Syria

Radical militants and religion: Obama says ISIL is not 'Islamic,' but not everyone agrees

Radical militants and religion: Obama says ISIL is not 'Islamic,' but not everyone agrees

In his prime-time address to the nation Wednesday night on fighting the Islamic State militant group — also called ISIS and ISIL — President Barack Obama declared:

Now let's make two things clear: ISIL is not "Islamic." No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL's victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state. It was formerly al-Qaeda's affiliate in Iraq, and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria's civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government, nor the people it subjugates. ISIL is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.

Noting what Obama said, CNN suggested:

(CNN) -- President Barack Obama was trying to make a broader point when he uttered "ISIL is not Islamic," but the four-word phrase could still come back to haunt him.
Critics on Twitter quickly fired off on the President for making the assertion, with many noting that ISIL in fact stands for the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant." (CNN refers to the group by the acronym ISIS in its news reports. The group recently started calling itself the Islamic State).

Religion reporter G. Jeffrey MacDonald posed relevant questions that may be helpful for Godbeat pros and other journalists.

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WPost ponders mysterious secular surge in support for U.S. action against ISIS

WPost ponders mysterious secular surge in support for U.S. action against ISIS

Faithful readers of this blog over the past decade or so will know that your GetReligionistas rarely write about the contents of mainstream news blogs or op-ed page columns, even as the line between news coverage and commentary continues to blur.

However, every now and then someone writes a piece that is highly relevant to work on the religion-news beat or offers a fresh insight into how mainstream journalists are covering an important religion event or trend. This brings me to a new piece in "The Fix," the self-proclaimed "top political blog" at The Washington Post.

In this case, the headline states the issue facing political writer Aaron Blake:

Americans strongly opposed airstrikes in Syria last time. Why would it be different now?

So what has happened in, oh, the past year or so in this region -- Iraq and Syria -- that may have changed the minds of many Americans? 

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Baltimore Sun covers prayer rite for Iraq, without noticing absence of Eastern churches?

Baltimore Sun covers prayer rite for Iraq, without noticing absence of Eastern churches?

If you have been looking at the big picture in Iraq and Syria, you know that one of the key elements of the Islamic State's rise to power has been its horrific persecution -- slaughter, even -- of the religious minorities caught in its path, as well as Muslims who disagree with the ISIS view of the faith and the need for a new caliphate. 

All of that is horrible and needs continuing coverage. However, the crushing of the ancient churches located in the Nineveh Plain region is a truly historic development, a fact that has begun to bleed into the mainstream-news coverage.

Many religious leaders are concerned and are crying out (click here for New York Times op-ed by major Jewish leader) for someone to do something to help the churches of the East, who have worshipped at now-crushed altars in their homelands since the earliest days of the Christian faith.

Needless to say, I was not surprised to pick up The Baltimore Sun and see a front-page feature on a major interfaith prayer service addressing this crisis. Alas, I was also not surprised to see a huge, glaring hole in this report.

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Does an Islamic state run on 'ideology,' 'theology' or both?

Does an Islamic state run on 'ideology,' 'theology' or both?

Long, long ago -- 1982, to be precise -- I had a chance to talk with CBS commentator Bill Moyers soon after he returned from a lengthy stay in the Middle East. Americans were, of course, still reeling from the hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Iran.

Moyers was fascinated with the role of the mosque in a typical Muslim community in the region. The local mosque was the center for religious life, but it was also where people went for help in every other aspect of their daily lives -- including many contacts with government aid and programs. The key thing journalists and other outsiders needed to grasp, he told me, was that "there was no such thing as the separation of mosque and state." 

With that in mind, hear the words spoken by the man that the British are calling "Jihadi John" as he prepared to end the life of one of his Western captives:

This is James Wright Foley, an American citizen of your country. As a government, you have been at the forefront of aggression towards the Islamic State. You have plotted against us and gone out of you way to find reasons to interfere in our affairs. Today, your military air force is attacking us daily in Iraq. Your strikes have caused casualties against Muslims. 

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Your weekend think piece: It's time for our politicians (and journalists) to get religion

Your weekend think piece: It's time for our politicians (and journalists) to get religion

Yes, this post is about an op-ed piece from an advocacy publication.

However, every now and then your GetReligionistas share material of this kind when it has obvious relevance to debates about the quality of religion-news coverage in the mainstream press, here in America and abroad. This Damian Thompson piece from The Spectator (hat tip to Rod "friend of this blog" Dreher) is precisely that kind of think piece.

The context, of course, is the wave of persecution and violence in Syria and Iraq, with the Islamic State leading the charge. The U.S. government experts watched and watched and watched (thank you, Kristen Powers) as this tsunami of blood rolled over the land, affecting all kinds of religious minorities, including Christian communities with roots all the way back to the early church fathers.

Why the delay? Partially, it was a matter of politics. The right wants to blame President Barack Obama for literally everything that is going on. The left still wants (with just cause, in my opinion) to keep bashing the culture-building dreams of President George W. Bush, who was absolutely convinced that Western democracy works for everywhere, for everyone, even without that whole Bill of Rights thing going on.

Thompson's thesis is quite simple: Our elites just don't get religion.

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Overwhelmed: Trying to see the big, historic picture in Iraq and Syria

Overwhelmed: Trying to see the big, historic picture in Iraq and Syria

Several times a year, a major national or international story simply takes over the news. The bigger the story, the more likely -- in my experience at least -- it is to have a religion-angle linked to it, often an angle of historic proportions.

However, since the primary religion of journalism is politics, in the here and now, religion angles often slide into the background in the coverage until, finally, the role of religion in a major story is so obvious that it cannot be denied.

This is what is happening right now with the story of Iraq, ISIS (or ISIL) and the persecution of religious minorities, especially in Mosul and the Nineveh Plain region.

The truly historic story that looms in the background is -- literally -- the death of Christian communities that have existed in this region since the early church. 

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To be 'killed, crucified or have their hands and feet cut off' ...

At this point in the growing Iraq crisis, I think it is safe to say that European journalists, in comparison with their American counterparts, are much more comfortable putting the words “caliphate,” “sharia” and “decapitated” at the top of their news reports. Soon to come, bold references to the fate of “apostates” and perhaps even “Christians.” Consider this sprawling headline in The Daily Mail:

ISIS butchers leave ‘roads lined with decapitated police and soldiers’: Battle for Baghdad looms as thousands answer Iraqi government’s call to arms and jihadists bear down on capital

At the same time, journalists are — accurately — stressing the looming clash between Shia and Sunni groups, especially with threats to Shiite holy places. They seem less willing to deal with the truly historic exodus — word carefully chosen — of thousands of Christians and members of other religious minorities who are being forced to flee their ancient centers in Mosul and the Nineveh Plain. Where are they going?

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NYTimes: Waves of generic refugees run for their lives in Iraq

The news from Iraq grows more and more distressing, at least for those who favor old-liberalism virtues found in documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from the United Nations. Here is a typical mainstream-news update, care of The Los Angeles Times. But let’s back up for a moment and look at two key elements of one of the first major stories that shook the mainstream press into action. I refer to The New York Times piece that ran under the headline “Sunni Militants Drive Iraqi Army Out of Mosul.”

I concede, right up front, that I am concerned about two key issues: (1) the symbolic and practical importance of Mosul to Christians and members of other religious minorities in the Middle East and (2) the tactics and goals of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the militants behind this drive into Iraq. At the top of its report, the Times paints this horror story in very general terms.

BAGHDAD – Sunni militants spilling over the border from Syria on Tuesday seized control of the northern city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest, in the most stunning success yet in a rapidly widening insurgency that threatens to drag the region into war.

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American suicide bomber: WPost flounders on his beliefs

Yet another horrific facet was added to the civil war in Syria with the recent revelation that an American, Moner Mohammed Abusalha, blew himself up in a suicide bombing there. But who was Abusalha? And what did he believe and practice? That proved a considerable challenge for a Washington Post article, despite its 988 words and six reporters. First, there’s geography. “American who killed himself in Syria suicide attack was from South Florida,” blares the headline in big type. The South Florida connection is deemed important in a lot of “crazy” stories, and as a longtime resident myself, I’ll agree that it’s often warranted. Most of the hijackers behind 9-11 lived here for weeks.

Still, it’s good to know north from south. After saying Abusalha was from South Florida, the Washington Post says he went to high school in Sebastian and lived awhile in Fort Pierce, and his parents live in nearby Vero Beach and own a grocery story in Melbourne. All of those places are more than 65 miles from West Palm Beach, the northernmost point of South Florida. They’re closer to Cocoa Beach, the site of the Kennedy Space Center.

The only exception is a mention of a Facebook picture of Abusalha “smiling in Miami Beach.” Now, a New York Times story does say that he was born in West Palm Beach. Still a flimsy premise, I suggest. If the story were about me, would it say I was “from” New Jersey? Not likely. Not after living most of my life in South Florida.

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