Shots fired, Jews targeted, religious slogans shouted, and journalists scratch their heads

Is politics more believable than religion as a motive for shooting up a café and a synagogue?

I don't pretend to read minds at the New York Times and the Washington Post. But it looked like some quick tap-dancing when the newspapers reported the weekend shootings in the capital of Denmark.

First up is the Post's report:

COPENHAGEN — The targets were eerily familiar: a cartoonist, police officers and Jews.
The manhunt, too, had echoes: a European capital on virtual lockdown as police searched block by block, with helicopters sweeping the skies.
And after the suspect had been shot to death on a Copenhagen street, the profile that emerged was remarkably similar: a habitual criminal who, after serving time in prison, emerged as an ideologically motivated killer.

It's familiar, all right. The weekend targets were a synagogue during a bat mitzvah and a café hosting a forum on free speech and Islam. A clear echo of two attacks in Paris just a month ago, at a kosher market and the satirical Charlie Hebdo magazine. Hebdo has often run cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, an act that many Muslims consider blasphemous.

Similarly, the Sunday forum in Copenhagen was organized by Lars Vilks, whose cartoons of Muhammad brought death threats in 2007 and who was in the café during the shooting. The event was even timed for the anniversary of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, author of the book The Satanic Verses.

Beyond a vague reference to "extremism," though, the Post finds it hard to pinpoint the motives of Omar Abdel Hamid el-Hussein, as Danish media identified him. Why?

Perhaps because the nation's prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, had called it a "politically motivated attack, and thereby it was a terrorist attack.” Still, the newspaper could have asked if terrorism could also be religion-linked. The answer would seem as obvious as the question.

Thorning-Schmidt's quote appeared in an early version of the story but was cut from the latest one I saw, at 10:11 p.m. yesterday. Instead, the 1,100-word piece recites Hussein's criminal record, including "assault and weapons possession." It also quotes a terrorism expert about a "confluence between criminal gangs and extremism which is more pronounced in Denmark than in other countries."

Jewish leaders tell the Post they'd been asking for security for weeks. I wish the paper had asked if they thought the violence was politically motivated. Another worthwhile question: Did the shooter know a bat mitzvah was happening then?

The New York Times' account does have the religion angle, although it's buried in the last half of the 32 paragraphs. Even Sunday night, the lede reads almost like some generic shooter:

COPENHAGEN — After killing a Danish film director in a Saturday afternoon attack on a Copenhagen cafe and then a Jewish night guard at a synagogue, the 22-year-old gunman responsible for Denmark’s worst burst of terrorism in decades unleashed a final fusillade outside a four-story apartment building before dawn on Sunday.

But the Times goes deep into Denmark's troubled relationship with its Muslim residents. There's the series of 12 cartoons of Muhammad in 2005 in the newspaper Jyllands Posten, prompting a mosque in the capital to "rally hostility against Denmark." The newspaper also retells attacks on two Danes, apparently over the cartoons.

The story also injects a subtle irony:

In its response to the threat since the cartoon crisis, the authorities have combined extensive surveillance of suspected militants and of radical mosques with efforts to “rehabilitate,” rather than punish, young Muslims who dabble in extremism but have not yet been implicated in criminal actions. While most European governments have sought to arrest or expel residents who have returned home after waging jihad in Syria and Iraq, for example, the city of Aarhus has set up a counseling program to help them reintegrate into society.

Following that is a comment from "right-wing populist" party leader Soren Esperson, who "derided pleas from leading mainstream politicians, including the prime minister, that Islam not be blamed for the violence":

"Of course this has something to do with Islam just as the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades and witch burning had something to do with Christianity,” he said. Christianity, he added, had “dealt with its fanatics,” and Islam “must now do the same.”

Also denouncing the violence is the umbrella Islamic Religious Communitys. And a Muslim neighbor of the dead shooter "blamed extremist self-declared preachers who 'pick on young people who drink or use drugs because they are very weak.' "

But the article ends with Thorning-Schmidt saying, "This is not a war between Islam and the West" -- although it doesn't quote anyone saying it is.

Did anyone do better? Yep: the Wall Street Journal and its two reports on Sunday, here and here. The lede from yesterday afternoon:

A gunman shouting ‘Allahu akbar’ targeted free-speech activists, policemen and Jews in a 14-hour rampage through Copenhagen this weekend, killing two men and wounding five people, in attacks that plunged another European capital into terror just over a month after the Paris shootings.

The shouts of "Allahu akbar," for which the story quoted a witness, was something the Times and the Post didn’t have.

The Journal has other religious details. It says the café forum was a "seminar on Islam and free speech." It specifies that Vilks drew Muhammad as a dog and that another cartoonist drew the prophet with a bomb in his turban. It points out that many Muslims regard any pictures of Muhammad as blasphemous.

The Journal also brings up an attempted terrorist attack on the Jyllands-Posten newspaper in 2010, which sounds chillingly like the successful attack on Charlie Hebdo. And it reports the new Muhammad cartoons in the latest issue of Charlie Hebdo, which brought "waves of anti-French protests that have swept parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia" -- including church burnings in Niger.

All of that in less than 1,600 words for both stories, about the same as the latest Times article.

OK, I get it. The papers want to be fair. Millions of Muslims are aghast at the horrors being done in the name of their faith. It would be wrong and inaccurate to call Hussein and other killers simply "Muslim terrorists."

But it's also a mistake to ignore or downplay the religious angle of such attacks. Jihadic, radical Islam is real, not a mere veneer for crime or politics. When someone shoots up a synagogue and a free-speech forum, shouting a religious slogan, the motivation is as evident as the froth on a latte.

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