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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Was Kabul shooting over religion? Shouldn’t someone ask?

Q: What question has no answer? A: The one you don’t ask.

In Thursday’s shooting of several people at a Christian hospital in Kabul, the question would be: Could it have anything to do with their religion?

True, the answer doesn’t rest neatly on the surface. The shooter — horrifically, a policeman assigned to guard the hospital — didn’t shout the usual “Alahu Akbar” before gunning down Dr. Jerry Umanos and two visitors at CURE International Hospital. Nor have any organizations like the Taliban claimed responsibility.

So reporters need to look for clues. And there are a few scattered throughout news stories on the atrocity — clues that, thus far, don’t seem to have drawn journalistic curiosity.

The reports do have some positives, especially from a GetReligion standpoint. Most acknowledge the Christian nature of the hospital, its workers, and the Pennsylvania-based agency that runs it. The stories bring out the good done by the medical missionaries in Afghanistan. And they quote Jan Schuitema, the doctor’s widow, on her grief laced with idealism.

An example from CBS News:

“We don’t hold any ill will towards Afghanistan in general or even the gunman who did this,” she said speaking outside the family’s home in Chicago Thursday, her son, Ben Umanos, by her side. “We don’t know what his history is.”

She said that Umanos went to Afghanistan because he saw the need there, she said.

“Our family and friends have suffered a great loss and our hearts are aching,” she said. “While our hearts are aching for our loss, we’re also aching for the loss of the other families as well as the loss and the multiple losses that the Afghan people have experienced.”

Such eloquent quotes should have set reporters’ cliched “nose for news” tingling. But no, we get other cliches — “foreign,” “foreigners,” “Westerners” — that skirt religious considerations. And we get them with numbing repetition.

* “The shooting at Cure International Hospital in western Kabul was the latest attack on foreign civilians in the Afghan capital this year,” says CBS News.

* The latest in a string of attacks against Western civilians here,” the  New York Times said.

* “The shooting at Cure International Hospital in western Kabul was the latest in a string of deadly attacks on foreign civilians in the Afghan capital this year,” reports the New York Daily News.

* “Over the past three months, as Afghanistan is in the midst of electing a new president, 20 foreigners have been killed in separate attacks targeting civilians,” according to an NPR correspondent. “The attacks have occurred at a popular restaurant, an upscale hotel and other venues where foreigners congregate.”

The Los Angeles Times dipped into a think-tanker’s writings about civilians:

“They can be seen as the soft underbelly of the intervention, an easy way to hit Western governments rather than trying to fight well-armed NATO forces, and potentially a highly effective way of driving foreign aid and influence out of Afghanistan,” Kate Clark, country director for the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a Kabul-based research organization, wrote recently.

One quote, two cliches.

Yes, other “foreigners” have been attacked recently. Just since March, four journalists have been shot. But the hospital shooting poses extra questions.

What do Islamist militants reportedly hate about “Western” values, even in secular stories? The welfare of women, for one. Some current articles highlight topics like women in sports, education, law enforcement and Afghanistan’s parliament. And CNN explores the kind of influence that Afghan women could wield on the upcoming national election.

Afghan children, too, take a fair amount of attention in news articles. The stories look sympathetically at child labor, marriage, recreation programs, and child casualties in the ongoing war.

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To use or not to use: Journalists and the word ‘Islam’

Do you ever get the impression, when reading mainstream news stories, that some editors have created formal policies describing when reporters who cover terrorism stories can or cannot mention the words “Islam” or “Muslim”?

I understand what these journalists are trying to do. Their goal, in the post 9/11 world, is to make sure that news consumers understand that there is no ironclad, automatic connection between Islam and the actions of some Muslims who commit acts of violence and terror in the name of their religion.

The problem is that trying to hide the religion ghosts in these stories often results in tone-deaf coverage that ignores the obvious. It’s like the editors are saying, “We know that you know what we are saying here, but we don’t want to say it and, besides, you know the facts so just read the facts into the story and everyone will feel better in the long run.”

Take, for example, this Washington Post story about the fear that stalks students at the American University of Afghanistan — especially female students — as the day nears when U.S. troops retreat and the Taliban almost certainly return to power.

What is the cause of this logical fear? Right up front, readers learn:

KABUL – It is easy to drive past the American University of Afghanistan, barricaded by blast walls and guard towers. There is no sign, no American flag, no emblem.

But those who slip through its nondescript door enter a tiny corner of this country that is unique, wondrous and heavily subsidized by U.S. taxpayers. Young men and women mingle freely, in contravention of the country’s conservative social norms. Some female students walk around unveiled, a break with custom that is unthinkable elsewhere in the country.

This long A1 news feature, literally, never mentions the words “Islam” or “Muslim.” Apparently there are scary generic “conservatives” in this blood-soaked land and then generic — what? — enlightened “progressives” or “secularists”?

Lost in the fog is the real issue addressed in the story, which is that millions of Muslims in Afghanistan hate what is happening inside the doors of this institution of higher learning and millions of other Muslims embrace the alternative worldview taught in these classrooms. What we have here is a clash between two different approaches to one of the world’s most powerful and important faith traditions and it’s hard to write about that reality without talking about the doctrines and traditions of Islam. It helps to talk about the obvious.

With that reality in mind, click here and read an early New York Times report about the latest bloodbath in the heavily Muslim northern half of Nigeria.

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Got news? Pope Francis speaks — this time the media blink

It’s safe to assume that, at this moment in time, Pope Francis is a rock star when it comes to his relationship with the mainstream news media. It would appear that whatever the man wants to say about a controversial issue is going to be reported and, miracle of miracles, perhaps even graced with an attention-grabbing headline.

Alas, it would wrong to assume this. It’s clear that the pope can speak on issues of global importance and receive very little mainstream coverage of all, if the issues are not related (in the minds of many journalists) to the Sexual Revolution.

Consider, for example, the following news report from the omnipresent and highly respected (by a wide array of Catholics) John L. Allen, Jr., of the liberal National Catholic Reporter:

Three days after an attack on an Anglican church in Peshawar, Pakistan, left at least 85 people dead, Pope Francis on Wednesday urged Christians to an examination of conscience about their response to such acts of anti-Christian persecution.

“So many Christians in the world are suffering,” the pope said during his general audience Wednesday morning in St. Peter’s Square. “Am I indifferent to that, or does it affect me like it’s a member of the family?”

“Does it touch my heart, or doesn’t it really affect me, [to know that] so many brothers and sisters in the family are giving their lives for Jesus Christ?”

OK, that’s interesting — but is there a larger story here? A subject worthy of mainstream news attention? Allen continues with a summary of some brutal facts:

The Sunday atrocity in Pakistan is the latest instance of a mounting wave of anti-Christian violence in different parts of the world. According to the International Society for Human Rights in Frankfurt, Germany, 80 percent of all acts of religious discrimination in the world today are directed against Christians.

The Center for the Study of Global Christianity in the United States estimates that in the last decade, an average of 100,000 Christians have died each year in what the center calls a “situation of witness,” meaning for motives related to their faith. Although some experts regard that estimate as inflated, it works out to an average of 11 Christians killed each hour throughout the past decade.

Parts of the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and regions of sub-Saharan Africa tend to be the greatest danger zones, though there are recent examples of Christians experiencing violent persecution in many other parts of the world as well.

That German human rights report is not unique or unusual. More on that in a minute.

So surely the pope’s remarks — linked to bloody massacres that are still in the news — drew news coverage. Let’s run an online search for “Pope Francis,” “persecution” and “Christians.” Click here for the results. Spot any familiar patterns?

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Religious facts in the slaughter in upscale Nairobi mall

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Based on the mainstream media reports pouring out of Kenya, it’s clear that the terrorist attacks on the high-end Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi had a lot to do with religion.

CBS News even managed to get one of the most gripping religious details into its lede:

Gunmen threw grenades, fired automatic weapons and targeted non-Muslims at the upscale Westgate mall in Kenya’s capital on Saturday, killing at least 30 people and wounding dozens more, a Kenya Red Cross official and witnesses said.

How, precisely, do two trained squads of gunmen, according to reports, specifically target non-Muslims?

It’s very early for specific details, and I get that. The most common statement in these reports is that the gunners simply shouted instructions for non-Muslims to flee and refused to shoot those who immediately responded. However, do not be surprised if, as the terrorists hunted from store to store, the story is more complex than that. In Syria, rebels have been offering Christians the choice to convert to Islam, on the spot, and avoid death.

This is merely one symbolic detail from a hellish scene. However, it is interesting the degree to which some mainstream news organizations downplayed the religious motives in the massacre, stressing the merely political. Here is typical language near the top of an early Washington Post report:

On Saturday night, the al-Qaeda-linked Somali militia al-Shabab appeared to claim responsibility for the assault, saying it was in retaliation for Kenya sending troops to fight in neighboring Somalia, where it remains a key military actor. In a tweet from the group’s official Twitter handle, @HSM_Press, the militia said that it “has on numerous occasions warned the #Kenyan government that failure to remove its forces from Somalia would have severe consequences.”

“The Kenyan government, however, turned a deaf ear to our repeated warnings and continued to massacre innocent Muslims in Somalia,” it said in another tweet.

The militia said that its “Mujahideen” had entered the Westgate Premier Shopping Mall about noon and that they were “still inside the mall, fighting” Kenyans on “their own turf.” In another tweet, the militia said that “what Kenyans are witnessing at #Westgate is retributive justice for crimes committed by their military.”

Quite a bit later in the story, the Post team notes:

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