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

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 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.

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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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I confess: I brought a basket of stereotypes with me to the religion beat. And you?

I confess: I brought a basket of stereotypes with me to the religion beat. And you?

I knew very little about the world of religion when I became the full-time religion-beat reporter at the Los Angeles Daily News back in 1985. I knew next to nothing about how religious organizations functioned and not much more about the myriad ways that religious beliefs play out in people's lives.

That included Judaism, the faith into which I was born but to which I was barely culturally connected at the time. I also possessed what I soon realized was a superficial understanding of the Eastern meditative traditions to which I had become attracted.

But Pope John Paul II was scheduled to visit LA in 1987 and I'd had enough of seeing bad movies at odd hours in small screening rooms and talking to self-important studio public relations hacks on the Hollywood film and TV beat. My way forward came when I realized that the paper would need someone to lead what would surely be saturation papal visit coverage, and that that someone (meaning me) would need a long lead time to get prepared.

My one great advantage was that my editors knew even less than I did about covering religion. That, and I volunteered for the beat before anyone else. And so began my on-the-job training.

I made many rookie mistakes, including mistaking titles for actual names (don't ask). Despite that, I quickly realized that I needed to rid myself of my stereotypical thinking about religion and religious believers.

An early lesson came at the 1985 Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas. It was there that I came to understand that not all Southern Baptists -- and by extension, not all evangelicals -- were alike in their theology and practice.

It was also in Dallas that I realized just how politically brutal religious organizations can behave.

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