigeria as examples of stories which would be covered better with more understanding of religion.

“I do think that there is a problem with British culture … in the way that we treat religion as a sort of curious ‘ghetto’-like thing,” he told Press Gazette.

“And I don’t say that from the point of view of arguing that religion is a good thing — because very often it’s not. But it does damage our understanding and our ability to perceive stories accurately.”

A blind spot?

You don’t mean a blind spot as in “Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion,” maybe? What do you think?

Basically, this whole interview sounds like a best of global GetReligion re-mix (although I am not claiming that it is a LITERAL echo of work here). But, honestly, you have heard this before, right?

(Stourton) suggested that British news organisations have not considered the importance of the growth of churches in Russia and what Russian nationalism means in coverage of Ukraine. And on Middle East stories, he said “we continually misread the story because we don’t think what a powerful force religion is”.

A consistent theme is that the icy elites that define big media simply do not understand how the rest of the world works. This has always been a problem, when it comes to the facts of journalism, but this chasm between journalists and reality has become a crisis in the past decade or two.

Why is that?

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