New York Times covers efforts to counter Islamic terrorism in Dagestan; skips key Muslim differences

As parents, we try to steer our children toward activities we think will help them become better adults. Those activities are generally meant to instill in them beliefs and values similar, if not identical, to our own.

So, for example, we enroll our kids in church, synagogue, mosque or other religion-sponsored social, educational or physical activities that seek to mold their minds and bodies in accordance with our hopes and their gifts.

This happens across the board, including in the Caucasus region Russian republic -- akin to an American state, not an independent nation -- of Dagestan, about which I'll say much more in a bit.

As a Religion News Service national correspondent, in the early 1990s I stayed a few days at a pioneering atheist summer camp north of Cincinnati. The Camp Quest network has since grown considerable; it’s now international.

Its purpose, of course, is to imbue the children of atheists with atheist values -- though Camp Quest prefers to call its supporters non-theists, humanists or free-thinkers rather than atheists, the latter having a more negative connotation in Christian (certainly culturally and politically) America.

My point here is that atheists -- the Camp Quest marketing pitch was “beyond belief” -- seek to turn their offspring into like-minded adults just like Christians and others.

In Dagestan, a mostly Muslim region once labeled by the BBC “the most dangerous place in Europe” because of its rampant Islamic-inspired violence, parents also strive to keep their young from straying ideologically.

For Dagestani parents, the preferred activity for achieving this (at least for boys) is wrestling.

That cultural preference was tackled in this interesting -- and almost well-done feature -- published last week by The New York Times.

Why “almost well done"?

Because while the piece highlights an interesting aspect of Dagestani culture via text and several excellent photos, it fails to explain what Islam means in a Dagestani context.

That’s not an uncommon American media failure. Journalists tend to generalize more than they particularize. It's easier to do, and there's always the fear of going too deep into the weeds. 

But Islam is almost as fractured as Christianity. And despite the many years -- since the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution -- of American news media trying to differentiate between Sunni and Shia Islam, I’d wager an unfortunate number of American journalists still cannot clearly describe the critical historical differences between the two.

If you fail, as in this story, to differentiate between Sufi Muslims and Sunni Wahhabi Islamists, you might as well miss the vast differences between mainstream Roman Catholics and Appalachian Pentecostal snake handlers.

The differences are what separate a coherent, contextualized story from one that’s factually  lacking and simply incomplete.

Here’s why it matters in this Times piece.

Traditionally, Dagestani Muslims adhered to Sufi Islam, a less dogmatic, less political, more laid-back Muslim path emphasizing inner spiritual striving. Within Islam, it’s more about a worship style than denominational loyalty.

That -- combined with Dagestan’s militarily strategic geographical location between predominantly Christian Russia, Dagestan’s colonial master to this day, and the largely Muslim Middle East; its extreme poverty, and having its Sufi Islam dissed as heretical by extremist Shias and Sunnis -- has turned Dagestan into a nationalist and religious battleground.

In short, its been thrust into the Muslim civil war between reactionary extremists and more modernist and moderate Muslims. That’s important to understanding the complexity of Dagestan’s tinder box circumstances.

The extremists are generally austere, dogmatic, Saudi-style Wahhabi Islamists. Their goal;  replace mild-mannered Dagestani Sufism with their ultra-militant Sunni ideology. Think al-Qaeda and the Islamist State, both of which have sucked in scores of young Dagestani men seeking purpose and employment. (Americans were exposed to some information about this because of the ties between the Boston Marathon bombing and Dagestan.)

Enter wrestling, Dagestan’s most popular sport, and this from the Times feature.

Men from Dagestan say they have always wrestled, in traditional bouts between mountain villages. Today, though, the region embraces and loves wrestling not so much for teaching its young men to fight as for keeping them out of the fight with insurgents, offering an alternative to Islamist terrorism.
“Anyone who achieves something in sports feels confident,” said Arsen Sate, a school principal in Makhachkala, the capital of the region. “He doesn’t need to prove anything to anybody, and he won’t try to achieve fame in a negative way.”
“Mostly, those who join the underground are adolescents,” Mr. [Adam Saitiev] added. “At this time in their lives, they are trying to prove something. They can find themselves in sports instead, and won’t get involved in this stupidity.”

Further down in the piece, came this.

Violence still plagues Dagestan. In February, for example, an Islamic State recruit attacked a church with a rifle and knife. By some estimates, hundreds of Dagestan natives have joined the radical group in Syria.
In neighboring Chechnya, the Russian Army crushed the Islamist rebellion a decade or so ago, but insurgents found refuge in the mountainous border region between Chechnya, Dagestan and Georgia, and recruited in the remote villages.
The wrestling gyms offer a different, positive vision of fighting and Islam. Coaches and athletes pray together. And some wrestlers see in the sport a religious significance.
“We always wrestled,” Adam Batirov, who has also competed for a team in Bahrain, said of Dagestan’s highland wrestlers. “The followers of the prophet also wrestled, and as we are Muslims, wrestling came to us with Islam.”

I’ll take Baitirov’s word on that. But what kind of Islam are we talking about? (I'm referring to the splitting of Islam into Sunni, Shia, Sufi and other forms of the religion following the Prophet Muhammad’s death, leadership struggles, and it's encountering new cultures.)

Remember: a story about religion rests upon a scribe’s skill in weaving together religious details, though seemingly obscure at first, that turn a story from superficial to sophisticated.

Which story would you prefer to file? Which story would you rather read?

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