Yet another horrific facet was added to the civil war in Syria with the recent revelation that an American, Moner Mohammed Abusalha, blew himself up in a suicide bombing there. But who was Abusalha? And what did he believe and practice? That proved a considerable challenge for a Washington Post article, despite its 988 words and six reporters.
First, there’s geography. "American who killed himself in Syria suicide attack was from South Florida," blares the headline in big type. The South Florida connection is deemed important in a lot of "crazy" stories, and as a longtime resident myself, I'll agree that it's often warranted. Most of the hijackers behind 9-11 lived here for weeks.
Still, it's good to know north from south. After saying Abusalha was from South Florida, the Washington Post says he went to high school in Sebastian and lived awhile in Fort Pierce, and his parents live in nearby Vero Beach and own a grocery story in Melbourne. All of those places are more than 65 miles from West Palm Beach, the northernmost point of South Florida. They're closer to Cocoa Beach, the site of the Kennedy Space Center.
The only exception is a mention of a Facebook picture of Abusalha "smiling in Miami Beach." Now, a New York Times story does say that he was born in West Palm Beach. Still a flimsy premise, I suggest. If the story were about me, would it say I was "from" New Jersey? Not likely. Not after living most of my life in South Florida.
The Post does a lot of noodling on how religious Abusalha was -- either to show a connection between his faith and his fighting, or to show how a good boy could go bad. But the efforts largely flounder like a kid on the first day of summer swimming class.
The newspaper quotes Orlando Taylor, who says he's a close friend with Abusalha's older brother:
“Moner was a real activist. He was a full Muslim,” Taylor said in a telephone interview. He said Abusalha attended Sebastian River High School, quit before graduating but then went on to earn his equivalency around 2008. Taylor said that he attended a service at a mosque in Orlando once with the younger Abusalha and that Abusalha would travel to take part in religious events, including “fast festivals,” where participants go without eating for days.
"Fast festivals"? Not an obvious reference point in Islam. Closest would be Ramadan, the holy month when Muslims are called to fast from sunup to sundown. They are allowed, however, to have a light breakfast and to gather for community dinner, called Iftar. But Islam doesn't order anyone to forgo food for days on end.
Then out of the blue comes this bizarre paragraph:
“He spoke in tongues. He sang the Koran and all that,” Taylor said. Even so, Taylor said, Abusalha never expressed violent or extremist views. “Honestly, he was just a regular person,” Taylor said. “He was one of the nicest people I knew. I never saw any weird side to him. Very respectful. He was definitely into his religion.”
Singing the Quran, I could buy that. Many a Muslim man takes on the challenge to become a hafiz, able to recite the entire holy book from memory. And they often sing it to help them remember.
But speaking in tongues? And the Post didn't consider that worth checking? I’ve never heard that one, even though I’ve interviewed Muslims for decades. Some special-interest websites allege that "tongues" are found in Islam as well as, say, Pentecostal Christianity. But I found no site by any scholar I recognized, let alone any I'd trust enough to quote. And if the Post writers did find one, they should have quoted him/her.
How about talking to someone at the local mosque in Vero Beach? After all, one of the Post's reporters was in Melbourne, a mere 44-minute drive away. The mosque would seem a good place to learn Abusalha's spiritual background. But apparently the Post didn't visit.
The only other clue I saw to Abusalha's supposed religiosity in this article was a lone quote from his writings in 2011: “Dear Allah, You are my Lord and I am your slave. I regret all my sins and ask you for forgiveness.” Substitute "Allah" and "slave" with "Jesus" and "servant," and any of tens of millions of Christians could have written the same.
The New York Times did a little better, quoting a local Islamic leader on May 31, the same day the Post story came out. The Times followed up this past Tuesday, saying the Vero Beach mosque has no imam, but quoted others who had attended.
And what about the mosque in Vero? What kind of reputation does it have? Some are moderate, some are known for harboring radicals, some are mixed. I’ve seen examples of all three types just in South Florida. No doubt they're also in North Florida and even Central Florida. Even if the Washington Post doesn't know where these places are.