Readers here at GetReligion aren't surprised to hear about the troubles that some religious groups have when attempting to build new or expanded worship sites. In recent years, we've seen stories about attempts to thwart construction or religious practice for Hindus, Orthodox Jews, Pagans, Mormons, Muslims and even charismatic Anglicans. Usually, but certainly not always, building efforts are thwarted over concerns regarding parking, sound ordinances or height restrictions. New York Times reporter Laurie Goodstein looks at the situation facing some Muslims where locals are fighting building plans because they are just flat out opposed to Muslim religious views. It's a very troubling story, one that is receiving increased media attention. The Associated Press had a story pretty similar to the Times piece we'll look at below.
Yesterday I pointed out how frustrated I was by the stereotypes people had about the dueling sides in the Cordoba debate -- we're told that one side has surrendered to radical Islam while the other is nothing more than xenophobic bigots. And that's my problem with this piece. The long and the short of it is that only a xenophobic and idiotic bigot would have any problem whatsoever with a neighborhood mosque. The end.
Now, don't get me wrong. When I read the accounts in this piece of people protesting mosque construction by taking dogs there so as to purposely offend their Muslim neighbors, I got extremely angry. When I read, as I do in this story, that locals vandalized and tore up a Muslim sign, my blood boiled. I almost have a hard time imagining that such things are possible, though sadly we see they are. I would have a hard time writing objectively about this matter as well.
After listing a few examples of locals trying to thwart their neighbors' First Amendment rights, Goodstein writes:
In all of the recent conflicts, opponents have said their problem is Islam itself. They quote passages from the Koran and argue that even the most Americanized Muslim secretly wants to replace the Constitution with Islamic Shariah law.
These local skirmishes make clear that there is now widespread debate about whether the best way to uphold America's democratic values is to allow Muslims the same religious freedom enjoyed by other Americans, or to pull away the welcome mat from a faith seen as a singular threat.
"What's different is the heat, the volume, the level of hostility,' said Ihsan Bagby, associate professor of Islamic studies at the University of Kentucky. "It's one thing to oppose a mosque because traffic might increase, but it's different when you say these mosques are going to be nurturing terrorist bombers, that Islam is invading, that civilization is being undermined by Muslims."
This is a great quote and worthy of inclusion. What's surprising, however, is how lopsided the quotes are in this story. Goodstein does talk to two people who oppose mosque construction -- one of them is an out-of-work grandmother who protested in California, the other a former Muslim involved in advocacy. But the piece doesn't seem interested in critically examining whether anything at all -- other than bigotry -- could have anything at all to do with opposition to mosque building.
Here's another sample:
"A mosque is not just a place for worship," [Nonie] Darwish said in an interview. "It's a place where war is started, where commandments to do jihad start, where incitements against non-Muslims occur. It's a place where ammunition was stored."
Camie Ayash, a spokeswoman for the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, lamented that people were listening to what she called "total disinformation" on Islam.
And rather than using this as a springboard to discuss the issue, that's it, the end of the debate. "She said, she dismissed." The end.
Now maybe it's because I live not too far from Dar al-Hijra, the very popular mosque in Falls Church that has had extensive ties to terrorists . . . but when you have quotes like the ones above, how can you not mention that, in fact, some mosques are accused of nurturing terrorists or preaching incitements?
Instead, we get this:
A two-year study by a group of academics on American Muslims and terrorism concluded that contemporary mosques are actually a deterrent to the spread of militant Islam and terrorism. The study was conducted by professors with Duke's Sanford School of Public Policy and the University of North Carolina. It disclosed that many mosque leaders had put significant effort into countering extremism by building youth programs, sponsoring antiviolence forums and scrutinizing teachers and texts.
Radicalization of alienated Muslim youths is a real threat, Mr. Bagby said. "But the youth we worry about," he said, "are not the youth that come to the mosque."
Certainly there are some people -- such as Faisal Shahzad who tried to murder civilians in Times Square -- who did not have extensive ties to local mosques. But as I wrote about Dar al-Hijrah a few months ago:
It's a very popular mosque in the area but it's also known for having once had an imam by the name of Anwar al-Awlaki. Yes, that Anwar al-Awlaki. Two of the 9/11 hijackers attended services there and a German planner of the 9/11 attacks had the number for the mosque in his apartment. Ft. Hood shooter Nidal Hasan also attended there years ago. Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, who was convicted of conspiracy to assassinate President George W. Bush and of providing support to Al Qaeda, worshiped and taught Islamic studies there. A former member of the mosque's executive committee was convicted of obstruction of justice for refusing to testify about Hamas. Jeffrey Goldberg wrote that mosque leaders have been political (he quotes from one 1998 sermon: "Allah will give us the victory over our tyrannical enemies in our country. Allah, the infidel Americans and British are fighting against you. Allah, the curse of Allah will become true on the infidel Jews and on the tyrannical Americans."). And the Post has reported that the mosque is affiliated with the Muslim American Society, which has links to the Muslim Brotherhood. Dar Al Hijrah hosted a fundraiser last month for Sabri Benkahla, who members believe was wrongly convicted of terrorism-related charges.
Now, it's not like Dar al-Hijrah is the black sheep of mosques. It's actually been featured repeatedly by the State Department and it is routinely praised by local political elites. Heck, the Washington Post mocked people who protested an invite made to the imam to offer a prayer in a Virginia government house.
So that's just one mosque -- one near my house. I know al-Awlaki worked at a California mosque, maybe a few others. Another local mosque in our area has had problems with the law, too.
So how many of these issues were brought up? Precisely none. None! That's just not right. It frankly doesn't make any news sense to me. I mean, even if the only mosques I know much about just happen to be the only ones that have ties to terrorism, that's still more than enough to include in a news story about how unenlightened dolts are worried about mosque construction. I mean, come on. Pretending it's not an issue doesn't help solve the civil unrest in the rest of the country. In fact, it might exacerbate it.
As I said then, I certainly don't think you need to mention mosque ties to terrorism every time you write about mosque issues. But if you're writing about terrorism and you're writing about the mosque, then you should. Not all mosques are like the Dar Al Hijrah mosque. But if people know that some mosques have as many ties to terrorists as Dar al Hijrah does, and reporters don't point out that other mosques might not share those ties -- and why they don't, an issue I've never seen addressed by the media -- it can have the effect of making all Muslims seem more radical as a group.
Another note, the Associated Press reported, a few hours after Goodstein's story ran, that Germany actually shut down a mosque because of concerns that it was a "main center of attraction for the jihad scene." Perhaps some global perspective of these concerns would also be in order.
Reading yesterday, I was pleasantly surprised by the questions former religion reporter Gary Stern asked at his blog. Even this Christian Science Monitor story had more meat. The Times, it should be said, has done some good reporting on the Cordoba mosque and other Muslim issues. It would be nice for them to utilize their resources for additional strong reporting. This piece, while touching the tip of the iceberg, didn't cover as much of the story as it could have for the word allotment. I'd like to see what the paper might do with some in-depth reportage on the topic. I hope the reporters there are given that opportunity in the future.