A little less equivocation

elvis-shot-up-tv-792381I'm generally a bit frustrated with how the Western media covers Islam. Just this weekend I caught a bit of venerable PBS travel writer Rick Steeve's special on Iran. Say what you want about that nation's terrible government, Iran is a large and beautiful country. The scenes of mountains and ornate 17th Century domes looked pretty glorious in HD. Then Steeves' visited a mosque where he surveyed the scene and helpfully explained, "A seemingly innocuous yellow banner in the background proclaims 'Death to Israel.' This disturbing mix of politics and religion apparently results from a deep-seated resentment of Western culture imposed on their world." So that's why Arabs and Jews don't get along! As I understand it, the Mideast was the picture of tranquility until Churchill started arbitrarily carving up borders and the West started hegemonically forcing corrupting cultural exports such as, say, penicillin down their throats.

Needless to say this provoked a response in me such that even absent fistfuls of barbiturates and a .45, I understood Elvis' penchant for shooting televisions. With a new 50-inch plasma, it would be hard to miss.

Ok, ok -- so I know things are more complicated in the Middle East than Rick Steeves' rose-colored liberalism or any snarky response I might shout at the television. But I don't think I'm alone in feeling like the Western media is making a serious error every time they twist themselves into pretzels trying to divorce Islamic religious thought from political violence in the name of being perceived as multicultural and tolerant. It happens a lot.

So, boy was I glad to see this story in the Los Angeles Times Monday morning: "U.S. sees homegrown Muslim extremism as rising threat." The headline doesn't candy coat the religious aspect of terrorism, but also notes that it is "extremism" -- reinforcing the idea that obviously a very small faction of the world's 1 billion+ Muslims represent a threat. It's a very good story.

Further, the impetus behind the story is long overdue. When Major Nidal Malik Hasan went on his Ft. Hood shooting rampage, it frustrated me to no end that it seemed to take days before anyone remembered that Hasan's attack was the second attack on American soldiers in the U.S. by a Muslim this year. (Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad's attack which killed a soldier outside a recruiting station was the first.)

That said, here's a minor but I think justifiably irritating quibble. Even with the connection between religion and terrorism made explicit by the article's headline, why is it so hard for the Los Angeles Times to stop equivocating about the connection between Islamic extremism and violence?:

Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan -- accused of killing 13 people in a Ft. Hood, Texas, shooting rampage last month -- has apparently suffered emotional problems. But in interviews, officials and experts have also raised his Muslim beliefs as an alleged motive.

Let's unpack this one sentence at a time. First, did Hasan have emotional problems? The better half did a great job unpacking that question and despite some erratic behavior, actual evidence he was emotionally disturbed is awfully scant so far. However, the Times is willing to say he had emotional problems in the absence of definitive evidence. But then they hedge their bets in saying "officials and experts" have "raised" the issue that his faith may have been an "alleged motive."

And the thing is that whether or not Hasan's faith may have played a role in the killing isn't just a matter of conjecture. There's pretty tangible -- though perhaps not conclusive -- evidence that it did. For instance, there's Hasan's communications with Anwar Awlaki -- a former imam who's wanted by Yemeni authorities because of suspected ties to Al Qaeda. Now to be fair, the Times does mention al-Awlaki, but it's buried in the 25th graf of a 33 graf story. Here's how they handle it:

In proportion to population, extremism still appears less intense in the United States. But the Internet functions as the global engine of extremism. Websites expose Americans to a wave of slick, English-language propaganda from ideologues such as Anwar Awlaki, the Yemeni American described as a spiritual guide for the accused Ft. Hood shooter and other Westerners.

As it happens, Awlaki is a former Imam so I suppose "spiritual guide" is a reasonably accurate way of describing him. However, Awlaki's alleged Al Qaeda ties go unmentioned. Also unmentioned is that among the "other Westerners" he's allegedly served as a "spiritual guide" for include three 9/11 hijackers. And notably, Awlaki called Hasan a "hero" after the shooting saying, "Nidal Hassan Did the Right Thing" on his blog. I feel like "ideologue" and "spiritual guide," while not inaccurate, downplay the very well-founded suspicion that Awlaki could be an Al Qaeda recruiter. This soft-pedaling of well-reported facts about Awlaki denies the reader the opportunity to consider the evidence that Hasan may have been motivated by religious views.

That said, while I wish the article was a little more upfront in places about the connection between Islamic extremism and terrorist acts -- through most of the article the connection is explicit enough. And it's one of the very few mainstream media reports I've seen that tries to assess the causes of and potential threat of Islamic terrorism in a America. So for that, I commend the Times and author Sebastian Rotella on a job well-done.

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