Did you hear about ISIS razing an ancient monastery and desecrating saint's tomb?

Did you hear about ISIS razing an ancient monastery and desecrating saint's tomb?

What is there to say about the never ending Islamic State horrors being reported out of Syria? Clearly the soldiers of ISIS are equal-opportunity oppressors, when it comes to the lives and cultures of religious minorities unfortunate enough to cross their path.

When it comes to crushing truly ancient, irreplaceable wonders linked to the lives and histories of apostates, the ISIS jihadists may view one ruin or sanctuary as the same as the next.

The same, however, cannot be said of how most American journalists view these horrors. Apparently, some travesties are more important than others. Things are quite different on the other side of the Atlantic, however.

Right now, for example, journalists on both sides of the pond are -- as they should -- devoting quite a bit of coverage to the destruction of a priceless ruin in Palmyra. These was the news insiders had been fearing for weeks, especially after the shocking and disgraceful beheading of antiquities expert Khalid al-Asaad.

This solid Washington Post report -- pointing to the BBC -- was typical:

The Islamic State has reportedly destroyed another significant landmark in the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria.
The temple of Baal Shamin stood for nearly two millennia, honoring the Phoenician god of storms and rain, as the BBC reported. Destruction of the site would be directly in line with the Islamic State’s campaign not just against people of other faiths, but against their culture. 
“Oh Muslims, these artifacts that are behind me were idols and gods worshipped by people who lived centuries ago instead of Allah,” one militant said of antiquities in Mosul, Iraq, earlier this year. After the Islamic State captured Palmyra in May, Baal Shamin seems to have fallen to the group’s philosophy.

As I said, this is major news that deserved solid coverage. We've been dealing with the complexities of these topics for weeks, as in this Ira post.

However, did you hear about the destruction of the irreplaceable frescos and sanctuaries at the Mar Elian monastery?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

The (insert adjective here) Islamic State strikes again, for reasons that are hard to explain

The (insert adjective here) Islamic State strikes again, for reasons that are hard to explain

Journalists continue to wrestle with a problem that they now face day after day: How to describe the Islamic State in a way that admits the obvious, that this horror is rooted in its leaders'  approach to the Islamic faith, yet using accurate words that are not offensive to mainstream Muslims.

This needs to be a formula that can be used over and over, with variations, and take a sentence or two at most.

For all of you non-journalists reading this: Accurate daily journalism is tough work.

I thought of this struggle yet again read some of the mainstream coverage of the tragic and twisted death of 83-year-old Khalid al-Asaad, the antiquities expert who was often called "Mr. Palmyra." This story continues to read like nightmares from "Game of Thrones" scripts. In the New York Times story there is this

After detaining him for weeks, the jihadists dragged him on Tuesday to a public square where a masked swordsman cut off his head in front of a crowd, Mr. Asaad’s relatives said. His blood-soaked body was then suspended with red twine by its wrists from a traffic light, his head resting on the ground between his feet, his glasses still on, according to a photo distributed on social media by Islamic State supporters. ...
The public killing of Mr. Asaad, who had retired a decade before and had recently turned 83, his son said, highlighted the Islamic State’s brutality as it seeks to replace the government of President Bashar al-Assad with a punishing interpretation of Islam across its self-declared caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq.

What, precisely, does the word "punishing" mean in that context? There is no "punishing" element -- differences of degree, not kind -- in Iran or Saudi Arabia? What is the specific information readers are supposed to draw from that unique adjective? Hold that thought.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Some crucial faith facts, in New York Times report on the young ISIS honeymooners

Some crucial faith facts, in New York Times report on the young ISIS honeymooners

When telling stories involving people motivated by faith, it is crucial for readers to be able to hear the voices of these individuals describing their beliefs and motivations. But what happens when it is either impossible to interview the key people, perhaps for legal reasons, or they have no intention of answering questions from journalists or anyone else?

This is where the Internet and, especially, forums linked to social media have become so important in this day and age. You can see how this works in a recent New York Times story, which centers on the latest shocking tale of young people from the American heartland who have been arrested while trying to flee the evils of America to join the Islamic state.

The story, this time, unfolds in Starkville, Miss., a university town in which the locals, as the Times team states in classic elite mode, "tend to be proud of Starkville’s relative tolerance." The key players are Muhammad Dakhlalla, a young man from an outgoing, community oriented Muslim family known as "a walking advertisement for Islam as a religion of tolerance and peace." His fiancé, 19-year-old Jaelyn Young, is an honor student, a cheerleader and a  recent convert to Islam. The two tried to marry as Muslims, but her father refused to grant his permission. Their plan was to say they were flying to Turkey on their honeymoon.

Obviously, legal authorities have been following their activities via email and social media. That leads to this brief, but revealing, exchange:

Ms. Young, who three years ago was broadcasting silly jokes on Twitter and singing the praises of the R&B singer Miguel, had more recently professed a desire to join the Islamic State, according to an F.B.I. agent’s affidavit in support of a criminal complaint. On July 17, the day after a young Muslim man in Chattanooga, Tenn., fatally shot five United States servicemen, Ms. Young rejoiced, the affidavit alleges, in an online message to an F.B.I. agent posing as a supporter of the Islamic State.
“Alhamdulillah,” she wrote, using the Arabic word of praise to God, “the numbers of supporters are growing.”

Please respect our Commenting Policy

An ISIS 'Theology of Rape' — strong New York Times story retreats from Quran details

 An ISIS 'Theology of Rape' — strong New York Times story retreats from Quran details

It would be hard to imagine a story much more hellish than the lengthy New York Times piece that is racing around the Internet today that ran under this blunt headline: "ISIS Enshrines a
Theology of Rape."

However, it is the second piece of the double-decker headline that will be the most controversial and discussed part of this piece: "Claiming the Quran’s support, the Islamic State codifies sex slavery in conquered regions of Iraq and Syria and uses the practice as a recruiting tool."

The bottom line: To make that statement, the Times team needs to show readers specific references in the Quran, by quoting them, and then show proof of how ISIS leaders are interpreting those passages, perhaps through a lens from earlier expressions of the faith. It would then help, of course, to show how mainstream Islamic scholars, and experts outside of Islam, read those same passages today.

The Times gets most of that done and must be praised for making the effort. It is interesting, however, that the weakest parts of the piece concern the actual contents of the Quran and the doctrines being debated. The piece is stronger -- brutally so -- when dealing with the people. 

The Times claims that this "theology of rape" essentially begins on Aug. 3, 2014, with the invasion of the Yazidis communities on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq. Among those captured, men and older boys were forced to prostrate and then were sprayed with machine guns. Women and younger children were separated and carried away in trucks, with other goals in mind. Much of this reporting is based on documentation gathered by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

This brings us to the thesis passage of this massive news feature:

The systematic rape of women and girls from the Yazidi religious minority has become deeply enmeshed in the organization and the radical theology of the Islamic State in the year since the group announced it was reviving slavery as an institution. Interviews with 21 women and girls who recently escaped the Islamic State, as well as an examination of the group’s official communications, illuminate how the practice has been enshrined in the group’s core tenets. ...
A total of 5,270 Yazidis were abducted last year, and at least 3,144 are still being held, according to community leaders. To handle them, the Islamic State has developed a detailed bureaucracy of sex slavery, including sales contracts notarized by the ISIS-run Islamic courts. And the practice has become an established recruiting tool to lure men from deeply conservative Muslim societies, where casual sex is taboo and dating is forbidden.
A growing body of internal policy memos and theological discussions has established guidelines for slavery, including a lengthy how-to manual issued by the Islamic State Research and Fatwa Department just last month. Repeatedly, the ISIS leadership has emphasized a narrow and selective reading of the Quran and other religious rulings to not only justify violence, but also to elevate and celebrate each sexual assault as spiritually beneficial, even virtuous. 

In other words, rape is a form of spiritual discipline when the woman being raped is part of a religion that is considered heresy. Or, as a young girl described what happened before and after she was raped:

“He kept telling me this is ibadah,” she said, using a term from Islamic scripture meaning worship.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Adding to the Middle East mix; this time we're talking about Jewish terrorism

Adding to the Middle East mix; this time we're talking about Jewish terrorism

Despicable Jew-on-Jew and suspected Jew-on-Palestinian acts of violence were committed in Israel last week, producing much agonized soul-searching among Israeli and Diaspora Jews over how this could happen. Not surprisingly, the international media has been all over the story, supplying enough answers to the question of "how" to satisfy every taste.

Here's a quick summation of events: 

Within the span of just a few days, right wing religious settlers clashed with government forces seeking to remove illegally built West Bank settler homes, an ultra-Orthodox man attacked a Jerusalem gay pride parade, knifing six and killing a teenaged Jewish girl, and suspected extremist religious settlers set fire to a Palestinian home, killing a toddler. (I say suspected because, as of this writing, no one's actually been charged with the crime, though all signs point to the involvement of radical Jews.) 

Want more detail, including how the Israeli government has reacted to these events? Read this solid Washington Post piece published earlier this week.

Israeli Jewish civilian violence rooted in religious or political extremism -- or an unfortunate mix of the two -- is not quite the man-bites-dog story it's generally portrayed to be. Sadly, it happens too often for that to be the case. Jews, Israeli or otherwise, are no less immune to the darker human impulses than anyone else. 

Still, the anguished "How could Jews do this?" trope carried the day.

My reading of the media landscape tells me that this is the case for several reasons.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

From the good old days to the hellish ISIS days for Christians in Middle East? Really?

From the good old days to the hellish ISIS days for Christians in Middle East? Really?

At the time of 9/11, I was living in South Florida and attending an Eastern Orthodox parish in which the majority of the members were, by heritage, either Palestinian, Syrian or Lebanese. Needless to say, I spent quite a bit of time hearing the details of their family stories -- about life in the old country and the forces that pushed them to America.

The key detail: It was never easy living in the Middle East during the Ottoman Empire era, even when times were relatively peaceful. While it was easy to focus on the horrible details of the times of intense persecution, it was important to realize that Christians and those in other religious minorities had learned to accept a second-class status in which they were safe, most of the time, but not truly free.

In other words, the Good Old Days were difficult, but not as difficult as the times of fierce persecution, suffering and death.

Clearly, the rise of the Islamic State has created a new crisis, one that is truly historic in scope -- especially in the Nineveh Plain. The drive to eliminate Christian populations in a region that has been their home since the apostolic era raises all kinds of questions about religious freedom, as well as questions for the USA and other Western states to which these new martyrs will appeal for help.

In recent years, human-rights activists have asked when this phenomenon would receive major attention in elite American newsrooms. The coverage has, in recent years, been on the rise. That said, a recent New York Times Sunday Magazine feature on this topic must be seen as a landmark.
The epic double-decker headline proclaimed:

Is This the End of Christianity in the Middle East?
ISIS and other extremist movements across the region are enslaving, killing and uprooting Christians, with no aid in sight.

There is much that I want to praise in this piece. It's a must-read piece for everyone who cares about religion news in the mainstream press.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

So that beach guy doing a Facebook selfie? Add a beard and he's an ISIS warrior

So that beach guy doing a Facebook selfie? Add a beard and he's an ISIS warrior

Earlier this week, I pled with readers to pay attention to Washington Post feature about the problems -- that seems like such a weak word in this case -- the Islamic State is causing for Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and other companies in the freewheeling world of social media.

What's at stake? Well, obviously, there are thousands and thousands of lives at stake. The future of ancient Christian communions are at stake, along with other minority religious groups in the Nineveh Plain and elsewhere in the region.

Oh, right, and the First Amendment is at risk, too. That's all.

I'm happy to report that readers responded and, apparently, passed the URL for that post (here it is again) around online, because it was one of our most highly read articles so far this month. Thank you. It will not surprise you that this topic also served as the hook for this week's "Crossroads" podcast, as well. Click here to tune in on that discussion.

Now, several times during the discussion, host Todd Wilken asked me what I think social-media professionals should do in this situation. What should First Amendment supporters do, as ISIS keeps managing to stay one or two steps ahead of attempts to control their use of technology to spread both their images of violence and, in some ways even worse, their emotionally manipulative and even poetic messages that target the emotions and faith of potential recruits to their cause?

The bottom line: I have no idea. This is one of those times when free speech liberals, such as myself, face the negative side of the global freedoms that digital networks have unleashed in the marketplace of ideas. How do you ban twisted forms if Islam, when other forms of this world faith use the same terms and images in different ways? How can a search engine detect motives and metaphors?

And what about the ability of individual ISIS members to use social media, while acting as individuals? I mean, look at this amazing, horrifying case as reported in The Daily Mail!

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Washington Post's stunning look at ISIS, social media and the First Amendment

Washington Post's stunning look at ISIS, social media and the First Amendment

As a rule, GetReligion readers do not respond well to posts that praise articles in the mainstream press. Readers do not leave comments or rush to share these links with their friends on Facebook or Twitter.

Over the past 11 years, I've spotted similar patterns when I have written posts about articles that are quite long. That's pretty easy to understand, since we are all busy and in this digital age we are bombarded with information from many sources, each competing for our attention.

The folks who do journalism research also know that American readers, as a rule, are not very interested in international news. We are more driven to read stories about conflicts, controversies and culture wars in our own back yard.

I know all of that. However, what you are reading right now is a positive post about a very long article in The Washington Post focusing on the tensions that the Islamic State's campaigns in social media are causing for digital entrepreneurs who are, as a rule, fierce defenders of the First Amendment. Please read this Post article and do that mouse-click thing you can do, passing this URL along to others. This is a very important topic if you care about journalism, free speech and freedom of religion.

Why does it matter so much to me? As faithful readers know, I am -- as a professor -- fascinated with how technology shapes the content of the information in our lives. With that in mind, let me ask this: How many of you have used the online Wayback Machine that allows you to flash back in time and look at archived webpages? Now, how many of you have pondered the impact of the nonprofit Internet Archive in San Francisco on ISIS communications efforts?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

In Chattanooga, journalists ask the obvious question: What role did gunman's religion play?

In Chattanooga, journalists ask the obvious question: What role did gunman's religion play?

The banner headline in today's Chattanooga Times Free Press tells the story:

'Nightmare For Our City'

Here we go again: One more mass shooting. One more devastated community. One more dead gunman who leaves a plethora of unanswered questions in his wake.

Right beside its main story on the four U.S. Marines killed in Thursday's rampage, a Times Free Press sidebar asks the obvious question:

Who was Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez?

But at this point, even the exact spelling of Abdulazeez's first name is unclear: Federal authorities and records gave at least four variations, as The Associated Press reported. While the Times Free Press goes with "Mohammad," and AP uses "Muhammad," The New York Times identifies him as "Mohammod."

The spelling issue aside, however, the suspect's Muslim background and potential ties to Islamic extremists is drawing major media attention, and rightfully so. Much of that coverage relies on a blog tied to Abdulazeez.

This is the headline on a Washington Post report:

Please respect our Commenting Policy