Anyone who knows anything about Islam knows that devout Muslim believers who practice their faith do not drink alcohol. It is not very hard to find this out, as this Google search shows (Muslim beliefs on drinking alcohol). That's why I was rather surprised to read an interesting, but rather strange, detail in one of the many New York Times updates on the life of Faisal Shahzad and the various influences in his life that may, or may not, have led him to attempt an act of terrorism in Times Square. This story ran under the headline, "Money Woes, Long Silences and a Zeal for Islam."
Once again, everyone is try to answer the big "Why?" question, which tends to lead to questions about religion. Here is a crucial early paragraph, one that can be found in almost any story about people who veer into radical forms of Islam.
As another day passed with Mr. Shahzad talking to investigators about the car bomb he had admitted driving into Times Square on Saturday, details emerged ... about the couple and their life together, along with speculation about his radicalization. People who knew them, both in Connecticut and in Pakistan, said he had changed in the past year or so, becoming more reserved and more religious as he faced what someone who knows the family well called "their financial troubles."
Then later, as the Times teams allows more and more voices to describe Shahzad, we hit this rather complex passage:
Faiz Ahmad, a friend from the Shahzad family's ancestral village, Mohib Banda, said that when he last saw Mr. Shahzad, at a wedding a year and a half ago, he was sure that something was wrong. Mr. Shahzad seemed changed, he said, sitting by himself and not talking very much. He was "completely quiet on the sofa, like someone who has some worries, and undergoing some internal change," Mr. Ahmad said. ...
A Pakistani man said that an acquaintance of his who was a friend of the Shahzad family told him that within the past year, Mr. Shahzad had peered critically at a glass of whiskey the friend was holding, indicating a judgmental stance typical for rigid jihadis.
First of all, note the complexity of the sourcing on that second statement. It is also crucial to know if the friend who is holding that tell-tale glass of whiskey is a Muslim. It seems safe to assume, from the context, that this is the fact.
So a Muslim peers critically at the glass of whiskey in the hand of a friend of the family who is also a Muslim. Is this a sign that:
(a) Shahzad has changed from a man who did not follow the laws of Islam into one who has?
(b) Shahzad has changed from a safe, "moderate" Muslim with a a semi-faith in keeping with a compromised life in America into a dangerous, "rigid" jihadist?
It appears, at least to me, that we are supposed to lean toward (b). This troubles me because it seems to suggest that the folks at the Times are saying that it is troublesome, in and of itself, that this man moved from a life in which he did not practice Islam to a life in which he did. Is the mere practice of the Islamic dietary laws enough to signal danger?
The other day, I said that journalists are at an interesting stage in this story as they begin asking "Why?"
... (J)ournalists are playing catch up on a story that pivots on some of the central, haunting questions of this era: Why does this happen? Where is the line between moderate and non-violent forms of Islam and the radicalized forms that embrace (and even mandate) violence against infidels and even other Muslims that are labeled as blasphemers? How do reporters find this line without asking questions about doctrine and practice?
Later in the story, a friend of Shahzad is blunt as he talks to a Times reporter:
"The question is who has put Faisal in this path? ... The Faisal with the beard that you see, he was not the old Faisal. He was like you, like me, handsome, liberal and an active person."
So this man was safe when he was a liberalized Muslim who did not practice his faith. He became dangerous when he started practicing his faith?
Surely not. Surely the Times team is not trying to hint that the mere daily practice of Muslim teachings is the line between good and evil, between Islam and the radicalized forms of the faith that, as I said before, "embrace (and even mandate) violence against infidels and even other Muslims that are labeled as blasphemers."
Yes, there is a danger line out there that needs to be found, but it is not dangerous for people to make decisions to practice their faith. Perhaps people in the newsroom assume that religious believers who do not drink alcohol are automatically fundamentalists?