Nairobi: Recite this confession of faith and live

The hellish events in Nairobi’s Westgate Premier Shopping Mall continue to unfold under the digital gaze of the world’s media. However, some of the most poignant and gripping elements of the story are as old as the region’s battles of conquest and conversion.

Soon after the story broke, I noted the following detail in The Washington Post, part of a story that did little to explore the religious elements of the terrorist attacks. That quote:

One injured victim said the attackers had ordered Muslims to leave the premises, in an apparent attempt to target non-Muslims. The victim, an American, told this to a friend, who recounted it to a Washington Post reporter. Other witnesses gave similar accounts to other news organizations.

The al-Shabab militia gunmen ordered Muslims to leave, unharmed. But how did they know who was a Muslim and who was not?

The implication was that — in some cases — the terrorists were challenging some of the hostages and victims in person-to-person confrontations. Thus, I wrote:

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.

Anyone who has followed the history of religious persecution in the Middle East, with dominant religious groups crushing religious minorities, could have seen the forced-conversion theme coming.

Surely veteran reporters — after watching recent events in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere — knew to ask those who fled the scene about this fact of death and eternal life?

Meanwhile, here is another related story: Rest assured that if members of ancient liturgical churches died in this massacre, after being urged to convert by the mujahideen, there will be people who will make the case for these victims to be hailed as martyrs. The new martyred saints if Kenya? It could happen.

So what has happened in subsequent coverage?

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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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Should some marriages be scare-quoted?

Many moons ago, when I was asking questions about why Religion News Service put “religious liberty” in quotes, defenders of the practice said it was just a way of signaling that while some people believe that a given issue deals with religious liberty, others do not. It’s a way to indicate that one is not taking sides on the matter. Astute readers noticed that if this were the policy, than we should see quotes around abortion “rights” and same-sex “marriage.”

But we never see such quotes in mainstream media stories, even though the key to abortion battles is whether there is, in fact, a “right” to abortion. And with marriage issues, it’s the same thing. Supporters of redefining marriage to include same-sex couples obviously think it’s a possibility that marriage law can be so changed while many opponents believe that it’s an ontological impossibility to have two people of the same sex in a marriage. And yet putting quotes around abortion “rights” and same-sex “marriage” would not be seen as neutrality at all, would it?

All that is background to a piece a reader sent in from the BBC this week, headlined “Kenyan trio in ‘wife-sharing’ deal.”

The quotes are all over the place in the article about two Kenyan men and the woman they both desire to marry:

Two Kenyan men have signed an agreement to “marry” the same woman…

Lawyers said the “marriage” would only be recognised if they could prove polyandry – a woman having more than one husband – was part of their custom…

People have reacted with shock to the “marriage”, arguing that it is not acceptable in terms of their culture, religion or the law, he says.

Defending the “marriage”, Mr Mwendwa told the BBC Focus on Africa programme that while he may acting in breach of the law, he had decided to enter into a contract with Mr Kimani to end their rivalry.

Later, though:

Community policing officer Adhalah Abdulrahman persuaded the two men to marry the woman after he saw them fighting over her in Mombasa county, the local Daily Nation newspaper reports.

The reader who sent it in:

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