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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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Primer on Sunni terrorists includes helpful advice on the perennial labels game in news

Primer on Sunni terrorists includes helpful advice on the perennial labels game in news

For the foreseeable future, journalists will be covering Muslim zealots who terrorize innocent civilians in God’s name, fellow Muslims included, hoping that violence will force the creation of  a truly Islamic society. Their revolutionary  bloodshed spans the globe -- and spurns centuries of moderate teaching by Islamic authorities.

Journalists remain uncertain on how best to name these groups, which is among matters explored in “The Mind of the Islamic State: ISIS and the Ideology of the Caliphate” by Robert Manne, an Australian media personality and emeritus professor at La Trobe University. Though publisher Prometheus Books is known for partisan and sometimes supercilious attacks on religious faiths, The Religion Guy finds this title even-tempered, as well as brisk and valuable (though Prometheus deserves brickbats for providing no index).

This readable background will help guide journalism about a complex scourge that mainstream Islam is unable to eliminate. The book covers only Sunni extremists, not the rival radicals in the faith’s minority Shi’a branch centered on  Iran. Here’s Manne’s advice on common terms and labels seen in the news.

Islamo-Fascism. This label is “quite misleading” due to fascism’s historical fusion with nationalism (Muslim radicals spurn existing nation-states and  simply divide humanity into believers vs. “infidels”), and with racism (the movement’s hatreds lie elsewhere).

Islamic Fundamentalism. Also a misnomer, this borrows a term for strict textual literalism among Protestant Christians (see the Associated Press Stylebook). Problem: Such Protestants are non-violent, and so are many of the Muslims who favor that approach to holy writ. Rather, we need to label a terroristic political faction.

Islamists. This term designates believers who seek to reshape politics in accordance with religious law (sharia). Here again, such Muslim activists do not necessarily embrace terror.

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That wave of attacks on churches in Indonesia: Is the 'moderate' Muslim news hook gone?

That wave of attacks on churches in Indonesia: Is the 'moderate' Muslim news hook gone?

If you asked typical American citizens to name the world's largest Muslim nation, in terms of population, most would probably pick a land somewhere in the Middle East -- not Indonesia.

However, if there is one fact that many Americans do know about Islam in Indonesia, it is that most Muslims in this sprawling and complex nation practice a "moderate" form of the faith (whatever that "moderate" label means). This has allowed believers in various faith groups to live in peace, for the most part.

Thus, terrorist attacks in Indonesia linked ISIS are big news -- at least in the American news outlets that continue to offer adequate coverage of international news. Sadly, an ominous cluster of attacks this past weekend in Indonesia probably received little if any attention in most American newspapers.

The New York Times, of course, was a notable exception. Here is the lede in its report:

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- A wave of deadly bombings on Sunday and Monday and evidence of more planned have shaken Indonesia just ahead of the holy month of Ramadan, with entire families -- including children -- carrying out suicide attacks against Christian worshipers and the police.

The troubling discovery Monday of completed bombs in a housing complex outside Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city, came a day after members of a single family carried out three attacks against separate churches in the city around Mass time, killing seven people.

The use of the word "Mass" implies that the attacks focused on Catholic congregations, when the reality was more complex than that -- since Pentecostal and traditional Protestant churches were targeted, along with Catholic sanctuaries. In other words, the attacks were aimed at all Christians (and police), not just Catholics.

But that was not the main issue here. The Times report quickly reminded readers:

Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, practices one of the most moderate forms of Islam in the world, but still has a homegrown terrorism problem

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Stay tuned: Mosul is being set up by media as a world Islamic capital

Stay tuned: Mosul is being set up by media as a world Islamic capital

For anyone interested in seeing how a devastated city with a history stretching back several thousand years can rebuild itself, look no further than some of the stories coming out about Mosul, the newly liberated north central Iraqi city.

Even before ISIS took over the place in 2014, Mosul had always been very dangerous and considered quite suspect. Saddam Hussein’s sons, Uday and Qusay, had lived there for years and even after they died in a gun battle in 2003, the place was rife with suicide bombers who killed whatever American military they found there plus many hapless Iraqis.

I was in the area in 2004, visiting the Kurdish areas north and east of Mosul and my guides only dared take me to a place within 30 miles of the city. They didn’t want me to risk getting any closer. Which is why I’ve been interested in international efforts to rebuild Mosul after two years of war have made it a ghost town in many places. This recent New York Times piece sets the stage:

BAGHDAD — The scars of battle remain deeply etched into the geography of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, with thousands of homes, buildings and places of worship destroyed during the nine-month fight to oust the Islamic State.

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Children of ISIS returned to Chechnya: Fine New York Times story haunted by faith questions

Children of ISIS returned to Chechnya: Fine New York Times story haunted by faith questions

In a New York Times photo, 4-year-old Bilal looks like any other kid sitting in bed, lost in a video game on a smartphone.

But there is a back-story. Bilal grew up in Mosul, Iraq, living on the run with his father, who was a fighter for the Islamic State. And right there is the question facing officials in Russia -- Chechnya, to be specific -- and in several European states: What should leaders in these nations do with children, especially boys, who grew up witnessing people beheaded, stoned and gunned down?

What about boys who were actually forced to take part in some of these rituals, as part of ISIS efforts to turn them into ultimate warriors? Are they, as one German official puts it, "living time bombs?"

That's the question at the heart of this fine Times story, which ran with the headline: "Raised by ISIS, Returned to Chechnya: ‘These Children Saw Terrible Things’." Here is a crucial summary passage near the top of this international-desk story:

As the American-led coalition and Syrian government forces captured cities that had been held by the Islamic State, they found among the ruins a grim human wreckage of the organization’s once successful recruitment drive: hundreds and perhaps thousands of children born to or brought with the men and women who had flocked to Syria in support of the Islamic State.
While Russia, which has so far returned 71 children and 26 women since August, may seem surprisingly lenient in its policy, its actions reflect a hardheaded security calculus: better to bring children back to their grandparents now than have them grow up in camps and possibly return as radicalized adults.
“What should we do, leave them there so somebody will recruit them?” said Ziyad Sabsabi, the Russian senator who runs the government-backed program. “Yes, these children saw terrible things, but when we put them in a different environment, with their grandparents, they change quickly.”

Now, as you would expect, I do have questions about the role of religious faith in all of this. I would have liked to have seen a bit more information about the role of Islam in this process.

After all, these children witnessed horrors that are hard to imagine. At the same time, they were raised to think of these acts as an essential part of a twisted, radicalized version of Islam.

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Massacre on Ash Wednesday? Now, Orthodox believers shot leaving Forgiveness Vespers

Massacre on Ash Wednesday? Now, Orthodox believers shot leaving Forgiveness Vespers

A few days ago, I expressed surprise that more mainstream journalists didn't recognize the poignant ties between the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and the ancient Western Christian traditions linked to Ash Wednesday.

The bottom line: How many of the dead and wounded had, earlier that day, attended rites in which a priest marked their foreheads with ashes in the sign of the cross? This was done, of course, to remind them of their mortality as they began the great spiritual journey through Lent to Easter. Thus, priest say: "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

How many of those caught up in the massacre had planned to go to Ash Wednesday services in the hours after school dismissed? Did reporters attend any of those services that evening?

I was assuming, of course, that an ordinary local South Florida newsroom -- or national-level newsrooms -- would include a few Catholics, Episcopalians or Lutherans who would immediately recognize the timing of this tragedy.

A few did. Many more did not.

Now we have a similar Lent-related story from the other side of the world. Here is the top of a typical report, at FoxNews.com:

Five women were killed and several others were injured after a gunman opened fire with a hunting rifle on people leaving a church service in Russia's Dagestan region on Sunday, Russian media outlets reported.
The shooting took place outside a church in Kizlyar, a town of about 50,000 people on the border with Chechnya. ... The gunman was shot dead by police responding to the scene, a law enforcement source told the Interfax news agency. According to Interfax, the gunman has been identified as a local man in his early 20s.

The timing? Well, the report noted that this was an evening service and:

Parishioners were at the church celebrating the end of the Russian festival of Maslenitsa, a holiday which marks the start of Lent for Russian Orthodox Christians, according to RT.

An Orthodox Christian reader sent me this item, which I read within minutes of walking in the door after services at St. Anne Orthodox Parish here in Oak Ridge, Tenn. For the reader, this story raised an obvious, powerful question: Did these people die immediately after taking part in Forgiveness Vespers?

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Why is Foreign Policy magazine grumpy about U.S. aid going to Christians in Iraq?

Why is Foreign Policy magazine grumpy about U.S. aid going to Christians in Iraq?

With ISIS more-or-less cleared out of Iraq and Syria, money for rebuilding efforts is coming into the region amidst some debate as to where that money should land.

Why anyone would oppose money going to the Christians, Yazidis and others is a mystery, as it’s clear they suffered the brunt of the brutal ISIS occupation of broad swaths of eastern Syria and western Iraq. In the previous administration, Secretary of State John Kerry used the term "genocide" to describe what happened to Christians, Yazidis, Shiite Muslims and other religious minorities. Christians were so decimated, their religion has been said to be going “extinct” in Iraq.

But Foreign Policy magazine sees any U.S. aid going to Christians and others as a bad thing. Here, it says:

The Trump administration has decided to steer humanitarian aid funding to Christian and other minority communities in Iraq, against the advice of some officials at the State Department and others at the United Nations, who initially feared the move could backfire.
The administration, prompted in part by Vice President Mike Pence’s strong links to Christian advocacy groups, recently clashed with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) over how to spend aid funds in Iraq, insisting more resources be channeled to Christian communities and other minority groups in the Nineveh Plains. The administration rejected UNDP’s assessment -- and that of some officials at the State Department -- that the aid should be focused on more populated areas around the war-damaged city of Mosul. …
Since Donald Trump entered office a year ago, the issue has gotten high-level attention. Vice President Pence has spoken frequently about the importance of direct U.S. support for religious minorities in the Middle East, and current USAID Administrator Mark Green -- long an advocate for minority communities -- has made these efforts a centerpiece of his tenure.

What it comes down to, the article adds, is about $55 million in funds. But Washington’s preference toward Christians, it argues, could undercut other diplomatic efforts.

The move raised eyebrows throughout the aid community. “Taking $55 million and putting it into an area where there’s no chance that the Islamic State is going to come back doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” the Western official said. With stabilization funding -- designed to address the potential resurgence of the Islamic State -- “what you want to do is focus on the areas where they might come back,” the official told FP.

But who says ISIS couldn’t return to the Christian and Yezidi areas? Are there no voices on the other side to debate some of these conclusions?

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Wrapping up 2017: The Atlantic looks at big religion themes in Trump's foreign policy

Wrapping up 2017: The Atlantic looks at big religion themes in Trump's foreign policy

As always, the GetReligion team slows down a bit during the Holiday season (broadly defined).

We don't vanish. We don't stop reading or paying attention to our email. But we do have other things to do, like travel and welcoming guests (and in my case, celebrating a 40th wedding anniversary).

One thing we will be doing in the next week or so is noting some of the interesting 2017 yearender features focusing on religion-news events and trends. I don't know if we will do another "Parade of Yearenders" like last year, but we'll give you a few things to read.

We have already started in recent weeks. If you haven't tried one of our "Crossroads" podcasts, click here and give this one a try -- "Looking at top stories of 2017: Sometimes it seems like religion haunts everything." That post includes this years Top 10 stories from the Religion News Association, as well as my own take on the year's events in an "On Religion" column for the Universal syndicate. Bobby Ross, Jr., also pointed to the RNA poll here.

It has, so far, been easy to spot a trend among the yearenders. Rather than doing lists of the major events, more and more journalists are producing lists of the top stories at their own websites (the kind of thing GetReligion does on this website's anniversary every year). That's interesting, and valid, but I always enjoyed contrasting the Top 10 news lists.

In other words: Hint, hint. Please send us URLS you spot for yearender pieces and the newsier the better. Top 10 lists? Yes, please.

It would be impossible to sum up the religion-news coverage in the year without mentioning the work of Emma Green at The Atlantic. While her work is written in an analysis style suited to magazine features, during 2017 she often focused on important religion-news topics -- especially church-state conflicts -- before hard-news operations took them on. Here's how I described that process back in September:

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Attention Washington Post: ISIS forced women from several religious faiths into sexual slavery

Attention Washington Post: ISIS forced women from several religious faiths into sexual slavery

The Islamic State isn't making as much news as it once did, as the so-called caliphate continues to decline in size and, in some ways, power. However, it leaves behind a complex legacy of persecution, torture, slavery and, yes, genocide.

There are many victims with stories to tell and it's clear that some journalists and diplomats have not mastered all of the details of this tragedy.

Consider the Washington Post story that ran the other day with this headline: "‘Somebody had to tell these stories’: An Iraqi woman’s ordeal as an ISIS sex slave." It's a horrifying and important story.

The Post international desk did a fine job of presenting the story of Yazidi survivor Nadia Murad. That's important, since the Yazidis remain an obscure religious minority for most American readers.

But there is a problem: The Post report never mentions that the Yazidis were not alone. Christians, Shia Muslims and others suffered the same fate, with mothers, fathers and sons slaughtered and girls sold as sexual slaves. As Secretary of State John Kerry said in 2016:

... (In) my judgment, Daesh is responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yezidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims. Daesh is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology, and by actions -- in what it says, what it believes, and what it does. Daesh is also responsible for crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing directed at these same groups and in some cases also against Sunni Muslims, Kurds, and other minorities.

Kerry went on to specifically say that "Daesh captured and enslaved thousands of Yezidi women and girls -- selling them at auction, raping them at will, and destroying the communities in which they had lived for countless generations." He added: "We know that in Mosul, Qaraqosh, and elsewhere, Daesh has executed Christians solely because of their faith ... and that it has also forced Christian women and girls into sexual slavery."

The problem isn't that the Post focused so tightly on the details of Murad's story, since her testimony is what this report is all about. The problem is in the summary paragraphs that failed to inform readers that women and girls in other religious minorities suffered the same faith.

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