Dots in Muslim camp feature don't connect

A Los Angeles Times story this week on a Muslim youth camp starts out as one of those lazy summer features that most reporters could write in their sleep:

It's a hot summer morning and the campers trundle through the gates of a Pasadena grade school, then fall in with their age groups: the Seeds, the Dates, the Coconuts and the Trees.

A day of typical camp activities awaits: scavenger hunts, a "pirates and princesses" dress-up play and water-balloon tosses. But there is a difference here: Those activities are sandwiched between Koran recital, the Dzhur afternoon prayer and story time that includes tales about Mecca and Muhammad.

Even as one of the counselors tries to bring order to the paper boat race, it's a moment peppered in faith. "Let's play fair," said Noor Elfarra, 16, adjusting her hijab head scarf as she led her charges. "You're not supposed to touch the boat. You can only blow on it. Insha Allah [God willing] you can win!"

But after offering a bit more background on the only Muslim camp accredited by the American Camp Association, the story takes an abrupt dive off a cliff into a sea of random statistics and editorial opinions.

Suddenly, this isn't a camp feature any more. It's an exposé on the travails of Muslim life in America. The only thing missing: any real line connecting A (the camp) to B (hate crimes, anti-Muslim rhetoric, etc.).

Notice the awkward way the Times transitions from A to B:

Most of the campers are children of immigrants from predominantly Islamic countries. Their U.S. upbringings mean not all of them know how to pray. When prayers are recited, Ezzeldine or one of the counselors will lead.

"That's OK," Ezzeldine said. "I make it a point to enunciate the verses. I tell everyone whatever your level of prayer is today, make it better tomorrow."

Given current attitudes in the U.S. toward American Muslims, "a better tomorrow" is loaded with meaning.

FBI data indicate that hate crimes against Muslims seem not to be diminishing. Although anti-Muslim crimes fell to 107 in 2009 from nearly 500 in 2001, the latest data, from 2010, show that such hate crimes rebounded to 160.

In an instant, the Times leaps from children working on their prayers to statistics on hate crimes in America. Huh?

Keep reading, and you'll learn that the Council on Islamic-American Relations, or CAIR, posted a safety advisory for mosques after the recent deadly attack on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Also, there's a reference to a Gallup survey showing many Americans with a "not too favorable" opinion of Islam. All of these facts are fair game for a story on a Muslim camp, of course.

The problem here is that the Times sprinkles these details throughout the story without attempting to connect the dots between A and B.

If this is a story about Muslim life in America, the reporter needs to ask the camp directors, their parents and even the campers questions such as: Have any of these campers suffered hate crimes or persecution because of their religion? Do these campers encounter negative attitudes about their religion in their normal, everyday life? Is this camp any kind of political statement (as opposed to being just like thousands of other religious camps across the nation that help children grow in their faith)?

The story's penchant for editorializing isn't limited to statistics:

And it's likely that the Camp Izza model will be duplicated because the U.S. Muslim population is growing at a relatively fast pace.

According to whom? Without an identified source, that sounds like the reporter's opinion to me.

Near the end of the story, the Times stretches the bounds of this simple camp story even more:

Jalel Aossey, the former director of Muslim Youth Camps of America, closed his organization last year after 13 years in business when he realized he could not design a camp that would meet American Camp Assn. accreditation standards.

There are other obstacles as well. Institutions such as the Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn (a nondenominational public school that teaches Arabic) and mosques such as the one slated to be built at ground zero in New York have been beset by angry protests and polarizing political opinions.

Camp Izza has not faced those problems. Ezzeldine counts his camp as lucky, or perhaps blessed.

It's almost humorous that the Times goes off on the tangent of alleged obstacles, then acknowledges that such problems have not been an issue at the camp ostensibly at the center of this story.

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