Syria

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

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

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

ISIS, Palmyra and glass houses amidst the antiquities of Israel and Sicily

ISIS, Palmyra and glass houses amidst the antiquities of Israel and Sicily

I've been fortunate to spend the past couple of weeks traveling in Israel and, now, Sicily.

Religious and cultural ruins are virtually everywhere I turn, and in Israel, at least, ISIS is never far below the surface of any meaningful discussion. After all, Israel does have the Islamic State lapping at its northeast and southern borders, from where it threatens death and destruction.

Not to mention the fanatical Sunni Muslim group's attempts to become established in Israel itself. Then there's the horrific situation in Sicily involving the many thousands of North African and Middle Eastern refugees desperate to escape ISIS and a variety of other deprivations, and dying by the boatload in the process.

Which brings me to the handwringing in the Western press over what ISIS is doing in the Syrian city of Palmyra. There, ISIS is destroying priceless and, of course, irreplaceable antiquities connected to the region's pre-Islamic past.

This is despicable, the work of barbarians seeking to control minds by rewriting history to their liking. 

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Tablet explores the ethics of using hungry freelancers in risky war zones

Tablet explores the ethics of using hungry freelancers in risky war zones

As a young J-school student, my goal was to eventually land a job as a staff foreign correspondent for a prestigious newspaper. What could be more fun, more interesting, more exciting, more glamorous? 

I've had many great experiences as a journalist but that fantasy never happened, though I've worked overseas multiple times on an assignment basis or at a foreign publication.

Life takes its own course.

Given today's field tech advances and ease of travel, its arguably easier than ever today to call yourself a foreign correspondent. I don't mean as a full-time staffer, of course. That job is harder than ever to snag as news outlets have dramatically slashed their overseas bureaus and travel budgets to save their dwindling cash. Not to mention that every poll on the subject that I can remember makes clear that Americans, as a whole, prefer domestic to foreign news.

What is easier than ever, however, is to get as much high-tech equipment as you can carry and afford, buy an airline ticket to a news hotspot, call yourself a freelance foreign correspondent -- a stringer, by any other name -- and hustle to sell copy, audio, stills or video to anyone who will have them. 

Problem is, those news hotspots are generally the world's most dangerous locales in which to operate. Chief among them these days, is the chaotic, hyper-dangerous Muslim Middle East -- Yemen, Libya, Egypt, and above all, Iraq and Syria.

That's where Steven Sotloff headed, and he paid for it with his life.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Seeing patterns here? ISIS keeps smashing some priceless artifacts and selling others

Seeing patterns here? ISIS keeps smashing some priceless artifacts and selling others

The tragic bottom line these days is that it is rarely news when the Islamic State blows stuff up -- including priceless antiquities that predate the rise of Islam.

This fact of life has become business as usual, to the point that many mainstream journalists no longer feel the need to include material in their reports noting why this is taking place. This is tragic and, frankly, an affront to the vast majority of the world's Muslims. This is yet another classic case of journalists needing to cover the doctrinal details of what ISIS believes -- it's take on Islamic doctrine and history -- in order to let readers understand that this is not the only or even the mainstream Islamic point of view.

Once this hard work is done, journalists can move on to another topic looming in the background: Why do Islamic State radicals destroy some parts of the region's past, while allowing others to be sold off to collectors? In other words, does ISIS hate all parts of the ancient past equally?

The latest news is that this battle as moved to Egypt, with some militants there pledging allegiance to the ISIS caliphate. Does this have anything to do with Islam? The Washington Post simply does not want to go there:

CAIRO -- Militants with explosives battled Egyptian security forces outside the famed ancient Karnak temple in Luxor on Wednesday, injuring at least four people in an attempt to strike another blow on Egypt’s fragile tourism industry.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

A New Hampshire woman's passion for helping Syrians: Can you spot the religion ghosts?

A New Hampshire woman's passion for helping Syrians: Can you spot the religion ghosts?

Way up top, a fascinating, in-depth profile in the Boston Globe hints at a strong religion angle:

NASHUA — In a warehouse on a cold spring night, volunteers heaved boxes from a truck parked in one cargo bay to a 40-foot shipping container in the next.
A woman in a sea-green hijab helped lug the last of the boxes out and swept the truck floor clean. Another truck, packed to the ceiling with boxes, was waiting to pull in.
She hopped onto the platform, long skirt brushing the tops of her black Pumas, and called out to the crew to unload the next truck even faster.
“They need to leave in five minutes,” she said. “My God, this is a crazy house!”
Not long ago, Nadia Alawa spent her time home-schooling her eight children in East Hampstead, N.H., ferrying them to soccer practice and robotics competitions and volunteering commitments. But as revolution exploded into civil war in Syria — the native country of her husband and her father — the crisis reordered her life.
“This was my cause,” the 44-year-old Alawa said. “I couldn’t stop.”
With little more than a computer, a cellphone, and a knack for getting people to help, she created an international relief agency out of her house. In the last two years, NuDay Syria has sent 53 shipping containers packed with medical supplies, clothing, food, and toys to conflict zones in northern Syria.

"This was my cause." 

Is there a possibility that cause has a religious motivation? That was my question as I kept reading the Globe's riveting account of the circumstances in Syria and Alawa's passion to make a positive difference.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Baltimore Sun editors: All news is local and when covering Middle East think 'Orthodox'

Baltimore Sun editors: All news is local and when covering Middle East think 'Orthodox'

There is this old-school saying in journalism that I have, on occasion, been known to quote to the editors of The Baltimore Sun, the newspaper that currently lands in my front yard: "All news is local."

In other words, when major news is happening somewhere in the world, it is perfectly normal for journalists to seek out ways in which this news is affecting people in the community and region covered by their newsroom. If a tsunami hits Southeast Asia, journalists in Baltimore need to find out if anyone from their city was killed or if anyone local is gearing up to take part in relief efforts for the survivors.

All news is local. Thus, I was not surprised when the Sun team produced a story focusing on local relief agencies that are active in the regions being affected by the brutal rise of the Islamic State.

Alas, I was also not surprised when the Sun newsroom -- as it has done in the past -- missed a major local angle in the story, and a very intense, emotional angle at that. Hold that thought.

The story starts off with the giant relief agency that simply must be covered:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Now we're talking big news: ISIS attacks museums (plus Christians and other believers)

Now we're talking big news: ISIS attacks museums (plus Christians and other believers)

The story began with reports in "conservative" and religious media, which, tragically, is what happens way too often these days with issues linked to religious liberty and the persecution of religious minorities (especially if they are Christians).

Earlier in the week I saw this headline at the Catholic News Agency: "Patriarch urges prayer after at least 90 Christians kidnapped in Syria." The story began:

With reports circulating saying that ISIS forces have kidnapped at least 90 Christians from villages in northeast Syria, Patriarch Ignatius Joseph III Younan said prayer is the only possible response.

“Let’s pray for those innocent people,” Patriarch Younan told CNA over the phone from Beirut Feb. 24. “It’s a very, let’s say, very ordinary thing to have those people with such hatred toward non-Muslims that they don’t respect any human life,” he said, noting that the only reaction to Tuesday’s kidnappings is “to pray.”

Alas, none of these believers were cartoonists. However, as the days went past the numbers in these distressing reports -- especially this soon after the 21 Coptic martyrs video --  began to rise.

I kept watching the major newspapers and, while I may have missed a crucial report or two, I did see this crucial story from Reuters -- always an important development in global news -- that represented a major escalation of the coverage, with several crucial dots connected. Do the math.

Please respect our Commenting Policy