The Washington Post had a story about a Virginia native son charged with joining a terrorist group that was well-written and filled with lots of details. But came up short nonetheless. That's because when it discussed religion, I found myself a bit baffled.
First the top of the Post's story about the 20-year-old kid who was stopped while allegedly trying to leave the country and join a Somali terror group:
Zachary Adam Chesser was barred July 10 from leaving New York City for Uganda on a multi-leg journey to join al-Shabab, an Islamist insurgency that wants to topple Somalia's weak central government, according to the FBI and papers filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria.
In diary entries, personal e-mails and interviews with federal agents detailed in court papers, Chesser described in haunting terms a two-year descent from a quiet and awkward suburban teenager to a willing "foreign fighter" for a designated terrorist group, which most recently claimed responsibility for bombings that killed 76 people in Uganda on July 11.
In doing so, Chesser -- who gained online notoriety in April for attacking the creators of the animated satire "South Park" for an irreverent depiction of the prophet Muhammad -- became the latest in a wave of homegrown terrorist suspects. Thirty-four Americans have been charged by U.S. authorities since January 2009 with direct involvement in international terrorism. The list includes would-be Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad.
OK. Sounds pretty messed up, right? If you're like me, you were probably most upset about Chesser's involvement in the "South Park" censoring debacle. If you don't remember, Comedy Central caved to threats of violence and censored the "201" episode a week after putting Muhammad in a bear suit, click here and here. Chesser was the author of the post at RevolutionMuslim.com that said:
"We have to warn Matt and Trey that what they are doing is stupid and they will probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh for airing this show. This is not a threat, but a warning of the reality of what will likely happen to them."
This background is given in the Post's story, as are basic details about Chesser and some revealing details about what others thought of the transformation he underwent in the past year or so.
Chesser, a George Mason University dropout whose parents live in Centreville, told the FBI that he only recently became religious and grew a beard, took the name Abu Tallah Al-Amrikee and married a Muslim woman in 2009, according to court papers. He allegedly looked to online videos, chats and over-the-counter CDs "almost obsessively," before creating a stream of YouTube sites, blogs and postings spreading the call "to fight jihad," the papers say.
Here's where the story gets a little sketchy (and I don't mean shady). They put "almost obsessively" in quotes, but it's not clear who said that; it appears to have been Chesser in a conversation with the FBI.
More troubling, though, is the use of the term "religious." What does it mean to become religious?
I was baptized in eighth grade, thereby committing myself to a more religious, even pious, life. Plenty of my friends have made the move much later in life. Does that suggest that we're going to start a latter-day Crusade?
I doubt that is what the reporters meant, though they may believe that the rules are different when Muslims "become religious." Either way, this is hardly correct or the nuanced kind of reporting I would expect from the Post.
But the story at least attempts to show what it meant to Chesser to be religious and how that differed from what his fellow Muslims considered to be religious.
Ibrahim Al-Khalaf, a 2009 graduate of Oakton High School and a former president of the Muslim Students Association, said he thought Chesser converted to Islam his senior year. "He was a really nice kid. He smiled at everybody," Al-Khalaf said.
But Chesser criticized other students' faith at MSA meetings. "We were more liberal, and we used to try to educate everybody and create a positive environment," Al-Khalaf said. "But Zach would say, 'If you do this, you are going to hell. If you do that, you are going to hell.'"
Obviously, no one likes a fire-and-brimstone naysayer, especially not in college. But I imagine his fellow MSA members considered themselves "religious" -- not that there's anything wrong with that.