So #bringbackourgirls is finally a news story! Why now?

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At this point, the kidnapped girls in Nigeria are officially “A News Story,” which means that CNN is even breaking into its coverage of missing airliners to get into the big details. Of course, it helps when the details are on video:

(CNN) – The girls sit quietly on the ground, dressed in traditional Islamic garb, barely moving, clearly scared.

“Praise be to Allah, the lord of the world,” they chant.

The video, released by French news agency Agence France-Presse, purports to show about 100 of the 276 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram fighters nearly a month ago. It’s the first time they’ve been seen since their abduction April 14.

This doesn’t mean, however, that everyone is completely comfortable with the clearly religious foundations of this hellish story.

In the print version of this CNN report, for example, the editors waited for 12 paragraphs to offer background on why it mattered that the girls — in the heavily Islamic Northern half of Nigeria — were wearing hijabs and chanting Islamic prayers.

In separate shots filmed against a green backdrop, the man who claims to be Shekau says the girls — who come from a Christian stronghold — have converted to Islam.

So the girls have been kidnapped, forced to convert to another faith and face threats that they will be sold into forced marriages and/or slavery. How many violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are included in that equation?

Big issues. Nevertheless, that’s pretty much it in terms of the religion content in this lengthy CNN report.

Meanwhile, over at The New York Times, this moving report on the crisis features photographs showing mothers weeping in church pews for their missing daughters — but the story itself never mentions that religion played any role in why these girls were targeted. The bottom line: The girls were taken from Chibok Government Girls Secondary School and the vast majority were Christians and the others were Muslims who were willing to attend a non-Islamic school with Christians, a violation of Boko Haram’s vision of true Islam.

Still, some mainstream reporters are realizing that religion has something to do with this story and that Boko Haram’s reign of terror in this corner of northern Nigeria is, in fact, a story.

Why? Why now?

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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:

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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?

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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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9-11 film: Vague criticisms mar NYT article on protest

Writing about a film you haven’t seen is like discussing food you haven’t tasted. Sure, you can ask others who have had it. But until you try it yourself, you literally don’t know what you’re talking about.

Especially with a risky film like The Rise of Al Qaeda, a documentary on 9-11 that hasn’t yet been released. The reporter who wrote a story on the film didn’t get to see it herself.

Planned as part of the National September 11 Memorial Museum, the brief film — less than seven minutes long, according to the Times — has caught fire from Muslim and ecumenical leaders alike.

The documentary describes the 9-11 terrorists — and Al-Qaida — as “Islamist” and “jihadist.” Muslims are understandably concerned about what that will do to the image of their faith in the eyes of other Americans. But their criticisms are long on problems — actually, worries about potential problems — and short on solutions:

The terms “Islamist” and “jihadist” are often used to describe extremist Muslim ideologies. But the problem with using such language in a museum designed to instruct people for generations is that most visitors are “simply going to say Islamist means Muslims, jihadist means Muslims,” said Akbar Ahmed, the chairman of the Islamic studies department at American University in Washington.

“The terrorists need to be condemned and remembered for what they did,” Dr. Ahmed said. “But when you associate their religion with what they did, then you are automatically including, by association, one and a half billion people who had nothing to do with these actions and who ultimately the U.S. would not want to unnecessarily alienate.”

Critics are quoted, well, liberally, including interfaith leaders who took alarm at what they considered an “inflammatory” tone.

“The screening of this film in its present state would greatly offend our local Muslim believers as well as any foreign Muslim visitor to the museum,” Sheikh Mostafa Elazabawy, the imam of Masjid Manhattan, wrote in a letter to the museum’s director. “Unsophisticated visitors who do not understand the difference between Al Qaeda and Muslims may come away with a prejudiced view of Islam, leading to antagonism and even confrontation toward Muslim believers near the site.”

Museum officials are standing by the film, which they say was vetted by several scholars of Islam and of terrorism. A museum spokesman and panel members described the contents of the film, which was not made available to The New York Times for viewing.

The story, however, never names or quotes any of the promised scholars of Islam and of terrorism. The closest is toward the end:

For his part, Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University, defended the film, whose script he vetted.

“The critics who are going to say, ‘Let’s not talk about it as an Islamic or Islamist movement,’ could end up not telling the story at all, or diluting it so much that you wonder where Al Qaeda comes from,” Dr. Haykel said.

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Is Mehmet Ali Agca crazy or just a bad Catholic?

The upcoming canonizations of Blessed John XXIII and Blessed John Paul II have generated some very good press for the Roman Catholic Church. While a few articles have sought to punch holes in the reputations of the soon to be saints — a frequent criticism I have seen is that John Paul was negligent in disciplining the serial abuser Fr. Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legion of Christ — most converge has been positive.

The German news magazine Der Spiegel published an in depth piece on the miracles associated with John Paul, that treated the issue with sympathy and empathy. It is too early to tell how outfits normally hostile to the papacy such as the BBC or the European leftist press will present this story. However, interest in the canonization outside of religious circles appears to be very high.

On Friday Vatican Radio reported that 93 nations will send official delegations to the April 27 canonization service, while two dozen heads of state and as many as 150 cardinals and 1,000 bishops will be present at the Mass.

One oddball item that caught me eye amongst the flurry of articles was an interview conducted by the Italian wire service ANSA with John Paul’s would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca. Here the lede of the story that ran with the headline: “Foiled killer said sinful to ‘deify’ John Paul”:

Pope John Paul II is not a saint, because only God can be considered holy and attempts to “deify a human being” are sinful, Ali Agca, the man who tried to assassinate the pope in 1981, said Thursday in an interview with ANSA.

The article offers some background information on Agca, who in 1981 shot and nearly killed John Paul — a crime for which he served 20 years in an Italian prison, before being deported to Turkey, where he served a further ten years imprisonment for a 1979 murder. The article further notes Agca:

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Was Kabul shooting over religion? Shouldn’t someone ask?

Q: What question has no answer? A: The one you don’t ask.

In Thursday’s shooting of several people at a Christian hospital in Kabul, the question would be: Could it have anything to do with their religion?

True, the answer doesn’t rest neatly on the surface. The shooter — horrifically, a policeman assigned to guard the hospital — didn’t shout the usual “Alahu Akbar” before gunning down Dr. Jerry Umanos and two visitors at CURE International Hospital. Nor have any organizations like the Taliban claimed responsibility.

So reporters need to look for clues. And there are a few scattered throughout news stories on the atrocity — clues that, thus far, don’t seem to have drawn journalistic curiosity.

The reports do have some positives, especially from a GetReligion standpoint. Most acknowledge the Christian nature of the hospital, its workers, and the Pennsylvania-based agency that runs it. The stories bring out the good done by the medical missionaries in Afghanistan. And they quote Jan Schuitema, the doctor’s widow, on her grief laced with idealism.

An example from CBS News:

“We don’t hold any ill will towards Afghanistan in general or even the gunman who did this,” she said speaking outside the family’s home in Chicago Thursday, her son, Ben Umanos, by her side. “We don’t know what his history is.”

She said that Umanos went to Afghanistan because he saw the need there, she said.

“Our family and friends have suffered a great loss and our hearts are aching,” she said. “While our hearts are aching for our loss, we’re also aching for the loss of the other families as well as the loss and the multiple losses that the Afghan people have experienced.”

Such eloquent quotes should have set reporters’ cliched “nose for news” tingling. But no, we get other cliches — “foreign,” “foreigners,” “Westerners” — that skirt religious considerations. And we get them with numbing repetition.

* “The shooting at Cure International Hospital in western Kabul was the latest attack on foreign civilians in the Afghan capital this year,” says CBS News.

* The latest in a string of attacks against Western civilians here,” the  New York Times said.

* “The shooting at Cure International Hospital in western Kabul was the latest in a string of deadly attacks on foreign civilians in the Afghan capital this year,” reports the New York Daily News.

* “Over the past three months, as Afghanistan is in the midst of electing a new president, 20 foreigners have been killed in separate attacks targeting civilians,” according to an NPR correspondent. “The attacks have occurred at a popular restaurant, an upscale hotel and other venues where foreigners congregate.”

The Los Angeles Times dipped into a think-tanker’s writings about civilians:

“They can be seen as the soft underbelly of the intervention, an easy way to hit Western governments rather than trying to fight well-armed NATO forces, and potentially a highly effective way of driving foreign aid and influence out of Afghanistan,” Kate Clark, country director for the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a Kabul-based research organization, wrote recently.

One quote, two cliches.

Yes, other “foreigners” have been attacked recently. Just since March, four journalists have been shot. But the hospital shooting poses extra questions.

What do Islamist militants reportedly hate about “Western” values, even in secular stories? The welfare of women, for one. Some current articles highlight topics like women in sports, education, law enforcement and Afghanistan’s parliament. And CNN explores the kind of influence that Afghan women could wield on the upcoming national election.

Afghan children, too, take a fair amount of attention in news articles. The stories look sympathetically at child labor, marriage, recreation programs, and child casualties in the ongoing war.

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