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

Concerning the sweet, formerly Christian, wife of the talented artist bomber April 23, 2013

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.

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  • Kate

    Reading further down the Pluralism Project entry, it says, “The congregants follow orthodox Sunni Islam and the masjid is no longer affiliated with the Nation of Islam.” That is a key point, and means there was no real reason to mention NoI here.

    • mollie

      First off, my reading comprehension leaves something to be desired since I completely missed that. Thank you for your note.
      And I agree it is a key point and will update. Also, I had pointed out that the other mosques in question were founded by Muslim American Society, the group founded by Muslim Brotherhood supporters in the U.S., so it seemed relevant to note that this mosque was not so founded.

  • Jerry

    If there was ever a case of needing good sources, this story is it. During the event itself, rumor was reported as news over and over again. Now in the aftermath, we’re still seeing poor journalism. Especially in a story with international and national implications, we really need carefully researched stories. Sigh.

  • ceemac

    I too am finding the coverage of the bombing frustrating. But for a different reason. There is just too much of it. It is coming too fast and is not well organized. I pretty much stopped reading about it after Saturday morning when it ceased be an urgent or breaking story.

    What I do want to read in a week or two is a long comprehensive story or package of stories in a weekly news magazine or two or in Sunday edition of the paper.

    • mollie

      Totally agree.

  • Julia

    “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.”

    I’ve never heard of any Christian group saying that a baby can be born baptized. Is that what you meant?

    • mollie

      I never know what the phrase “born a Christian” means outside the context of baptism. I think what people mean is that they were born into a Christian family, but I’m never quite sure. Traditionally the route to being a Christian is via baptism. If the writer meant that, I think he or she should have said that. If they meant something else, they should have been specific. They also should have sourced this information. How do we know she was “born” a Christian (whatever that means) or “raised” one?

  • Julia

    I guess you mean “born again”?

    I think there are some Protestant groups that do not think it is baptism that makes you a Christian; it is accepting Jesus as your Lord and Savior. For them, Baptism is just some kind of symbolism that might happen later.

    Reporters who don’t want to get into all of that would do better to just say “raised” in a Christian home.
    But I’m wondering what kind of Christian home – there are thousands of kinds of Christians. If the home was just vaguely Christian without much practice, that could explain a lot.

  • There can be nominal Muslims even as there are nominal Christians. It’s possible that both this man and his convert wife were nominal. But the media is very desperate for labels.

  • Newark

    Oh well, will the press ever learn?

  • Fr Theodore

    I could never find anything that said any more than “She was raised in a Christian home.”, but I did find this. Amos Paine was her art teacher in college.

    >But while she had been brought up as a Christian, she did not seem to be interested in religion. “There was none of that with her,” Paine said. “She was neutral.”

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    Let’s make a journalism point, shall we: This is an example of reporters doing the best they can as quickly as they can. Not for nothing has the newspaper long been called the “first draft” of history. A week or a month or a year from now, the details will surely be more solid. But inevitably, in the press to get the best information out as quickly as possible in an event of this magnitude, some errors and uncertainties will occur. Unavoidable. In this case, I betcha the woman quoted *does* have the titles for both organizations Which I also betcha, without any data, are essentially the same organization. We have a large mosque in Dallas that operates under a couple of corporate names. Not a hugely important fact in context. And yes, most of the mosques in the US that started out as Nation of Islam are now Sunni, carried to mainstream Islam by the late Warith Deen Mohammed after his father died. As for Mollie’s substantive questions about belief, conversion and the like: Wait for it. The New Yorker of the Atlantic or the NYT or maybe the WSJ will produce a megastory in a month or so that will have abundant details.

    • mollie

      Well, even if that woman is at both mosques, that doesn’t explain the differing answers about the alleged terrorists’ attendance.
      But as for the first point, I’m absolutely fine with having limited information. I just think that information is sourced. On what basis is the woman described as having been “born and raised” Christian? Who is saying that or what is the record that shows that?

  • Richard Mounts

    Jeffery Weiss, I disagree. I don’t think that most reporters did their best in the begining.. They did what is usually done with a fast breaking story of international importance. There is a rush to be first with something, anything, to make that reporter’s story stand out and gain eyeballs for his/her organization. They are under huge pressure from the suits to be first, not right. Management figures they can always make a correction later, or even just ignore what was said before, whenever the facts are known. The reporters aren’t bad people. I believe they want to report well. They often don’t have that option in the begining.

    Even now many reports don’t get the facts of the brothers’ U.S. citizenship right. There are conflicting statement about the FBI’s investigation of the older brother vis-a-vis a request from the Russian government. When and why did the Russians make this request? Was Tamerlan already in Russia? Why didn’t the Russians reply to the FBI’s follow up request for more information?

    It’s still a muddle. We really do need and deserve for all the MSM outlets to put together a long report that puts this story into a first-to-last narrative as we know it now. It should have only what’s accurate, well sourced, attributed information with attributed quotes, and perhaps why certain information provided in the story is important to the report. I’d particularly like to know why these two brothers are supposed to have assinated the MIT police officer. Did he recognize them? Did he attempt to stop and question them for some reason?

    The main problem is that too many of us don’t have the chance to hear/read latter, updated information that corrects earlier reports. So there is a public that can’t even agree on what the facts are.

  • Bob Smietana

    I agree with Jeff.
    Reporting takes time. Lots of time. Especially when are dealing with a complicated story like this one– which is about a crime and terrorism and religion and national security and ethnic conflict overseas and the internet and social media and a complicated religion that has a billion adherents worldwide.
    Here’s one complicated factor. Mollie said at one point that a mosque isn’t “a Methodist Church for Muslims.”
    While mosques are becoming more congregational – (that’s a story for another day) – they are not tied to a specific congregation like Methodist church is. They usually don’t have memberships lists or baptismal records or Sunday school registration forms.. No one passes an attendance form or sends letters to visitors. Any Muslim is welcome at any mosque- so there are often people coming in and out of mosques all the times. So just because someone prays at a mosque doesn’t mean they have a close tie. The imam at a mosque doesn’t always have the same contact with a congregation that a pastor does. And there’s not always a professional staff person or board members who can give accurate details, nor are there denominational offices to call and get details. Then there’s the embarrassment factor – no one is going to want to to be associated with terrorist. Then there are are critics of mosque who aren’t always reliable sources.
    Then there’s the fact is that people have an insatiable appetite for details in this story – but almost none of the people who want those details are willing to pay for the information by subscribing to publications that publish the news.

  • mollie

    But we agree that the reporters should share with us why they are writing she is Christian, right? Presumably this didn’t spring from their heads but from their reporting … why not provide the source of that information? Everyone understands that details may be hard to come by, but whatever details are there should be sourced, no?