The Washington Post ran an intriguing story Sunday about the apparent lack of state funding to provide Muslim chaplains in Virginia prisons. Unfortunately, the 1,400-word report ignored as many questions as it answered.
Let's start at the top:
Tamer Mohsen carried his Koran through the metal detector of this medium-security prison outside of Richmond, raising his arms to be patted down by a guard. When the inspection ended, Mohsen walked a familiar route: through Powhatan Correctional Center's narrow, dimly lit hallways, past barred cells and security checkpoints.
He made his way to the prison's chapel, where murals of the "Last Supper" and the Crucifixion were concealed by light-blue bedsheets. He'd come here, as he does twice a month, to lead Friday prayer services for more than 40 Muslim inmates, many of them converts, and try to moderate their embrace of a new and unfamiliar faith.
As the number of Muslims in the Virginia prison system has grown to an estimated 2,200, the state has come to lean increasingly on volunteer Muslim chaplains like Mohsen, a 35-year-old lab technician who was born in Egypt.
That's an excellent lede. Terrific description. Great contrast between the chapel's usual Christian symbols and its makeshift use as a Muslim worship center on Fridays. But -- and this is a big but -- that number needs a source.
You know which number I'm talking about: an estimated 2,200. Estimated by whom? By the Department of Corrections? By Islamic leaders? By an outside party? By the Post reporter? Don't tell me the source doesn't matter on that particular number. Moreover, if the number of Muslim inmates has grown -- and I don't doubt that it has -- then I need to know how much it has grown and in what period. Basic facts, please.
More of the story:
The role the Muslim chaplains play is crucial, because prisons can be a breeding ground for Islamic extremism, said Asghar Goraya, executive director of Muslim Chaplain Services of Virginia.
But the relationship between the Virginia Department of Corrections and minority faith leaders has long been mired in one of the state's most glaring anachronisms.
Because of a 200-year-old interpretation of the state constitution that bars Virginia from doing any faith-based hiring, it is the only state where prison chaplains are contractors, not state employees. And until last year, the department maintained contracts only with Protestant chaplains. Catholic, Jewish and Muslim chaplains could visit correctional facilities to minister to Virginia's 32,000 inmates, but they received no funds from the state.
OK, I must acknowledge that the above section makes little sense to me. Yes, I looked up anachronism in my online dictionary, but I still don't understand what that sentence is trying to tell me. Seriously. Isn't the real issue -- as noted in the next paragraph -- that the state has awarded contracts only to Protestant chaplains? How would that have been different if the state constitution allowed faith-based hiring? Maybe a GetReligion reader understands what the Post was trying to say and can lead me out of the wilderness of confusion.
Later, we learn that the state issued its first subcontract to a non-Protestant group last year, awarding $25,000 to Muslim Chapel Services of Virginia. But Goraya, who has volunteered in Virginia prisons since 1999, complains to the Post about the amount:
"We're here to preach moderation to the extremists and to defend the needs of the moderate Muslims," Goraya said.
The biggest challenge to doing that, he said, is the lack of resources. Although the $25,000 from the corrections department is a start, it is small compared with the $780,000 in state money that helps fund 14 full-time and 19 part-time Baptist, Methodist and Pentecostal chaplains through the Chaplain Service Prison Ministry of Virginia.
Neither Catholic nor Jewish chaplains have sought funding from corrections officials.
"My responsibility is to provide chaplains that are Protestant Christians," said Cecil McFarland, president of Chaplain Service Prison Ministry. "We have a very good relationship with the Muslim chaplains . . . but my obligation is to my ministry."
Here we go again. More numbers. More meaningless numbers. Numbers such as these need context, and the Post fails to provide them.
We need to know how many Protestant inmates there are ... and how many Catholics ... and how many Jews ... and how many atheists, for that matter. But beyond the estimated 2,200 Muslims out of 32,000 total inmates, the Post provides absolutely no demographic information on Virginia prisoners' religious preferences. Basic facts, please.
Nor does the story offer any explanation for why Catholic and Jewish leaders have not sought access to state chaplain funding. Are there no Catholic or Jewish worship services conducted behind Virginia bars? Or do those religious groups eschew state funding and assign privately paid priests and rabbis? The Post doesn't bother to ask -- or at least to explain.
How do state leaders and/or prison officials respond to the complaints about the amount of funding given to Muslim chaplains? How do they defend and/or justify the breakdown of the contracts awarded? The Post doesn't bother to ask -- or at least to explain.
The newspaper does, however, go out of its way to make the case for funding more Muslim chaplains (while failing to provide any information at all about how the $25,000 is spent):
Even after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Goraya's effort to win support for Muslim chaplains was largely a one-man crusade. But recently, he's found a number of allies who echo his concerns.
A Senate Foreign Relations Committee report warned this year that 36 American Muslims who had been prisoners moved to Yemen in recent months and that several of them "dropped off the radar" and may have connected with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
In a separate report, terrorism experts at George Washington University and the University of Virginia said: "In the absence of qualified Muslim religious services providers, inmates can become attracted to radical views and the politico-religious messages coming from other inmates."
Crusade? Um, I'm not certain that's the best choice of words, if you know what I mean. But I digress ...
Is the Senate Foreign Relations Committee really an ally of Goraya's? That might be a bit of a stretch. The report by terrorism experts, meanwhile, sounds interesting. Rather than rely entirely on the Muslim leader -- who stands to benefit from more funding -- to make the case for additional chaplains, why not interview one of the presumably independent experts?
One of the story's most compelling paragraphs appears near the end:
In three years, the Muslim population in Powhatan has grown from 30 to 80, including converts and those born into the faith. The facility now houses as many practicing Muslims as it does practicing Christians, according to the prison's full-time chaplain, the Rev. Bernard Morris.
That graf has it all: Basic facts, context and even a source (assuming both sentences can be attributed to Morris, a Baptist pastor).
Too bad the rest of the piece couldn't have followed that same, simple-but-effective approach to responsible journalism.