The undercovered Hajj

amellie_-_stoning_of_the_devil_2006_hajjSo much for any significant coverage of the country’s first Muslim member of Congress and one of the more significant acts he’ll perform relating to his religion. Granted, Congressman Keith Ellison’s trip to Mecca for this year’s Hajj is not a public act in the sense that he traveled on his own dime and it relates to his personal spiritual life. But the act is public in the sense that it is a, well, public act of traveling.

The Star Tribune covered the trip with a measly little article that says little worth discussing other than for the issues that it failed to discuss:

Back home, he’s one of the 535 most powerful lawmakers in America, but last week, on the holiest week in Islam’s holiest city, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison was just one among the estimated 3 million travelers making the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Ellison, D-Minn., and the first Muslim elected to Congress, also became the first sitting member to make the hajj, the journey that all able-bodied Muslims are obligated to make once in their lifetime.

Ellison had been planning the weeklong pilgrimage since a trip to Saudi Arabia almost a year ago, said his spokesman, Rick Jauert, and hadn’t expected the lame-duck session and contentious battle taking shape in Congress over whether to provide financial aid to U.S. carmakers.

A reader of ours tipped us off about the story noting that it would seem that this story should have received more coverage than what you see above. The article, which ran Monday, tells us nothing about the significance of the trip to Ellison other than the fact that it was a personal pilgrimage. There is little context given regarding the trip and little about the history of the pilgrimage. There is also no mention of the fact that incidents during the Hajj have resulted in significant loss of life recently or that there are many important rituals, such a dress code, that go along with the pilgrimage.

See here the only other paragraph of significance from the Star Tribune article:

Jauert said Ellison was accompanied by fellow members of his Minneapolis mosque, although his wife, a Catholic, and his two sons stayed home. “It was a personal trip, a pilgrimage,” Jauert said, noting that Ellison paid for the journey himself.

That last paragraph raises even more questions that could be covered about Ellison but remain unsaid.

The PowerLine blog takes on the Star Tribune article and raises a couple of issues about the article that don’t actually appear in the version of the article that appeared on the Web site when I read it Tuesday.

For example, PowerLine says that the article states that “Ellison has an ‘unofficial role as America’s goodwill ambassador to the Middle East’” and that Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations was quoted in the article. Those quotes are absent from the Web site version of the article for one reason or another.

In a separate post, PowerLine makes the point that it would be difficult for editors to write a story about Ellison’s faith-based journey:

Too, while the tone of any news coverage would of course have been positive, editors may have wrestled with the question of how to reconcile a puff-piece on Ellison’s Hajj with their customary attitude toward observant members of other religious faiths. Thus, news coverage of Ellison presumably would have noted his participation in the ceremony in which pilgrims symbolically throw stones at the Devil[.]

Speaking for myself, I’m perfectly fine with that. Legend has it that Martin Luther once threw an inkpot at Satan, too. Still, a scrupulous editor could hardly help thinking about how his newspaper or television network would cover a ritual in which a conservative Christian — take, for example, another Minnesota Representative, Michele Bachmann — threw stones at the Devil. The ridicule that such a gesture by a Christian would provoke can hardly be imagined.

I would hope editors would avoid any urge to produce a puff-piece. Coverage of events of religious significance can be substantive and yet fair. I would hope that any good newspaper editor would be able to cover seriously ceremonies of religious significance even if the traditions were not as familiar to its readership.

To my knowledge, there was little media coverage of anything related to the Hajj for the country’s other Muslim member of Congress, Democrat Andre Carson of my home district centered on Indianapolis. Perhaps he did not go on the trip or has in the past. Perhaps he will (again?) someday and the media will have a chance to provide more substantive coverage.

On a final note, the Associated Press had slightly more substance to its story on Ellison’s pilgrimage, but it tracks the same disconnected attitude towards the trip. The article also quotes Ellison saying relatively predicable things about how people in the Middle East are encouraged about how the U.S. could change under President-elect Barack Obama.

Apparently, Ellison doesn’t read Congressional Quarterly, which had an excellent, but short, article by (my old friend) Shawn Zeller on how some American Muslim groups are concerned about Obama’s chief of staff appointment of Rahm Emanuel and his support of Israel. Whether CQ‘s reporting or Ellison’s point of view is a more accurate perception of reality is to be determined, but the issue is hardly straightforward and editors should be aware that there is not universal praise and excitement over everything Obama in American Muslim communities.

Image of Hajj pilgrims participating in the Stoning of the Devil.

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  • Jerry

    Given the lack of knowledge most American have about Islam, it’s too bad that there was not at least a bit of mention in those stories about the history of the Hajj etc.

  • FW Ken

    Sorry, I don’t buy the original notion that Ellison’s trip is, in any sense, a public event, any more than my travel to a Catholic Church for Mass or a monastery for a retreat. Per Jerry, it’s a good occasion for a greater understanding of Islam, and that’s a good thing. However, if Mr. Ellison wants his pilgrimage to be private, and he is going as a private person, it should be private: he’s a public official, not public property.

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