Mali has been full of interesting, if tragic, religion news recently and this most recent story is no exception. Here's how the Associated Press put it:
Sixteen Muslim preachers from a moderate sect were shot dead in central Mali as they traveled by road to a religious conference, the Malian and Mauritanian governments said Sunday. Early reports indicate that the men's long beards aroused the suspicion of Mali's military, which confused them for the extremists who have taken over the nation's north.
But here's how the BBC describes the sect:
At least some of the dead are believed to be Islamic preachers from the conservative Dawa sect and included Mauritanians as well as Malians.
AFP went with this descriptor:
Mali's government ordered an immediate investigation Sunday after 16 suspected Islamists, including several from Mauritania, were shot to death at a checkpoint in the country's central region.
So the group can be described as moderate, as conservative or as Islamist. And all of those could be true, of course, depending on the definitions we're using but it's hard to know what these descriptors mean. Perhaps instead we could get a description of what the Dawa sect teaches.
While the stories did give interesting (if occasionally not the same) information about the attack, we got very little in terms of the teaching or practice of the groups involved. We're told the clerics were headed to a gathering or conference. The AP describes the Dawa sect as "peaceful" and quotes a spokesman for "the Islamists" who control the north, which it also describes as "radical" as saying that the killing of the 16 proves that there is no common ground between them and the government. We're also told, by the way, that locals alerted the military because they saw the long beards on the clerics and thought they were the radical Islamists. Anyway, the Islamist spokesman offers this quote:
"We do not recognize these words of condolences issued by Mali which has killed these innocent people," he said. "These preachers have nothing to do with jihad. They are moderate people, who were constantly preaching to us, to tell us to be more moderate in our actions. And if the Malian government has killed them in this barbaric fashion, we will seek revenge."
Now, it's fine to quote him this way but what does it mean the preachers have nothing to do with jihad? If jihad just means "struggle," as so many media reports remind us, what does it mean to say that the preachers have nothing to do with it? Presumably the speaker is referring to the militaristic use of the term, but it should be clarified. And since some reports describe the Dawa sect as political, that distinction is even more important.
Finally, some reports describe the Islamists in control of the north as both radical and ultra-conservative. I get what the reporter is trying to say, but these words mean very different things. We could use some more explanation of beliefs and practice given the limits of these descriptors.
Image of Mali's Great Mosque via Shutterstock.