Yes, radical Muslims massacre Muslims: A crucial theme in persecution of religious minorities

Allow me to take a dive, for a moment, into my GetReligion folder of guilt.

If you follow news about the persecution of religious minorities, then you know a basic fact we have stressed here at GetReligion since Day 1: Radicalized Muslims constantly terrorize and persecute Muslims whose views of the faith they consider "apostate." This is even true in terms of believers targeted by blasphemy laws (see this book by Paul Marshall and Nina Shea: "Silenced: How Apostasy and Blasphemy Codes are Choking Freedom Worldwide").

I looked at lots of coverage of the recent attack on the mosque in Sinai, in which 300-plus died, and was impressed how quickly journalists noted that this community included high numbers of Sufi Muslims (see this New York Times explainer). This was a case where many journalists saw the key religion angle but, I thought, were not quite sure what to do with it, since that would require discussions of doctrine, worship, etc.

The key: Once again we are talking about a division INSIDE Islam, more evidence of the crucial fact that more Americans need to understand -- that Islam is not monolithic. To cover Islam, journalists have to look at the beliefs of those who are being attacked, as well as those who are doing the attacking.

Now we have a deep-dive by the Times international desk that digs deeper on that Sinai massacre. This is a must-read story: "Motives in Egypt’s Deadliest Terrorist Attack: Religion and Revenge." Try to stop reading after this overture:

CAIRO -- One day in early November, a small group of elders in a dusty town in the northern Sinai Peninsula handed over three people accused of being Islamic State militants to Egyptian security forces. It was not the first time -- they had handed over at least seven other people accused of being militants in the previous few months.
Three weeks later, militants stormed a packed mosque in the town, Bir al-Abed, during Friday Prayer, killing 311 people in Egypt’s worst terrorist attack.
While the attack was rooted in rising religious tensions between the local affiliate of the Islamic State and the town’s residents, Bedouins who largely practice Sufism, a mystical school of Islam that the militant group considers heresy, the motive appears to have gone beyond the theological dispute.
It was payback, residents and officials said, for the town’s cooperation with the Egyptian military, and a bloody warning of the consequences of further cooperation.

This was not an easy story to report, for obvious reasons. I appreciated the clarity of this summary statement on sourcing. A key fact: Bir al-Abed is a town long connected to the Egyptian police and military, which means it has been hostile to radicals.

The government has not allowed foreign media into Bir al-Abed so The New York Times interviewed more than 30 residents, security officials and local political and clerical leaders by phone for this article. Several spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals by the militants.

Some of that fear, clearly, has political overtones. Yet the Sufi angle cannot be avoided. In this case, the Times team did not avoid the religious details.

Want proof that the radicals do not consider Sufi Muslims to be followers of the faith?

Check off the religious details in this long passage:

The attack came after more than a year of escalating tensions between Islamic State militants and the Sufi residents of Al Rawda, a district in Bir al-Abed. The campaign began in November last year with the beheading of a blind, elderly Sufi cleric from the nearby town of El Arish, who was accused of practicing witchcraft.
Three weeks later, in an interview published in an Islamic State magazine, one of the group’s commanders in Sinai derided Sufi practices as “sorcery and soothsaying,” and identified Al Rawda and two other predominantly Sufi districts as places the group intended to “eradicate.”
Attacks on three Sufi shrines in the district soon followed. ... The militants began sending text messages to tribal elders and distributing fliers telling people to abandon Sufism and “return to Islam.”
They called some residents by phone and threatened to kill them if they did not abandon Sufi rituals like the building of shrines and the worship of saints, which they consider polytheistic.

They twice attacked the home of a beloved cleric, Sheikh Hussein el-Greir. And they regularly sent men to the mosque to demand that the imam preach jihad. He refused.

I will spare readers the brutal details of the attack itself, including a mother talking about standing in a "sea of corpses." The militants went house to house after leaving the mosque, seeking more Sufis to slaughter.

That cleric who refused to embrace a radical vision of Islam?

The imam who had refused to preach jihad survived by hiding under the bodies of two friends and playing dead, he said. At one point, he said, a militant stood on top of him to make sure he was really dead.

Read it all. I also hope that editors remember the nature of this attack when considering coverage angles in future, alas, attacks in Egypt.

Also, I will note this Baptist Press report following the mosque massacre. There are names and locations worthy of follow-up work.

Once again, when it comes to the persecution of religious minorities, ISIS leaders know who they want to kill and why. When it comes to churches, government officials often strike first -- closing the doors of churches that radicals might attack. In other words, Coptic Christians often get hit from both sides.

Also, Christmas is coming.

Coptic Orthodox bishop Anba Morcos of Shobra El-Kheima closed the Pope Kerlis VI and Archdeacon Habib Gerges church before Nov. 17 services, Morning Star said based on reports in the Egyptian newspaper Almasry Alyoum. Morcos decided to close the church, located about 30 miles outside Cairo, after the governor of Qalyubia warned of possible Islamist attacks, according to news reports. The church had served about 1,000 families who now have no place to worship, area residents told Morning Star.
In addition, Coptic Orthodox Bishop Anba Makarios of Minya told Morning Star that government officials closed four churches over a two-week period after Islamic terrorists attacked three churches there, although he described his statement to Morning Star as "preliminary."
Among churches the government reportedly closed in Minya Governorate are the Virgin Mary church in El-Sheik Alaa village, Anba Mousa El-Aswad church in Kershery village, and Abu Sefeen church in Abu Qurqas city.
Coptic Christians have historically faced targeted terrorist attacks surrounding Christmas, a holiday Coptics celebrate annually Jan. 7.

In other words, stay tuned.

We can also hope that journalists who pay close attention to The New York Times will read its coverage of Sufi persecution in Egypt and elsewhere. Then they should like that trend with the persecution of other minority expressions of Islam, Christians, nonbelievers and other groups.

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