Covering Islam remains a struggle

MuslimMosaicUSA 01You have to be pretty interested in the state of religion reporting to claim the domain name ReligionWriter.com and open up shop. That’s what freelancer Andrea Useem did.

You’re going to hear more about her in a few days, when I grab enough free time to post a new 5Q+1 interview with her, which will focus on her views of religion coverage in general and mainstream media coverage of Islam, in particular. I could include a lot of that information in this post, but then it would get really, really long.

For now, what you need to know is that Useem is a former Episcopalian who studied Quakerism and, after years of study and travel, converted to Islam. She has professional ties to all kinds of people, including Religion News Service, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, the Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, Chronicle of Higher Education, the Dallas Morning News, etc., etc. I had better stop now, before this post turns into her 5Q+1 bio.

At the moment, Useem is in the middle of some research for an RNA “webinar” on coverage of Islam. That’s why she called me the other day for a wide-ranging conversation about mainstream news coverage of Islam. Click here, if you want to read the whole interview, which I urge you to do because she is asking questions that need to be asked. It’s a real dialogue, more than a pure Q&A with, well, me, and a nice plug for GetReligion.

Here is one sample from the transcript that focuses on a crucial issue in religion writing in general:

RW: But isn’t there a problem with taking religious statements too much at face value? I think of the PBS documentary, The Muslim Americans, where Judy Woodruff interviews two Muslim teenage girls in headscarves, who are piously telling her they are never going to date before marriage. She doesn’t challenge them, and the audience is just supposed to be wowed by their commitment. But that seems so shallow. I want to know how their commitment works in real life: Do they have crushes? Are they just saying that for the camera? As a journalist, do you just report it at face-value when someone says, “I love Jesus, he saved my life”?

Mattingly: No, it’s only half the story. My point is not that religion is the sole factor, but that it has to be taken seriously. It’s a piece of the human equation.

RW: So what should the reporter’s next question be after someone says, “I did such-and-such for God”?

Mattingly: You can ask a quick question about that person’s religious life. Take the Michael Vick story. When he says he has found Jesus and is going to change his life, you can ask, “Can I call your pastor? If you’re claiming to have a religious identity, which is to some extent defined by a religious community, can I know more about that community?” If someone says “no,” they just practice all by themselves, you can at least report that.

Reporters have to push their reporting toward facts about a newsmaker’s faith.

This discussion leads us into the heart of the issue. Many Muslims do not want to talk to the press. Some fear that journalists will twist their faith or fail to get the facts right. Others fear what other Muslims will say or do in response to public comments. How can reporters find quotes that represent to complexity of modern Islam if many Muslims cannot or will not speak freely?

Then, of course, there is the ultimate issue: Whether or not to link Islamic beliefs with acts of violence. How can reporters cover the facts — the terrorists themselves trumpet their faith — without implying that this interpretation of Islam is “normal” or “right” to millions of other Muslims? This was a major concern, both to me and to Useem.

It’s crucial to remember this fact — there is no one Islam.

RW: In Jimmy Allen’s 2007 update to Bridging the Gap (text here), Allen lamented that most editors did not see 9/11 as a religious story. But in a way I agree with the editors: Is calling 9/11 an Islam story like saying the Virginia Tech massacre is an Asian-American culture story?

Mattingly: To leave out the religious content of the lives of the bombers would be strange. Let’s look at an example in Christianity. Remember the man who lived out in the woods in North Carolina after blowing up abortion clinics? He had been thrown out of several different very conservative religious groups, and was living as a kind of Christian loner. Yet the press continued to identify him as a Presbyterian. First of all, there’s like 15 different Presbyterian churches: which the heck denomination do you mean? He doesn’t strike me as a PCUSA kind of guy; the world is not full of PCUSA bombers. But for that matter, the world isn’t full of PCA conservative bombers either. In fact, the PCA had thrown Rudolph out — the Orthodox Presbyterians had thrown him out. If you want to accurately describe Rudolph’s life, you end up saying, “Here is a man who said he acted on strong religious motivations, yet the religious groups he was involved with threw him out, and here is why they said they did.” …

There, once again, is a debate that has to be covered. You can’t say Eric Rudolph blew up abortion clinics because he was a conservative Christian. You can’t say the guys flew the planes into the towers because they were conservative Muslims. There are too many other conservative Muslims who disagree with them. But the question for journalists is: What are they disagreeing about? And where are the conservative Muslims who will stand up and critique Osama’s interpretation?

Strange times. We live in a day in which conservative candidates like Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney seem to know more about the writing of, let’s say, Sayyid Qutub, than many journalists covering the Muslims who are inspired by his teachings.

Please read the whole interview and let Useem and me know what you think. And tune in a few days, when I return the favor and let her share some more of her views on religion and the news.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://david-jaime-jason.blogspot.com Jason

    We need a Tmatt Trio for contextualizing Muslims.

  • http://www.millennialstar.org Ivan Wolfe

    We need a Tmatt Trio for contextualizing Muslims

    I’ve been saying that for awhile now.

  • Jerry

    Please read the whole interview and let Useem and me know what you think.

    I think you get interviews:-) I’m very much looking forward to the followup interview.

  • Christopher W. Chase

    tmatt wrote:

    We live in a day in which conservative candidates like Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney seem to know more about the writing of, let’s say, Sayyid Qutub…

    Well, maybe. A lot of politicians like to claim they know the “Islamofascist” agenda, but there is quite a bit to be skeptical of. A few years ago Michigan representative Mike Rogers included parts of a Jihadist diatribe in a press release to his constituency. What was clear is that Rogers had no clue what context the material should be put in, much less any real idea who Ibn Taymiyyah was. He just wanted people to believe he understood the threat. If Huckabee can’t get basic facts and context about the LDS right, then I highly doubt he has an adequate general understanding of a religion like Islam, much less someone like Qutb. Romney’s quips about Islam give me little confidence in his religious knowledge either. If people want something like a trio of basic questions to distinguish and contextualize Muslims on the basis of belief, why not consult one? One such question, which has been investigated–might be: “Who is best suited to apply and interpret divine justice in a proper Muslim society?

  • http://www.religionwriter.com Andrea Useem

    You’re exactly right, Christopher, with your question about Muslim authority. As one Muslim author commented on my site following my interview with tmatt: if Muslims are confused about these issues, it’s no surprise that journalists have a hard time covering them.

    This week I was listening to Qunoot Foundation podcast with Reza Aslan, who had a great way of summing up the context: Islamic authority has always rested with scholars (since the passing of the Prophet and caliphs.) Now, education is democratized, resulting in new questions, such as, does someone with a Western PhD in Islamic studies qualify as an Islamic scholar? This democratization of knowledge results in many Muslims using their independent reasoning to come to their own conclusions, Protestant-style. Unfortunately, Osama bin Laden is part of this “Reformation” — he’s taking part in the democratization of Muslim knowledge and authority. And he’s come up with some pretty miserable interpretations.

    This makes me feel reporters might have an easier time if Muslims admitted to the de-facto denominanization of Islam. Then we would have some handy tags to use, just as we do when covering American Protestantism. But reporters are left instead to basically make up their own tags. And the results — like “moderate Muslim,” as tmatt has complained about — have not been so great.

  • Undergroundpewster

    If RW’s editor is of this mindset:

    RW: In Jimmy Allen’s 2007 update to Bridging the Gap (text here), Allen lamented that most editors did not see 9/11 as a religious story. But in a way I agree with the editors:

    I know what to expect from the site. Perhaps TMatt could have asked in what way RW agrees with “most editors” and who are these editors anyway?

  • Stephen A.

    Breaking Islamic news: Anglican Archbishop Williams says Sharia law in UK “inevitable”:

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2008/02/07/nwilliams207.xml

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  • http://dunner99.blogspot.com/ JDsg

    Gave some thought to the suggestion of a “tmatt trio” for Muslims; wrote a brief response here.

    With regard to Andrea’s comment:

    …does someone with a Western PhD in Islamic studies qualify as an Islamic scholar?

    No, the qualifications are different for each, and…

    …reporters might have an easier time if Muslims admitted to the de-facto denominanization of Islam.

    What “denominations” might Andrea suggest for us Muslims?


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