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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Triumph of the stringer in the Nairobi massacre coverage

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African reporters are coming into their own with the stories coming out of Kenya this weekend. If you step back from the reports on the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi — now entering its third day as of the writing of this post — and look not at the content of the news, but how it is being presented, you can see examples the changes taking place in journalism. Advances in technology, newspaper and network business models, and the worldviews brought to the reporting by journalists have resulted in different stories today than would have been written 10 years ago.

Religion is part of the story. In the last week Boko Haram has killed over 150 Nigerians, the Taliban has killed 70 plus churchgoers and the Mall death total is expected to rise.  All of the attacks were undertaken by Muslim terrorist groups, and the initial reports suggest they were targeting non-Muslims.

Twitter and the internet have changed the game. The police, the president of Kenya and the terrorists (if the tweets from the Somali Islamist group al-Shabaab which claim responsibility are to be trusted) have taken to Twitter or posted statements on the internet to release information that in the past would have come from press conferences or interviews. This story written by AFP and printed in The Australian as “More hostages freed as explosions rock mall complex” draws on on-the-scene reporting from local stringers and staff, statements posted on the web, Twitter tweets and press conferences.

The quantity of information has increased, but has the quality? By this I do not mean discrepancies such as the Red Cross reports 69 dead and the police report 59, as noted in this Reuters report. Twitter provides immediacy, but no context. The Shabelle Media Network in Mogadishu reports that al-Shabaab has identified the names and nationalities of the killers.  Three are listed as Americans (two from Minnesota and one from Kansas City), one Briton and one Finn amongst the Somali and Kenyan terrorists.  Major news — “Twin City killers in Nairobi Mall Massacre” — but can we trust it? I have no idea who the Shabelle Media Network is, and their report is drawn from a Twitter post.

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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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