How to follow AP; avoid the 'f' word

From the very first days of this weblog's existence, and up to the recent past, your GetReligionistas have been asking mainstream journalists to meditate on the following passage found in the Associated Press Stylebook:

"fundamentalist: The word gained usage in an early 20th century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.

"In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself."

Notice that the text correctly notes the Protestant roots of this term and correctly states that it is a fairly new term in the religion marketplace. It also stresses that there are people who accurately use this word to describe their own beliefs, such as the late Jerry Falwell. Notice that the Stylebook wisely urges journalists to avoid abusing this hot-button term in coverage of disputes among Christians.

So what are we, once again, to make of the following reference in a recent Washington Post story?

CUNIT, SPAIN -- This sunny little resort on the Mediterranean shore has long been a favorite for weekenders seeking to escape the congestion of nearby Barcelona for a dose of sandy beaches and sea breezes.

But Cunit has gained a new distinction: It is famous in Spain as the town where a Moroccan-born Muslim woman with a master's degree and a head of curly hair says she was threatened by Muslim fundamentalists because she took off her veil and tried to live like a Spaniard.

A few lines later, the label changes and then changes right back again:

The conflict roiling Cunit and its 12,000 inhabitants has shown Spaniards that they are not exempt from the growing tensions in Western Europe over Muslim immigrants who seek to preserve their home-country ways -- and sometimes to impose a conservative strain of Islam -- in societies based on secular democracy and Christian tradition. ...

(The) the feelings surfacing in Cunit have revealed a quiet resentment among many people who think that traditional European values are being challenged by fundamentalist Muslims.

Once again we face the question: What precisely is a "fundamentalist" Muslim? Are the beliefs of a "fundamentalist" Muslim the same in Spain as in, let's say, Saudi Arabia? How about Egypt? How about on the campus of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.?

While we are at it, what beliefs and traditions separate a "conservative" Muslim from a "fundamentalist" Muslim? And here is the most crucial question: Do Muslims use these terms? Have they actually adopted a term -- fundamentalist -- taken from debates in American Protestantism to describe their own beliefs?

I have my doubts.

However, if you would like to see how to cover this kind of complex story without resorting to inaccurate uses of these kinds of terms, click here and read the New York Times update on the case of Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, an American convert to Islam who used a semiautomatic rifle to open fire on a military recruiting center in Little Rock -- killing one soldier and wounding another.

Notice, in particular, how the changes in the young man's life and beliefs are described -- primarily through the testimony of family members -- without the use of labels. Here is a typical passage:

Eight months after the shooting, Mr. Muhammad's family is still sorting through the confusing pieces of his shattered life. A gentle, happy-go-lucky teenager, he had become a deeply observant Muslim in college, shunning gatherings where alcohol was served. He traveled to Yemen to study Arabic, married a Yemeni woman, was imprisoned and then deported for overstaying his visa. After returning to Memphis last year, he stewed with anger about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We are told that he had become a "deeply observant Muslim," a term that is certainly not offensive. Then we are given examples of how his faith helped shape his new life.

Later, the father says that his son was "brainwashed" by "evildoers." These are harsh words, but they come from a man at the heart of the story.

Read the whole story. Note the simple use of attributed facts that describe Muhammad's faith. It seems so easy, doesn't it? Why not use this approach and follow the AP Stylebook? That's a rather basic question, isn't it?

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