Terrorism

Trying to figure out the 'Why?' in hellish reality of the school massacre in Pakistan

Trying to figure out the 'Why?' in hellish reality of the school massacre in Pakistan

All school shootings force journalists to wrestle with images from hell and the information that poured out of Peshawar, Pakistan, was tragically familiar. Here is part of the barrage from the top of a long report in The Los Angeles Times:

When it was over, 132 children and nine staff members were dead ... at an army-run school in this northeastern city in one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in Pakistan’s troubled history. Many were shot in the temple at close range. One 9-year-old told his father that a classmate’s head was nearly blown off.

Seven assailants wearing explosives-laden suicide vests fought a daylong gun battle with Pakistani soldiers and police commandos, trapping hundreds of students and teachers in the Army Public School compound where the attackers planted bombs to deter the security forces.

The story is packed with the kinds of details news consumers expect in live, dateline reports from major news scenes. If you want the "who," "what," "when," "where" and "how" of this story, you are going to find it in this Los Angeles Times report and in many similar reports in the mainstream media.

But the "why" is another matter. Many journalists seem to assume that readers already know the "why" part of the equation and leave this crucial information unstated.

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After the horrors in Sydney: How do journalists report the motives of a truly radical, fringe Muslim believer?

After the horrors in Sydney: How do journalists report the motives of a truly radical, fringe Muslim believer?

The horrors that surround hostage dramas are confusing enough on their own. Throw in complex questions about religious faith and terrorism and journalists and this kind of story pushes journalists -- in real time, under unbelievable amounts of pressure -- to their intellectual and personal limits.

Looking back on the Sydney crisis (following the early post by Bobby Ross., Jr.) I am struck by one interesting question that journalists faced and, for the most part, ducked: What was the motive? Why did gunman Man Haron Monis -- the most frequently used of his many names -- do what he did? Lacking the ability to read his mind, what concrete clues were offered during this act of symbolic violence?

A news report from The Daily Beast offered this interesting information, which I did not see repeated in most other mainstream reports:

Monis walked into the café on Monday and took everyone inside hostage. He used some of the captives as human shields and forced others to hold a black flag with white Arabic writing against the window. ...
Monis had been convicted on charges related to offensive letters he sent to the families of Australian soldiers who died serving in Afghanistan. He was out on bail as an alleged accessory to the murder of his ex-wife, as well as a string of 50 indecent and sexual-assault charges in connection to his time as a self-proclaimed spiritual leader.
Monis used a YouTube account to post a series of videos showing hostages reciting his demands, which included the delivery of the black flag of ISIS. He asked “to please broadcast on all media that this is an attack on Australia by the Islamic State,” and to speak to Prime Minister Tony Abbott. (YouTube has since removed the videos from the account.)

Yet at the end of this same report, readers were told:

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Islamic extremism role in Australia? Facts sketchy in Sydney hostage crisis

Islamic extremism role in Australia? Facts sketchy in Sydney hostage crisis

As I type this, the possible role of Islamic extremism in the Sydney hostage crisis remains unclear.

 

The latest from The Associated Press:

SYDNEY (AP) -- Five people escaped from a Sydney cafe where a gunman took an unknown number of hostages during Monday morning rush hour. Two people inside the cafe earlier held up a flag with an Islamic declaration of faith that has often been used by extremists, raising fears that a terrorist incident was playing out in the heart of Australia's biggest city.
The first three people ran out of the Lindt Chocolat Cafe in downtown Sydney six hours into the hostage crisis, and two women sprinted from a fire exit into the arms of waiting police shortly afterward. Both women were wearing aprons with the Lindt chocolate logo, indicating they were cafe employees.
As the siege entered its 12th hour Monday night, basic questions remained unanswered. Police refused to say how many hostages were inside the cafe, what they believed the gunman's motives might be, whether he had made any demands or whether the hostages who fled the cafe escaped or were released.
"I would like to give you as much as I can but right now that is as much as I can," New South Wales state police Commissioner Andrew Scipione said. "First and foremost, we have to make sure we do nothing that could in any way jeopardize those still in the building."

The AP report notes:

Television video shot through the cafe's windows showed several people with their arms in the air and hands pressed against the glass, and two people holding up a black flag with the Shahada, or Islamic declaration of faith, written on it.
The Shahada translates as "There is no god but God and Muhammad is his messenger." It is considered the first of Islam's five pillars of faith, and is similar to the Lord's Prayer in Christianity. It is pervasive throughout Islamic culture, including the green flag of Saudi Arabia. Jihadis have used the Shahada in their own black flag.

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Islamic State's reign of terror named top religion story of 2014 by Religion Newswriters Association

Islamic State's reign of terror named top religion story of 2014 by Religion Newswriters Association

The No. 1 religion news story of 2014?

The extremist Islamic State's reign of terror narrowly edged the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the Hobby Lobby case, in balloting by Religion Newswriters Association members.

The results were announced Thursday.

For the second straight year, Pope Francis was chosen as the Religion Newsmaker of the Year.

The full top 10 (actually three, since there were three ties), via an RNA news release:

1.  The self-styled Islamic State expands a reign of terror into Iraq and Syria, driving out the Iraqi army from Mosul and exiling ancient Christian communities, Yazidis and other religious minorities on threat of death. The United Nations, Christians and many Muslim groups strongly condemn the videotaped beheadings of American journalist James Foley and other hostages as inhumane and un-Islamic.
2.  In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court rules that two closely held companies — Hobby Lobby and Conestoga — can claim religious objections to contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act. The ruling is considered a victory for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and is highly controversial.

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The Washington Post wrestles with the dilemma that Muslim parents are facing in the West

The Washington Post wrestles with the dilemma that Muslim parents are facing in the West

If there has been one consistent theme over the past decade in GetReligion posts about Islam it has been a complaint that mainstream journalists rarely attempt to wrestle with the religious and even doctrinal content of the debates that are taking place inside the complex world of modern Islam.

Instead, the assumption in most newsrooms seems to be that so-called "moderate," or pro-Western Islam is the true Islam and that more fervent or even radical forms of the faith are "fundamentalist" and thus fake or twisted. Millions of Muslims, of course, are on opposite sides of that debate, which only goes to show that it is simplistic to view this complex and global faith as some kind of monolith.

But what do these debates look like at the human level, at the level of families, local mosques, schools and trips to the local shopping mall? Have you ever been waiting to board an airplane in an American airport and seen a Muslim family with the dad in a suit, the mother in modest clothing with a veil and the children standing behind them -- video games in their hands, hip headphones in place and decked out in clothing fresh off the fad racks at the local mall? What are the debates inside that family?

Journalists at The Washington Post tried to dig into that kind of story the other day with a Chicago-datelined piece about how some typical American Muslim teens ended up trying to flee this apostate land in order to support the goals of the Islamic State. It's clear that this was an attempt to wrestle with questions linked to what experts call "cocooning," the process of trying to keep children in the faith by, as the story says, "shielding" them from as "much American culture as possible by banning TV, the Internet and newspapers and sending them to Islamic schools."

Does this work? In this case, it didn't.

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Washington Post seeks an expert on 'homegrown American extremist' tied to Christian identity hate group

Washington Post seeks an expert on 'homegrown American extremist' tied to Christian identity hate group

Dig a little deeper.

That's a common refrain expressed here at GetReligion concerning mainstream media coverage of religion news.

When the Austin, Texas, police chief this week linked a gunman who shot up downtown buildings and tried to burn the Mexican Consulate with a Christian identity hate group, most news reports stuck to the barest of basic details about the group.

But the Washington Post dug just a little deeper, contacting an expert to provide insight on the Phineas Priesthood:

Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told The Post that the Phineas Priesthood is a “concept” that originated with “Vigilantes of Christendom,” which came out in 1990. The group takes its name from a story about the biblical figure of Phineas in the book of Numbers.
In the story, Phineas slays an Israelite man and a Midianite woman who were together in a tent. “To the extreme right, this [story] is a biblical injunction against race mixing,” Potok said. Phineas Priests would also use the passage to justify violent acts in the name of their beliefs.  “It’s very much a self-calling,” Potok said of those who would identify as Phineas Priesthood members.  “If you commit a Phineas act…you can be considered a Phineas priest.” 
In a backgrounder, the Anti-defamation league wrote that “the Phineas Priesthood is not a membership organization in the traditional sense: there are no meetings, rallies or newsletters.” The ADL added that “extremists become ‘members’ when they commit ‘Phineas acts:’ any violent activity against ‘non-whites.’” Potok noted that the affiliation does not have a national structure. ...
Its members identify themseves (sic) as Christians, however, “they are really not Christians in any sense that a christian (sic) would accept,” Potok added. Most mainstream American Christians, he said, would find a Phineas Priest’s reading of scripture to be “heretical."

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Muslim terrorists in Kenya attack people who, uh, aren't Muslims

Muslim terrorists in Kenya attack people who, uh, aren't Muslims

Our GetReligion guru, tmatt, likes to complain how news media talk about "generic Christians" in the Middle East. Well, much of the coverage of Saturday's mass murder in Kenya goes one further -- making the victims into generic "non-Muslims."

Here's the lead of the widely used version by the Associated Press:

Somalia’s Islamic extremist rebels, Al-Shabab, attacked a bus in northern Kenya at dawn Saturday, singling out and killing 28 passengers who could not recite an Islamic creed and were assumed to be non-Muslims, Kenyan police said.
Those who could not say the Shahada, a tenet of the Muslim faith, were shot at close range, a survivor told The Associated Press.

AP later says the killers "separated those who appeared to be non-Muslims  — mostly non-Somalis — from the rest." Their source for much of this? A "non-Muslim head teacher of a private primary school in Mandera [who] survived the attack." (Emphasis mine.)

The Los Angeles Times account follows suit in 800 distressingly vague words.  It says the killers "separated Muslims from non-Muslims," then shot the latter. Even when giving background -- saying the attack "follows the pattern of previous terror attacks in Kenya in which Muslims have been spared" -- it's fuzzy on Muslims as opposed to whom.

If the victims' religion made a difference, what was it? Buddhism? Hinduism? The answer should be obvious  to anyone who checks a database like the World Factbook by the CIA: 82.5 percent of Kenyans are Christian. While the nation also includes people of "traditionalist" faiths, and 2.4 percent are "nones," it's safe to say the main targets last weekend were Christians.

Especially when the Times quotes an Al-Shabab spokesman using the term "crusaders":

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When they want your head: Veteran journalist tells risks of Middle East reporting

When they want your head: Veteran journalist tells risks of Middle East reporting

At some point, reporters in the Middle East stopped covering murders and started getting murdered.

Jeffrey Goldberg remembers the turning point in Before the Beheadings, aptly named article in The Atlantic. Goldberg once enjoyed his dangerous beat, covering terrorism and religious wars in Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Middle East.  

At least he did, until the danger spread to reporters like himself -- a danger that preceded the killings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff this year:

The attacks of 9/11 weren’t the decisive break in the relationship between jihadists and journalists. It was the decision made by a set of extremists in Pakistan to kidnap the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in January 2002 that represented a shift in jihadist thought. To his kidnappers, Pearl was not a messenger to the outside world, but a scapegoat to be sacrificed for the sins of his fellow infidels. Murder was becoming their message.

Goldberg describes the paradoxical sense of danger and safety in reporting on various jihad groups. He writes about interviewing terrorist leaders on willingness to use nuclear bombs if available, and on how one even thought the Jews were "from Satan." But the jihadis gave safe passage to reporters, even Jewish ones like Goldberg, in order to tell their stories via news media.

Goldberg describes one such meeting, with Pakistani terrorist Fazlur Rehman Khalil:

I had glimpsed a treacherous and secret subculture, and I was happy, because a reporter’s deepest need is to see what is on the other side of a closed door. In exchange, I would tell people in the West about Khalil and his beliefs. I was appalled by his message, and I wanted readers to understand the horror of it. But Khalil believed he was doing good works, and he wanted the world to celebrate his philosophy. Back then, the transaction worked for both parties. Today, when I think about the meeting, I shudder.

He relates a fellow journalist's attitude: “I used to tell people that as a reporter for an American news organization, it was like we were wearing armor. “People just didn’t go after American reporters.”

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Crucial, symbolic details in the Jerusalem attack: Why the 'Twersky' name was so important

Crucial, symbolic details in the Jerusalem attack: Why the 'Twersky' name was so important

Anyone who wants to follow the daily flow of news and commentary -- light and serious -- about Jewish life knows that they need to be signed up for the daily newsletters from The Forward. I mean where else are you going to turn for key questions linked to the music of Pink Floyd?

Seriously, readers looking for the fine details on the lives of those lost in this week's bloody slaughter in the West Jerusalem synagogue (click here for the earlier Jim Davis post on the coverage) knew what they would find in the wave of coverage at The Forward. Whose blood was shed with those guns and knives and that ax? What made this attack so unique and disturbing? This is what specialty publications do -- offer depth.

In this case, that meant grasping the symbolic details at the heart of trends in modern Orthodox Judaism

It was all about the names "Twersky" and "Soloveitchik." This was, as is so often the case in Jewish news, about the past, the present and the future.

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