Awards ahead? Top guns roll out quality work on Saudi life, female Arab Muslims in Olympics

Two of the remaining big guys in print ran some excellent long-form newspaper journalism recently looking at the social impact of conservative Islam in Saudi Arabia and across the Arab world, including its hobbling of would-be female Arab Olympic athletes.

The big guys are The Washington Post and The New York Times, two of the few mainstream newspapers still able and willing to invest heavily in time-consuming, difficult to produce, international stories with global religious/cultural/political consequences.

If you haven't already, take the time to read these pieces in full. They're great reads and informative. (C'mon,  put away Pokemon Go for 20-30 minutes). The requisite links are below.

Let's look first at the Times offering.

Times veteran Middle East correspondent Ben Hubbard -- his Facebook page says he "spent weeks and weeks" in Saudi Arabia exploring Wahhabi Islam's hold on Saudi society -- opens his piece with the plight of a former muckety-muck in the kingdom's so-called religious police.

Ahmed Qassim al-Ghamdi's world turned upside down when he began questioning what he was doing, and went public with his doubts.

Here's a chunk of Hubbard's piece that explains what happened to Ghamdi.

So he spoke out. In articles and television appearances, he argued that much of what Saudis practiced as religion was in fact Arabian cultural practices that had been mixed up with their faith.
There was no need to close shops for prayer, he said, nor to bar women from driving, as Saudi Arabia does. At the time of the Prophet, women rode around on camels, which he said was far more provocative than veiled women piloting S.U.V.s.
He even said that while women should conceal their bodies, they needed to cover their faces only if they chose to do so. And to demonstrate the depth of his own conviction, Mr. Ghamdi went on television with his wife, Jawahir, who smiled to the camera, her face bare and adorned with a dusting of makeup.
It was like a bomb inside the kingdom’s religious establishment, threatening the social order that granted prominence to the sheikhs and made them the arbiters of right and wrong in all aspects of life. He threatened their control.
Mr. Ghamdi’s colleagues at work refused to speak to him. Angry calls poured into his cellphone and anonymous death threats hit him on Twitter. Prominent sheikhs took to the airwaves to denounce him as an ignorant upstart who should be punished, tried — and even tortured.

Hubbard segues from Ghamdi's personal story to explore in depth the history and beliefs of Wahhabi Islam. I particularly liked Hubbard's writing in the first person (still unusual for Times news features; I'm guessing it's another sign of the web's triumph over the legacy print news business). It allowed him to humanize his steps in reporting this blockbuster, giving his work extra value for journalists aspiring to his A-level standing.

Here's the link to Hubbard's piece. And here's the link to a web-only follow up he wrote on reader reaction to his story received via Twitter, email and posted comments. His original piece had more than 1,060 reader online posts, at the time I started writing this.

The piece is one in an intermittent series the Times has been running in recent months about Saudi Arabia (Click here to read my previous post on the series.) Look for the series to resurface when the next journalism award season rolls around. It's that good.

Speaking of series, the Post's effort was also solid, with stories and sidebars on the difficulties faced by Arab Muslim female athletes seeking Olympic glory published over two days last week.

This effort by the Post was just, if not even more, ambitious than that of the Times. The main story started on page one of the print edition both days and jumped inside to consume two full pages, including ample art. Given all the other news that broke last week and competed for space and attention, front page exposure and two full inside pages represents a serious commitment.

As if to reinforce the journalism truism that sports reporting has progressed way beyond simple game coverage, the Post copy was produced by a sports specialist, albeit one with considerable range and ability. Reporter Chuck Culpepper's coverage of the British Open golf tournament ran in the sports section as his series ran simultaneously in the news pages.

Here's one portal to Culpepper's work. It contains internal links that access the entire series -- which is also likely to make a return appearance come journalism award season, at the very least in the sports journalism sphere.

Here's the lede to Culpepper's first piece in the series:

DUBAI -- In a coffeehouse with the world’s tallest building preening from two miles out the front window, here sits another groundbreaker: a 26-year-old, female, Emirati, Arab, Muslim, competitive weightlifter with a vitality in her tone, a hijab on her head and a herniated disk hollering from her lower back.
Not so long ago, 19-year-old Amna Al Haddad never would have guessed she would reach the spring of 2016 speaking in enthusiastic paragraphs about her unforeseen odyssey. She never would have envisioned herself just off her national team’s attempt to qualify for next month’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. She certainly wouldn’t have imagined herself as part of a concept gaining familiarity in the Middle East in the 2010s, that of the female athlete.
“I’m seeing it unfold, basically,” she said, and 20 athletes from seven nationalities, plus those who raised them or coach them or know them, agreed in recent interviews. They said there’s less loneliness in being a female athlete in the region, even as they acknowledge that women still face significant impediments toward achieving Olympic-level excellence — entrenched cultural norms about the role of women foremost among them.

Note his use of the word "cultural."

The one problem I have with Culpepper's stories is that virtually throughout he employs the words "culture" and "cultural" without connecting them directly to the Arab world's prevailing faith, Islam. It feels as if he purposely avoided getting into the thicket of Muslim beliefs and practices -- which together pretty much define the culture of which he speaks -- because he and/or his editors thought doing so would seriously slow the smooth flow of Culpepper's copy.

Hence, his series stuck to more easy to report observations about conservative Arab culture, never venturing to really dig into the reasons underpinning the social milieu. Conservative religious values are hinted at, but never taken on at the level of doctrines, traditions and facts. This is too much of an unmentioned elephant in the room for me. Here at GetReligion, this is called a religion "ghost."

That aside -- and I realize some of you who read the series primarily about sports may be more unforgiving on this point than I am -- Hubbard and Culpepper have produced some first-rate work that should be read by journalism pros and academics with any interest in religion, politics, the Middle East or women's sports.

As the world continues to shrink and Islam and the Middle East loom ever larger in the American future, more such In depth reporting is sorely needed.

Please respect our Commenting Policy