Symbolic details behind the Metro story

I was on the Washington, D.C., Metro today (my normal commute is by rail from Baltimore) and, as you would imagine, things were a bit tense. Maybe I am wrong, but I think there was more security out than normal.

The story of the week in mass-transit land is, of course, the arrest of Farooque Ahmed, the suburban father who authorities say was set up to conspire with fake al-Qaeda operatives to bomb the Arlington Cemetery, Pentagon City, Crystal City and Court House Metro stations.

Readers of the Washington Post coverage were, I am sure, stunned to know that he is a “naturalized U.S. citizen born in Pakistan.”

It is still early in this story, relatively speaking. However, I was struck by the fact that, in this early Post report, a large team of reporters had already pulled enough facts together to find a middle ground between (1) virtual silence and (2) saying that the accused man may or may not have ties to a terrorist network, and leaving it at that.

Let’s start at that language that news consumers are so used to reading whether an urban nightmare is traced back to suburban roots.

Neighbors described Ahmed as pleasant but private.

The story then serves up yet another sentence that will be familiar to readers in the post-9/11 era.

Shaya Fitzgerald, 39, a physician’s assistant who lives across the street from Ahmed’s brick townhouse, said he has a young son and a wife who dress conservatively.

However, I was — as a journalist who cares about details that flesh out references to religion — pleased that the Post team didn’t play that “dress conservatively” card and then turn away. Instead, this early report offered some complex and interesting details. Follow closely:

She “wore a full hijab, the whole thing. She seemed relatively young,” Fitzgerald said. “My only impression of him was that he was not that sociable.”

Ahmed moved to Virginia from Staten Island, N.Y. His wife, Sahar Mirza-Ahmed, is from Birmingham, England, and is an active member of “Hip Muslim Moms,” a Northern Virginia playdate group for women with children younger than 5.

“I don’t know what to do. This is too close to home. You don’t know anybody,” said Esraa Bani, an organizer of the mothers group. She said she wants people to understand what her group is really about: “We are hip, as in a lot of us are born and raised here. We’re very savvy moms, working moms, tolerant moms. If we saw any signs of this, it’s just not at all part of our demographic.”

Phone messages left for Mirza-Ahmed were not returned.

Let me stress again that this is an early report. However, additional passages in the report indicate that the reporters are attempting to treat this family’s Islamic faith as an actual part of its life in a given region — the suburbs of Northern Virginia. Instead of simply using flat, vague labels, there is evidence of quick attempts to gather symbolic facts about their lives.

The Muslim family is in the suburbs and, on one level, of the suburbs. Maybe.

More details are sure to come, I am sure. But I was impressed that religion was clearly mentioned, rather than being safely ignored, and that the journalists covering this major story then attempted to deal with religion in human terms. That’s impressive, and fitting. I expect that more symbolic details are forthcoming.

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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.

  • John Pack Lambert

    I think they should have develed deeper into the religious rules of hip Muslim mos. Will they allow women who do not wear Hijab? Will they allow women who are Amadiyyah Muslims. What if a non-Muslim women wanted to join the group, would that be acceptable? Are they all Sunni, Shi’ah or a mix? If they are not both Sunni and Shi’ah do they actively exclude the other, or just include the one? I think these would be important questions. The “from here” and “hip” rhetoric is their attempt to put on an outside image, the journalist needs to ask questions to try to determine what the real composition and goals of the group are.

  • Maureen

    Your wish is the Washington Post’s command, at least in part.

    “The group’s members were from different national and ethnic backgrounds, living all over the metro area. About half wore hijab, the head scarves donned by some Muslim women to fulfill a religious requirement for modest dress, Bani said. And about 10 percent were not Muslim.”

    Of course, one of the major disadvantages of having men and women’s lives differentiated is that the man may be up to all sorts of things without telling the woman; and thus, women interacting with other women in a completely normal way can end up entangled in all kinds of weird crud.

  • Jerry

    I also hope as you do that we read those symbolic details. I especially want to read a timeline about his attitudes when he moved to the US and how they changed afterwards, if at all.