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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Pod people: Religion and mass shootings

The Crossroads podcast this week was devoted to discussion of covering shootings. And in the time since the horrible shooting in Washington, D.C., took place, we now have reports of another horrific mass shooting in Kenya. There is some amazing journalism being done as this massacre unfolds. I’d recommend reading this New York Times interview of Tyler Hicks, a photographer who ran into the mall as thousands fled. The pictures that accompany the piece will make you gasp and cry, so be forewarned. But I think there is an argument to be made that we should see these images and have the appropriate reaction to them.

At this point in the process, Somali militant group al-Shabab has claimed responsibility. The New York Times slideshow says that gunmen entered the mall in a coordinated assault and told Muslims to leave. They then killed, according to reports, some 39 people and are holding an unknown number of people hostage. There are reports that 300 people have been injured, ranging in age from 2-years-old to 78-years-old. I want to say this is absolute madness, and I think you know what I mean, but it’s important for us to know that this is actually a terrorist attack. It has a political aim. It wasn’t a lone gunmen. These things mean a lot about how we respond to a crisis. And religion is a major part of that story, obviously.

So what about the Washington, D.C., shooter who killed 12 people working at the Navy Yard? When we say that story is absolute madness, it has similarities and differences from the Kenyan massacre. The gunman in the D.C. shooting, who is deceased, was said to suffer mental illness, such as hearing voices. He is reported to have had paranoid thinking. Does it matter to the families and loved ones of the 12 people whose lives he snuffed out that day? Perhaps not, but when we’re communicating information to target audiences, we have a different discussion about an American madmen than we do about Somali militants.

Host Todd Wilken asked about media reports identifying the shooter as having ties to Buddhism. I defended those journalistic reports as being key to beginning to understand who the shooter was. We talked about the pushback some had over those reports. The key is that reporters don’t blame an affiliation to a religion without facts to back it up. Wilken noted that the story seemed to be moving toward issues of mental health. The question is what role religion plays in that story and how well reporters will be able to tease that thread.

Back to the Kenyan situation, we have another example of religion being identified with the shooters. In this case it’s militant Islam. How should that be treated in this story? I’m going to go ahead and argue that it’s important while a situation is ongoing for reporters to lock down the “who, what, where and how” before they get to the “why.” The “who,” in this case, is a religion story. The “why” is, too. But we have some time to get that latter issue right. Basic facts are most important in the midst of the crisis.

It is for this reason that Reuters didn’t really dive deep about Islamic terrorism in this breaking story, but did mention religion in the headline and lede. In “Stand-off at Kenyan mall after Islamists kill 39 in ‘terrorist’ attack,” we learn:

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Define ‘Islamist’ and please be specific

Last week, the people who produce the Associated Press Stylebook issued a few revisions. One of them was for the term “Islamist.” It used to read:

Supporter of government in accord with the laws of Islam. Those who view the Quran as a political model encompass a wide range of Muslims, from mainstream politicians to militants known as jihadi.

That entry was only added last year. In response, the Council on American-Islamic Relations actually called for the AP to drop the use of the term. GetReligion authors have long spoken out against the use of the term as imprecise shorthand for “Muslims who are not liberal.” Here’s tmatt banging that drum in a piece from last year “Define Islamist: Give Three Examples“:

I’ve read this story several times and, to me, it seems that it is impossible to make any sense out of it without a working definition of “Islamist.” The problem is that the story does not contain a definition. It is also missing a clear set of facts about what Islamists say they believe or what changes in Egyptian society they are seeking.

Thus, “Islamist” is left as a kind of buzz word that, essentially, means “really religious Muslims who are competing against liberals and leftists.” We also know that they are clashing with the troubled land’s predominately secular (whatever that means in an Islamic nation) military leaders.

So correct me if I’m wrong, tmatt, but you have to think the revision to the Stylebook is a step in the right direction. Here’s how it reads now:

An advocate or supporter of a political movement that favors reordering government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by Islam. Do not use as a synonym for Islamic fighters, militants, extremists or radicals, who may or may not be Islamists.

Where possible, be specific and use the name of militant affiliations: al-Qaida-linked, Hezbollah, Taliban, etc. Those who view the Quran as a political model encompass a wide range of Muslims, from mainstream politicians to militants known as jihadi.

An improvement, certainly. In addition to being specific about the group affiliations, though, what we really need are specifics about the doctrines in play.

I do have one thought about this term, which is that I do think it builds in some bias about what makes for the “right” kind of Islam. It is common for folks to assume a sort of universality to whatever environment they grew up in. There is an attempt by some media professionals to try to understand Islam in terms of how Christians or Jews (or secular or other folks living under the influence of legal systems heavily influenced by same) order their public and private lives. This leads to an impoverished view of Islam that downplays the lack of distinction between mosque and state.

One of the reasons why this revision is good is because it shows how many different Muslims — and certainly not just radicals — advocate reordering society in accordance with sharia. But one of the reasons why the revision is lacking is because it makes it seem like this is not necessarily inherent to Islam. If one is going to take sides on that doctrinal debate, I think there’s at least a strong argument to be made that what we call “Islamism” might  be more accurately called “Islam.”

I’m not arguing that journalists should take sides on the debate but recognize how we frame adherence to Muslim teachings. And once that realization is made — that Islam isn’t just a different regional version of Christianity or Judaism — and that it has particular and unique approaches to how religion and politics blend — then we can have a more meaningful discussion about how different groups interpret that central tenet of Islam. Otherwise, we only talk about it when it appears in a negative light or is perpetuated by the guys that are portrayed as the really bad guys.

So even more important than getting the affiliations spelled out, let’s make sure we talk about the doctrines in play and how they are interpreted by various groups.

I was reminded to write about this Stylebook issue because of an AP story I read this weekend headlined “Hamas shaves heads of Gaza youths with long hair.”

Note, no “Islamist.”

Instead we learned of “Islamic militants latest attempt to impose their hardline version of Islam on Gaza.” Early on:

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When is it OK to burn Islamic texts?

We’ve been critiquing the good and bad coverage of what’s been happening to Mali in recent months. The latest news is about how fleeing Islamists destroyed a library in Timbuktu. Here’s the Associated Press:

SEVARE, Mali – Fleeing Islamist extremists torched a library containing historic manuscripts in Timbuktu, the mayor said Monday, as French and Malian forces closed in on Mali’s fabled desert city.

Ousmane Halle said he heard about the burnings early Monday.

“It’s truly alarming that this has happened,” he told The Associated Press by telephone from Mali’s capital, Bamako, on Monday. “They torched all the important ancient manuscripts. The ancient books of geography and science. It is the history of Timbuktu, of its people.”

The mayor said Monday that the radical Islamists had torched his office as well as the Ahmed Baba Institute , a library rich with historical documents , in an act of retaliation before they fled late last week.

Reporting out of Mali has been difficult and I’m so thankful for all those who are doing just that. Here’s Reuters:

The burning of a library housing thousands of ancient manuscripts in Mali’s desert city of Timbuktu is just the latest act of destruction by Islamist fighters who have spent months smashing graves and holy shrines in the World Heritage site.

The United Nations cultural body UNESCO said it was trying to find out the precise damage done to the Ahmed Baba Institute, a modern building that contains priceless documents dating back to the 13th century.

The manuscripts are “uniquely valuable and testify to a long tradition of learning and cultural exchange,” said UNESCO spokesman Roni Amelan. “So we are horrified.”

But if they are horrified, historians and religious scholars are unlikely to have been surprised by this gesture of defiance by Islamist rebels fleeing the ancient trading post on the threshold of the Sahara as French and Malian troops moved in.

“It was one of the greatest libraries of Islamic manuscripts in the world,” said Marie Rodet, an African history lecturer at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

“It’s pure retaliation. They knew they were losing the battle and they hit where it really hurts,” she told Reuters.

OK. Do you have the same question I have at this point?

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Islamist crimes against humanity in Mali

The Washington Post has a tough, but very important, read on the deteriorating situation in Mali. The first point to make is to thank the paper for devoting the resources necessary to bring to light this story about terrorism against vulnerable people. It can’t be easy and it’s deeply appreciated.

The story begins with Fatima Al Hassan being sentenced to 100 lashes with an electrical cord for giving a male visitor to her house. We’re told that “Islamist radicals” who’ve seized the north are to blame. We’re told that a coalition of Western and regional powers are preparing to retake northern Mali within the next year.

But such an action, if approved by the U.N. Security Council, is unlikely to begin until next summer or fall, U.S. and other Western officials say, and political turmoil in the south is adding to the uncertainty. That has raised fears that the extremists could consolidate their grip over the Texas-size territory and further terrorize civilians, particularly women and children.

“The people are losing all hope,” said Sadou Diallo, a former mayor of the northern city of Gao. “For the past eight months, they have lived without any government, without any actions taken against the Islamists. Now the Islamists feel they can do anything to the people.”

Refugees fleeing the north are now bringing stories that are darker than those recounted in interviews from this summer. Although their experiences cannot be independently verified — because the Islamists have threatened to kill or kidnap Westerners who visit — U.N. officials and human rights activists say that they have heard similar reports of horrific abuses and that some may amount to war crimes.

I had previously criticized a piece for writing about the horrors in Mali using a single anonymous source. I liked the way this reporter acknowledged the limits to verifying reports, while doing a great job of working around that problem.

Early in the piece, I hoped we’d learn about what religious beliefs separated these Islamists from the Muslims they’re terrorizing. While that was not as well fleshed out as I may have hoped for, we did get specifics about what the Islamists are doing:

The refugees say the Islamists are raping and forcibly marrying women, and recruiting children for armed conflict. Social interaction deemed an affront to their interpretation of Islam is zealously punished through Islamic courts and a police force that has become more systematic and inflexible, human rights activists and local officials say.

We’re told that the radicals have “imposed a hard-edged brand of sharia law, echoing Afghanistan’s Taliban movement, in this West African country where moderate Islam has thrived for centuries.”

I have suspicions about how moderate sharia and a hard-edged sharia differ but could have used some help spelling it out. Is it a difference in degree of punishment? A difference in what is deemed worthy of punishment? Something else altogether? And the things these radicals are doing — depriving people of basic freedoms, destroying historic tombs, denying children education, ridding the country of doctors and nurses and clinics — what, exactly, is the religious defense for these things? We’re told they’re doing them for religious reasons but I could use some info about the particular religious reasons.

Anyway, the situation sounds just horrific. Roving police squads scour neighborhoods for violations. A healthy amount of the story is devoted to the practices of rape and forced weddings.

[T]he Islamists have … encouraged their fighters to marry women and girls, some as young as 10, and often at gunpoint. After sex, they initiate a quick divorce. In an extreme case that has shocked the country, a girl in Timbuktu was forced last month to “marry” six fighters in one night, according to a report in one of Mali’s biggest newspapers.

“They are abusing religion to force women and girls to have intercourse,” said Ibrahima Berte, an official at Mali’s National Commission for Human Rights. “This kind of forced marriage is really just sexual abuse.”

In a telephone interview, a senior Islamist commander conceded that his fighters were marrying young girls.

“Our religion says that if a girl is 12, she must get married to avoid losing her virginity in a wrong way,” said Oumar Ould Hamaha, the military leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, one of the three radical groups ruling the north. The other two are al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the network’s North and West Africa affiliate; and Ansar Dine, or “defenders of the faith.”

And kudos for getting a military leader on the phone to admit to the practice and explain the religious loophole. We’re also told how the radicals manipulate Muslim sentiment to buy children:

“They give $10 to impoverished parents to recruit their children in the name of defending Islam,” said Gaoussou Traore, the secretary general of Comade, a Malian children’s rights group. “The Islamists tell parents that their children will go to paradise, that they will benefit in the next world.”

I like the use of quotes to quickly explain how this practice works.

A section of the story deals with the practice of destroying or vandalizing businesses deemed unIslamic:

Inside his barbershop, Ali Maiga, 33, had a mural of hairstyles favored by American and French rappers on the wall. The Islamists sprayed white paint over it, he recalled, and warned him that he risks being whipped if he shaves off anyone’s beard.

This just reminds me of my requests for additional information on the trial of Nidal Hasan. He’s claimed he can’t shave his beard for religious reasons. I’ve wondered why this claim hasn’t been explored by journalists. Which schools of Islam teach this?

Anyway, this piece is well worth a read. It’s well written and well reported. The ending is quite powerful, too.

Hard-hitting questions for Egypt’s Morsi

The Associated Press brings us the latest from Cairo:

Islamists approved a draft constitution for Egypt early Friday without the participation of liberal and Christian members, seeking to pre-empt a court ruling that could dissolve their panel with a rushed, marathon vote that further inflames the clash between the opposition and President Mohammed Morsi.

The move advanced a charter with an Islamist bent that rights experts say could give Muslim clerics oversight over legislation and bring restrictions on freedom of speech, women’s rights and other liberties…

The Islamist-dominated assembly that has been working on the constitution for months raced to pass it, voting article by article on the draft’s more than 230 articles for more than 16 hours. The lack of inclusion was on display in the nationally televised gathering: Of the 85 members in attendance, there was not a single Christian and only four women, all Islamists. Many of the men wore beards, the hallmark of Muslim conservatives.

For weeks, liberal, secular and Christian members, already a minority on the 100-member panel, have been withdrawing to protest what they call the Islamists’ hijacking of the process.

You should read the whole thing. It’s a lengthy piece with tons of reporting. I love how the reporters give specifics. So that’s your example of good reporting from Egypt.

I also wanted to highlight this piece by Time. Three reporters got a huge get — the chance to interview the man who just went “temporary dictator” on his country. He’s asserted that all his decisions are final, can’t be appealed, and can’t be overturned by courts. He’s further said that no judicial body can dissolve the assembly writing the new constitution.

So what do these three reporters ask the man who used to be the Muslim Brotherhood’s enforcer? Here’s what they came up with:

You’re on the world stage now.

What was it like to deal with president Obama during the Gaza cease-fire?

Is the Muslim Brotherhood in fact a democratic organization?

Last week’s decree created a lot of controversy. If you had it to do over again, would you handle it differently? Revise it?

This year, 2012, was a big year, a lot happened. Many hail you as a statesman, others warn you’re a new pharaoh.

Is there enough of a buy-in from the society at large on the constitution?

But what about the political environment around it? Don’t events of the last week indicate a society pulling part rather than coming together around it?

As the fourth question shows, this interview definitely took place this week — after the events of last week that provoked global outrage. Should I assume they were only allowed to ask questions that wouldn’t raise the ire of Morsy? What do you think of these questions?

‘Moderate’ Muslim Brotherhood’s Egyptian power grab

Protests broke out in Egypt in recent days over President Mohamed Morsi’s unilateral decree assuming widespread powers that may not be challenged or questioned. The Associated Press carried a list of some of those powers, beginning with:

- All laws and decisions by the president are final, cannot be appealed, overturned or halted by the courts or other bodies. This applies to decisions he has made since taking office in June and any he makes until a new constitution is approved and a new parliament is elected, expected in the spring at the earliest.

- No judicial body can dissolve the upper house of parliament or the assembly writing the new constitution. Both are dominated by the Brotherhood and other Islamists and several cases demanding their disbanding were before the courts, which previously dissolved the lower house of parliament.

Cairo’s English-language paper Al Ahram reports that “the decree also protects the Shura Council (the upper, consultative house of parliament) and the Islamist-led Constituent Assembly (tasked with drafting a new constitution) against dissolution by court order.” Al Ahram is a great source for news right now if you’re interested in what’s going on in Egypt. It was there I learned that the chairman of the Shura Council said Morsi went too far with his declaration. He’s a member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Faith and Justice Party, so his disagreement was something of a surprise.

Morsi, a long-time Muslim Brotherhood activist and the first Islamist elected as head of an Arab state, says not to worry, that the decrees are totally temporary. Somehow the non-Islamists of Egypt aren’t convinced. I’m just wondering if dictators always insisted that their power-taking was temporary or if that’s just a 20th-century innovation.

Morsi’s timing for the power grab wasn’t totally off. He just brokered a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, leading to plaudits from a variety of leaders. Morsi has enjoyed significant support from the United States, ever since he ran against even stricter Islamists.

Which leads me a larger journalism question. I wonder if journalists have been led off their game a bit because Morsi is supported by the United States and/or because the Muslim Brotherhood is viewed less strict in tone an substance than certain Islamist elements in Egypt. I first noticed this earlier in the year when some media types described the Muslim Brotherhood as “moderate.” I noticed that others were resisting that description, even while acknowledging that the Muslim Brotherhood was less strict.

The New York Times has covered the Egypt story thoroughly throughout the year and I appreciate the way reporter David Kirkpatrick has focused on specific examples to define the Muslim Brotherhood’s particular niche within Egyptian Islamism. I had wanted to highlight this Q&A the paper ran between readers and reporters after a brief interview of Morsi was published in September. Kirkpatrick’s answers really show his reportorial style. It’s clear he has a good grasp of the Muslim Brotherhood perspective, as evidenced in this weekend’s story about judge’s revolting:

What set off the battle was the year-end deadline for the Constitutional Assembly chosen last spring to draft a new constitution. There had been rumors that the Supreme Constitutional Court was poised to dissolve the assembly in a ruling next Sunday. Top courts had already dissolved both an earlier Constitutional Assembly and the Parliament. All three bodies were dominated by Islamists, who have prevailed in elections, and many of the top judges harbor deep fears of an Islamist takeover.

As the deadlines loomed in recent weeks, the assembly’s Islamist leaders began to rush the debates. The assembly had already beaten back the efforts of ultraconservative Salafis to significantly expand the role of Islam in government. But in the last two weeks, many members of the non-Islamist minority began complaining of strong-arming and quit the assembly, slowing its deliberations and hurting its credibility.

Mr. Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, said he issued his decree to give the assembly a two-month extension and protect it from judicial dissolution, so that its members could work out compromises and avoid the formation of yet another assembly. His supporters accuse many in the assembly’s non-Islamist minority of deliberately dragging their feet in order to obstruct the path to a constitutional democracy because they cannot accept their electoral defeat.

“They are afraid of democracy, really,” Essam el-Erian, vice chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, said in an interview this month. “They only debate to block the way, to stop the constitutional process.”

Mr. Morsi’s critics say he could have found a less confrontational tactic to achieve his goal. But in denouncing his decree on Saturday, the Judges Club and some others in the secular opposition, including Mr. Moussa, called for a new assembly less dominated by Islamists.

If interested in an alternate view about which party has trouble with the difficulties of democracy, read this EUObserver analysis from Koert Debeuf. Reuters had more over a week ago about the Christian and liberal opposition within the Constitutional Assembly, leading to resignations. While only 10 percent of the population, stories this weekend seemed to give short shrift to the Copts in Egypt who have voiced significant concern about their fate under growing Islamist power.

What do you think about media coverage of the situation in Egypt, both from this weekend and throughout the year? Do you think media outlets have had blinders on about the Brotherhood or the ease with which Islamism blends with democracy? Have you seen any other good coverage worth highlighting?

Benghazi terrorist hiding in plain sight

I know readers prefer us to harsh on stories rather than praise them, but I don’t care. I have to just highlight a great story from David Kirkpatrick in the New York Times. Now, most of what makes the story interesting is outside this blog’s bailiwick. The piece is headlined “Suspect in Libya Attack, in Plain Sight, Scoffs at U.S.” At a time when the White House is being criticized for its handling of events in Libya, the story is probably going to be a bit politically challenging.

But I want to highlight how the reporter weaves religion into the story without seeming clumsy or heavy-handed. Up top we learn that Ahmed Abu Khattala, one of the ringleaders of the attack, recently hung out in a crowded luxury hotel, sipping mango juice on the patio and mocking the American government and Libya’s fledgling army. We learn he hasn’t even been questioned about his involvement in the attack. The real story, the reporter suggests, involves all the self-formed militias that provide the only source of social order in the country:

A few, like the militia group Ansar al-Shariah that is linked to Mr. Abu Khattala and that officials in Washington and Tripoli agree was behind the attack, have embraced an extremist ideology hostile to the West and nursed ambitions to extend it over Libya. But also troubling to the United States is the evident tolerance shown by other militias allied with the government, which have so far declined to take any action against suspects in the Benghazi attack.

Although Mr. Abu Khattala said he was not a member of Al Qaeda, he declared he would be proud to be associated with Al Qaeda’s puritanical zeal for Islamic law. And he said that the United States had its own foreign policy to blame for the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “Why is the United States always trying to impose its ideology on everyone else?” he asked. “Why is it always trying to use force to implement its agendas?”

We get an interesting discussion of some of the political maneuvering in the United States. Then we learn of Abu Khattala’s “spin” — he says, “contradicting the accounts of many witnesses” that it really was just a peaceful protest against a video and that the guards inexplicably fired upon them, provoking them. He goes on to say that they found all the explosives and guns with silencers in the American compound after they took it. While witnesses say he led the fighters, he says he was just breaking up a traffic jam. He says he didn’t notice that the compound had been set ablaze.

But you can tell that even though the reporter doesn’t necessarily buy Abu Khattala’s story, he asks questions in response to it:

He pointedly declined to condemn the idea that the demolition of a diplomatic mission was an appropriate response to such a video. “From a religious point of view, it is hard to say whether it is good or bad,” he said.

We get some more foreign policy discussion from Abu Khattala:

He also said he opposed democracy as contrary to Islamic law, and he called those who supported secular constitutions “apostates,” using the terminology Islamist radicals apply to fellow Muslims who are said to disqualify themselves from the faith by collaborating with corrupt governments.

He argued that Islamists like those in the Muslim Brotherhood who embraced elections committed a “mix up” of Western and Islamic systems. And he acknowledged that his opposition to elections had been a point of dispute between his followers and the other Libyan militia leaders, most of whom had protected and celebrated the vote…

Witnesses, Benghazi residents and Western news reports, including those in The New York Times, have described Mr. Abu Khattala as a leader of Ansar al-Shariah, whose trucks and fighters were seen attacking the mission. Mr. Abu Khattala praised the group’s members as “good people with good goals, which are trying to implement Islamic law,” and he insisted their network of popular support was vastly underestimated by other brigade leaders who said the group had fewer than 200 fighters.

“It is bigger than a brigade,” he said. “It is a movement.” …

During the revolt, the brigade was accused of killing a top general who had defected to the rebels, Abdul Fattah Younes. Mr. Abu Khatalla acknowledged that the general had died in the brigade headquarters, but declined to discuss it further.

Almost all Libyans are Muslims, alcohol is banned, polygamy is legal, almost every woman wears an Islamic head-covering. But all of that still fell short, he said, of true Islamic law.

It’s obviously not the most important point of the story — indeed these last graphs are the very end — but they are helpful at understanding some of the distinctions in Libya. Sure, everyone’s Muslim, but their conception of Islamic law differs significantly. Showing us some of those distinctions is most helpful as we try to make sense of the muddle there.

Sometimes we’ll look at stories dealing with political Islam and say we wished there were more religious details there. Here we have a story that handled it with an economy of words and it’s worth noting. A great example to follow.

Libya map via Shutterstock.


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