So many Muslims, so few quoted

Here’s the headline on a Page A01 story from Sunday’s Washington Post:

Mosque infiltration feeds Muslims’ distrust of FBI

Here’s the top of the meaty, 2,200-word report:

IRVINE, CALIF. – Before the sun rose, the informant donned a white Islamic robe. A tiny camera was sewn into a button, and a microphone was buried in a device attached to his keys.

“This is Farouk al-Aziz, code name Oracle,” he said into the keys as he sat in his parked car in this quiet community south of Los Angeles. “It’s November 13th, 4:30 a.m. And we’re hot.”

The undercover FBI informant – a convicted forger named Craig Monteilh – then drove off for 5 a.m. prayers at the Islamic Center of Irvine, where he says he spied on dozens of worshipers in a quest for potential terrorists.

Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, the FBI has used informants successfully as one of many tactics to prevent another strike in the United States. Agency officials say they are careful not to violate civil liberties and do not target Muslims.

But the FBI’s approach has come under fire from some Muslims, criticism that surfaced again late last month after agents arrested an Oregon man they said tried to detonate a bomb at a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony. FBI technicians had supplied the device.

In the Irvine case, Monteilh’s mission as an informant backfired. Muslims were so alarmed by his talk of violent jihad that they obtained a restraining order against him.

So far, so good. The lede provides compelling, precise details (the reference to “some Muslims” notwithstanding). The dramatic opening scene sets the stage for the main thesis: that FBI tactics have hurt relations with Muslims and hampered the nation’s fight against terrorism.

After reporting more specific details on the Monteilh case, the Post raises the stakes:

Some Muslims in Southern California and nationally say the cascading revelations have seriously damaged their relationship with the FBI, a partnership that both sides agree is critical to preventing attacks and homegrown terrorism.

Citing Monteilh’s actions and what they call a pattern of FBI surveillance, many leading national Muslim organizations have virtually suspended contact with the bureau.

“The community feels betrayed,” said Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Islamic Shura Council of Southern California, an umbrella group of more than 75 mosques.

“They got a guy, a bona fide criminal, and obviously trained him and sent him to infiltrate mosques,” Syed said. “And when things went sour, they ditched him and he got mad. It’s like a soap opera, for God’s sake.”

So far, so good.

Still.

Now, all the Post needs to do is back up the facts that it just reported.

Oops.

As best I can tell, the story quotes Syed and one other Muslim — a student from the Los Angeles mosque — who say Muslims’ relationship with the FBI has been hurt. I guess two qualifies as some Muslims. However, the paper refers — without attribution — to damaged relationships in Southern California and nationally. Where are the national sources?

Meanwhile, many leading national Muslim organizations have virtually suspended contact with the bureau.

Who are these many leading national Muslim organizations? I read the story three times, and I found mention of exactly zero national Muslim organizations. If many leading national Muslim organizations have virtually suspended contact, shouldn’t the story identify them?

And since we’re in the business of nitpicking here at GetReligion, what exactly does virtually suspended contact mean? Does that mean you only call the FBI three times a year instead of 20? Seriously, what does it mean?

So far, so good.

Nah, take that back. So far, too good.

The Post overreached and failed to deliver the promised goods.

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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.

  • http://www.redletterbelievers.com David Rupert

    There are a lot of “virtual Muslims” out there.

    They are the ‘moderates’ who we hear about, but never stand up to the microphone.

    They are the ‘majority’ who are embarrassed by terrorism.

    They are the ‘educated’ that are grateful to America

    Time to be counted?
    David, http://www.RedletterBelievers.com, “Salt and Light”

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Some stories play up the aid that Muslims have given to the FBI in fighting terrorism. The Portland Christmas tree bomber wanna-be, for instance, was tipped off to the FBI by Muslims, reportedly. And so was the DC-area Metro bomber wanna-be. Four local boys who went to Pakistan, I think it was, were also tipped off by Muslims. In some of these cases, I think it was even by family members.

    I’m sure it’s true that some Muslims are turned off by the FBI methods such as the ones described here — but this story is probably much more complicated than the rather binary approach we seem to read about — either that Muslims are working hand-in-glove w/ the FBI when it comes to combating terror or that the FBI is angering everyone.

    Seems better to just lay out the facts and data and go with what they tell you than attempt to construct a dramatic narrative that can’t be substantiated.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Seems better to just lay out the facts and data and go with what they tell you than attempt to construct a dramatic narrative that can’t be substantiated.

    Exactly. And have I mentioned how happy I am that the blockquote button is back and I don’t have to Google for html codes?

  • Jon in the Nati

    I came across this on Slate.com recently, discussing the FBI’s infiltration of mosques. Frankly, both the infiltrators tactics and the results they have produced are more than a little troubling. It is a good read.

  • Jerry

    trying again – my last comment was eaten by the wordpress software :-(

    all the Post needs to do is back up the facts that it just reported

    That’s an interesting question and problem. At one extreme we have fully documented facts in an encyclopedia or scientific paper. At the other extreme we have many blogs and bloviators on cable news outlets. News reports are obviously in the middle but I’m not quite sure where the line should be drawn in how much documentation is required. I do agree with you that, in this case, more was needed and could have been easily added. But I do wonder about the general case – how does a reporter know when more is needed?

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Jerry, in general, a newspaper story needs attribution. If a newspaper says that “many leading Muslim national organizations have virtually suspended contact with the bureau,” it needs to provide the source of that information. Who told the newspaper that? What does the newspaper base that “fact” on? If a Muslim advocate is the source, I weigh that information one way. If the FBI is the source, then I weigh it a different way. If there is no source, then I have no idea whether to believe it or not, especially when the newspaper provides absolutely no information to back up such a claim.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    Apparently several Muslim groups–ISNA, MPAC, the MSA and a group called the “Freedom and Justice Foundation” met with the FBI last year to complain about mosque infiltration and to ask the FBI to re-establish ties with CAIR.

    Don’t know if they cut off ties after that. Would have helped if the Post gave more details.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    Seems like the Post story delivered what the nut graph promised:
    “Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, the FBI has used informants successfully as one of many tactics to prevent another strike in the United States. Agency officials say they are careful not to violate civil liberties and do not target Muslims.

    But the FBI’s approach has come under fire from some Muslims,Âcriticism that surfaced again late last month after agents arrested an Oregon man they said tried to detonate a bomb at a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony. FBI technicians had supplied the device.”

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Seems like the Post story delivered what the nut graph promised:

    Yes, that’s why the post doesn’t take issue with that aspect of the story. It’s when the Post overreaches and states “facts” without attribution or evidence to back them up that there’s a problem.

    Bob, appreciate the background from the meeting last year. It would have been helpful in the story, as you pointed out. I’m still curious as to exactly how many “leading national Muslim organizations” there are and how many of that number it would take to reach the “many” cited in the story.


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