Where is the BBC’s coverage of Egypt?

What lays behind the Anglo-American press’s failure to report on the chaos in Egypt?

While there have been bright spots here and there in the coverage, the mainstream press appears to have dropped the ball, giving a stilted view of the “people’s coup” that overthrew the Muslim Brotherhood government of Pres. Mohammad Mursi. The claims coming from the liberal media in Egypt and pro-democracy activists is that the BBC and other major Western news agencies are pro-Muslim Brotherhood. Arab newspapers and blogs are full of reports of the crimes of the Muslim Brotherhood supporters — murder, arson, rape — yet the sympathy of the Western press is with the perpetrators of the violence.

Not all of the writing on Egypt is biased or ignorant. Look no further than Samuel Tadros’ article in The Wall Street Journal entitled “A Coptic Monument to Survival, Destroyed” to find a superior example of quality writing. This news analysis story printed on 22 August 2013 on page D4 in the U.S. edition of the WSJ  opens with a strong lede:

The Egyptian army’s crackdown on Mohamed Morsi’s Cairo supporters unleashed the largest attack on Coptic houses of worship since 1321.

And defends the assertion, telling the story of the destruction of the fourth century Virgin Mary Church by Muslim Brotherhood supporters. In relating this tale, Tadros helps the reader understand the destruction of this church is analogous to the situation facing Egypt’s Christians.

A Coptic exodus has been under way for two years now in Egypt. The hopes unleashed by the 2011 revolution soon gave way to the realities of continued and intensified persecution. Decades earlier, a similar fate had befallen the country’s once-thriving Jewish community. The departure of the people is echoed in the decay of the buildings. The landscape of the country is changing along with its demography. A few synagogues stand today as the only reminder of the country’s Jews. Which churches will remain standing is an open question.

But this WSJ story is the exception. Writing in Al-Arabiya, Joyce Karam criticized the parochial mindset of the American press.

For reasons related to the security crackdown inside Cairo and  the nature of the debate in Washington, the media coverage of the Egyptian crisis in major American news outlets has been lagging behind other parts of the world. The focus has been more on the policy of the Obama administration and less on the Egyptian dynamics and events outside Cairo. The overriding theme in the U.S. media since the crisis broke out last July has been centered around the question: “What should the U.S. do in Egypt?” rather than “what is going on in Egypt?”

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Interesting Rowan Williams apology: And important, too

Let us return, for a moment, to that interesting quote the other day from the former Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams. You may recall that he said, concerning public debates in the West about religion:

“Persecution is not being made to feel mildly uncomfortable. I am always very uneasy when people sometimes in this country or the United States talk about persecution of Christians or rather believers.

“I think we are made to feel uncomfortable at times. We’re made to feel as if we’re idiots — perish the thought! But that kind of level of not being taken very seriously or being made fun of; I mean for goodness sake, grow up.”

Quite a vivid quote, that.

So, thinking about this journalistically, where is the bright-red line in the public square between “discrimination” or “hostility” and behavior that can truly be called “persecution”?

This is actually a pretty good question, in an era in which journalists are facing an increasing number of debates about how to cover hot-button topics — think Health & Human Services mandates, for starters — that are linked to debates about basic First Amendment rights, such as free speech, freedom of association and freedom of religion.

It is also interesting to note that Williams has issued a rather unusual clarification, or public apology, in a letter to the editor at The Guardian, about the fierceness of his recent statement. Here it is:

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LATimes sees the layers of threats against Copts in Egypt

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The dominant story coming out of Egypt right now continues, and with good cause, to be the growing conflict between the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and the so-called “secular” coalition that is backing the nation’s military elites, a coalition that includes many mainstream Muslims, liberal secularists, Coptic Christians and members of other religious minorities.

For the most part, this hellish conflict — which could grow into full civil war — is being portrayed as a fight between Islamism and secularism. However, the ongoing persecution of the ancient Coptic Christian minority, a persecution that has taken place to varying degrees over the decades and centuries, shows that the reality is more complex and confusing than a mere two-sided standoff.

I have been quite critical, at times, of The Los Angeles Times coverage in Egypt. However, it’s team on the ground in Egypt has now produced a story on the recent Coptic church burnings that does a pretty good job of showing just how confusing the current realities on the ground are for religious minority groups — the degree to which they are caught in a lesser-of-two-evils endgame. Here is a crucial slice of the report:

“The Muslim Brotherhood wants to burn down the country,” said Nagy Shokrallah, a fidgety man thumbing through photos of church damage on his BlackBerry. “When we take our children to visit the monasteries in the south, we tell them they were burned twice in history: the first time under Roman occupation and the second time by the Muslim Brotherhood” as Morsi and its other leaders were pushed from power.

Two Christians have reportedly been killed in recent days. Churches, schools, convents and at least one Christian orphanage have been attacked, torched or robbed, many of them in the southern deserts. Vestments have been scorched, statues shattered. Police have often provided little protection; parishioners said security forces didn’t arrive at St. George’s until three hours after the gunmen had fled.

“The military and police secured nothing at all,” said Tony Sabry, a member of a Coptic youth union, who criticized Gen. Abdel Fattah Sisi, commander of the armed forces, for instigating a purge against the Brotherhood that left Copts exposed. “Sisi has said he will restore the churches … but he should have protected them before their sanctity was violated.”

It’s crucial to note that the Copts do not believe they can trust the police and military to protect them. Why? Because the simple truth is that the vast majority of Egyptians want some kind of Islamic state and the role of the nation’s religious minorities in that future state is problematic, to say the least. At the same time, there are many Egyptian Muslims who see the ancient Copts — to one degree or another — as part of the nation’s past and its future.

Thus, some Muslims have helped protect the churches and monasteries, while others have attacked them. That’s the reality: This conflict INSIDE ISLAM can be seen throughout Egyptian life. If the military elites win, that reality will remain — only at less urgent threat level.

More on that in a minute.

Meanwhile, what happens to the Copts? What role will American and other nations in the West play in helping protect Jews, minority Muslims, Copts and others in this very threatening drama?

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What did Pope Tawadros say? When did he say it? (updated)

At the pivotal event announcing the fall of President Mohamed Morsi, a number of symbolic leaders stood with General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi in a coalition backing this action, following days of massive public protests dominated by young, mostly secular Egyptians.

Yes, one of those leaders was Coptic Orthodox Tawadros II, who called the military takeover a “defining moment in the nation’s history.” Of course, Egypt’s grand imam, Sheik Ahmed el-Tayeb, also took part in that press conference. So did the leader of the Constitution Party, Mohamed el-Baradei, Nobel Laureate Mohamed El Bareidi, Tamarod movement leader Mohamed Badr, former Morsi advisor Sekina Fouad and several others.

Anyone who has followed religion trends in Egypt for several decades knows that it was unusual for Tawadros to take such a public stand, knowing that Coptic Christians have always been a convenient scapegoat for mob violence in Egypt — no matter who is in power. Things were getting worse under Muslim Brotherhood control, but things were also bad under previous military strongmen.

The crucial point is that Tawadros did not stand alone, but as part of a coalition that included key Islamic players in tensions with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Now, with that in mind, read the following chunk of a gripping New York Times report from David D. Kirkpatrick:

A tense quiet settled over Cairo as the city braced for new protests by supporters of the ousted president, Mohamed Morsi, after the Friday Prayer. The new government authorized the police to use lethal force if they felt endangered.

Many of those waiting outside the makeshift morgue talked of civil war. Some blamed members of Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority for supporting the military takeover. A few argued openly for a turn to violence.

“The solution might be an assassination list,” said Ahmed, 27, who like others refused to use his full name for fear of reprisals from the new authorities. “Shoot anyone in uniform. It doesn’t matter if the good is taken with the bad, because that is what happened to us last night.”

So some blamed the nation’s 10 percent Coptic minority, even though the coalition that — in that crucial press conference — endorsed the fall of Morsi was much broader than that. But the Coptic-blame game is a statement of fact on the street. Kirkpatrick handles other references to the views of this symbolic religious minority with similar caution:

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Saith the WPost: So what’s really going on in Egypt?

My cellphone chimed at me earlier this afternoon with a news bulletin from CNN that actress Lisa Robin Kelly had died. Millions of Americans would want to know this breaking news, I imagine, because of her work with the television comedy “That ’70s Show.”

I think it is safe to say (tragic but true, in other words), that the typical American newsroom executive can assume that the typical American news consumer will know the name of this woman and that most news consumers will want to know that she has died. Pop culture matters in America. Thus, her death is a news bulletin. We can expect quite a bit of coverage on cable TV tonight.

Pop culture matters. Does Egypt really matter?

There will be quite a bit of coverage tonight about the unfolding events in Egypt, where more people died in the latest clashes between the Muslims who lead that nation’s semi-secular military establishment and those who want to see Egypt evolve — through ballots or bullets — into a true Islamic state.

What can editors assume that Americans know about what is happening in Egypt?

Can the typical American editor assume that the typical American news consumer even wants to know the details?

If the typical American knows the name of Lisa Robin Kelly, how many Americans would know this name — Sayyid Qutb?

Qutb is a very important person in the recent history of the world, even though he was executed by the Egyptian military establishment in 1966. You see, it’s hard to understand what happened on Sept. 11, 2001 without knowing Qutb’s name and its even harder to understand what is currently happening in Egyptian streets, mosques and churches without knowing something about Qutb and his thought, especially when it comes to justifying bloodshed in conflicts within Islam, between Muslims.

Can the American news executive justify coverage that tells consumers about the history of the conflicts in Egypt? What can editors assume Americans know or even what to know?

Well, the Washington Post online team just ran a handy feature that offers quite a window into the thinking behind the coverage of these events. The title: “9 questions about Egypt you were too embarrassed to ask.”

It begins with the assumption that many Americans do know even know where Egypt is. Honest. Question No. 1 asks, “What is Egypt?”

Question No. 2 moves closer to the issues that will interest GetReligion readers: “Why are people in Egypt killing each other?”

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Muslims kill Muslims, for no reasons that can be reported

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The bloodshed in Egypt continues and, to be quite frank about it, it’s hard to know what to write about most of the mainstream news coverage. This is especially true if your primary goal is to understand the role that religion is playing in these hellish events.

Through it all, I have been asking the following question:

Is it possible, in a land in which the majority of voters hunger for Islamic law, to defend the rights of religious minorities and secular liberals without the help of a military that is willing to oppress and jail Islamists?

In other words, most Egyptians want some kind of Islamic state — while the military leaders desire to keep leading a state that offers a more secular approach to Islam. In the coverage you are reading, notice how often the Muslim Brotherhood leaders proclaim that they are trying to prevent Egypt from turning into Syria? What is wrong with Syria, in the view of Islamists?

Meanwhile, a tragic equation is returning to Egyptian life, one that is seen in every generation.

Bluntly stated, that equation goes something like this: Military police attack Islamists, which inspires renewed Islamist attacks on churches and other symbols of religious minority life — safe and familiar scapegoats.

You see, the key fighting is between two large Muslim camps — the Islamists and the old guard in the military. In most Western media reports this is called “sectarian violence” or some variation on this term. This is something like saying that the black churches that burned during the U.S. civil rights era burned because of “sectarian violence.”

See, for example, the top of a new Los Angeles Times report:

CAIRO – Deadly clashes and sectarian tensions spread across Egypt on Wednesday after security forces stormed two Cairo sit-ins, killing scores of supporters of deposed Islamist President Mohamed Morsi.

The interim government declared a state of emergency as battles between Morsi loyalists and police erupted in Cairo, Alexandria, Aswan and in smaller towns and villages. Public buildings were set ablaze and Egyptian media reported churches were attacked in a number of provinces as Islamists blamed Christians for backing the army.

The government, appointed last month after a coup overthrew Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood movement, accused Islamists of instigating bloodshed by shooting at police. The Brotherhood said police fired live ammunition at peaceful protesters, who fled in panic down streets and alleys engulfed in tear gas and scattered with bullet casings.

Why attack churches if the enemy is the secular military?

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Married 60 times before age 18 in Egypt

The Washington Post had a religion news blog item last week headlined, horrifyingly, “‘Some girls have been married 60 times by the time they turn 18′.”

The story somewhat conflates marriage of young women with the epidemic of children sold into marriage. I also worried about the veracity of the statistics and the context in which some claims were made about pregnancy health. But let’s go on into the religion angle:

But some girls who grow up in Egypt’s poor rural communities face an even scarier sort of child marriage: the temporary kind. Sex tourism to Egypt tends to spike in the summer, when wealthy men from Gulf countries flood into Egypt and thousands of underage girls are sold by their parents into temporary “marriages,” according to a story by Inter Press Service

Egypt’s illegal child sex tourism trade appears to have put a regional-friendly spin on the practice by portraying the buying and selling of children as a form of marriage, thus giving them a thin veneer of religious acceptability by circumventing Islamic rules against pre-marital sex. (Despite a 2008 law banning child marriages, enforcement is thought to be low and an Egyptian official told the Inter Press Service that’s it’s nearly ceased since the chaos of the 2011 revolution.) Child marriages are, after all, somewhat common in Arab countries, although not nearly as common as in neighboring regions. And such child marriages often involve “dowries” that human trafficking activists say are akin to a purchase price.

Indeed this is a religion story, but one that might be made valuable by a little bit more exploration into that angle.

Temporary marriage, or Nikah mut‘ah, is a major issue of contention in Islam. Muslims tend to agree that temporary marriage was instituted by Mohammed and practiced in Islam’s initial period. Sunni Muslims, however, believe it was later abolished while Shiite Muslims do not. These temporary marriages aren’t supposed to last less than three days but they’re of a short-term variety.

Almost all Egyptian Muslims are Sunni, however. So this would not be the religious teaching in play. Are these regional-friendly spins playing into Sunni understanding of temporary marriage? What, exactly, are those views? We’re not told. But as an initial starting point, a few entries from Wikipedia:

Nikah al-Misyar (“traveller’s marriage”) is a Nikah (marriage) carried out via the normal contractual procedure, with the specificity that the husband and wife give up several rights by their own free will, such as living together, equal division of nights between wives in cases of polygyny, the wife’s rights to housing, and maintenance money (nafaqa), and the husband’s right of homekeeping, and access etc.[1]

Nikah ‘urfi is a kind of Muslim marriage. It is similar to the Nikah ceremony. An ‘urfi marriage is a marriage without an official contract. Couples repeat the words, “We got married” and pledge commitment before God. Usually a paper, stating that the two are married, is written and two witnesses sign it. Most Islamic countries do not recognize ‘Urfi marriages and no partner can get a ‘legal’ divorce since the government does not recognize the legality of the marriage in the first place.[citation needed]

Citation needed indeed!

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Remember when Jesus went to Assiut? (Yeah, me neither.)

“Both Roman Catholic and Evangelical Protestant media have for years been drawing public attention to the persecution of Christians in many countries,” says the renowned sociologist of religion, Peter Berger. “Secular media have been less attentive; some have ascribed this to an anti-Christian bias; I rather doubt this—more likely it comes from the fact that many otherwise well-informed journalists are less informed on religious matters.”

Berger is probably right — which is cause for optimism. The condition of being “less informed on religious matters” is not only much easier to fix than anti-religious bias, it is often self-correcting. In my experience, when it’s pointed out to journalists that they are missing a “big story” they are quick to correct their oversight. Sometimes they have to be browbeaten into doing their jobs (e.g., Gosnell), but usually their natural curiosity about the world is enough to provoke them into seeking out what they’ve missed.

A prime example of this type of media self-correction can be found in recent articles about the Middle East. Many mainstream outlets that had previously missed or underplayed the persecution angle have, within the past few weeks, done a commendable job of reporting on the plight of Christians in Egypt. For example, the AP had a particularly good story yesterday titled, “Egypt’s Coup Puts Fearful Christians in a Corner.”

Like other Christians with stores on the street, Nabil shuttered his establishment until the protesters had passed. “They (the marchers) run their index finger across their throats to suggest they will slaughter us, or scream Morsi’s name in our faces,” he said.

A young couple arrived to shop while scores of marchers were still on the street. They froze in fear, the husband shielding his wife with his body.

Families living in apartment blocks above the stores stayed home, shutting windows and staying off balconies. Those outdoors kept their distance from the march.

In such an well-reported article, it feels unseemly to pick nits. But Bible-related gaffes are irresistible to us GetReligionistas, so I have to comment on this one:

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