What questions must reporters ask, when faith and violence are twisted together?

This may seem like a bit of a reach, but does anyone out there remember the story about the mad, misogynic gunman at the Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs? Does the name Robert L. Deal, Jr., ring any horrible bells? How about Pastor Garrett Swasey?

Yes, at the time Issues Etc. host Todd Wilken and I were recording this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), the Colorado Springs story was still being discussed -- a lot. We spent much of our time discussing the religious angles of that event and, in particular, what kinds of questions mainstream reporters needed to be asking if their goal was to find facts that would or would not link Deal to any particular religious group or tradition, let alone the mainstream pro-life movement.

While we were recording, Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife Tashfeen Malik were on the run after attacking Farook's co-workers at a holiday party at the San Bernardino County Health Department.

You will not hear about that in this podcast. However, you will hear us discussing PRECISELY the kinds of questions that reporters are now asking about the forces that may or may not have shaped the lives and worldviews of Farook and Malik.

What kinds of questions could possibly apply to both Deal and to this terrorist couple in San Bernardino? Well, questions like these.

How did they spent their time and money?

Did they have actual ties to religious organizations and thinkers? Where there financial links? How often did they practice their faith and how? How did the content of their faith affect the details of their lives and that of their families?

Was there a particular religious leader or organization that inspired them (or perhaps even provided actual, practical leadership)? What authors were they reading? What information were they consuming online?

Once you have answered these kinds of basic, factual, journalistic questions it is possible to ask the ultimate question: Were there actions in any meaningful way linked to the practice of their religious faith?

In the San Bernardino case, we can now see this kind of information coming to the surface. Consider this passage from The New York Times, focusing on Malik:

She was born in Pakistan, according to officials there, who added that intelligence officials were in the area on Friday, searching for her relatives. Those officials, and Mustafa H. Kuko, director of the Islamic Center of Riverside, which Mr. Farook attended for a few years, said the family moved when she was a child to Saudi Arabia, and she grew up mostly in that country.
“They were living in Saudi Arabia, but they were Pakistanis,” Mr. Kuko said. “They had been in Saudi Arabia for a long time. She grew up in the city of Jidda.”


Ms. Malik returned to Pakistan for college, graduating in 2012 with a degree in pharmacy from Bahauddin Zakariya University in Multan, a major city in Punjab. Pakistani officials consider the area a center of support for extremist jihadist groups, including Lashkar-e-Taiba. A Pakistani intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a continuing investigation, said security officials were looking into Ms. Malik’s time in Pakistan, as well as travel there by Mr. Farook. ...
A second lawyer, Mohammad Abuershaid, described Ms. Malik as a “caring” and “soft-spoken” housewife who spoke Urdu and broken English. She prayed five times a day, he said, and did not drive. He added that male relatives of Mr. Farook had never seen her face because she always kept it covered in their presence.

So she is a woman with Saudi ties who does not drive, except when fleeing after a mass murder? There are reports that she was driving, while her husband fired at police in that final fatal encounter.

You can see the same kinds of questions in a new report from The Washington Post.

I would note that, once again, the editors insist on attributing these faith-rooted details to an "ideological motivation" rather than to the couple's clear identification with a certain form of Islam. Once again, are we dealing with "ideology," "theology" or, as Islam as seen throughout history, a belief system that combines the two, with no wall between state and mosque?

Two criminal defense lawyers representing Farook’s mother, three siblings and brother-in-law held a news conference Friday and offered insight into the shooters, describing the husband as a loner and the wife as extremely conservative religiously, so much so that she would not be in the same room as her male in-laws. Malik’s brother-in-law had never seen her face.
“She did maintain certain traditions in terms of prayer and fasting. She chose not to drive voluntarily. She was a very, very private person. She kept herself pretty well isolated,” family lawyer David Chesley said.

So what's the point?

When reading about these kinds of hellish blends of violence and religion, look for the hard facts that point to the practice of beliefs. Look for how people spend their time, spend their money and make their decisions.

Enjoy (if, once again, that is the right word) the podcast.

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