Army of Muhammad returns?

Firefighters try to extinguish burning barricades set by pro-Palestinian demonstrators outside the Israeli embassy in Athens

As I was working throughout the early hours of Monday morning, I had a front-row seat to the unbelievably tragic conflict unfolding in the Mediterranean Sea between Israeli commandos and pro-Palestinian activists. Except that most of the networks were limited by the holiday and the wee hours. That meant I was getting a lot of information by searching the flotilla hashtag on Twitter. What popped up was a fascinating mix of heartbreak, passionate outrage, shocking anti-Semitism and information of varying veracity. It was still hard to get much good information throughout the day, Monday. The early reports of Israelis killing unarmed peace activists, for instance, were contradicted by video evidence released by Israel showing Israeli forces being attacked as they boarded a ship. Defenders of the flotilla activists say they were attacked first by the Israelis. The one story I kept refreshing throughout the day was the really balanced Associated Press/CBS News piece here:

Israeli commandos rappelled down to an aid flotilla sailing to thwart a Gaza blockade on Monday, clashing with pro-Palestinian activists on the lead ship in a botched raid that left at least nine passengers dead.

Bloodied passengers sprawled on the deck and troops dived into the sea to save themselves during several hours of hand-to-hand fighting that injured dozens of activists and six soldiers. Hundreds of activists were towed from the international waters to Israeli detention centers and hospitals.

It managed to include the competing claims of the two groups and also clearly explained the limitations the reporters were dealing with. For instance, almost all of the news about the raid came from Israel, as communications with the protesters had been largely cut off. Indeed, we still don't have names for who has been killed, who is injured and even much about who exactly rode on these boats. The CBS/AP article, however, provides a ton of information and is a great way to get caught up on the blockade, attempts to get around the blockade, international reaction, and the harrowing incident itself. But it doesn't include much religion, even though the story has no shortage of religion ghosts.

For religion angles, I've actually been going to Al Jazeera. They're slanted pretty noticeably toward the activists and have trouble with facts at times (confusion over what the standards are for boarding in international waters a ship attempting to thwart a blockade) but they do cover some of the religion angles. This live blog was updated throughout the day with helpful new information.

But if you really want to find some religion ghosts, it helps to find translations of Al Jazeera's Arabic broadcasts. Unfortunately, I'm not aware of a neutral source for translation. Palestinian Media Watch, which you can read more about here, translated one such broadcast. You can watch the video but here's the PMW translation and explanation of a May 29 broadcast:

Reporter: "Despite the Israeli threats and several unexpected delays, the arrival of the ships at the meeting point before sailing to the Gaza Strip inflamed the emotions and the enthusiasm of the participants."

Visuals from Gaza flotilla ship of young Muslims shouting Islamic battle chant invoking the killing and defeat of Jews in battle:

"[Remember] Khaibar, Khaibar, oh Jews! The army of Muhammad will return!"

[Khaibar is the name of last Jewish village defeated by Muhammad's army and it marked the end of Jewish presence in Arabia in 628.]

Reporter: "While singing songs reminiscent of the Palestinian Intifada (Palestinian terror war against Israel, 2000 - 2005), participants expressed their longing to reach Gaza."

A participant: "Right now we face one of two happy endings: either Martyrdom or reaching Gaza." [Based on Islamic call before battle: "Either victory or Martyrdom".]

If you're reading Western papers, the information is fairly sanitized. But some of these transcriptions show a wealth of religious language. There's a significant dichotomy between the way, say, the New York Times presented the flotilla activists (the words "Muslim" "faith" "jihad" or "martyr" are not used in reference to them) versus the piece above or this interview with Gaza-based professor Dr. Abd Al-Fatah Nu'man. This interview was translated by the Middle East Media Research Institute:

"My message is to those heroes who are, as we speak, at mid-sea, in pitch darkness under the skies, their palms raised to Allah in supplication. What are they asking for? The Prophet Muhammad said: "He whose feet have been covered with dust for the sake of Allah is saved from the Hellfire, and he who has fought even for only the time it takes to milk a she-camel secures a place in Paradise." These heroes were selected by Allah to carry out this mission -- the mission of awakening the nation, and this will bring honor upon them.

"Yesterday, the commander of the fleet said: 'We will not allow the Zionists to come near us, and we will wage resistance against them.' With what will they wage resistance? With their fingernails. These are people who wish to be martyred for the sake of Allah. As much as they want to reach Gaza, the other option is more desirable to them.

"We pray to Allah that they be awarded both good things: That they reach the shore of Gaza safe and sound, and that they be granted martyrdom, along with us, on the walls of the Al-Aqsa Mosque -- as conquerors."

It's hard to gauge how representative these views are among Muslim supporters of the flotilla but I sure wish some of these voices could be included -- and given context -- in English-language media reports. It's quite a shock to go from American mainstream media to Al Jazeera in English and even more of a shock to read some of these Arabic broadcasts.

Are there any other religion angles that need to be covered? Of course. As Israelis debate how the military handled the raid, what are religious voices saying? And is there anything else to learn about the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation, which backed the flotilla?

Man wears an Arabic thoub with a picture of a child while another man holds a banner during a demonstration held outside the United Nations office in Manama

Eli Lake at the Washington Times had some helpful context:

Israel's deputy foreign minister, Danny Ayalon, on Monday accused the IHH of being a front for Hamas with ties to al Qaeda.

Evan Kohlmann, a terrorism analyst at the NEFA Foundation, said in an interview that he doubted the group has ties to al Qaeda, but that the charity had a history of support for jihadist organizations.

"This purported charity is a fairly extreme organization," he said. "It has associated itself with a number of political viewpoints which are not only fairly militant but they seem to fall well outside of what one would normally expect from a humanitarian group."

Mr. Kohlmann said the group, which was formed in 1995 in protest of the Serbian attacks on Muslims during the disintegration of Yugoslavia, was initially involved in the recruitment of jihadist fighters.

"In the 1990s, Turkish authorities acquired evidence that IHH was involved in not just humanitarian fundraising, but also recruiting fighters for conflicts in the Muslim world," Mr. Kohlmann said. "A search by the Turkish authorities of the IHH offices in Turkey turned up weapons and hard-core jihadist propaganda."

Izzet Sahin, a spokesman for IHH, told the Associated Press on Monday that his organization had no ties to terrorism and denied the Israeli charges.

I'm sure we'll learn more about the group in coming days. Israel is something of a known commodity. People in the United States, at least, have already formulated their views on the country and how it handles its defense. But we're still learning about the rich and varied networks among Muslims in the Middle East, Asia and other lands.

This horrible story will be handled almost entirely as a political one. But I hope some reporters sense the value in learning more about the role religion plays.

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