Indy: Odd coverage of Islamic conference in Chicago

isna conventionMy old new local paper, The Indianapolis Star, took the effort to send reporter Robert King to the suburbs of Chicago to cover the Islamic Society of North America's annual convention. Reporter Robert King's initial story in Saturday's newspaper surprised me a bit since it seemed somewhat random. Then I realized that the organization is based in another suburb, this one near Indianapolis. The story amounts to an explanation of why this organization feels like the U.S. government generally doesn't get the great work the ISNA is doing in America as the supposedly largest Muslim umbrella organization in North America. The allegations of financing terrorists are unfair and unproven, and the group represents moderate Muslims -- in other words, the good guys:

Nowhere is the strange and sometimes strained relationship between the Islamic Society of North America and the federal government more evident than at the Plainfield-based organization's annual convention, going on this weekend near Chicago.

The Justice Department is here talking about civil rights, even as federal prosecutors in Texas have labeled ISNA an "unindicted co-conspirator" in a terrorism financing case.

The Defense Department is talking up its chaplain programs and business opportunities in Iraq, even though Muslims overwhelmingly oppose the occupation in Iraq and the military's views on torture.

The U.S. Agency for International Development is here, too, asking Muslim charities to apply for grants that could pay for projects overseas. This comes as Muslim charities have been under government scrutiny for any links to terrorist groups, scaring off donors who don't want to become targets if their favorite organization falls under suspicion.

The unindicted co-conspirator label from the DOJ draws a lot of heat from the sources King talks to, but little attention is given to whether there is any factual basis for that charge other than the group's president denying any involvement in illegal activities. Are the accusations really so unconvincing that King didn't bother to explore the matter beyond that?

The final section of the fairly short story, considering the subject matter, deals with the group's efforts to pay "attention to the possibility that radical elements could arise among American Muslims." Here's where King could have asked more questions:

A convention panel discussion today titled "Not in the Name of Islam" will explore the history and causes of terrorism, as well as solutions. A discussion Sunday will look at the results of a recent survey. Among the findings: 15 percent of American Muslims younger than 30 said suicide bombing could be justified at least "sometimes."

"Even if you have a fraction saying that is justified," [Louay] Safi said, "that is a source of concern."

By including the concerns raised by Safi, an ISNA official involved in training imams and other leaders, King leaves an opening to ask about the charges from the DOJ about financing terrorism: Can people be assured that all the funds distributed by ISNA stay out of the hands of groups labeled as terrorists by the government? King rightly acknowledges that the terrorist group Hamas supports social welfare programs as well as suicide bombings.

It's a complicated, thorny story that King is covering, and kudos to him for stepping out and giving it his best shot. The whole world of international financing and fundraising is a tricky business that requires a ton of expertise to understand. It is right of King to question rather flimsy "unindicted co-conspirator" charges from the government, but that doesn't mean ISNA should receive a free pass from scrutiny.

In Sunday's paper King writes about a national Jewish leader who spoke at the convention on Friday:

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie said the Plainfield, Ind.-based Islamic Society of North America has not always had a reputation of openness toward Jews.

But Yoffie, leader of the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish movement in America, is convinced the ISNA has changed.

The latest proof came Friday when Yoffie became the most prominent Jewish leader ever to address the group's annual convention.

And it came when his remarks were repeatedly interrupted with applause and his Muslim audience gave him a standing ovation.

This, even though Yoffie made pointed remarks about the pockets of anti-Semitism in the Muslim world and the unyielding interest Jews have in preserving Israel as a Jewish state.

I always hated covering conferences. I found it very difficult to come out with anything but a feel-good story that says little of substance (see Monday's story on Muslim marriages). That is what these stories often amount to: A bunch of head honchos saying nice things about everyone and discussing little of substance. Generalities, such as the lede mentioning ISNA's lack of openness toward Jews in the past, aren't followed up on and vast statements of brotherhood and a desire to work together aren't put through much of a reality check.

For a paper on a tight budget like the Star to send a reporter three hours north to cover a conference is an attention-grabbing decision, but it will only be worthwhile if the story is followed up with more serious coverage.

Photo from ISNA's Web gallery.

Please respect our Commenting Policy