WPost whoppers about the Muslim Brotherhood

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Claims of bias and inaccurate reporting have dogged the Western press’s coverage of Egypt since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. A story in this week’s Washington Post entitled “In Egypt, many shrug as freedoms disappear” will do little to restore confidence.

The article eschews the classical news story format in favor of an impressions and perceptions style. Its lede states:

The charges are often vague. The evidence is elusive. Arrests occur swiftly, and the convictions follow. And there is little transparency in what analysts have called the harshest political crackdown in Egypt in decades.

But many Egyptians say they are all right with that.

There is a growing sense here in the Arab world’s largest country that the best path to stability — after three years of political turmoil — might be to do things the military’s way: crush the Islamists who made people angry enough to support a coup; silence dissent; and ask very few questions.

The article begins with an opinion as to the mood of the Egyptian people. Is this then a news analysis article or a news article?

If a news article facts and figures should follow to support the claims in the lede. What “evidence”? How many arrests and convictions? Who is being arrested and why? Which analysts claim the army’s rule has led to the “harshest political crackdown in Egypt in decades”? Who is being censored and why? These details are mostly absent.

A thematic diagram of this story suggests this is an opinion piece — a commentary offering the author’s view of the meaning of events, rather than a report on events. Following the lede we have a quote from a government spokesman defending the violent crackdown; a man in the street supporting the crackdown and a Washington-based expert explaining popular support for the crackdown.

This all leads to the central argument of the story.

The Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties captured the lion’s share of the vote in Egypt’s first democratic elections two years ago. The Brotherhood had renounced violence decades earlier and gained popularity by establishing a vast network of charitable organizations.

These days, those images of benign Islamist leadership have been erased from many minds by the hyper-nationalist rhetoric promoted by the government, which has portrayed Brotherhood members as bloodthirsty terrorists bent on destroying the nation.

An assortment of disconnected facts are presented to support this argument, coupled with further pro-Brotherhood arguments from the Washington Post. Assertions are piled on assertions and dubious statements presented uncritically.

The government’s crackdown has been so pervasive — and the cult of support for military leader Abdel Fatah al-Sissi so far-reaching — that the Brotherhood has likened Egypt’s transgression to “fascism,” as have some liberal observers.

Is labeling support for al-Sissi a “cult” fair? Fascism? Is citing a foreign diplomat as a “liberal” observer appropriate? The US embassy and the former ambassador have been denounced for its pro-Brotherhood statements and have little credibility in Egypt — are Western diplomats an appropriate source on this point?

The article closes with a pessimistic quote from an Egypt expert at Harvard. Given six decades of military rule following the overthrow of King Farouk it was foolish to expect Egypt to take to democracy, he argues.

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Pod people: What’s religion got to do with Egyptian tourism?

In the wake of the events of 9/11, I had the honor of taking part in a forum on religion and the news at the University of Nebraska that, no surprise here, featured a keynote speech by historian Martin Marty, an omnipresent scholar who has probably done as much as anyone to promote serious work on the Godbeat.

The point of the talk was that it is getting harder and harder to say what is religion news and what is not. To illustrate, he took one day’s worth of paper and ink from The Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and then led the audience on a guided tour of some of the headlines he saw in their pages. As I described this in a column for Scripps Howard:

A former WorldCom CEO kept teaching his Sunday school class. A researcher sought the lost tribe of Israel. Believers clashed in Sudan. Mormon and evangelical statistics were up — again. A Zambian bishop said he got married to shock the Vatican. U.S. bishops kept wrestling with clergy sexual abuse. Pakistani police continued to study the death of journalist Daniel Pearl.

Marty tore out more pages, connecting the dots.

Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey feared an Anglican schism. Public-school students prayed at flagpoles. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia explored the border between church and state. And there were dozens of stories linked to Sept. 11, 2001.

“When I read newspapers, I see religion all over the place,” said Marty, whose University of Chicago Divinity School career has led to 50-plus books and countless media appearances. “This has always been the case. I simply think it has been easier for others to see this reality during the past year.”

At one point, Marty noted that the lines were even blurring on beats that editors would be tempted to see as totally secular — like business. We are living in an age, he said, when it’s even hard to talk about oil prices without knowing what is happening with religious trends, tensions and conflicts in the Middle East.

The same thing, I would argue, is true right now in Egypt. Thus, this whole “what is religion news and what isn’t religion news” theme dominated my conversation this week with Todd Wilken for the Crossroads podcast (click here to listen to that).

Take, for example, all of those references in the news right now to the role that a failing economy has played in the chaos in Egypt. In particular, a collapse in the tourism industry has drawn some coverage. Consider this from a new Los Angeles Times story:

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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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What do Egyptians really mean when they say ‘sharia’?

One of the major themes in GetReligion posts about Islam over the past decade has been our emphasis on the fact that there is no one monolithic Islam, no one simplistic way for journalists to approach that faith.

For millions, Islam is truly a religion of peace. For millions of others, Islam is not — when it collides with minority religions and the modern world — a religion of peace. There is no one Islam.

This theme also applies to coverage of stories linked to Islamic, or sharia, law. When Muslims say that they want to see their land governed according to sharia law, journalists really need to stop and ask them what they mean when they use that term. Journalists need to ask specific questions about specific issues, so that readers are not caught, once again, in simplistic assumptions.

Take, for example, the fascinating Washington Post story that just ran under the headline, “Among many Egyptians, a dramatic shift in favor of the military.”

The key question that everyone is asking: Many Egyptians backed the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood party at the polls, then a year later took to the streets to call for the removal of President Mohamed Morsi. Why? What’s the logic? Is this really just about a bad economy?

Read this section of the story carefully:

The military has portrayed its takeover as a bold stroke to save the country from terrorism. But the public’s rejection of Morsi is rooted in the wildly high hopes that ordinary Egyptians had for the Arab Spring — and their bitterness at how democracy failed to deliver jobs or social justice.

When Egyptians revolted in 2011 against Mubarak, it reflected their disgust with his government’s corruption, police abuses and inability to provide jobs for the swelling population. In the lead-up last year to the country’s first free presidential elections, candidates offered not so much policy proposals as visions of a new country.

“Islam is the solution” was the Muslim Brotherhood’s pledge. Working-class Egyptians such as Mohammed Abdul Qadir, 43, took that to heart.

“I only wanted one thing: to be ruled under sharia,” or Islamic law, the cabdriver said. “But this didn’t happen. There was only more injustice.” By “sharia,” Abdul Qadir didn’t mean a ban on alcohol or a requirement that women wear veils. He meant the creation of a broadly just society, the kind promoted in Islamic teachings.

One can only assume that the last two sentences in that paragraph are based on paraphrased information taken from that interview with the cabbie.

So he wanted sharia law, but he was not insisting that all aspects of Islamic law, or one interpretation of Islamic law, be enforced as the law of the land.

So, is this Egyptian on the street in favor of sharia law or not?

You can sense some of the same conflict in the following material from the same Post story:

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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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