Ghost in Houston murders

Here at GetReligion, we depend on faithful readers to help us spot religion ghosts in news stories across the nation.

Our thanks to a Texas reader who submitted a link to an Associated Press story about a Houston man charged in the shooting deaths of his three children:

HOUSTON — The estranged wife of a man accused of killing their three children in a custody dispute said “no one believed me” when she claimed he abused her for years and was a threat to their children.

Norma Martinez filed for divorce in February from 47-year-old Mohammad Goher, the Houston Chronicle reported Tuesday. The mother and their three children — daughters ages 14 and 7 years old, and a 12-year-old son — had lived at a shelter since March.

The children were found Sunday shot to death in their beds in an apartment where Goher lived.

Goher is recovering after shooting himself, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office says. The sheriff’s office, hours after the victims were discovered, issued a statement saying the couple had already divorced, but shelter officials indicated the two are still married.

“I have documents of everything, all the abuse, and I showed it to everyone, but no one believed me, and they still made me send my kids to him every weekend,” Martinez said in a statement read by Tayseir Mahmoud, a board member at An-Nisa Hope Center.

The reader said in his e-mail to GetReligion:

There is religion all over this story, but it is completely ignored in the report. No info was even given on An-Nisa, for example. I looked into An-Nisa and found out it’s a Muslim-based outreach to battered Muslim (and other) women.

Indeed, An-Nisa’s website includes this note on its donations page:

The best of all deeds is to bring happiness to other Muslims: by covering his nakedness, or satiating his hunger, or fulfilling any need of his. (Al-Mundhiri)

The AP story was mainly a rewrite of a piece that originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle. The Chronicle story, like the AP version, includes no mention of religion, describing the An-Nisa only as “a nonprofit that operates a shelter for battered women.”

So … the suspect’s name is Mohammad. The shelter caring for the mother is a Muslim outreach. Yet the word “Muslim” appears nowhere in either story and in none of the television reports I quickly watched.

What role, if any, did faith or religion play in the life of the suspect and/or the mother, who is Hispanic? Is the wife Muslim, or was this a blended faith household? Did the children frequent a local mosque or church — or both? Is there a grieving faith community (or communities) trying to deal with this tragedy? These seem like relevant questions to me, but the stories totally ignore them.

In the AP report, there is this vague reference at the end:

A prayer vigil was held Monday night for the three children. Mourners offered stuffed bears, flowers, balloons and candles.

What kind of prayer vigil? A Muslim vigil? A Catholic vigil? An interfaith vigil? Again … readers are left guessing. But why?

In searching Google for information about this case, I did find this reference online:

It is a very solemn day today in the Spring Muslim community. Today, at 2 p.m., a funeral prayer was held at the local Champions Masjid for the three children that were killed by their father, Mohammed Goher, this past Sunday. The three children, Saeeda, Saeed and Aisha were staying with their father during weekend visitation when he decided that he would kill them and himself rather than let their mother have them.

A grieving Muslim community. That sounds like news to me. Too bad it’s news that no media covered.

In that same online item, there’s also this:

Finally, in Islam, children have certain rights, and we must not forget that. If we as a community and as a society had recognized the rights of these children and looked after their safety, then maybe they would be alive today.

So, in review, we have a crime story — no religion, please — about a woman who claims “no one believed me” when she complained about abuse by her husband. And we have a Muslim community where at least one person suggests online that more attention to the children’s rights might have helped save their lives.

Nope, no dots to connect there. Definitely no religion angle to this story. The reader thought he saw a ghost. But obviously, it was a false alarm.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Jerry

    Bobby, I could have read your comment about “false alarm” as either serious or sarcasm. I’m assuming sarcasm in my comments.

    And I could be totally off base in my critique. If I am, then I’ll have learned something:-)

    Given how central religion is to many people’s lives, it’s always appropriate and important to include religious aspects to any story including this one. But the specifics of how you worded your critique appeared to me to go beyond that.

    So I have to wonder how you would have covered this story if the people involved were Christians or Jews or even Hindus? Would you have asked if the family was a blended Christian/Jewish one?

    I have a bias test that involves word substitution. For example:

    And we have a [Christian] community where at least one person suggests online that more attention to the children’s rights might have helped save their lives.

    It’s of course not bias when there’s a scriptural or theological difference at play. I’m reminded, for example, how the Warren Jeffs story was analyzed here not so long ago. There the specific beliefs of the people were central to that story. But I don’t see that as being the case here.

  • Perpetua

    Well, in Sharia, the children were of an age where they are supposed to go with the father, not the mother, in a divorce. So one might wonder if the Muslim community in Spring was influenced by that in not intervening.

  • Bobby

    Thanks for your comments, Jerry. I assume that at some point in my GetReligion life, I could be totally off base in my critique. But when it happens, I don’t plan to admit it at the time. :-)

    So I have to wonder how you would have covered this story if the people involved were Christians or Jews or even Hindus? Would you have asked if the family was a blended Christian/Jewish one?

    If a man charged with killing his three children was a member of Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church, I’d report that and try to find out how active he was, what fellow church members had to say about him, if members saw him with the kids, if there was ever any suspicion of abuse, how the church is dealing with the tragedy. I’d ask similar questions if he attended a Jewish synagogue every week. I’d think a well-rounded profile of a murder suspect would touch all aspects of his life: personal, work, religion, etc.

    There the specific beliefs of the people were central to that story. But I don’t see that as being the case here.

    Do you base this on a hunch or on the “facts” not included in the stories? How do you know what role the beliefs, if any, play when the religion angle is not explored at all?

  • John M

    IIRC, An-Nisa is the name of a Surah in the Quran.

    -John M.

  • joye

    @Jerry: I’m a Catholic. If the story was about a father with a stereotypically Catholic name (Francis Xavier O’Donnell, perhaps) and the mother had a stereotypically non-Catholic name (Deborah Cohen, perhaps) and the mother had fled to a battered womens shelter called St. Rita’s Hope Center, and the story did not mention the word Catholic once, I would find that odd to the point of laughing at it.

    My charitable guess is that the reporter wanted to avoid suggestion that being Muslim made this man into a child-murdering wife-beating scumbag. But in order to do that, you also have to miss the An-Nisa people who are working out of their Muslim piety to try and save women. I think that’s a real shame.

  • Bobby

    Excellent points, joye.

    By ignoring the religion angle, the story fails to highlight the good as well as the potential bad.

  • Martha

    This is a tough one to cover, Bobby. I know that there will be those who will leap on this story as “Aha! Yet more Muslim abuse of women and children!” but really, unless there’s any specific reason to allege that the abuse happened on religious grounds rather than being yet another man in a custody battle with his wife being a self-centred obnoxious jerk, perhaps the reporters felt it wasn’t helpful.

    It’s good to know that the centre is Muslim, though. Nice work giving both sides.

  • KT

    Domestic violence can be committed by people of any religion. The big story that isn’t being covered is how abusive of any religious variety are getting to spend lots of time with children and then they kill the kids. You can ready plenty of similar stories on this outrage page.

    The Maryland story where Mark Castillo killed his 3 chidren is very similar to this Goher story. Amy Castillo was very christian. Her pastor was on news stories blaming the tragedy on failures by Mark to be closer to god. Once again the real story was missed. The courts are helping abusive men get access to these children over the warnings of the mother.

    So the religion had little to do with this tragedy, while patriarchy had plenty to do with it.

  • Jerry

    Bobby, people could look at this story from religious, sociological (tribal), psychological or criminal perspectives. If the story had been longer, then it would have been very good to explore all those aspects. But the story was limited to basic facts.

    Given that the overwhelming majority of Muslims would call him a criminal on Islamic grounds for violating what is in the Quran and Hadith, I did not think there was a religious ghost to be mentioned in a story of that length.

    From a broader perspective, religion and domestic violence has of course been studied. The report appears truncated but states that

    An estimate by the organization Jewish Women International indicates that 15 to 25% of all Jewish households experience domestic violence.

    According to estimates by Muslim activists in the United States, approximately ten percent of Muslim women are abused emotionally, psychologically, and/or physically by their husbands.

    So assuming the abuse rate for Christians is on the same order, as that for Muslims and Jews, then that is one more reason why psychology and sociology should be explored before religion as a cause of this particular incident.

  • Bobby

    Jerry, can you remind me where in my post or comments that I suggested exploring religion as the cause of this particular incident?

  • Jerry

    Bobby, you did not say that, but I assumed it based on assuming that what should go in a story like this one are first the facts of what happened and theories about motives. I’m not sure what they teach in journalism school, but my experience as a reader has been that other details are used as “color” to give the story more life, hence the mention of the battered women’s shelter. I would expect religion to be brought in only if it were germane to the story itself.

    Maybe I was led astray because you were asking for a very different story, one focusing on religion questions rather than removing what was there to make room for religion. So I read some of your questions about religion as a request for more details to help determine a motive.

  • Ruth Nasrullah

    As Jerry noted, this article is indeed just a recounting of facts, and I think that’s why the religion angle was lacking.

    If the Chronicle chooses to explore the case further, they will find an interesting story in which religion figures little if at all.

    I would like to know more about the Pakistani community leader and his “psychic” wife who visited Goher the day before the murders, and how that visit may have influenced Goher. I would like to know more about the allegations made on Facebook by An-Nisa shelter’s founder that the Islamic Society of Greater Houston’s funeral service demanded payment in full prior to providing burial services for the murdered children. I would like to know how it was possible that the court granted unsupervised visitation to a man with a prior conviction for assaulting his wife, who had already abducted his children to Pakistan and had threatened suicide to the children’s court-appointed attorney. I would like to know if there is an internal struggle within the Muslim community about the issue of domestic violence. And I would like to know more about the children’s mother, a Mexican-American convert to Islam.

    It’s a tremendous human interest story with or without an exploration of how Islam figures into it.

    (And as an aside, John M., “an nisa” is Arabic for “the women.”)