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Sort of Friday Five: Of course the terrorist attack in New Zealand is a religion-beat story

Sort of Friday Five: Of course the terrorist attack in New Zealand is a religion-beat story

The terrorist set out to massacre Muslim believers as they gathered for Friday prayers in their mosques.

He covered his weapons with names of others who committed similar mass murders and military leaders that he claimed fought for the same cause.

The terrorist left behind a hellish manifesto built on themes common among radicals who hate immigrants, especially Muslims, and weave in virulent anti-Semitism themes, as well (BBC explainer here). He claimed to have “been in contact” with sympathizers of Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian terrorist who killed 77 people — most of them children — in 2011.

1. Religion story of the week. The gunman’s motives may have been pure hatred, with no twisted links to any world religion, but it’s clear that the New Zealand massacre is the religion story of the week — because of the faith of the 49 victims and the faith statements of millions of people that are offering prayers and help in the wake of the attack.

The gunman labeled his own motives, as seen in this New York Times report:

Before the shooting, someone appearing to be the gunman posted links to a white-nationalist manifesto on Twitter and 8chan, an online forum known for extremist right-wing discussions. …

In his manifesto, he identified himself as a 28-year-old man born in Australia and listed his white nationalist heroes. Writing that he had purposely used guns to stir discord in the United States over the Second Amendment’s provision on the right to bear arms, he also declared himself a fascist. “For once, the person that will be called a fascist, is an actual fascist,” he wrote.

The Washington Post noted:

The 74-page manifesto left behind after the attack was littered with conspiracy theories about white birthrates and “white genocide.” It is the latest sign that a lethal vision of white nationalism has spread internationally. Its title, “The Great Replacement,” echoes the rallying cry of, among others, the torch-bearing protesters who marched in Charlottesville in 2017.

Also this:

Video on social media of the attack’s aftermath showed a state of disbelief, as mosque-goers huddled around the injured and dead. Amid anguished cries, a person could be heard saying, “There is no God but God,” the beginning of the Muslim profession of faith.

Please help us spot major religion themes in the waves of coverage that this story will receive in the hours and days ahead. Meanwhile, with Bobby Ross Jr., still in the Middle East, here is a tmatt attempt to fill the rest of the familiar Friday Five format.

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For Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses and China's Uighur Muslims, politics trump religious freedom

For Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses and China's Uighur Muslims, politics trump religious freedom

Political power has as much to do with religious group fortunes as do the appeal of their message and the commitment of their followers. It's no wonder that the histories of each of the three major monotheistic religions emphasize, and even celebrate, stories of persecution at the hands of repressive political leaders.

Frankly, not much has changed over the centuries, despite any assumptions that modernity has birthed generally more enlightened attitudes toward politically weak minority faiths. Lip service means little when believers face immediate threats.

Here are two examples of politically linked religious persecution that produced international headlines last week.

The first is the dire situation of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia. They’re persecuted by the government, in part because they’ve been deemed insufficiently loyal to the state, because they’re a relatively new sect with no historical ties to the Slavs and because they're a small and politically powerless faith with few international friends.

The second example is, arguably, the even worse situation of China’s Uighur Muslims. Not only does Beijing fear their potential political power, but until now they’ve also been largely abandoned by their powerful global coreligionists, again because of blatantly self-serving political considerations.

The good news here, if that’s not an overstatement, is they've received a modicum of  international lip service of late, even if only — no surprise here — out of political self-interest.

But let’s start with the Jehovah's Witnesses. I’ve previous chronicled their situation here, focusing on how the elite international media has -- or has not -- covered them. Click here and then click here to retrieve two of my past GetReligion pieces.

The latest news out of Russia is pretty bad. Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent declaration of quasi-support for his nation’s Witnesses, a foreign-born member of the group has been sentenced to six years in prison for — well, basically for being a member of the faith.

Here’s the top of a Religion News Service report:

MOSCOW (RNS) —  A Russian court has sentenced a Danish member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to six years on extremism charges in a case that has rekindled memories of the Soviet-era persecution of Christians and triggered widespread international criticism.

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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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Remember the Church Page? RNS story on churches aiding South Sudanese refugees will take you back

Remember the Church Page? RNS story on churches aiding South Sudanese refugees will take you back

The Republic of South Sudan is one of the world’s misery portals. Since its independence in 2011, (it's the globe’s youngest fully-minted nation) South Sudan has known little else but war, poverty, hunger and political infighting among its power elites.

The result of which is ongoing misery for the north-central African nation’s ordinary people. This BBC backgrounder tells the tale -- though, curiously, it fails to mention that South Sudan sought to secede from its northern neighbor, Sudan, in large part over religion. Sudan is staunchly Muslim while the people of what is now South Sudan largely practice traditional African tribal faiths, though Christianity is also a major force.

A newly brokered power-sharing agreement could change things for the better. However, those in the international media paying close attention to South Sudan note that we’ve been here before. Al Jazeera English reported that this is the 12th ceasefire and second power-sharing arrangement between the current civil war’s rival parties. So don’t start clapping just yet.

All I’ve said so far is meant as a prelude to dissecting this recent -- and troubling -- Religion News Service story about an upsurge in South Sudanese refugees in Uganda seeking “healing” in Christian churches.

Here’s the top of it. This is long, but essential:

BIDI BIDI REFUGEE CAMP, Uganda (RNS) -- Every morning when Achol Kuol wakes up, she borrows a Bible from her neighbor and reads a verse to comfort herself before she meets others in an open-air church rigged from timber. They sing, dance and speak in tongues during the service. Some who feel filled with the Holy Spirit scream and jump -- not with joy, but remorse.

Confessions flow as they recall the ones they killed in the civil war back home in South Sudan. They cry out, lamenting ordeals they endure at night. Others weep in prayer as they ask God for forgiveness.

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Muslim women: Do their good stories get less news coverage than the bad ones?

Muslim women: Do their good stories get less news coverage than the bad ones?

If you're a sentient being, you're undoubtedly aware of the situation facing women living in patriarchal Muslim-majority nations. Likewise, you've also surely read your fair share of yarns such as this New York Times piece from 2015, headlined, “Women in Tunisia Tell of Decades of Police Cruelty, Violence and Rape.”

Or this 2016 survey story, from U.S. News & WorldReport, that placed eight Muslim nations among the 10 worst when measuring gender equality. Or this one from 2015, produced by Al-Jazeera English, on the situation facing women in Afghanistan.

Such stories of women's status and treatment in Muslim nations are a staple of Western journalistic coverage of the Islamic world. When done fairly and placed in their appropriate cultural context  -- without allowing that context to serve as an excuse — these stories are important and should be told.

But I'm wondering why stories detailing legal advances for women in Muslim nations seem not to receive equally strong play in mainstream Western news media?

Sure, such changes tend to strike Westerners as merely incremental and long overdue, which tends to dull their news value in the minds of some reporters and editors. Nor are such steps as life-altering as more difficult to achieve grass-root cultural changes, meaning how ordinary people actually live and treat each other no matter what the law says.

Still, legal changes, as aspirational as they may be, set precedents that can promote real change down the road. As such, they deserve wide media attention.

Two stories on this sort caught my eye last week -- though apparently not the eyes of many others in the world of elite Western media.

The first, reported here by Al Jazeera-English, told of how the Jordanian parliament has moved toward ending the ability of rapists to escape prosecution by marrying their victims, a time-honored loophole that persists in parts of the Muslim world.

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Faith-healing in Idaho: A Spokane paper doesn't ask enough questions

Faith-healing in Idaho: A Spokane paper doesn't ask enough questions

The Spokesman-Review, the major daily east of the mountains in Washington state, doesn’t have a religion reporter, which is one reason why the Religion News Association started up its own website in Spokane in 2012.

Tracy Simmons is still capably running SpokaneFavs.com five years later, which may be why religion coverage in the Spokesman-Review is pretty rare. But on Tuesday, the paper did feature a piece about a state Senate bill in neighboring Idaho that tried to regulate faith-healing groups.

This is a tremendously interesting topic but see if you can understand the story as it appeared in Tuesday’s paper:

BOISE -- Controversial faith-healing legislation narrowly cleared an Idaho Senate committee on Monday, after a hearing in which nearly everyone who spoke opposed it.
Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, said his bill, SB 1182, makes a series of changes to Idaho’s existing faith-healing exemption from civil liability for child neglect, but makes no changes in the state’s criminal laws, which include a religious exemption from prosecution for faith-healing parents who deny their children medical care and the children die or suffer permanent injury.
“I’m not sure that it really changes a whole lot,” said Johnson, who co-chaired a legislative interim working group that held hearings on Idaho’s existing faith-healing exemption, “other than it moves a bunch of words and sentences around.”

What we’re missing at this point is some background

Johnson said his bill restates Idaho’s current religious exemption from civil liability for child abuse or neglect as an “affirmative statement,” and clarifies some wording. It also references Idaho’s existing Religious Freedom Restoration Act, citing rights to free exercise of religion. “That is a fundamental right that applies to all parenting decisions,” Johnson said. The bill makes no changes to Idaho’s criminal laws.
Then follows a number of quotes from people who oppose the bill, including a county sheriff who says he’s had a handful of child deaths in the past four months due to parents not giving their offspring medical care.

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Another attack on Copts in Egypt: Once again, the details make the horrors even worse

Another attack on Copts in Egypt: Once again, the details make the horrors even worse

Another bombing in a Coptic Orthodox sanctuary in Egypt, with at least 25 dead and that stunning number is expected to rise.

People, please allow me to speak as an Orthodox Christian for a moment. During recent years, it has been hard not to dwell on the hellish stories coming out of Iraq and Syria, with the Islamic State crushing Christians, Yazidis, traditional Muslims and members of other religious minorities. Ancient monasteries and churches, with irreplaceable libraries and works of sacred art, have vanished from the face of the earth.

It has been easy to overlook the horrors that have continued to unfold in Nigeria, Pakistan, Egypt and elsewhere. In my own daily prayers, I have continued to pray for those dying in these lands, as well as in the ISIS zone. Quite frankly, it is easy to slide into despair about all of this.

The mainstream press coverage of this attack has been very straightforward and has -- appropriately so -- shown that Coptic believers, once again, are caught in a clash between two Islamic factions inside the tense religious and political culture of Egypt. The only confusion in the coverage concerns some basic and crucial facts, as in the specific location of the attack and why the vast majority of the dead were women and children.

So which church was bombed? Let's start with The New York Times, which has the actual location of the attack wrong:

CAIRO -- A bomb ripped through a section reserved for women at Cairo’s main Coptic cathedral during Sunday morning Mass, killing at least 25 people and wounding 49, mostly women and children, Egyptian state media said.
The attack was the deadliest against Egypt’s Christian minority in years. Video from the blast site circulating on social media showed blood-smeared floors and shattered pews among the marble pillars at St. Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, the seat of Egypt’s Orthodox Christian Church, where the blast occurred in a chapel adjacent to the main building.

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Flawed Pew survey question produces flawed answer on how many Israeli Jews want Arabs kicked out

Flawed Pew survey question produces flawed answer on how many Israeli Jews want Arabs kicked out

A Pew survey released last week had all the ingredients for another damning story about Israel and its Jewish citizens. Nearly half of Israeli Jews surveyed, Pew reported, said they favored the expulsion or transfer of Arabs out of Israel.

Given the superficial manner in which most news media, American and otherwise, cover the extraordinarily complicated, and sadly dehumanizing and deadly, Middle East -- and its long-running Israel-Palestinian subplot in particular -- the Pew story seemed a natural headline-grabber.

It turned out to be otherwise. Nonetheless, it did underscore the importance of raising journalistic red flags when reporting on dumbed-down, highly generalized and potentially inflammatory survey questions that purport to accurately measure real-world complexities.

Let's start with these telling New York Times stories about the survey. Click here to read the first one. Then click here to read the second.

Why are they telling?

Because The Times'  initial Web offering was a standard wire service report that led -- predictably -- with the international red-meat angle, the more easily written expulsion aspect that, given the hostility to Israel in much of the world, was virtually assured of gaining wide play.

But also because the second piece, written by a Times' Jerusalem bureau staffer that ran in the dead wood edition the following day, buried the expulsion angle and led instead with the more complicated to report survey results dealing with the deep religious and political rifts within Israeli Jewish society.

The expulsion angle wasn't mentioned until the eighth paragraph.

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Bait and switch? Contradictory Iran election coverage still has an uncertain ending

Bait and switch? Contradictory Iran election coverage still has an uncertain ending

Which faction came out on top in the recent Iranian elections? Was it the "reformists"?  The "moderates"? Or was it the hardline clerics who run the Islamic republic and get to decide who is allowed to stand for election?

I ask because it remains difficult, some two weeks after the late February balloting, to tell from a face-value reading of the various media reports just who emerged victorious in the voting for both the nation's unicameral parliament and its clerical consultative body. The latter officially (if not necessarily in reality) has a hand in selecting Iran's all-important supreme leader.

This election muddle underscores how essential it is for journalists to weigh voting results firmly in the context of the nation involved. Confusion is bound to follow when imprecise political labels -- such as reformists or moderates -- are borrowed from Western discourse to simplify complicated foreign political intrigues for American media followers.

The muddle also serves to underscore the dangers inherent in jumping to sweeping conclusions based on initial returns.

Moreover, I can't help but wonder whether there's an element of wishful thinking is also at play here. After all, I think most Americans, and the media they follow as well, would love to see Iran become more open to the West and tone down its anti-Western rhetoric and actions now that its nuclear agreement has been signed.

Some examples of what I mean:

Example A is this early election results story from the BBC, which includes this far too premature declaration: "This stunning election result will make a difference in Iran's engagement with the wider world."

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