Islam, ISIS and the FGM fatwa

IslamEyesReporting from the front lines of the Middle East conflicts be a parlous experience if you are on the wrong side of the battle line. However not all of the no-go areas are geographically bounded. The topic of  Islam and female genital mutilation is a country few reporters are willing to enter. Cultural prejudices and politically correct assumptions appear to be driving the reporting on Islam. Few reporters seem willing break free from the herd and ask “why”?

Western Asia is a hard place for reporters. Relying upon U.S. or Israeli government agencies for information can be a frustrating experience — bureaucratic petty-mindedness knows no national boundaries. Yet it is possible to test the truths handed out in press statements by observation and old-fashioned reporting.

This is not always possible when reporting from the rebel side or from hostile regimes. Checking can get you killed as reporters covering the fighting in Gaza have noted in recent days. Even Hamas, however, attempts to play the Western media game (according to its lights) and holds press conferences.

Not so with ISIS, the Sunni extremists who have seized Mosul. While their supporters can be found on Twitter and the Web — it has not been possible for reporters to check the claims coming out of Northern Iraq. The atrocities and destruction committed by ISIS can be seen in the photos of decapitated government troops, crucifixions of enemies and videos of burning churches and fleeing refugees taken by smart-phones and posted to the internet.

The war aims of the group can be divined from videos of speeches given by its caliph or statements posted to the internet — yet these must be viewed with suspicion as their provenance is unclear. The story that ISIS’s religious/political leaders have issued a fatwa — a religious decree — ordering all women under the age of 49 to undergo FGM (female genital mutilation) has played across the newspapers in recent days.

However, the second day stories suggest this may not be true.

The source for the claim of FGM for the women of Iraq came from a good source — a UN official in Iraq. Reuters reported:

The United Nations, expressing deep concern, said on Thursday that militant group Islamic State had ordered all girls and women in and around Iraq’s northern city of Mosul to undergo female genital mutilation. …

Such a “fatwa” issued by the Sunni Muslim fighters would potentially affect 4 million women and girls, UN resident and humanitarian co-ordinator in Iraq Jacqueline Badcock told reporters in Geneva by videolink from Arbil.

“We have current reports of imposition of a directive that all female girl children and women up to the age of 49 must be circumcised. This is something very new for Iraq, particularly in this area, and is of grave concern and does need to be addressed,” Badcock said.

The follow up from Reuters reported that their sources could not confirm the UN’s claims. The second day story from The Guardian said:

Jihadi extremists who have taken over the Iraqi city of Mosul have denied ordering families to have their daughters undergo female genital mutilation in order to prevent “immorality” or face severe punishment, as claimed by a senior UN humanitarian official on Thursday.

Yet even this reported denial has to be weighed carefully, The Guardian said in its second paragraph as the denial comes from supporters of ISIS, not ISIS itself.

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The Mosul purge: How good is the media coverage?

The purge of Christians from Mosul in northern Iraq — home to thriving Christian communities almost since biblical times — is a historic human rights abuse. Yet mainstream media have done comparatively little coverage on it, probably because they’re stretched thin with the twin stories of the airline shoot-down in Ukraine and Israel’s invasion of Gaza. Also, of course, the Islamic State is in no mood to allow access to the “kafir” media.

Still, some reports have emerged, and some are brave, sensitive and frank on what the Christians are suffering.

The New York Times is often tone-deaf on religion in the U.S., but the newspaper has distinguished itself in stories like this one. Tim Arango’s newsfeature opens with an anecdote on the loss shared by Iraqi Christians and many Muslims:

BAGHDAD — A day after Christians fled Mosul, the northern city controlled by Islamist extremists, under the threat of death, Muslims and Christians gathered under the same roof — a church roof — here on Sunday afternoon. By the time the piano player had finished the Iraqi national anthem, and before the prayers, Manhal Younis was crying.

“I can’t feel my identity as an Iraqi Christian,” she said, her three little daughters hanging at her side.

A Muslim woman sitting next to her in the pew reached out and whispered, “You are the true original people here, and we are sorry for what has been done to you in the name of Islam.”

The warm scene here was an unusual counterpoint to the wider story of Iraq’s unraveling, as Sunni militants with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria gain territory and persecute anyone who does not adhere to their harsh version of Islamic law. On Saturday, to meet a deadline by the ISIS militants, most Christians in Mosul, a community almost as old as Christianity itself, left with little more than the clothes they were wearing.

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Middle East stories: The territory includes religion

Terrorists may have declared a new Islamic state in Iraq and Syria, but coverage of their actions is all over the map.

Some media fixate on the land or tribal alliances. Some dig into history or listen to Washington. Few look at religious roots of the conflict.

The new angle is that the leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has rebranded his jihadist group the Islamic State and declared the birth of a modern-day caliphate, an old-fashioned transnational kingdom ruled by Islamic law. Since the caliphate was run by the Sunni branch of Islam, religious and historical currents clearly underlie the announcement.

Unfortunately, many reports keep those currents way under the surface.

Typical of the brisk-but-shallow approach is that of the Washington Post. Here’s how they styled the new events:

BAGHDAD — The extremist group battling its way through swaths of Iraq and Syria declared the creation of a formal Islamic state Sunday, building on its recent military gains and laying down an ambitious challenge to al-Qaeda’s established leadership.

In an audio statement posted on the Internet, the spokesman for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria announced the restoration of the 7th-century Islamic caliphate, a long-declared goal of the al-Qaeda renegades who broke with the mainstream organization early this year and have since asserted control over large areas spanning the two countries.

The Associated Press, to my surprise, did a little better in their story on the rebranded ISIS. The article spells out the Islamic State’s actions in classic shariac terms:

The showcase of the extremist group’s vision of its Islamic state is Raqqa, a city of 500,000 in northern Syria along the Euphrates River. Since expelling rival rebel groups this spring from the city, the militants have banned music, forced Christians to pay an Islamic tax for protection, and killed violators of its interpretation of Islam in the main square, activists say.

Elsewhere, the story skips a little lightly over facts that would help us understand the violence:

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The Guardian on Islam and female genital mutilation

The Guardian reports that Britain’s largest Muslim organization, the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), has condemned female genital mutilation as un-Islamic.

The article reports on the campaign to end the practice brought to Britain by immigrants from Africa and the Middle East, and the steps taken by the MCB and NGOs to educate immigrants on its health dangers.

I am pleased to hear this news as I believe FGM is an abominable practice. But in looking at the journalism on display in this story — not the topic — I was struck by the disconnect between a claim in the lede that FGM is “no longer” linked to Islam and the claims made by the Muslim council further down in the article that it was never part of authentic Islam.

It is not The Guardian‘s job to referee disputes between religious scholars and to award the prize to what it believes is the true embodiment of Islamic principles. Yet by presenting only one view of Islam, only one side of the debate, the newspaper does just that.

Monday’s story states:

The influential MCB has for the first time issued explicit guidance, which criticises the practice and says it is “no longer linked to the teaching of Islam”. It added that one of the “basic principles” of Islam was that believers should not harm themselves or others. The organisation will send flyers to each of the 500 mosques that form its membership, which will also be distributed in community centres in a drive to eradicate a practice that affects 125 million women and girls worldwide and can lead to psychological torment, complications during childbirth, problems with fertility, and death.

The article quotes one MCB pamphlet as stating:

FGM is not an Islamic requirement. There is no reference to it in the holy Qur’an that states girls must be circumcised. Nor is there any authentic reference to this in the Sunnah, the sayings or traditions of our prophet. FGM is bringing the religion of Islam into disrepute.

If this second claim is true, what prompted some to believe that it was linked to Islam?

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Journalists covering Iraq, please learn this word — ‘dhimmi’

Like it or not, journalists and editors who are handling coverage of events in Iraq are going to have to learn this controversial word — “dhimmitude.” Trust me, the faithful in minority religions who live in Mosul and on the Nineveh Plain, or who have recently fled this region, are already familiar with this concept.

Unfortunately, it is hard to point to a crisp, established online definition for “dhimmitude” right now because of waves of posts attempting to argue that this word is found somewhere in the Obamacare legislation. Ignore all of that, please. Instead, I suggest that readers surf through some of the material found in this online search for “dhimmitude,” “dictionary” and “definition.”

The key is that people of other faiths living in lands ruled by Islam are given “dhimmi” status in which they receive some protection under sharia law, in exchange for paying a Jizyah tax as a sign of submission. The big debates are about other conditions of submission which are, or are not, required under dhimmitude. Dhimmis are not allowed to protect themselves (some claim it is impossible to rape a dhimmi), to display symbols of their faith, to build (or even repair) their religious sanctuaries, to win converts, etc. Historically, dhimmis have been asked to wear some form of distinctive apparel as a sign of their inferior status. The key is that this is an protected, but inferior, status under strict forms of sharia law.

In a recent post, our own Jim Davis noted that some mainstream reporters have begun to notice the plight of religious minorities in the hellish drama unfolding in Iraq, including the suffering remnants of the land’s truly ancient Christian communities. Bobby Ross, Jr., also noted a fantastic New York Times piece about a related drama in Afghanistan.

Now, across the pond, The Telegraph has published a large news feature under the headline, “Iraq’s beleaguered Christians make final stand on the Mosul frontline.” There is much to applaud there, but one interesting gap linked to the failure to include dhimmitude in the picture. Here is some key background:

Between the Sunni and Shia Arabs of Iraq lie a patchwork quilt of other ethnic groups and faiths, many of whom have been reconsidering their future in the most obvious possible way since the allied invasion a decade ago unleashed the sectarian militias and their death squads. Anywhere between half and three quarters of Iraq’s Christians — Chaldean Catholics, Syriac Orthodox, and the rest — have left the country and the Middle East to start new lives abroad since 2003.

The town of Bartella, ten miles from Mosul, is largely Assyrian Orthodox, and its 16,000 citizens currently face a very vivid incarnation of an ever-present threat. They have been car-bombed at least twice in recent years, but this time their presumed adversaries have an army.

Focusing on the experiences of a Captain Firaz Jacob, a Christian who has refused to flee, the Telegraph notes:

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Christians attacked in Iraq: Media finally paying attention

Finally, someone notices that Christians are suffering and dying in the Middle East. With few exceptions, many western secular media have seemed blind to the rising tide of antagonism and outbursts of violence against believers there. It apparently took the naked aggression of jihadists who have swallowed up much of Iraq’s northern sector to get some attention.

Whether it’s in time is another matter.

Holly Williams of CBS Evening News did a brisk but vivid report on Christians in Bartella, near Mosul, where a militia of 600 has organized after the Iraqi army ran off.

Williams says Christians have inhabited the town for almost 2,000 years, and the residents still pray in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus. She deserves some kind of award for even visiting: She ventured to a checkpoint only 50 yards from the front line.

An evocative AP story details the plight of Chaldean Christians in Iraq, interviewing believers from Mosul who have taken refuge in the ancient city of Alqosh:

In leaving, the Christians are emptying out communities that date back to the first centuries of the religion, including Chaldean, Assyrian and Armenian churches. The past week, some 160 Christian families — mosly from Mosul — have fled to Alqosh, mayor Sabri Boutani told The Associated Press, consulting first on the number with his wife by speaking in Chaldean, the ancient language spoken by many residents.

AP writer Diaa Hadid works in historical and cultural details that give us a feel for the long heritage of Christians in a land that is being brutally overrun by Muslim militants. Hadid says that Mosul is the traditional burial site of Jonah, and that Chaldean Christians were trying to celebrate a harvest festival — including a portrait of Pope Francis with white beans on the church floor.

The article distinguishes itself also for its numbers. Documenting population movements is hard in wartime, but Hadid offers some good guesses:

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Jihadists in Iraq: NYTimes reporting gets it right

After calling out the New York Times for misreporting several stories, I’m tempted to say the newspaper got religion in one of its latest reports on the collapse of Iraq under the blows of Islamic militants.

The report is not flawless, as we’ll see. But it gets maybe a silver medal.

It opens with the blend of faith and ferocity we’ve already come to expect from ISIS, the militant army known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria:

ERBIL, Iraq — When Islamic militants rampaged through the Iraqi city of Mosul last week, robbing banks of hundreds of millions of dollars, opening the gates of prisons and burning army vehicles, some residents greeted them as if they were liberators and threw rocks at retreating Iraqi soldiers.

It took only two days, though, for the fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to issue edicts laying out the harsh terms of Islamic law under which they would govern, and singling out some police officers and government workers for summary execution.

For this story, the Times uses four reporters in Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Washington, D.C. Much of it is the keen analysis and expert sourcing at which the newspaper excels. It includes a timeline of attacks that could be attributed to ISIS or its predecessor, the ISI — a sobering chart if true, because it reaches back a decade.

On the ground, via experts and through other media, the Times reports the ruthless nature of ISIS:

Perhaps the best indication of how the group sees itself these days is a recent promotional video called “The Rattling of the Sabers.”

The hourlong video is a slickly produced, hyperviolent propaganda piece that idolizes the group’s fighters as they work for two of their main goals: founding an Islamic state and slaughtering their enemies, mostly the Iraqi security forces and Shiites.

Some scenes show bearded, armed fighters from around the Arab world renouncing their home countries and shredding their passports. Other scenes show them preaching at mosques and soliciting pledges of allegiance to Mr. Baghdadi. Still other scenes emphasize attacks. Its fighters carry out drive-by shootings against men they accuse of being in the Iraqi army, in some cases chasing them through fields before grabbing and executing them.

No excuses for the downtrodden here. No misdirection about the need to solve the “problem” of Israeli settlements or the “treatment” of Palestinians. The focus is on the fighters, what they’re doing, what drives them and what they want.

And the religious nature of the group has been plain for years as well:

“What we see in Iraq today is in many ways a culmination of what the I.S.I. has been trying to accomplish since its founding in 2006,” said Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism researcher at the New America Foundation, referring to the Islamic State in Iraq, the predecessor of ISIS.

I guess it took a secular think-tanker to convince the Times that more than politics or ethnic differences were at work in Middle Eastern conflicts. The newspaper also calls ISIS a “Sunni extremist group” that wants a caliphate, which it defines as “an Islamic religious state.” And more:

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To be ‘killed, crucified or have their hands and feet cut off’ …

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At this point in the growing Iraq crisis, I think it is safe to say that European journalists, in comparison with their American counterparts, are much more comfortable putting the words “caliphate,” “sharia” and “decapitated” at the top of their news reports. Soon to come, bold references to the fate of “apostates” and perhaps even “Christians.”

Consider this sprawling headline in The Daily Mail:

ISIS butchers leave ‘roads lined with decapitated police and soldiers’: Battle for Baghdad looms as thousands answer Iraqi government’s call to arms and jihadists bear down on capital

At the same time, journalists are — accurately — stressing the looming clash between Shia and Sunni groups, especially with threats to Shiite holy places. They seem less willing to deal with the truly historic exodus — word carefully chosen — of thousands of Christians and members of other religious minorities who are being forced to flee their ancient centers in Mosul and the Nineveh Plain. Where are they going?

So what is happening now in the mainstream coverage? The second-day Washington Post story is a good place to start. Note, at the very top, that al-Qaeda is back in the picture:

IRBIL, Iraq – Iraq was on the brink of falling apart Thursday as al-Qaeda renegades asserted their authority over Sunni areas in the north, Kurds seized control of the city of Kirkuk and the Shiite-led government appealed for volunteers to help defend its shrinking domain.

The discredited Iraqi army scrambled to recover after the humiliating rout of the past three days, dispatching elite troops to confront the militants in the central town of Samarra and claiming that it had recaptured Tikrit, the home town of the late Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, whose regime was toppled by U.S. troops sweeping north from Kuwait in 2003.

But there was no sign that the militant push was being reversed. With the al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Syria now sweeping south toward Baghdad, scattering U.S.-trained security forces in its wake, the achievements of America’s eight-year war in Iraq were rapidly being undone. Iraq now seems to be inexorably if unintentionally breaking apart, into Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish enclaves that amount to the de facto partition of the country.

So, essentially, are the Kurds now the keepers of the region’s “safe” zone? What does Turkey have to say about that?

The most sobering details in this Post report have been placed way down in the text, as opposed to being featured in bold headlines backed with links to horrifying video reports.

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