In tsunami of Boston info, there are basic faith questions

As the drama keeps unfolding in and around Boston, it's safe to say that journalists now face crucial decisions about the role of religion -- specifically radical forms of Islam -- played in the motives behind this act of terrorist.

There is no way to read everything that is being written, at the moment, but we're trying to stay informed (even while, in my case, teaching classes). However, over on the journalistic left, Mother Jones has published this sobering information:

Authorities have identified the deceased suspect in the bombing of the Boston marathon, which killed three and injured more than 170, as Tamerlan Tsarnaev. A user by that name has posted a video to his YouTube playlist extolling an extremist religious prophecy associated with Al Qaeda. It is not clear yet whether the user is the same Tsarnaev as the deceased suspect.

The YouTube page includes religious videos, including one of Feiz Mohammad, a fundamentalist Australian Muslim preacher who rails against the evils of Harry Potter. One playlist includes a video dedicated to the prophecy of the Black Banners of Khurasan, which is embraced by Islamic extremists—particularly Al Qaeda. The prophecy states that an invincible army will come from the region of Khurasan in central Asia.

"This is a major hadith (reported saying of the prophet Muhammad) that jihadis use, it is essentially an end-time prophecy," says Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy "This is definitely important in Al Qaeda's ideology."

Buzzfeed has posted a virtual shopping list of information about the accused brothers, who continued to be identified as Chechen even through these appear to be ties that are rooted in emotional rather than lived experience and upbringing.

The Muslim card is clearly in play, after social-media links provided quotes such as these -- drawn from Tamerlan Tsarnaev's "Will Box For Passport" mixed martial arts site.

"Originally from Chechnya, but living in the United States since five years, Tamerlan says: 'I don't have a single American friend, I don't understand them.'"

"Tamerlan says he doesn't drink or smoke anymore: 'God said no alcohol.' A muslim, he says: "There are no values anymore," and worries that 'people can't control themselves.'"

To what degree is it news that there are radical Muslims who look at American and feel primarily anger, as opposed to millions of other Muslims who have come to have varying degrees of acceptance and affection for this nation and its emphasis on religious freedom?

What are the crucial questions at this point?

GetReligion readers will not be surprised to learn that I think the best questions are the old ones, the questions that might yield factual information that journalists can use when attempting to portray the degree to which faith did or did not drive those behind these acts. It is also crucial to learn everything that can be learned about the form of Islam that the brothers claimed, repeat "claimed," to have been following. Why? Because the world is Islam is large and complex and there is no one monolithic Islam that can be described in simplistic language.

What kind of questions are we talking about?

I was struck by one claim that I have seen in several publications. Here is the Buzzfeed take:

Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev, 19, is the remaining suspect in the Boston marathon bombings -- the subject of a massive manhunt Friday morning in Watertown, Massachusetts, multiple sources reported Friday morning. His brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, has been identified as the first suspect and died overnight following a firefight with police.

NBC News' Pete Williams said earlier Friday morning that the two suspects likely had "foreign military training," and had been in the country for about a year.

Later he said they were brothers, and added, "They were legal permanent residents. They were in this country legally, at least a year. They appear to be from Turkey, possibly Chechens from Turkey. That seems to be the nationality here."

Just before 7 a.m. Friday morning, the Associated Press confirmed Williams' reporting and naming Tsarnaev.

Foreign military training?

Now, hours later, some of those claims are in question -- primarily since it appears the brothers had been in America for a number of years (as verified by some family members). This NBC interview with an uncle is getting lots of attention:

Authorities were not sure of a motive and cautioned that other people may be involved. NBC News learned that counterterrorism officials were examining possible links between the brothers and the Islamic Jihad Union of central Asia, a terrorist group. Chechnya is predominantly Muslim. “Somebody radicalized them, but it wasn’t my brother,” the men’s uncle, Ruslan Tsarni, told reporters Friday from Montgomery Village, Md. He encouraged his nephew to turn himself in and said the two had brought shame on Chechens. He said that he had encouraged his own family to stay away from that part of the family.

“What I think was behind it: Being losers,” he said. “Of course we’re ashamed.”

Once again, what kinds of questions should reporters being asking?

I hate to say this again, but I addressed this just the other day -- in a post that some GetReligion readers misread, thinking once again that I was attempting to focus negative attention exclusively on Islam. Actually, the post included material focusing on questions reporters needed to have asked when investigating that massacre in Norway, and the life and times of Anders Behring Breivik.

So let's try this once again:

... What are journalists looking for? ... We need to know what he has said, what he has read, what sanctuaries he has chosen and the religious leaders who have guided him.

Also, follow the money, since Breivik certainly seems to have some. To what religious causes has he made donations? Is he a contributing member of a specific congregation in a specific denomination? Were the contributions accepted or rejected?

In conclusion, at this early stage, let me recommend the following classic from media ethicist Aly Colon, which ran with the headline, “Preying Presbyterians?” It focuses on the news reports that emphasized that Paul Hill, executed in 2003 for killing an abortion doctor, was a “former Presbyterian minister.”

Colon notes that journalists failed to note what brand of Presbyterianism they were dealing with. I would also add that Hill had been thrown out of these ultra-orthodox Presbyterian bodies because of his theological justifications for violence. In other words, they decided that he was a heretic.

These words from Colon are must reading right now, as journalists look for facts, instead of labels, in Norway. Yes, I would be saying precisely the same thing if it was alleged that the suspect was tied to some form of radical Islam. ...

“When we use religious terms, especially designations of denominations, sects or groups, we need to offer more clarity about what they are and what they believe. We need to connect faith to facts. We need to define denominations. Context and specificity help news consumers better understand the religious people in the news and how religion affects what they do.”

So, let's all try to ask some relevant questions:

* To what degree were Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev active in an Islamic congregation of any kind? Had they been expelled from one?

* Obviously, did they have associates who helped them or perhaps opposed them?

* Had they been overseas in recent years for lengthy periods of time?

* Besides the online materials, is there evidence of digital ties to any particular radical movement linked to Islam?

* What were they reading or viewing? Who produced it? Is there evidence of theological influence, especially linked to apocalyptic teachings and heretical or at least fringe justifications of violence against innocents? (Check out this alleged wish list for Tamerlan.

* This appears to have been a low-tech attack. Yet, when in doubt, reporters should always try to follow the funds used by the attackers.

Once again, as always: Be careful out there.

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