Election day thoughts: New York Times visits Utah, includes crucial faith details in a tragic war story

Election day thoughts: New York Times visits Utah, includes crucial faith details in a tragic war story

The mayor of North Odgen, Utah, was a soldier on yet another deployment — returning to Afghanistan.

Brent Taylor was married and had a large family, although it was not unusually large by Utah standards. He was a Republican who was popular with many Democrats in his town.

No, this is not going to be a post about whether professionals in the mainstream media — The New York Times, in this case — did or did not replace the term “Mormon” with the full name of that religious institution, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in a major story.

No, I want to say that the journalists behind this Times story made a sincere attempt to grasp the ties that bind in the piece that ran with this headline: “Brent Taylor, Utah Mayor Killed in Afghanistan, Was on 4th Deployment.”

I had some doubts, at first, when the faith element did not show up in the overture:

NORTH OGDEN, Utah — The call had come again. Brent Taylor, the mayor of North Ogden and a major in the Utah National Guard, would be going to Afghanistan for his fourth deployment.

He told his constituents about it on Facebook in January, leaning into the camera to explain that he had been called to serve his country “whenever and however I can” and that he would be gone for a year, as part of a team helping to train an Afghan Army commando battalion. “Service is really what leadership is all about,” he told them.

He said goodbye to his wife, Jennie, and their seven children, and turned over his municipal duties to his friend Brent Chugg. “You need to keep safe,” Mr. Chugg told him. “I will,” Major Taylor replied.

He did not make it home.

However, the faith details emerged — I think this was the right call — when the story shifted into details about family and community. I also think it was appropriate, as a radically divided nation heads into midterm elections, for the Times team to include some of this painful political atmosphere (without mentioning You Know Who). In my experience (including two recent invitations to speak at religious-liberty events at Brigham Young University), many LDS leaders and laypeople are very unsettled by current trends in America’s political life.

But back to the head of the story — the mayor and his family, and its community.

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Why Muslim news media have shied away from covering the Uighur persecution story

Why Muslim news media have shied away from covering the Uighur persecution story

As with other religions, Islam embodies the concept of like-minded believers sharing a global destiny no matter which nation they live in.

In Arabic, this idea is known as the Ummah. Militant Islamists invoke it repeatedly to convince Muslims they are obligated to aid Muslims persecuted by non-Muslims.

How does this work in practice? As with Christians (the extensive history of Christian nations fighting other Christian nations is hardly unknown), the idealized notion that co-religionists can count on fellow believers in stressful times is highly limited.

Witness the lack of global Muslim efforts to assist their Chinese Uighur co-religionists currently being brutalized by the Chinese government. Or the relative dearth of Uighur-related news coverage emanating from Muslim-majority nations.

Western media, on the other hand, have covered the Uighur story like a blanket — despite the geographic, logistical and political hurdles making it difficult to do so. Here at GetReligion, we’ve posted repeatedly on the Uighur situation the past few years.

One Western publication I think has done an excellent job with the story is Foreign Policy. The magazine has published, online, two strong pieces on the Uighurs in just the past couple of weeks.

Here’s one from late October that tells how China is planting strangers who absurdly identify themselves as “relatives” in Uighur homes to monitor them. Here’s the second, published last week, detailing that Uighurs are so desperate to escape Chinese persecution that some are actually fleeing to Afghanistan for safety.

Consider that for a moment. True, Afghanistan is a Muslim nation. But it’s also a land of continual warfare where even the innocent can become collateral damage at any time. So fleeing to Afghanistan hardly ensures peaceful sanctuary. And yet they do.

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This weekend's think piece? It has to be Khashoggi defense of freedom of expression

This weekend's think piece? It has to be Khashoggi defense of freedom of expression

If you have spent much time studying human rights, you know that there wherever you find attacks on freedom of speech and freedom of conscience, you almost always find attacks on the freedom of religion.

You just cannot pry these issues apart, in real life.

Long ago — 1983, to be precise — Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu put it this way, during floor debates in Vancouver, Canada, about evangelism and free speech at a global assembly of the World Council of Churches. When describing apartheid government crackdowns on street preachers, he said words to this effect: One man’s evangelist preaching on a street corner is another man’s political activist.

With that in mind, I don’t think that there is any question about the link readers need to click, seeking this week’s think piece. Im talking about the final Washington Post column from the late (that certainly appears to be the case) Jamal Khashoggi. The headline:

What the Arab world needs most is free expression.”

I realize that lots of different people are saying lots of different things about this man’s life, career and political associations — past and present. I know about his role, at one time, in the Muslim Brotherhood.

This piece is still must reading. Here is how it starts:

I was recently online looking at the 2018 “Freedom in the World” report published by Freedom House and came to a grave realization. There is only one country in the Arab world that has been classified as “free.” That nation is Tunisia. Jordan, Morocco and Kuwait come second, with a classification of “partly free.” The rest of the countries in the Arab world are classified as “not free.”

As a result, Arabs living in these countries are either uninformed or misinformed.

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New York Times avoids moral judgement in Afghan cultural pedophilia story. What's up with that?

New York Times avoids moral judgement in Afghan cultural pedophilia story. What's up with that?

The news out of Afghanistan was brutal last week, as is too often the case. At week’s end, a Taliban suicide bomber driving an ambulance in Kabul killed at least 95 (a figure bound to climb) and injured another 158 or so persons.

One wonders just how much pain a population can endure before it utterly falls apart. And also, just how fortunate we who live in a nation such as ours -- despite all it's political pains, mass shootings and occasional terror attack -- truly are.

Despite more than 16 years of American military involvement in Afghanistan -- our longest foreign conflict ever -- our elite news operations continue to devote a great deal of coverage to Afghanistan. That’s as it should be, even more so given that President Donald Trump has upped our current involvement there, which is also sure to lengthen our stay for years to come.

Earlier last week, another story concerning Afghanistan broke in The New York Times that, I believe, was just as horrific, in its own way, as the Kabul bombing. This one, however, received far less elite media attention -- even as it underscored the extraordinary cultural compromises associated with America’s involvement in Afghanistan, a land as different from our own as to seem at times situated on another planet.

The story, a Times exclusive, ran below the following headline: “Afghan Pedophiles Get Free Pass From U.S. Military, Report Says.”

Sounds dreadful, doesn't it? Well, it is. Here’s how it begins:

On 5,753 occasions from 2010 to 2016, the United States military asked to review Afghan military units to see if there were any instances of “gross human rights abuses.” If there were, American law required military aid to be cut off to the offending unit.
Not once did that happen.
That was among the findings in an investigation into child sexual abuse by the Afghan security forces and the supposed indifference of the American military to the problem, according to a report released on Monday by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, known as Sigar.

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Ahmad Khan Rahami: The New York Times offers early clues to a life transformed

Ahmad Khan Rahami: The New York Times offers early clues to a life transformed

While politicians keep arguing about what is and what is not a bomb and what is and what is not a “motive” for terrorism, most American journalists -- at least in the print media -- have settled into a somewhat predictable pattern for covering the basic facts of these kinds of events.

That was a compliment.

There was a time when reporters seemed so anxious to avoid the religion angles in these stories that they actually buried or ignored basic facts -- which almost certainly led to increased distrust among readers. We are talking about stories in which a a suspect’s name or family history was hidden deep in the text or reporting that ignored details provided by witnesses, such as whether attackers shouted religious references or asked victims if they were Muslims.

At this point -- perhaps after waves of street-level violence in Europe and elsewhere -- reporters have gone back to writing basic stories. That doesn’t mean that potential links to radicalized forms of Islam dominate the headlines and the tops of news reports. It does mean that essential facts are covered and, often, they are linked to human details that help them make sense.

Consider the New York Times second-day feature story about the man arrested -- after a gun battle with police -- following the disturbing series of attacks in and around New York City. Just look at the complex matrix of materials at the very top of this story.

He presided behind the counter of a storefront New Jersey fried chicken restaurant, making his home with his family in an apartment above it. To some of his friends, Ahmad Khan Rahami was known as Mad, an abridgment of his name rather than a suggestion of his manner, and they liked that he gave them free food when they were short on money.

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Orlando through an Arab and (limited) Afghan media lens: Gays involved? Religion? No way!

Orlando through an Arab and (limited) Afghan media lens: Gays involved? Religion? No way!

Just so everyone knows where I'm going in this post, and to respond in advance to those who might accuse me of burying my lede, let me state here and now that the focus of this piece is about how media in the heart of the Muslim world -- the mostly Arab Middle East -- treated the Orlando massacre.

But first, this: The coverage in the United States and most of the world has been nothing short of overwhelming. The volume of information included in news stories, analysis and opinion pieces produced across the journalistic spectrum has been extraordinary.

Of course it wasn't flawless. How could it be when it had to puzzle together -- without having all the pieces -- the complexities of international terrorism, sexual orientation, cultural and religious influences, gun control and mass murder, presidential politics, the psychology of a twisted mind, and a state of almost unbearably sad raw emotion. Oh -- and doing it while under intense time and competitive pressures, and subject to instant online criticism.

So I'd say it's fair to conclude that today's unforgiving, report-first-confirm-it-later, 24/7 news cycle worked about as well as one can realistically hope it might. I tip my hat for a job well done to all those who worked from the scene and in news rooms to deliver this story of intense public interest.

Let's not overlook the good when perfection is out of reach. 

My reading of the preponderance of the coverage by mainstream, Western-oriented news operations was that it once again self-identified with the victims in the manner that follows every ugly manifestation of terrorist mass murder these days. What else could it do?

That is not to say there weren't pointed questions about America's politically sacrosanct gun culture. Or differences of opinion about the role played in Orlando by Islam and, in particular, the influence of the Islamic State.

Today, we are all Paris, Istanbul, Brussels, Mali, Kabul, Nigeria, Tel Aviv, Ivory Coast, Egypt, Syria, San Bernardino, etc., etc. There are far too many places to list them all.

Now, we're all Orlando. Who knows who we'll be in a week or two?

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The martyrdom of an Afghan: New York Times brings clash of law and culture to light

The martyrdom of an Afghan: New York Times brings clash of law and culture to light

Farkhunda Malikzada actually died last March; a 27-year-old Afghan woman who thought she was standing up for the integrity of Islam when she spoke out against a corrupt fortuneteller at a local shrine. However, someone accused her of desecrating a Quran and a few minutes later, her life was over.

What follows a "Lord of the Flies" style death scene where a mob of some 1,000 men pummel the woman to death, run her body over with a car, then set her on fire.

The New York Times has assembled a 7-minute video of her death along with a lengthy article. It’s not fun viewing but if you can get through a "Game of Thrones" episode, you can get through this. Because you only get glimpses of the woman being killed. What is so chilling are the shouts of “Defend Islam!” and the sight of the police doing nothing as she died.

This is not some Taliban outpost folks. This is Kabul. Although some in the comments section suggest that maybe Kabul is a Taliban outpost. As the article says:

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Farkhunda had one chance to escape the mob that wanted to kill her. Two Afghan police officers pulled her onto the roof of a low shed, above the angry crowd.
But then the enraged men below her picked up poles and planks of wood, and hit at her until she lost her grip and tumbled down.

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Wait! What happened to links between 'boy play,' U.S. dollars and rise of the Taliban?

Wait! What happened to links between 'boy play,' U.S. dollars and rise of the Taliban?

Every now and then, some major news organization does a story about the horrors of "bacha bazi (boy play)" while trying to cover the cultural minefield that is semi-modern Afghanistan. The New York Times is the latest, with a major A1 report with a shocking new angle, which ran under the headline "U.S. Soldiers Told to Ignore Sexual Abuse of Boys by Afghan Allies."

Journalists covering this story face one major problem of logic and language, one that we have written about in the past here at GetReligion. Since Afghanistan is governed by sharia law, which forbids sodomy and sex before marriage, how do news organizations explain this Muslim culture's long history of men forcing boys into sexual slavery?

This question has been especially important in the recent history of this war-torn land because bacha bazi activity among Afghan leaders played a major role in the rise of the morally and doctrinally strict Taliban.

This Times piece had major news to report and it delivered the goods in unforgettable fashion. However, this piece also took a novel approach to the crucial question of the moral status of bacha bazi under Islamic law and traditions -- it ignored it completely. 

First, here is the heart of this stunning story:

Rampant sexual abuse of children has long been a problem in Afghanistan, particularly among armed commanders who dominate much of the rural landscape and can bully the population. The practice is called bacha bazi, literally “boy play,” and American soldiers and Marines have been instructed not to intervene -- in some cases, not even when their Afghan allies have abused boys on military bases, according to interviews and court records.
The policy has endured as American forces have recruited and organized Afghan militias to help hold territory against the Taliban.

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Painfully familiar 'ghost' in the shooting of the U.S. general

Painfully familiar 'ghost' in the shooting of the U.S. general

What we have here is -- alas -- an example of a religion-new "ghost" that your GetReligionistas could write about day after day after day, world without end, amen.

For newcomers, a "ghost" (in the lingo of this weblog) is a religious issue or subject that journalists really should have included in a news report, that is if the goal was for readers to understand what is happening. For more information on this term read the very first post published at, back on the original Day 1.

A classic example of a "ghost"? How long did it take for the mainstream press to explain the doctrinal elements at the heart of the bloody conflicts between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq? Way too long, quite frankly, and some newsrooms are still in the dark on that.

This brings me to the fatal shooting of that U.S. general in Afghanistan. Anyone who reads the main report in The New York Times learns, over and over, that he died because of "political" tensions. Period.

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