This past week saw two excellent examples of the American media's efforts at finding and portraying in the most positive light possible Muslims that make claims of being moderate. These two examples, one in The Los Angeles Times and the other in The New York Times, both portray Islamic preachers. Both reach their audiences primarily via the television. And both articles keep the basic beliefs of both preachers fairly obscure. The articles diverge in one significant respect: the LAT article focused on an Islamic preacher based in Egypt, while the NYT focused on a preacher based in Saudi Arabia.
The LAT article is a great example of the media's tendency when covering proclaimed moderates to tell readers everything that the individual does not believe in and little in which they actually believe.
Here are some examples from the article:
"I try to preach with simple language, not the language of scholars," said Hosni, who has a weekly TV talk show and whose sermons are sold on CDs in front of Cairo University. "People are attracted to new preachers like me because they want religious solutions to daily problems, not someone talking to them about the afterlife." ...
Unlike the radical Muslim Brotherhood and fundamentalist clerics, Hosni doesn't blame the state for the problems arising from Egypt's corruption and troubling economic transition from national industries to open markets. This suits his followers, upper-middle-class professionals who came of age during the country's Islamic revival and have largely abandoned politics to seek fulfillment in a compliant religion that speaks to the frustrations of jobs, marriage and family.
Islam, he said, should not deprive people of "the different pleasures of life. ... Those conservative preachers always tell you: 'There is no time. The Judgment Day is coming. When will you wake up?' You feel you are doomed," she said. "Hosni understands what we talk about and what problems we face and how we think. In colleges, we talk about dating. We don't talk about the Koran or religion, and Hosni talks about our issues. . . . He has a very simple style that allows him to reach our minds and souls."
What does it mean to talk about religious solutions to daily problems? Is he a Muslim version of Oprah or Dr. Phil? If he doesn't blame the government for the problems in Egypt, who does he say is responsible for the problems that exist in any society? If Islam doesn't deprive people of "different pleasures of life," what does it require of its followers? I'm not suggesting there aren't answers to these questions, rather, they weren't in the article.
The NYT article is better, but in describing its candidate for Muslim modern-ness, it fails to ask the big questions that would indicate that he believes things truly different from those Muslim preachers this article insinuates are extremists (due to their non-moderate status).
Here are some examples:
But something was missing. In 2004, he happened to see one of Mr. Shugairi's programs on TV, and he was mesmerized. Here was a man who had lived in the West and yet spoke of the Koran as a modern ethical guidebook, not a harsh set of medieval rules. He seemed to be saying you could enjoy yourself, retain your independence and at the same time be a good Muslim. ...
Yet his approach to Islam, as with most of the other satellite TV figures who have emerged in the past few years, is fundamentally orthodox. He says that women should wear the hijab, or head scarf, and he talks of the Koran as a kind of constitution that should guide Muslim countries. His next program, "If He Were Among Us," scheduled to be broadcast early this year, is focused squarely on adhering to the Prophet Muhammad's life as an example.
This preacher is urging women to wear the hijab. But wasn't he a moderate Islamic preacher? Or can the hijab and moderate Islam exist at the same time? How does the description of a "fundamentally orthodox" jive with the article's depiction of him as a moderate?
Also, he notes that the Koran should be used "as a kind of constitution" to guide Muslim countries. Is this his endorsement of Sharia law, which I should note was mentioned in neither of these two articles? There are a lot of questions buried beneath the surface of these articles. Hopefully future articles will attempt to answer those questions.