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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One story to watch: Will 2018 see notable decline in the Middle East's hardline Islam?

One story to watch: Will 2018 see notable decline in the Middle East's hardline Islam?

Looking at Muslim culture in the Mideast apart from ongoing terrorism problems, The Economist’s fat “The World in 2018” special includes two articles that anticipate secularization and decline for religious hardliners in Sunni lands. You can click here to read, "Roll Over Religion."

The key factor is a “disenchanted” younger generation that no longer accepts claims that “Islam is the solution” to socio-economic woe.  Such unrest is obvious, but The Religion Guy is hesitant about claims of sweeping decline. Nonetheless, U.S.-based reporters should pay heed, since correspondents Roger McShane and Nicolas Pelham are on the ground and we’re not.

“Arab leaders in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Emirates will seek to capitalize on popular sentiment to pursue their Islamist foes,” the venerable Brit newsmagazine predicts. Regimes will talk about “reform and modernization” but in actuality will maneuver “to clip the powers of religious institutions and increase their own sway.” As part of it they’ll “roll back the presence of religion in public spaces.”

Already, with the ISIS collapse, women in Mosul, Iraq, are removing their full-face coverings and returning to school and college classrooms. Tunisia is letting Muslim women marry Christians. In Egypt, symbolic beards and veils are starting to disappear as weekly mosque attendance slides. “In some cities sex before marriage is becoming a norm,” and we should “expect more videos of Saudi women in risqué dress.”

Much of the intrigue centers on straitlaced Saudi Arabia and its busy young Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (a.k.a. MBS, lately in the news for paying a record $450 million for a Leonardo da Vinci portrait of Jesus Christ). All but taking command from his father King Salman, the prince has begun circumscribing powers of the dreaded mutaween (religious police).

As the regime “chips away at restrictions imposed under the kingdom’s strict Islamic social code,” the “conservative clerics are perturbed,” the magazine says. A permanent shift in religion policy would have major impact because the Saudis have funded Salafi and Wahhabi zealotry worldwide.

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Trump and Jerusalem: New York Times analysis tells the story behind the headline

Trump and Jerusalem: New York Times analysis tells the story behind the headline

At the end of last week, the front page of the printed version of The Washington Post featured a four-column, above-the-fold photo of tightly framed, silhouetted figures dashing through  billowing black smoke and menacing red flames -- which is what you get when you burn vehicle tires.

The headline below it read: “Palestinians, Israeli troops clash over U.S. stance.” A subhead warned, “Region braces for more violence after Trump’s decision on Jerusalem.” (The online version linked to here differs.)

That Post story was an example of traditional newspaper, hard news journalism. It summarized the previous day’s body count, included the usual reaction quotes from the usual sources sprouting the usual threats and warnings we've heard time and again from both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Those quoted, in accordance with their well-known positions, either castigated or praised President Donald Trump for his decision to officially recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s national capital and pledge to someday, but not just now, actually move the U.S. Embassy from coastal Tel Aviv to inland Jerusalem.

What the piece failed to do, however, was to connect the dots and explain the story behind the headline by placing it in its current Middle East context. It excluded, in short, the sort of background that’s critical to understanding the latest twist in a long-running, exceedingly complicated and highly combustible story such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Is the peace process, which has been moribund at best, now forever dead? Is another Palestinian intifada, or widespread violent uprising, about to explode? Why did Trump do this now and what might we expect now that he's shattered, at least verbally, decades of U.S. Middle East policy simply by saying out loud that Jerusalem is Israel’s political capita, as it has been in reality since 1948?

Those are questions we cannot fully answer. But may I suggest that rather than relying on daily roundups or if-it-bleeds-it-leads TV reports, you pay as much or more attention to the many quality news analysis and opinion columns being penned by long-time Middle East-watchers.

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

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.

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After New York City terror, once more: How can Islam overcome its violent faction?

After New York City terror, once more: How can Islam overcome its violent faction?

The worst church massacre in U.S. history has all but overshadowed the prior New York City murder spree by a Muslim proclaiming "God is greatest."

But as a news theme, the earlier atrocity certainly carries long-term significance. Oddly, it occurred on the exact date the Reformation began 500 years ago, and some Muslims and non-Muslims muse that Islam needs its own Martin Luther to launch sweeping change.

The big Protestant anniversary is behind us, but for years to come the news media will be covering the moral tragedy of a faction's religiously inspired terrorism. As many pundits observe, western outsiders cannot solve Islam's internal problems. The latest insider proposal:

Writing on Reformation Day, Mustafa Akyol rejected the idea of replicating Luther in a piece titled “The Islamic World Doesn’t Need a Reformation.” (This was posted by, which holds first rank among magazine websites for timely and provocative news analysis about religion.)  

Akyol, a Turkish journalist, TV talker and New York Times op-ed contributor, was named a fellow at Wellesley College’s Freedom Project last January. His books include the pertinent “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty” (2011). Significantly, the book is also available in Turkish, Malay and Indonesian translations.

Though Aykol rejects the “Reformation” label, he does seek to renew his faith’s less violent mainstream tradition and foster tolerance. If so, what’s the matter with the Luther paradigm? For one thing, today’s conflict-ridden Muslim countries do not resemble Luther’s original protest but the later religious bloodshed between Catholic and Protestant armies.

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Saudi Arabia: Journalistic whiplash follows a crown prince's political crackdown

Saudi Arabia: Journalistic whiplash follows a crown prince's political crackdown

What now, Saudi Arabia? Any more surprises ahead for the media elite?

Barely a week ago, international media outlets were playing up what they interpreted as the beginning of genuine religious reform in Riyadh and the uprooting of corrupt privilege.

But that was then. This week the narrative has shifted dramatically.

That Western applause over Saudi Arabia's signaling that women will finally be allowed to drive in the desert kingdom, unabashedly received as a sign of religious reform, or at the least, a sign of moderation?

Now it's just as likely that it was mere religious window dressing meant as international cover for the wholesale purging of key political rivals by the royal household -- which is to say by Saudi Arabia’s young and ambitious Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, acting with the apparent approval of his father King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

Click here for a refresher on current events in the oil-rich desert kingdom -- though keep in mind that by the time you read this events may quite possibly have moved on.

Not to be minimized is that all this comes at a time of escalating tensions between Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shiite Muslim Iran that are capable of destroying whatever semblance of peace remains in the Middle East.

Care to read an Arab take on what's happening?

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Are conservative news media downplaying the brutal crackdown against Egyptian gays?

Are conservative news media downplaying the brutal crackdown against Egyptian gays?

Depending upon your point of view — and in their purist iterations — demands for equal rights for gay people are either about justly extending social and legal parity, or a moral struggle to uphold traditional religious doctrine and cultural ideas about sexuality and gender.

Either way, homosexuality is one of the three biggest culture war issues dividing Americans, along with questions about abortion and the legal parameters of religious freedom.

It's also a prime issue internationally. Globalization has fostered the spread of contemporary Western liberal values. That, in turn, has prompted push back in some non-Western nations enmeshed in the global market’s whirlwind of change.

Some of the more recent stories referencing the issue have come out of Egypt, where homosexuality, while not explicitly outlawed, is harshly condemned by the majority Muslim and minority Coptic Christian religious establishments.

Every so often Egypt’s authoritarian government, led by President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, appears to use the issue as a political cudgel to bolster support among Muslim and Christian traditionalists, who together comprise the vast majority of the nation’s population.

Click here for a recent Washington Post piece summing up the situation.

The story begins thusly:

CAIRO -- A crackdown on gay people in Egypt intensified in recent days as security forces raided cafes in downtown Cairo and courts delivered harsh prison sentences, further driving the nation’s LGBT community underground.

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New era of Coptic martyrs: RNS dives into big questions about a deadly serious subject

New era of Coptic martyrs: RNS dives into big questions about a deadly serious subject

Lots of news stories -- big ones and everyday ones -- are haunted by religious themes (and even factual material) that mainstream reporters skate right past. Here at GetReligion, we call these religion-shaped holes in stories "ghosts."

There are also news stories that, to be blunt, are haunted by questions and issues that can only be described in terms of theology, often requiring a willingness to dig into centuries of history and debates of a complex or even mysterious nature.

I sincerely appreciate attempts to write these theologically driven stories, because I know that they are (a) hard to get right, (b) hard to get approved by editors and (c) hard to write in words that work in a daily newspaper (think accuracy plus readability).

So I really want to cheer for a Religion News Service feature that came out with this headline: "Unrelenting killing of Coptic Christians intensifies debate over martyrdom."

This is a story about a very complex issue: Is there a point at which praising Christian believers who are killed by the Islamic State turns into a bad thing, when crying "martyrdom" begins to blur the lines between terrorism and the kinds of heroic witness honored by the church through the ages?

Before I mention my one question about this fine story, let's look at some crucial summary material near the top:

The 2,000-year-old Coptic Church of Egypt has a long tradition of hallowing those who died affirming their faith in the face of violence. But the group that calls itself the Islamic State has launched waves of attacks on the Coptic community in recent years -- claiming at least 70 lives and wounding scores of others -- an unrelenting assault that has opened a debate in the community about martyrdom.
The issue has been most recently punctuated by the deadly knifing of a Coptic priest in a poor Cairo neighborhood Thursday (Oct. 12). A suspect was arrested but his motive is still unknown.
Recently, another Coptic priest -- the well-known Rev. Boules George from the well-heeled Cairo suburb of Heliopolis -- took to the television airwaves to “thank” the Islamic State terrorists who launched the Palm Sunday church bombings that claimed 45 lives, saying they provided “a rocket” that delivered victims straight to heaven.

Here is the crucial question: Is being blown up by a bomb, or killed in random violence, truly an act of "witness" to the Christian faith delivered to the apostles?

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Location, location, location: What do Coptic leaders think, watching coverage of London attacks?

Location, location, location: What do Coptic leaders think, watching coverage of London attacks?

The journalism patterns are familiar by now when terrorists strike one of the important cities of Western Europe. At this point, I don't think the news protocols are as well established for attacks in North America -- because they have not become that "normal," yet.

Surely you have spotted some of the guidelines that have been in effect for some time now.

It's more "conservative" to put references to "Allah" -- in quotes from eyewitnesses -- in ledes or, especially, in headlines. In early coverage, the higher journalists play the religion card, the more "conservative" the publication. For example, it is more "conservative" to state that attackers attempted to cut the throats of victims (because it calls to mind hellish Islamic State videos) than it is to say that victims were merely stabbed. It's easy, for example, to guess which British newspaper used this headline online: 

Terrifying moment three Jihadis were shot dead after killing seven and hurting 48: Gang yell 'This is for Allah' after mowing down crowd on London Bridge then going on stabbing frenzy

That would be The Daily Mail. The overture in its early report punched all the usual buttons: 

Police are today seeking the identities of three Jihadi terrorists who were shot dead by armed police after killing seven people and injuring dozens of others in a horrific van and knife rampage through central London last night. 
The men, described as being 'of Mediterranean origin', mowed down up to 20 revellers as they careered across London Bridge in an 'S shape' at 50mph before they began 'randomly stabbing' people in nearby Borough Market.

We will come back to coverage of this latest attack on and near London Bridge. Before we do, however, I would like to acknowledge that I have received reader emails, in recent weeks, asking this familiar question: Why do attacks in Europe receive so much more attention in American media than terrorist attacks in, let's say, Egypt, Nigeria or Pakistan?

In other words, readers are asking a variation on that old journalism question: How many Coptic Christians have to die in Egypt to equal the death of one urbanite in London (or one tourist from the United States)?

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