Covering Islam in the courtroom

Zacarias Moussaoui's trialWhile the differences between movements may be fascinating, the tie that binds, violence, sort of supersedes that. That's why I don't think reporters should go out of their way to report any discrepancies in ideologies just out of opposition to Bush, he's a politician and he knows exactly what he's doing. The question remains, do reporters? Is there any particular case in which we are not being well enough informed about different extremist ideologies? And don't these also relate to the goals of the organization head as much as the religious compulsion?

Posted by Vox Dilecti at 1:53 am on September 22, 2006

In other words, do reporters understand the discrepancies in the various forms of Islamic ideology? In the world of Islamic extremism, which is often accurately associated with terrorism, are the adherents acting on religious compulsion, or to fulfill the will of their leaders?

Vox Dilecti's astute comment highlights complicated but very important questions that reporters are sorting out as the U.S. legal system struggles to respond to a group of people bent on destroying Western society in the name of religion. A reporter's job is by no means easier, but unlike lawyers, reporters must be succinct and easy to read.

While space limitations seem to impede the typical Associated Press or Reuters report, writers at The Atlantic operate under looser constrictions (although thankfully I've noticed that there seems to be some word-count discipline going on under the new editor, James Bennet). If you have time, take a look at the October Atlantic for "Prophetic Justice," Amy Waldman's article exploring the ethics of how the United States is prosecuting suspected terrorists. The material is a bit thick -- this is an article about the law, after all -- but Waldman is quite thorough and writes at a very high level of understanding. Here's the article's lengthy subtitle:

The United States is now prosecuting suspected terrorists on the basis of their intentions, not just their actions. But in the case of Islamic extremists, how can American jurors fairly weigh words and beliefs when Muslims themselves can't agree on what they mean?

In nearly 10,000 words, Waldman takes us on a tour of the U.S. government's prosecution of potential terrorists. In a keen insight, she compares recent terrorist trials with the 1925 Scopes trial: when you're putting a person's beliefs on trial, you are wading into the circus business.

To take the argument a step further, when reporters attempt to explore an individual's or group's beliefs, are they likewise attempting some form of monkey business?

In their exploration of Islam, the recent terrorism trials have had a similar, if perhaps less circuslike, feel. The prosecution introduces beliefs into evidence, and the defense challenges the meaning or significance of those beliefs. Expert witnesses in Islam then fight pitched battles of interpretation for each side. Some of the experts are mainstream scholars, others outliers with unconventional views. Together, they make up a small but often lucrative cottage industry where their expertise can command $200 an hour or more. In the courtroom, they create a theological thicket that may be shaped as much by their own agendas and perspectives as by the facts of the cases.

Jurors have been schooled in the difference between fatwa (religious edict), and fatah (conquest). They have had tutorials in the history of Islam, from the angel Gabriel's revelation of the Koran to the Prophet Muhammad to the rise of Osama bin Laden. They have learned about the meaning of bida, or innovation; the authentic chain of transmission for a hadith; and the virgins awaiting a martyr in paradise.

Such a thorough judicial disquisition of a religion has no modern parallel in America. Unless religious beliefs bear directly on guilt -- the use of the illegal drug peyote in religious rituals, for example -- they are generally barred from trials as prejudicial. Why have the rules changed? Because, as Aziz Huq, a lawyer at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice, puts it, in recent times no other religion has been "so intimately linked in the public mind to violence." Since 9/11, judges have given lawyers wide latitude to bring religion into the courtroom.

Waldman's essay focuses on legal matters, but the preceding paragraphs are worth discussing from a journalistic perspective. In the same comment thread that Vox Dilecti posted in, Don Neuendorf proposed a Nobel Prize (or a Pulitzer?) for any journalist who can simplify the multiple facets of Islam.

Does it really have to be that complicated for journalists covering developments in the Middle East? I don't want to issue a blanket statement on all news articles that deal with Islamic terrorism, because some are very good, but we've managed to chronicle some of the more problematic articles.

Take, for instance, Solomon Moore's dramatic Los Angeles Times piece on two Shiite militias and how since February they have killed thousands of Sunnis in Iraq. This is a huge story, but its significance is downplayed. A reader without some understanding of the differences between these two groups may conclude only that two rival Iraqi groups, one with connections to Iran, are duking it out.

Waldman writes:

Jurors have been schooled in the difference between fatwa (religious edict), and fatah (conquest). They have had tutorials in the history of Islam, from the angel Gabriel's revelation of the Koran to the Prophet Muhammad to the rise of Osama bin Laden. They have learned about the meaning of bida, or innovation; the authentic chain of transmission for a hadith; and the virgins awaiting a martyr in paradise.

Is it too much to ask that reporters covering the development of Islamic terrorism help explain those differences, or why Shiite death squads are accompanied by clerical figures who approve executions of Sunnis? To ask it another way: Are the appetites of Americans too shallow, eliminating any type of mass market for accurate, precise coverage that deals with tough theological issues?

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