Islam

How do you cultivate an ISIS follower? New York Times shows how it's done

How do you cultivate an ISIS follower? New York Times shows how it's done

The 4,600-word story that ran this weekend in the New York Times about how ISIS is -- or was -- recruiting a confused 20-something woman in rural Washington state was so gripping, I read it several times. So much was disturbing: The cluelessness of this young woman; the vapid response by her pastor and the details describing the 24/7 worldwide network of online ISIS recruiters working to get people like this woman to join up.

The article starts off with an eight-minute video that shows “Alex,” her face shaded to remain anonymous.

“The first thing they told me,” she begins, “was I was not allowed to listen to music.” Then her online friends love-bombed her with Tweets, Skype conversations and CARE packages of Islamic literature, head scarves, money and chocolate. These folks don’t want her involved in a local mosque. They want her involved with them. In Syria. Start here:

Alex, a 23-year-old Sunday school teacher and babysitter, was trembling with excitement the day she told her Twitter followers that she had converted to Islam.
For months, she had been growing closer to a new group of friends online -- the most attentive she had ever had -- who were teaching her what it meant to be a Muslim. Increasingly, they were telling her about the Islamic State and how the group was building a homeland in Syria and Iraq where the holy could live according to God’s law.
One in particular, Faisal, had become her nearly constant companion, spending hours each day with her on Twitter, Skype and email, painstakingly guiding her through the fundamentals of the faith.
But when she excitedly told him that she had found a mosque just five miles from the home she shared with her grandparents in rural Washington State, he suddenly became cold.

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Al Jazeera digs into Pakistan's blasphemy law in two-part series

Al Jazeera digs into Pakistan's blasphemy law in two-part series

You have to hand it to Al Jazeera America; they have the guts to send reporters to one of Pakistan's most backward districts to investigate one of the diciest topics you can bring up in polite conversation there: its draconian blasphemy law, the subject of a two-part package.

Published late last week, the first piece talks about the six years that have passed since Aasia Bibi, a Christian from the Punjab province, was thrown into prison. She is the only woman sentenced to death for blasphemy, and in spite of international appeals to release her, she’s essentially rotting there. When Al Jazeera sent a reporter to Aasia's hometown for an update, some of the interviewees were so hostile, she fled the area in fear for her life. A second piece, also based in Punjab, talks about the killing of a Christian couple last November by a mob that falsely claimed they were burning pages of the Quran. The headline brings up echoes of the American South by calling the murders “lynchings” although the couple in question were actually burned to death in a kiln.  It starts thus:

KOT RADHA KISHAN, Pakistan -- Walking through the quiet, empty streets of Chak 59, patrolled by stray dogs and the odd buffalo, one finds it difficult to tell whether the village is inhabited at all.
It is striking how silence can envelope a life, so as to all but erase it. Or, in this case, two lives: Shama and Shahzad Masih, a young Christian couple accused of blasphemy in this hamlet 31 miles from the big city of Lahore, but deep in the wilderness that dominates Pakistan’s Punjabi heartland.
On Nov. 4, 2014, Shama and Shahzad (most Christians in Pakistan are known only by their first name) were killed by a mob, stirred up by false allegations that the couple had desecrated the Holy Quran, at the brick kiln where they lived and worked for the previous 18 years.
The mob first beat them with sticks and fists before dragging them to the kiln furnace to set them on fire. Witnesses say one or both of them were still alive as they burned.

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Muslims in northern latitudes get their day in the sun

Muslims in northern latitudes get their day in the sun

Earlier this week, Religion News Service ran an intriguing story by a Reuters reporter about Muslims who live in far northern latitudes and their struggles to keep the Ramadan fast when daylight stretches for nearly 24 hours. 

Personal note: For the past year, I’ve lived in Alaska, where daylight is as little as two hours in the winter and is now at 22 hours. From my perch in Fairbanks, the sun sets at 12:45 a.m. and rises at 2:58 a.m. It’s a tad hard to sleep when you get a blast of sunshine (even through closed blinds) at 3 a.m. Last week, I visited Prudhoe Bay, where at 70º latitude, the sun never sets from May 20 to July 22. It’s beyond weird to go to bed there in broad daylight.

So here you have a religion founded in latitudes close to the equator where huge swings in hours of daylight aren’t an issue. But what happens when that religion expands to the north and south? As the story says:

(RNS) When the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan begins later this week, some Muslims around the world will face bigger challenges than others. The Quran is clear that the fast should last from before dawn to after dusk but says nothing about how many hours that might be.
Since Islam has spread from its Arabian heartland to the far reaches of the Earth, Muslims who live farther north must fast several hours longer than those in Mecca. On the year’s longest day, June 21, some could end up fasting for as long as 20 hours.
Usama Hasan, a British Islamic scholar, thinks this makes Ramadan fasting unbearable for many Muslims living in Northern Europe and Canada, especially the old and children just beginning to observe the practice. It also prompts many Muslims to give up fasting altogether during the summer, he said, or sneak a secret snack to help them get through the long days.

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War on terrorism: U.S. soft-pedals the religion angle; so does the New York Times

War on terrorism: U.S. soft-pedals the religion angle; so does the New York Times

The New York Times, as I noted in February, has been running ahead of the pack on the international effort to fight terrorism on the digital front. But the newspaper has yet to call out the religious ghosts in its own reporting.

"ISIS is Winning the Social Media War," says the latest Times headline on the matter. "The Islamic State’s violent narrative — promulgated through thousands of messages each day — has effectively 'trumped' the efforts of some of the world’s richest and most technologically advanced nations," the article reports.

Based largely on a U.S. State Department memo, the story presents an image of an efficient, united online jihad outgunning a disjointed international counterattack. Says the Times:

A “messaging working group” of officials from the United States, Britain and the United Arab Emirates, the memo says, “has not really come together.”
“The U.A.E. is reticent, the Brits are overeager, and the working group structure is confusing,” the memo says. “When we convened meetings with our counterparts, I am certain we all heard about various initiatives for the first time.”

As the article adds, the confusion has had real-world consequences, with the recent fall of Ramadi and ISIS' continuing occupation of Mosul and Falluja.

Apparently, only two new ideas have been floated since February, both by Under Secretary of State Richard Stengel, author of the memo. Stengel urges a conference of merchants to shun trafficking in the kind of antiques ISIS is selling from wrecking and looting historic sites in Iraq and Syria.

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Seeing patterns here? ISIS keeps smashing some priceless artifacts and selling others

Seeing patterns here? ISIS keeps smashing some priceless artifacts and selling others

The tragic bottom line these days is that it is rarely news when the Islamic State blows stuff up -- including priceless antiquities that predate the rise of Islam.

This fact of life has become business as usual, to the point that many mainstream journalists no longer feel the need to include material in their reports noting why this is taking place. This is tragic and, frankly, an affront to the vast majority of the world's Muslims. This is yet another classic case of journalists needing to cover the doctrinal details of what ISIS believes -- it's take on Islamic doctrine and history -- in order to let readers understand that this is not the only or even the mainstream Islamic point of view.

Once this hard work is done, journalists can move on to another topic looming in the background: Why do Islamic State radicals destroy some parts of the region's past, while allowing others to be sold off to collectors? In other words, does ISIS hate all parts of the ancient past equally?

The latest news is that this battle as moved to Egypt, with some militants there pledging allegiance to the ISIS caliphate. Does this have anything to do with Islam? The Washington Post simply does not want to go there:

CAIRO -- Militants with explosives battled Egyptian security forces outside the famed ancient Karnak temple in Luxor on Wednesday, injuring at least four people in an attempt to strike another blow on Egypt’s fragile tourism industry.

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Concerning a head scarf in Tulsa and yet another sighting of an old church-state coalition

Concerning a head scarf in Tulsa and yet another sighting of an old church-state coalition

Through the years, your GetReligionistas have made quite a few references (like this one, for example) to a remarkable period of time in American church-state history when a strong, diverse coalition stood together on religious liberty (no scare quotes) issues. This coalition ranged from Pat Robertson over to the Unitarians, with the Baptist Joint Committee somewhere in the middle.

It was a remarkable time for First Amendment liberalism, as classically defined. After all, it would be hard to call the Clinton White House right wing. This coalition stood together in the development of equal access rules protecting religious expression in the public square and, earlier, in the famous case protecting the rights of neo-Nazis to march through a Chicago suburb that included many Holocaust survivors. The coalition stood united -- supporting religious freedom at the global level -- to back the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

Some journalists (hurrah!) even noted this at the time, every now and then. Here is a sighting of this coalition, in a 1993 New York Times story about the slam-dunk passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act:

President Clinton hailed the new law at the signing ceremony, saying that it held government "to a very high level of proof before it interferes with someone's free exercise of religion." ...
His sentiments were echoed by many other members of an unusual coalition of liberal, conservative and religious groups that had pressed for the new law. The coalition included the National Association of Evangelicals, the Southern Baptist Convention, the National Council of Churches, the American Jewish Congress, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Mormon Church, the Traditional Values Coalition and the American Civil Liberties Union.

This brings us to the recent 8-1 U.S. Supreme Court decision involving a 17-year-old Muslim in Tulsa, Okla., who was rejected for a job at Abercrombie & Fitch because of her head scarf. Read this piece of The Los Angeles Times coverage carefully:

The court’s liberal justices have long championed religious minorities in discrimination cases. But as Christian conservatives have more frequently found themselves on the defensive over issues such as abortion and gay rights, the court’s conservatives have also embraced claims of religious liberty.
Last year, a conservative majority ruled that the religious owners of the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores did not have to comply with a government mandate to offer certain birth control methods as part of the company’s health plan.

What in the heckfire is that all about?

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A New Hampshire woman's passion for helping Syrians: Can you spot the religion ghosts?

A New Hampshire woman's passion for helping Syrians: Can you spot the religion ghosts?

Way up top, a fascinating, in-depth profile in the Boston Globe hints at a strong religion angle:

NASHUA — In a warehouse on a cold spring night, volunteers heaved boxes from a truck parked in one cargo bay to a 40-foot shipping container in the next.
A woman in a sea-green hijab helped lug the last of the boxes out and swept the truck floor clean. Another truck, packed to the ceiling with boxes, was waiting to pull in.
She hopped onto the platform, long skirt brushing the tops of her black Pumas, and called out to the crew to unload the next truck even faster.
“They need to leave in five minutes,” she said. “My God, this is a crazy house!”
Not long ago, Nadia Alawa spent her time home-schooling her eight children in East Hampstead, N.H., ferrying them to soccer practice and robotics competitions and volunteering commitments. But as revolution exploded into civil war in Syria — the native country of her husband and her father — the crisis reordered her life.
“This was my cause,” the 44-year-old Alawa said. “I couldn’t stop.”
With little more than a computer, a cellphone, and a knack for getting people to help, she created an international relief agency out of her house. In the last two years, NuDay Syria has sent 53 shipping containers packed with medical supplies, clothing, food, and toys to conflict zones in northern Syria.

"This was my cause." 

Is there a possibility that cause has a religious motivation? That was my question as I kept reading the Globe's riveting account of the circumstances in Syria and Alawa's passion to make a positive difference.

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That story on a Southern Baptist church's sunset? Yes, it's 'really sweet,' but it falls short journalism-wise

That story on a Southern Baptist church's sunset? Yes, it's 'really sweet,' but it falls short journalism-wise

On one level, there's much to like about a recent Washington Post takeout on a white Southern Baptist church that gave way to an Arabic congregation.

To its credit, the 3,000-plus-word piece out of Murfreesboro, Tenn., south of Nashville, is filled with nice color and detail: 

Attendance at the Southern Baptist church on Scenic Drive had dwindled to about 15 most Sundays. The potted plant by the pulpit was from yet another member’s funeral. There was $5,000 in the church bank account and $6,000 in bills when Larry Montgomery, a deacon, reached a conclusion once unthinkable in the heart of the Bible Belt.
“We’re just not going to make it,” he announced to the members of Scenic Drive Baptist, and then he told them he might have found a solution.
There was another congregation, he said, a small one that had been meeting in living rooms and whose pastor carried business cards that quoted from John 4:35: “Look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.” Maybe they wanted to buy the church.
And so phone calls were placed, and a few days later, the prospective buyers held a prayer meeting about what to do.
“Abuna Semawi, nashkurak,” the pastor began in Arabic. “Heavenly Father, we thank you.”

Even Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., tweeted a link to the piece and complimented it:

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Evangelizing Muslims: The Oklahoman barely skims departing pastor's plans

Evangelizing Muslims: The Oklahoman barely skims departing pastor's plans

A pastor announces he's leaving after eight years to become a missionary to Muslims -- a pretty unusual move -- and the local newspaper story leads off with clichés.

"The Rev. Mateen Elass looks back on his extraordinary faith journey with the firm conviction that the Lord has been preparing him his whole life for 'such a time as this'," says the first paragraph in The Oklahoman.  Only in the third and fourth paragraphs does it get to the point:

Elass, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Edmond, is leaving the pastorate to devote his time to preaching the Christian Gospel to Muslims. He also wants to help equip the Christian Church to effectively do the same.
Sunday, Elass will preach his final sermon as leader of his church.

His is the only voice in this story of nearly 1,000 words. We're told that many members of the church were surprised to hear he's leaving, while others "weren’t shocked at all." We also read that many Christians say Elass has a "unique perspective about Islam," having come from that world. But none of those people are named or quoted directly.

And some crucial questions go unanswered.

Instead, we get press-release stuff like "Elass said he is motivated and passionate about his new divine assignment." What else would he say? That he's jaded and apathetic? And nearly half the text is taken with Elass' beliefs on the need for Christians to serve, not just consume.

He talks about plans to blog, go on TV and radio, even speak at debates and forums. And he plans to train other Christians to reach Muslims as well. Will he work alone or with an organization? Will he train Americans or Middle Eastern Christians?  How much will it cost per year? How will he raise funds -- crowdsourcing, private appeals, other?

And where will Elass work -- in the U.S. or elsewhere? Granted, Christian missionaries often have to be quiet about where they work, given the hostility of many Muslims toward evangelization. But even mentioning the continent or region -- Africa, the Middle East, North America, etc. -- would give us readers something.

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