’60 Minutes’ visits a persecuted patriarch

There is much to praised in the “60 Minutes” profile of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and his tiny, yet historically significant, flock of persecuted Orthodox Christians in Istanbul. It’s worth watching, if only for the remarkable videos taken at St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mt. Sinai in Egypt and the remarkable city of churches and monastic cells carved into the mountain cliffs in Cappadocia (video link here) in Eastern Turkey.

The report by correspondent Bob Simon also contains crucial details — with many missing, alas — about the political framework that surrounds the crushing of the ancient Orthodox Christian community in modern Turkey. The story covers the efforts to expel Christian believers from Turkey, but avoids issues linked to massacres and, yes, decades of verbal warfare about the use of the term “genocide.”

So, by all means, watch the report and then carefully read the text as it appears on the “60 Minutes” website.

However, please know that for most Orthodox believers this report is a good news-bad news situation. There are errors in the opening section that are painful — something like hearing very long, stiff fingernails scraped across a blackboard. Even though much of the content is solid, Simon and his writers have made a series of very basic mistakes, which I will underline shortly.

Here are some crucial pieces of the text:

(CBS) Would it surprise you to learn that one of the world’s most important Christian leaders, second only to the pope, lives in a country where 99 percent of the population is Muslim? His name is Bartholomew, and he is the patriarch of 300 million Orthodox Christians. He lives in Istanbul, Turkey, the latest in a line of patriarchs who have resided there since before there was a Turkey, since the centuries following the death of Jesus Christ.

That’s when Istanbul was called Constantinople and was the most important city in the Christian world.

But times change, and in modern Muslim Turkey the patriarch doesn’t feel very welcome. Turkish authorities have seized Christian properties and closed Christian churches, monasteries and schools. His parishioners are afraid that the authorities want to force Bartholomew and his church — the oldest of all Christian churches — out of Turkey.

His official title is impressive: “His All Holiness, Bartholomew, Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome, Ecumenical Patriarch.” “Ecumenical” means “universal,” and worldwide, 300 million Orthodox Christians look to him for spiritual guidance.

OK, let’s start with that “second only to the pope” phrase, attached to the word “important” — a term that is vague to the point of being meaningless. All kinds of historical issues swarm around this statement, but the basic problem is one that runs through the whole report, which is a ongoing attempt to equate Patriarch Bartholomew with the pope.

The big problem is the article “the” in that statement, “he is the patriarch of 300 million Orthodox Christians.” For the world’s Orthodox Christians he is certainly “a” patriarch. He also is a first among equals, when it comes to gatherings of the world’s Orthodox patriarchs. He is definitely a significant spiritual leader, a symbolic leader in many ways, but he is not “the” patriarch of the Orthodox.

It cannot be stressed too strongly: Orthodox Christianity is a conciliar church and Bartholomew is the symbolic first among equals, equals who would make ultimate decisions as a council and part of a larger community of faith.

And what about that claim that he leads the “oldest of all Christian churches”? That would make him the Patriarch of the Church of Jerusalem, correct? All kinds of issues swirl around that throne. And which came first, Antioch or Constantinople? Meanwhile, Roman Catholics would certainly believe that, since they claim the pope is truly the universal patriarch, Pope Benedict XVI is the leader of the “oldest of all Christian churches,” including the churches of the ancient Middle East.

So the basic problem with the “60 Minutes” report is one of storytelling as Simon & Co. try to find a way to let readers relate to the Orthodox crisis in Turkey. Note this statement:

60 Minutes correspondent Bob Simon first met him in Istanbul. It was Easter, and worshipers from throughout the Orthodox Christian world had come to celebrate Christ’s resurrection on the holiest day of their calendar with the man who they see as their pope.

Phanar2That final blunt statement is simply wrong. There needed to be language added stressing that Patriarch Bartholomew is not the pope of the Orthodox, but he is a very important figure on the Orthodox world scene and that, yes, millions of Orthodox Christian believers are deeply concerned about his fate and the fate of his tiny besieged folk in Istanbul.

That isn’t hard to grasp, is it? Reporters — me included — have often resorted to the “spiritual leader of the Orthodox” language, to capture that “first among equals” reality. But Bartholomew is not the literal leader of the global church, in the same way as the pope is for Catholics.

So the report offers a fine picture of a large, important story. But the basic frame around that picture is warped, and that is sad. As you watch it, you will see that very little has changed since 2004, when I visited the Panar and wrote about some of these same, unchanging issues. I wish that Simon had mentioned the painful symbol of the two gates into the complex. The gates say it all:

ISTANBUL – There are two front gates into the walled compound that protects the home of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million Eastern Orthodox Christians.

Visitors enter through a door secured by a guardhouse, locks and a metal-screening device. They cannot enter the Phanar’s main gate because it was welded shut in 1821 after the Ottoman Turks hanged Patriarch Gregory V from its lintel. The black doors have remained sealed ever since.

A decade ago, bombers who tried to open this gate left a note: “We will fight until the Chief Devil and all the occupiers are chased off; until this place, which for years has contrived Byzantine intrigues against the Muslim people of the East is exterminated. … Patriarch you will perish!”

The capital of Byzantium fell to the Turks in 1453. Yet 400,000 Orthodox Christians remained in greater Istanbul early in the 20th century. That number fell to 150,000 in 1960. Today fewer than 2,000 remain, the most symbolic minority in a land that is 99 percent Turkish. They worship in 86 churches served by 32 priests and deacons, most 60 or older. What the Orthodox urgently need is an active seminary and patriarchate officials are convinced the European Union will help them get one, as Turkey races to begin the formal application process.

As I said, very little has changed. That is a tragic reality for the ancient church in Turkey.

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The long arm of Sayyid Qutb

Muslim Americans Protest Ariel Sharon's White House Visit

A few days ago we looked at some of the coverage of the American men arrested in Pakistan on suspicion of ties to terrorism. I thought one of the most interesting angles — one I hoped we’d see more coverage of — was that the Council on American-Islamic Relations said they’d put the families of the men in touch with the FBI. It wasn’t that long ago that CAIR was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Holy Land Foundation trial. That trial dealt with the funding of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Hamas Party in Palestine.

In that same vein, I was interested in this story from Agence France-Presse, about how the arrest of the American men is a wake-up call about radicalization:

And imam Mahdi Bray said his community in Virginia would hit back against viral Internet postings by militants with an online effort of its own.

Leaders of the Alexandria mosque attended by the five youngsters described them as normal, career-focused kids.

“This is indeed a wake up call,” Bray, executive director of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation, told reporters outside the mosque.

“We are determined not to let religious extremists exploit the vulnerability of our young children through slick propaganda on the Internet,” Bray added.

“We are sending a message loud and clear that those days are over when we don’t respond… We are going to be active, proactive.”

But he acknowledged that the emotions of young Muslims were stirred by “injustices” they see unfolding in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, where the United States is engaged in wars to root out extremists.

This is certainly welcome news. But the article fails completely to provide any context for where the Muslim American Society sits along the spectrum of Muslim thought or even what relationship the group has to the men arrested in Pakistan. And that’s some key information.

The Muslim American Society, as the Chicago Tribune reported five years ago, has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood as well:

In recent years, the U.S. Brotherhood operated under the name Muslim American Society, according to documents and interviews. One of the nation’s major Islamic groups, it was incorporated in Illinois in 1993 after a contentious debate among Brotherhood members.

Some wanted the Brotherhood to remain underground, while others thought a more public face would make the group more influential. Members from across the country drove to regional meeting sites to discuss the issue.

That lengthy investigative report is very interesting. It reports on internal memos that say that members should not reveal the group’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and that jihad can be used by a Muslim to defend himself and his people — but also to spread Islam. According to that article, the “Brotherhood preaches that religion and politics cannot be separated and that governments eventually should be Islamic. The group also champions martyrdom and jihad, or holy war, as a means of self-defense and has provided the philosophical underpinnings for Muslim militants worldwide.” And “many moderate Muslims in America are uncomfortable with the views preached at mosques influenced by the Brotherhood, scholars say.”

For it’s part, the Muslim American Society told the Chicago Tribune that it was independent of the Brotherhood, although a leader said that the group does believe that the teachings of Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna are “the closest reflection of how Islam should be in this life.” While any Muslim can join the Muslim American Society, the highest membership class is reserved for people who, among other things, spend five years studying writings by al Banna and another well-known Brotherhood member named Sayyid Qutb, who urged Muslims to take up arms against non-Islamic governments. Qutb, who was apparently radicalized in part during his time at my parents’ alma mater in Greeley, Colorado, is hugely influential in the Brotherhood. This New York Times article described him as the intellectual hero to terrorists across the globe, including one Osama bin Laden.

The Tribune reported that the Muslim American Society collected millions in dues and donations in 2003 and that spending is often aimed at youth. A correspondence school the group set up in America, for instance, was led by a prominent cleric of the Brotherhood who praised suicide bombers in Israel and Iraq. And:

At a summer camp last year in Wisconsin run by the Chicago chapter of MAS, teens received a 2-inch-thick packet of material that included a discussion of the Brotherhood’s philosophy and detailed instructions on how to win converts.

Part of the Chicago chapter’s Web site is devoted to teens. It includes reading materials that say Muslims have a duty to help form Islamic governments worldwide and should be prepared to take up arms to do so.

I bring up this five-year-old article in part because no one has done any similar investigative journalism into the Muslim Brotherhood since then but also because a story about the Muslim American Society saying that the arrests in Pakistan are a “wake-up call” should just have a bit more depth.

Does the group still encourage the study of al Banna and Qutb? Has it renounced any portion of them? If not, do the leaders think Qutb’s teachings on jihad might have been misinterpreted by the young men who have been arrested? What, precisely, is wrong with the internet recruiting to which they refer?
It’s wonderful news that the Muslim American Society will be responding proactively against terrorist recruiting but it would be nice to know how the group handled teaching on Islamist activity in the past and what the group will do differently in the future.

Also, this should be a really interesting article to report on. I know that the Muslim American Society is very sensitive to the charge that it has ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. So let’s get to the bottom of this. Rather than have dueling accusations, let’s get some good investigative journalism going. What do these groups teach? What do Muslim scholars — of varying stripes — think about what these groups teach?

What about the mosque affiliated with the Islamic Circle of North America, where these men worshiped? What do we know about this group? I see this 1997 interview with journalist Steve Emerson (which begins with his claim that Muslim radicals pose a threat to the United States):

The Islamic Circle of North America (or ICNA) proclaims in writing its support for jihad, or holy war, against the “enemies of Islam”; its U.S.-based conferences and publications are replete with the need to support the terrorist regime of the Sudan and the need to support “Islamic movements” in which category they include Hamas and the Islamic Salvation Front among others.

He says the group is allied with the militant movement of Jamaat-e-Islamiya in Pakistan, a group that is itself affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. (And Rod Dreher reports that an ICNA mosque co-sponsored a reading of Sayyid Qutb works in Dallas five years ago.) Emerson won an award for his PBS documentary “Jihad in America” but he’s not well liked by the Muslim groups he criticizes and these claims are from many years ago. Still, there’s no question that ICNA is not without controversy.

Either way, just from a journalistic standpoint, you have people who worship at a particular mosque who end up in Pakistan trying to join the jihad against America. Call me crazy, but maybe you should get some reporters digging into what is actually taught there. How does this mosque differ from other mosques? How might different attendees at this mosque interpret the teachings differently? Not everyone who worships there ended up in Pakistan, obviously. We need some religion reporters on these stories to dig deep and help explain and illuminate. If the Washington Post can devote teams of reporters to Gov.-elect Bob McDonnell’s master’s thesis and the ongoing saga of the world’s most famous party-crashing couple, perhaps they can peel one or two off for some coverage of local Islamic terror ties.

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A little less equivocation

elvis-shot-up-tv-792381I’m generally a bit frustrated with how the Western media covers Islam. Just this weekend I caught a bit of venerable PBS travel writer Rick Steeve’s special on Iran. Say what you want about that nation’s terrible government, Iran is a large and beautiful country. The scenes of mountains and ornate 17th Century domes looked pretty glorious in HD.

Then Steeves’ visited a mosque where he surveyed the scene and helpfully explained, “A seemingly innocuous yellow banner in the background proclaims ‘Death to Israel.’ This disturbing mix of politics and religion apparently results from a deep-seated resentment of Western culture imposed on their world.” So that’s why Arabs and Jews don’t get along! As I understand it, the Mideast was the picture of tranquility until Churchill started arbitrarily carving up borders and the West started hegemonically forcing corrupting cultural exports such as, say, penicillin down their throats.

Needless to say this provoked a response in me such that even absent fistfuls of barbiturates and a .45, I understood Elvis’ penchant for shooting televisions. With a new 50-inch plasma, it would be hard to miss.

Ok, ok — so I know things are more complicated in the Middle East than Rick Steeves’ rose-colored liberalism or any snarky response I might shout at the television. But I don’t think I’m alone in feeling like the Western media is making a serious error every time they twist themselves into pretzels trying to divorce Islamic religious thought from political violence in the name of being perceived as multicultural and tolerant. It happens a lot.

So, boy was I glad to see this story in the Los Angeles Times Monday morning: “U.S. sees homegrown Muslim extremism as rising threat.” The headline doesn’t candy coat the religious aspect of terrorism, but also notes that it is “extremism” — reinforcing the idea that obviously a very small faction of the world’s 1 billion+ Muslims represent a threat. It’s a very good story.

Further, the impetus behind the story is long overdue. When Major Nidal Malik Hasan went on his Ft. Hood shooting rampage, it frustrated me to no end that it seemed to take days before anyone remembered that Hasan’s attack was the second attack on American soldiers in the U.S. by a Muslim this year. (Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad’s attack which killed a soldier outside a recruiting station was the first.)

That said, here’s a minor but I think justifiably irritating quibble. Even with the connection between religion and terrorism made explicit by the article’s headline, why is it so hard for the Los Angeles Times to stop equivocating about the connection between Islamic extremism and violence?:

Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan — accused of killing 13 people in a Ft. Hood, Texas, shooting rampage last month — has apparently suffered emotional problems. But in interviews, officials and experts have also raised his Muslim beliefs as an alleged motive.

Let’s unpack this one sentence at a time. First, did Hasan have emotional problems? The better half did a great job unpacking that question and despite some erratic behavior, actual evidence he was emotionally disturbed is awfully scant so far. However, the Times is willing to say he had emotional problems in the absence of definitive evidence. But then they hedge their bets in saying “officials and experts” have “raised” the issue that his faith may have been an “alleged motive.”

And the thing is that whether or not Hasan’s faith may have played a role in the killing isn’t just a matter of conjecture. There’s pretty tangible — though perhaps not conclusive — evidence that it did. For instance, there’s Hasan’s communications with Anwar Awlaki — a former imam who’s wanted by Yemeni authorities because of suspected ties to Al Qaeda. Now to be fair, the Times does mention al-Awlaki, but it’s buried in the 25th graf of a 33 graf story. Here’s how they handle it:

In proportion to population, extremism still appears less intense in the United States. But the Internet functions as the global engine of extremism. Websites expose Americans to a wave of slick, English-language propaganda from ideologues such as Anwar Awlaki, the Yemeni American described as a spiritual guide for the accused Ft. Hood shooter and other Westerners.

As it happens, Awlaki is a former Imam so I suppose “spiritual guide” is a reasonably accurate way of describing him. However, Awlaki’s alleged Al Qaeda ties go unmentioned. Also unmentioned is that among the “other Westerners” he’s allegedly served as a “spiritual guide” for include three 9/11 hijackers. And notably, Awlaki called Hasan a “hero” after the shooting saying, “Nidal Hassan Did the Right Thing” on his blog. I feel like “ideologue” and “spiritual guide,” while not inaccurate, downplay the very well-founded suspicion that Awlaki could be an Al Qaeda recruiter. This soft-pedaling of well-reported facts about Awlaki denies the reader the opportunity to consider the evidence that Hasan may have been motivated by religious views.

That said, while I wish the article was a little more upfront in places about the connection between Islamic extremism and terrorist acts — through most of the article the connection is explicit enough. And it’s one of the very few mainstream media reports I’ve seen that tries to assess the causes of and potential threat of Islamic terrorism in a America. So for that, I commend the Times and author Sebastian Rotella on a job well-done.

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Why did Muhammad do it?

What do you think, what do you feel, when you hear this name — John Allen Muhammad?

If you live in the Washington, D.C., area, the name calls back a stunning array of emotions and images. The sniper siege made ordinary people — with good reason — afraid to pump gas, to take children to school, to wait for a bus and a host of other everyday tasks.

Now that you’ve heard the name, let me ask another question: Based on what you remember about the mainstream media coverage, what do you know about the sniper’s motives? In other words, why did he do it?

Well, while the rest of the nation was struggling to grasp the “why” in the “who, what, when, where, why and how” of Fort Hood, folks inside the Beltway were wrestling with their thoughts and emotions about the execution of Muhammad. It was hard not to to link the two somehow, whether that linkage is valid or not. That’s my point. The cases have little or nothing to do with one another, few if any connecting themes, but how would you know that?

Why did he do it? In one execution story, the Washington Post notes:

What did it teach us? What did we learn from that awful autumn?

Not much, says Police Chief Charlie T. Deane of Prince William County, where Dean H. Meyers, 53, stepped from his Mazda at a Sunoco on Oct. 9, 2002, and was felled by a bullet to the head — the ninth of 13 victims shot that month, the seventh of 10 who were killed.

“The sad thing is, the biggest lesson from this is that two fools with a rifle can put an entire region of the country in a state of absolute fear,” Deane says.

It might have been anyone in the cross hairs of that .223-caliber Bushmaster in those 22 days and nights when millions cowered from a roving, unseen menace — when ballfields and school yards fell still; jittery motorists squatted like baseball catchers to fill their gas tanks; ubiquitous white box trucks loomed suspicious. …

The stalkers were elusive; the attacks, indiscriminate.

What did the attacks mean to Muhammad? Why did he think that he did what he did?

That’s where the problems began, for the mainstream press. I have always been troubled that reporters were afraid to discuss the sniper’s name and his faith.


1562006051916395315rifle_wThis week, James Taranto summed up my concerns perfectly in one of his “Best of the Web Today” essays at the Wall Street Journal. Click here to read that, with lots of helpful links.

Here’s the bottom line: Reporters needed to talk about the precise nature of Muhammad’s faith in order to separate him from mainstream Muslims. It was terrible, cruel even, to leave readers with his name and his evil acts and say, “That’s that.”

Here’s a chunk of what Taranto had to say, while thinking about press coverage of the sniper and then Fort Hood:

We got to thinking about the similarities with the Fort Hood story — but then we went back and read some of the contemporaneous coverage of Muhammad’s crimes and were struck by the differences.

For one, although Muhammad and Fort Hood suspect Nidal Hasan were both Muslims, Muhammad was a convert who had joined the Nation of Islam, an eccentric American sect that focuses on racial (black) rather than religious supremacy. Most of the reports on Muhammad’s execution omit the Nation of Islam connection, leaving the impression, among those who’ve forgotten it, that Muhammad is just another Muslim. …

“I am God,” unlike Hasan’s reported exclamation, “Allahu akbar” (“God is great”), is not something that Muslims normally say. Yet although the connection between Muhammad’s religion and his crimes was much less clear than appears to be the case at Fort Hood, our cursory review of the 2002 press coverage suggests that reporters back then … were more straightforward in dealing with it. And although Muhammad was a veteran — and had, unlike Hasan, actually seen combat — journalists do not seem to have rushed to fit the story to the usual crazy-veteran narrative, as they have been doing with Hasan.

Some have detected in the Fort Hood coverage a return to a pre-9/11 mindset, and there is some truth to this. In particular, the left-liberal tendency to stereotype servicemen and veterans as psychopaths, suckers and victims is a return to form. But the bending over backward to explain away the role of religious fanaticism in the Fort Hood massacre is, it seems to us, something new — something distinctly post-9/11, or post-post-9/11.

In other words, a lack of press information about the beliefs of these men is not good for mainstream Muslims. In order to separate these men and their beliefs from those of other Muslims, one must be willing to discuss those beliefs in factual terms, to the degree that this is possible. It’s impossible, in the long run, to defend the beliefs and lives of mainstream Muslims without discussing Islam and the conflicts inside that complex, global faith — even if that means talking about the Nation of Islam and how its non-mainstream beliefs may or may not have affected someone like Muhammad.

Silence does not help. Ignorance does not protect anyone.

Let me ask the journalists and academics who read this blog: Does that make sense?

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After Fort Hood: When Muslims disagree

ArmyMuslimsPrayersI was on a flight from Baltimore to the West Coast early this week and ended up sitting next to a young Muslim who was originally from Kenya. However, as soon as he came to the United States he joined the U.S. Army as a way to obtain funds to go to college. He spent most of his years in military service in Korea.

I was reading some New Republic coverage of events in Afghanistan and he noticed that and started a conversation. As you would imagine, it didn’t take long for this to evolve into a discussion of issues linked to the Fort Hood massacre. He was stunned and appalled, but not completely surprised.

In our conversation, he kept returning to two points. First of all, serving in the U.S. military raises a wide range of issues for Muslims and, here is the crucial point, Muslims simply do not agree on how to deal with these issues. Again, there is no one Islam. Some Muslims will have few difficulties meshing into the military. For others, it will be all but impossible. What’s the key factor? That was his second point. There is no way to discuss this without being informed and honest about the wide range of doctrines and beliefs in Islam and how different groups of Muslims interpret them. These tensions are tremendous, he said, often leading to striking displays of Muslim vs. Muslim prejudice.

U.S. officials (put journalists into this scene as well) are simply going to have to be very careful and take these doctrinal issues seriously, he said. They must find out what Muslims truly believe, if they are to serve in the U.S. military. Again, some Muslims fit. Some do not. Doctrine is the key factor in this.

But, I said, how do military officials (1) know Muslims are telling the truth? And (2) ask these kinds of highly personal, probing questions without violating, well, the separation of church/mosque/synagogue and state, without singling Muslims out for unique discrimination? He did not have an answer for that. Neither did I.

For a glimpse of how all of this affects the Fort Hood story, check out this new Washington Post report by Michelle Boorstein. Here’s the top:

U.S. Muslim service members say they stand out in both their worlds.

Among fellow troops, that can mean facing ethnic taunts, awkward questions about spiritual practices and a structure that is not set up to accommodate their worship. Among Muslims, the questions can be more profound: How can a Muslim participate in killing other Muslims in such places as Iraq and Afghanistan?

Just 3,557 members of the 1.4 million-member U.S. armed forces describe themselves as Muslim, and followers of Islam said the military is just starting to accommodate them by recruiting Muslim chaplains, creating Muslim prayer spaces and educating other troops about Islam.

There it is, in the second paragraph. That’s one of the doctrinal issues that this Muslim man and I discussed during the flight. Simply stated, Muslims disagree on how to answer that life-and-death question. Also, there is a good chance that Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan had one set of beliefs about that doctrinal issue when he entered the military and another when he purchased his handguns and began planning his ambush on his fellow soldiers.

There are other questions: Must Muslims actively attempt to win converts? What about serving with and under the command of women? Can Muslims serve in some parts of the world and not others? How do members of the military find the line between debating religious issues (such as those that may be seen as affecting U.S. policies in the Middle East) and using these debates as a way to express prejudice? That question affects people on both sides of this divide, including clashes between Muslims who have different beliefs.

These issues loom over the story and deserve more attention. Here’s another glimpse of the terrain:

Saleem Abdul-Mateen, a Washington native who was in aviation electronics in the Navy from 1975 to 1995 and is a national leader of a veterans group, said he straddles two worlds. “Today, a [Muslim] brother said to me, ‘You know, if we’re about peace, why are we fighting another country?’ And that’s valid. But you have to support the country when it’s right and when it’s wrong,” Abdul-Mateen said.

Doug Burpee, who took the call name “hajji” as a helicopter pilot, said he “never had a problem in 26 years.” Although he loves to engage in academic discussions about religion, he said, he kept his prayer invisible and thinks that Muslim service members, like others, have to compromise to fit into military life.

“There are Muslims who stop in their footprints to pray, and those people might have a problem,” he said. “But if you’re going to join — join. If Muslims don’t fit in, it’s their fault.”

This is a solid story, as a starting point. Let’s hope that journalists see these questions and take them seriously. The government may have legal problems attempting to explore these issues. There’s no reason that journalists cannot take them seriously.

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Military worried, but are Muslims?

Thirteen Dead In Mass Shooting At Fort Hood

Coverage of the tragedy at Fort Hood, which left at least 13 dead, has continued its evolution. I mentioned Friday that it began with shock and ended up with Muslims condemning the alleged actions of Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan. The focus now has turned to fallout for the thousands of other Muslim members of the active-duty military.

From the Wall Street Journal:

The push to boost Muslim representation has proven to be a double-edged sword for the military, which desperately needs the Muslim soldiers for their language skills and cultural knowledge, but also worries that a small percentage of those soldiers might harbor extremist ideologies or choose to turn their guns on their fellow soldiers.

In one of the military’s most notorious cases of fratricide since Vietnam, Army Sgt. Hasan Akbar, a convert to Islam, rolled a grenade into a tent filled with other soldiers in April 2003. The attack killed two officers and wounded 14 others. During his court-martial, prosecution witnesses testified Sgt. Akbar had committed the attack because he believed the U.S. military would kill Muslim civilians during the coming invasion. Sgt. Akbar was later sentenced to death.

Muslim soldiers also face challenges stemming from their dual identities as adherents of the Islamic faith and as members of the U.S. military. In Iraq and Afghanistan, Muslims serving in the U.S. military often use fake last names to avoid being singled out by insurgents as traitors and to prevent reprisals against their families elsewhere in the world.

Pretty good story from the Wall Street Journal — good graphic and it covers a lot of ground in a short space. But some big unanswered questions. Primarily: Why would insurgents single out these “traitors?”

I can infer, but readers shouldn’t have to. Assumptions lead to mistakes. That’s the first thing I teach the new reporting interns at UCLA’s Daily Bruin.

Let’s see if the Paper of Record did any better. This story from The New York Times surveys what politicians and bureaucrats had to say on the Sunday morning news shows. The short answer: No.

General George Casey Jr., the Army chief of staff, said on Sunday that he was concerned that speculation about the religious beliefs of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, accused of killing 12 fellow soldiers and one civilian and wounding dozens of others in a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, could “cause a backlash against some of our Muslim soldiers.”

“I’ve asked our Army leaders to be on the lookout for that,” General Casey said in an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “It would be a shame — as great a tragedy as this was — it would be a shame if our diversity became a casualty as well.”

General Casey, who was appeared on three Sunday news programs, used almost the same language during an interview on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos,” an indication of the Army’s effort to ward off bias against the more than 3,000 Muslims in its ranks.

“A diverse Army gives us strength,” General Casey, who visited Fort Hood Friday, said on “This Week.”

Senators Joe Lieberman, Lindsey Graham and Jack Reed also weighed in, thanking Muslim troops for their service. But missing from any of this is discussion of what it means to be a Muslim member of the military. The WSJ discussed the strategic import of Muslim soldiers and the NYT article focused on fears for their treatment. But missing from either article — a quote from one of those Muslims.

Sure, the military is worried, but are they?

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Of course, Friday prayers were important

Sometimes, it’s hard to believe what your ears are hearing — especially when you are listening to broadcast journalists having to work on deadline under tremendous amounts of pressure. That is why journalists hire experts, people to help them navigate the dense and often tricky language and symbolism of complex organizations, rituals and traditions.

Take Islam, for example.

Near the end of a CNN interview with CNN’s Middle East expert, superstar anchorman Anderson Cooper seeks insights into these haunting images of Major Nidal Malik Hasan, taken hours before he allegedly began shooting his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood. It is a Thursday morning and Nasan is wearing clothing that suggests he has just come from prayers or is heading to the mosque.

Thus, Cooper turns to CNN’s Octavia Nasr, although Cooper himself is a veteran reporter in the Middle East. The transcript says:

COOPER: Octavia Nasr, what he is wearing, is that traditional for a Jordan? Or somebody who has spent time in Jordan? I mean it looks — I think it looks pretty — like outfits I’ve seen in Jordan.

NASR: Yes. That’s the traditional Muslim, really. The dress and the head cap. So it’s basically Muslim. It’s not necessarily — so you would see people in Jordan, yes, wearing this. It’s just a comfortable dress, basically underneath the robe that you’re seeing there would be pants, comfortable pants. And the head cap.

So it’s not really a look that you would see around here in the U.S. often. So I personally find it a little bit unusual to see someone in a convenience store with this kind of Muslim garb. Now it could be that, you know, this is from today. So it’s not a day of prayer. Tomorrow is the day of prayer, Friday.

So it is a bit unusual, I find, for him to be wearing this. Except if this is his casual wear and he’s going there in the morning to get his coffee and from the store owner we learned that he went in there very comfortable, sometimes in sweats, sometimes in his workout clothes and sometimes in this garb.

COOPER: Octavia, is it possible that — I mean some people pray every day or even pray five times a day and some people would just go on a Friday. Is it possible that he went every day?

NASR: Of course it is possible, yes, absolutely. That is possible. From my conversation with the store owner, it seemed to me that Friday was an important day of prayer for him. That’s the only day that the store owner mentioned as …

COOPER: I see.

Of course, as mentioned earlier, Friday is THE day of prayer — a day when Muslim men are obligated to pray by their tradition. The tradition calls for them to take a full bath, to use perfume and to attend the mid-day Friday prayer service called the Jumu’ah.

Women are allowed to attend, but this is a service of great importance to men in Islam. The tradition teaches that those who attend will have their sins forgiven — any sins committed since the previous week’s Friday service.

As the tradition teaches:

Narrated by Abu Huraira:

The Prophet said, “When it is a Friday, the angels stand at the gate of the mosque and keep on writing the names of the persons coming to the mosque in succession according to their arrivals.”

Surely the Middle East expert and Cooper knew this. It’s something like wondering why liturgical Christians would make a special attempt to attend the Mass, Holy Eucharist or Divine Liturgy on Sundays. It’s a rather basic fact.

I would assume that the problem is that they could not assume that the viewers knew this?

“… It seemed to me that Friday was an important day of prayer for him.”

Really? Who knew?

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Washington Post delivers on deadline

I am always amazed (and I must confess, intimidated) by the quality of journalistic work that true professionals are able to do on deadline.

Of course, the Washington Post had a totally unfair advantage on other national-market newspapers when the story broke at Ford Hood. While Sunbelt newspapers were closer to the action on the ground (and some did not use that location to much advantage), the Post was able to turn its attention to the people who had the best first-hand information on the background of the alleged gunman.

Why? That’s the lede of the stunning early profile that the Post team turned out and had online last night — repeat, last night — while many other news outlets were struggling to make any attempt to cover the painful roles that religion and prejudice appear to have played in this tragedy. Here is how Mary Pat Flaherty, William Wan and Christian Davenport opened the piece:

He prayed every day at the Muslim Community Center in Silver Spring, a devout Muslim who, despite asking to be discharged from the U.S. Army, according to his aunt, was on the eve of his first deployment to war. Yesterday, authorities said Maj. Nidal M. Hasan, a 39-year-old Arlington-born psychiatrist, shot and killed at least 12 people at Fort Hood, Tex.

In an interview, his aunt, Noel Hasan of Falls Church, said he had endured name-calling and harassment about his Muslim faith for years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and had sought for several years to be discharged from the military.

“I know what that is like; I have experienced it myself while working as a bank executive,” she said. “Some people can take it, and some cannot. He had listened to all of that, and he wanted out of the military and they would not let him leave even after he offered to repay” for his medical training.

An Army spokesman, George Wright, said he could not confirm the report of any request to be discharged.

As authorities scrambled to figure out what happened at Fort Hood, a hazy and contradictory picture emerged of a man who received all of his medical training from the military and spent all of his career in the Army, yet turned so violently against his own. Hasan spent much of his professional career at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the District caring for the victims of trauma, yet he spoke openly of his deep opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He steered clear of female colleagues and, despite devout religious practices, listed himself in Army records as having no religious preference, co-workers said.

There are many, many unanswered questions and paradoxes — of course. The Post explored as many as possible on deadline.

The goal was to seek a balance between two sets of facts that had to be kept in tension, namely the allegations of bias against Hasan (can anyone doubt that this was a reality) and the evidence that many of his problems in the military were rooted in his convictions that it was wrong for the American military to be engaged in wars against Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan, beliefs that led to conflicts in the ranks of soldiers around him.

Earlier today, the Associated Press moved an update with a vivid image that may or may not link the faith element to the heart of the story:

Soldiers who witnessed the shooting rampage at Fort Hood that left 13 people dead reported that the gunman shouted “Allahu Akbar!” — an Arabic phrase for “God is great!” — before opening fire, the base commander said Friday.

Lt. Gen. Robert Cone said officials had not yet confirmed that the suspected shooter, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, made the comment before the rampage Thursday.

Quite frankly, I have been teaching all morning and have not caught up with the flood of coverage in the past few hours. However, I do have many questions, primarily based on the excellent Post mini-profile and other major reports at dawn.

* Is it true that Hasan had taken special classes to fine-tune his skills with small arms? How does that mesh with his statements to his family about his reluctance, as a psychiatrist, to have any connection with combat or fighting?

* Has anyone seen a description of how Hasan was dressed at the time of the attack? Authorities will pursue any links between the alleged gunman and his victims or words that he spoke to them as the attack began. Was this totally random?

* Of course, investigators will pursue any potential ties between Hasan and terrorists groups. A key question: Had he in fact sought a discharge? Why would someone whose long-range goal was terrorism (the allegations lurking behind those small-arms classes) make strong efforts (described by family members) to leave the military?

* We are going to end up with a timeline of people testifying to two realities that must be kept in balance. One reality is the claims that Army personnel were biased against Hasan because of his Islamic faith. At the same time, we will need to know when he began expressing his controversial beliefs about the U.S. military role in the Middle East.

How much of the conflict around Hasan was based on prejudice and how much was rooted in arguments about how his beliefs were affecting his role in the military? For example, there are clashing reports about negative critiques of his work. What about those emails that he allegedly sent praising suicide bombers? There are many questions to be answered here.

Once again, the Post showed its readers that religious questions would continue to rise to the top of the list. There are paradoxes stacked atop other paradoxes:

Hasan attended the Muslim Community Center in Silver Spring and was “very devout,” according to Faizul Khan, a former imam at the center. Khan said Hasan attended prayers at least once a day, seven days a week, often in his Army fatigues.

Khan also said Hasan applied to an annual matrimonial seminar that matches Muslims looking for spouses. “I don’t think he ever had a match, because he had too many conditions,” Khan said. “We never got into details of worldly affairs or politics,” the former imam said of his conversations with Hasan. “Mostly religious questions. But there was nothing extremist in his questions. He never showed any frustration. … He never showed any … wish for vengeance on anybody.”

It is going to take a long time to assemble a final timeline for the events that led up to the massacre at Fort Hood, if, in fact, it is possible to accomplish that task. However, the team at the Post did an amazing job of starting that journey — on deadline.

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