American televangelists have Muslim counterparts, you know. One of them, India's Dr. Zakir Naik, just got the $200,000 King Faisal International Prize in Saudi Arabia for his outreach to some 100 million online viewers -- an outreach seen by many as inspiring, by some as controversial.
The Washington Post offers a rather terse report on the doctor's honor, studded with 15 linked articles and videos. But the story is a mixed bag. It highlights the controversies more than the body of Naik's message. Some of it is blurred or inaccurate. And it scarcely allows the man or his supporters to answer.
The report starts impartially, then quickly turns into j'accuse:
Naik's creed is an expansive one. "Islam is the only religion that can bring peace to the whole of humanity," he said in a video biography aired at the ceremony.
The preacher is not short of controversy. His orthodox, Wahhabist views — affiliated closely with the Saudi state — are polarizing in India, which is home to a diverse set of Muslim traditions and sects.
Then comes a laundry list of Naik's pronouncements: 9-11 was an "inside job;" Christians are deceived by Satan; Jews control America; Muslims may have sex with their slaves, and Muslim terrorists do no worse than the U.S. does. The newspaper adds that Sufi Muslims picketed Naik in New Delhi this year, condemning his beliefs as divisive and dangerous.
I'll be blunt: Much of this article rubbed me wrong. As an evangelical Christian, I naturally don’t share the religious conclusions of Naik or any other Muslim. Nor do I have much patience for conspiracy theories or moral equivalencies with terrorists. But as an evangelical Christian, I also know what it's like to be caricatured with stereotypes and biased reporting.
But let's look closer.
To start, the Post blurs things by calling Wahhabi Islam the same as orthodoxy. Millions of Muslims hold the six basic beliefs of the faith -- God, angels, prophets, scriptures, destiny, a day of judgment -- without accepting the political, puritanical aspects of Wahhabism.
Another blur: The Post picks out a video from Naik's YouTube channel called "Who is deceived by the Satan, Christians or Muslims?" Sounds sinister, eh? Well, in the video, it's an avowed born-again Christian who asks Naik during a Q&A: "How confident is Islam that it is not deceived by Satan?"
The item on Jews, now -- that sounds accurate if you compare it with the linked video. Answering a question from the audience, Naik says the Quran predicts that "Jews, as a whole, will be our staunchest enemies." He then goes outside the Quran and says that "Today, America is controlled by the Jews ... No one can be the president of U.S.A. without walking the Star of David."
For the "inside job" claim, the Washington Post link doesn't lead to the video as advertised, but the New York Times does. In that video, Naik does sound like a vintage conspiracist: rattling on about 75 American scientists doubting the government's account, and that the Twin Towers couldn't melt from burning jet fuel, and that there was no "drag mark" at the impact site of the Pentagon, etc. He sums up: "It is a blatant, open secret that this attack on the Twin Towers was done by George Bush himself."
Naik's reply? "Naik's supporters argue that his comments are taken out of context," the Post says, without elaborating. But the New York Times article to which it links offers a fuller explanation:
Dr. Naik often deflects when talking about Muslim violence. Asked by phone about the Islamic State, he said he was against its actions if the media had reported them correctly, although he said he had no way of knowing.
Years ago, he gave a similar answer about Osama bin Laden, saying he could not judge since he did not know the man. But Dr. Naik also said he supported him if he was fighting the United States.
“If he is terrorizing America the terrorist, the biggest terrorist, I am with him,” he said. “Every Muslim should be a terrorist.”
So yeah, that’s a scary viewpoint, not to mention ignorant. The Post adds that we Americans are still friends with Naik's new friends:
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Saudi Arabia late Wednesday to consult with Salman on the status of negotiations with Iran, a Saudi foe. The United States' close relationship with Saudi Arabia endures despite the kingdom's horrific human rights record and its conspicuous role in helping spread the views preached by Islamic supremacists such as Naik.
On the whole, the Washington Post, the New York Times and other media are right to put someone like Zakir Naik on our radar. But if you're going to report by a patchwork of links, better make sure they work. Make sure also that they say what you claim they do.
And explain, not just report. If we're going to do more than recoil or lash back, we need more than links to videos and newsclips. We'll have to understand what 100 million people see in this man.