My hometown newspaper, The Indianapolis Star, did just about everything wrong in a recent article on the local FBI office's decision to bring in an author to talk to its anti-terrorism task force. The guest speaker, Robert Spencer, is the man behind Jihad Watch and has written several books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) and The Truth About Muhammad: Founder of the World's Most Intolerant Religion. Spencer has been on all sorts of TV news programs, but his radio work involves primarily right-leaning ones such as Bill O'Reilly's Radio Factor and The Laura Ingraham Show.
Local Muslims leaders object to Spencer speaking to the task force because it would be akin to bringing an anti-Semite to talk about Jews or a Ku Klux Klan member to talk about race. OK, I've learned from past experience that comparing things to the KKK and anti-Semitism is generally a very bad rhetorical device. It fails miserably in this case, but as a general policy, should reporters include them to deliver the position of a side they are trying to cover? Probably not. There are better ways to deliver that message.
But the heart of my problem with this article is its failure to get the local Muslim groups to flesh out their objections to Spencer's writings. Here's what we get from Louay Safi, director of leadership development with the Plainfield-based Islamic Society of North America:
Safi said Spencer's writings take selected passages from Islamic writings out of context in an effort to prove the religion condones terrorism. He said the FBI's use of Spencer could reinforce views some Muslims hold that the bureau treats them unfairly.
"When they bring in someone like that, it makes it difficult even for us to explain to the Muslim community that (the FBI) is neutral and is not listening to extremists who really hate Muslims," Safi said.
Spencer said he is not an "Islamophobe," and that he understands a majority of Muslims are peaceful. But he said there is no mistaking that modern-day jihadists from Osama bin Laden to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi cite the teachings of Islam in rationalizing their attacks.
What exactly has been misinterpreted? His general conclusion about Islam? His point that "Violent jihad is a constant of Islamic history" and that "many passages of the Quran and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad are used by jihad warriors today to justify their actions and gain new recruits"?
Oh wait, I'm sorry, that would require nuanced writing and an informed questioner. We can't have that in a news article. Or can we?
Also, when have Muslims in Indianapolis been mistreated? I'm not at all saying they haven't, but can the reporter ask for specific instances? Are we supposed to just assume that it happens?
A deeper question to be asked, after the ones about what has been misinterpreted, is why these groups respond so vigorously to someone they feel misinterprets and takes out of context their faith. Instead of attempting to get everyone to shun the writer, why not have a debate and hear both sides?
Another good question is how much Spencer being paid to speak to the local FBI group. Who else has talked to to the officials? Was Spencer going to be the only speaker? Is this part of a regular series? What are FBI officials in Indianapolis working on these days involving Muslims and, yes, what are they attempting to learn from Spencer?
The answer given at the end of the article is hardly satisfactory.