About those Nigerian Christian girls, chanting in Arabic

About those Nigerian Christian girls, chanting in Arabic May 16, 2014


As I have said many times, I have no idea how foreign correspondents do the work that they do, especially when working in regions that are being torn apart by civil war and complex events linked to terrorism. While readers tend to see events in terms of good guys and terrorists, the reporters on the ground know that reality is much more complex than that.

The events unfolding in the overwhelmingly Muslim northeast corner of Nigeria are a perfect example of this, once you dig deeper than the Twitter #bringbackourgirls hashtag and the vague words of various government spokespersons.

Consider, for example, the role of Islam on both sides of this story. Over and over, your GetReligionistas note the accuracy of the post-9/11 media mantra “there is no one Islam.” That is absolutely true, yet many journalists have hesitated to cover the complex and often violent divisions inside this major world religion.

Think this through for a minute. At the very least, you have four different “Muslim” camps in this kidnapping story.

* Obviously, you have Boko Haram and its hellish, truly radical take on sharia law and Islam.

* Then you have, at the other extreme, the small number of Muslim families who were willing to enroll their daughters in the non-Islamic Chibok Government Girls Secondary School, in a heavily Christian corner of the primarily Muslim northern half of Nigeria. A dozen or more of the kidnapped girls were Muslims, while the vast majority have been identified as Christians or animists.

* However, it’s important to remember that many radical Islamists in Nigeria and abroad — those who seek a strong form of sharia law — clearly oppose Boko Haram’s fiercely violent methods and have rejected, in particular, the kidnapping of these girls. So that’s a third camp.

* Finally, there are those who could be called the mainstream Muslims of northern Nigeria, those who work with the regional government, the local police and the military. I do not know quite how to describe their faith perspective, but it clearly represents an approach different than the various Islamist groups. Yes, this could overlap with the viewpoint of the Muslim parents in my second camp.

Why bring this up? This past week, I read two news reports that seemed to offer radically different, even clashing, takes on a crucial recent development, the release of the video claiming to show some of the kidnapped girls, wearing hijabs and chanting Islamic prayers in Arabic. One story ran in The New York Times and the other at a religious outlet, Baptist Press. First, here is a crucial section of the Times piece, the lede anecdote:

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — When the girls appeared on the screen, parents in the small room at the government compound here dissolved into tears. But after several of them finally saw their daughters’ faces again in the video, they said their relief quickly gave rise to anger: The girls were alive, but they were prisoners.

“Her face was frowning and unhappy,” said Bashir Wattai, a tall, solidly built farmer who said he had just seen his 17-year-old daughter Mairama in the video. “She looked sad. I burst into crying and weeping.”

“The other people in the room, they were all weeping and crying,” Mr. Wattai said. “It was just tears.”

At first, the story simply talks about the “grieving parents,” but later there is information that makes it clearly that only some of the Chibok parents were part of this government organized meeting to view the video. For starters, the heavily Christian village did not have electricity, so the viewing had to be set up elsewhere. Pay close attention:

… (The) state government organized a group of about 15 parents, relatives and girls who had escaped the Islamists to make the arduous journey to the state capital here to watch the video. They were guarded by rifle-bearing militia members from the village in red uniforms because the road is still preyed on by Boko Haram.

The group, along with teachers, officials and security operatives, packed into the room at the government complex and locked the door. When the parents emerged, their universe of anxiety had shifted. Some appeared dazed and perturbed as they slumped in plastic chairs on the grounds of the state-run hotel here.

In other words, a small group of the parents and their associates were able to identify 77 of the girls. Who were these parents? It is crucial to note that — for some unknown reason — the Times editors declined to say whether this groups of parents included both Christians, animists and Muslims. Only 15 parents? Some stories have noted that as few as 17 of the kidnapped girls were Muslims.

So who was willing to go with the government representatives and their militia to take part in this viewing? Christians? Muslims? Some combination of the two? Might this affect who was able to identify who?

Meanwhile, about this time, Baptist Press — relying on connections to Christian groups in Nigeria — ran a story that opened with this lede:

BORNO, Nigeria (BP) — More than 200 Christian girls Boko Haram kidnapped a month ago from a state school are not the same girls shown in a ransom video the terrorists released, Nigerian relations expert Adeniyi Ojutiku told Baptist Press today (May 13).

When the Borno state government shared copies of the video with the parents of the kidnapped teenagers, none of the parents could find their children in the video, Ojutiku said he learned from the Borno government.

“They are not the same. They are not the girls abducted,” said Ojutiku, a Southern Baptist in Raleigh, N.C., who receives frequent updates from members of the grassroots group Lift Up Now. He co-founded the group to address political, economic and social challenges in his homeland Nigeria.

I thought this information was especially interesting, especially the part about the Arabic chant:

… Boko Haram’s claim that the girls depicted in the video have just converted to Islam does not appear credible, Ojutiku said.

“The people [in Borno] are saying that the recitation of the Quran by those girls does not depict people who are new to the faith of Islam,” Ojutiku said. “From the recitation, there is indication that those groups of girls have been in Islam for a long time, because the inflection, the way they recite it … the intonation and all that, does not depict … people who are new to the Quran. The girls recite the chant with more fluidity, with [a] better grasp of the chant. And their voice inflections indicate that they are not new to that chant.”

So which of the stories is accurate?

You could make a strong case that they both are, that in the first story a group of Muslim parents were able to identify their daughters who, for example, would be able to lead others in chanting Islamic prayers in Arabic. Then the second story may underline the fact that the majority of the girls — not seen in the video — are Christians and have been taken elsewhere, for some unknown reason.

However, it’s hard to tell since the Times editors — as often is the case — refused to include any information about the religious backgrounds of those kidnapped.

You see, it’s hard to understand what is going on in this story if the factual information linked to religion is ignored or downplayed. Some people, you know, just don’t “get” religion and that shapes our ability to understand what is happening in complex stories of this kind.

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