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’.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

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.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

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.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Ideology or theology? Is it time for Western journalists to start taking ISIS at its word?

Ideology or theology? Is it time for Western journalists to start taking ISIS at its word?

So here is an important question facing journalists, diplomats and presidential candidates as they ponder the mysteries of the Middle East, at this moment in time. This is the question that "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I explored in this week's podcast. Click here to check that out.

That question: Is ISIS a political state defined by a political system, by an ideology, in the same sense as the United States, France or Germany? Or, is the Islamic State best understood as a theocracy in which its political and religious institutions are wedded together, while operating according to laws and logic based on its leaders own understanding of Islamic theology and tradition?

Yes, ISIS leaders want land, oil, money, weapons and prisoners. But they also want converts -- other Muslims, for sure -- to their cause and their version of Islam, both in the regions they conquer as well as in the lands they threaten.

So ponder the opening lines of the recent ISIS statement (as printed in The Washington Post) in which its leaders claimed responsibility for the massacres in Paris:

In a blessed battle whose causes of success were enabled by Allah, a group of believers from the soldiers of the Caliphate (may Allah strengthen and support it) set out targeting the capital of prostitution and vice, the lead carrier of the cross in Europe -- Paris. This group of believers were youth who divorced the worldly life and advanced towards their enemy hoping to be killed for Allah's sake, doing so in support of His religion, His Prophet (blessing and peace be upon him), and His allies. They did so in spite of His enemies. Thus, they were truthful with Allah -- we consider them so -- and Allah granted victory upon their hands and cast terror into the hearts of the crusaders in their very own homeland.

The bottom line: Does this sound like political language?

The question, for journalists (and I assume statesmen as well) has become rather obvious: To what degree should the words of the ISIS leadership be taken seriously? When they say they are dedicated to building a caliphate -- an Islamic state for all of the world's Muslims -- to what degree should outsiders take that apocalyptic claim seriously?

Want to ponder a possible end-game here? Do the ISIS leaders plan to take Mecca from Saudi Arabia?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

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.”

Please respect our Commenting Policy

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.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

'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.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

In story on Paris attacks, U.S. politics and Syrian refugees, is there any room for theology?

In story on Paris attacks, U.S. politics and Syrian refugees, is there any room for theology?

Since the Paris attacks, my Facebook feed has filled up with two things:

1. Temporary profile pictures in the blue, white and red colors of the French flag.

2. Friends debating the pros and cons of allowing Syrian refugees into the U.S.

Michael, a minister, sparked 100-plus comments when he declared:

I know a lot of people will strongly disagree with this, but I think terrorists within our borders is the price we must be willing to pay if absolutely necessary for showing Christ-glorifying love and help to Syrian refugees who live with this evil every day. A sovereign God has called us to help and defend the cause of the immigrant, regardless of the costs. "Your kingdom come, your will be done..."

Phil, also a minister, seemed to take a different position with this status:

The attack on France included at least one Syrian refugee. What will happen to us when we take them in? Do we want to invite our enemies into our house and support them?

Enter Donald Trump into the discussion, courtesy of The Washington Post.

Read the Post's lede, and many of the issues my friends are debating on social media emerge:

BEAUMONT, Tex. — For John Courts, the terrorist attacks in Paris that killed at least 132 people provided more evidence of something he has long suspected: Syrian refugees are not to be trusted.
“I think they’re wolves in sheeps’ clothing,” said Courts, 36, a police officer in this industrial town in southeast Texas who attended a political rally for Donald Trump on Saturday. “Bringing those refugees here is very dangerous. Yeah, they need help, but it’s going to bring terrorism right into our front door.”

Please respect our Commenting Policy

New York Times ghosts: ISIS offers its view of 'soul' of Paris and modern West (updated)

New York Times ghosts: ISIS offers its view of  'soul' of Paris and modern West (updated)

Once again, mainstream journalists covering the actions of the Islamic State seem to be struggling to grasp the "why" factor in that old-school "who, what, when, where, why and how" equation.

Why attack Paris, once again? Why hit certain parts of Paris, as opposed to other more famous, if well protected, locations? And what does all of this have to do with that word -- "caliphate" -- that ISIS leaders say is at the heart of everything they do?

Let's walk into this slowly, starting with the top of a July 31, 2014 BBC profile of The Man:

On 5 July, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, known by his supporters as Caliph Ibrahim, left the shadows and showed his face for the first time, in a Friday sermon in Mosul, Iraq.
While previous pictures of him had been leaked, Baghdadi had not shown himself in the four years since he became leader of what was then the jihadist Islamic State of Iraq (forerunner of Isis, then the Islamic State). ...
In July 2013, a Bahraini ideologue Turki al-Binali, writing under the pen name Abu Humam Bakr bin Abd al-Aziz al-Athari, wrote a biography of Baghdadi. It highlighted Baghdadi's family history which claims that Baghdadi was indeed a descendant of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad's Quraysh tribe -- one of the key qualifications in Islamic history for becoming the caliph (historically, leader of all Muslims).
It said that Baghdadi came from the al-Bu Badri tribe, which is primarily based in Samarra and Diyala, north and east of Baghdad respectively, and known historically for being descendants of Muhammad.

The key word there, in terms of the mindset of journalists covering ISIS, is "historically," as in the definition of a caliph as "historically, leader of all Muslims."

Please respect our Commenting Policy