It’s not hard! WPost offers some crucial Boko Haram facts

In the past month or two, I have been really, really hard on the editors at The New York Times because of their mysterious — that word is carefully chosen — blind spot when it comes to basic, on-the-record facts about the beliefs, motives and tactics of the radical Islamist network Boko (“books”) Haram (“forbidden”) in Nigeria.

Rather than hit you with a wave of URLs, just click here for an earlier wrap-up of some of the basics. And here is a now-classic quote that offers an example of what’s happening in one of the world’s most influential newsrooms:

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.

That still amazes me.

In previous posts, I praised a BBC background piece that nailed down many of the essential facts. You know, like the fact that the ultra-violent network’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” and the unofficial name, Boko Haram, is usually translated as “Western education is forbidden.” A crucial fact is that, in addition to slaughtering Christians and other minorities, Boko Haram specializes in killing Muslims who cooperate with the West, especially in the education of women and children.

Now, are other major newsrooms struggling with the blind spot that is seen at The Times? Yes and no. Consider this news feature in The Washington Post focusing on the history that looms over the story that is currently dominating the headlines, the kidnapping of 234 Nigerian school girls. Here is the top of that piece:

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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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Attention NYTimes: Boko Haram has made its goals clear

There is much to commend in the recent New York Times report that ran under the simple, but blunt, headline, “Deadly Attacks Tied to Islamist Militants Shake Nigeria.”

The violence in Nigeria is, alas, a tragically old story. It’s important that the Times team has continued to cover the bloody details. It would be so easy to try to look away at this point.

LAGOS, Nigeria – Dozens were killed, including many children watching a soccer match, in a series of deadly bomb blasts in the northern Nigerian city of Maiduguri on Saturday, officials said. The Islamist group Boko Haram was blamed for the attacks, which were the deadliest in months in the sect’s birthplace.

Gunmen from the group also struck a nearby village, Mainok, at the same time Saturday evening, a local official said, storming in on trucks, burning houses and killing at least 51. The death toll from the two attacks was more than 100 and rising, officials said.

In the Maiduguri bombings, children bore the brunt of the explosions, according to the health commissioner for Borno State, Dr. Salma Anas-Kolo. The youths had gathered at a makeshift stadium in the Gomari neighborhood to watch a soccer match when a bomb went off in a pickup truck loaded with firewood, she and others said. When people in the densely inhabited neighborhood rushed to help, a second bomb exploded, according to Maikaramba Saddiq, the Maiduguri representative of Nigeria’s Civil Liberties Organization.

And it gets worse:

A hospital official in Maiduguri, who watched as charred corpses were brought in, said: “Most of the bodies we found were very young. Small. I saw a man who lost three children.” The official asked for anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation and his position at the hospital.

Boko Haram is the key player in the campaign of terror in northern Nigeria and journalists should, by this time, know quite a bit about this network’s motivations and methods.

You would think so. However, what are readers to make of this rather mysterious section of this news report?

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To use or not to use: Journalists and the word ‘Islam’

Do you ever get the impression, when reading mainstream news stories, that some editors have created formal policies describing when reporters who cover terrorism stories can or cannot mention the words “Islam” or “Muslim”?

I understand what these journalists are trying to do. Their goal, in the post 9/11 world, is to make sure that news consumers understand that there is no ironclad, automatic connection between Islam and the actions of some Muslims who commit acts of violence and terror in the name of their religion.

The problem is that trying to hide the religion ghosts in these stories often results in tone-deaf coverage that ignores the obvious. It’s like the editors are saying, “We know that you know what we are saying here, but we don’t want to say it and, besides, you know the facts so just read the facts into the story and everyone will feel better in the long run.”

Take, for example, this Washington Post story about the fear that stalks students at the American University of Afghanistan — especially female students — as the day nears when U.S. troops retreat and the Taliban almost certainly return to power.

What is the cause of this logical fear? Right up front, readers learn:

KABUL – It is easy to drive past the American University of Afghanistan, barricaded by blast walls and guard towers. There is no sign, no American flag, no emblem.

But those who slip through its nondescript door enter a tiny corner of this country that is unique, wondrous and heavily subsidized by U.S. taxpayers. Young men and women mingle freely, in contravention of the country’s conservative social norms. Some female students walk around unveiled, a break with custom that is unthinkable elsewhere in the country.

This long A1 news feature, literally, never mentions the words “Islam” or “Muslim.” Apparently there are scary generic “conservatives” in this blood-soaked land and then generic — what? — enlightened “progressives” or “secularists”?

Lost in the fog is the real issue addressed in the story, which is that millions of Muslims in Afghanistan hate what is happening inside the doors of this institution of higher learning and millions of other Muslims embrace the alternative worldview taught in these classrooms. What we have here is a clash between two different approaches to one of the world’s most powerful and important faith traditions and it’s hard to write about that reality without talking about the doctrines and traditions of Islam. It helps to talk about the obvious.

With that reality in mind, click here and read an early New York Times report about the latest bloodbath in the heavily Muslim northern half of Nigeria.

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A Newtown massacre in Nigeria, with ghosts

Absolutely horrific news out of Nigeria today. From the Associated Press:

POTISKUM, Nigeria — Islamic militants attacked a boarding school in northeastern Nigeria before dawn on Saturday, killing 29 students and a teacher. Survivors said that some pupils were burned alive in the latest school attack said to have been carried out by a radical terrorist group.

It’s a wire report, with all of the limitations you might expect, but read the whole story for details on how the attackers — Boko Haram is suspected — burned children alive. Some bodies were so charred they could not be identified.

The only mention of religion in the story is the first word, not uncommon for recent AP updates of strife in the country. But let’s just take the phrase “Islamic militants.” I think it speaks to the importance of fleshing out the religion angles far more than much reporting has done. For one thing, “Islamic” doesn’t quite identify the particular ideology in play. The children and teachers in this school included both Muslims and Christians. And even in the sphere of Islamic militancy, setting children afire and gunning them down in the back is not exactly de rigueur. There are Islamic militants all over the world fighting for or against any number of things, but when you’re performing weekly Newtown massacres, what, exactly, are you militating against? We need much more information about the particular views of the militants in question.

Usually when I’m going for more details, I find Al Jazeera helpful. In this case, neither this story nor the embedded radio interview provided many helpful details. Instead, much of the interview placed blame for the attack on Christian president Goodluck Jonathan — for general strife in the country and for not stopping the attack despite having three Nigerian states placed under emergency declarations. Instead of discussing religious angles to Boko Haram’s motivation, it pointed out that many of its victims are also Muslim.

But, of course, that’s not different from many other Islamic militants throughout the globe. I know that when children are massacred, reporters frequently try to blame something else — say a nation’s gun laws or political climate. It certainly beats trying to make sense of one evil or sick individual’s motivation. But Boko Haram is a major movement with self-professed religious motivation. Downplaying that in favor of other angles would be bad enough but ignoring it is even worse.

Much more helpful was, unsurprisingly, Reuters.

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A boring, non-sacramental Christmas in Syria

I hope all of our readers who celebrate Christmas are having a blessed one. As I prepared for my church’s Lessons and Carols service on Christmas Eve (where the youngest Hemingway made her choir debut), my thoughts turned to Christians elsewhere in the world where Christmas is not just a time to celebrate God made flesh but also a time to fear bombings or violence. This Reuters piece headlined “Christmas brings fear of church bombs in Nigeria” begins:

Kneeling over a dusty grave on the outskirts of Nigeria’s capital, 16-year old Hope Ehiawaguan says a prayer, lays down flowers and tearfully tells her brother she loves him.

He was one of 44 killed on Christmas Day last year when a member of Islamist sect Boko Haram rammed a car packed with explosives into the gates of St Theresa’s Church in Madalla, a satellite town 25 miles from the center of Abuja.

Boko Haram has killed hundreds in its campaign to impose sharia law in northern Nigeria and is the biggest threat to stability in Africa’s top oil exporter.

Two other churches were bombed that day and on Christmas Eve 2010 over 40 people were killed in similar attacks.

But such is the commitment to religion in a country with Africa’s largest Christian population that millions of people will pack out thousands of churches in the coming days. It is impossible to protect everyone, security experts say.

“I feel safe,” Ehiawaguan says with uncertainty, when asked if she will come to church on December 25 this year.

“Not because of security here … because we have a greater security in heaven,” she says, wiping away her tears.

I say it all the time, but Reuters is a valuable source for religion news outside of the United States and Europe. The quotes the reporter got are theological even as the story itself blends politics and other aspects of culture. That story is much more substantive than this 24-second bit on the Pope decrying violence in Syria that was on CBS.

Sadly, terrorists did manage to kill 12 Christians, according to this CNS report:

Gunmen shot dead six Christians and set fire to an evangelical church in the northern state of Yobe, police said. Wire reports said the pastor was among the dead in the midnight attack.

Separately, a Baptist church in neighboring Borno state was attacked. Nigeria’s The Nation said six church members were killed.

But it was this BBC story that left me less than impressed with its headline and lede. The headline:

Syria crisis: Low-key Christmas for Christians

The lede:

During the Last Supper, Jesus tells his disciples that the bread and wine he shares with them represents his body and his blood.

“This is my body, which is given for you,” he says. “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood. Do this in remembrance of me.”

In Syria, the real blood of civilians was mixed with real bread in Halfiya, the day before Christmas Eve, according to opposition activists. They say the civilians were bombed by a government warplane as they were queuing at a bakery, killing some 90 of them.

OK. So the entire story is sad, with people refusing to speak with reporters or give their name for fear of being targeted. We learn that minority areas, including those dominated by Christians are being targeted by the government. The already-small population of Christians is fleeing the country. Is describing this simply as a “low-key Christmas” appropriate? What a boring headline for the reality of what Christians in Syria are dealing with this Christmas.

In any case, I don’t know where the Beeb reporter got her info, but Christians in Syria do not believe that Jesus told his disciples that “the bread and wine he shares with them represents his body and his blood.” Traditional Christian belief is that in the Eucharist we receive the actual body and blood of Christ.

The teaching that communion only represents Christ’s body and blood is certainly present among some Christians, but not among Orthodox Christians.

To further compound the error by saying “the real blood of civilians was mixed with real bread in Halfiya” is just insulting to those sacramental Christians who believe we partake in the real body and blood of Christ.

I know, I know, I shouldn’t be surprised. But how would a reporter not know this? I’d more expect a reporter to mock traditional Christians for this belief than be ignorant of it.


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