A mission for religion reporters

the missionI have a mission for religion reporters, reporters based in the Middle East and reporters who write stories that involve Islam: Start covering the differences in radical Islam. President Bush has been on a campaign of late to portray Islamic terrorism as monolithic. A good religion reporter would know this is not the case, so instead of telling us over and over again that Islam is a diverse religion and that Islamic radicals tend to differ on just about everything, show us. You know, it's that maxim you learned somewhere in journalism school (or heard from a berating editor): show, don't tell.

GetReligion readers, if you come across any articles that highlight differences in radical Islamic groups, please send them to us. The article will be posted and we will all be smarter as a result.

Newsweek's international editor Fareed Zakaria makes this point quite succinctly in a column in the Sept. 18 edition:

In the past two weeks President Bush has, for the first time, started describing America's adversaries as part of "a single movement," "a worldwide network," with a common ideology. He notes that these groups come from different traditions but concludes that what unites them -- their hatred of free societies -- is more important. This kind of rhetoric does have the benefit of making the adversary seem larger and more sinister, thereby drumming up domestic support for the administration's policies, but it comes at great cost.

To speak, for example, of Sunni and Shiite fundamentalists as part of the same movement is simply absurd. They have hated each other for almost 14 centuries. Right now in Iraq, most of the violence is the work of Shiite militias, which are murdering people they claim are Sunni extremists. How can these two adversaries be part of a unified network?

A look at Bush's remarks on Iran will show how such a monochromatic view distorts America's strategic thinking. Last week he spoke of Iran in the context of a worldwide movement of Shiite extremists. This movement, Bush argued, has managed to take control of a major power, Iran, and use it as a launching pad to spread its terrorist agenda.

I'm not sure the president actually believes in the transnational threat of a "Shiite crescent." If he does, why would he have invaded Iraq and handed it over to another group of Shiite extremists? (The parties that rule Iraq -- and whose militias are killing people -- are conservative, religious Shiites, often with ties to Iran.) In fact, Iraqi Shiites are different from Iranian Shiites. They have separate national agendas and interests. To conflate them into one group, and then to toss in Sunni Arab extremists as comrades in arms, is bad policy. The world of Islam is extremely diverse. We should recognize and act on this diversity -- between Shiites and Sunnis, Persians and Arabs, Asians and Middle Easterners -- and most especially between moderates and radicals. But instead the White House is lumping Chechen separatists in Russia, Pakistani-backed militants in India, Shiite politicians in Iraq and Sunni jihadists in Egypt all together as one worldwide movement. This is, of course, exactly what Osama bin Laden has argued all along. But why is Bush making bin Laden's case?

cracksI'll start the list. Everyone should read this excellent (and hilarious) New Yorker piece on the top Al Qaeda source in America. (No, this article does not threaten national security. The FBI is happy to get the news out regarding how well it treats informants.)

In the article, Jane Mayer does a wonderful job of describing the life of Jamal Ahmed al-Fadl, who has been in the U.S. witness protection program for quite awhile. Fadl is special because he used to be Osama bin Laden's money man. Fadl felt he had to leave, not because of some disdain for terrorism, but because he was scraping money off the top.

It's fascinating reading, and this one paragraph on how Fadl's one-time handler, Dan Coleman, was surprised to learn that Al Qaeda is not theologically monolithic, deserves particular attention:

Coleman was surprised to learn that Fadl wasn't particularly religious. "I never saw him pray once," he said. For Fadl, jihad was less a spiritual quest than "a socially acceptable form of bad behavior." As Coleman put it, "You get to blow stuff up and kill people, and your colleagues and peers think you're good. It's fun, and you can be a hero." Coleman acknowledged that most Al Qaeda members were deeply committed to Islam, but he said that it had been a breakthrough to realize that some were more like ordinary criminals, and could be manipulated in ways familiar to law-enforcement officials. ([L’Houssaine] Kherchtou was a pilot who worked for bin Laden for money, and he was angered when Al Qaeda refused to pay for his wife's Cesarean-section operation.)

Read on, folks, and let me know if you see any more examples out there of cracks among Islamic terrorist groups. How many Islamic terrorists are involved in Al Qaeda because it's an opportunity to blow stuff up? And where are the ones that can be swayed out of terrorism because of their weaknesses?

We've written repeatedly about those articles that talk about how most Muslims think Islamic radicals are nuts, but I'm hoping that journalists will continue to dig and explore the differences among those extremists.

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