Where’s the grass-roots reporting?

A front-page story in Sunday’s New York Times featured this main headline and subhead:

Behind an Anti-Shariah Push

Orchestrating a Seemingly Grass-Roots Campaign

The 2,800-word report on “The Man Behind the Anti-Shariah Movement” carried a Nashville dateline, but Rick Bragg could have provided more actual details from the Volunteer State from the comfort of his hotel room. 

The top of the story:

NASHVILLE – Tennessee’s latest woes include high unemployment, continuing foreclosures and a battle over collective-bargaining rights for teachers. But when a Republican representative took the Statehouse floor during a recent hearing, he warned of a new threat to his constituents’ way of life: Islamic law.

The representative, a former fighter pilot named Rick Womick, said he had been studying the Koran. He declared that Shariah, the Islamic code that guides Muslim beliefs and actions, is not just an expression of faith but a political and legal system that seeks world domination. “Folks,” Mr. Womick, 53, said with a sudden pause, “this is not what I call ‘Do unto others what you’d have them do unto you.’ ”

Similar warnings are being issued across the country as Republican presidential candidates, elected officials and activists mobilize against what they describe as the menace of Islamic law in the United States.

Now, right off the bat, the Times seems intent on making Womick sound like a complete idiot. With his state facing real economic and educational concerns, he’s wasting time voicing concerns about Shariah. Amazing.

What does Womick have to say about his lack of concern for the truly important issues of the day? Well, that’s a potentially good question. But the above opening section of the story represents the entirety of Womick’s cameo appearance (playing the role of modern-day moron).

Good news for Womick, though: He’s not the main villain in this story. That, um, honor belongs to someone else. To wit:

A confluence of factors has fueled the anti-Shariah movement, most notably the controversy over the proposed Islamic center near ground zero in New York, concerns about homegrown terrorism and the rise of the Tea Party. But the campaign’s air of grass-roots spontaneity, which has been carefully promoted by advocates, shrouds its more deliberate origins.

In fact, it is the product of an orchestrated drive that began five years ago in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in the office of a little-known lawyer, David Yerushalmi, a 56-year-old Hasidic Jew with a history of controversial statements about race, immigration and Islam. Despite his lack of formal training in Islamic law, Mr. Yerushalmi has come to exercise a striking influence over American public discourse about Shariah.

Working with a cadre of conservative public-policy institutes and former military and intelligence officials, Mr. Yerushalmi has written privately financed reports, filed lawsuits against the government and drafted the model legislation that recently swept through the country — all with the effect of casting Shariah as one of the greatest threats to American freedom since the cold war.

Notice anything missing from the above summary of this report?

It could be that it’s entirely accurate and the facts are 100 percent correct. From a journalistic perspective, though, my problem is the lack of attribution. Actually, that’s my major problem with the entire story: So much is reported as fact without — in my view — adequate sourcing and attribution.

Keep reading, and the Times uses a blanket approach and broad statements to tie Yerushalmi to the laws that have passed in Tennessee, Oklahoma and Arizona, but there’s no specific evidence presented of his involvement in those states. No state officials who supported anti-Shariah measures are asked:

* Have you ever heard of David Yerushalmi or talked to him?

* Are you aware that he has made controversial statements about race, immigration and Islam? By supporting the anti-Shariah measure in your state, did you, in fact, endorse such statements?

* Did the measure in your state result from grass-roots concerns or an orchestrated effort?

The story does manage to make a sweeping Norway reference:

The more tangible effect of the movement, opponents say, is the spread of an alarmist message about Islam — the same kind of rhetoric that appears to have influenced Anders Behring Breivik, the suspect in the deadly dual attacks in Norway on July 22. The anti-Shariah campaign, they say, appears to be an end in itself, aimed at keeping Muslims on the margins of American life.

This is one of those stories where you wonder if a piece about apples and oranges has been combined into a really weird-tasting fruit concoction. Is it a story about one crazy man’s influence? Or is it a story about whether anti-Shariah state laws are good or bad? Or is it both? If it is both, is it really possible for a single story to tackle both questions in a satisfactory way?

Maybe I’m being overly critical.

Read the full story and weigh in. If you decide to comment, remember that GetReligion is a journalism site and not a place for advocates on either side to argue the issues. In other words, let’s stay focused on the media coverage questions. Please.

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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.ecben.net Will

    A Hasidic Jew has no formal training in Islamic law? Amazing.

    I also look for more identification of who these “opponents” are. The one quoted is from an explicitly Muslim organization…. Are there no others among “they”?

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    For the record, I’m quite suspicious of the anti-Shariah movement. However, I found Elliott’s article very odd and one-sided, considering the NYT’s world coverage. If you search for “Shariah” on their site, you get two types of articles: US political analysis/opinion criticizing the anti-Shariah movement…and world beat journalism about horrific violence and pro-Shariah militants. Instead of softball questions about Islamic finance, couldn’t Elliott have asked one of the anti-anti-Shariah critics about quotes like this one from the Times’ Afghan office, about a teenage girl accusing of having sex with her boyfriend?

    Ms. Mohammedi’s uncle visited her in jail to say she had shamed the family, and promised that they would kill her once she was released. Her father, an illiterate laborer who works in Iran, sorrowfully concurred. He cried during two visits to the jail, saying almost nothing to his daughter. Blood, he said, was perhaps the only way out.

    “What we would ask is that the government should kill both of them,” said the father, Kher Mohammed.

    By the way, it’s good to note that, in this case, the local Afghan political council and police department appear to be protecting the teens from their families. Then there’s this, from the Times’ coverage of the fighting in Yemen:

    The militants in Zinjibar call themselves Ansar Shariah, or supporters of Islamic law. It was not clear how closely allied the militants are with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a group the United States holds to be a significant threat.

    So “Shariah law” isn’t just a fictional boogeyman invented by conservative activists.

    Also, I was very confused by the phrase “seemingly grass roots campaign.” Are there any grass-roots campaigns for any cause anywhere that AREN’T egged on by a small group of dedicated activists and organizers? Regardless of one’s opinion of Yerushalmi, it seems like he’s using exactly the kind of “soft power” that typically characterizes grass-roots movements.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Bent on world domination or not, Sharia is a political and legal system.

    The NYT often seems to promote a private approach to religion, keeping any expression of faith, and certainly any legislation attached (or attachable) to Christian faith, out of the public square. They don’t seem to realize that Sharia is just the opposite of a private religion.

    No, Bobby, I don’t think you are being overly critical.

  • Dave S

    I think the reporting that deserves some criticism here is yours. There does not seem to be any evidence that Mr Womick lacks concern for those issues of the day which, in your opinion, are truly important. Since this seems to be your basis for calling him an idiot, you might offer at least some support for your allegation.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Dave S,

    I’m not reporting. I’m voicing an opinion concerning the slant and tone of the article. You are free to disagree with my interpretation.

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/beliefbeat/ Nicole Neroulias

    I’d like to see more context on how Shariah law is, or is not, different from other religious legal systems: Catholic canon law, Jewish bet din, etc. There are plenty of examples — divorces, clergy abuse – where non-Muslim religious courts conflict with American laws.

    The NYT story alludes to this near the end of the story:
    “Mr. Yerushalmi’s legislation has drawn opposition from the American Civil Liberties Union as well as from Catholic bishops and Jewish groups. Mr. Yerushalmi said he did not believe that court cases involving Jewish or canon law would be affected by the statutes because they are unlikely to involve violations of constitutional rights.”

  • Daniel

    “I’d like to see more context on how Shariah law is, or is not, different from other religious legal systems: Catholic canon law, Jewish bet din, etc.”

    bet din or Catholic canon law has no or very little place in U.S. law. I would like to see an explanation, some place, of why Shariah should have a place. Places like the NYT don’t even seem to have the brains to see that there is an issue here to discuss. Ask the question and you are framed as an idiot.

    I am perfectly willing to admit that ombudsman courts make conscious room for rulings to enter in. But why does one cultural group, unconnected with statistics, or demographics, have preeminence over previously existing or more widely recognized other cultural groups? Is the question fair? Or is the question just ruled out because of the question’s unpopularity? Just asking.

  • Jerry

    Numbers are one thing. But theologically, I’d like to see a comparison between Sharia and Christian reconstructionism based on theonomy. They appear to be very similar from the perspective that government should implement God’s laws as given in the respective scriptures. But I’m assuming I’m missing some points and so I would love to see a magazine-length piece exploring this area.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    I agree in principle with #6 and 8: these comparisons would make interesting journalism, assuming honesty of the presentation.

    Catholic Canon Law, however, governs the internal life of the Catholic community and I don’t see it’s relevance. I’ll admit that I haven’t read the Code cover to cover (although it’s fairly brief), and can’t think of a point that contradicts U.S. law. The linked article on abuse in Delaware, specifically, makes reference to canon law on one point, and that a difference with the terms of a lawsuit, not the law.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    Jerry wrote:

    But theologically, I’d like to see a comparison between Sharia and Christian reconstructionism based on theonomy.

    I would love to see this, too, but only if the writer of that article would slow down and take the time to not only ask “What ARE these systems all about?” but also “How influential are they?” and “What are the internal differences between supporters?”

    I wonder, though, if an even better comparison would be between Shariah and English common law, or the legal systems of European countries with state churches. Shariah is a very old, very broad, very complex legal system with a long history of case law, so comparing it a system (Rushdoony’s Reconstructionism) that’s essentially the theoretical work of one man would be comparing apples and oranges.

  • Dave S

    Ok, fair enough, Bobby; you’re not a reporter. But you don’t offer any support for your interpretation. How do you know that Mr Womick has a, “lack of concern for the truly important issues of the day?” There’s no exhaustive list of Mr Womick concerns in the article. Do you assume that because he has voiced a concern about Sharia law that, for some reason, that renders him incapable of having any other concerns? I think you voice not so much your interpretation as your prejudice.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Dave S,

    I apologize that you apparently don’t understand my sarcasm. Your question of “How do you know … ?” is exactly the point. The Times puts him out there as one of the crazies who don’t understand why Shariah isn’t a real concern and then gives no more information about him or opportunity for him to defend himself.

    It sounds like you read me to say I think he’s an idiot. No, I don’t think that. I have no way of knowing that. But that’s how the story portrays him.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    I have edited the offending line so that hopefully it is clearer:

    Now, right off the bat, the Times seems intent on making Womick sound like a complete idiot.

  • Dave S

    Thank you. I think it is much clearer now. I apparently don’t do sarcasm very well.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    I apparently don’t do sarcasm very well.

    Apparently, I don’t either.

  • Daniel

    Exactly how far has Christian reconstructionism gotten politically in the U.S? What troubles me is the original intent of the Constitution is thrown out, and no or little justification for adopting foreign case law is brought forward! Judges get to make up their own reasons, and most journalists don’t want to touch the issue. At the New York Times they would rather laugh about the issue than put on their thinking caps and ponder or explain the justification! We’re supposed to just sit back and swallow this gullibly rather than actually participating in our republic and we don’t get to read informative journals which document or analyze this situation?

  • http://abitmoredetail.wordpress.com R.F. McDonald

    Daniel: “What troubles me is the original intent of the Constitution is thrown out, and no or little justification for adopting foreign case law is brought forward!”

    I don’t understand originalism. Granted I’m a Canadian who was two years old when the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom was introduced and a goodly share of the writers of my constitution are still alive, why should the interpretation of a document more than two centuries old remain static? At the time of the document’s writing, women were legal non-persons, owning people as property was perfectly legal, and the Indians of the American frontier weren’t granted anything like the autonomy that they could have plausibly claimed. Why not change a document’s reading along with the times?

    (For that matter, why keep the current constitution? I’m deliberately leaving out the massive paralyzing debate a new constitution would take up. If a document is so badly out of date, why not get a new one, a living one, better suited to the times?)

    And on your second note, why not import foreign case law as needed? The United States legal system hardly developed out of the vacuum, being a melding together of British law precedents with local circumstances and any number of local peculiarities, and if there are relevant precedents in other jurisdictions speaking to general trends in the broader community of nations–Lawrence v Texas comes to mind–then, if it fits, why not?

  • http://abitmoredetail.wordpress.com R.F. McDonald

    Bobby: “The Times puts him out there as one of the crazies who don’t understand why Shariah isn’t a real concern and then gives no more information about him or opportunity for him to defend himself.”

    Why is it a real concern? I don’t understand how this religious code is supposed to limit my freedom, or necessarily the freedom of other Muslims. As has been pointed out, other religions and religious denominations also have strict, even misogynistic, codes, and as there’s only one system of criminal law permitted in the United States (as befits a functioning state) there’s no threat there.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    R.F.,

    My concern is journalism. Journalism treats people fairly, includes a diversity of voices and positions, and gives them ample space to make their case. That didn’t happen for this guy. That’s my point.

    If you want to argue the issues, as opposed to discussing journalism, you’re at the wrong place.

  • http://abitmoredetail.wordpress.com R.F. McDonald

    Arguing the issues, yes, a bit.

    The journalism isn’t telling me why the anti-Sharia activists believe that Islamic religious law poses a mortal threat to the United States’ legal system, yes. The journalism also isn’t telling me why the originalism evidenced by commenter 17 and voiced by other protesters is so big. Why so little description, comparative and otherwise, of the two legal systems and their backers and their relative strengths and prospects, here, too?

  • Jefferson

    Perhaps folks might prefer last month’s Forward profile of Yerushalmi:

    “Lawyer Who Promotes Anti-Sharia Laws Publishes New Study on Islamic Extremism”

    http://www.forward.com/articles/139688/

    Of course, I prefer a man-bites-dog angle:

    Anti-sharia laws stir concerns that halachah could be next

    “With conservative lawmakers across the United States trying to outlaw sharia, or Islamic religious law, Jewish organizations are concerned that halachah could be next.

    If the state legislative initiatives targeting sharia are successful, they would gut a central tenet of American Jewish religious communal life: The ability under U.S. law to resolve differences according to halachah, or Jewish religious law.”

    http://www.jta.org/news/article/2011/04/28/3087191/anti-sharia-initiatives-s%20tir-concerns-that-halacha-may-be-next

  • Daniel

    R.F. McDonald
    What you appear to be saying is that you don’t understand the difference between the UK Constitution, a living, breathing, evolving document, and the U.S. Constitution. Do you hold me accountable for your failure to understand? I am not to be faulted for that, am I? Did you watch the flash video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=PXHtP9I1ElY
    about “David Yerushalmi: Shariah & American Laws for A…”
    It explains the injustices that would follow and U.S. Constitutional issues that are addressed in the case law examples I already sited. I specifically mentioned how ombudsman courts occasionally use foreign law provisions to regulate disputes between U.S. citizens and other U.S. residents. David Yerushalmi mentioned how functional U.S. policies have been overturned by court decisions using foreign law. It appears you didn’t watch the video. The kind of journalism I would like is the type that explains issues like this for people like you to understand. Apparently you didn’t learn about it when you studied history, civics, or politics. I would like to gently nudge you in the direction. Couldn’t we examine the issues at hand carefully before we wander off into other stuff? I was required to understand the Canadian system of government when I took my education. Could you do me the same courtesy?