Why isn’t ‘Muslim’ fit to print?

The New York Times filed this report on the arrest of two men in Seattle:

Federal law enforcement officials have arrested two men who they say planned to attack a military processing center here using machine guns and grenades.

The men — Abu Khalid Abdul-Latif, also known as Joseph A. Davis, 33, of Seattle, and Walli Mujahidh, also known as Frederick Domingue Jr., 32, of Los Angeles — were arrested late Wednesday and charged with conspiracy to murder federal officers and employees, conspiracy to use weapons of mass destruction and several firearms-related charges.

The article is accompanied by a mugshot of Abdul-Latif/Davis who has a rather distinctive and heavy beard. Oddly, what follows is about as close as the Times report gets to describing the motivations of the two men:

The 38-page criminal complaint filed against the two suggested that they had not made final plans to carry out the alleged plot. They were frustrated, it said, by American war policies and discussed how to make an attack last as long as possible in order to get the most media attention for their actions.

The Times report even goes on to include a lengthy reference to the incident last November where Somali-American teenager Mohamed Osman Mohamud was arrested for allegedly trying to detonate a bomb at a Christmas tree lighting in Portland, Oregon. Both of these incidents have heavy Muslim terrorism overtones, yet the New York Times makes no references to religion at all in the story. Why?

By contrast, the Seattle Times mentioned which mosque the suspect belonged to and added:

A radical Muslim, Abdul-Latif said he admired Osama bin Laden and was upset about alleged atrocities committed by U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, according to a federal complaint.

“In his view, murdering American soldiers was justifiable,” the complaint stated. “He wanted to die as a martyr in the attack.”

The Seattle Times also notes that Abdul-Latif had twice tried to kill himself, had a history of “hearing voices” and was currently under economic duress. Certainly, all of that should be taken into account when considering his motivation. It seems these factors could be as much or more to blame for motivating his alleged crime as his religion. And we do learn more about those religious views. We get specific quotes about his thoughts on killing non-Muslims and details about his conversion nine years ago. We learn about his search for a second wife, even. It makes the other reports that shied away from mentioning his religion altogether, let alone his admiration for Bin Laden, mystifying.

The New York Times actually has to make an effort not to include such a glaringly relevant detail, and their approach ends up making the story almost confusing. Frustrated by “American war policies”? So were these men anti-war activists or something? What possible reason could The New York Times have for omitting this information?

Some reports were so lacking in key details that it upset editors. Check out this editor’s note appended to an Associated Press report:

Editor’s Note: Nowhere in the original copy of this story does it mention these two suspects are Muslim. In the interest of full disclosure, I feel it is only fair to you — the reader — to know these suspects are followers of radical Islam. (Chace Murphy)

This is an interesting example of how local and national media tell stories so differently.

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  • Bram

    Perhaps The New York Times is privy to inside information that the two men here have been observed to shout “Allahu Akbar” in the past — which would prove conclusively that they are not Muslim, as opposed to merely mentally-ill, like the shooter at Fort Hood.

  • Harold

    What makes someone a “radical Muslim” according to the Seattle Times? That’s the more glaring descriptor to me. I can understand why conservative talk radio, like the last link, would toss that term around. Even the Weekly Standard. But why is a mainstream paper like the Seattle Times using such a term?

    I’m not sure why it is surprising why that the local paper would have more details. The NYT was reporting on the complaint filed in court, which likely didn’t include details about the suspects’ religion. And while a suspicious beard or funny name may qualify as someone being Muslim in many corners, that shouldn’t be enough for the press.

  • Robyn Daly

    Does anyone remember that the Oklahoma City bomber and the Unabomber were Christians? That MOST US terrorists have been Christians?

  • Norman

    Harold, the court complaint itself made clear that Abdul-Latif was a Muslim who thought highly of Bin Laden, as the Seattle Times report makes clear:

    A radical Muslim, Abdul-Latif said he admired Osama bin Laden and was upset about alleged atrocities committed by U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, according to a federal complaint.

    Suspect’s troubled past: rap sheet, hallucinations

    Robyn, what definition of Christian are you using for Kaczynski and McVeigh, 1)Caucasian or 2)followers of the Christian religion?

  • peter

    actually the oklahoma city bomber was a self-described agnostic (http://www.cnn.com/COMMUNITY/transcripts/2001/04/04/michelherbeck/)

  • Bob Smietana

    Not surprised that the Seattle Times story was better.
    This is a big story happening on their home turf – and it seems that editors there put a lot of staff resources on the story. Looks like 6 people worked on – 2 reporters got bylines, two more reporters and two researchers got contribution credit.
    (Being on the West Coast, they had a later deadline than the NY Times.)

    The journalism lesson appears to be this– more reporters equals a better story.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Timothy McVeigh told anyone who would listen that he was an agnostic. “Science is my religion” he said in the 2001 book “American Terrorist.” And the day before he was executed McVeigh wrote a letter to the Buffalo News affirming that he was an agnostic.
    And if you read any of the biographies about him, the Unabombers “religion” clearly is Environmental Radicalism.
    According to some articles I read the canards about these two American terrorists being “Christian” is the equivalent of an urban legend and has been spread by Christian haters.
    Nowhere did I see a claim by either of these terrorists that God, or Christ, or the Christian religion was what motivated them. Virtually every comment attributed to them can only be classified as political
    This is a long way from all the terrorism around the world where Moslems brag about their actions being motivated by Allah and the Moslem religion. Thus making it very relevant to have news stories give all the honest facts about suspects who are radical Moslems.

  • Jerry

    Bob, I think your point about more effort put in a story typically means a better result. But the NY Times too often treats the word “religion as, to steal from Harry Potter, the word that “must not be named.”

  • Tom

    Was this a big story because the arrested are Muslim? Its can’t be just because they were allegedly terrorists – there’s a massive manhunt going on right now in Montana for an American terrorist but it doesn’t make news beyond the local press. There was a whole terrorist militia arrested in Alaska earlier this Spring for threatening federal judges – again little national news coverage if any. But now there is an arrest like the two guys in Seattle and they happen to be Muslim, its suddenly big time national news. Sure the media is selective in the terrorist stories they cover and yes, it could be because of religion or even skin color. I think the media hypes what they perceive as religious fanaticism as a means to inflame national passions to reach the limelight. Unfortunately we aren’t getting the ‘rest of the story’ as Paul Harvey would say.

  • bob

    The Seattle Times did publish this photo of the wife of the fellow…….

    No one would ever suspect any particular religion; Presbyterian and Methodist women dress this way in King County all the time. Nothin’ to see here, move along….

  • Bram

    The existence of people like Robyn Daly — people confidently spouting all manner of ignorant rubbish — are an indicator (as if we needed one) of just how bad a job the media do in informing the public in an adequate way where many matters of importance are concerned.

    PS: Like Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber, Jim Jones also was not a Christian, but rather an atheist — another common misperception, abetted perhaps by our all-too-often rubbishy press.

  • Bram

    I wonder if Robyn Daly thinks the President’s friend Bill Ayers is a Christian too?

  • Bram

    As her photo makes abundantly clear, the suspect’s wife is one of those Southern Baptist fundie sumbitches we hear so much about in the MSM … and probably a “tea-bagger” too.

  • Daniel

    A Social Democratic friend of mine, Noah by name, says that he dislikes an American tendency for Christian conservative commentators to characterize Muslims as evil. My own political preferences are libertarian and constitutional. I wish it were easier to nuance radical Muslim would-be terrorists as tending toward being bad guys, and would-be Christian good citizens as good guys. These sympathies seem to have traction in American journalism, and convenient omissions of such details may reflect these biases, though I am not pretending to know what is in another writer’s mind. I like the label radical Muslim, or radical Christian, better than the fundamentalist Muslim label. Newspapers tend to communicate in shorthand, but let’s communicate in ways that reveal intent rather than obscure intent. The term radical should be seen in contradistinction to terms like moderate Muslim, or moderate Christian, which for some reason seem to be seldom used. The search goes on for adjectives that clarify rather than conceal.

  • Bram


    How about militant Muslim? What’s salient is that these are self-identified Muslims who commit or intend to commit violence in the name of or on the basis of their understanding of Islam. In a pluralistic society, there’s nothing wrong with being radically or fundamentally Muslim per se. The problem is when you are *militantly, violently* Muslim, or militantly, violently anything else — for example, militantly, violently green, as in the case of the Unabomber, militantly, violently spiritual-but-not-religious, as in the case of the atheist guru Jim Jones, or militantly, violently leftist, as in the case of the President’s friend, the terrorist Bill Ayers.

  • Mark Baddeley

    I also query how ‘radical Muslim’ in the article got under the radar of GetReligion. If we’re going to query ‘fundamentalist’ and ‘devout’ what content does ‘radical’ have?

    While Bram’s comment at #15 has a somewhat gratuitous snipe at Obama in it, I think his point about ‘militant Mulslim’ may have something going for it.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Ditto. “Followers of radical Islam” suggests that “radical Islam” is a specific “denomination”. Are they Wahabis? Salafis? Or members of a particular mosque which is in turn labeled as “radical”?

  • Allie

    On the other hand we have Congresswoman Shelia Jackson going out of her way to try and label Christian terrorists who are an equal in threat to America as Islam poses.

    The media, including the NYT covers this, and exercises little caution in actually finding out if there is any merit to her claims before publishing them.

    I get a funny mental picture of an editor salivating at publishing this story if the guy’s names were “Ralph and Bob,” who attended a Baptist church in the neighborhood.

  • John

    As my Muslim friend like to point out, the rational to kill in the name of any of the world’s major faiths is always espoused by the lunatic fringe of that faith. As a Christian, I find it abhorant when a fellow Christian promotes killing in the name of our faith as exampled by the murder of abortion providers. My friend is horrified by the murders of Coptic Christians by Egyptian Muslims. Religion is used as an excuse by mentally unstable leaders and followers to excuse their prejudice and by lazy journalists to spice up poor writing skills. Look no farther than Jared Loughner as a prime example.

  • Bram


    I don’t get your point about Loughner there at the end. Loughner — like Lee Harvey Oswald, Bill Ayers, Bernadine Dohrn, Charles Manson, Ted Kaczynski, Jim Jones, Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold et al — was not religious, but rather a secular or atheist left-wing ideologue. Perhaps what we ought to be discussing more is the lunatic fringe or rather the militant, violent fringe of the left-wing world. Given the record of militant violence associated with the names I cite above, you’d think that what the press would be doing would be warning us to make distinctions — which, of course, we ought to make — between decent and peaceful leftists and the militant, violent fringe of their ideological world.

  • Bram


    That our discourse has become so circumscribed and chilled where certain matters are concerned that merely to acknowledge that the President is friends with a terrorist is taken as a “swipe” and not a simple fact is exactly, precisely why that fact and others like it ought to be acknowledged again and again. Our ability to speak — to speak truth to power — is endangered otherwise.

  • Daniel

    I like militant Muslim. But it does not speak to theology. Radical Muslim does. Naming the particular branch is preferrable. Hopefully papers will start naming the particular branch.

  • Mark Baddeley


    This is going off-topic, but I have no problems with the fact being said, and said publicly. I think the relationship between Ayers and the President was entirely extraneous to this post, and your point, hence my description of it. The point could have been made just as easily without any reference to the President. If you had instead picked someone who you ideologically agreed with, and highlighted their relationship with someone problematic, then that would have more clearly functioned as a ‘worked example’ of your argument, rather than using your argument to make another point against another target.