Twisting Ramadan: Some big newsrooms failed to note timing of attack on Copts in Egypt (updated)

What can we say? How long must we sing this song?

Once again there has been another attack in Egypt that has left scores of Coptic Christians dead and wounded. Currently, the death toll is at 26 or 28, depending on the source of the information.

Once again there are the same basic themes to cover. The ancient Copts -- the vast majority are part of Coptic Orthodoxy -- make up about 10 percent of the population of Egypt. They are the largest body of Christian believers left in the Middle East, part of a religious tradition that emerged in the time of the first disciples of Jesus.

Once again, Egyptian officials have renewed their vows to help protect the Copts. Once again, reporters tried to find a way to list all of the recent terrorist attacks on the Copts -- a list so long that it threatens to dominate basic news reports.

So what now? Why now? Here is the top of the Reuters report -- circulated by Religion News Service, as well -- which caught my attention because of its early focus on what may, tragically, be a crucial fact.

In this case, the "when" and the "why" factors in that old journalism formula -- "who," "what," "when," "where," "why" and "how" -- may be one in the same. Read carefully.

CAIRO (Reuters) -- Gunmen attacked a group of Coptic Christians traveling to a monastery in southern Egypt on Friday, killing 28 people and wounding 25 others, and many children were among the victims, Health Ministry officials said.
Eyewitnesses said masked men opened fire after stopping the Christians, who were traveling in a bus and other vehicles. Local television channels showed a bus apparently raked by gunfire and smeared with blood. Clothes and shoes could be seen lying in and around the bus.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack, which came on the eve of the holy month of Ramadan. It followed a series of church bombings claimed by Islamic State.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called a meeting of security officials, the state news agency said, and the cabinet said the attackers would not succeed in dividing the nation.
Muslim leaders condemned the killings. The grand imam of al-Azhar, Egypt’s 1,000-year-old center of Islamic learning, said the attack was intended to destabilize the country.

We are talking about the eve of Ramadan. This is a holy season that the Islamic State -- twisting the teachings of Islam -- has in the past turned into a time of military jihad with guns and bombs, rather than spiritual jihad with fasting and prayers.

Thus, the timing is crucial, in this case. There is no direct parallel here in other faiths, but try to imagine the symbolic importance of attacks marking the eve of the Christian Holy Week or Yom Kippur in Judaism.

So, far The Washington Post and USA Today were the only major newspapers to mention this crucial angle in coverage of this terrorist attack. The Post story had this information very close to the lede. Like this:

MINYA, Egypt -- Militants in military-style uniforms opened fire on a bus carrying Coptic Christians in central Egypt on Friday, killing at least 28 people in the latest bloodshed targeting the country’s Christian minority, officials said.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility. But the Islamic State has claimed links to previous attacks against Egypt’s Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population. The attack also took place on the eve of Islam’s holy month of Ramadan, a time when some militant factions have stepped up attacks in the past.

Meanwhile, USA Today put its Ramadan reference in the 12th paragraph of the report, far from the core information at the top, and failed to note the link to patterns of violence among Islamic militants.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi called a meeting of his security council as the government vowed to track down the killers. The prime minister headed to the scene of the attack, which came on the eve of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan.

Did editors know this information? I would note that the Associated Press put this fact near the top of its wire story, so editors certainly had a chance to see this key fact.

Let's back up for a second. So what is the significance of this Ramadan timing, which is also being noted in coverage of the suicide-bomber attack in Manchester, England?

Just last year, The New York Times did a story on this very topic:

As the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan approached, jihadist propagandists told their followers that it was a good time to kill people.
The spokesman for the Islamic State said in late May that jihadists should “make it, with God’s permission, a month of pain for infidels everywhere.” Another extremist distributed a manual for using poisons, adding, in poor English: “Dont forget Ramadan is close, the month of victories.”
A bloody month it has been, with terrorist attacks killing and wounding hundreds of people in Orlando, Fla.; Istanbul; Dhaka, Bangladesh; and now Baghdad, where a bomb killed more than 140 people early Sunday in a shopping area full of families who had just broken their Ramadan fasts.
For the vast majority of the world’s Muslims, violence is completely dissonant with the holy month, which in addition to fasting is a time for spiritual renewal, prayer and visits with friends and family.

Strangely enough, the Times report on this new attack on the Copts failed to mention the fact that this attack took place on the eve of Ramadan.

The Minya attack story -- as it should -- offers tons of detailed information on the political ramifications of this event, as well as lots of factual material about recent bombings of Coptic worship services (including on Palm Sunday).

However, the word "Ramadan" is nowhere to be found in this story.

Ditto for the report at The Los Angeles Times.

Ditto, believe it or not, in this report at BBC.

The Al Jazeera English report at the top of this post also omitted the Ramadan connection, which is surprising since that network's religion coverage tends to be solid.

Why should journalists include the "eve of Ramadan" reference? For the simple reason -- as the 2016 New York Times story demonstrated -- that ISIS leaders are determined to link the holy season to violence on behalf of their cause. Yes, this connection is highly offensive to millions of Muslims. That's the point.

Let me turn the question around: What is the journalistic logic for omitting the "eve of Ramadan" reference from stories produced by some of the most important newsrooms in the world (by which I mean BBC and the New York Times)?

So to state the question bluntly: In light of ISIS actions in the past, why would Islamic radicals choose this time for another high-profile attack on the largest Christian body left in the Middle East?

Some journalists have answered that question, in their early reports on this bloody attack. Others have not.

UPDATE: The New York Times has posted an op-ed by Coptic scholar Samuel Tadros which includes some information based on his own experiences -- but one predictable, but still stunning, detail that (according to a personal email from him) he learned from watching video interviews with survivors of the Minya attack.

Read it all: "Coptic Christians: Islamic State’s ‘Favorite Prey’."

Here's the material that hit me hard:

The terrorists chose today’s target well. Saint Samuel the Confessor Monastery, which I visited a decade ago, is very hard to reach. One hundred and ten miles on the Cairo Luxor desert road, you make a right-hand turn and for the next 17 miles drive on an unpaved road. The single lane forces cars to drive slowly, and, as the only route leading to the monastery, the victims were guaranteed to be Copts. Friday is a day off in Egypt, and church groups regularly take trips there. Outside of a few policemen stationed out front, there is little security presence.
The terrorists waited on the road like game hunters. Coming their way were three buses, one with Sunday school children. Only three of them survived. Their victims were asked to recite the Islamic declaration of faith before being shot.

Of course. As always.

Did some of the Copts die -- as on the beach in Libya -- confessing their faith, rather than denying it? Once again, we could be dealing with Coptic martyrs, including the faces of children in new icons.

Please respect our Commenting Policy