Religious facts in the slaughter in upscale Nairobi mall

Based on the mainstream media reports pouring out of Kenya, it's clear that the terrorist attacks on the high-end Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi had a lot to do with religion.

CBS News even managed to get one of the most gripping religious details into its lede:

Gunmen threw grenades, fired automatic weapons and targeted non-Muslims at the upscale Westgate mall in Kenya's capital on Saturday, killing at least 30 people and wounding dozens more, a Kenya Red Cross official and witnesses said.

How, precisely, do two trained squads of gunmen, according to reports, specifically target non-Muslims?

It's very early for specific details, and I get that. The most common statement in these reports is that the gunners simply shouted instructions for non-Muslims to flee and refused to shoot those who immediately responded. However, do not be surprised if, as the terrorists hunted from store to store, the story is more complex than that. In Syria, rebels have been offering Christians the choice to convert to Islam, on the spot, and avoid death.

This is merely one symbolic detail from a hellish scene. However, it is interesting the degree to which some mainstream news organizations downplayed the religious motives in the massacre, stressing the merely political. Here is typical language near the top of an early Washington Post report:

On Saturday night, the al-Qaeda-linked Somali militia al-Shabab appeared to claim responsibility for the assault, saying it was in retaliation for Kenya sending troops to fight in neighboring Somalia, where it remains a key military actor. In a tweet from the group’s official Twitter handle, @HSM_Press, the militia said that it “has on numerous occasions warned the #Kenyan government that failure to remove its forces from Somalia would have severe consequences.”

“The Kenyan government, however, turned a deaf ear to our repeated warnings and continued to massacre innocent Muslims in Somalia,” it said in another tweet.

The militia said that its “Mujahideen” had entered the Westgate Premier Shopping Mall about noon and that they were “still inside the mall, fighting” Kenyans on “their own turf.” In another tweet, the militia said that “what Kenyans are witnessing at #Westgate is retributive justice for crimes committed by their military.”

Quite a bit later in the story, the Post team notes:

One injured victim said the attackers had ordered Muslims to leave the premises, in an apparent attempt to target non-Muslims. The victim, an American, told this to a friend, who recounted it to a Washington Post reporter. Other witnesses gave similar accounts to other news organizations.

And that's that. Once again, I know that it is early and that details can be hard to pin down in this kind of chaos. Still, most news organizations played this religious element of the story higher. The right call?

And there was another interesting religious, and/or political, detail that made it into many reports. Here is the relevant chunk of the Post report:

The dead and injured included young and old, Kenyans and foreigners, including at least two Americans, according to witnesses.

Several children were reported injured. The mall -- particularly the ArtCaffe, an eatery known for its brunch menus and bakery -- is a popular hangout for Westerners and middle-class Kenyans.

Wait a minute. What, readers may ask, was the religion theme in that passage? I realize that, in some elite urban zones, brunch is a near sacramental ritual, but that's not what I am talking about.

By way of contrast, consider the following passage near the end of an early New York Times report:

Ilana Stein, a spokeswoman for Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the attack took place near the ArtCaffe, an Israeli-owned coffee shop and bakery popular with foreigners that is one of 80 businesses in the mall. Ms. Stein said that one Israeli was lightly injured and three others escaped unharmed, and that the Kenyan interior minister said Israelis were not being targeted.

“This time, the story is not about Israel,” Ms. Stein said. “The minister is saying that this is an internal Kenyan issue. His security forces tell him that this terror organization was not targeting Israelis.”

Right. The attack by a group linked to al-Qaeda included a strike against a cafe full of foreigners that is owned by Israelis. That may or may not turn out to be a detail linked to religion. However, that is certainly a striking detail in most of the media reports -- other than that Post story. Interesting.

Stay tuned and help us watch for details about who died, and who did not, and why.

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