Reporting on the heart of Islam

Muslims in AmericaAn Associated Press story on Muslims worldwide rejecting violence against civilians provides a great lead-in to the latest Newsweek cover story on Islam in America. Based on a survey by the Pew Research Center, the AP article tells us that Muslims are “increasingly” rejecting suicide bombings, and support for Osama bin Laden is collapsing.

As typical with day-of stories based on polls, reporter Harry Dunphy took the perspective initially published by the group issuing the polling results. As we have seen in the past, the coverage of Pew’s polls can vary and the reactions to that coverage can be just as telling, as the Newsweek piece shows us.

Buried in the Newsweek cover story compiled by Lisa Miller (more than a dozen names are listed at the end as contributors) is this little bit of information:

Muslim American advocates have critiqued the press coverage of the Pew study, saying it focused too much on the bad news and not enough on the good. The bad news, however, bears repeating: 26 percent of Muslims age 18 to 29 believe that suicide bombing can be justified.

A lot of bits of information are buried in the Newsweek piece. Some of it reflects positively on Muslim Americans while other parts do not. Clearly a massive level of reporting went into this piece, but for all the apparent efforts the article turned up little that Pew’s polls did not already reveal. Much of the information was demonstrated with real live people (YouTube debates, anyone?) instead of boring statistics.

Take the opener, for example, which has a successful businessman/father commenting on what President Bush told him at a forum after he asked what he should tell his Pakistani relatives about living in the United States:

“Great question,” answered the president. “I’m confident your answer is, ‘I love living in America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, the country where you can come and ask the president a question and a country where—’ Are you a Muslim?”

“Yes,” answered [Fareed] Siddiq.

“Where you can worship your religion freely. It’s a great country where you can do that.”

It was a good answer, says Siddiq, but not enough for him — not when he, a financial adviser at a major investment bank, is afraid to use the bathroom on flights because he doesn’t want to frighten his fellow passengers as he walks down the aisle. He thinks anti-Muslim sentiment in the country is getting worse, not better. “I’m not so much worried about myself,” he adds. “It’s the young people I’m concerned with. Those are the people we need to try — not only as Muslims but as Americans — to make them feel part of America. If you alienate the Muslim young people from America, that is dangerous.”

The major idea I took away from the piece is that Muslims are concerned about their kids and the potential influence radical Islam may have on them (in combination with increasingly hostile attitudes of some Americans toward Muslims). A lot is said about how Europe’s Muslims don’t have it as good as America’s Muslims and how that makes it harder for terrorists to create sleeper cells, but is economics all there really is to this?

There is a very cool map/chart that shows where American’s Muslims come from. This leads me to wonder why the piece did not address how non-American Muslims perceive American Muslims. I know that’s a hefty question to answer, but it would be interesting to know.

As with the AP story on the Pew survey, the Newsweek piece fails to grapple with the theological debates that are raging in Muslim communities around the world. When did the murder of civilians ever become an accepted tenant in Islam? The roots are deep, and from my understanding it has to do with the fact that “human shields” were used during the Crusades and Muslim fighters sought religious acceptance to fight through them to reach the enemy. Similar theological justifications have been used today to justify the murder of civilian Muslims in Iraq, where suicide bombings were unheard of until the U.S. invasion. Where do today’s American Muslims stand on this ancient debate?

I think stories about the huge number of Muslims who love living in America and wouldn’t mind posing for the cover of an American news magazine are great, but I’d be more interested in exploring their spiritual paths. The same goes for the Muslims who would be attracted to charismatic Islamic radicals. What tugs on the hearts of Muslims beyond the appearance of prosperity and wealth?

For an example of this type of reporting, The New York Timesaward-winning series on a local immigrant imam working out issues of faith is a great place to start.

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  • http://carelesshand.net Jinzang

    The bad news, however, bears repeating: 26 percent of Muslims age 18 to 29 believe that suicide bombing can be justified.

    How does that compare to the percentage of American Christians who feel that torture is justified?

  • Larry “Grumpy” Rasczak

    “The roots are deep, and from my understanding it has to do with the fact that “human shields” were used during the Crusades and Muslim fighters sought religious acceptance to fight through them to reach the enemy.”

    Where on Earth did you hear that?

    I’ve got a bachelors in History, and spent more than a few years of self study on military history through my time in the Army, and I have never heard that! It smells like a crock of you-know-what to me.

    If you want to know when the murder of civilians became an accepted tenant in Islam you should look to the words of Mohamed himself. Look at what happened to Asma, the poetess, or Afak, Kab ibn al-Ashraf,Jews of Medina,or the Khaibar Jews.

    http://www.sullivan-county.com/x/medina.htm

    By the way… Islam’s war with the West didn’t start with the Crusades… it started when Christian cities from Damascus, to Jerusalem, to Alexandria, Carthage, even on into Spain, and Constantinople were attacked by the Armies of the Prophet.

  • Corban

    Of course there were ‘no suicide bombings until the American invasion’, because Saddam had everything under his iron grip. D’oh!
    But suicide bombings have been a part of radical Islam in the ME since at least 1983 (Lebanon).
    And most suicide bombings, mosque bombings etc are not aimed at killing the American infidel but Shia infidels or Kurds. It’s an ideology that has swept the Islamic world.
    I agree – your ‘crusader’ story is a crock.

  • Montedoro

    Islam is a totalitarian (“complete way of life”), supremacist (the Koran says that “non-Moslems are the vilest of beasts” and the “worst of creatures”), and imperialist (the Koran says: “Make war on the unbelievers until Islam reigns supreme.”) ideology in the guise of a religion. To receive email postings, mainly from a variety of respected Islamic sources, about the nature of Islam, send email to: ideologyofislam@cox.net.

  • Charles

    Ah, Montedoro.. You exemplify the flip side of the story discussed here. How is it some 7o% of Americans supported a war that has gratuitously killed tens of thousands of Iraqis? How is many of us (what percentage is it?) blithely advocate torture of Muslims suspected of being (who simply “may be” – forget due process) terrorists?

    It’s because of people like you grossly simplifying and ignorantly distorting things. Check these verses from the Quran al-Kareem (one of literally dozens of texts from the Quran, Sunna, as well as Islamic history & contemporary practice that could be used to counter your bigoted perspective):

    “Surely those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabians — whoever believes in God and the Last Day and does good, they shall have their reward from their Lord. And there will be no fear for them, nor shall they grieve” (Surra 2:62)

    “…and nearest among them in love to the believers will you find those who say, ‘We are Christians,’ because amongst these are men devoted to learning and men who have renounced the world, and they are not arrogant” (5:82)

    The Quran can be used to justify many things.

    That’s not an apologetic for the truth of Islam, mind you (I’m a Catholic) – rather, it’s an appeal on the behalf of my many Muslim friends I’ve met living places like Turkey and Egypt. An appeal for fairness, even compassion.

    “Their” violence against “us” has more to do with perceived injustice and aggression on our part toward “them” than it does any theological issue. The theology provides an ethical justification, but the catalyst is political.

    Just my informed opinion.

  • Harris

    This leads me to wonder why the piece did not address how non-American Muslims perceive American Muslims. I know that’s a hefty question to answer, but it would be interesting to know.

    In particular, one area to look at would be the Evangelical-Muslim interface. On conservative religious blogs one can encounter a persistent hostility. Would it be fair to extend such attitudes universally to all Evangelicals? to Christians, generally? Does such observed hostility fuel or drive the support for the political/operational choices of this administration — not just the war, but also the treatment of refugees or even of detainees?

    The story of Evangelical political hostility and the clash with missionary impulses is another story, as well. There’s lots to cover in this interface.

  • dpulliam

    Larry and Corban: I should have cited my source for Crusader issue. I picked it up in Mohammed Hafez’s Suicide Bombers in Iraq: The Strategy and Ideology of Martyrdom. (Corban: dismissing things as a merely a “crock” without evidence risks violating our decency policy).

    Larry, Corban and Montedoro: you make the typical mistake of lumping all of Islam together into one pot. The Middle East is anything but monolithic. Making that tragic assumption is a huge reason why we’re in such a disaster over there.

  • Ahem

    Several comments to several different posts:

    dpulliam, do you expect a Muslim historian to trace the idea back to Mohammed? Hardly an unbiased source. If you can find an objective Western source that says the same thing, then you will convince me.

    Charles,

    You are equating two groups of people who cannot be equated. Christians, Jews, Sabians etc were considered of a higher class than non-believers and pagans. Your citation of such verses as pertain to these does not contrtadict in any way other verses of far less compassion for other groups.

    Grumpy has it right to trace the idea back to Mohammed. He is right to point out the many murders that were committed with Mohammed’s approval. But he forgets that Mohammed also took slaves and pillaged vanquished communities. Anyone who resited him, Christian or pagan, were shown no mercy unless they just caved in. But even when they caved in to save their skins, they found that their safety was purely conditional. Violate the conditions according to Mohammed’s judgement alone, as one Jewish tribe seem to have done to him anyway, and all bets were off. All the men were beheaded (doesnt matter how many), all the women and kids were made slaves, and their wealth was stolen from them.

    It was Mohammed who set out to conquer the world for Islam through warfare. He marched on cities and tribes who were minding their own business. He gave them his ultamatim. If they refused, there was no mercy.

    It was Mohammed who decided that certain acts were justified in order to advance Islam. He it was who started to raid caravans to support his cause. It was he who counseled Muslims to lie to gain the advantage etc. All Muslims are doing when they condone suicide bombings is to follow his example by applying his principles to modern and unprecedented situations.

    Which leads me to your comment that at least Muslims are reacting to us out of a sense of outrage at injustice. In some minds this might pass as an excuse but not in mine. They have no other way to respond to injustice but to follow the example of their leader who always fought when he felt threatened.

    But there is another way to fight injustice. Its the one that Christians as well as others have successfully employed time and again. The ultimate example for Christians never returned a blow for a blow. We have this ideal even when we fail it. Muslims can’t say the same and it is wrong for them to try and justify their attitudes and actions by blaming the actions of others. Its just as iffy for you to do the same. We do have control of our reactions and our actions no matter the degree of provocation.

  • dpulliam

    Ahem: your instance that a Muslim historian must be validated by a “western source” is simply ridiculous. I respect your desire for more than one source before your mind is made up. If you can give me information that contradicts my source we have an issue to deal with. But until then I rest my case.

  • Ahem

    Dpulliam,

    When the subject is Islam and its history written by a Muslim, then yes, some kind of objective source should corroborate. Doesnt have to be Western but I used that as an example. The key word here is objective.

    Few people find it easy to be objective about their religion.* With Muslims this is even more so since it is drilled into their heads from the earliest age that Mohammed was perfect, even if he did things that would be wrong for other people to do, and also that he is perfectly blameless for any wrong done in Islam’s name. To think otherwise is high treason. All Muslims, with the exception only of the bravest or those who have rejected religion all together have a pronounced blind spot when it comes to tracing any problem in Islam back to its founder. The party line is simply not deviated from as a rule.

    On any other subject, Muslims can be objective, just not this one.

    I think that I already provided more than enough evidence, as in my recitation of Mohammed’s behaviors and attitudes, to show that the Muslim historian’s argument that violence against civilians only goes back to the Crusades (The Crusaders made us do it! They are the ones who made us corrupt our, up til then, pure and perfect religion) and not farther. All I had to do was read commonly available material written by Muslim’s themselves. All I did was subtract the ususal excuses and spin for that behavior.

    If Mohammed and his original followers committed violence and crimes against unarmed and peaceful civilian populations, then the hypothesis that this behavior only originated with the Crusades due to the behavior of the Crusaders is shown to be full of holes and therefore must be taken with a grain of salt. Objectivity is sorely lacking in this case.

    Your assumption that I am saying that no Muslim historian can be trusted on any subject is just pure exageration of what I am really saying. I am talking about a much more narrow range. Your claim is nothing but an attempt at distraction. Sorry to have to say it.

    *BTW, I ususally require the same more objective source when it comes to Christians writing about Christian history. If there is a fair and objective non-Christian historian who says the same thing, then I consider the Christian’s interpretation of that history to be sound. Until then, I put a question mark by the theory. Its just a sound practice across the board.

  • http://dpulliam.com dpulliam

    Ahem: It’s good to know that you’re consistent. But you still haven’t given any evidence that my facts are inaccurate. But that’s OK. I try to avoid generalizations about large groups of people that span the entire globe. It generally leads to a poor understanding of situations.

    Reciting the behaviors of Mohammed as the one and only example that all Muslims follow is like expecting Christians or Jews to follow the example of say Joshua in the Old Testament. By modern considerations Joshua committed acts of genocide, but it’s not followed as an example of how to behave in the modern world by followers of the Bible. That’s not say that there aren’t plenty of Muslims out there that would like to emulate Mohammed in his worst. It’s just not the rule.

  • Corban

    dpulliam: you don’t seem to understand the role that Muhammad has in Islam, which is in no way comparable to Joshua in Judaism (let alone in Christianity). The Quran, the hadiths and the Sira (Life of Muhammad) are the fundamental sources of sharia. Muhammad is indeed considered ‘the perfect man’ in Islam, so his word and example are the highest authority for Islam. Why do you think the marriage age in Iran was lowered to nine by Khomenei? Read Robert Spencer’s biography, which is based entirely on Islamic sources.
    Nor have I ever said that all Muslims are monolithic. Of course they are not, as anyone acquainted, say with syncretistic Indonesia, knows. But the virus of Wahhabism has spread there too.

  • Junnaid

    Gentlemen: You raise some very interesting points. When ever there is a discussion about Islam, the issues of marriages/slave keeping/looting and pillaging of Muhammad become the central point of discussion.

    Corban, you are 100% correct “The Quran, the hadiths and the Sira (Life of Muhammad) are the fundamental sources of sharia. Muhammad is indeed considered ‘the perfect man’ in Islam, so his word and example are the highest authority for Islam.” Indeed, every time the word “Muhammad” is spoken in a muslim setting, the gathering says a prayer (which you will certainly see in many Islamic writings as “PBUH- Peace Be Upon Him”)- it is called a ‘Darood’ and it holds tremendous significance in Islam, it is the end note of the 5 daily prayers.
    “O My Lord, shower Peace on Muhammad and the followers of Muhammad, Like you showered Peace on Abraham and the Followers of Abraham, verily you are The All Praiseworthy, The Magnificent, Oh Lord shower blessings on Muhammad and the followers of Muhammad like you showered blessings on Abraham and the followers of Abraham, verily you are The All Praiseworthy, The Magnificent”
    Yes, Muhammad holds an extremely central role in Islam, however, and this is where MOST of the Islamic nation still struggles, Inspite of his exalted status, inspite of his significance in Islam, Muhammad is not Divine. He is BUT a human, a perfect human yes, a human worthy of being emulated absolutely but he is not divine. Quran Chapter 33. Verse 40 “Muhammad is not the father of any of your men, but he is the Apostle of Allah and the Last of the prophets; and Allah is cognizant of all things.”
    Now, we come to a point where it all gets complex and we come to this wide spectrum of thought about Muhammad- on one side is the muslim who celebrates Muhammad’s birthday as a holiday, who wears white and trims his beard and applies Henna to it emulating him to the word and on the other hand we have the thoughts echoed by Corban, who conveniently dismisses the Treaty of Hudaibiyah, the bloodless conquest of Mecca and a good many other instances of Muhammad’s greatness and concentrates on petty issues like his marriages and his wars, Yes Muhammad had many wives, Yes he engaged in combat but is that what defines him? Is George Washington just a Freemason? Is Churchill’s legacy not more than his episodes of depression? Will we concentrate on Lincoln’s suspiciously homosexual relationships or will we look beyond the man and see his achievement?

    I understand how Corban is justified in fixating on the age of marriage in Iran. With all the glorious mention of Muhammad in the Quran, with the insistent reminder and instruction to obey him- The Muslim community has ascribed him a “quasi divine status” which perhaps was not intended in Islam. Indeed that is the single major point of departure between Islam and Christianity, The muslims hold Jesus to be God’s Messenger and Christians hold Jesus to be divine.
    However, It is the Muslim world that has provided an opportunity for people to ridicule them and their religion. People in the Muslim world will dress in all white, wear a green turban, have the correct length of beard and perhaps even have four wives because the Prophet lived like this!! But they will gladly take bribes, they will defraud the government from its money, they will steal from the orphans that is when they conveniently forget that Muhammad was known as “Al Sadiq-The Truthful” and “Al-Ameen (the Honest custodian) but the Sadiq and Ameen part does not pertain to this modern muslim somehow the Four wives “and Make ruthless war on the infidel” part does!!

    As much as it hurts my sensibilities and pains my heart, I must agree with Ahem that “The party line is simply not deviated from as a rule. On any other subject, Muslims can be objective, just not this one.” But say what you may- Muhammad IS a pretty awesome figure, seriously, you just need to look at how he transformed History in such a major way, just think, an Arab, who could not read or write and yet he still yields such enormous power, say what you may, THAT is greatness right there.

    The tragedy of the Muslim world today, is that for them Shariah manifests itself in three very black and white scenarios:
    1. The Adulterer will be stoned to death.

    2.We will chop the hands off the thief

    3.Women will not be allowed to step outside the house.

    Implement these three things and they will rejoice in “Implementation of Shariah!” Just dont talk about the Islamic State’s responsibility to the orphans, the poor, the sick, the homeless, the state’s duty to provide interest free loans for education (Qard E Hasana) Once you got the the above three elements implemented you got Sharia!

    My apologies for the long rant, but all I am trying to say is that both the “educated muslim” and ” the educated west” has to really understand what the message of Islam is all about.

    It’s the message, not the messenger.

  • Corban

    ‘ …we have the thoughts echoed by Corban, who conveniently dismisses the Treaty of Hudaibiyah, the bloodless conquest of Mecca and a good many other instances of Muhammad’s greatness and concentrates on petty issues like his marriages and his wars…’

    Assuming this is not irony, I suggest that Muhammad’s treatment of the Jews of the Khaybar oasis, the assassination of Asma bint Marwan, the beheading of the Bani Qurayza, and the twelve wives and slaves he had (including his daughter-in-law Zeinab and nine year old Aisha) go a long way to debunking any claim that he was a ‘perfect man’, aside from anything else one could say about his psychological state or his knowledge of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures.
    Are you really going to compare Jesus of Nazareth with Muhammad? Muhammad was a successful warlord of 7th century Hejaz who (as far as we can tell) considered himself the last prophet on earth. But his moral deficiencies are evident to anyone who simply reads Islamic sources and then contrast that portrait with e.g. the Sermon on the Mount. Read Matthew 5-7 to see what I mean, then comapre with the Quran.
    Islamic revivalism – whether Khomeini or bin Laden – takes its message rather directly from its messenger. It has little to do with the message of Jesus.

  • http://www.msu.edu/~chasech5 Christopher W. Chase

    As often happens, it seems impossible to discuss a journalistic investigation or coverage about Islam without being (frankly) “hijacked” into some pseudo-discussion about the framing, lives, and conflicting hadith-sources concerning early Islam and the life/conduct of the Prophet Muhammad.

    Dpulliam wrote:

    There is a very cool map/chart that shows where American’s Muslims come from. This leads me to wonder why the piece did not address how non-American Muslims perceive American Muslims. I know that’s a hefty question to answer, but it would be interesting to know. As with the AP story on the Pew survey, the Newsweek piece fails to grapple with the theological debates that are raging in Muslim communities around the world…..I’d be more interested in exploring their spiritual paths. What tugs on the hearts of Muslims beyond the appearance of prosperity and wealth?

    These are indeed the most important questions. It is sheer folly to try to uncover and discuss the Prophet Muhammad to gain insight into contemporary Islam as it is foolish to study the historical Jesus in order to gauge contemporary Episcopalians in Australia. It makes no sense. But what are religion journalists to do? The vocabulary of theological discussion is at least as involved, and perhaps more so, than the specialized vocabulary used in Christian theology. American readers are simply do not have the groundwork necessary to understand the role of ibadat and mualmalat in the realm of Sharia lawmaking, the political nature of “apostasy” criminal charges, ijtihad and fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). Perhaps at this point, the best way to approach Islam is do so culturally. That is the way the NYTimes has done such a good job and it may be the predominant way that people can be called and informed enough to reflect on the challenges that face theology in each of the Abrahamic religions. The Times has had the occasional article about tensions in race and class between immigrant and native-born Muslims (usually African-American) in the U.S., and these have been helpful.


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