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...]

The murder of Shaima Alawadi and media credulousness

I mentioned the story of Shaima Al Awadhi the other day. (Previous coverage here, here and here.) I became mildly obsessed with her after news of her unbelievably brutal killing broke in March. Al Awadhi was only 32 years old when she died and was a mother of five. She was attacked in her home, succumbing to her injuries a few days later.

Within days there were thousands of stories about her death, focused on the family’s claim that she was the victim of a hate crime. A minor movement sprung up, seeing parallels between the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Al Awadhi. Activists began to encourage people to wear hijabs in honor of Al Awadhi and as a statement against racist hate crimes.

A local CBS affiliate has the latest:

An Iraqi man whose wife was fatally beaten in their East County home last spring in what initially appeared to be a hate crime pleaded not guilty to a murder charge Tuesday afternoon.

The passive voice in the lede isn’t helpful. Appeared to whom to be a hate crime? The police always claimed they were pursuing a complicated case, even if the media ran with the “hate crime” angle.

Where the previous story resulted in national and international headlines within moments, this story has received more sparing coverage. Comparing the local coverage of Al Awadhi’s death when it was being billed as a hate crime to now is even fascinating.

Media outlets can be so good at holding other industries accountable but we tend to struggle with introspection of our own industry.

While we have no idea how Kassim Al-Himidi’s trial will turn out, it’s clear that the media botched this story. If the police had botched the investigation, I’m sure we’d have stories about that. Typically when institutions perform their duties poorly, the media are at the forefront of finding out what went wrong and issuing demands for improvement.

Shouldn’t we see those same demands for improvement when it’s the media that performed its role poorly?

Instead the AP ran a story quoting Nina Burleigh, which at first I found odd on account of her 1990s comments about sexual favors, President Bill Clinton, and abortion. But the AP was actually one of the only outlets to try to find some larger meaning in the murder of Al Awadhi. The story ended:

Author Nina Burleigh, who has written extensively about the mix of Islam and Western societies, said the case highlights the sometimes dangerous clashes that can occur when female immigrants, particularly from Islamic countries, rebel against cultural restrictions and exercise choices made available in their adopted homelands.

“These things are happening all over the place,” Burleigh said. “It’s much more openly discussed in Europe where there is more integration from these societies, where in the U.S. it’s not discussed so much partly because we have a bias toward discussing the way these cultures treat women.”…

The arrest of Alhimidi came only days after the sentencing of an Iraqi mother in Phoenix who was charged with beating her daughter because she refused to go along with an arranged marriage.

The 20-year-old woman was burned on her face and chest with a hot spoon then tied to a bed. The victim’s father and sister were also sentenced to two years of probation for their involvement.

Tablet published a piece worth reading headlined “Behind the Veil of Islamophobia: The murder of Shaima Alawadi isn’t a sign of increasing prejudice, but of writers’ credulousness.” A portion:

If the above is indeed true, the killing of Shaima Alawadi isn’t a warning sign of increasing religious intolerance, but of a shocking degree of credulousness from writers and activists. Why withhold judgment when the initial assessment conformed so neatly to an existing political narrative about the rising tide of American Islamophobia? …

The Facebook group “One Million Hijabs for Shaima Alawadi,” which was a hive of activity in the weeks following her murder, has since been taken offline. Despite some posts about women’s rights and feminism, the Islamophobia angle was what the organizers were interested in pushing. She was, it now seems, killed because she was a woman who attempted to throw off the shackles of an oppressive husband. Which makes this case doubly tragic. Just because Shaima Alawadi wasn’t killed by an American racist doesn’t mean that there isn’t cause for activist outrage.

Do any of us expect that the next time a story such as this comes out that the media will handle it differently?

Occupy Poitres

Le Figaro, Le Monde and Libération are France’s newspapers of record, the Presse de référence. While the national edition of Le ParisienAujourd’hui en France, may have a larger circulation, I believe that these three  best represent the voices of the French establishment: Le Figaro, the center right, Le Monde the center left, and Libération the left.

Yet French newspapers, like the French, are different from their American counterparts. The New York Times’ mantra “all the news that’s fit to print” which expresses the American concept of newspaper of record does not work for these publications. Nor are they written in the classical liberal style of Anglo-American journalism that places a premium on “fair and balanced reporting”. These three, along with most all French newspapers, are advocacy newspapers. They begin with a partisan stance on an issue and report on the news through that lens.

This article in Le Figaro is an example of European advocacy journalism. The story published on 20 Oct 2012 entitled  « Des identitaires occupent une mosquée de Poitiers » reports that a group young French nationalists, or nativists occupied the site of a mosque under construction in the city of Poitres.  They unfurled a banner with the phrase 732, Génération identitaire — a reference to the name of their organization and the date in which Charles Martel defeated a Moorish army that had invaded France — halting the expansion of Islam into Europe.

Before I dive into this article, I want to say I am not so much interested in the events in Poitres but in the reporting on the events. What I see in this story from a center-right newspaper on a religio-political topic is a typical example of advocacy reporting.

The article is Le Figaro‘s first report on the incident and is framed to show the newspaper’s dislike of Génération identitaire and their politics. It begins not with a description of events, but with a condemnation of the group by Socialist prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault. The who/what/when/where/why are cited in paragraphs two, three and four with the report that a mouvement d’extrême droite (extreme right) had occupied a mosque under construction in protest to the « l’islamisation de la France ».

 Jean-Marc Ayrault a «condamné fermement» samedi l’envahissement du chantier d’une future mosquée par une soixantaine de militants qui protestaient contre «l’islamisation de la France». Trois organisateurs ont été placés en garde à vue.

Une soixantaine de manifestants du mouvement d’extrême droite Génération identitaire ont occupé pendant quelques heures samedi matin le chantier d’une mosquée en construction à Buxerolles, à côté de Poitiers.

Les manifestants souhaitaient protester contre «l’islamisation de la France». Ils ont déployé une banderole sur le toit de l’établissement portant la mention «732, génération identitaire», en référence à l’année 732 où Charles Martel a arrêté la progression des troupes musulmanes au nord de Poitiers. «Nous ne voulons plus d’immigration extra-européenne ni de nouvelle construction de mosquée sur le sol français», est-il indiqué sur le site de Génération identitaire.

Here is a links to an English-language France 24 report on the issue. And for a sympathetic account, here is a story from Frontpage magazine.

Le Figaro then moves on to a litany of objections, denunciations and complaints against Génération identitaire. The prosecutor of Poitiers, Nicolas Jacquet, lists the crimes the Occupy Poitres movement have committed. The prime minister is quoted as having “strongly condemned” the action which was an act of “aggression against the Republic and its values.” The minister of the interior is quoted as saying his ministry will deal with the group with the “utmost firmness”, while the Socialist and Communist Party leaders have called for a ban on the group and their prosecution for “incitement to racial hatred.” And not to be outdone, the Radical Party said that calls to end immigration of Muslims from North Africa to France “are poisons that divide our society.”

The second day story from Le Figaro continues in this line. « Mosquée occupée: quatre militants en garde à vue » reports that four leaders of the group of 73 young people remain in jail. On top of this news is a condemnation of their temerity in protesting against the virtues of multi-culturalism.

What is wrong with this, you might ask? From an advocacy journalism perspective, nothing at all.  The reader is given sufficient facts and told what to think about the incident. The voice of Le Figaro is the voice of God, or reason (this being France after all) and one must believe.

The voice not being heard is that of Génération identitaire.  The group has a website, and has even translated its materials and proclamations into English. Nor did Le Figaro solicit voices from the French political establishment that might agree with the viewpoint, if not the tactics, of Génération identitaire. There is nothing from the Front national, the Mouvement National Républicain or the Mouvement pour la France.

Is it accurate, or fair to say that opposition to immigration is a conservative or “far right” phenomena? Have not trade unions historically been opponents of immigration? While the Front national, Mouvement National Républicain and Mouvement pour la France oppose the Islamisation of France, they do not share a common economic policy or foreign policy.  The Front national is protectionist and socialist on economic issues while the other two support classical liberal economic policies — free markets. Which policy determines whether your are right wing — immigration, economics, foreign affairs?

In light of the enthusiasm many newspapers felt for Occupy Wall Street, Occupy St Paul’s and other sit-in movements of the past year, I find it somewhat absurd that Occupy Poitres should receive such opprobrium in comparison to their fellow college students in New York or London. If the protest were held at a cathedral to protest the French Catholic Church’s stance on gay marriage — a live political issue in France — would Le Figaro have responded in the same way?

This article fails the test of classical liberal journalism as it does not give both sides to the issue. The reader is not invited to think the issues through and come to a conclusion based upon his unaided reason, but is instructed what to believe. This is the future of newspaper reporting.


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