Reporting on the heart of Islam

Muslims in AmericaAn Associated Press story on Muslims worldwide rejecting violence against civilians provides a great lead-in to the latest Newsweek cover story on Islam in America. Based on a survey by the Pew Research Center, the AP article tells us that Muslims are "increasingly" rejecting suicide bombings, and support for Osama bin Laden is collapsing. As typical with day-of stories based on polls, reporter Harry Dunphy took the perspective initially published by the group issuing the polling results. As we have seen in the past, the coverage of Pew's polls can vary and the reactions to that coverage can be just as telling, as the Newsweek piece shows us.

Buried in the Newsweek cover story compiled by Lisa Miller (more than a dozen names are listed at the end as contributors) is this little bit of information:

Muslim American advocates have critiqued the press coverage of the Pew study, saying it focused too much on the bad news and not enough on the good. The bad news, however, bears repeating: 26 percent of Muslims age 18 to 29 believe that suicide bombing can be justified.

A lot of bits of information are buried in the Newsweek piece. Some of it reflects positively on Muslim Americans while other parts do not. Clearly a massive level of reporting went into this piece, but for all the apparent efforts the article turned up little that Pew's polls did not already reveal. Much of the information was demonstrated with real live people (YouTube debates, anyone?) instead of boring statistics.

Take the opener, for example, which has a successful businessman/father commenting on what President Bush told him at a forum after he asked what he should tell his Pakistani relatives about living in the United States:

"Great question," answered the president. "I'm confident your answer is, 'I love living in America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, the country where you can come and ask the president a question and a country where—' Are you a Muslim?"

"Yes," answered [Fareed] Siddiq.

"Where you can worship your religion freely. It's a great country where you can do that."

It was a good answer, says Siddiq, but not enough for him -- not when he, a financial adviser at a major investment bank, is afraid to use the bathroom on flights because he doesn't want to frighten his fellow passengers as he walks down the aisle. He thinks anti-Muslim sentiment in the country is getting worse, not better. "I'm not so much worried about myself," he adds. "It's the young people I'm concerned with. Those are the people we need to try -- not only as Muslims but as Americans -- to make them feel part of America. If you alienate the Muslim young people from America, that is dangerous."

The major idea I took away from the piece is that Muslims are concerned about their kids and the potential influence radical Islam may have on them (in combination with increasingly hostile attitudes of some Americans toward Muslims). A lot is said about how Europe's Muslims don't have it as good as America's Muslims and how that makes it harder for terrorists to create sleeper cells, but is economics all there really is to this?

There is a very cool map/chart that shows where American's Muslims come from. This leads me to wonder why the piece did not address how non-American Muslims perceive American Muslims. I know that's a hefty question to answer, but it would be interesting to know.

As with the AP story on the Pew survey, the Newsweek piece fails to grapple with the theological debates that are raging in Muslim communities around the world. When did the murder of civilians ever become an accepted tenant in Islam? The roots are deep, and from my understanding it has to do with the fact that "human shields" were used during the Crusades and Muslim fighters sought religious acceptance to fight through them to reach the enemy. Similar theological justifications have been used today to justify the murder of civilian Muslims in Iraq, where suicide bombings were unheard of until the U.S. invasion. Where do today's American Muslims stand on this ancient debate?

I think stories about the huge number of Muslims who love living in America and wouldn't mind posing for the cover of an American news magazine are great, but I'd be more interested in exploring their spiritual paths. The same goes for the Muslims who would be attracted to charismatic Islamic radicals. What tugs on the hearts of Muslims beyond the appearance of prosperity and wealth?

For an example of this type of reporting, The New York Times' award-winning series on a local immigrant imam working out issues of faith is a great place to start.

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