Seeking facts in the Cairo flames

GetReligion, as we frequently remind readers, is not a religion-news site. It's a weblog about how the mainstream press struggles -- with good and bad results -- to cover religion news, including hidden or even obvious religious "ghosts" in stories that are not obviously about religion. Some readers "get" this and some do not. We have our share of folks, for example, who can't even get the journalism angle down and remain committed to filling our comments pages with debates about doctrinal issues (as opposed to making valid journalistic points -- citing facts and sources -- about whether reporters and editors are covering doctrinal disputes in an accurate manner).

But, as the flames burn on in Egypt, here is an example of a note from a reader -- Norman, by name -- who does indeed "get" it.

According to The Telegraph, "Muslim mobs attack Chrisian churches."

For the Washington Post, by contrast, what occurred were "Clashes between Muslims and Coptic Christians ... in one of the most serious outbreaks of violence the country’s interim rulers have faced since taking power in February."

In one formulation, the aggressor is quite clear, while in the other we have a "clashes" between two groups. I suppose being murdered does make you party to a clash between competing forces, in a way ...

Now, that's a valid point. As always, the coverage of these latest tragedies has been confused on several crucial point, often sliding into a kind of moral equivalency model symbolized by the dreaded "sectarian" label.

The truth, of course, is hard to capture in the simple words of a headline. It also does not help when journalists swamp their stories in vague labels that mean nothing -- the usual "moderate," "conservative," ultra-conservative" and "fundamentalist" fog. That's a problem that we simply have to keep discussing here.

There is so much coverage of the Egypt riots out there that I cannot deal with it all. However, I urge readers to keep the following issues in mind -- subjects frequently discussed here -- as you keep following these events.

* There is no one Islam. At the moment, these events involve players from at least four or five different Islamic camps. There are Muslims who are helping defend the churches, while others are attacking. There's the Islamic Brotherhood establishment, which may or may not have its people on the street under full control. Are they or are they not involved with the radical Salafists who appear to be inciting these conflicts? Then there are the military-police authorities. Then there are the leaders of the reform movement in Egypt, etc., etc.

* Note the heavy emphasis on rumors. This is what can happen in a culture with no free and accurate press. Cellphones ring. Rumors spread. Reporters cannot or will not verify. Mobs form. Police "arrive late." Members of various religious minority groups suffer and die. Churches burn. Repeat. This is a story that must be reported. Rumors become the reality.

* Look for signs that Egypt actually has courts, at the moment. The government keeps holding "reconciliation" meetings, but no one is every placed on trial for these crimes. Of course, it is a problem when you have Christians involved in these hellish events in a nation that is currently being ruled by a coalition made up of Muslim groups with often clashing concepts of Sharia law.

So what is a reporter to do? You have to quote the government authorities, even if you know that their reports are often whitewashed. You have to search for voices on both sides and attempt to describe their various degrees of involvement in the events themselves. You cannot settle for labels.

You can watch that struggle going on in the following New York Times piece by David D. Kirkpatrick, a reporter with a long GetReligion-reputation for doing precisely this kind of hard work. Yes, he has "sectarian tensions" in the lede, but this story at least attempts to show how tensions inside Islam are a key element in these events. As always, he is also very clear about providing sources for his information. Here's the top of the report:

CAIRO -- A night of street fighting between hundreds of Muslims and Christians left at least 12 people dead and two churches in flames on Sunday in the latest outbreak of sectarian tensions in the three months since the revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak.

By lifting the heavy hand of the Mubarak police state, the revolution unleashed long-suppressed sectarian animosities that have burst out with increasing ferocity, threatening the recovery of Egypt’s tourist economy and the stability of its hoped-for transition to democracy.

Well, that's one way to say it.

As I said the other day in a post on Syria, the dark side of the Arab spring still seems to be a totally new concept to American editors and producers. Any Coptic Christian or any human-rights activist with experience studying Egypt, knew that events of this kind were coming.

The question, as always, is this: What happens to the rule of law? Will fair trials be held? Will courtroom justice be done, even if that means radical Muslims going to jail for violence against members of religious minorities (including some victims in competing groups of Muslims)?

This reality is seen near the top of Kirkpatrick's report:

The Egyptian authorities vowed a swift response. The military council governing the country announced military trials for 190 people arrested in the violence. Civilian authorities promised increased security at houses of worship and a new ban on demonstrations outside such institutions. The interim prime minister, Essam Sharaf, canceled a trip abroad to preside over an emergency cabinet meeting, and Egypt’s most respected Muslim religious authority, the sheik of Al Azhar, denounced the violence.

“Egypt has already become a nation in danger,” Justice Minister Abdel Aziz al-Gindi said after the cabinet meeting, vowing to strike “with an iron hand” to preserve national security.

But by nightfall thousands of unsatisfied Christians -- members of the indigenous Coptic Orthodox minority that makes up about 10 percent of Egypt’s population -- gathered in protest outside the state television building, closing a main thoroughfare. Adapting the chants and tactics of the Tahrir Square sit-in and exercising their new freedom of assembly, the Copts accused the military government of indifference; called for the resignation of the military leader, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi; and vowed not to leave.

To prevent renewed violence, an overwhelming force of hundreds of heavily armed soldiers and riot police officers occupied the Cairo neighborhood where the clashes took place. ...

Feel free to compare this Times report with some of the vague, thinner, simplistic church-attacks coverage that came before it. Feel free to offer us URLs for other information.

Here is my big question: At this point, has the story of the Arab spring evolved into a story about the possible extinction of the ancient Christian churches of the Middle East (and how America responds to that emerging reality)? I fear that we now face a human-rights implosion in the region, based on this reality: It doesn't matter what your law says if police will not stop a riot and convict those who led it.

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