ISIS

Stunning HuffPost feature on Pulse massacre: Trial showed it was an ISIS attack, period

Stunning HuffPost feature on Pulse massacre: Trial showed it was an ISIS attack, period

If you have read GetReligion over the years, you may have seen previous posts in which your GetReligionistas asked this question: In terms of journalism, what exactly is The Huffington Post, exactly?

It's a news and commentary website, obviously.

Ah, but there's the issue: Where does the commentary stop and the news begin? Is it possible to separate the opinion and advocacy from the hard-news reporting in some of the features at HuffPost? This is a question writers at this blog have had to ask about a number of different newsrooms in our foggy digital age.

Yes, that buzzworthy HuffPost piece about the trial of Noor Salman -- the widow of gunman Omar Mateen -- does contain elements of commentary. Yes, it is first-person, magazine-style journalism. It is also a blockbuster that raises all kinds of questions about any role that religious faith -- specifically, a radicalized, ISIS-style Islam -- played in this deadly attack.

Salman was found not guilty of helping her husband plan the attack. That's big news. But what's the larger story here? Here is a crucial passage near the top of the piece, which ran with this main headline: "Everyone Got The Pulse Massacre Story Completely Wrong."

Almost overnight, a narrative emerged that until now has been impossible to dislodge: Mateen planned and executed an attack on Pulse because he hated gay people.
“Let’s say it plainly: This was a mass slaying aimed at LGBT people,” Tim Teeman wrote in The Daily Beast. The massacre was “undeniably a homophobic hate crime,” Jeet Heer wrote in The New Republic. Some speculated that Mateen was a closeted gay man. He was likely “trying to reconcile his inner feelings with his strongly homophobic Muslim culture,” James S. Robbins wrote in USA Today.  
There was compelling evidence of other motivations.

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Secular France mourns loss of Arnaud Beltrame, while press remains silent on his faith (updated)

Secular France mourns loss of Arnaud Beltrame, while press remains silent on his faith (updated)

If you know anything about the history of France, you know why it is common for journalists and scholars to add the word "secular" in front of the country's name.

For millions of people, part of what it means to be truly "French" is to view public life through a lens in which religious faith is kept out of view -- a matter a private feelings and beliefs. This has affected debates about many issues linked to Islam, from the legal status of veils and Burkinis to efforts to grasp the motives of radicalized Muslims.

What about the nation's deep Catholic roots and the violence unleashed against that faith during the French Revolution?

These tensions are currently on display in news coverage of French efforts to honor the late Lt. Col. Arnaud Beltrame, who died after offering to take the place of a female hostage being used as a human shield by an ISIS gunman.

The goal as been to hail Beltrame as a uniquely French hero, while avoiding testimonies of those close to him about the role his Catholic faith -- he was an adult convert -- played in his life and work. Then there was the fact that Beltrame and his wife Marielle were only weeks away from a Catholic wedding rite, two years after their secular marriage.

All of this was described, in great detail, in vivid, detailed, testimonies published by Famille Chretienne (Christian Family), a major religious publication. Hold that thought.

I wrote about the Beltrame story earlier this week -- "Sacrifice in France: 'Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life ... ' " -- and have continued to follow the story while researching a Universal syndicate column for this week.

I can be pretty cynical about the "tone deaf" nature of lots of mainstream news coverage of stories of this kind. Still, I have been surprised that mainstream editors, especially here in America (ironically), continue to avoid the "religion ghost" in this highly symbolic event. Time element? Hours before Palm Sunday and the start of Holy Week (in Western Christianity).

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New York Times covers efforts to counter Islamic terrorism in Dagestan; skips key Muslim differences

New York Times covers efforts to counter Islamic terrorism in Dagestan; skips key Muslim differences

As parents, we try to steer our children toward activities we think will help them become better adults. Those activities are generally meant to instill in them beliefs and values similar, if not identical, to our own.

So, for example, we enroll our kids in church, synagogue, mosque or other religion-sponsored social, educational or physical activities that seek to mold their minds and bodies in accordance with our hopes and their gifts.

This happens across the board, including in the Caucasus region Russian republic -- akin to an American state, not an independent nation -- of Dagestan, about which I'll say much more in a bit.

As a Religion News Service national correspondent, in the early 1990s I stayed a few days at a pioneering atheist summer summer camp north of Cincinnati. The Camp Quest network has since grown considerable; it’s now international.

Its purpose, of course, is to imbue the children of atheists with atheist values -- though Camp Quest prefers to call its supporters non-theists, humanists or free-thinkers rather than atheists, the latter having a more negative connotation in Christian (certainly culturally and politically) America.

My point here is that atheists -- the Camp Quest marketing pitch was “beyond belief” -- seek to turn their offspring into like-minded adults just like Christians and others.

In Dagestan, a mostly Muslim region once labeled by the BBC “the most dangerous place in Europe” because of its rampant Islamic-inspired violence, parents also strive to keep their young from straying ideologically.

For Dagestani parents, the preferred activity for achieving this (at least for boys) is wrestling.

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Sacrifice in France: 'Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life ... '

Sacrifice in France: 'Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life ... '

What did you learn, over the weekend, in the global coverage of the sacrificial death of Lt. Col. Arnaud Beltrame?

Let's say that you saw the main CNN.com report, which led with the fact that the 45-year-old Beltrame died up wounds he suffered after volunteering to swap places with a female hostage during a self-proclaimed ISIS supporter's attack on a supermarket in southern France.

French President Emmanuel Macron said that by "giving his life to end the murderous escapade of a jihadist terrorist, he died a hero."

What other crucial information did CNN producers include to help news consumers understand Beltrame and the nature of his sacrifice? We are, of course, looking for a faith angle.

Married with no children, Beltrame had served in the French military police and received a number of awards for bravery. He served in Iraq in 2005, and was given an award for bravery in 2007, Macron said. For four years, he was a commander in the Republican Guard, which provides security at the Élysée Palace, home of the French president.
In 2012, he was knighted in France's prestigious Legion of Honor. ... Last year Beltrame was appointed deputy commander of the anti-terror police in the Aude region.
According to the newspaper La Dépêche du Midi, Beltrame led a simulated terror attack in December on a supermarket for training purposes. ...

Now, some publications -- religious publications, for the most part -- included material from another voice of authority on the life and work of Beltrame. That would be Father Dominique Arz, national chaplain of the gendarmerie (hat tip to Rod "The Benedict Option" Dreher).

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When Boko Haram strikes again, the religious distinctions get blurry in news coverage

When Boko Haram strikes again, the religious distinctions get blurry in news coverage

Unbelievable. Just unbelievable. Boko Haram has struck again.

It was bad enough in 2014 when 276 girls were kidnapped from Chibok in northeastern Nigeria. Half the world, it seemed, demonstrated and hashtagged #BringBackOurGirls in favor of these children.

Not that it did a whole lot of good. Four years later, more than 100 of those girls are still missing. And now it’s happened again and, as always, there are many religion questions that journalists need to be asking. From BBC

The grounds of the boarding school in Dapchi town are eerily quiet. Instead of the high-pitched chatter of 900 schoolgirls, there's only the bleating of goats as they wander through empty classrooms.
Thirteen-year-old Fatima Awaal is walking down the dusty path. She walks past a littering of rubber sandals, lost by girls as they ran away on Monday 19 February.
When the militants from the Boko Haram Islamist group attacked, she was in her boarding house with her best friend Zara. They were just about to have dinner when they heard the gunshots.
"One of our teachers told us to come out," she said "And that's when we saw the gunfire shooting through the sky."

Zara, 14, was one of 110 girls kidnapped that night. What’s almost worse than the kidnappings is the government’s utter inability to do anything about it.

Since the kidnappings, there have been many conflicting lines from the authorities on what exactly happened in Dapchi that Monday night. It wasn't until three days after the assault that they finally acknowledged some girls had been taken. It was another three days before they gave a number of how many were missing.

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Children of ISIS returned to Chechnya: Fine New York Times story haunted by faith questions

Children of ISIS returned to Chechnya: Fine New York Times story haunted by faith questions

In a New York Times photo, 4-year-old Bilal looks like any other kid sitting in bed, lost in a video game on a smartphone.

But there is a back-story. Bilal grew up in Mosul, Iraq, living on the run with his father, who was a fighter for the Islamic State. And right there is the question facing officials in Russia -- Chechnya, to be specific -- and in several European states: What should leaders in these nations do with children, especially boys, who grew up witnessing people beheaded, stoned and gunned down?

What about boys who were actually forced to take part in some of these rituals, as part of ISIS efforts to turn them into ultimate warriors? Are they, as one German official puts it, "living time bombs?"

That's the question at the heart of this fine Times story, which ran with the headline: "Raised by ISIS, Returned to Chechnya: ‘These Children Saw Terrible Things’." Here is a crucial summary passage near the top of this international-desk story:

As the American-led coalition and Syrian government forces captured cities that had been held by the Islamic State, they found among the ruins a grim human wreckage of the organization’s once successful recruitment drive: hundreds and perhaps thousands of children born to or brought with the men and women who had flocked to Syria in support of the Islamic State.
While Russia, which has so far returned 71 children and 26 women since August, may seem surprisingly lenient in its policy, its actions reflect a hardheaded security calculus: better to bring children back to their grandparents now than have them grow up in camps and possibly return as radicalized adults.
“What should we do, leave them there so somebody will recruit them?” said Ziyad Sabsabi, the Russian senator who runs the government-backed program. “Yes, these children saw terrible things, but when we put them in a different environment, with their grandparents, they change quickly.”

Now, as you would expect, I do have questions about the role of religious faith in all of this. I would have liked to have seen a bit more information about the role of Islam in this process.

After all, these children witnessed horrors that are hard to imagine. At the same time, they were raised to think of these acts as an essential part of a twisted, radicalized version of Islam.

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Yazidis and their faith: There's more to it than just a quick paragraph

Yazidis and their faith: There's more to it than just a quick paragraph

One often hears how one person can make a world of difference. In a recent New Yorker piece,  “The Daring Plan to Save a Religious Minority from ISIS,” a writer who specializes in greater Kurdistan --  an area that overlaps into four countries -- talks about the Yazidis. (Some spell their name as “Yezidi;” either are correct).

We are not talking about just any Yazidis: Three men who took it upon themselves to try to save their countrymen in Iraq from genocide. With so many Christians fleeing Iraq, that leaves the Yazidis as the largest non-Muslim minority in the country. (This policy brief from the Middle East Institute explains their history and religion, which is based on the worship of a peacock angel, pictured with this piece).

The New Yorker article began with three Yazidis: Hadi Pir, Murad Ismael and Haider Elias, who became interpreters for the American military in Iraq. All received visas to move to themselves and their families to United States (to escape reprisal in Iraq) and were leading more or less ordinary lives until Aug. 2, 2014, when ISIS moved against Yazidis about 6,700 miles away.

At three in the morning, when they pulled into the parking lot of their apartment complex, dozens of their Yazidi neighbors were outside on the lawn, talking on their cell phones and crying.
“Isis has taken over Sinjar,” a neighbor said. “Everyone is running to the mountain.”
Isis came into Sinjar at dawn, with the intention of wiping out Yazidism in Iraq. The group’s Research and Fatwa Department had declared that, unlike Christians or Shia Muslims, Yazidis were a “pagan minority.” The Kurdish soldiers retreated without warning, after determining that their position was untenable. Yazidis ran from their homes and scrambled up the rocky slopes of Mt. Sinjar. Trucks jammed with people overturned on narrow roads. Homes north of the mountain quickly emptied; with the roads controlled by Isis, thousands of Yazidis were trapped in the southern villages.

Back in the States, the horrified Yazidis could follow the fighting via cell phone as their relatives called them whenever they could to relate the increasing horrors they were facing. About 100 former interpreters formed a crisis management team to try to bring media attention to the coming genocide.

By Aug. 7, they were in Washington, D.C., demonstrating in front of the White House, then showing up at the State Department to plead their case. Notice the details of this meeting.

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Yes, gunman in Russia killed five after Forgiveness Vespers (which isn't a Mardi Gras thing)

Yes, gunman in Russia killed five after Forgiveness Vespers (which isn't a Mardi Gras thing)

This past Sunday, I received an interesting email just after I got home from one of the most symbolic rites of the Eastern Orthodox year -- Forgiveness Vespers.

For Orthodox Christians, this service is the door into the long and challenging season of Great Lent, which leads to the most important day in the Christian year -- Pascha (Easter in the West).

During these vespers, each member of the congregation -- one at a time -- faces each and every other person who is present. One at a time, we bow and ask the person to forgive us of anything we have done to hurt them in the previous year. The response: "I forgive, as God forgives," or similar words. Then the second person does the same thing. Many people do a full prostration to the floor, as they seek forgiveness.

Then we move to the left to face the next person in line. Doing this 100 times or so is quite an exercise, both spiritual and physical. Tears are common. So is sweat.

The email I received pointed me to stories coming out of the Dagestan region of Russia, near the border of Chechnya. As worshipers came out of an Orthodox church in Kizlyar, a gunman -- shouting "Allahu Akbar" -- attacked with a hunting rifle and knife, killing five.

An Associated Press report merely said the victims were leaving a church service and even stated that the "motive for the attack was not immediately known."

I was struck by the timing, coming in the wake of the Ash Wednesday school shootings in Parkland, Fla. I had the same question as the GetReligion reader who emailed me: Were these worshipers shot after the Forgiveness Vespers? 

It certainly appeared that this was the case, so I immediately wrote a post: "Massacre on Ash Wednesday? Now, Orthodox believers shot leaving Forgiveness Vespers." Needless to say, this was a topic of interest to Orthodox believers, and others.

Now, a reader who speaks Russia has found a link to a Russian website -- "Orthodoxy and the World" -- that confirms the poignant and painful timing of this attack. Here is his translation of that information, if you are into factual journalistic details of this kind:

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Massacre on Ash Wednesday? Now, Orthodox believers shot leaving Forgiveness Vespers

Massacre on Ash Wednesday? Now, Orthodox believers shot leaving Forgiveness Vespers

A few days ago, I expressed surprise that more mainstream journalists didn't recognize the poignant ties between the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and the ancient Western Christian traditions linked to Ash Wednesday.

The bottom line: How many of the dead and wounded had, earlier that day, attended rites in which a priest marked their foreheads with ashes in the sign of the cross? This was done, of course, to remind them of their mortality as they began the great spiritual journey through Lent to Easter. Thus, priest say: "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

How many of those caught up in the massacre had planned to go to Ash Wednesday services in the hours after school dismissed? Did reporters attend any of those services that evening?

I was assuming, of course, that an ordinary local South Florida newsroom -- or national-level newsrooms -- would include a few Catholics, Episcopalians or Lutherans who would immediately recognize the timing of this tragedy.

A few did. Many more did not.

Now we have a similar Lent-related story from the other side of the world. Here is the top of a typical report, at FoxNews.com:

Five women were killed and several others were injured after a gunman opened fire with a hunting rifle on people leaving a church service in Russia's Dagestan region on Sunday, Russian media outlets reported.
The shooting took place outside a church in Kizlyar, a town of about 50,000 people on the border with Chechnya. ... The gunman was shot dead by police responding to the scene, a law enforcement source told the Interfax news agency. According to Interfax, the gunman has been identified as a local man in his early 20s.

The timing? Well, the report noted that this was an evening service and:

Parishioners were at the church celebrating the end of the Russian festival of Maslenitsa, a holiday which marks the start of Lent for Russian Orthodox Christians, according to RT.

An Orthodox Christian reader sent me this item, which I read within minutes of walking in the door after services at St. Anne Orthodox Parish here in Oak Ridge, Tenn. For the reader, this story raised an obvious, powerful question: Did these people die immediately after taking part in Forgiveness Vespers?

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