A Newtown massacre in Nigeria, with ghosts

A Newtown massacre in Nigeria, with ghosts July 6, 2013

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.

Even in a short report, Reuters included this information:

The attack was the deadliest of at least three on schools since the military launched an offensive in May to try to crush Islamist insurgent group Boko Haram, whose nickname translates as “Western education is sinful” in the northern Hausa language…

Under the leadership of fiery militant Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram rejects all Western cultural influences like modern schooling and looks to days when much of West Africa was ruled by great Islamic empires thriving off trans-Saharan trade.

Of course, that just touches the surface. I’ve long known what Boko Haram believes about Western education, but I’ll be darned if I know why — particularly in the “insurgents'” own words.

I know that Americans are less interested in global tragedies such as this school massacre than I wish we were. And I imagine that there won’t be much interest in the journalism problems with stories on Nigeria. But since we’re here, I want to bring up some recent stories that also concerned me. Take this AP story headlined “Specifics elusive in Nigeria’s extremist fight.” The reader who sent it in was concerned more with the lack of details in the story itself. Other than a barely-there mention of “nation’s Islamic extremist insurgency,” we get absolutely no details about the religious aspect of the conflict, either in terms of the religious motivation of the “extremists” or in terms of the religious views of many of the targets.

The lack of details is particularly striking given the picture that accompanies the story — with, if not an Ephesians 6 reference, at least something quite religious. It’s not just the AP. Take this Washington Post story headlined “Nigerian Islamist militants return from Mali with weapons, skills:”

Since the death of its leader in police custody in 2009, Boko Haram has carried out more than 700 assaults on police stations, government buildings, mosques and schools in its stronghold of Maiduguri and across the north, killing an estimated 3,000 people. The militia’s name means “Western education is forbidden” in the local Hausa language, and it has publicly praised Osama bin Laden.

A reader commented on the piece:

While this article is well-researched, it makes a stunning omission – it completely avoids mention of the Christian victims of Boko Haram. Laat year Boko Haram ordered all Christians to leave the north in 72 hours and began killing them arbitrarily in a major genocidal campaign that led to hundreds of deaths. By year’s end, more Christians had been killed for their faith in northern Nigeria than in the rest of the world combined according to reports from World Watch Monitor and Jubilee Campaign. 
The post article says “Since the death of its leader in police custody in 2009, Boko Haram has carried out more than 700 assaults on police stations, government buildings, mosques and schools in its stronghold of Maiduguri and across the north, killing an estimated 3,000 people.” It does not once mention the over 25 churches destroyed by Boko Haram last year alone reported by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom in its May 1st report. Instead this article claims attacks on mosques when Boko Haram has not bombed any mosques and only attacks policemen or rival clerics outside of mosques. This is a sad oversight for the approximately 1000 Christians who were murdered in northern Nigeria last year alone.

I get that reporters are more interested in politics than religion, but such omissions are seriously problematic. Whether Americans are interested or not, whether the Nigerian leadership wants to downplay it or not, there’s quite a problem with Boko Haram. Religion angle specifics are elusive in many stories on this conflict, and we’d be well served to see some increased efforts in that regard.

Getting a movement to the point where you’re gunning down children in the back and setting them on fire is never just a political story. One hopes that the media are given resources and courage to pursue all the angles in this story fully.

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