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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Attention NYTimes: Boko Haram has made its goals clear

There is much to commend in the recent New York Times report that ran under the simple, but blunt, headline, “Deadly Attacks Tied to Islamist Militants Shake Nigeria.”

The violence in Nigeria is, alas, a tragically old story. It’s important that the Times team has continued to cover the bloody details. It would be so easy to try to look away at this point.

LAGOS, Nigeria – Dozens were killed, including many children watching a soccer match, in a series of deadly bomb blasts in the northern Nigerian city of Maiduguri on Saturday, officials said. The Islamist group Boko Haram was blamed for the attacks, which were the deadliest in months in the sect’s birthplace.

Gunmen from the group also struck a nearby village, Mainok, at the same time Saturday evening, a local official said, storming in on trucks, burning houses and killing at least 51. The death toll from the two attacks was more than 100 and rising, officials said.

In the Maiduguri bombings, children bore the brunt of the explosions, according to the health commissioner for Borno State, Dr. Salma Anas-Kolo. The youths had gathered at a makeshift stadium in the Gomari neighborhood to watch a soccer match when a bomb went off in a pickup truck loaded with firewood, she and others said. When people in the densely inhabited neighborhood rushed to help, a second bomb exploded, according to Maikaramba Saddiq, the Maiduguri representative of Nigeria’s Civil Liberties Organization.

And it gets worse:

A hospital official in Maiduguri, who watched as charred corpses were brought in, said: “Most of the bodies we found were very young. Small. I saw a man who lost three children.” The official asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation and his position at the hospital.

Boko Haram is the key player in the campaign of terror in northern Nigeria and journalists should, by this time, know quite a bit about this network’s motivations and methods.

You would think so. However, what are readers to make of this rather mysterious section of this news report?

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PBS: Understanding Syria (minus any nasty religion stuff)

So here we go again.

This weekend I mentioned an online explainer piece served up by The Washington Post that pointed readers toward essential Twitter feeds linked to the civil war in Syria. The news-you-can-use pledge: Read these Twitter feeds and you’ll know what you need to know to understand the chaos and bloodshed in Syria.

Maybe, maybe not.

I thought it was interesting that, after looking these Twitter feeds over a bit, it appears that the Post thinks that religion plays no role whatsoever in the fighting in Syria between the Islamist rebels and the heretical (from a Sunni Muslim point of view) Alawite minority regime that is hanging onto power. Oh, and then there is the plight of other religious minorities — Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Christians, primarily. This is an angle of the Syria story that is often mentioned in places like — well, to name two — Rome and Moscow.

Now, here is another explainer piece — care of PBS. The headline aims at similar terrain: “Your Cheat Sheet to the Syrian Conflict.”

One of the most crucial aspects of the Syria story is that this land is a tense patchwork of groups that are defined in terms of ethnicity/tribe and religion. Right? Thus, PBS tells us:

What is Syria?

Syria is a nation of about 21 million people — roughly 2 million more than the population of New York state. It sits on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea in the Middle East.

The nation is about the same size as Washington state and slightly larger than North Dakota. Syria is run by the minority sect known as Alawites, which make up 11.8 percent of the population.

Interesting. The Alawites are a sect of what religion?

Later on in the piece there is this question:

Why the Civil War?

A series of peaceful protests during the Arab Spring in 2011 triggered an increasingly violent backlash from the government of Bashar al-Assad that in turn led to a full-fledged civil war.

The current death toll, according to UNHCR’s Peter Kessler, now stands at more than 100,000 people. The number of people who have lost their homes or been forced to flee has reached 6.2 million. The group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says 40,146 civilians have been killed, including more than 4,000 women and more than 5,800 children.

Uh, by WHY is there a civil war? What are the fault lines in this conflict, the civic cracks that define it? The Arab spring caused everything to fall apart and that’s that? Really?

And then there’s the matter of the Reuters info-graphic that ran with this piece.

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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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Watching for ghosts in the news flashes from Egypt

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A few journalistic thoughts while I continue to watch the waves of news coverage rolling in from Egypt:

* Over the past decade or two, I have attended a number of conferences and seminars with scholars and mainstream journalists — Christians and Muslims — who work in Islamic cultures. Most of our conversations have centered on freedom of the press, but it’s hard to talk about freedom of expression in one part of life without getting into others, such as the protection of religious minorities.

Here is how I would sum up the main point I have heard from these journalists over the years: In the end, it doesn’t matter what your constitution says about your rights if the police will not step in and stop rioters from killing people and burning either newsrooms or religious sanctuaries. Take your pick.

* Until the Pew pollsters come up with new data, I will continue to point GetReligion readers toward those 2011 Pew Research Center numbers indicating, among other things (care of one of my Scripps Howard columns):

“Egyptians hold diverse views about religion. … About six-in-ten (62%) think laws should strictly follow the teachings of the Quran. However, only 31% of Egyptian Muslims say they sympathize with Islamic fundamentalists, while nearly the same number (30%) say they sympathize with those who disagree with the fundamentalists, and 26% have mixed views on this question.”

Meanwhile, on two other crucial questions: “Relatively few (39%) give high priority to women having the same rights as men. … Overall, just 36% think it is very important that Coptic Christians and other religious minorities are able to freely practice their religions.”

So while only 31 percent sympathize with “fundamentalist” Muslims, 60-plus percent decline to give high priority to equal rights for women and 62 percent believe Egypt’s laws should STRICTLY follow the Quran.

* Why do those numbers matter so much? When you look at what Egyptians say in polls and at the ballot box, it’s pretty clear that — when it comes to desires for an Islamic state of some kind — the military leaders (religious views never stated) just acted against the will of a majority of Egyptians. However, they may have acted in the economic interests of the nation by favoring the more tolerant views of the more secular and moderate urban elites. Think tourism. Think international ties.

We are back to an old, old 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? Think about that as you watch the unfolding campaign against President Mohamed Morsi and his followers.

* This leads me to note that, in the early coverage of the coup, The Los Angeles Times — a newspaper I have lashed on a regular basis lately for weak coverage in the Middle East — had the best short summary of key religious elements of the unfolding events. Want to see that?

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There’s more to Egypt’s pain than secularism vs. religion

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Many GetReligion readers have, I am sure, spent some time today following the urgent news bulletins out of Egypt, where some of the largest protests in the history of the world have been taking place.

It’s hard to know, precisely, what is happening — because there are so many different groups involved in the coalition that is revolting against the nation’s first democratically elected leader.

As I write, this is the latest from The New York Times:

CAIRO – Egypt’s top generals on Monday gave President Mohamed Morsi 48 hours to respond to a wave of mass protests demanding his ouster, declaring that if he did not, then the military leaders themselves would impose their own “road map” to resolve the political crisis.

Most reports earlier in day pivoted, as usual, around one crucial, but still undefined word — Islamist. It’s clear that religion is playing a crucial role in these events, but mainstream journalists continue to struggle when it comes time to define the differences between the goals and the beliefs of the competing Muslim camps in Egypt.

For the most part, journalists are saying this is a battle between liberal secularists and the Islamists symbolized by the Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Now, these liberals — are they Muslims? What are the beliefs that define them and separate them from Morsi & Co.?

How about the military leaders — are they Muslims? They represent the old guard, which offered its own approach to Islam. What defined that version of Islam?

And Morsi, of course, leads a group that, only a month or two ago, was being called the “moderate” Islamist party — since the Salafi Muslims are to the president’s cultural and theological right. At some point, will the Salafists turn on Morsi? If so, what are the defining beliefs and policies that separate these two camps?

Then there are various religious minorities who play a crucial role in Egyptian life, led by the Coptic Orthodox Christians (who, with other Christians, make up about 10 percent of the population).

That’s a pretty complex landscape. Yet in the main Los Angeles Times story today, readers are — once again — told about a simple contest between secular liberals and Islamists, with the military (religious affiliations, unknown) looming in the background. Here is a key slice of that:

The battle for Egypt lies between these two poles, divided by sectarianism and driven by economic despair. These emotions were evident at anti-Morsi protests in Tahrir Square and the presidential palace, and amid prayer rugs and open Korans carried by Morsi loyalists in front of one of Cairo’s main mosques.

“Egypt is our country, the land of the Nile that carries us all, and it’s our duty to protect it without violence or committing assaults,” Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II, whose Christian minority has been increasingly persecuted by Islamists, said on Twitter. “The blood of every Egyptian is precious, please participate, but respect others.”

And that is pretty much that.

The New York Times team, led by the omnipresent David D. Kirkpatrick, briefly attempted to hint at divisions INSIDE the Islamist world, cracks and schisms that clearly are threatening Morsi and the future of his government. Here is some crucial material more than halfway into the summary story earlier in the day:

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Telling the story of Timbuktu’s terror

The New York Times has done some amazing work this week covering Islamic conflicts in Africa. This story, which tells how sharia was implemented during Islamist domination of Timbuktu, is so very good. Note the beginning:

When the Islamist militants came to town, Dr. Ibrahim Maiga made a reluctant deal. He would do whatever they asked — treat their wounded, heal their fevers, bandage up without complaint the women they thrashed in the street for failing to cover their heads and faces. In return, they would allow him to keep the hospital running as he wished.

Then, one day in October, the militants called him with some unusual instructions. Put together a team, they said, bring an ambulance and come to a sun-baked public square by sand dunes.

There, before a stunned crowd, the Islamist fighters carried out what they claimed was the only just sentence for theft: cutting off the thief’s hand. As one of the fighters hacked away at the wrist of a terrified, screaming young man strapped to a chair, Dr. Maiga, a veteran of grisly emergency room scenes, looked away.

“I was shocked,” he said, holding his head in his hands. “But I was powerless. My job is to heal people. What could I do?”

This piece is riveting and so very descriptive. It shows how Muslims dealt with Islamist fighters linked with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. While Islamist militants have retreated to the desert, they are still a threat — and the story deals somewhat with that.

The damage done to Timbuktu, according the story, is severe. Many residents fled. The city is dangerously isolated. I love the attention to religious detail in this story. For instance:

Those who remained told stories of how they survived the long occupation: by hiding away treasured manuscripts and amulets forbidden by the Islamists, burying crates of beer in the desert, standing by as the tombs of saints they venerated were reduced to rubble, silencing their radios to the city’s famous but now forbidden music.

“They tried to take away everything that made Timbuktu Timbuktu,” said Mahalmoudou Tandina, a marabout, or Islamic preacher, whose ancestors first settled in Timbuktu from Morocco in the 13th century. “They almost succeeded.”

The story provides some historical perspective of the occupations of Timbuktu.

My favorite aspect of the story, however, is how both groups’ religious beliefs are included in the story — not just those of the religious extremists, as is so often the case.

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Syrian sniper offers thoughts on life, death and faith

Anyone who has been to the Middle East, or who has spent much time talking to natives of that troubled region, knows that there is much more to its conflicts than religion.

At the same time, anyone who has visited the region, and talked to Jews, Christians and Muslims from its lands, knows that there are few subjects there that can be discussed at length — especially controversial issues — without religious beliefs and traditions coming into play.

That’s just the way things work over there.

Now, when these topics show up in the mainstream press, it seems that the conflicts and horrors that plague the Middle East are rooted in everything EXCEPT religion. Oh, journalists will mention Islam, Judaism or Christianity from time to time, but it seems that the issues that are really real are all economic, political or ethnic. Those that are linked to religion are referred to as “sectarian” conflicts and that is that.

Your GetReligionistas, through the years, have urged journalists to let the people involved in these conflicts speak for themselves and then turn to a variety of insiders to help readers understand what the words mean. When people in Syria, for example, talk about the revolution that’s going on there, one of the first things they talk about is the need to defend Islam and to stand up for justice (often expressed in Muslim terms). Meanwhile, members of religious minorities often talk about the need to protect themselves and the right to live their faiths in daily life.

However, rather than criticizing yet another mainstream report for a lack of human voices, I’d like to note that Time magazine recently ran a piece (to my amazement in this firewall age, I eventually found it online) that let one participant in the Syria speak for himself. The result is both fascinating, moving and, at times, appalling.

The headline: “The Confessions of a Sniper: A Rebel Gunman in Aleppo and His Conscience.” Here is the lede that sets the stage:

To the other men in his Free Syrian Army unit, he’s simply known as the Sniper, a 21-year-old army-trained sharpshooter who defected on Feb. 21 and joined their ranks. Few of his colleagues know his first name let alone his surname — and that’s the way he wants to keep it.

He hails from a Sunni military family in a town on the outskirts of Damascus, the capital. His uncle is a serving general in President Bashar Assad’s army, several of his other relatives are also high-ranking military officers. Apart from his parents and siblings, his relatives all think he’s dead — and that’s the way he wants to keep it. …

He may look calm, but he’s deeply troubled. After some nine months of fighting with several Free Syrian Army units, first on the outskirts of Aleppo and then in the city itself after the rebel push into it in late July, he has grown disillusioned with the fight and angry with its conduct. “I did this when it was clean,” he says. “Now it’s dirty. Many aren’t fighting just to get rid of Bashar, they’re fighting to gain a reputation, to build up their name. I want it to go back to the way it was, when we were fighting for God and the people, not for some commander’s reputation.”

The sniper expects his land to be torn into warring camps, with the new reality being “many Somalias in every province.” At the time the article was written, this young man said he had killed 34 people — including, possibly, a childhood friend who as “dearer to me than a brother.”

That’s the setup.

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