If there has been one consistent theme over the past decade in GetReligion posts about Islam it has been a complaint that mainstream journalists rarely attempt to wrestle with the religious and even doctrinal content of the debates that are taking place inside the complex world of modern Islam.
Instead, the assumption in most newsrooms seems to be that so-called "moderate," or pro-Western Islam is the true Islam and that more fervent or even radical forms of the faith are "fundamentalist" and thus fake or twisted. Millions of Muslims, of course, are on opposite sides of that debate, which only goes to show that it is simplistic to view this complex and global faith as some kind of monolith.
But what do these debates look like at the human level, at the level of families, local mosques, schools and trips to the local shopping mall? Have you ever been waiting to board an airplane in an American airport and seen a Muslim family with the dad in a suit, the mother in modest clothing with a veil and the children standing behind them -- video games in their hands, hip headphones in place and decked out in clothing fresh off the fad racks at the local mall? What are the debates inside that family?
Journalists at The Washington Post tried to dig into that kind of story the other day with a Chicago-datelined piece about how some typical American Muslim teens ended up trying to flee this apostate land in order to support the goals of the Islamic State. It's clear that this was an attempt to wrestle with questions linked to what experts call "cocooning," the process of trying to keep children in the faith by, as the story says, "shielding" them from as "much American culture as possible by banning TV, the Internet and newspapers and sending them to Islamic schools."
Does this work? In this case, it didn't. Where the Post team seems to be struggling is with the question of whether the parents were too Muslim or, as their children seemed to think, not Muslim enough. In this social-media age, the mavens at ISIS are part of that debate -- like it or not.
Here's the opening of this very long and complex story -- which focuses on religion:
CHICAGO -- Mohammed Hamzah Khan, 19, rose before dawn on Oct. 4 to pray with his father and 16-year-old brother at their neighborhood mosque in a Chicago suburb.
When they returned home just before 6 a.m., the father went back to bed and the Khan teens secretly launched a plan they had been hatching for months: to abandon their family and country and travel to Syria to join the Islamic State.
While his parents slept, Khan gathered three newly issued U.S. passports and $2,600 worth of airline tickets to Turkey that he had gotten for himself, his brother and their 17-year-old sister. The three teens slipped out of the house, called a taxi and rode to O’Hare International Airport.
Khan was due at work at 6:30 a.m. at a local home-supply store, so he knew his parents wouldn’t miss him when they woke up. The two younger siblings bunched up comforters under their sheets to make it look like they were asleep in their beds. Their plan was to fly to Istanbul, then drive into Syria to live in the Islamic homeland, or caliphate, established by the Islamic State, the militant group that has massacred civilians in Iraq and Syria and beheaded Western journalists and aid workers.
The obvious question that looms over the whole story: Why? The Khan children left letters to their father and their mother, Zarine, stating the facts as they saw them.
The essential problem is America. How can a faithful Muslim live in America when there is another alternative, a more faithful -- from this other perspective -- alternative?
“An Islamic State has been established and it is thus obligatory upon every able-bodied male and female to migrate there,” Khan wrote. “Muslims have been crushed under foot for too long. . . .This nation is openly against Islam and Muslims. . . . I do not want my progeny to be raised in a filthy environment like this.”
What's the other side of the story? Well, why is the U.S. government telling religious believers that they cannot act on their religious beliefs?
... Khan’s lawyer, Thomas Anthony Durkin, told the judge that the government was prosecuting Khan for what amounted to the “thought crime” of rejecting America and supporting the establishment of an Islamic homeland. He said the Khan teens wanted to go live in that homeland but not become fighters, a desire that he said was naive and misguided but not criminal.
Let's not get pulled off into the political angle, there. The key question, again, is "why"? Why do these young Americans feel the need to reject this country, reject this culture and flee the half-Muslim-half-American cocoon their parents had created? I kept thinking about the alternative world of ultra-conservative Christianity (think home-schoolers with 10 kids) whose children flee into liberalism or choose some other "normal" option in American culture.
Here is the crucial material in which the Post team tries to wrestle with the religious part of this equation, seeking where the young people went "wrong."
Hamzah Khan grew up in a suburban American home with pretty shrubs out front and a basketball hoop in the back yard. He earned a Presidential Physical Fitness Award in the eighth grade and loved Naruto, the Japanese manga. He volunteered at his local mosque and represented Argentina in the National Model United Nations. He graduated from a local Islamic high school in 2013 and enrolled last year at Benedictine University, a Roman Catholic school about 10 miles from his home, where he studied engineering and computer science.
Shafi Khan, who came to Chicago from India almost 30 years ago, and Zarine Khan, who followed her husband 20 years ago, said they consider themselves “average” Muslims, no more or less religious than any of their friends and neighbors in Bolingbrook, Ill., a suburb of about 73,000 people southwest of Chicago.
They try to pray five times a day but said they often don’t. Shafi Khan wears a bushy beard and a white knit skullcap, which he said is an attempt to follow the example of the prophet Muhammad. Zarine Khan covers her head and most of her face, which she considers a sign of modesty, not extreme piety.
Like millions of American Muslims, the Khans, who are both U.S. citizens, said they have raised their children to love their country and their religion.
The Muslim schools taught Islam as well as basic subjects, just like alternative Christian schools. Right? The parents tried to limit their exposure to the taint of popular culture. They tried to limit Internet use, but that's impossible in this day and age (as any home-school parent will tell you). The three children, as a sign of devotion, memorized the Koran in Arabic -- which is quite common and surely not a sign of radicalization.
So in the end I kept waiting for the shoe to drop. As I said earlier, the Post team -- as it should -- talks to experts who hint that the family was still, in some way, flirting with danger through its "cocooning" strategy. The children were too Muslim and not American enough?
Yet the children swung the other way, saying that they needed -- in order to be fully Muslim, to be truly faithful -- to escape American society.
The question that looms in the background? This story, in the end, is haunted by a familiar question that it never openly asks: Is it possible to live a faithful Muslim life without living under Sharia law? If forced to choose between a pluralistic, secular America and the alternative of life in an Islamic state, how do American authorities (including parents) argue for the former?
This is a strong story and must reading for anyone interested in religion-beat work in our times. There should be more like it, asking the questions that it asks and, in the end, asking questions that the Post team never quite dared to ask.