Doing the bloody math in emerging civil war in Egypt

It appears that some members of the mainstream press are beginning to do the hard, bloody math in Egypt.

The math? This is why I have continued to point GetReligion readers toward that 2011 poll of Egyptian voters by the Pew Research Center.

You do the math and it’s hard to escape the fact that civil war, or a military government, will be impossible to avoid in this escalating conflict. In other words, the secular, Western-friendly Cairo elites who are so close to the major Western newsrooms do not represent the vast majority of the Egyptian people.

Yes, religious beliefs and practices are the key. Yes, conflicting versions of Sharia and Islam and the rights of religious minorities are at the heart of this. The other day, I stated the equation this way:

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?

As is his style, the Canadian provocateur Mark Steyn bluntly raised the same issue, in the kind of language that used to considered liberal, but now is considered conservative:

In the 2011 parliamentary elections, three-quarters of the vote went to either the Muslim Brotherhood or their principal rivals, the Even More Muslim Brotherhood. So, statistically speaking, a fair few of the “broad-based coalition” joining the Coptic Christians and urban secularists out on the streets are former Morsi guys. Are they suddenly Swedish-style social democrats? Human Rights Watch reports that almost 100 women were subjected to violent sexual assault over four days in Tahrir Square, which suggests not.

So what does this look like in print in a major American newspaper?

I have been paying close attention to The Los Angeles Times, in recent weeks, so let’s hit the latest daily report in those cyber pages. Is anyone surprised that the military is firing live bullets and it is hard to figure out who attacked who first?

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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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Untangling the Tsarnaevs’ Muslim ties, carefully

On Friday we asked readers to send in thoughts on good and bad coverage of religion angles for the Tsarnaev brothers. And we’ve seen quite a bit of good coverage — too much to go into but I hope you’re seeing it in your local and national outlets. We’ve also heard from religion reporters and others who pointed out problems.

One early problem was the attempt to define the brothers as either “devout” or “not devout.” For an example of the former, we have the New York Post:

The Chechen immigrant brothers who bombed the Boston Marathon were devout Muslims who appeared to become more radicalized in recent months — posting Islamic “jihad” videos on social-media sites and following the preachings of a firebrand cleric.

I’d argue against using the word even when dealing with someone you think can be described that way without question. I’d avoid it like the plague when dealing with folks you don’t know terribly much about. It’s important when using that word to have a shared understanding of what it means to be devout in a given religion. In what way were they devout, exactly? Tell us more about their fasting, their alms-giving, their prayer lives, their Hajj journeys. Or is that not what the Post meant? What did they mean?

We see similar confusion about devotion at the other end of the spectrum, too. We frequently see reporters equate it with regular corporate worship — no matter if the religion itself holds corporate worship in the same way that, say, the Roman Catholic Church does. An Islamic community center isn’t just a Methodist Church for Muslims. Piety in Islam is not the same as piety in another religion, necessarily.

Still, a good first step in learning more about the suspects’ religious lives does involve finding out if they were part of a worship community. I was glad to see that the folks over at CNN made some calls early on. They reported:

Muslim leaders in Boston tell me they don’t know the suspects. They seem to not have ties to any of the big mosques in the area.

And:

Muslim leaders condemn bombing suspects and no Muslims in Boston seem to know them. http://on.cnn.com/13mRL1j

This Boston Globe story, “Islam might have had secondary role in Boston attacks,” followed a similar theme.

It turns out, though, that the brothers did pray at the local Cambridge mosque. Later stories mentioned that, adding that they exhibited no violent tendencies. Subsequent updates indicated that the older brother had publicly reprimanded a speaker who praised Martin Luther King, Jr. and had been asked to leave. Updates to that story included a different account — that the brother had simply been asked to calm down. This Boston Globe story says that there was more than one outburst. It’s all an evolving story, it seems.

When the news came out that the brothers had worshiped at the local Cambridge mosque, some reporters began calling it the “Islamic Center of Boston,” either in their stories or in tweets. It’s actually the Islamic Society of Boston. Here’s how the Los Angeles Times put it in its story on the shouting incident:

At the Cambridge mosque near where the bombing suspects lived, two worshipers who showed up for Saturday’s prayer service recalled seeing both men.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev was thrown out of the mosque — the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center — about three months ago, after he stood up and shouted at the imam during a Friday prayer service, they said. The imam had held up slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. as an example of a man to emulate, recalled one worshiper who would give his name only as Muhammad.

Enraged, Tamerlan stood up and began shouting, Muhammad said.

“You cannot mention this guy because he’s not a Muslim!” Muhammad recalled Tamerlan shouting, shocking others in attendance.

“He’s crazy to me,” Muhammad said. “He had an anger inside.… I can’t explain what was in his mind.”

Tamerlan was then kicked out of the prayer service for his outburst, Muhammad recalled. “You can’t do that,” Muhammad said of shouting at the imam.

Still, Tamerlan returned to Friday prayer services and had no further outbursts, Muhammad said.

The other mosque attendee, who identified himself only as Haithen, described Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as nice, friendly and “really laid back.”

Tamerlan Tsarnaev was different though. “His persona was not really so nice,” this worshiper said.

But it wasn’t the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center! After quite the Twitter campaign led by one of the ISBCC’s imams, the Times corrected the story. Still, there is some tie between the two groups. In a great round-up of the current news, Huffington Post explained:

Imam Suhaib Webb, of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, the city’s largest mosque, said in an interview that he had recently heard of the incident. “That’s a sign right there that his views aren’t mainstream,” Webb said.

The Cambridge mosque leaders’ theology is not extremist, he said. Webb’s mosque has the same owners but a separate administration from the Islamic Society of Boston. Webb said he never met the brothers and had not found their names on his mosque’s membership list.

One of the things that might be helpful is learning a bit more about these “same owners” as well as their differing administrations. I mean, I understand that there are certain things that other congregations in my church body share and certain things that are different, but I’d love to know how that plays out among Muslim adherents. The ISBCC is run by the Muslim American Society, a group started by U.S. supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. I’m somewhat surprised by how little journalism we see on the Muslim American Society, but here are some old pieces from the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post, both of which are absolutely riveting.

Anyway, early reporting on this story could not have changed more dramatically. I hope we see more genuine interest in what role religion and religious communities played in these brothers’ lives — at home, in the local community and in the larger world.

Net image via Shutterstock.

Got news? Egyptian Copts tortured for some strange reason

Yes, I know that we’re talking about a report on Fox News. That fact alone, for many readers, will mean that GetReligion is once again venturing into the world of alternative, niche, “conservative” news.

I recognize that. However, I still want to know why this event is getting little or no coverage in the mainstream press here in North America.

Let’s start at the top, which includes the first hint of what, for me, is the most interesting and important element of this hellish report:

Islamic hard-liners stormed a mosque in suburban Cairo, turning it into torture chamber for Christians who had been demonstrating against the ruling Muslim Brotherhood in the latest case of violent persecution that experts fear will only get worse.

Such stories have become increasingly common as tensions between Egypt’s Muslims and Copts mount, but in the latest case, mosque officials corroborated much of the account and even filed a police report. Demonstrators, some of whom were Muslim, say they were taken from the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in suburban Cairo to a nearby mosque on Friday and tortured for hours by hard-line militia members.

“They accompanied me to one of the mosques in the area and I discovered the mosque was being used to imprison demonstrators and torture them,” Amir Ayad, a Coptic who has been a vocal protester against the regime, told MidEast Christian News from a hospital bed.

As I have said many times (including this all-but-MIA GetReligion post about human rights, public rapes in this case) my starting point in reading coverage of Egypt is that there is no one Muslim point of view on these kinds of hot-button issues, such as the freedom of the nation’s religious minorities to practice their faith and be active in public life.

If you assume this to be true, what are the most important words in this news story?

How about the fact that some of the abused demonstrators where Muslims, along with the statement that “mosque officials corroborated much of the account and even filed a police report”?

Now, I do not read Arabic. Is there a GetReligion reader out there who can read the actual document (pictured above) to which the Fox Report links via URL? Click here to see the document itself.

Journalists often hint that they hesitate to cover stories about persecuted Christians — as well as Jews, Baha’is and members of minority forms of Islam — because they turn into emotionally loaded and one-sided debates, the political equivalent of “he said-she said” fights.

That does not appear to be the case this time around:

Officials at the Bilal ibn Rabah Mosque said radical militias stormed the building, in the Cairo suburb of Moqattam, after Friday prayers.

“[We] deeply regret what has happened and apologize to the people of Moqattam,” mosque officials said in a statement, adding that “they had lost control over the mosque at the time.” The statement also “denounced and condemned the violence and involving mosques in political conflicts.”

So what does this mean?

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New York Times solves the problem of Sharia

This report on Thursday’s Cairo conference from the New York Times breaks the streak of great stories it has filed from Egypt over the past few months. Long on speculation and short on facts, “Rivals Across Egypt’s Political Spectrum Hold Rare Meeting, Urging Dialogue” on page A10 of the 1 Feb 2013 issue rambles on about what the Times thinks might happen rather than report what has happened. And, (I know you  will be surprised to hear this) the article omits the role religion and religious groups play in the news.

The background to this story is the clash between the Muslim Brotherhood aligned government of President Mohamed Mursi with moderate Muslims and secularist parties to the left, a split with salafist (even more hardline Islamist) parties to the right, coupled with the persecution of religious minorities — primarily Christians, but also Baha’is, Shia, and Ahmadiya Muslims.

The Times has done a great job in reporting on the unraveling of Egypt, but this article does not live up to the standard the Gray Lady has set in its reporting so far.

The article opens with:

With Egypt’s political elites warring and street violence taking on a life of its own, young revolutionaries on Thursday tried to step into the country’s leadership vacuum, organizing a rare meeting of political forces that, in Egypt’s polarized state, was a victory in itself.  The meeting, which included representatives of secular leftist and liberal groups as well as the Muslim Brotherhood, failed to resolve some of the most divisive issues facing the country, including whether Egypt’s president, Mohamed Morsi, would agree to form a national unity government or amend the country’s newly approved constitution, as some opposition leaders have demanded.

The lede is framed in terms of a heroic attempt by “young revolutionaries” to bring the “warring” factions to the conference table, that must (alas) be deemed a noble failure as it did not achieve the immediate aims of “some opposition leaders” in forcing the president to change his government or revoke the new constitution. This political failure is coupled with a likely short term failure in halting the escalating violence in the streets.

Nor was there any assurance that the meeting’s principal call — to end the violence that has led to more than 50 deaths over the last week — would be heeded on the streets. Clashes during protests have become the latest polarizing issue in Egypt’s turbulent transition, with Mr. Morsi and members of his Muslim Brotherhood movement largely blaming shadowy instigators for the violence. Others, though, have faulted the country’s poorly trained security forces for a persistently heavy-handed response to protests.

The article then identifies the “organizers” of the meeting as:

a leader of the April 6th youth movement, three Brotherhood defectors and Wael Ghonim, a former Google executive who played a prominent role in the uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak. Group members said they met several days ago, “to look into ways of leading Egypt out of the crisis and to warn against the threats of being dragged into a cycle of violence.”

And it notes that leaders of the secularist National Salvation Front were present at the meeting along with senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders. A comment is offered by the leader of the National Salvation Front, Mohamed ElBaradei expressing boilerplate optimism, before the story moves back into a discussion of the parlous political state of the country.

At this point we get some hint that something else may be going on:

In another display of high-level concern, the talks on Thursday were held under the chairmanship of the country’s leading Muslim scholar, Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb of Al Azhar mosque and university.  After the meeting, he said that a national dialogue, “in which all the components of the Egyptian society participate without any exclusion” was “the only means to resolve any problems or disagreements.” He urged the participants to “commit to a peaceful competition for power” and to prohibit “all types of violence and coercion to achieve goals, demands and policies.”

And the story closes out with comments from a professor from Georgetown University who warns the situation is spiraling out of control. The problem with this story is that it downplays the role of Al-Azhar at the expense of the “young revolutionaries”, neglects to give details of the 10 point communique endorsed by the government and opposition, and omits the place of religious leaders in the negotiations.

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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?


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