Dots in Muslim camp feature don’t connect

A Los Angeles Times story this week on a Muslim youth camp starts out as one of those lazy summer features that most reporters could write in their sleep:

It’s a hot summer morning and the campers trundle through the gates of a Pasadena grade school, then fall in with their age groups: the Seeds, the Dates, the Coconuts and the Trees.

A day of typical camp activities awaits: scavenger hunts, a “pirates and princesses” dress-up play and water-balloon tosses. But there is a difference here: Those activities are sandwiched between Koran recital, the Dzhur afternoon prayer and story time that includes tales about Mecca and Muhammad.

Even as one of the counselors tries to bring order to the paper boat race, it’s a moment peppered in faith. “Let’s play fair,” said Noor Elfarra, 16, adjusting her hijab head scarf as she led her charges. “You’re not supposed to touch the boat. You can only blow on it. Insha Allah [God willing] you can win!”

But after offering a bit more background on the only Muslim camp accredited by the American Camp Association, the story takes an abrupt dive off a cliff into a sea of random statistics and editorial opinions.

Suddenly, this isn’t a camp feature any more. It’s an exposé on the travails of Muslim life in America. The only thing missing: any real line connecting A (the camp) to B (hate crimes, anti-Muslim rhetoric, etc.).

Notice the awkward way the Times transitions from A to B:

Most of the campers are children of immigrants from predominantly Islamic countries. Their U.S. upbringings mean not all of them know how to pray. When prayers are recited, Ezzeldine or one of the counselors will lead.

“That’s OK,” Ezzeldine said. “I make it a point to enunciate the verses. I tell everyone whatever your level of prayer is today, make it better tomorrow.”

Given current attitudes in the U.S. toward American Muslims, “a better tomorrow” is loaded with meaning.

FBI data indicate that hate crimes against Muslims seem not to be diminishing. Although anti-Muslim crimes fell to 107 in 2009 from nearly 500 in 2001, the latest data, from 2010, show that such hate crimes rebounded to 160.

In an instant, the Times leaps from children working on their prayers to statistics on hate crimes in America. Huh?

Keep reading, and you’ll learn that the Council on Islamic-American Relations, or CAIR, posted a safety advisory for mosques after the recent deadly attack on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Also, there’s a reference to a Gallup survey showing many Americans with a “not too favorable” opinion of Islam. All of these facts are fair game for a story on a Muslim camp, of course.

The problem here is that the Times sprinkles these details throughout the story without attempting to connect the dots between A and B.

If this is a story about Muslim life in America, the reporter needs to ask the camp directors, their parents and even the campers questions such as: Have any of these campers suffered hate crimes or persecution because of their religion? Do these campers encounter negative attitudes about their religion in their normal, everyday life? Is this camp any kind of political statement (as opposed to being just like thousands of other religious camps across the nation that help children grow in their faith)?

The story’s penchant for editorializing isn’t limited to statistics:

And it’s likely that the Camp Izza model will be duplicated because the U.S. Muslim population is growing at a relatively fast pace.

According to whom? Without an identified source, that sounds like the reporter’s opinion to me.

Near the end of the story, the Times stretches the bounds of this simple camp story even more:

Jalel Aossey, the former director of Muslim Youth Camps of America, closed his organization last year after 13 years in business when he realized he could not design a camp that would meet American Camp Assn. accreditation standards.

There are other obstacles as well. Institutions such as the Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn (a nondenominational public school that teaches Arabic) and mosques such as the one slated to be built at ground zero in New York have been beset by angry protests and polarizing political opinions.

Camp Izza has not faced those problems. Ezzeldine counts his camp as lucky, or perhaps blessed.

It’s almost humorous that the Times goes off on the tangent of alleged obstacles, then acknowledges that such problems have not been an issue at the camp ostensibly at the center of this story.

Image via Shutterstock

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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.

  • The Old Bill

    Bobby, the Times is merely considering the percentages. Last year, in a country of 311,000,00 plus, 160 unspecified hate crimes against Muslims were committed. Do the math. It’s a miracle the camp wasn’t attacked twice daily!

    I like how CAIR is presented as the objective voice in the story.

    And how about this empty sentence that is loaded with meaninglyness:
    “Given current attitudes in the U.S. toward American Muslims, “a better tomorrow” is loaded with meaning.”

    I’d like to know more about how a Muslim camp accommodates itself to US culture, but you could learn more about camp life from Allan Sherman’s “Hello, Muddah, Hello Fadduh.”

  • Passing By

    What Old Bill said. Especially the disconnected way praying better tomorrow somehow morphs into “a better tomorrow”. Sort of desperate.

    And about those unspecified hate crimes: here’s another take on hate crimes against Muslims:

    http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2010/08/27/99767/hate-crimes-against-muslims-rare.html

    Not only did the LA Times use the stats oddly, but the stats may themselves be false. Certainly, they are out of context. From the McClatchy article:

    Jews, lesbians, gay men and Caucasians, among others, are all more frequently the target of hate crimes, FBI records show … Reported anti-Muslim crimes have declined over recent years, though they still exceed what occurred prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.In 2008, 105 hate crime “incidents” against Muslims were reported nationwide. There were 10 times more incidents recorded as anti-Jewish during the same year, the most recent for which figures are available.

    Well, isn’t that interesting. Here’s a bit of journalistic stuff:

    Reporters must figure out whether to cast a particular incident as an aberration or part of a larger narrative. The widely read Talking Points Memo website, for instance, is reporting on the Madera Islamic Center as part of broader coverage of national anti-Muslim attacks. The presentation gives the impression of a trend, a cause for concern.

    Which leads to my question: what did the Times accomplish by inserting these numbers into a rather nice about a religious camp. What does the newspaper gain from setting up the Muslim community as victims of a violent America?

    P.S. So is this camp likely to be replicated due to increasing numbers of Muslims? If that’s so, why did the Muslim camp association go out of business? And why can’t Muslim camps meet accreditation standards?

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    Which leads to my question: what did the Times accomplish by inserting these numbers into a rather nice about a religious camp. What does the newspaper gain from setting up the Muslim community as victims of a violent America?

    Good questions. In general, I would think a major American newspaper would want to tell a meatier story than a run-of-the-mill summer camp feature. I almost wonder if some editor decided to dump a bunch of “context” into the piece to make it seem more newsy and deserving of 1,150 words in the L.A. Times. I wonder that because the “A” part of the story and the “B” part of the story seem so disjointed from each other that it’s almost like the reporter turned in one story and an editor decided to turn it into a different kind of story. But I’m speculating, and wildly so. :-)

  • C. Wingate

    Of course, the context is that religiously affiliated camps are nothing new. You can search the ACA website by affiliation and discover that there are no accredited Mennonite-affiliated camps, but that there are fifty-some Episcopal camps and almost forty Jewish camps. They also list camps by culture (Hispanic, black, native American). This is really the context that makes sense. In particular it would have made sense to talk to one of the five orthodox Jewish camps about why they do what they do. There’s really a lot that could be done with the affiliation issue (e.g. the disappearance of the “C” from YMCA) that seems to have been gotten ignored in the search for the persecution angle.

  • sari

    Lots of statements made with little explanation or supporting evidence. It is probably true that, in the wake of the Sikh shooting, Muslim institutions feel more threatened. This is what happens in the American Jewish community every time Jews or their institutions are targeted/wounded/killed. Most Christian institutions and their followers cannot fathom the necessity for perpetual watchfulness, because they have never been perpetual targets. But that has little to do with the camp, which purpose is clearly to inculcate Islamic teachings and values into assimilated Muslim children.

    I would like to have seen a discussion of the difficulties inherent in certifying a Muslim camp. Are there Muslim strictures which make compliance difficult, or has no one in the Muslim community stepped forward to fund the endeavor? Big donors usually subsidize religious outreach camps to remove cost as a consideration for attendance. Cost may also be the impediment to compliance.

    Female counselors wear hijabs. What effort is made to induce female campers to do the same? Are the groups coed or separated by sex? If separated, how does the camp curriculum differ for each sex? How do counselors deal with campers’ tough questions?

    Lastly, the “hope for a better tomorrow” phrase suggests that many venues are closed to Muslims. Are they discriminated against in the workplace? Do they have a hard time finding employment outside of Muslim run businesses, being served in restaurants, or finding housing? Most Muslims of my acquaintance are quite well off, well educated, and firmly employed by mainstream businesses. Some are very observant: eat only halal, wear the hijab, dress modestly. The article fails to address the cultural tension between wanting full acceptance and inclusion in the mainstream -and- maintaining some degree of separation to prevent further assimilation.

  • suburbanbanshee

    Some Muslim kids with US upbringings don’t know how to pray? By whose Muslim standards? Muslim prayer practices are pretty standard around the world, but not absolutely the same. Are kids being taught a different style of prayer than what their parents and grandparents taught them? Or are their parents sending some kids to Muslim camp in lieu of giving them Muslim religious training at home?

  • northcoast

    Reading all of this, I wonder about the effect of the differences between sunni and shia traditions in an American muslim institution. Do they find common ground?

    The LA Times page has a link: ‘Sikhs are not Muslims’ sends a sinister message. I guess we need to add that there is nothing wrong about being Muslim.

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