So is he Muslim or not? (UPDATED)

Last week, I woke up to news reports that someone was taken into custody near the Pentagon after a suspicious device was found in his car. Three major thoroughfares were shut down as police investigated. The initial reports included plenty of errors. For instance, no suspicious device was found in a car! Reports that others fled the scene also washed out. The device that “looks like a bomb”? Who knows. The “controlled explosion” they were going to do with the car? It didn’t happen.

Early reporting is difficult to do and all of the “officials” spouting nonsense don’t help.

Anyway, since I live not far from the Pentagon, I followed the changing reports throughout the day and the week that followed. Yonathan Melaku, an immigrant from Ethiopia, was the man taken into custody.

There are quite a few Ethiopian immigrants in this area (and we have the best Ethiopian food in the country, in case you’re wondering) and most of them are Christian. Most of the Christians are Ethiopian Orthodox although you’ll also find other Christians in the mix. My Lutheran congregation includes some Ethiopians. So I was intrigued to find out more about his religious views. The name — Yonathan — certainly sounded Christian but I wanted to learn more.

And that’s been a problem. What is is his religion?

We did learn that a notebook with words such as “al-Qaeda,” “Taliban,” and “mujahideen” was found in the car but “officials” downplayed the significance. The picture of Melaku showed him wearing a slight beard. I don’t know if that comes into play or not.

We were told, by a nameless official in the Washington Post that this might all be “mental health” as opposed to terrorism:

“This looks like a whole big bunch of nothing,” said the official, who added that “the general consensus is that it might be some type of mental issue with the guy.”

I wondered the same thing on account of how Melaku had been arrested the month prior for breaking into a bunch of cars out in Loudon County. Not the savviest criminal mastermind.

But yesterday, the news reported that the feds believe Melaku is responsible for a string of attacks on military institutions last year. Here’s the Associated Press:

A Marine reservist who was detained during a security scare near the Pentagon last week has been linked to the shootings last year at the Marine Corps museum in Quantico and several D.C.-area military recruitment stations, officials said Wednesday.

And I really am curious what’s going on here and whether Melaku’s religion played a role. There are a few stories from days ago that either claim he’s Muslim or suggest he’s Muslim. This International Business Times report, for instance, includes this line:

Even as police are investigating if a 22-year-old military man arrested near the Pentagon in suspicious circumstances belonged to any jihadi network or was acting alone, the focus has turned to the old debate of Muslim personnel’s role in the US military.

This Fox News report from right after the initial arrest said:

Melaku, a Marine Corps reservist lance corporal who is Muslim, remains in the custody of the United States Park Police.

But the report didn’t say how they knew he is Muslim. How did Fox News get this information and if it’s true, why isn’t anyone else reporting on his religion?

I am not trying to be pedantic. I mean, I get that he had the al Qaeda stuff and that it would be highly irregular to find such material on someone who is not Muslim. But that name just sounds so Christian, doesn’t it? Either he is a Muslim terrorist, and we should be getting much, much, much more information about that. Or he isn’t what we’d call a “Muslim terrorist.” By that I mean he either isn’t Muslim or isn’t motivated as a terrorist so much as mental health issues.

Why aren’t reporters more curious about this? I did a search of CNN, ABC, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, NBC, CBS and FOX News sites for “Yonathan Melaku Muslim.” Only Fox showed any hits. I did the same search for “Yonathan Melaku Christian” and I got no hits.

Now, this guy isn’t some total mystery. He’s a local man, with a record, and an address. He’s a lance corporal in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. I mean, there must be tons of people who could give some insight into his motivations or mental health or what not. So I’m a bit disappointed with the outlets above for failing to probe the religion issue and for Fox for not explaining how they “learned” he was Muslim.

UPDATE: The Washington Post has an update about Melaku today. We still don’t learn if he’s Muslim but we do get this tidbit:

A 22-year-old Alexandria man has been charged with shooting at military buildings in the D.C. region last fall, and federal officials said in court papers that he videotaped himself shouting “Allah Akbar” after he fired shots at the U.S. Marine Corps museum in October.

He shouted what?

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  • Bram

    There seems to be a two-part pattern in how the MSM covers violent acts or acts with a violent intent: (1) If Islam is in any way a possible motive, the MSM refuses to acknowledge that fact; but (2) If political conservatism or Christianity are clearly not motives, the MSM will claim that they are, or at least imply it in a very strong way. Historians will look back in wonder at media coverage of the ten years since the 9/11 attacks, during which, according to the MSM, the U.S. has been under constant threat not from Muslim extremists, but rather from Christian “fundamentalists” (i.e. “sumbitches”) and political conservatives.

  • PeterK

    FNC’s reluctance in explaining how they learned the suspect is Muslim may be because they think such an explanation would end up revealing their source

    I agree with Bram in that there is a general reluctance on the part of the MSM to identify a suspect as being Muslim, just as they are reluctant to challenge reports or studies that claim there is a rise in right-wing Christian fundamentalist groups.

  • Chris Jones

    But that name just sounds so Christian, doesn’t it?

    Not so much. It’s an Old Testament name, and it is fairly common for Muslims to use OT names: Ismail (Ishmael), Ibrahim (Abraham), Suleiman (Solomon), Yusuf (Joseph), and so forth. In that context it would not be at all surprising for a Muslim to be named “Jonathan.”

    The majority of Ethiopians are Ethiopian Orthodox Christians, so he very well may be one of them; but the name by itself tells us little.

  • Bram

    When Ethiopian Orthodox Christians Attack: Film at 11:00 …

  • Harold

    Journalists and newsrooms face a dilemma in a story like this. On one side, you have the conservative chattering classes and pundits alleging bias the moment there’s a whiff that a suspect is Muslim and it isn’t being reported. On the other hand, journalists and editors have to ask the news question: is his faith relevant? At this point–until he faces charges–whether he is Muslim doesn’t seem all that relevant without something more. If he’d been white and had papers in his backpack listing Operation Rescue and Westboro Baptist, it still wouldn’t be relevant without more.

    The question isn’t whether the press would have handled it different under my scenario, but whether the judgment to begin with is journalistically sound.

  • Yoyo

    @Chris Jones
    surly i can confirm u his name Yonathan is not a Muslim name ….even if he change his religion he also have to change his name because any Muslim can not be called by Yonathan name in Ethiopia.

  • Bram

    Harold is absolutely right. If the suspect here had been white and if he had had papers in his backpack linking him to Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church, you would have had an equally hard time — nay, an even more difficult time — finding any acknowledgement of that rather interesting fact anywhere in the MSM. And purely due to the journalistic rigor of the MSM — as evidenced, for example, by its stellar coverage of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting case and Sarah Palin’s central role therein.

  • Chris Jones

    Thanks, Yoyo. I stand corrected.

  • Marqos T’imotewos

    As Yoyo said, Ethiopian Muslims would not be called Yonatan (“Yonathan” in the report) – it is a name used by Orthodox Christians and the various Protestants. His father’s name (Melaku) is also a Christian name. If this man had converted to Islam, then he would have changed his first name – converts from Orthodoxy to Islam are expected to take a Muslim name just as converts from Islam to Orthodoxy are expected to take a Christian name.

  • Mollie

    Thanks for the clarification on the names. Someone else pointed out the possibility that his legal name does not reflect his religious status.

  • Jerry

    Yonathan — certainly sounded Christian

    For what it’s worth, the son of a Jewish friend of mine who emigrated from Israel is Yonatan, not quite the same spelling but pretty close.

    It looks to me right now that the right wing media just assumed he was a Muslim terrorist linked to al Quaeda and went with that assumption.

    And what’s with this notebook and those words. If someone visited this site, they’d find those words as well in places so what does that prove?

    I’m also still mystified by the whole story and want the Journalism 101 questions answered.

  • C. Wingate

    This early in the game I would treat an unsourced claim from a single news source as not only unproven but probably false until demonstrated otherwise, and not just because it involves religion. If it is accurate it will eventually be sourced to someone who knows him, particularly to a particular place he worships. Fox really has no excuse for making this kind of allegation.

  • carl


    If he’d been white and had papers in his backpack listing Operation Rescue and Westboro Baptist, it still wouldn’t be relevant without more.

    Don’t deceive yourself. It would have been in the lede. Heck, it would have been screamed in the headline. “Christian Fundamentalist Attacks Pentagon!” Complete with quotes from the leaders of select groups talking darkly about the emergence of an “American Taliban.”


  • Mollie

    Well, I just want FOX to say how it knows he’s Muslim. I am not suggesting in any way that they made it up. Just that they should source it.

    And while almost all of the early details on this Pentagon incident panned out, the “al Qaeda” notes did.

    And he has been charged with a string of shootings in the area.

  • Bram

    Correction, Carl.

    The headline would be:

    Pressure Mounts On Palin After Stupid Homophobic Christian Sumbitch Attacks Pentagon

  • Elijah

    “the right wing media just assumed he was a Muslim”?! Yeah, those papers referencing al-Qaeda, the Taliba, and mujahideen are just a coincidence, I’m sure. As is the fact that he is charged with shooting at several gov’t and/or military facilities in the area. The media – right wing or not, I’m not even going to touch that asininity – SHOULD bloody well assume he’s a Muslim in this case, since it’s based on pretty darn good circumstantial evidence!

  • Elijah

    And if I may be pardoned for saying so, if this gork had been caught with papers referencing Westboro and Operation Rescue you can bet your boots it’d be splashed all over the MSM as a surge of Christian terrorism. Good heavens, just look at the coverage given to Crackpot A (Harold Camping) and Carckpot B (Terry Jones)! Come on, folks, there is no editor on earth who wouldn’t jump at the chance to print that!

  • Bram


    In your scenario, Lisa Miller would already be hard at work on next week’s Newsweek cover story.

    The immanent threat of “Christianism” — Christian “fascism” and Christian “theocracy” — is the next big thing for the MSM.

    And it always will be.

  • Sandy

    What about this story? Why haven’t we heard about this one too?

    Two Muslim men charged with plotting to attack a military recruitment station in Seattle.

  • Bram

    Mollie, Mollie, Mollie, Mollie, Mollie. Haven’t you learned, dear lady, the lesson of Fort Hood? The lesson that the words “Allah Akbar” have nothing whatsoever to do with Islam, but are merely words shouted, entirely at random, by the mentally-ill?

  • mattk

    Sandy, I didn’t hear about it because my local NPR outlet was busy telling me about CAIR’s report on “islamophobia”, and suggesting fear of Islam is irrational.

  • Yonatan T. Michael

    First, as an Ethiopian-American, I really appreciate Mollie for her balanced and curious perspective. Based on his name (both first and last), I can assure you that he was born either as a christian or Jewish. But of course, he grew up in this country so it is absolutely possible that he might have converted to the Muslim religion. But it is very important to find out as to determine his exact motives. It is also likely that he is mentally troubled. But I hope this case will not affect people’s view of the overall Ethiopian population in the states. The vast majority of Ethiopians in this country are hard working, law abiding, tax-paying, good neighbors and citizens. Thank you, Mollie, for your openness.


  • Ann Rodgers

    Context is everything. It’s important to avoid speculating about people’s motives when we don’t have facts.
    Back during the Satanist scares of the 1980s I remember reading some hot-selling book that found Satanic references in letters that, to me, merely appeared to reference the Book of Revelation as any evangelical might do.
    Anyone remember the devout Christian paranoid schizophrenic in Texas who drowned her young children because she believed she was saving them from hell? Did she really do that because she was a Christian?????
    Theoretically, he could have been a hypervigilant anti-terrorist who (crazily) believed he was a guardian of the Pentagon. He could be a mentally ill person whose obsessions have turned to terrorism in the name of Islam. Or he could just be a totally inept terrorist who thought it was his call from Allah. The facts aren’t yet clear.

  • Ryan K.

    At this point the unwillingness to just say “Muslim” is getting ridiculous.

    I feel like I am living in a Harry Potter book and no one will say Voldemort.

  • Jonathan

    As far as I can tell, federal officials are not confident that they understand his motives or his beliefs. (That is assuming he is guilty, which we’re not supposed to do, but essentially have to do for the purposes of this discussion.) They do not want to complicate or jeopardize the eventual case against him by speaking prematurely. That is not a matter of political correctness; it’s a matter of responsible prosecutorial conduct.

    That is what FBI agent James McJunkin indicated to Fox News, anyway: “But asked at Thursday’s press conference about Melaku’s religious convictions, McJunkin said, ‘Those facts and individual characteristics of the defendant are not yet readily apparent to us.’”

    As damning as it sounds, shouting “Allahu Akhbar” while shooting at a vacant building is not proof that a man is either a terrorist (i.e., someone who is violent for political reasons) or a Muslim. If he is motivated by a personal vendetta against the US military, as FBI agents apparently assumed before the arrest, he might identify with the military’s Muslim enemies even if he is not a Muslim. It is possible that he intended the chant as an ironic gesture; we know very little about the context of any of the statements attributed to him so far. It is also possible that he converted to Islam, but only after developing a grudge against the US military, or after a severe mental illness developed.

    Perhaps members of the media are failing to ask pertinent questions of people who have answers. Perhaps they have failed, for example, to try to find out what the US Marine Corps knows about this man and his religious beliefs. It seems unlikely. Even the people at Fox News, who have been calling Melaku a Muslim since June 17, don’t seem to have explained why they thought he was a Muslim that early. (As far as I’ve seen, Fox has been using strange indirect formulations like “is said to be a Muslim” — expressions intended to obscure sources rather than reveal them.) The fact is that we have heard very little about this man as an individual. This probably isn’t a conspiracy of political correctness.

  • Mollie

    What surprises me about the lack of information we’ve gotten in this particular case is that there are so many local papers and media outlets based out of DC. I mean, it’s not like they have to go to Ethiopia to investigate the dude. There should be plenty of people nearby who can tell us what they do or don’t know. Just kind of weird.

  • Elijah

    Jonathan, that analysis is a bit tortured. You may possibly be right, but the chances of someone yelling “Allahu Akbar” because they might possibly ‘identify’ with Muslims are slim, to say the least. It is infinitely more probably that he is a Muslim. Terrorist – we don’t know. Nut job? Maybe. Muslim? Almost certainly, based on the evidence that we have.

    What Ryan K said.

  • Jonathan

    I understand your skepticism, Elijah, but this sort of situation can be complicated. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold chose Hitler’s birthday as the date of their rampage at Columbine High School in 1999, and they may have been influenced by the writings of neo-Nazi Bill White. That doesn’t mean they were neo-Nazis.

  • Bram

    It’s a little known historical fact that the madness of King George III consisted in part of a propensity to shout “Allah Akbar” at random times. Now, the fact is little known, because the fact isn’t relevant at all, seeing as how shouting “Allah Akbar” has nothing whatsoever to do with Islam, or, for that matter, with anything else. Which is why it shocks me … *shocks* me … to see that shout of “Allah Akbar” reported here as “news”. News *schmews.” A more relevant fact would be knowing which the suspect here wore, boxers or briefs. I’m still betting there will be a tea party connection at the end of the day.

  • Allie

    In all seriousness Jonathan, have you heard of anyone committing any crimes in the last decade and yelling, “Allah Akbar” and them not being affiliated with Islam?

    I am not saying he is part of a sleeper cell, or the next coming of Bin Laden, but I think we have enough historical evidence at this point to assume someone yelling “Allah Akbar” is into Islam.

    The next time will be the first time, we hear of someone yelling “Allah Akbar” while committing crimes and not being into Islam.

  • Jonathan

    The fundamental problem here may be that I’m uncomfortable with the idea that it’s the media’s job to pass along assumptions. People are going to assume a lot of things about this man; many of them will be right. I’d much rather be told what he allegedly shouted, and perhaps be shown the reasoning process of people who are actually familiar with the situation in some way, than be told what I should be assuming on the basis of fragmentary information.

    And the reprehensible behavior of certain media figures in regard to, e.g., the Tuscon shootings, does not relieve any journalist of her professional ethical obligations in this case.

  • Mollie


    I agree — but it’s not like this guy was arrested two hours ago. It’s been well over a week. He lives in my city of Alexandria, Va., not overseas. He’s an American. In the military.

    There’s no need to jump to any conclusions, I agree.

    But how about just, you know, interviewing some neighbors, family members or colleagues?

    This is just a bizarre wall of silence on the matter.

  • Dan Arnold

    Mollie, I too thought that his name pointed away from being a Muslim and it sounds like that is indeed true. However, there are other questions I have about the circumstantial evidence. For instance, did he really say “Allah Akbar” or did he say “Allahu Akbar”? Someone familiar with Islam and Arabic should recognize that the normal cry, “God is Great,” would be “Allahu Akbar” whereas someone not familiar with Arabic probably wouldn’t know the difference. Inquiring minds need to know what was actually said, if anything.

    Secondly, what is the nature of the writings about the Taliban, al Qaeda and mujahideen? This is a very important question. If the FBI were to raid my home, they would find a Qur’an, several books about its early development, other early Islamic writtings and even a book on the Taliban and al Qaeda (the one by the late Syed Saleem Shahzad mentioned here on this blog a few weeks ago). Does that make me Muslim? Or does it mean I am preparing for possible graduate work on the development and influences of Qur’anic theology?

    See, we need more context, as you note, but we don’t seem to be getting it.

  • Yoyo

    Mollie, after these publish did u got any new information about his religion from government officials or reliable sources ?

  • C. Wingate

    I happened to come across the <a href=""Friday Wash. Post article while cleaning up, and in the continuation they specifically state:

    Law enforcement sources said that it was unclear what religion Melaku follows and that they were investigating that aspect of his life; leaders at the mosques near his home said they did not know Melaku or his family.

    So the obvious reason for the obscurity is that, well, the matter is obscure.