Quick! While we all read more and more about the horrific news out of Moscow, can we agree on something? Please, copy editors and reporters, lend me your ears. In one of the early Washington Post foreign service reports, we read this background material about the terrorist attack:
After one clash in early March, security officials said they had succeeded in killing Alexander Tikhomirov, a charismatic young preacher known as Sayid Buryatsky, who had emerged as a major figure in the insurgency. Weeks later, authorities reported killing another rebel leader, Anzor Astemirov, who is believed to have made the original proposal to establish a fundamentalist Caucasus Emirate in the region.
Umarov declared jihad and embraced that cause in 2007, causing a rift in the long-running separatist rebellion in Chechnya and drawing support from other Muslim ethnic groups angered by the harsh tactics employed Russian security forces.
Once again, we have the f-word used in a news report in a way that does nothing to add factual material to the story.
Once again, let's turn to the Associated Press Stylebook, the bible of mainstream journalism:
fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians. In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.
Can we all agree that the subways in Moscow were not attacked by bands of very conservative Protestants who are willing to sign the Fundamentals of the Faith documents of the early 20th century? Note that the usage of the f-word in this story clouds another issue. What do the rebels actually want? Is a "fundamentalist Caucasus Emirate" the same thing as an Islamic republic? What kind? What form of government, rooted in what approach to Sharia?
At the same time, what in the world do the words "charismatic young preacher" mean in this context? Was this person a Muslim leader with some defined religious role? Was he simply a good public speaker? What are the facts?
We also are told that Russian leaders are convinced that they are dealing with a "separatist insurgency waged by Islamic militants." That is highly familiar language, but when added to the vague terms used elsewhere it is hard to learn anything concrete about the religious, political or military nature of these acts.
Over at the New York Times, reporters and editors were able to deal with this developing story without using labels from American religious debates. One early report there makes a simple reference to conflicts blamed on "Islamic extremism in Chechnya and other parts of the Caucasus region in southern Russia." Then later, we read:
The Russian government has sought to suppress violent Muslim extremism in the south since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Two brutal wars in Chechnya and a guerrilla insurgency gave rise to numerous bombings and acts of terror in southern Russia throughout the 1990s. Starting in 2002, Chechen separatists then began to export their bombing campaign to Moscow.
"Extremism" is another one of those vague words, but, when combined with "violent" we at least get some picture that the issue is rooted in tactics as well as beliefs. The word "separatists" is also helpful, in a political context, although, again, this simply raises the issue of what the rebels want to create when they achieve separation.
But the early Times report is much better, if only because of the words it declines to abuse, as well as the words that it uses.