Missing the ghosts of Muslims in NYC

american muslimsSome ghosts are just too obvious to miss. But sadly, in an attempt to cram reams of issues into an eight-minute radio broadcast, National Public Radio did what so many media outlets do in attempt to write about Islam: give theological issues the short stick.

NPR’s Anne Garrels did a relatively interesting piece Thursday that made the network’s “story of the day” on a former New York City elementary school teacher who is a Muslim. Nearly five years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, this former teacher, Debbie Almontaser, is struggling to explain to people that not all faithful Muslims have terrorist sympathies.

I don’t have any text to paste into this post, so I’ll post a short summary.

The article talks about how these American Muslims, devout enough to wear head coverings, are generally decent people rather than terrorists bent on committing atrocities. People around Almontaser do not always understand this, and she has even been reported through the Justice Department’s tips program, which resulted in an investigation.

The story is striking. Almontaser’s eldest son was in the National Guard, and performed rescue and recovery at the World Trade Center. “He did his job as an American, as a soldier and as a Muslim,” his father says.

It’s also a story that needs to be told. But this attempt lacked a basic sense of the controversies raging in Islamic communities over the proper response to Islamic terrorism. The issue is not as simple as a few crazy terrorists doing despicable things in the name of Islam.

Here are some questions that I would have tried to answer:

  • What type of soul searching did Almontaser engage in when she decided to embrace Muslim-American culture (whatever that means)?
  • Why did she start wearing a Muslim head covering? What does that have to do with being a good Muslim-American?
  • Do the teachings in mosques reflect what Almontaser believes Islam teaches?
  • What did Almontaser do, if anything, that led somebody to launch a Justice Department investigation? (Nothing came of it, by the way.)
  • Are the terrorist attacks the only reasons Muslims struggle in connecting to the rest of American society?
  • Why would some Muslims object to secular music, and why does Almontaser believe it is OK?

Feel free, after listening to the story, to post your own questions.

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India sorts out terrorist bombings

mumbai bombingDetails on the perpetrators of Tuesday’s horrific bombings of the Mumbai train system are still scant, but investigators are considering it the work of Islamic extremists from Pakistan. As further details come in, it will be important for journalists to sort out the messy theological details of the group and whether it is connected to a more international Islamic terrorism effort.

What is unfortunate for many reasons is that the Mumbai train bombings have been quickly ushered off the front pages of our papers and off the evening newscasts. This is partly because there are no obvious culprits as of yet. Then there is the rapidly deteriorating situation in the Middle East, with what is beginning to look like outright civil war in Iraq, and the escalation of violence between Israel and its neighbors. More on that later.

Here’s the BBC’s account from Thursday afternoon on the Mumbai bombings:

Indian police are continuing their hunt for those behind Tuesday’s bomb attacks on commuter trains in Mumbai, in which some 200 people were killed.

Police have questioned hundreds of people, and one person was arrested in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.

But police have denied reports they released sketches of any suspects.

A Muslim organisation banned in India, the Students’ Islamic Movement (Simi), is the latest group to deny involvement in the attacks.

While the perpetrators of this attack may not be connected by name to the terrorist attacks in London, New York and Washington, D.C., it is important to question those claims of independence from a larger worldwide movement. Are there theological similarities that allow a Muslim to perform such an act of reckless murder? Is the random killing of hundreds of innocents compatible with the teachings of the Quran? My understanding, from a variety of sources, is that it is not.

Why was India the target of such attacks? An obvious answer is Pakistani militants. A less obvious answer is that India’s rapid secularization horrifies fundamentalist Muslims. Even less obvious is whether this was the action of Hindu extremists. Here is Christopher Kremmer in Australia’sThe Age:

Tuesday’s bombings, targeting commuters in the financial capital of Mumbai, represent not just the ruthless murder of at least 170 people but a strike at the idea of India itself.

Sadly, we are no longer shocked by such attacks. But the real surprise, given the vulnerability of India’s teeming cities and its history of religious and political violence, is that there have been relatively few of them.

Leaders from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh down have wisely avoided rushing to judgment about who may have been responsible. Mumbai’s history of bombings includes underworld elements and Hindu extremists, as well as Muslim ones. Speculation fuels rumours, and rumours can trigger reprisals. The Congress-led coalition now in power has nothing to gain from a collapse of law and order in Mumbai or anywhere else.

I appreciated this Reuters article in the Khaleej Times on Mumbai Muslims giving blood to Hindu bomb victims. But the article begged for answers on why this was significant religiously, other than Muslims and Hindus not usually cooperating on anything.

I regret not writing about the Mumbai bombings sooner. If an attack of a magnitude 10 times less than this had hit my hometown of Washington, D.C., I would have been all over it. Remember the coverage of the London bombings? Needless to say, I think the American mainstream media need to offer some type of explanation for the pittance of coverage this dramatic event has received.

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Head-butter: Christian or lapsed Muslim?

zidanMolly Moore wrote in Tuesday’s Washington Post that France’s national soccer team captain Zinedine Zidane, banished in the final minutes of Sunday’s World Cup final for head-butting an opponent in a moment of rage, is the “son of Christian Algerian immigrants.”

But other news reports have described him as a “non-practicing Muslim,” as stated in a Wikipedia article and backed up by this article in The Hindu.

Here’s the Post‘s summary of events:

PARIS, July 10 — French soccer captain Zinedine Zidane — voted the World Cup’s top player — should have been reveling in a hero’s welcome Monday afternoon.

Instead, he stood on a balcony overlooking a crowd of cheering fans at Paris’s Place de la Concorde a day after a game that ended with not only disappointment but also disgrace.

[The Post has corrected a mistake, which appeared only in its online story, that said Zidane was "sobbing uncontrollably and breaking into tears at Paris's Place de la Concorde." His teammate David Trezeguet was the player seen crying.]

One of France’s few modern-day heroes and one of the greatest soccer players of his generation, Zidane — in a startling show of rage in the 110th minute of Sunday’s World Cup final — transformed a night of patriotic pride into a morning of national shame and despair across France. Having announced his intention to retire from the sport after the tournament, his head butt of Italian defender Marco Materazzi resulted in a red card and thus likely was the final on-field act of his career.

So is Zidane a lapsed Muslim with Christian parents? There’s a story to be told here. His parents are from Algeria, which according to the CIA is 99 percent Sunni Muslim and 1 percent Christian and Jewish.

Why does this matter? Some have speculated that Zidane slammed his head into the chest of Italian footballer Marco Materazzi because Materazzi called Zidane “the son of a terrorist whore,” in addition to other not-so-nice words.

Materazzi has denied using these words, saying that he “categorically did not call him a terrorist. I’m not cultured and I don’t even know what an Islamic terrorist is.”

Materazzi maintains that he engaged in the typical taunting that goes on in nearly all sports, but I find it hard to believe that a player like Zidane could flip out and harm his spectacular World Cup football over a few silly taunts. I guess we’ll find out soon when Zidane gives an interview to France’s Canal Plus.

So while our friends cover the simmering controversy that is Zidane’s head-butt, I’d like to point you to Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, which did some research and discovered the roots of the France/Italian football rivalry: an attempt to resolve the ancient score between the two countries over Pope Clement V’s decision to move the papacy to France. The Daily Show knows its religion history.

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X marks the spot for today’s England

Saint George IconOn one level, this post is a shout out to my teenaged son, Frye, whose patron saint is St. George.

So it is no surprise that he was a bit miffed when he heard the news — I believe the Daily Mail broke the story — that the modern Church of England is considering dropping St. George (the soldier lancing the dragon in all of those Eastern icons) as England’s patron saint. As reporter Steve Doughty wrote:

His dragon-slaying heroics have kept his legend alive through the centuries. But the Church of England is considering rejecting England’s patron saint St George on the grounds that his image is too warlike and may offend Muslims. Clergy have started a campaign to replace George with St Alban, a Christian martyr in Roman Britain.

The scheme, to be considered by the Church’s parliament, the General Synod, has met a cautious but sympathetic response from senior bishops. But it clashes with the increasing popularity of the saint and his flag in England.

I was in Oxford when this story broke in the British press and, of course, the tabloid’s timing was fantastic because the flag of St. George was flying everywhere during the World Cup.

I had a chance to talk with several friends of mine about the proposed swap, including a trained Anglican theologian or two. They all agreed, interestingly enough, that the change made sense and that St. Alban, as the nation’s first Christian martyr, would actually be a more appropriate choice. Several people said something like this: “I’ve never understood what the deal was with St. George in the first place.”

The link is a bit strange and there are, meanwhile, historians who claim that St. George never actually existed. Here is how the original Daily Mail story handled that background material, including a nod to the fact that the flag with the huge red cross has become identified with some nasty elements of English life.

The image of St George was used to foster patriotism in 1940, when King George VI inaugurated the George Cross for civilian acts of the greatest bravery. The medal bears a depiction of the saint slaying the dragon. However, George has become unfashionable among politicians and bureaucrats. His saint’s day, April 23, has no official celebration in England, and councils have banned the St George flag from their buildings and vehicles. …

The saint became an English hero during the crusades against the Muslim armies that captured Jerusalem in the 11th century. An apparition of George is said to have appeared to the crusader army at the Battle of Antioch in 1098. His dragon-slaying legend is thought to have begun as an allegory of Diocletian’s persecution of Christians.

englandstgeorgeHowever, my friends from various locations in the old British empire made one other point that I have yet to see underlined in the tabloid press. Is it safe to say that this change is all about getting the blood-red symbol of the cross off the flag in an era — especially after the cartoon crisis and its flag-burning riots — in which people are a bit tense?

In the St. Alban’s flag, a diagonal yellow cross is placed on a blue background. In other words, it looks more like a large X than the symbol of the Christian faith. For many, this would be a step in the right direction. The Evening Telegraph in Coventry noted:

Motasem Ali, of the Bangladesh Islamic Society, said: “St George is a concern in our community, especially with the present crisis in the world and the UK.

“All religions should be the same, teaching us how to maintain peace and harmony. The Christian authorities should think about it. The image of St George can create more problems in our community. If he was dropped, that would be one step forward.”

But what will happen when someone tries to step forward and claim the credit, or take the blame, for this change?

My British friends — who all thought the change was logical — thought there was no way it would pass. St. Alban may get bumped up a few notches in the public eye, they said, but there was no way the flag of St. George was going to be lowered for good. That would simply create too much heat among the masses.

What kind of heat? Here is a sample, a rather tongue-in-cheek blast from our friend Rod Dreher over at the Crunchy Con blog:

Lord have mercy. These people. … Look, why don’t these sherry-sniffing buttercups just surrender now and spare their enemies the indignity and tedium of having to beat up a bunch of sniveling jellyfish? I swear, you could arm the choirs of the ten Bible churches closest to where I sit deep in the heart of Texas with pool noodles and bullhorns, and they could run half the marmalade-spined clerics of the Church of England over the White Cliffs of Dover like a herd of shrieking Gadarene schoolgirls.

I am sure that stronger language would be used in pews and pubs.

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Once more, into the “sectarian” breach

imam ali mosque 01It is hard to spend eight hours jammed into those tiny, tiny seats that Virgin Atlantic uses in its economy class without talking to the person next to you. Yesterday, flying from London, I was seated next to an articulate Internet professional from Pakistan who was raised in Germany and now works on many projects here in America.

You talk about the World Cup and the insanity of penalty kicks deciding everything. You talk about why you are traveling and, of course, this often leads to talking about work. As an IT professional, he was interested in Internet content issues and, as a result, we spent some time talking about GetReligion. He asked what kinds of issues we cover. I said that one of the big questions, right now, is why American media are doing next to nothing to explain the roots of Sunni vs. Shiite violence in Iraq.

The Pakistani man said the roots do not matter. Nothing matters, he said, “because they are all insane. You cannot explain insane people.”

But that is not, I said, the way that the people involved in the violence would explain what is happening, is it? He said, no, they would talk about grievances, many in the present, but many more in the past. And, yes, they would talk about how their competing Islamic beliefs clash.

Which, of course, brings us to the front pages of today’s newspapers — with another wave of violence in Iraq that killed 50 or so and left tortured bodies in the streets. It’s that same old same old. The lead Washington Post story is a logical place to start. Here’s one of the key passages:

Sectarian killings escalated sharply across Iraq after a bomb destroyed a revered golden-domed Shiite shrine in Samarra on Feb. 22. The bombing prompted reprisal attacks on Sunni mosques and pushed the country further toward all-out civil war.

In Baghdad on Sunday, the armed men, some wearing masks and dressed in black, descended on the al-Jihad neighborhood in buses after sunrise. They set up checkpoints along a main commercial street, demanded identification cards from passersby and burst into homes to single out Sunni Arabs to kill, residents said.

One resident, Hazim al-Rawi, said he gathered up his family and fled the neighborhood after he saw 15 bodies outside his home.

“Some of them were tortured with drills,” he said of the bodies. “Some of them were hanged by ropes.”

01If you read the story you will, perhaps, be left with some of those old, familiar questions.

Why are Shiite attackers almost always dressed in black? What are the differences between a Sunni mosque and a Shiite mosque? How would a journalist walking down the street tell a Shiite neighborhood from a Sunni neighborhood? And, yes, what are the historic, doctrinal differences between these two competing Islams?

Now, please understand that this is a long news story in this day and age — 1,200-plus words — and the lead reporters, Joshua Partlow and Saad al-Izzi, are backed up by the work of special correspondents Bassam Sebti, K.I. Ibrahim, Naseer Nouri and Saad Sarhan. You can’t tell me that none of these skilled reporters know the background material on Sunnis and Shiites. Some may have lived it. But for some reason editors have decided that Americans do not need to know this information.

There are moments when you can see hints, moments when the ghosts briefly appear in print.

Outside the morgue at the Yarmouk Hospital, a distraught woman wearing a red head scarf searched for her missing brother. At 7 a.m., she said, black-clad gunmen broke into her house and demanded to know the family’s tribal name. When her brother responded “Jubour,” one of the gunmen said, “You are definitely Sunnis.”

“I swear on Hussein, I swear on Ali, that we are Shiites,” her brother, Muzahim Salman, pleaded, referring to relatives of the prophet Muhammad who are revered by Shiites.

This is a life-and-death moment at the end of a gun.

This is the story. If these “relatives of the prophet Muhammad” are this important, it might be good if the editors of The Washington Post dedicated a bit more ink — a few paragraphs, perhaps, or a sidebar — to telling readers about them. Is that too much to ask?

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Church bells, statistics and silence

1903933714At noon today, I was in a church in north Oxford taking part in our Oxford Centre seminar on blasphemy, freedom of the press and the digital age. It was a natural place to hear the bells chime in the stone steeple high overhead, while also hearing other church bells in the surrounding neighborhood.

All of England was supposed to stop for two minutes of silence at noon. Since we were in a church, it was natural for prayers to be said. But the silence was what united this nation, on this particular day. There are so many questions to remain unanswered and many questions that the British are struggling to ask.

The newspapers here — local and national — are packed with 7/7 stories covering every possible angle, including some of the obvious religious questions. There are personal stories and policy stories.

But as I walk past the news racks each day, the headlines capturing my eyes have been the ones about this nation’s very concept of itself and, of course, how this relates to the powerful Muslim minority in this land. Thus, the story from this week that I will remember is the Times report — reports, actually — growing out of its national research into the attitudes of the modern British, both Muslim and, well, infidel.

Yes, that is a strong word, but read this lead and see what you think:

A significant minority of British Muslims believe they are at war with the rest of society, the largest poll of Muslims in this country suggests. The Populus survey for The Times and ITV News has found that more than one in ten thinks that the men who carried out the London bombings of 7/7 should be regarded as “martyrs.” Sixteen per cent of British Muslims, equivalent to more than 150,000 adults, believe that while the attacks were wrong, the cause was right.

But the poll also revealed a stark gulf between this group and the majority of British Muslims, who want the Government to take tougher measures against extremists within their community.

And there you have it — the reality of the multiple Islams. Which has the accurate theological perspective? Which represents the global Muslim majority? How are their views about the bombings linked to their religious beliefs? And so forth and so on. Read the Times reports if you want to know more. There is no way around the fact that one in 10 (13 percent, actually) is a number that people have to take seriously.

Prime Minister Tony Blair said as much, shortly before the 7/7 anniversary.

Speaking ahead of Friday’s anniversary of the 7/7 London suicide bombings, the Prime Minister said that Muslim leaders should make clear to the extremists that not only were their methods wrong, but their ideology, interpretation of Islam and their “completely false sense of grievance against the West.”

“I think the roots of this extremism lie in the attitudes and ideas as much as organisation,” Mr Blair told the Commons Liaison Committee. “I don’t think there is an answer to this terrorism that is simply about police work or security measures.”

Obviously, this is the case.

070805londonThe poll results contain many comforting numbers, for those seeking evidence that mainstream Muslims reject the Islamists. Yet the polls also — when you do the math — contain some sobering clues as to how many homegrown terrorists may be at large in England. For example:

7% agree that suicide attacks on civilians in the UK can be justified in some circumstances, rising to 16 per cent for a military target

16% of British Muslims say that while the attacks may have been wrong, the cause was right

2% would be proud if a family member decided to join al-Qaeda. Sixteen per cent would be “indifferent.” …

50% think the intelligence services have the right to infiltrate Muslim organisations to gather information about their activities and the way they obtain funding.

These are the kinds of numbers that reporters must probe, seeking to understand where and why some — repeat some — Muslims believe what they believe. This is not a simple story. This poll is an example of coverage that delivers some light as well as heat.

UPDATE: For additional coverage and some nice links, please head on over to Ruth Gledhill’s blog, Articles of Faith, where the topic is history, Islam and 7/7.

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Rooting out radicalism

london undergroundReligion has been a consistent undercurrent, if not a prevalent theme, in the coverage of the one-year anniversary of the 7/7 terrorist attacks on London. The problem was readily identified in the media as a group of radicals within the Muslim community that had to be rooted out. Not only would it require a tougher law enforcement role, but it would also require Muslims getting tougher about identifying terrorists within their communities.

The coverage of the memorials for the victims have the focused on a “service” attended by Prime Minister Tony Blair. It’s clearly some type of religious service, except it is in a park. Here is the Telegraph:

This evening Tony Blair joined survivors and bereaved relatives for a service of readings, poems and songs in Regent’s Park.

The service, in the serene surroundings of Queen Mary’s Gardens, began with a powerful rendition of Something Inside So Strong, sung by the London Community Gospel Choir.

Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, was the first to speak, and said that she had been “moved beyond words” by the “courage” of the relatives and survivors.

She added that by holding today’s service “we show our solidarity with victims of terrorism everywhere, particularly those from this country wherever or however they lost their lives”.

Alan Cowell of The New York Times jumped quickly to a video aired by Al Jazeera Arabic with what seemed to be one of the attackers warning Londoners that “what you have witnessed now is only the beginning.”

The theme was echoed Friday by London’s police chief, Sir Ian Blair, who told the BBC that the threat of a new attack had “palpably increased” since July last year.

“I fear that we have to accept that we live in an age for some years when the threat of an attack getting through is very real,” he said. And, he said, “Some of the threats that we have now interdicted in the last few months are from inside and outside. We are now in a position in which the threat is both internal and external.”

He added: “The threat is very grim, there is no doubt about it.”

The British government has attempted to enact laws dealing with radical Islam and encouraging Muslim communities to reform, but has met with little success, according to this July 6 essay in The Economist:

The government is almost as disappointed. Tony Blair told a parliamentary committee this week that Muslims were “not having a debate of a fundamental enough nature” in their own ranks. The government, he pointed out, had less power to turn Muslims away from extremism than did Muslims themselves.

Religious and community leaders were invited to Downing Street because they were thought to have some influence over the zealots. They did not seek to correct this impression. But they have less influence than either side hoped. Few British mosques are dens of radicalism; indeed, many ban lectures about politics. In the scathing words of Adnan Siddiqui, a grassroots campaigner, the committees that run the mosques are “little cabals composed of deferential men from the Indian subcontinent”. Muslim leaders would have little sway over the political opinions of the angry young even if they had not been publicly emasculated in the past year.

As the nation mourns the 52 people killed in the terrorist attacks, it is imperative for the media to dig into the lives and stories of those in the Muslim communities. At what level does the British participation in the war in Iraq anger them spiritually? Are those in the Muslim communities sympathetic to Islamic terrorism? Where do the loyalties of British Muslim lie?

It is important for journalists to remember that Islam is not monolithic and it is very difficult to generalize about Islam. This requires a careful level of reporting that is willing to detail the intricacies of Islamic history and theology. It’s a big job, but it must be done.

Photo courtesy of Noelle Myers.

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What is today Istanbul

1142553 Map of Constantinople IstanbulA 74-year-old Catholic priest was attacked this week in Turkey. A man, who was described as mentally ill, was arrested in the knifing of Father Pierre Brunissen. The previous two were linked to Islamic opposition to Christian clergy. This, however, may be a personal case. Here’s what the BBC wrote:

The man had allegedly made complaints about Fr Brunissen trying to convert people to his faith.

Reports said he was attacked in a busy street about 1km from his church.

“I hope this has nothing to with Islamic fundamentalism,” Monsignor Luigi Padovese, the apostolic vicar for Anatolia, told the Associated Press news agency .

“The climate has changed… it is the Catholic priests that are being targeted.”

Anonymously-sourced alleged complaints notwithstanding, this story really could have nothing to do with religious intolerance. But the secular situation in Turkey is very tenuous and worthy of deeper coverage. When I came across this article, I was also pointed to a months-old Washington Post story that looked at the situation in Turkey with a bit more depth. It showed how Muslims believe Roman Catholic missionaries are paying young Muslims to convert to Christianity. It also had this very amazing line:

The tension dates at least to the 13th century, when Christian Crusaders sacked what is today Istanbul.

Really? That’s where the Muslim — Christian tension in Istanbul comes from? From before it was a Muslim city? Interesting.

See, I thought that the great and ancient Christian city of Constantinople (or, as the Post says, “what is today Istanbul”) withstood dozens of attacks from Muslims before finally falling to Sultan Mehmet II in 1453. I mean, yes, soldiers in the Fourth Crusade took over Constantinople — from the Byzantine Christians. I don’t think that’s where Muslim-Christian conflict came from. And the Western-Eastern divide was centuries older, besides. However, I seem to recall there was a particularly brutal final 54-day siege and capture of the city.

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