Post covers culture, not religion

DCMosqueWashingtonPost.com has a handy religion section that grabs stories from just about everywhere. From India to Dupont Circle to national politics, religion stories are appropriately all across the board. It’s no surprise that two very long stories dealing with Muslims in the Washington area (published on Monday and Tuesday) landed there. But unfortunately they are less about God and theology and more about life and culture.

The second article, titled “For Conservative Muslims, Goal of Isolation a Challenge,” is long overdue. It’s thorough and does an adequate job describing the challenges of Salafism in America, but there is little explanation of the sect’s history and why people are devoted to it. The best perspective we’re given is that it’s akin to Christianity’s fundamentalists, such as Jerry Falwell. Sorry, but that’s not good enough.

The article tackles its religious subjects from the edges, but each time it gets close to highly controversial religious subjects in Islam, it backs away. Take for instance this discussion on Koran commentaries:

For many years, the Saudis distributed a widely used English edition of the Koran with commentary by Abdullah Yusuf Ali. But in the late 1990s, they began giving out a new edition called “The Noble Koran,” with commentary that reflected the Wahhabi outlook of two scholars at the University of Medina.

Many local Muslims were particularly embarrassed by commentary that disparaged Jews and Christians even though neither group is mentioned in the original Arabic. “The outcry was so great. . . . People were disgusted,” said Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, head of Bethesda’s Minaret of Freedom Institute, an Islamic think tank. “And it wasn’t just liberals. I couldn’t find an American Muslim who had anything good to say about that edition. I would call it a Wahhabi Koran.”

Anybody want to give us an idea of what in the commentary was so inflammatory? We have hints (it’s disparaging of Jews and Christians) and that it’s based on Wahhabism, but otherwise we are given little. If you want details, you might want to click here and check out a complete essay on the subject in the Weekly Standard. This is sobering stuff.

While that is just one complaint representing my general displeasure with the second article, my exasperation with the first article, “Young U.S. Muslims Strive for Harmony,” was much greater. Not only does it read as a piece on Islamic culture, not religion, it approaches the issue with the wrong questions.

The general question that the reporter tries to answer is “How can Muslims in America be both good Americans and true to their Islamic faith?” It’s a very good question to ask in, say, Europe, where young Muslims have not had a good public track record, but here in America I believe that the right question should be along the lines of “Why do Muslim Americans not feel assimilated?” Of course barriers exist for Muslims that do not exist for others, but what are they and how are they being surmounted?

The other problem I had with the article involved the Post‘s never-ending quest to find an ideal moderate. The problem with this quest is that it pits two sides that may not be diametrically opposed to each other as the Post would have us believe. Consider the following example. It describes the choices of Mohamed Magid, Imam of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society, Basim Hawa, a son of Palestinian immigrants; and Tiffany Ballve, a convert to Islam.

Afterward, Magid said that he worries when young people go to extremes, staying in the mosque all day and calling movies or sports or social activities haram, forbidden. To him, these are part of a balanced spiritual life.

“All the extremism now in Britain, all this is because people have the wrong idea of what religion is. I tell young people, ‘You have three choices in America — isolate yourself; assimilate and do everything in popular culture that you’re going to do; or integrate’ — and that’s what we’re advising people to do.”

Magid does not sanction all mainstream American activities — adult co-ed swimming and shopkeepers selling alcohol are not all right with him. But he is troubled by those who preach against a long list of American activities, from celebrating Thanksgiving to shaking hands with non-Muslims.

Hawa is constantly making decisions on when to participate and when to excuse himself. He and Ballve don’t celebrate birthdays, but they play soccer and go to her parents’ house for Thanksgiving.

As I grew up, I was always fascinated to learn about the various traditions that conservative families observed (I grew up in a fairly traditional conservative family). Some families did not celebrate Christmas, others did not let their children date, listen to rock music or stay out late and others had strict dress codes that were akin to ones we see in conservative Muslim cultures.

There was always a reason behind the strict rules. The reason could be argued and debated late into the morning, but the important part was that there was a reason.

Throughout this article on the culture of Islam in America, reporter Tara Bahrampour failed to cite the reasons for why conservative Muslims believe what they believe and why others disagree with them. She cited no reasons for why Magid does not celebrate birthdays or why some believe that sports are forbidden. Answering those questions and explaining the reasons would produce some interesting stories that shed light on how Muslims practice their religion in America.

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  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Another problem is that Dean and his “think tank” are not identified as what they are, libertarian.

    I remember the glory days of the Compuserve Religion Forum, when a libertarian Moslem, a libertarian Mormon and a libertarian pagan were giving the statists what-for.

  • Jens

    I’ve been reading this blog for a few weeks now. While I have enjoyed the types of stories highlighted, I’m somewhat baffled by the ceaseless complaining — including in this post — about journalists not explaining the deep background of religious beliefs. (Yes I’ve read the “What we’re doing here” link.) At some point you have to accept that a newspaper story should be devoted to conveying the news elements and tensions at play. If the reader is then inspired to learn more, it’s not as if we live in an age where the only written information about religion is kept by a privileged set of cloistered monks. Go to the library! Search the Internet! So this Post reporter didn’t “cite the reasons for why conservative Muslims believe what they believe.” Not every story needs to go to that level. If you want it to, then as a media blogger critic you should do that work yourself and devote this blog post to what you discovered. Wouldn’t that be far more constructive for everyone?

    In this case I’m not sure that knowing why theologically a conservative Muslim might not want to shake hands is terribly salient. The more important issue is what conservative Muslims in America view as central to their identity, and how they are making decisions about that.

  • Harris

    Surely the key pieece of news — the piece not necessarily noted elsewhere — was that Saudi Arabia had quit or suspended its missionary efforts. I seem to recall a post here, in fact, perhaps a year-plus ago that focused on Saudi material at mosques, material with its distinctive Wahabist perspective.

    That, I think was pretty hard news.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JENS:

    The word WHY remains part of the classic journalistic formula — who, what, when, where, why and how.

    Why are the Sunni and Shittes fighting in Iraq? Does that matter to US policy and the news?

  • http://www.depublicrat.com Collin Ruud

    Dan Pulliam!

    This is Collin, hopefully you remember me from Butler…I just did a google search of ya and found you here, I hope things are going well for you. Send me an e-mail sometime… collin AT collinruud DOT com — I’d love to hear from you! Excellent blogging by the way, you’ve turned super pro! :)

    God bless!

    Collin


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