Another Muslim PR nightmare

jihad4dummiesIf you thought the story of Bryant Neal Vinas, the Long Island Muslim convert who joined Al Qaeda and quickly rose through the ranks before being arrested last fall, was bad for Muslim public relations, the news emerging today of a North Carolina Muslim gang is a PR nightmare.

Not helping the situation is the way in which the indictment of these seven individuals, who allegedly planned to wage “violent jihad,” is being reported.

This, for example, comes from a relatively short story from The Washington Post:

At the center of the ring is Daniel P. Boyd, 39, who trained in terrorist camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the 1980s before fighting the Soviet Union, authorities said. Boyd, a Muslim convert, returned home and three years ago allegedly began recruiting a group of men to wage jihad.

Also known as “Saifullah,” or sword of God, Boyd raised money to send his acolytes on a visit to the Middle East, according to an indictment handed up by a grand jury last week and unsealed Monday.


The indictment mentions conversations between Boyd and another defendant who shared his views, and e-mail messages that Boyd sent to a third defendant that “extolled the virtues” of dying a martyr.

Members of the group “radicalized” younger converts to believe that “violent jihad was a personal obligation on the part of every good Muslim,” the indictment said. The defendants, who include Boyd’s sons Zakariya and Dylan, could all face life imprisonment if convicted.

The reporter implies that what Boyd taught these members is contrary to the values extolled in most American mosques. But that’s not actually explored.

I hoped that Boyd’s local Raleigh News & Observer would offer more, but, alas, it did not.

In fact, the most detailed report on this case came from the Daily Mail:

Boyd’s beliefs did not concur with his Raleigh-area moderate mosque, which he stopped attending and instead began meeting for Friday prayers in his home, said Holding.

“These people had broken away because their local mosque did not follow their vision of being a good Muslim,” Holding said. “This is not an indictment of the entire Muslim community.”

In 1991, Boyd and his brother were convicted of bank robbery in Pakistan — accused of carrying identification showing they belonged to the radical Afghan guerrilla group, Hezb-e-Islami, or Party of Islam.

Each was sentenced to have a foot and a hand cut off for the robbery, but the decision was later overturned.

Their wives told reporters in an interview at the time that the couples had U.S. roots but the United States was a country of “kafirs” — Arabic for heathens.

Wow. There is a treasure trove of unexplored stories in those five paragraphs. Home prayer services — is that common? A moderate mosque — care to elaborate? Convicted of bank robbery — uh, what would Muhammad do?

And, as was the case with the mosque that Vinas frequented, the story quotes someone saying this is not a charge against the Muslim community but never says what made these folks different.

I imagine few American Muslims dream of being martyred in Jordan — Jordan? — or Kosovo — isn’t that war over? — but we’re not actually shown the differences between a group of rogues and mainstream Muslims. And, as we’ve learned in the past, even mainstream Muslims can have some surprising ideas about when violence and martyrdom are acceptable.

Take for instance this conversation that I had with a Muslim student after the Pew Research Center reported two years ago that 26 percent of Muslims, ages 18-29, thought suicide bombings were at least sometimes justified:

“Muslim or not Muslim, we all fear death. Blowing yourself up is not something everyone can do or something that everyone has the courage to do,” said Billoo, the outgoing president of Long Beach’s Muslim Student Association. “But don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying we should all go around America doing that; Palestine is a different situation. There is a huge difference between saying we should do it and saying I’m going to be a suicide bomber. I just think it is something that Islam justifies.”

One thing these stories never seem to do is explore what Islam really teaches. And maybe that is because there is such disagreement and maybe it’s because some of the Quran’s passages are violent to the point of objectionable. (The Bible has some of those too.) But what are we, the uneducated, non-Muslim readers supposed to learn from these stories if reporters tell us there are differences between radical Muslims and moderates, but don’t actually show it?

“Jihad for Dummies” from Flickr

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  • Julia

    Home prayer services — is that common?

    A Muslim doctor in my area told me he was looking forward to the day when every home in the US would have a prayer room. From that I assumed that all Muslims who can afford it have a room set aside for prayer in their homes.

    It also shocked me that he was wanting the entire US to convert to Islam and was not shy in saying so. Most of his patients and neighbors would also be shocked to know their doctor had such wishes even though most Christians probably would want the entire US to be practicing Christians.

  • Davis

    One thing these stories never seem to do is explore what Islam really teaches.

    Isn’t that asking a lot. I mean, could we get people to agree on what Christianity teaches? On what Judaism teaches?

    It seems that the challenge for reporting on Islam is there just aren’t many objective observers. The anti-immigrant Daily Mail can’t really be objective about Islam. Even the fact you consider this a “PR nightmare” shows it is hard to be objective in evaluating what is happening.

    I’m not sure how you define what is a “moderate” mosque, but I’m not sure what a “moderate” Baptist church or “moderate” Orthodox Jewish temple looks like either. Who does? Yet we know what an extreme mosque/extreme Baptist Church/extreme temple looks like, or do we?

  • Sarah Webber

    I think most people would qualify “someone who wants to kill me” as extreme.

  • Jerry

    One thing these stories never seem to do is explore what Islam really teaches.

    Isn’t that asking a lot. I mean, could we get people to agree on what Christianity teaches? On what Judaism teaches?

    Very true. But we’d be much further off if there was at least some attention paid to pointing people to any sites that exist that explore what various people believe that the scriptures of their religion mean (if there is actually an unbiased exposition, of course).

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    Davis, I think you have identified many of the challenges in covering religion in general, particularly when “moderate” is thrown around.

    To be sure, the Muslim community is not the only susceptible to PR nightmares. Think Bernard Madoff and Jews, or Ted Haggard and evangelicals. Or, for that matter, Larry Craig and Republicans.

    But you’ve hit the nail on the head with the primary challenge of reporting on Islam:

    there just aren’t many objective observers.

  • danr

    Part of the issue here with Islam vis-a-vis other religions, is that others causing “PR nightmares” typically don’t seek to self-justify. Madoff presumably wouldn’t open the Torah to justify his crime, Haggard likewise with the Bible. They know they’d only find condemnation and warnings to repent. They are seen as deviants, hypocrites, sinners-in-need-of-Grace etc., not as faithful/obedient adherents of their respective religious communities.

    But most Muslims caught in violent “Jihad”-planning, both in the U.S. and abroad, are typically unrepentant, and eager to apply Quranic verses in their defense (or offense). And as the post stated, a statistically significant proportion of Muslims continue to sympathize with such interpretations, even if unwilling to carry them out personally. MSM articles therefore need to at least do a better job of comparing such “extremist” interpretations with those they choose to label as “moderate”.

  • Jerry

    Brad, your post reminded me of the wise words of Rumi: When a pickpocket meets a saint, all he sees are pockets. It’s a very rare person who does not find what they are looking for. If you believe that Islam is a religion of peace, you’ll find that it is indeed a religion of peace when you study the Quran, Hadith and various fatwas. If you believe it’s evil, you’ll find evil. The same is true, of course, for the other religions as well as political parties, people and the rest of life.

    Conversations between people who disagree tend to be about differences in perception couched in more absolute terms because, of course, anyone who looks will see what I see. That’s why the story of the Blind Men and the Elephant is such a universal story. I am, of course, as blind as everyone else. My hope and prayer is that I can at least try to remember this in the heat of battle.

  • tmatt

    Anyone who has spent more than an hour on this site knows that we are no fans of empty labels like “moderate.”

    You can’t write tomes on doctrine. But at some point, you have to mention one or two doctrinal points that divide Muslims and influence the very actions that cause the news. That’s journalism.

  • Krista

    Is it worth mentioning that this article mistranslates “jihad” as “the Arabic word for holy war” when it really is the Arabic word for “struggle”? Yes, it does carry the connotation of holy war, but it would be nice if journalists would at least get the translation right when they try to explain something about a particular faith or ideological system.

  • Mithras

    So, you have quite a few posters over here at GR. Are there any Muslims who are qualified to blog here? Or are we going to be continually subjected to non-Muslim views on stories about Islam?

  • Amy

    It is not a reporter’s job to teach religion–not the religion of Islam, Christianity, or any other religion. Nor should they try directing people either, lest they be accused of favoring one particular view. If you don’t want to be ignorant about something, you have a world of information at your fingertips, thanks to the internet.

    But is this a “PR nightmare,” really? Just on Saturday (men arrested on Monday, I’m talking about the immediately prior Saturday) the mosque in Raleigh had an open house to which local officials and media were invited, as well as the general public. It was a huge success–and preempted any sort of “bad PR” since it was an opportunity for people to learn about Islam and meet Muslims.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    Maybe you’re right, Amy. Maybe this wasn’t a PR nightmare. I tend to think it is, but I may be wrong.

    I don’t, however, think there is any debate regarding a reporter’s duty. I spent the past five years as a religion reporter, and while you are correct in saying reporters should not “teach” a religion, it is their responsibility to help readers better understand what the religion is all about and what differentiates its adherents.

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  • Jettboy

    Amy, from my own observations of life and people, any bad PR trumps any good PR by a mile and a half. Efforts to “look good” are often seen at best by most as curiosities and at worst a cover up for misdeeds.

  • Dave

    Have the “Jihad for Dummies” authors paid proper royalties to the original “…for Dummies” creators?

  • Brian Walden

    What royalties? Someone made a funny image and stuck it on Flickr – how are they making money on it?

  • Dave

    Brian, I have no idea how or whether people make money on stuff distributed by the Internet. But I do know that the “X for Dummies” format is copyrighted.

  • Stephen A.

    I’ll defend my profession of PR in another place and at another time (suffice it to say, most of what you hear about it is the NEGATIVE, as is usual for anything, and that of course is ironic) but to the point in question, the media DO have a repsonsiblity to report the basics of a faith, as Brad says, so that we better understand and “get” religion.

    As much as the label “moderate” is overused and mis-used, it’s use in a sentence such as “more moderate faction that explicitly renounces violence” is truly helpful and entirely appropriate, since the more radical and violent factions/sects of a religion may get 90% of of all the attention. And as we know, many people see ALL Muslims as a threat.

    Stories about home-grown would-be terrorists of course don’t help change that perception.

  • Stephen A.

    Most of his patients and neighbors would also be shocked to know their doctor had such wishes even though most Christians probably would want the entire US to be practicing Christians.

    Either both is shocking or neither is, unless you belong to one of those groups, then I guess the OTHER group’s goal is shocking – but it shouldn’t be, because it’s relative well known.

    The fact that many religions – and many Christian denominations – believe in converting the world shouldn’t be a shock to anyone, other than to those who believe such a thing is inherently “wrong” then that’s there problem, isn’t it?

    I’ve welcomed Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses to my door with a smile and they have every right to seek out converts in a free society. Pretty liberal of me, isn’t it? :-)