In tsunami of Boston info, there are basic faith questions

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As the drama keeps unfolding in and around Boston, it’s safe to say that journalists now face crucial decisions about the role of religion — specifically radical forms of Islam — played in the motives behind this act of terrorist.

There is no way to read everything that is being written, at the moment, but we’re trying to stay informed (even while, in my case, teaching classes). However, over on the journalistic left, Mother Jones has published this sobering information:

Authorities have identified the deceased suspect in the bombing of the Boston marathon, which killed three and injured more than 170, as Tamerlan Tsarnaev. A user by that name has posted a video to his YouTube playlist extolling an extremist religious prophecy associated with Al Qaeda. It is not clear yet whether the user is the same Tsarnaev as the deceased suspect.

The YouTube page includes religious videos, including one of Feiz Mohammad, a fundamentalist Australian Muslim preacher who rails against the evils of Harry Potter. One playlist includes a video dedicated to the prophecy of the Black Banners of Khurasan, which is embraced by Islamic extremists—particularly Al Qaeda. The prophecy states that an invincible army will come from the region of Khurasan in central Asia.

“This is a major hadith (reported saying of the prophet Muhammad) that jihadis use, it is essentially an end-time prophecy,” says Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy “This is definitely important in Al Qaeda’s ideology.”

Buzzfeed has posted a virtual shopping list of information about the accused brothers, who continued to be identified as Chechen even through these appear to be ties that are rooted in emotional rather than lived experience and upbringing.

The Muslim card is clearly in play, after social-media links provided quotes such as these — drawn from Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s “Will Box For Passport” mixed martial arts site.

“Originally from Chechnya, but living in the United States since five years, Tamerlan says: ‘I don’t have a single American friend, I don’t understand them.’”

“Tamerlan says he doesn’t drink or smoke anymore: ‘God said no alcohol.’ A muslim, he says: “There are no values anymore,” and worries that ‘people can’t control themselves.’”

To what degree is it news that there are radical Muslims who look at American and feel primarily anger, as opposed to millions of other Muslims who have come to have varying degrees of acceptance and affection for this nation and its emphasis on religious freedom?

What are the crucial questions at this point?

GetReligion readers will not be surprised to learn that I think the best questions are the old ones, the questions that might yield factual information that journalists can use when attempting to portray the degree to which faith did or did not drive those behind these acts. It is also crucial to learn everything that can be learned about the form of Islam that the brothers claimed, repeat “claimed,” to have been following. Why? Because the world is Islam is large and complex and there is no one monolithic Islam that can be described in simplistic language.

What kind of questions are we talking about?

I was struck by one claim that I have seen in several publications. Here is the Buzzfeed take:

Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev, 19, is the remaining suspect in the Boston marathon bombings — the subject of a massive manhunt Friday morning in Watertown, Massachusetts, multiple sources reported Friday morning. His brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, has been identified as the first suspect and died overnight following a firefight with police.

NBC News’ Pete Williams said earlier Friday morning that the two suspects likely had “foreign military training,” and had been in the country for about a year.

Later he said they were brothers, and added, “They were legal permanent residents. They were in this country legally, at least a year. They appear to be from Turkey, possibly Chechens from Turkey. That seems to be the nationality here.”

Just before 7 a.m. Friday morning, the Associated Press confirmed Williams’ reporting and naming Tsarnaev.

Foreign military training?

Now, hours later, some of those claims are in question — primarily since it appears the brothers had been in America for a number of years (as verified by some family members). This NBC interview with an uncle is getting lots of attention:

[Read more...]

Covering the religion angle on breaking Boston news

Yes, this has been a bad week for journalism. And many people are complaining. But it’s also been a great week for journalism. I was one of those folks listening in on the Boston police scanner last night and it was so very difficult to make sense of what was going on (though it was absolutely riveting, thrilling and horrifying).

Suddenly, in the midst of all the chaos, the New York Times published an account of the shootout between suspects and police. It’s since been updated and revised significantly so I can’t point to the original story (which is a shame, since I’d love to revisit it), but it’s just a reminder of the importance of skilled reporting in a breaking situation.

Breaking situations are also when we see problems, including with how religion angles are covered. This morning on Twitter there were reports that CNN had suggested that Islamic extremists never drink. CNN also was suggesting that the suspects were “devout.” In the case of the former, that’s simply naive or ignorant. In the case of the latter, I’d sure like a lot more information before we characterize the suspects in such a manner.

Of course, from what we know now, the suspects are Muslim, American residents, and refugees from Chechnya. They also had something of a social media footprint, which could give clues about their interests. There’s a lot of complexity even in that formulation. The best thing to do is to proceed with caution about what we know. Reuters handled it this way in a piece headlined “Boston suspect’s web page venerates Islam, Chechen independence“:

Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev posted links to Islamic websites and others calling for Chechen independence on what appears to be his page on a Russian language social networking site…

His “World view” is listed as “Islam” and his “Personal priority” is “career and money”.

He has posted links to videos of fighters in the Syrian civil war and to Islamic web pages with titles like “Salamworld, my religion is Islam” and “There is no God but Allah, let that ring out in our hearts”.

He also has links to pages calling for independence for Chechnya, a region of Russia that lost its bid for secession after two wars in the 1990s.

The brief article ends with something showing Tsarnaev’s sense of humor as well. Not bad for a quick piece based on limited information.

Are you seeing religion angles handled informatively and responsibly? Send us the links. Duds? Share those, too.


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