At play in China: repression of Muslims or Islamic terrorism?

One side points to a series of brazen attacks attributed to Islamic extremists.

The other side complains of religious and ethnic persecution by government authorities.

Washington Post story last month highlighted worsening relations between Chinese leaders and Muslim Uighurs in that nation’s western Xinjiang region.

Key history from the Post:

For years, many Uighurs and other, smaller Muslim minorities in Xinjiang have agitated against China’s authoritarian government. Their protests are a reaction, Uighur groups say, to ­oppressive official policies, ­including religious restrictions and widespread discrimination.

The government has long denied oppressing Uighurs or any other ethnic group and has blamed terrorist acts on separatist Muslims who want to make Xinjiang an independent state.

In a report titled “Who are the Uighurs?” BBC News noted:

Activists say central government policies have gradually curtailed the Uighurs’ religious, commercial and cultural activities. Beijing is accused of intensifying a crackdown after street protests in Xinjiang in the 1990s, and again in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

Over the past decade, many prominent Uighurs have been imprisoned or have sought asylum abroad after being accused of terrorism. Mass immigration of Han Chinese to Xinjiang had made Uighurs a minority in Xinjiang.

Beijing is accused of exaggerating the threat from Uighur separatists in order to justify repression in the region.

The above background helps understand the context of a front-page Wall Street Journal story today that features this provocative headline:

Web Preaches Jihad to Chinese Muslims

(Hint: If you hit a paywall when you click the story link, try Googling the exact words of the headline to get an “article free pass.”)

The top of the WSJ story:

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American suicide bomber: WPost flounders on his beliefs

Yet another horrific facet was added to the civil war in Syria with the recent revelation that an American, Moner Mohammed Abusalha, blew himself up in a suicide bombing there. But who was Abusalha? And what did he believe and practice? That proved a considerable challenge for a Washington Post article, despite its 988 words and six reporters.

First, there’s geography. “American who killed himself in Syria suicide attack was from South Florida,” blares the headline in big type. The South Florida connection is deemed important in a lot of “crazy” stories, and as a longtime resident myself, I’ll agree that it’s often warranted. Most of the hijackers behind 9-11 lived here for weeks.

Still, it’s good to know north from south. After saying Abusalha was from South Florida, the Washington Post says he went to high school in Sebastian and lived awhile in Fort Pierce, and his parents live in nearby Vero Beach and own a grocery story in Melbourne. All of those places are more than 65 miles from West Palm Beach, the northernmost point of South Florida. They’re closer to Cocoa Beach, the site of the Kennedy Space Center.

The only exception is a mention of a Facebook picture of Abusalha “smiling in Miami Beach.” Now, a New York Times story does say that he was born in West Palm Beach. Still a flimsy premise, I suggest. If the story were about me, would it say I was “from” New Jersey? Not likely. Not after living most of my life in South Florida.

The Post does a lot of noodling on how religious Abusalha was — either to show a connection between his faith and his fighting, or to show how a good boy could go bad. But the efforts largely flounder like a kid on the first day of summer swimming class.

The newspaper quotes Orlando Taylor, who says he’s a close friend with Abusalha’s older brother:

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WSJ profiles Nigerian terrorist with no mention of ‘Christians’

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Is there a religion angle on the heartbreaking story of the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls?

Of course there is, as GetReligion has made clear in previous posts, including tmatt’s insightful analysis titled “So #bringbackourgirls is finally a news story! Why now?”

From that post:

The bottom line: The girls were taken from Chibok Government Girls Secondary School and the vast majority were Christians and the others were Muslims who were willing to attend a non-Islamic school with Christians, a violation of Boko Haram’s vision of true Islam.

So when a top Wall Street Journal editor touted that newspaper’s front-page profile of the terror group’s leader, I was curious to see if the story would reflect the important role of religion. (Tip: If you get the subscriber-only version when you click the link, Google the headline and you should be able to open the full story.)

Let’s start at the top:

ABUJA, Nigeria — When he appeared in a video on Monday boasting of having abducted more than 200 schoolgirls, the leader of terror group Boko Haram took the occasion to egg on the U.S. Army and get in a dig at ancient Egypt.

“We don’t fear any American troops,” shouted Abubakar Shekau, whose Islamist insurgency has terrorized northern Nigeria and recently drawn search-and-rescue advisers from the U.S. and other countries. “Let even the Pharaoh himself be sent down here! We will deal with him squarely!”

Bombastic and bellicose, Mr. Shekau has shown a boundless appetite for celebrity. He has sought to achieve it through mass murder and most notably through the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in April from a boarding school in the country’s north.

By boasting—and laughing—about these deeds on YouTube, often with an AK-47 slung over his shoulder, Mr. Shekau has attained the distinction that has long eluded him: Africa’s most notorious terrorist.

“He seems to want to distinguish himself by the depth of his brutality,” said Daniel Benjamin, a former counterterrorism chief at the State Department who is currently director of Dartmouth College’s Dickey Center for International Understanding. “It is a big part of his calling card.”

Way up high, there’s the reference to “Islamic insurgency.”

A little deeper in the story, the Journal provides this important background:

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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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Carry on and Keep quiet when reporting on religion in China

“Why does the press soft pedal links between terrorism and Islam?” was the question under discussion in this week’s edition of Crossroads, a Get Religion podcast produced in conjunction with Lutheran Public Radio’s Issues Etc host Todd Wilken.

“I don’t know why, but it does” — pretty well sums up the show. Last week’s Kunming terror attack, which left 29 dead and almost 150 injured, was our point of entry into the debate. In the media coverage of the Kunming incident I argued it was possible to see two divergent themes. Chinese press outlets were quick to label the incident as a terrorist attack. State officials were quoted describing the attack as terrorism, while eyewitness accounts called the knife-wielding assailants as terrorists. Yet the hand of government censorship could be seen in the Chinese press accounts as no mention was made of religion or politics.

Several Western press outlets were squeamish about using the word terrorism to describe the attack — placing it in quotes or allowing it to appear only in the words of Chinese government officials. However, the Western press did shine a light (though rather dimly) on areas the Chinese government sought to keep dark. They identified the attackers as members of the Uighar minority group from Northwest China and noted the on-going ethnic tension in that part of the country between the Uighars and Han Chinese. The Western press was not as one in reporting on the Muslim faith of the Uighars. Some outlets like the New York Times mentioned Islam at the top of their stories. The Associated Press placed it in the middle of their story. CNN in the last paragraph, while the Telegraph made no mention of it at all.

The Chinese government’s silence about religious strife I observed was predictable as it reflected a long standing policy of state control/accommodation of the major religious faiths in support of the Communist Party’s official goal of promoting a harmonious society.

The silence about Islam and terrorism from the Western press I could not readily explain without resorting to facile nostrums of political correctness or ignorance. The specialist literature has noted the links between radical Islam and Uighar separatism, while the first day reports in the Western press described the unusual killing style adopted by the terrorists — using knives and swords they attempted to strike at the necks of their victims to decapitate them (a hallmark of Islamic terrorism).

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Silence about terrorism and Islam in the Kunming attack


What was it about the murder of 29 men, women and children on Saturday at the Kunming train station that does not qualify make it an act of terrorism? And why is the press so shy about connecting the dots on this incident to the wider campaign being waged by Islamist terrorists? Can the word terrorism no longer be used in polite company?

The first news story I saw came from the state-run Xinhua News Agency which announced that on the night of March 1, 2014 a gang invaded the central waiting room of the Kunming train station in China’s Yunnan province. Armed with knives the attackers attacked people waiting for their trains and police officers, killing 28 and in jured 113 (the numbers were later revised to 29 dead and 143 wounded.)

Police shot five of the assailants dead. The identity of the attackers was not given, but the incident was described as:

an organized, premeditated violent terrorist attack, according to the authorities.

The report stated the killers were dressed in black and attacked their victims with knives. Xinhua was able to quote eye witness accounts of the attack. saying:

Chen Guizhen, a 50-year-old woman, told Xinhua at the hospital that her husband Xiong Wenguang, 59, was killed in the attack. “Why are the terrorists so cruel? ” moaned Chen, holding her husband’s ID card in blood with her trembling hands.

So we have a group of black clad knife welding assailants rushing into a busy urban train station and randomly maiming and killing 172 people. The government describes it as a terrorist act and a witness calls the attackers terrorists. Let me go out on a limb and say the attackers were likely to have been terrorists.

Xinhua did not identify who the attackers were, but at the close of their story recounted two recent terrorist attacks. While not naming names, Xinhua implied the attack was the work of militants from northwest China’s Xinjiang province — the Muslim Uighar people.

In the first press reports many western news outlets were reticent in describing the attack as terrorism, or they placed the word “terrorist” or “terrorism” in quotes either in the title or in the body of the story.

The New York Times report described the attack in terms usually reserved for a clash between groups. A “group of assailants wielding knives stormed into a railway station” and proceeded to kill and injure scores of travelers. The NY Times identifies the “assailants” as Uighars, citing local government sources, and states:

The attack, in Yunnan Province, was far from Xinjiang, and if carried out by members of the largely Muslim Uighur minority could imply that the volatile tensions between them and the government might be spilling beyond that restive region.

But the language of the story shifts. “The violence erupted …”;  “the attack would be the worst …”; “The latest attack appears …”; “After the slashing attack, President Xi Jinping of China said …” — why the reticence in using the word terror, terrorism, terrorist?

CNN was equally shy,writing:

Members of a separatist group from Xinjiang, in northwest China, are believed to have carried out the assault, authorities said. The report referred to them as “terrorists.”

The mention of Islam is pushed to the last paragraph of the story while CNN plays the trick of having the Chinese government use the word terrorist.
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Sausage making and news reporting on Zanzibar

Otto von Bismark’s reputed maxim: “Laws are like sausages — it is best not to see them being made …” could be applied to the crafting of a news story.

Most readers do not concern themselves with how a story came to be and accept the finished product of a news story as “the story.” In the age of the internet and declining standards and budgets for the once great news outlets this is not always a wise move.

Now approaching everything one reads with absolute skepticism is a tedious business. There will always be cranks who see the hidden hands of Freemasons, international Jewry or the vast right wing conspiracy lurking behind the text. Readers must balance their skepticism against the trust they have in the publication or author.

If Walter Cronkite said it, it had to be true. If it appears in the National Enquirer it has to be false.

But as history has shown us, the icons of of good and bad journalism, like the sayings everyone knows to be true because we’ve heard them so often, are not always so. Walter Cronkite in his broadcast of Feb 27, 1968 was wrong about the Tet Offensive, the National Enquirer was right about John Edwards in 2007, and Otto von Bismark never said anything about laws and sausages.

These musings were prompted by a story in the Washington Post from the Religion News Service entitled “Bombs explode Zanzibar calm as religious tensions flare” where RNS bungles the lede.

In the classical Anglo-American style of reporting the lede sentence is where the voice of the author is heard. The lede lays down the tracks that sets the destination for the news train that follows. My instructors in the craft likened the process to organizing a goods train. While the lede gives the destination and names the passengers and freight, the paragraphs that follow are akin to freight cars — each with its own cargo.

Opinions are welcome, but they should be from identifiable third parties, as is analysis, but it should be identified as such. This differs from advocacy reporting where facts are interspersed with opinion throughout a story in order to convince the reader of the merits of the writer’s view.
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Breivik the liar

The news that Anders Behring Breivik has written a letter to the Norwegian media stating his protestations of Christian faith, pro-Israel opinions and anti-Nazi convictions were a calculated lie has left me stunned.

Breivik now says his manifesto and early statements were a bluff designed to focus public and media outrage on Christians, Jews and conservatives by tainting them with his actions. His early denials of being a racist or hyper-nationalist were false, Breivik writes. He lied in order to protect the good name of the neo-Nazi movement (Yes, I find that to be incredible on several levels, but that is what he said.)

What is one to believe? It is easy to dismiss this latest prison epistle as the ravings of a madman. Save that he is not mad (according to psychiatrists). Does being merely evil make them less credible?

On July 22, 2011 the 32-year old Norwegian detonated a bomb outside an Oslo government building killing eight and then proceeded to shoot to death 69 people,  mostly teenagers, attending a Worker’s Youth League (AUF) camp on the Island of Utøya. The Oslo District Court rejected Breivik’s insanity defense and on August 24, 2012, found him guilty of murdering 77 people. He was sentenced to 21 years imprisonment, but is likely to serve a life term as he can only be released if the courts determine he is no longer a danger to society.

The narrative adopted by many press outlets was to label Breivik a “Christian fundamentalist” terrorist. My colleagues at GetReligion: Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, Terry Mattingly and Arne Fjeldsted questioned this conventional wisdom. And their concerns about the snap judgments made by many news outlets about Breivik have been proven prescient.

In her piece “The Atlantic has this terrorist all figured out” Mollie noted the welter of confusing claims and statements from the shooter, but questioned The Atlantic for its dogmatic assertion as to the man’s motives. She wrote:

But The Atlantic has figured it all out. Turns out the shooter was led to do all this by his fundamentalist interpretation of Christianity. This hasn’t been a good week for The Atlantic and religion news, but let’s see. Maybe they have something to teach us.

Note the url: http://www.theatlanticwire.com/global/2011/07/christian-fundamentalist-charged-death-toll-norway-soars-past-90/40321/. The headline? “The Christian Extremist Suspect in Norway’s Massacre”

Wow! They must really have access to some exclusive information. I can’t wait to find out what it is.

Turns out there wasn’t any.

A week out from the attack, Tmatt noted some newspapers were moving away from the Christian claims.

At this point, I think most journalists have reached the point that they know that Anders Behring Breivik (a) has self-identified as a “Christian,” (b) yet he also made it clear that he is not a Christian believer, in terms of beliefs and practice and (c) that it is bizarre to call him a “fundamentalist,” in any historic sense of the word.

The early facts indicate that this was a political radical committing an act of political terrorism for political motives, motives that happen to include some idealized vision of resurrecting some kind of old, glorified, “Christian” European culture.

Yes, I know plenty of activist and advocate journalists are sticking with the “Christianist” template. Also, there are academics who are sharpening their swords and taking the usual swings at orthodox forms of religion (“When Christianity becomes lethal“) Nevertheless, most mainstream journalists seem to be staying in the middle of things and, perhaps, waiting for facts about this terrorist and whatever ties he did or did not have to real people and institutions outside of history books and cyberspace.

Tmatt closed his piece by asking reporters to keep digging.

Well, we now know more about what he has said — the manifesto plugged that hole, for journalists. We know a bit about what he may or may not have been reading. We know nothing whatsoever about his own religious life and the practice of his faith, if he ever did so. There are no signs of institutional links or real, live clergy of any kind. Again I urge journalists to look for financial ties.

The ultimate question, in terms of religion: Was this man truly a loner, a man living out a brand of faith that he created on his own and, in the end, one in which he serves as the prophet who produces the private scriptures that guide his life and work? In other words, if he calls himself a “Christian,” where is his church, his pew, his altar and his pastor-priest?

Journalists must keep looking for the facts.

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