Caught in the crossfire: Symbolic details in Beslan massacre

The power is back on here in West Palm Beach (or at least in our neighborhood) and the flood waters are receding -- only to be replaced by a flood of email and news. I hardly know where to begin, especially on the hellish reality that has emerged in Beslan. Most of the mainstream news coverage has emphasized the ongoing nature of the conflict between the Chechens and the Russian government. It is true that the politics of the situation are absolutely Balkan. Nevertheless, I am haunted by a few articles that have focused on the debate among Muslims about this bloodbath and the tactics behind it.

This raises a familiar issue here at GetReligion: To what degree are terrorism stories political? To what degree are they religious?

While U.S. media are stressing the political side of the equation -- with a few exceptions -- media in England have openly addressed the religious questions behind this carefully planned massacre of children. But let's start with the New York Times, which did report a controversial detail from one of the victims:

"The terrorists ran in yelling, 'Allahu Akhbar,' " said Asamaz Bekoyev, 11, who escaped with his mother and brother and lay in his bed on Saturday at his grandmother's house, being treated for cuts and minor burns.

At this point, no translation is needed.

It seems that the whole world knows what it means when armed men run into the public square shouting "Allahu Akhbar!" or Allah is great. (This is the script in the painting above.) It means that many people are going to die -- soon.

This reality infuriates Abdel Rahman al-Rashed, the general manager of Al-Arabiya news channel, who poured out his anger in a column in the pan-Arabic newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat. It was then published in the Telegraph. This is one of those cases where a Muslim commentator is allowed to say what others cannot say:

It is a certain fact that not all Muslims are terrorists, but it is equally certain, and exceptionally painful, that almost all terrorists are Muslims.

The hostage-takers of children in Beslan, North Ossetia, were Muslims. The other hostage-takers and subsequent murderers of the Nepalese chefs and workers in Iraq were also Muslims. Those involved in rape and murder in Darfur, Sudan, are Muslims, with other Muslims chosen to be their victims. Those responsible for the attacks on residential towers in Riyadh and Khobar were Muslims. The two women who crashed two airliners last week were also Muslims.

Bin Laden is a Muslim. The majority of those who manned the suicide bombings against buses, vehicles, schools, houses and buildings, all over the world, were Muslim. What a pathetic record. What an abominable "achievement". Does all this tell us anything about ourselves, our societies and our culture?

When you add all of this up, it has created a horrific image of a faith that has been seized by what he calls "Neo-Muslims." Ultimately, the only people who will be able to wrest Islam away from these terrorists are other Muslims. This certainly seems to be the case in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, where it is clear that the worst acts of terror will now be focused on Muslims who in any way seek to embrace the freedoms of the West (and Christian Arabs who symbolize another ancient approach to "infidel" life).

Continuing with the quote from the Telegraph:

We can't call those who take schoolchildren as hostages our own. We cannot tolerate in our midst those who abduct journalists, murder civilians, explode buses; we cannot accept them as related to us, whatever the sufferings they claim to justify their criminal deeds. These are the people who have smeared Islam and stained its image.

We cannot clear our names unless we own up to the shameful fact that terrorism has become an Islamic enterprise; an almost exclusive monopoly, implemented by Muslim men and women.

This angry voice is not alone. Here is another quote along the same lines, featured in an Associated Press report by Maggie Michael that rounded up a host of Arab media viewpoints on the slaughter in the Russian school. The terrorists in Russia are, ultimately, harming Islam more than they are fighting for nationalism, or an Islamic state, according to Egyptian Ahmed Bahgat, writing in Egypt's pro-government newspaper, Al-Ahram.

"If all the enemies of Islam united together and decided to harm it ... they wouldn't have ruined and harmed its image as much as the sons of Islam have done by their stupidity, miscalculations, and misunderstanding of the nature of this age," Bahgat wrote. The horrifying images of the dead and wounded Russian students "showed Muslims as monsters who are fed by the blood of children and the pain of their families."

But as Abdel Rahman al-Rashed noted, the problem is that there is no unified Islamic voice rejecting the actions of the terrorists. As the Beslan horrors unfolded, one extremist based in England said just the opposite. If the cause was just, it would be appropriate to bring the same tactics to England. Here is the opening of a report by Rajeev Syal in the Sunday Telegraph:

An extremist Islamic cleric based in Britain said yesterday that he would support hostage-taking at British schools if carried out by terrorists with a just cause. Omar Bakri Mohammed, the spiritual leader of the extremist sect al-Muhajiroun, said that holding women and children hostage would be a reasonable course of action for a Muslim who has suffered under British rule. ...

"If an Iraqi Muslim carried out an attack like that in Britain, it would be justified because Britain has carried out acts of terrorism in Iraq. As long as the Iraqi did not deliberately kill women and children, and they were killed in the crossfire, that would be okay."

The bottom line: Who gets to define "in the crossfire"?

Try to square that statement with the opening of a major feature story in the Sunday Mirror.

The details of this report by Euan Stretch are almost too much to endure. The headline was bad enough -- "They Knifed Babies, they Raped Girls." I apologize for using such large block quotations from these reports. But sometimes, you just need to read the coverage for yourself.

... Scores of the 323 who died -- including many children -- had been shot in the back. While despairing soldiers and rescue workers moved among the growing pile of body bags, it was revealed that an 18-month-old baby had been repeatedly stabbed by a black-clad terrorist who had run out of ammunition.

Other survivors told how screaming teenage girls were dragged into rooms adjoining the gymnasium where they were being held and raped by their Chechen captors who chillingly made a video film of their appalling exploits.

This certainly does not sound like "crossfire," does it?

This raises a question that makes journalists (me included) very nervous when covering this kind of nightmare. Should the news media do more to cover the religious elements of these events and the moral, even theological, debates they inspire?

How can we say "no"? Let me stresss that I believe that we need to cover this side of the terrorism story in order to defend the rights of moderate Muslims to speak out.

However, after sifting (post-hurricane) through waves of coverage of the Beslan massacre, it seems clear to me that many journalists have been afraid to write about the religious elements of this story.

To test this, just go to Google News and search for "Beslan" and "Allahu Akhbar." You will not find much in the way of details -- although some news organizations are at least quoting the victims.

It seems to me that the chants of the terrorists are a symbolic detail worth reporting -- unless this damning detail can now be assumed. If that is the case, then I cannot imagine a more hateful and condescending slap at Islam by reporters than this attitude of cynicism.

Why bother to report that the murderers chanted "Allah is great"? They all do, don't they? This is news?

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is a very long post and it really needs one or more pieces of art to go with it. But we have a problem, one shared with many news-related blogs that do not have art budgets. We are dependent on finding digital illustrations that are not under copyright. Thus, the more newsworthy and specific the story, the harder it is to find art that is relevant, but not produced by a news agency for its own use. Any suggestions out there on how to deal with this problem?

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