Covering a Boston mosque’s radical ties

The latest headlines give some indication of where the Boston bombing story is going. From the New York Times, for instance:

Bombing Suspect Cites Islamic Extremist Beliefs as Motive

A more informative article from the Associated Press is headlined:

Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Influenced By Mysterious Muslim Radical, Turned Towards Fundamentalism

Headlined in the Huffington Post, I hasten to add, since the “F” word violates the AP Stylebook. It begins:

In the years before the Boston Marathon bombings, Tamerlan Tsarnaev fell under the influence of a new friend, a Muslim convert who steered the religiously apathetic young man toward a strict strain of Islam, family members said.

Under the tutelage of a friend known to the Tsarnaev family only as Misha, Tamerlan gave up boxing and stopped studying music, his family said. He began opposing the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He turned to websites and literature claiming that the CIA was behind the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and Jews controlled the world.

“Somehow, he just took his brain,” said Tamerlan’s uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, who recalled conversations with Tamerlan’s worried father about Misha’s influence. Efforts over several days by The Associated Press to identify and interview Misha have been unsuccessful.

We focus on religion angles and how they are treated in the media, and will continue to do so in this and subsequent posts. That should not be interpreted as reason to focus exclusively on those angles. Journalists should heed the counsel of terrorism experts when they caution that “Complex rather than single causality is the norm, not the exception, for terrorism.” It’s definitely an egregious error to downplay the role religion plays in stories but that doesn’t excuse an exclusive focus on it.

The AP article suggests that Misha and Tamerlan met at a local mosque, though that mosque isn’t identified. I’ve been particularly intrigued with stories about the mosque(s) that the Tsarnaev brothers attended. Initial reports stated that no local mosques had heard of the brothers. By now we’re progressing to stories such as the Associated Press one above. I don’t even know if I can find it but I read a Boston Globe story that had a video featuring Suhaib Webb, an imam at a sister mosque. The story and the accompanying video emphasized how very moderate those mosques were — and how Tamerlan found their moderation difficult.

So I was surprised when some folks sent me a video suggesting that the mosques themselves had ties to radicals. I won’t link to it because the very first item the video mentioned had an error. It said that the founder of the mosque the brothers attended was sentenced to prison for his role in an Al Qaeda plot. I looked it up and found that description lacking. He is serving a 23-year sentence for his role in a terror plot, but it wasn’t identified as an Al Qaeda plot. I should add that when I looked up the name of the imam in the Globe video mentioned above, I saw this FBI document about how he had appeared at a legal defense fundraiser for Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, a Muslim man on trial for (and later convicted of) killing two police officers … with U.S. citizen and drone victim Anwar al Awlaki back in 2001.

It got me thinking. Are these things newsworthy? Politically, there’s an argument for balance that might be described as finding a middle ground between ignoring the role of Islam, and putting the “Muslim community” under surveillance? There’s a journalism corollary to this, I’m sure. So how does one present this information?

USA Today took the approach of investigating various ties the mosques have to terrorists and just laying it all out there. Headlined, “Mosque that Boston suspects attended has radical ties,” it begins by saying several people who attend “have been investigated for Islamic terrorism, including a conviction of the mosque’s first president, Abdulrahman Alamoudi, in connection with an assassination plot against a Saudi prince.” It adds that the sister mosque has invited guests who defend terror suspects and that a former trustee advocates “treating gays as criminals, says husbands should sometimes beat their wives and calls on Allah (God) to kill Zionists and Jews.”

It might be helpful to know a little bit more about mainstream Muslim thought on some of these topics. And I’d like to hear the comments in context, to know if they’re accurately conveyed. It quotes someone saying that the curriculum of the mosque radicalizes people and that other people have been radicalized there. It includes this quote in response:

Yusufi Vali, executive director at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, insists his mosque does not spread radical ideology and cannot be blamed for the acts of a few worshipers.

“If there were really any worry about us being extreme,” Vali said, U.S. law enforcement agencies such as the FBI and Departments of Justice and Homeland Security would not partner with the Muslim American Society and the Boston mosque in conducting monthly meetings that have been ongoing for four years, he said, in an apparent reference to U.S. government outreach programs in the Muslim community.

Now, considering that some groups have been questioning the U.S. government’s involvement with some mosques — and the FBI’s lack of interest in the brothers despite repeated warnings — perhaps a response to this quote would have been in order. But it’s already pretty long and there’s not space for every back and forth. The article again mentions that the two mosques share an owner and later on they mention that they’re both affiliated with the Muslim American Society.

The article states that the FBI has not indicated that either mosque was involved in the terrorism commited by the Tsarnaev brothers. But it does list some of the attendees and officials who have been “implicated” in terrorist activity. And it’s an impressive list:

• Abdulrahman Alamoudi, who signed the articles of incorporation as the Cambridge mosque’s president, was sentenced to 23 years in federal court in Alexandria, Va., in 2004 for his role as a facilitator in what federal prosecutors called a Libyan assassination plot against then-Saudi crown prince Abdullah. Abdullah is now the Saudi king.

• Aafia Siddiqui, who occasionally prayed at the Cambridge mosque, was arrested in Afghanistan in 2008 while in possession of cyanide canisters and plans for a chemical attack in New York City. She tried to grab a rifle while in detention and shot at military officers and FBI agents, for which she was convicted in New York in 2010 and is serving an 86-year sentence.

• Tarek Mehanna, who worshiped at the Cambridge mosque, was sentenced in 2012 to 17 years in prison for conspiring to aid al-Qaeda. Mehanna had traveled to Yemen to seek terrorist training and plotted to use automatic weapons to shoot up a mall in the Boston suburbs, federal investigators in Boston alleged.

• Ahmad Abousamra, the son of a former vice president of the Muslim American Society Boston Abdul-Badi Abousamra, was identified by the FBI as Mehanna’s co-conspirator. He fled to Syria and is wanted by the FBI on charges of providing support to terrorists and conspiracy to kill Americans in a foreign country.

• Jamal Badawi of Canada, a former trustee of the Islamic Society of Boston Trust, which owns both mosques, was named as a non-indicted co-conspirator in the 2007 Holy Land Foundation terrorism trial in Texas over the funneling of money to Hamas, which is the Palestinian wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The article also mentions a little bit about the Muslim American Society:

[Read more...]

Concerning the sweet, formerly Christian, wife of the talented artist bomber

Here’s an interesting and timely religion news story at the Huffington Post: “Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Suspected Boston Bomber, May Not Get Islamic Funeral From Wary Muslims.” Assuming you’re interested in the topic, finds an interesting and informative angle and provides many details about Muslim burial and funeral rites.

Is anyone else finding the general coverage of this Boston bombing frustrating? I really wish reporters would remember to source everything better. I keep seeing details presented as statements of fact only to find them contradicted in other stories. It’s hard to know who is right or how to check it out. Yesterday, for instance, I wrote about confusion between the Islamic Society of Boston, a small mosque in Cambridge pictured here, and a much larger sister site called the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center. Let’s remember that as we dig into this Associated Press story headlined, in the Washington Post, at least: “Late Boston Marathon bombing suspect’s wife described as talented artist, ‘sweet.’” It begins:

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Katherine Russell was a talented artist, a good student who grew up Christian, the daughter of a suburban doctor.

Then she went off to college in Boston.

A few years later, she had dropped out of school, converted to Islam and was Katherine Tsarnaeva, wife of a man who would become a suspect in the deadly Boston Marathon bombings and a subject of one of the biggest manhunts in American history.

We’d been learning so much about how the Tsarnaev brothers became more interested in radical Islam. I was curious about the spouse’s religious background and was fascinated to learn she “grew up Christian.” I know that can mean about a million different things so I read the story looking forward to additional details.

But those three words in the lede are all we have. I’d love even to know how we know this. She “grew up Christian” according to whom? I’d read elsewhere on the internet that she in fact hadn’t grown up in a family that was religious. It had better sourcing than this story but came from a site that is outside mainstream media. The CNN story on Katherine does the same thing as the AP, although further down:

Russell was born and raised a Christian, but she converted to Islam after marrying Tsarnaev. She’s an observant Muslim and wears a headscarf, her lawyer said.

I’m not even sure what being “born” a Christian means, unless we’re referring to baptism, but I don’t think that’s what the story is getting at. And are we sure we converted after marriage as opposed to before? How do we know the date?

Another Huffington Post story, that has been updated, on the brothers’ visits to a local mosque, includes a statement from the mosque saying that they weren’t members. That made me realize that I know nothing about what it means to be a member of a mosque. How does one join? What is required? What differentiates a member from someone who is not a member?

The AP story on Katherine says:

The couple got married on June 21, 2010, a Monday, in a ceremony performed by Imam Taalib Mahdee, of Masjid al Qur’aan, in Boston’s Dorchester neighborhood, according to their marriage certificate, which lists his profession as a driver.

So why did they get married there? The Pluralism Project at Harvard has an entry on Masjid al Qur’an (not sure why AP spells it differently) and that entry says that it was founded as a Nation of Islam mosque but that the congregants follow orthodox Sunni Islam and the masjid is no longer affiliated with the Nation of Islam.

The AP story also has this mess of a couple of paragraphs:

Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s relatives have said that in recent years he became a devout Muslim and prayed five times a day. DeLuca said the couple attended the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, although the mosque’s executive assistant, Nichole Mossalam, said that Tsarnaeva had never been there to her knowledge.

Leaders at the mosque say Tamerlan Tsarnaev did attend and in recent months had outbursts during two sermons that encouraged Muslims to celebrate American institutions such as the Fourth of July and figures including Martin Luther King Jr.

Argh. Did DeLuca say that? And Nichole Mossalam is identified in other reports as the office manager of the Islamic Society of Boston. I don’t think she’s the office manager for both, I really don’t, but this is confusing. Could both mosques have executive assistants with the same name? To further confound things, in other reports, Mossalam is quoted as saying that the brothers did go to the Islamic Society of Boston in Cambridge.

Yes, both mosques are affiliated with the Muslim American Society and are sister organizations. But failure to get this right is hurting a lot of stories.

Also, I wonder if, given where the marriage rite took place and what the ISB says about membership, reporters should extend their questions beyond the ISB and ISBCC.

Untangling the Tsarnaevs’ Muslim ties, carefully

On Friday we asked readers to send in thoughts on good and bad coverage of religion angles for the Tsarnaev brothers. And we’ve seen quite a bit of good coverage — too much to go into but I hope you’re seeing it in your local and national outlets. We’ve also heard from religion reporters and others who pointed out problems.

One early problem was the attempt to define the brothers as either “devout” or “not devout.” For an example of the former, we have the New York Post:

The Chechen immigrant brothers who bombed the Boston Marathon were devout Muslims who appeared to become more radicalized in recent months — posting Islamic “jihad” videos on social-media sites and following the preachings of a firebrand cleric.

I’d argue against using the word even when dealing with someone you think can be described that way without question. I’d avoid it like the plague when dealing with folks you don’t know terribly much about. It’s important when using that word to have a shared understanding of what it means to be devout in a given religion. In what way were they devout, exactly? Tell us more about their fasting, their alms-giving, their prayer lives, their Hajj journeys. Or is that not what the Post meant? What did they mean?

We see similar confusion about devotion at the other end of the spectrum, too. We frequently see reporters equate it with regular corporate worship — no matter if the religion itself holds corporate worship in the same way that, say, the Roman Catholic Church does. An Islamic community center isn’t just a Methodist Church for Muslims. Piety in Islam is not the same as piety in another religion, necessarily.

Still, a good first step in learning more about the suspects’ religious lives does involve finding out if they were part of a worship community. I was glad to see that the folks over at CNN made some calls early on. They reported:

Muslim leaders in Boston tell me they don’t know the suspects. They seem to not have ties to any of the big mosques in the area.


Muslim leaders condemn bombing suspects and no Muslims in Boston seem to know them.

This Boston Globe story, “Islam might have had secondary role in Boston attacks,” followed a similar theme.

It turns out, though, that the brothers did pray at the local Cambridge mosque. Later stories mentioned that, adding that they exhibited no violent tendencies. Subsequent updates indicated that the older brother had publicly reprimanded a speaker who praised Martin Luther King, Jr. and had been asked to leave. Updates to that story included a different account — that the brother had simply been asked to calm down. This Boston Globe story says that there was more than one outburst. It’s all an evolving story, it seems.

When the news came out that the brothers had worshiped at the local Cambridge mosque, some reporters began calling it the “Islamic Center of Boston,” either in their stories or in tweets. It’s actually the Islamic Society of Boston. Here’s how the Los Angeles Times put it in its story on the shouting incident:

At the Cambridge mosque near where the bombing suspects lived, two worshipers who showed up for Saturday’s prayer service recalled seeing both men.

Tamerlan Tsarnaev was thrown out of the mosque — the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center — about three months ago, after he stood up and shouted at the imam during a Friday prayer service, they said. The imam had held up slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. as an example of a man to emulate, recalled one worshiper who would give his name only as Muhammad.

Enraged, Tamerlan stood up and began shouting, Muhammad said.

“You cannot mention this guy because he’s not a Muslim!” Muhammad recalled Tamerlan shouting, shocking others in attendance.

“He’s crazy to me,” Muhammad said. “He had an anger inside.… I can’t explain what was in his mind.”

Tamerlan was then kicked out of the prayer service for his outburst, Muhammad recalled. “You can’t do that,” Muhammad said of shouting at the imam.

Still, Tamerlan returned to Friday prayer services and had no further outbursts, Muhammad said.

The other mosque attendee, who identified himself only as Haithen, described Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as nice, friendly and “really laid back.”

Tamerlan Tsarnaev was different though. “His persona was not really so nice,” this worshiper said.

But it wasn’t the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center! After quite the Twitter campaign led by one of the ISBCC’s imams, the Times corrected the story. Still, there is some tie between the two groups. In a great round-up of the current news, Huffington Post explained:

Imam Suhaib Webb, of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, the city’s largest mosque, said in an interview that he had recently heard of the incident. “That’s a sign right there that his views aren’t mainstream,” Webb said.

The Cambridge mosque leaders’ theology is not extremist, he said. Webb’s mosque has the same owners but a separate administration from the Islamic Society of Boston. Webb said he never met the brothers and had not found their names on his mosque’s membership list.

One of the things that might be helpful is learning a bit more about these “same owners” as well as their differing administrations. I mean, I understand that there are certain things that other congregations in my church body share and certain things that are different, but I’d love to know how that plays out among Muslim adherents. The ISBCC is run by the Muslim American Society, a group started by U.S. supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. I’m somewhat surprised by how little journalism we see on the Muslim American Society, but here are some old pieces from the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post, both of which are absolutely riveting.

Anyway, early reporting on this story could not have changed more dramatically. I hope we see more genuine interest in what role religion and religious communities played in these brothers’ lives — at home, in the local community and in the larger world.

Net image via Shutterstock.