Who lit the bomb in Nigeria?

NigeriaStatesMapAnyone who knows anything about global religious-liberty issues has known for several years that Nigeria is a bomb waiting to go off. In the north, Muslim states have pressed for sharia law. In the largely Christian and animist south, leaders have struggled to embrace the rule of law, as defined in the West. The two legal doctrines cannot, by definition, coexist and, thus, Nigeria has been sitting on a legal and religious landmine. Now the cartoon intifada may have caused the long-awaited explosion. First the MSM headlines talked about riots and deaths inspired by the Danish cartoons, complete with churches burning and Christian neighborhoods being attacked. Now the headlines are dominated by the horrific account of the second wave of violence, with Muslims facing the fury of the Christians and animists they previously attacked.

As for me, I think that the top paragraphs of this New York Times report by Lydia Polgreen did a solid job of capturing both sides of this deadly equation, under a headline that cited the source of the violence, rather than simply blaming one side or the other: "Nigeria Counts 100 Deaths Over Danish Caricatures." Here is the opening of that story:

Dozens of charred, smoldering bodies littered the streets of this bustling commercial center on Thursday after three days of rioting in which Christian mobs wielding machetes, clubs and knives set upon their Muslim neighbors.

Rioters have killed scores of people here, mostly Muslims, after burning their homes, businesses and mosques in the worst violence yet linked to the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad first published in a Danish newspaper. The violence in Nigeria began with attacks on Christians in the northern part of the country last week by Muslims infuriated over the cartoons.

Now old ethnic and political tensions between Muslims in the north and Christians here in the south have been reignited, with at least 33 bodies still visible on the streets of Onitsha on Thursday and a local organization that has tried to collect the scattered corpses reporting that it has already picked up 80 others. The cycle of tit-for-tat sectarian violence has pushed the death toll in the last week well beyond 100, making Nigeria the hardest-hit country so far in the caricature controversy.

The hellish images and quotations speak for themselves. There is enough evil and blood in this story to cover the hands of violent people on both sides. Yet the Times did not bury the key fact that the bloodshed began, once again, with riots against the cartoons of Muhammad.

If GetReligion readers want a one-stop list of URLs for this story, they should click here and head -- of course -- to the Christianity Today weblog. Editor-reporter Ted Olsen jumped on the Nigeria story early enough to have posted one collection of links about the violence against the churches, with the haunting headline "Muslim Riots Move from Anti-Europe to Anti-Christian." Now he is following up with the second wave of violence against Muslims.

nigeriaI have to admit that I was relieved when I read the Times report, in large part because coverage in the Washington Post seems to have paid more attention to the second set of riots than the first, kind of like a basketball referee who sees the second foul and not the first that inspired it.

You can see this in the series of wire service reports that covered the anti-cartoon riots (here, here and here), the riots in which the victims were Christians. Then the coverage kicks up a notch with Post editors turning to their own correspondents for coverage of the hellish violence unleashed against the Muslims. Here is a piece of one of those reports, with the blunt headline "Christians Turn on Muslims In Nigeria; More Than 30 Die."

Christian mobs in this southern city attacked Muslim motorists and traders Wednesday, leaving more than 30 people dead, according to witnesses, as religious riots sparked by the publishing of cartoons of the prophet Muhammad continued into a fifth day in Nigeria. Nationwide, the death toll reached at least 80.

Hordes of angry men marauded through Onitsha armed with machetes, guns and boards with nails pounded into their ends, witnesses said. The mobs burned two mosques and looted and destroyed Muslim-owned shops as they sought vengeance for similar attacks against Christians in two predominantly Muslim cities in northern part of the country.

"They've been killing our brothers and sisters in the north," men shouted Wednesday morning, according to Afoma Clara Adique, 40, a motorist who had driven through Onitsha. She escaped the mobs, she said, but only after speaking to the men in a regional language used by Christians. Before she could get away, Adique said, she saw burned and dismembered bodies along the side of the road. ... Her traveling companion, Tony Iweka, 45, a magazine editor, said a man in the mob raised his right hand to display what appeared to be a freshly decapitated head.

The Post did note that, with all of the anti-cartoon riots around the world, this was the first clash in which there were "counterattacks by Christians."

It is impossible, of course, for reporters to get around the need to describe who attacked who.

However, can I make a suggestion? No doubt, there are radical Islamist clerics who are firing up their people to take to the streets and do whatever it is that rioters are going to do. There may be cases in which it is accurate to say that "Muslim" believers did horrific things, perhaps even while shouting "Allahu akbar!" Now, if reporters can find Christian leaders -- clerics, actually -- calling for violence, then by all means quote these ministers. It certainly is relevant that some of the rioters are leaving, in their wake, violent graffiti that refer to Christians taking revenge. Reporters have to report the facts.

But here is my suggestion. Right now, I think it is safer, especially in headlines and leads, to identify the victims of the violence than to be absolutely clear as to the faith-based motives and the identity of the thugs and demons doing the violence. It is safer to say that rioters killed Christians and burned churches. It is safer to say that rioters killed Muslims and burned mosques.

It is easier for journalists to prove -- with their own words -- that specific Muslims or specific Christians did or said something than it is to pin the blame for those actions on entire communities. This is true in France, the Netherlands, England, Jordan, Egypt, Nigeria and many other places. It may soon, sadly, be true in North America.

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