Let's read a story about Hamas

Let's read this story together, shall me? The headline on A1 of the Washington Post was blunt, yet with very few specific details, in part because of the presence of that dishwater adjective "moderate." But this is where we start: "Palestinian Authority cracks down on mosques to promote moderate Islam."

Let's continue reading (with some jumps to save space):

EL BIREH, WEST BANK -- Each week, Mahmoud Habbash, the Palestinian Authority's minister of religious affairs, sends an e-mail to mosques across the West Bank. It contains what amounts to a script for the Friday sermon that every imam is required to deliver.

The practice, part of a broader crackdown on Muslim preachers considered too radical, shows the extreme steps the Palestinian Authority is taking to weaken Hamas, its Islamist rival, as it seeks to cement power and meet Israel's preconditions for peace talks.

That's amazing! I sure hope that this story is going to (a) include some specific details of what the authorities consider non-radical Islam as well as (b) the kinds of things that imams are saying who are affiliated with Hamas. Without those religious details, we really don't have a story. Right?

Proponents say the tight control is necessary to curb fiery rhetoric, preserve Palestinian unity and promote a moderate form of Islam. But critics say the heavy-handed policy violates freedom of expression, alienates segments of Palestinian society and is a harbinger of the kind of police state the Palestinian Authority could become once statehood is achieved.

Wow! We're talking about "fiery rhetoric" that is clashing with something called a "moderate form of Islam." That's a very important subject. We are going to have to be shown examples of the language and doctrines linked to these two clashing versions of this worldwide faith. After all, "freedom of expression" is at stake. So what beliefs are the Hamas imams freely expression? Can we have a quote or two?

This is also crucial to the peace talks, remember.

The United States has pushed the Palestinian Authority to put an end to the vitriolic sermons that the United States and Israel say undercut peace efforts. But it has been careful not to overtly praise the latest effort. While seen as helpful to U.S. goals, the crackdown also reveals an authoritarian streak in a Palestinian leadership routinely hailed by American officials for its governance.

These fiery, "vitriolic sermons" seem to be at the heart of the story. I'm sure the quotes and details are coming, really soon.

"The Palestinian Authority's plan is to combat Islam and the religious trend within it," said Sheikh Hamid Bitawi, a well-known Islamic religious authority in Nablus who delivered sermons for four decades before the Palestinian Authority banned him three months ago.

Bitawi estimates that dozens of other imams have been prevented from preaching since the crackdown started, leading to a preacher shortage at many mosques. "I'm sure the popularity of Fatah [Abbas's party] and the Palestinian Authority is going down," Bitawi said. "They will be punished for their behavior."

So the authorities are actually being painted as enemies of the religion of Islam or of doctrinally conservative movements within Islam? And these less-than-religious Muslims will be punished. Punished how? What are these two groups arguing about? Readers need to know.

A few lines later we are told that the dangerous sermons -- in 1,800 mosques -- have been "hostile not only to Israel and to Jews" but to specific local leaders, obviously the ones who are about to be punished. Many of these mosques, it is claimed, were being "controlled by Palestinian militant groups, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad."

OK, we get that. What are these fiery imams saying? What is this conflict about in terms of real, live debates within Islam? Let's jump down a bit.

In addition, the Palestinian Authority is training a new generation of imams at its government-funded Islamic college in the West Bank city of Qalqilyah. On a recent school day, students in one classroom of the soon-to-be-expanded single-story building were being taught how to distinguish Muhammad's true teachings from those falsely attributed to him.

Sigh. I'm getting tired of asking these questions.

OK, I'll try again.

What are these "false teachings"? Who has the authority -- other than soldiers and police with guns -- to make these kinds of doctrinal decisions and then make demands? And again, what are we actually talking about? What are the issues?

The mosque crackdown comes as Israel and watchdog groups step up monitoring of statements in Palestinian government-run media and educational materials that dispute Israel's right to exist or demonize Jews. For their part, Palestinian leaders routinely complain about statements by Israeli political or religious figures that are hostile to Arabs, which they say undercut peace efforts. ...

After an imam urged Muslims to kill Jews in a sermon broadcast on a Palestinian government-run television station earlier this year, U.S. officials complained. Habbash apologized, said the imam had been a last-minute substitute, and ordered the next Friday's sermon at all mosques to be about tolerance among followers of Islam, Judaism and Christianity.

So the heart of this is Israel's right to exist. The preachers are also demonizing Jews and one imam -- one? -- issued a call for more acts of violence against Jews. OK, that's not a surprise. But what are the imams actually saying? We are talking about sermons week after week, sermons that represent a gulf between what we are being told are two clashing visions of Islam, a gulf that affects Islamic law, preaching, doctrine, etc.

I think you get the idea. Is this a story about religion or simply politics? Do the voices of the imams matter? Do their words matter? It seems that people are debating with them. What do the debates sound like?

Don't look for that info on the front page of the Post. The religious details do not matter, even though this clash centers on a debate inside Islam. Sorry 'bout that.

Please respect our Commenting Policy