The (insert adjective here) Islamic State strikes again, for reasons that are hard to explain

Journalists continue to wrestle with a problem that they now face day after day: How to describe the Islamic State in a way that admits the obvious, that this horror is rooted in its leaders'  approach to the Islamic faith, yet using accurate words that are not offensive to mainstream Muslims.

This needs to be a formula that can be used over and over, with variations, and take a sentence or two at most.

For all of you non-journalists reading this: Accurate daily journalism is tough work.

I thought of this struggle yet again read some of the mainstream coverage of the tragic and twisted death of 83-year-old Khalid al-Asaad, the antiquities expert who was often called "Mr. Palmyra." This story continues to read like nightmares from "Game of Thrones" scripts. In the New York Times story there is this

After detaining him for weeks, the jihadists dragged him on Tuesday to a public square where a masked swordsman cut off his head in front of a crowd, Mr. Asaad’s relatives said. His blood-soaked body was then suspended with red twine by its wrists from a traffic light, his head resting on the ground between his feet, his glasses still on, according to a photo distributed on social media by Islamic State supporters. ...
The public killing of Mr. Asaad, who had retired a decade before and had recently turned 83, his son said, highlighted the Islamic State’s brutality as it seeks to replace the government of President Bashar al-Assad with a punishing interpretation of Islam across its self-declared caliphate in parts of Syria and Iraq.

What, precisely, does the word "punishing" mean in that context? There is no "punishing" element -- differences of degree, not kind -- in Iran or Saudi Arabia? What is the specific information readers are supposed to draw from that unique adjective? Hold that thought.

This hard editorial work continues later in the story, with the Times team -- as has become the norm -- telling the results of some ISIS twists on Islam, but with no actual content that would let readers know what parts of orthodox Islam have been yanked out of context and turned into these horrific dramas.

As it has seized territory in Syria and Iraq, ISIS has attacked a number of historic sites, detonating tombs and destroying statues that are forbidden by its strict interpretation of Islam.
In the photo of Mr. Asaad’s dead body, red writing on a white placard suspended from his waist calls Mr. Asaad an “apostate” and lists his alleged crimes, including representing Syria at “infidel conferences,” serving as “the director of idolatry” in Palmyra, visiting Iran and communicating with a brother in the Syrian security services.

The Associated Press ran into a similar adjective puzzle in its wire-service form report. Try this one on for size:

The Sunni extremists, who have imposed a violent interpretation of Islamic law across the territory they control in Syria and Iraq, claim ancient relics promote idolatry and say they are destroying them as part of their purge of paganism -- though they are also believed to sell off looted antiquities, bringing in significant sums of cash.

It is helpful that the AP noted that this is a Sunni strain of Islam, especially since Shiites have quite different views of visual images linked to religion. But, again, is "violent" a word that adds actual content here? Is ISIS unique in its justifications for use of violence in comparison with, let's say, the Taliban, al-Qaeda or even the Saudis?

Once again, we are dealing with differences of degrees. For me, I see differences in how ISIS has broadened -- even in comparison to al-Qaeda -- the ability to justify fatal violence against moderate Muslims, as well as Christians, Jews and other religious minorities in the region. So it's not a matter of "violence" alone, is it?

You can see, in the Washington Post report, a related issue. Read carefully:

... A photograph posted on Twitter purports to show Asaad’s body hanging from a street lamppost. A sign on the corpse described the killing as punishment for working with “idols,” an apparent reference to the area’s Roman-era artifacts. ...
In addition to perpetrating mass murder, the Islamic State has carried out sweeping anti-idolatry campaigns, laying waste to vast amounts of precious artifacts in the areas of Syria and Iraq under its control. The group uses extremist interpretations of Sunni Islam to justify the destruction, which often targets pre-Islamic artifacts and other symbols of multiculturalism viewed as idolatrous.

A question: Do other Muslims view these same artifacts as idols, yet do not believe that the faith commands them to destroy them?

The bottom line: What are the key elements of Muslim doctrine that are being twisted by ISIS leaders? Readers could get the impression that, in the Muslim world, only ISIS radicals worry about idol worship or believe that there is a use for violence in defending doctrines or punishing apostates. Tell that to gay men in Saudi Arabia.

I know that this work is difficult in the word-counts assigned to reporters for daily stories. Trust me, I know the challenges. But can you think of a more important challenge on the religion beat right now than finding the right words to help readers understand these divisions INSIDE Islam?

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