Boko Haram leader’s profile: chilling but incomplete

“His name is Abubakar Shekau. He is the leader of Boko Haram. And he has your girls.”

So begins a chilling profile in the Washington Post on the leader of Boko Haram, the Islamist gang that abducted more than 300 girls in mid-April. It’s a great start, but it isn’t sustained.

Under Shekau, Boko Haram has bombed churches and massacred people by the hundreds — and it abducted eight more girls on Monday night. Victims include not only Christians but also Muslims who don’t want his ruthless version of Sharia.

The article fills in absorbing details on the man the writer calls “both an intellectualizing theologian and a ruthless killer.” But like much other secular coverage, the profile doesn’t quite get to the bottom of Shekau’s reasons for his brutality — including the mutant breed of radical Islam his group pushes. This despite saying that “one of the few unifying factors is extremist ideology.”

Not that religious references are lacking, largely in Shekau’s own words:

“It is Allah that instructed us,” Shekau said in the video released Monday. “Until we soak the ground of Nigeria with Christian blood and so-called Muslims contradicting Islam. After we have killed, killed, killed, and get fatigue and wondering what to do with their corpses — smelling of [Barack] Obama, [George] Bush and [Goodluck] Jonathan — will open prison and be imprison the rest. Infidels have no value.”

Yet this horrendous paragraph is chased with a hand-wringing “why” question: “Where does such vengeance come from? What does he want? Who is he?” As if some terrible injustice must have driven this poor man to terrorism and kidnapping. Incredibly, the story actually offers an excuse. More on that later.

We get long but spotty background. The story says Shekau was “raised Muslim” without saying which branch of Islam. (Yes, it matters.) It says he was raised “in the heart of the former Sokoto caliphate,” an unwitting clue on the aims of Boko Haram. As the BBC says, the Sokoto caliphate once ruled parts of what is now northern Nigeria, Niger and southern Cameroon.

The profile says he became a follower of a leader named Muhammad Yusuf, but it gives no details on Yusuf — although such details are readily available online.

Still, that’s further than many accounts go in the religiophobic mainstream media. An AP story the same day tells a gripping story of how some of the girls escaped their kidnappers. But beyond saying three times that the group is made of Islamic extremists, AP doesn’t dwell on reasons for Boko Haram’s violence.

Tmatt has discussed this selective blindness often on GetReligion. He recently called out the New York Times for saying Boko Haram wants to “destabilize” Nigeria without saying why it’s trying to do so.

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Same-sex marriage, religious freedom and a liberal twist

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An extremely interesting — and potentially highly important — twist came Monday in the ongoing culture wars over religious liberty.

New York Times religion writer Michael Paulson reports:

In a novel legal attack on a state’s same-sex marriage ban, a liberal Protestant denomination on Monday filed a lawsuit arguing that North Carolina is unconstitutionally restricting religious freedom by barring clergy members from blessing gay and lesbian couples.

The lawsuit, filed in a Federal District Court by the United Church of Christ, is the first such case brought by a national religious denomination challenging a state’s marriage laws. The denomination, which claims nearly one million members nationwide, has supported same-sex marriage since 2005.

“We didn’t bring this lawsuit to make others conform to our beliefs, but to vindicate the right of all faiths to freely exercise their religious practices,” said Donald C. Clark Jr., general counsel of the United Church of Christ.

The denomination argues that a North Carolina law criminalizing the religious solemnization of weddings without a state-issued marriage license violates the First Amendment. Mr. Clark said that North Carolina allows clergy members to bless same-sex couples married in other states, but otherwise bars them from performing “religious blessings and marriage rites” for same-sex couples, and that “if they perform a religious blessing ceremony of a same-sex couple in their church, they are subject to prosecution and civil judgments.”

The relatively brief Times story quotes Evan Wolfson, founder and president of Freedom to Marry, which supports same-sex marriage:

“In their zeal to pile on to denying the freedom to marry, North Carolina officials also put in place a measure that assaulted the religious freedom that they profess to support by penalizing and seeking to chill clergy that have different views,” Mr. Wolfson said. “The extent to which North Carolina went to deny the freedom to marry wound up additionally discriminating on the basis of religion by restricting speech and the ability of clergy to do their jobs.”

The report also quotes a same-sex marriage opponent (the same one used by The Associated Press):

But Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the North Carolina Values Coalition, which opposes same-sex marriage, derided the legal action as “the lawsuit of the week filed by those who want to impose same-sex marriage on North Carolina.”

“It’s both ironic and sad that an entire religious denomination and its clergy who purport holding to Christian teachings on marriage would look to the courts to justify their errant beliefs,” Ms. Fitzgerald said in a statement. “These individuals are simply revisionists that distort the teaching of Scripture to justify sexual revolution, not marital sanctity.”

Here’s what I find intriguing: If North Carolina can tell clergy that they can’t perform same-sex marriages (regardless of whether the state recognizes them), what’s to prevent states that allow gay weddings from telling clergy that they must perform them? The values coalition source doesn’t seem to answer that direct question.

In a front-page Charlotte Observer story on the lawsuit, religious conservatives also address the rightness/wrongness of same-sex marriage itself:

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9-11 film: Vague criticisms mar NYT article on protest

Writing about a film you haven’t seen is like discussing food you haven’t tasted. Sure, you can ask others who have had it. But until you try it yourself, you literally don’t know what you’re talking about.

Especially with a risky film like The Rise of Al Qaeda, a documentary on 9-11 that hasn’t yet been released. The reporter who wrote a story on the film didn’t get to see it herself.

Planned as part of the National September 11 Memorial Museum, the brief film — less than seven minutes long, according to the Times — has caught fire from Muslim and ecumenical leaders alike.

The documentary describes the 9-11 terrorists — and Al-Qaida — as “Islamist” and “jihadist.” Muslims are understandably concerned about what that will do to the image of their faith in the eyes of other Americans. But their criticisms are long on problems — actually, worries about potential problems — and short on solutions:

The terms “Islamist” and “jihadist” are often used to describe extremist Muslim ideologies. But the problem with using such language in a museum designed to instruct people for generations is that most visitors are “simply going to say Islamist means Muslims, jihadist means Muslims,” said Akbar Ahmed, the chairman of the Islamic studies department at American University in Washington.

“The terrorists need to be condemned and remembered for what they did,” Dr. Ahmed said. “But when you associate their religion with what they did, then you are automatically including, by association, one and a half billion people who had nothing to do with these actions and who ultimately the U.S. would not want to unnecessarily alienate.”

Critics are quoted, well, liberally, including interfaith leaders who took alarm at what they considered an “inflammatory” tone.

“The screening of this film in its present state would greatly offend our local Muslim believers as well as any foreign Muslim visitor to the museum,” Sheikh Mostafa Elazabawy, the imam of Masjid Manhattan, wrote in a letter to the museum’s director. “Unsophisticated visitors who do not understand the difference between Al Qaeda and Muslims may come away with a prejudiced view of Islam, leading to antagonism and even confrontation toward Muslim believers near the site.”

Museum officials are standing by the film, which they say was vetted by several scholars of Islam and of terrorism. A museum spokesman and panel members described the contents of the film, which was not made available to The New York Times for viewing.

The story, however, never names or quotes any of the promised scholars of Islam and of terrorism. The closest is toward the end:

For his part, Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University, defended the film, whose script he vetted.

“The critics who are going to say, ‘Let’s not talk about it as an Islamic or Islamist movement,’ could end up not telling the story at all, or diluting it so much that you wonder where Al Qaeda comes from,” Dr. Haykel said.

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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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More on politics, sin and Louisiana’s kissing congressman

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For anyone unfamiliar with Rep. Vance McAllister, he’s a Louisiana congressman who ran on a Christian family values platform. But now he’s in trouble with some voters — and presumably his wife — after he got videotaped kissing a staff member (not a peck on the cheek, by the way).

Last week, I praised the serious, respectful nature of the New York Times’ reporting on McAllister’s predicament, his request for forgiveness and the various reactions of folks in his northeast Louisiana district.

It’s no surprise that a 1,700-word Washington Post Style section treatment of the same story contains more snark — and innuendo — on McAllister’s relationship with Melissa Anne Hixon Peacock:

The McAllisters and Peacocks were close friends. Two friends — speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation — said they thought it was unusual that McAllister seemed to openly flirt with Peacock in public, even sometimes when his wife was present.

Sorry, that’s not journalism. That’s gossip. But I digress.

Way up high, the Post portrays its piece as a story about politics and passion, God and sin, and yes, ducks (think the bearded, camouflaged Robertsons of “Duck Dynasty” fame, as the family supported McAllister’s candidacy).

Since this is GetReligion, we’ll focus on the “God and sin” part.

You have to read quite a bit about politics and passion before you get to the story’s religious content, but 1,000-plus words in, the Post presents this important background:

But, more than anything, he presented himself as a deeply religious family man.

In an ad that featured his wife and five children around a kitchen island, McAllister talked about their Sunday morning routine before going to church and urged voters to send him to Washington to “defend our Christian way of life.” In another ad, he said, “I need your prayers.”

Hey, apparently, he wasn’t lying when he said he needed prayers. But I digress. Again.

Later, there’s this:

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Don’t divorce an NYT article from sharp reporting

It’s especially crucial for journalists to, well, GetReligion when the story is about a “get.”

That religious divorce paper — called a “get” — is important for traditional Jews, especially Jewish women. Without it, they cannot marry someone else under religious law. That gives ex-husbands a whip handle over the women — either to coax money or property out of them, or simply to spite them.

The New York Times made a brave attempt to explore the depths of Jewish law over this issue (this one has been in the GetReligion “guilt” file for a while), and the related question of how to remain faithful to it while serving the obvious needs of women. The newspaper’s in-depth article brings out some lesser-known facts, and it couches the women’s dilemma in wrenching terms. But like such marriages themselves, the story doesn’t end well.

It opens with one of those spiteful husbands, Meir Kin, showing some chutzpah in a Las Vegas wedding, although he never gave previous wife Lonna a religious divorce. He’s holding the get hostage for $500,000 and custody of their son. Observers disparage the event, but the article suggests he just may get away with it:

Jewish law prohibits men from taking multiple wives. But Mr. Kin, according to several rabbis here, apparently relied on a legal loophole, which says that if a man can get the special permission of 100 rabbis to take a second wife, he is able to do so.

The case has become a powerful symbol for what activists say is a deepening crisis among Orthodox Jews — hundreds of women held hostage in a religious marriage, in some cases for years after civil cases have been settled. According to the intricate religious laws dictating marriage and divorce, only the husband has the power to grant a divorce.

“What has happened here is really shameful,” said Rabbi Kalman Topp, who drove from Los Angeles to protest the wedding, along with other rabbis and congregants from Orthodox synagogues there. “Not only is he in clear violation of Jewish law, but he is utilizing and corrupting Jewish law to commit cruel domestic abuse.”

The Times fluidly narrates Mrs. Kin’s efforts to get Meir to sign off on the marriage, even waiting until he filed a civil divorce and made plans to remarry. And as the newspaper explains, there are Jewish courts to resolve such issues, but Meir Kin apparently hasn’t approached one.

Props to the newspaper for getting emotional quotes from Lonna Kin. Comments like “I am chained to a dead marriage” and “He’s basically a bigamist, and basically, I’m just stuck.” It’s also a lesson about shutting out the media: Meir Kin declined comment, allowing Lonna’s quotes to stand unchallenged.

All this happened in Vegas but won’t stay in Vegas. As the Times reports: “Traditionally, Jewish communities relied on the threat of ostracism to persuade a recalcitrant husband to give his wife a divorce, but many say the threat became far less potent as these communities opened and spread out.”

But in documenting the problem, the story starts feeling squishy. The Times tells of a congressional aide who withheld a divorce, and a New Jersey rabbi who is accused of arranging the “kidnap and torture” of such men. But for some reason, in neither case are names, dates or places mentioned. And the newspaper should have tried to find out how many women are affected by men withholding a get: an estimate of “hundreds” of women is awfully vague.

The fuzziness even invades some quotes from authorities:

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Vox.com offers a few basic facts about Boko Haram tactics

Twice in the past month or so, I have been pretty rough on the editors of The New York Times, who seem to have added a rule to their newsroom manual of style stating that basic, public-record facts about the radical Islamist group Boko Haram cannot be be published in their newspaper. Here is a sample paragraph from the most recent Times report that I found rather, well, mysterious:

Boko Haram’s exact goals, beyond a generalized desire to undermine the secular Nigerian state, remain mysterious. Spokesmen purporting to be from the group sometimes release rambling videos, but these offer few clues of a coherent program or philosophy.

So what are the goals of Boko (“books”) Haram (“forbidden”) and what is this group’s philosophy?

Well, we are not talking about information that is very hard to find, according to helpful online explainer piece published by BBC, which is hardly an obscure media outlet. I know that I have pointed readers toward this piece before, but here’s one of its crucial passages:

The group’s official name is Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati wal-Jihad, which in Arabic means “People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad”. But residents in the northeastern city of Maiduguri, where the group had its headquarters, dubbed it Boko Haram. Loosely translated from the local Hausa language, this means “Western education is forbidden”. …

Boko Haram promotes a version of Islam which makes it “haram”, or forbidden, for Muslims to take part in any political or social activity associated with Western society. This includes voting in elections, wearing shirts and trousers or receiving a secular education.

So, all together now, the radicals in Boko Haram are repeatedly attacking anyone — infidels and Muslims alike — who are involved in secular, non-Islamic education or who oppose the creation of a explicitly Islamic, sharia state.

With that in mind, let’s look at an online news piece from Vox.com which demonstrated how easy it is to state the obvious, in a story that ran under the headline, “A Nigerian terrorist group just kidnapped 100 girls to keep them from going to school.”

Right at the top of this short news feature, readers are told:

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That ‘mysterious’ NYTimes stance on Boko Haram

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Here we go again. There has been another horrific act of violence in Nigeria with militants bombing a bus station in Abuja, which is the capital of this painfully divided country. At this point, officials are reporting 71 deaths and scores wounded.

Here is a key piece of the New York Times report on this massacre:

Top Nigerian officials, whose offices are a short distance away, immediately attributed the bombing to the Islamist group they have been battling for years, Boko Haram.

If that turns out to be the case — and the group itself rarely acknowledges its actions — Monday’s bombing would represent a significant amplification of Boko Haram’s bloody campaign to undermine the Nigerian state. Over the last two years, it has largely confined its attacks to remote areas of the country’s northeast, killing scores of civilians in the region’s towns and villages. …

Despite frequent government claims of victory against the group, the killings have continued, with bombings, shootings and nighttime massacres of students at state schools, one of Boko Haram’s preferred targets.

Yes, here we go again. Note the reference to the frequent attacks on state schools. One can assume that a “state” school is, in this case, the opposite of some kind of a “religious” school?

Think it through. Why would militants from a group known as Boko (“books”) Haram (“forbidden”) keep attacking secular schools?

Nevertheless, later in the report the Times team repeated its mysterious mantra about this hellish conflict between these Islamist radicals and Nigeria’s secular authorities.

Boko Haram’s exact goals, beyond a generalized desire to undermine the secular Nigerian state, remain mysterious. Spokesmen purporting to be from the group sometimes release rambling videos, but these offer few clues of a coherent program or philosophy.

If that language sounds rather familiar to GetReligion readers, here is why. Just over a month ago, the Times used almost identical language in a report on another series of massacres.

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