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Reporting on a "shadowy Nigerian Islamist group"

For some reason I've been fascinated with looking at how different media outlets report the same news. Sometimes what they choose to highlight, the angle they go with, the people they interview, etc., are all the same. Sometimes they're quite different. How do you know which story is the right one? (Insert story about the blind men and the elephant.) I noted the issue yesterday, in the story about a lawsuit against the Jehovah's Witnesses. Today's example comes from a couple of reports about this weekend's Boko Haram massacres in Nigeria.

CNN's story begins this way:

Abuja, Nigeria (CNN) -- A militant Islamist group claimed responsibility Monday for bombings the day before that the Nigerian Red Cross said left 50 people dead at three Christian churches in Nigeria.

Boko Haram said the attacks Sunday in the Nigerian cities of Zaria and Kaduna were retaliation on Christians for destroying mosques and, according to the group, turning others into "beer parlour and prostitution joints."

"Let them know that now it's the time for revenge God willing," the group said in a statement. "From now on, they either follow the right religion or there will be no peace for them."

The Associated Press story began:

KADUNA, Nigeria (AP) — Aid workers searched for bodies Monday among charred vehicles and destroyed market stalls after a trio of church bombings sparked reprisal killings in northern Nigeria, officials said. The Nigerian Red Cross said the death toll had more than doubled, to 50 people.

The radical Islamist sect known as Boko Haram on Monday claimed responsibility for Sunday's suicide attacks at two churches in the city of Zaria and another in the city of Kaduna that left 21 people dead, according to an initial count.

The reprisals highlight festering religious tensions in Nigeria, a nation of more than 160 million people. The attacks occurred in the religious flashpoint state of Kaduna that sits at the border between the country's predominantly Muslim north and its mainly Christian south. A history of attacks and counterattacks between the two communities means that authorities are often cautious about releasing death figures.

In the CNN version of the story, the responsibility for the deaths lies with the terrorist group. In the AP story, it's general "religious tension" and bombings and reprisal that are the focus. I just find that interesting.

In the CNN version, Boko Haram is described as a "militant Islamist group." In the AP version, it's a "radical Islamist sect." I think the former description is fair. The group is obviously militant. It's Islamist, too. On what grounds are we calling it a "radical Islamist sect," though? The story does not justify the term "sect," which, in the religious sense, typically refers to a group that has splintered away from a mainstream group over doctrinal differences. In fact, the AP story doesn't get into its religious motivations at all. But from other great reporting, we're told that Boko Haram describes its policy objectives as seeking to impose Sharia as the law of the land. Having Sharia as the law of the land not a non-mainstream view in Islam, even if Boko Haram's methods are outside the norm. Is the use of violence sufficient to garner the sect description? What do you think?

Since violence is an issue in their means, I think it's probably most helpful to go with "militant" and "radical" while "sect" has some overtones that may confuse the issue. There really are Muslim sects, but there are ways of understanding that and defining that issue that don't seem to be in play here. I'd be curious for others' thoughts, too.

Earlier this year, the New York Times ran an op-ed suggesting that Boko Haram didn't really exist. I didn't find it terribly convincing, but I enjoyed reading an analysis of the situation. Prior to the most recent few bombings, the Christian Science Monitor ran such an analysis piece. It begins:

From a distance, the violent campaign of a shadowy Nigerian Islamist group called Boko Haram is nothing less than a holy war between Muslims and Christians that has killed more than 2000 people.

But look beneath the surface, says Nigerian Roman Catholic Archbishop John Onaiyekan in a recent visit to Nairobi, and you find that the crisis is “not purely religious.”

The Archbishop explains that on top of the religious issues are various political issues, too. The article goes on:

So when Boko Haram targets Christian churches or Western-model schools, they aren’t doing so out of mere hatred of Christianity or the West. They are doing this for much more basic reasons, to protest the north’s feeling of being excluded from power.

I'm not entirely sure the case was made, although I don't think many would disagree that this violence is more complicated than simple anti-Christian hatred. And it might be nice to speak to actual Boko Haram personnel even if they are, erm, a "shadowy Nigerian Islamist group," as the Monitor puts it. BBC didn't talk to any members, but they did quote from a Boko Haram press release after the killings:

In an emailed statement in the local Hausa language, Boko Haram spokesman Abul-Qaqa said: "Allah has given us victory in the attacks we launched today against churches in Kaduna and Zaria towns which resulted in the deaths of many Christians and security personnel."

The group justified the weekend attacks on churches by saying they were carried out in revenge for what it described as government-backed killings of Muslims in central Nigeria during earlier bouts of violence.

Christians were warned to "either embrace Islam or... never have peace of mind," the statement said.

The BBC story has quite a bit of information on the attacks and reprisals.

But again, notice how different all of the coverage can be. One of my favorite sites to go to for a good mixture of news and analysis is Reuters. They seem to have reporters who get the basic news right but also can put it in context that is helpful to understand. Here's their latest on the conflict:

Nigerian Muslims fired AK-47 rifles, burned tires and destroyed at least one church in the northern city of Kaduna on Tuesday, two days after rioting by Christian youths killed 52 people, witnesses said.

An explosion also struck a market in Kaduna, residents said, during the latest of a series of retaliatory confrontations between followers of the two faiths in Africa's largest oil producer.

The escalating violence has raised fears of wider sectarian conflict in a country already reeling from months of attacks on government buildings and churches by followers of the Islamist sect Boko Haram.

The movement styled on the Taliban appears bent on provoking Christian-Muslim clashes as part of its campaign to carve an Islamic state out of parts of Nigeria.

And so we see the sect language again. It looks like reporters are split down the middle on whether Boko Haram is a sect. That's fine, and maybe they are, but I'd just like to see more information about how their worship or doctrines differ. But still, isn't this a helpful update to the situation?

Sadly, it looks like we'll be dealing with these news stories for a while. Let us know if you see anything particularly good or bad.

Nigeria photo via Shutterstock.

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