Tagging refugees by religion: Does it matter whether they're Muslims or Christians?

Immigration tensions have tilted another European election. This time it's Italy, where right-wing populists with an anti-immigrant bent have dominated the national vote.

Immigrants? Now who might journalists be referring to when they employ that generic term?

Could they mean, in Italy's case, Muslims from such war-devastated, poverty-stricken nations as Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, plus Africa’s Sahel, the broad swath of semi-arid land just south of the Arab north that is also predominantly Muslim?

But rather than stating what seems the obvious, some global media appear more comfortable leaving the immigrants’ primary religious affiliation -- Islam -- unsaid. Instead, they provide a geography lesson.

By which I mean that the immigrants' nations of origin, such as the ones I mentioned above, are cited instead of the immigrants primary religious affiliation, even though religion is far more of factor in Italy's case than are lines on a globe.

Take this New York Times analysis. It mentions immigration from Syria, Libya and Afghanistan, but not religion. I found similar wording in stories published by The Guardian, USA Today, The Washington Post, the Associated Press and other outlets.

Here’s how the Times piece handled this aspect of the story. This is long, but essential:

The issue continues to disrupt and inflame European politics, including in Germany, Greece, the Netherlands and now Italy. With Greece, Italy has borne the brunt of recent large movements of refugees and migrants into Europe from places such as Afghanistan, Libya and Syria.
There is a strong feeling that the mainstream parties have no answer and that Italy got little help from the European Union in Brussels or from other member states. Once Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany cut off the migrant flow through Central Europe by doing deals with Turkey, neither Berlin nor Brussels seemed to care any more, and a European policy on migration is still unresolved.
“There was a sense in Italy of total abandonment over migration, which didn’t become a crisis until Germany suffered, and then stopped being one,” said Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
The paradox of Italy’s reaction is that it comes late; in many ways the crisis is receding from its peak, as Italy and the rest of Europe have cut migrant smuggling routes and made themselves more unwelcoming. But, not having had an election in five years, this was the first time Italians had been offered a chance to voice their frustration.
“Immigrants are the perfect scapegoat for all manner of angst, both economic and cultural, and very easy fertile ground for the populists,” said Simon Tilford, chief economist for the Institute for Social Change. “It reflects a broad loss of confidence in governance and government institutions.”

There’s truth in what Tilford said about scapegoating immigrants. Immigration, of course, has long been a divisive issue even in the United States, too. That despite our history as a nation of immigrants.

The immigration (or the fear) of large numbers of Muslims diluting Europe’s historically white, Christian culture is profoundly threatening to many  ethnic Europeans.

The  United States seems no different, of course. These fears helped get Donald Trump elected president, right?

(I've no proof, but I’d bet that Muslim immigration scares anti-immigrant Trump fans, and other Americans, far more than immigration from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America. Readers: if you have data on this please post it in the comments section below.)

Now back to the journalism question: Why not be religiously specific about Italy’s immigration question?

Is the religious background so well known that there’s simply no need to rehash it in every story, even in the broadest of strokes? Or are news media simply defaulting to safer, politically correct word choices? In other words, are journalists trying to avoid discussing Islam?

Frankly, it's impossible to know without interviewing editors at the outlets I mentioned above, plus the ones that used similar shaded language that I haven't named, for space reasons, in this post.

Curiously, another story I’ve followed in recent days makes a point of noting the religious -- which is to say non-Muslim faith -- of a group of Iranian refugees desperately seeking to enter the U.S.

Let’s return to the Times, the elite news outlet that’s given this story the most exposure, so far. It is a heartbreaking tale about refugees hoping to escape persecution, only to be stonewalled by a government they once trusted to provide refuge.

In this case, the refugees are primarily Iranian Christians, not Muslims, and the nation that has stymied them is not Italy, but the U.S. Here’s the top of the piece.

LOS ANGELES -- They sold their homes and possessions, quit their jobs, and left their country -- they thought for good. The Iranians, mainly members of their nation’s Christian minorities, were bound for a new life in America after what should have been a brief sojourn in Austria for visa processing.
But more than a year later, some 100 of them remain stranded in Vienna, their savings drained, their lives in limbo and the promise of America dead.
Even as the Trump administration continued to pledge help to religious minorities in the Middle East, many of whom face persecution, the United States denied their applications for refugee status in recent weeks.
“It’s unexplainable,” said H. Avakian, 35, an ethnic Armenian Christian who arrived in Austria from Iran 15 months ago and asked that his first name be withheld out of fear for his safety. “Suddenly they said, ‘Now you can’t come.’ We don’t know why.”
Mr. Avakian, who hoped to join his brother, Andre, in Los Angeles, said in a phone interview that he and other refugees were running out of money and descending into depression. “Most of us cannot go back to Iran; we’re in complete despair,” he said.

My question: Why are the religious affiliations of these would-be immigrants to the U.S. more relevant that the religious identities of the Muslim immigrants in the first story?

Why not just mention that the Iranian refugees, in their homeland, simply belong to non-Muslim religious minorities?

Could the answer be that, for Western media, mentioning Christians is more newsworthy, more of an attention-grabber, than noting when it's Muslim immigrants? Is this just another variant of the all-news-is-local axiom? A way to link this story to specific Trump promises that appear to have been broken?

Perhaps. But I can't help but wonder whether bias is also a factor. What do you think, readers?

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