Disturbing think piece for Thanksgiving week: It's time to open a file on Wilayat Sinai

Disturbing think piece for Thanksgiving week: It's time to open a file on Wilayat Sinai

Veteran GetReligion readers -- or religion-beat pros with a global perspective -- are probably familiar with the work of Dr. Jenny Taylor, a foreign-affairs reporter turned media critic, and Lapido Media, which is also known as the Centre for Religious Literacy in World Affairs.

I have featured "think pieces" from Lapido (which means "to speak up" in the Acholi dialect of Northern Uganda) here many times and will continue to do so. The simple fact of the matter is that news media on the other side of the pond are being forced -- ambushed by reality, really -- to take religion more seriously. Lapido's work is playing a role in helping journalists, and diplomats, dig deeper.

This brings me to the site's new briefing paper on the rise of Wilayat Sinai, the Islamic State affiliate that is on the rise in Egypt. This group was almost unknown in North American media -- until the alleged downing of that Russian airliner the other day.

So, reporters, are you like me? Is the name Abu Osama al-Masry almost totally foreign to you? Then this Lapido Media think piece -- continuing work the centre began publishing a year ago -- needs to go in your files. A sample or two? Sure.

A former Azhar student and clothing importer Abu Osama al-Masry claimed responsibility on behalf of Wilayat Sinai. ‘They were shocked by a people who sought the hereafter, loved death, and had a thirst for blood’, he said.
‘We will inherit your soil, homes, wealth, and capture your women! This is Allah’s promise’.

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Associated Press finds debates about Syrian refugee crisis -- among former refugees

Associated Press finds debates about Syrian refugee crisis -- among former refugees

The following is a public service announcement to mainstream journalists who are frantically trying to cover all of the different political angles of the current Syrian refugee debates: Please remember that the word "Syrian" does not equal "Muslim."

This is, of course, a variation on another equation that causes trouble for some journalists who are not used to covering religion: "Arab" does not equal "Muslim."

Thus, if and when you seek the viewpoints of Arab refugees who are already settled in America, including those who came here during previous waves of bloodshed in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, please strive to interview a few Syrian Christians and members of other religious minorities.

This is especially important when covering tensions in the declining industrial cities of the Midwest and Northeast, where Arabs of all kinds have been settling for generations. You will often find that many of these tensions are, literally, ancient.

This is a rather personal issue for me, since my family was part of an Orthodox parish for four years in South Florida (including 9/11) in which most of the families had Syrian and Lebanese roots. It also helps to remember that many people who come to America from Lebanon were driven into Lebanon by persecution in Syria, much earlier in the 20th Century.

To see these factors at work, check out this recent Associated Press "Big Story" feature that took the time to talk to a variety of voices on both sides of some of these divides.

ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) -- A few days ago, a pastor asked Syrian-born restaurant owner Marie Jarrah to donate food to a welcoming event for recently arrived Syrian refugees. Jarrah, who said she regularly helps people in need, declined.

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Washington Post goes inside ISIS propaganda machine (with near zero interest in message)

Washington Post goes inside ISIS propaganda machine (with near zero interest in message)

I was about halfway through the latest Washington Post news feature on life inside the Islamic State -- "Inside the surreal world of the Islamic State’s propaganda machine" -- when something hit me.

The Post team had produced a fascinating and haunting piece about the ISIS teams that crank out its propaganda, while focusing only on the hellish or heavenly images in the videos. Apparently the words that define the messages contained in all of this social-media material are completely irrelevant.

This is rather strange, considering the meaning of the word "propaganda," as defined in your typical online dictionary:

prop·a·gan·da ... noun
1. derogatory information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.

After 20-plus years of teaching mass communications and journalism, trust me when I say that I know that we live in a visual, emotional age. The Post article does a great job of describing the care given to the images and the music that are helping define the Islamic State for both its converts and enemies.

But are the words that define the visual symbols completely irrelevant? Why ignore what the voices and texts are saying about the goals and teachings of the caliphate?

I can only think of one reason: Quoting the content of the propaganda would require the reporters and editors at the Post to deal with the twisted, radicalized version of Islam that ISIS leaders are promoting, it would mean dealing with the content of the state's theology (as opposed to its political ideology, alone). Ignore the words and you can continue to ignore the religion element in this story.

OK, that's my main point. I also want to stress that this is a must-read story, even with this massive Allah-shaped hole in its content.

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Syrian refugees, redux: This time, AP remembers to ask religious leaders

Syrian refugees, redux: This time, AP remembers to ask religious leaders

Last week I criticized the Associated Press for writing about Syrian Christian refugees without talking to any Christians. (Thinking back, I don’t think they talked to Syrians either.) Well, AP finally got around to asking not only Christians but those of a range of faiths. And they did a beautiful job. Especially compared to some stories I could mention.

The background, of course, is the public anxiety over President Barack Obama's plans to bring in 10,000 or more refugees from the Syrian civil war over the next year. In the wake of the recent attacks in Paris, and reports that cells of terrorists are dotted all over Europe, many Americans worry that some of the killers may enter the country posing as refugees.

This is a story on which religious groups have clear viewpoints, and Godbeat pro Rachel Zoll of AP rounds up those perspectives. She samples views of Protestants, Catholics, Jews and even an American Muslim group. Her thorough report shows a remarkable consensus among them.

The top of the story could hardly be better:

In rare agreement across faith and ideological lines, leaders of major American religious groups have condemned proposed bans on Syrian refugees, contending a legitimate debate over security has been overtaken by irrational fear and prejudice.
Top organizations representing evangelicals, Roman Catholics, Jews and liberal Protestants say close vetting of asylum seekers is a critical part of forming policy on refugees. But these religious leaders say such concerns, heightened after the Paris attacks a week ago, do not warrant blocking those fleeing violence in the Middle East.

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That question once again after Paris: Is Islam a 'religion of peace'?

That question once again after Paris: Is Islam a 'religion of peace'?

EDITOR'S NOTE: With the Islamic State claiming responsibility for the Friday the 13th massacres in Paris, the Religion Guy is re-posting the following blog item from February 23, 2015. That post ran under the headline: "What does it mean to ask: Is Islam a 'religion of peace'?"



Where is the Muslim peace movement? Put another way, if Islam is a peace-loving religion where are the Muslim voices for peace?


“Islam is a religion that preaches peace,” U.S. President Barack Obama told CBS ... and likewise President George W. Bush’s mosque speech after 9/11 said “Islam is peace.” Yet there’s continual violence committed in the name of Islam. Analysts are abuzz over a major article in The Atlantic by Graeme Wood, who contends the bloodthirsty Islamic State Caliphate is thoroughly grounded in end-times theology and “governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers.” Wood cites especially the research of Princeton University’s Bernard Haykel.

In this tangled discussion one point is obvious: This great world religion is embroiled in an increasingly dangerous internal conflict as an expanding faction of militant “Islamists” or “jihadis” works to abolish Muslim thinkers’ consensus across centuries about justifications for violence, the proper conduct of wasrfare, and who has the authority to decide such matters. John Esposito, a Georgetown University expert, calls it a “struggle for the soul of Islam.”

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On Syrian refugees, AP finds it easier to talk about Christians than to them

On Syrian refugees, AP finds it easier to talk about Christians than to them

Ever hear people talk about you while you're standing right there? It comes close to that in an Associated Press story on whether to accept Syrian refugees into the United States.

"Should the U.S. admit Syrians only if they are Christian?" the headline says in Crux, the Catholic newsmagazine of the Boston Globe. AP talks to politicians. They quote government officials all the way up to President Obama. And they major, of course, on presidential candidates who brought up the issue in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris last week.

Who don’t they ask? That's right. Christians. For AP, the religious angle is just a front for politics:

The debate, which cuts straight to the American identity as a refuge, on Monday ranged from whether to only admit Syrians who are Christian to whether to close some mosques. But across the political landscape, caution intensified about vetting Syrian refugees and whether to allow them into the country at all.
GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump suggested in a MSNBC interview that he would “strongly consider” closing some mosques if elected. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said the United States should focus on admitting Christians. And GOP presidential contender Marco Rubio for the first time said the United States should no longer accept Syrian refugees because it’s impossible to know whether they have links to Islamic militants — an apparent shift from earlier statements in which he left open the prospects of migrants being admitted with proper vetting.

Oh yeah, something else must annoy you as much as me: when the gossip is vague and inaccurate. What does closing mosques have to do with Christian refugees? Does it sharpen focus to talk about turning away all refugees, Christian or not? And does Bush really want to admit only Syrians who are Christians?

Because that ain't what Bush said, according to AP -- even though the story has Obama saying he did:

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Really? A Starbucks cup is news and a Judenrein Kristallnacht commemoration isn't?

Really? A Starbucks cup is news and a Judenrein Kristallnacht commemoration isn't?

Let's start with some basic questions.

Raise your hands if you're familiar with the recent story about a Starbuck's coffee cup. You know, the red one. C'mon, keep them up. I'm counting. (Play along. Someday there'll be an app for this.)

Ah-ha. Quite a few of you, I see.

Now, how many of you are aware of the story about how the Swedish city of Umea marked the 77th anniversary of Kristallnacht last week but didn't invite local Jews because city officials thought it too dangerous for them to attend?

Not many hands in the air this time, I see. I'm not surprised.

Last question: What does it say about the American news media that a silly non-story about a Starbucks' cup shows up everywhere, but a Judenrein Kristallnacht commemoration passes largely unreported?

I'd say a great deal. None of it good.

So I just said "last question," but here's one more. Why does it take a Paris massacre for journalists to pay close and continued attention to the individual dots that when connected lead to mass terrorist assaults?

Here's some background -- not on the cup. What's left to say? Let's talk about the incident in Umea.

The following is excerpted from The Daily Beast, one of the very few American news outlets to report the story, even if it did so with an incomplete and poorly edited story.

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'Would Jesus take in Syrian refugees?': Washington Post asks the right question

'Would Jesus take in Syrian refugees?': Washington Post asks the right question

In a post yesterday afternoon on the Paris attacks, U.S. politics and Syrian refugees, I pleaded for introducing a little theology into the discussion.

My main points, in case you missed them:

Not that every story quoting a Christian must ask "What would Jesus do?" But I'd be curious to know how the folks quoted — presumably Christians — balance their politics with their theology: Did Jesus say anything about how to treat one's enemies? If so, does what he said have any application to the refugee situation?
Along those same lines, does the Bible say anything about how Christians are to treat refugees? Does tightening one's borders fit the theological content of the Scriptures? Why or why not? On social media, Christians certainly are asking those sorts of questions (and yes, coming to different conclusions).
Given the big news in Paris — and beyond — now would seem like prime time for reporters to engage such discussions.

About the same time my post went live (so, unfortunately, I can't claim credit), The Washington Post published a story by Godbeat pro Michelle Boorstein that asks:

Would Jesus take in Syrian refugees?

That's definitely the right question, if you ask me.

The Post's lede:

For many American Christians, the Paris attacks have revealed a conflict between two priorities: The cause of persecuted Middle Eastern Christians and a hard line on security.
Following reports that one of the Paris attackers had a Syrian passport and had allegedly registered as a refugee, multiple GOP presidential candidates called for bans on Syrian refugees. On Monday, multiple GOP governors joined in. Considering the United States has absorbed fewer than 2,000 Syrians, this may seem like political posturing, but Congress is set later this year to debate funding for another 10,000 who President Obama has said he wants to admit. 
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said Sunday that Christians only, not Muslims, should be allowed in. Ben Carson said accepting any Syrian refugees requires a “suspension of intellect.” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Donald Trump and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal also said the country shouldn’t take any more Syrian refugees.
Over the weekend, prominent evangelist Franklin Graham repeated calls he’s made before to scrutinize Muslim refugees. ...
The question is particularly complicated for conservative Christians, who have become increasingly concerned in the last few years about the plight of Christians in the Middle East and simultaneously are often the most guarded about border security and increased immigration.

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Pope, Paris and ISIS: mainstream media coverage broad but shallow

Pope, Paris and ISIS: mainstream media coverage broad but shallow

Pope Francis didn’t just criticize the ISIS attacks in Paris. He pretty much damned them. His weekend reactions used both religious and humanitarian terms -- "blasphemy," "not human," "homicidal hatred." It was some of Francis' strongest language yet.

But not everyone in mainstream media looked much below the surface -- either at his comments or those of ISIS.

Catholic News Service, of course, spotted the religious content quickly:

The attacks, Pope Francis said, were an "unspeakable affront to the dignity of the human person."
"The path of violence and hatred cannot resolve the problems of humanity, and using the name of God to justify this path is blasphemy," he said.
Pope Francis asked the thousands of people who gathered at St. Peter's for the Sunday midday prayer to observe a moment of silence and to join him in reciting a Hail Mary.
"May the Virgin Mary, mother of mercy, give rise in the hearts of everyone thoughts of wisdom and proposals for peace," he said. "We ask her to protect and watch over the dear French nation, the first daughter of the church, over Europe and the whole world."
"Let us entrust to the mercy of God the innocent victims of this tragedy," the pope said.

And other reports? Well, some simply patched together other reports. One of those was HuffPost, which linked to seven other stories in less than 230 words (although three were other HuffPo stories).  The article also cites Francis saying the attacks are part of a "piecemeal Third World War," drawn from an interview with TV2000, the network of the Italian Bishops' Conference.

It's a phrase he has often used. The Washington Times points out that he said much the same at an Italian World War I cemetery in 2014. But don’t give the Times too much credit for enterprise reporting: It linked to BBC's coverage of the pope's visit there.

Even the combined forces of CBS News and the Associated Press yielded a pitiful 280 words or so on Sunday. And it's nearly all soundbites: "blasphemy," "barbarity," "third world war," "no justification for these things." The main addition was his condolence to French President Francois Hollande, who vowed "merciless" war on ISIS.

One might excuse AP/CBS for haste because the report ran on Sunday morning, but no. Not when Crux, the Catholic newsmagazine of the Boston Globe, ran a more thorough report the day before -- a report that showed a Sunday update:

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