A poll and a three-part series

muslim americansMore and more Americans don't like Muslims, says a Washington Post-ABC News poll, and one-third of all Americans hear prejudiced comments directed against Muslims. That's a nice poll you have there, Washington Post-ABC. What are you going to do with it, if I may ask? How about a thorough in-depth report on the current status of Muslims in America, with a close examination of the religion's history, politics and cultural issues? Or you could just leave that to your chief competitor, the New York Times.

More on the NYT later. Here is what the Post gave us:

The poll found that nearly half of Americans -- 46 percent -- have a negative view of Islam, seven percentage points higher than in the tense months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, when Muslims were often targeted for violence.

The survey comes at a time of increasing tension; the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq show little sign of ending, and members of Congress are seeking to block the Bush administration's attempt to hire an Arab company to manage operations at six of the nation's ports. Also, Americans are reading news of deadly protests by Muslims over Danish cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad.

Conservative and liberal experts said Americans' attitudes about Islam are fueled in part by political statements and media reports that focus almost solely on the actions of Muslim extremists.

american muslimsThat darn media keeps ruining it for all moderate American Muslims. Did these experts have anything to say about the massively long three-part series in the NYT this past week on an American imam and his life in the United States? That might explain things a bit more.

I thought not.

Links to the NYT's three-part series are here, here and here.

The reporting by the NYT's Andrea Elliott is tremendous and will deserve a closer look at some point in the future. From the relatively brief skimming I've done, Elliott gives the issue the justice it deserves with a careful examination of the current state of Islam in the United States:

Over the last half-century, the Muslim population in the United States has risen significantly. Immigrants from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa have settled across the country, establishing mosques from Boston to Los Angeles, and turning Islam into one of the nation's fastest growing religions. By some estimates, as many as six million Muslims now live in America.

Leading this flock calls for improvisation. Imams must unify diverse congregations with often-clashing Islamic traditions. They must grapple with the threat of terrorism, answering to law enforcement agents without losing the trust of their fellow Muslims. Sometimes they must set aside conservative beliefs that prevail in the Middle East, the birthplace of Islam.

NYTmastheadIslam is a legalistic faith: Muslims believe in a divine law that guides their daily lives, including what they should eat, drink and wear. In countries where the religion reigns, this is largely the accepted way.

But in the West, what Islamic law prohibits is everywhere. Alcohol fills chocolates. Women jog in sports bras. For many Muslims in America, life is a daily clash between Islamic mores and material temptation. At the center of this clash stands the imam.

In America, imams evoke a simplistic caricature -- of robed, bearded clerics issuing fatwas in foreign lands. Hundreds of imams live in the United States, but their portrait remains flatly one-dimensional. Either they are symbols of diversity, breaking the Ramadan fast with smiling politicians, or zealots, hurrying into their storefront mosques.

A reporter doesn't come to those conclusions overnight. They take months and months of talking to people and book research. It is not accomplished by talking to a few random people on the street and a couple of professors that say things that back up your survey results.

Speaking of which, let's go back to the WaPo poll story. Here is a statement tucked away in the story that, among others, needs a bit of follow-up:

As a school bus driver in Chicago, Gary McCord, 65, dealt with many children of Arab descent. "Some of the best families I've ever had were some of my Muslim families," he said in a follow-up interview. "They were so nice to me." He now works for a Palestinian Christian family, whose members he says are "really marvelous."

WAPOMastheadBut his good feelings do not extend to Islam. "I don't mean to sound harsh or anything, but I don't like what the Muslim people believe in, according to the Koran. Because I think they preach hate," he said.

As a reporter, I do the best job I can to verify claims that seem anywhere close to extreme. If a Democrat says the Bush administration's fiscal 2007 budget cuts funding for the poor, I want to see the empirical evidence.

While reporting on theology or religion is a bit harder (but more interesting) than budgetary data, including a comment such as "I think they preach hate" exacerbates Muslims' troubles in America. Why would McCord not like what Muslims believe (what do they believe, by the way?), believe that they preach hate (do they?), yet maintain that his interactions with Muslims are quite positive?

The Post's story, other than the poll results, is little more than a random selection of Americans stating views that give color to their survey results. Poll numbers are great, but the background and research provided by the NYT trump the Post's story any day.

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