If you have followed the journalism wars over the Rolling Stone anti-story on the University of Virginia and the mystery rape, you know that this openly liberal advocacy publication has taken a few gazillion valid shots in recent weeks.
However, I'd like to point GetReligion readers toward a very different long read in RS -- "The Children of ISIS" -- that focuses on those three Chicago-area teens who tried to flee the United States to join forces with the Islamic State (lots of mainstream coverage in this file), but were caught at the airport. We are talking about Mohammed Hamzah Khan and his younger brother and sister.
Now, this Rolling Stone piece does have its quirks when it comes to hint, hint, hinting that much of the blame for this sad story can be pinned on the parents who, well, were maybe a bit too faithful to their faith and protective of their children, in the same way that you can imagine this magazine going after homeschooling parents in other cultures. We'll come back to that.
But praise for the story? Yes. It has lots of on-the-record voices and info and, to my shock, it probably takes the details of Islamic faith more seriously than similar mainstream-news stories I have seen -- including a solid thesis that notes that it's hard, in postmodern America, for the young to practice traditional forms of faith, period. Here's where things start:
On the day he planned to make his sacred journey, or hijra, to the Islamic State, 19-year-old Mohammed Hamzah Khan woke up before dawn at his house in the Chicago suburb of Bolingbrook, Illinois, and walked to the nearby mosque to pray. It was Saturday, October 4th, 2014, an unusually cold morning, though Hamzah, a slender young man with a trimmed black beard, was dressed for warmer weather in jeans, boots and a gray sweatshirt. By sunset, he'd be gone for good: leaving his parents, his friends, his country and all he knew for an unknown future in the "blessed land of Shaam," as he called Syria. He would be taking his teenage brother and sister with him. Allahu Akbar, he prayed with the men in his family, and tried to banish his doubts: "God is great." ...
"An Islamic State has been established, and it is thus obligatory upon every able-bodied male and female to migrate," Hamzah had written in a letter he left for his parents, explaining why he was leaving the comforts of suburbia for the khilafah, or caliphate. "I cannot live under a law in which I am afraid to speak my beliefs."
After lots of details about the mechanics of the story, including the essential question of whether young people in this situation can truly be treated as terrorists planning to attack AMERICA, readers reach the statement that I consider the heart of the article.
Mariyam's attorney, Marlo Cadeddu, believes that if the Khan kids are guilty of anything, it's a form of magical thinking. "They were naive, and they were sheltered, and they bought into a fantasy of a Muslim utopia," she says. "It's hard to be an observant Muslim teenager growing up in post-9/11 America, and ISIS plays on those insecurities in a very calculated way."
What, precisely, was this "sheltered" thing all about? That's where the Rolling Stone editors did need to address the issue of whether they think the actual daily practice of Islam is a problem or not for the young in this land. Or, is the issue that its hard to be a truly faithful American teen, of any kind, and not clash with the surrounding popular culture and sexual ethic? Does that, in itself, leave teens vulnerable to the allure of an ISIS theocracy?
These are questions worth exploring and the Stone team sort of does that, but with its basic biases intact (but surprisingly under control, methinks). Here are some key passages:
Instead of sending their kids to public schools, the Khans enrolled their children in an Islamic primary school, and later in the College Preparatory School of America (CPSA), a private Islamic day school that bills itself as providing "academic excellence in an Islamic environment." Mohammad Chaudhry, a friend of the Khans and a former board member of their mosque, also sends his kids to CPSA, which he feels has helped instill in them the proper Islamic values. But it's also a safety issue, he admits. "To be honest with you, I don't want my kids being told they're terrorists."
The problem with this approach, notes Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Chicago branch of the Council on American Islamic Relations, is by "cocooning" one's children in Islamic schools, parents run the risk of setting them up for profound isolation. When they emerge, he asks, "will the kids be prepared for what they see?"
By all accounts, the Khans enveloped their children in a tight and loving cocoon. Other parents would remark on the manners and obedience of the Khan kids, who got good grades, volunteered at the mosque religious school, day care and summer camp, and were relentlessly polite and helpful. Religion played a central role in their lives, and they made an effort to pray five times a day. But they were also regular American kids who grew up on a steady diet of cartoons, Marvel superhero comics and young-adult fiction: The Lightning Thief, the Maximum Ride series, the Legend trilogy. Mariyam, who as a child loved Muslim Scouts Adventures, a cartoon series broadcast on the Islamic-themed website MuslimVille.tv, was also partial to the very American animated hero Kim Possible. Hamzah loved Batman. Their brother Tarek idolized Wolverine. Anime fanatics, they were desperate to learn Japanese and, at one point, created their own fake Japanese language, which they used as a secret code.
Even as I raise questions about this theme in the story, note the specific details and the degree to which the religious issues are taken seriously. I mean, what if you were a young Muslim male and all your friends were obsessed with video games like "Call of Duty," packed with images of a war against radical forms of Islam?
Let's end with one final statement about how all of this opens doors to the world of ISIS social media. This is strong stuff:
There were thousands just like them on Twitter and Facebook, a whole universe of kids who debated the hadiths, and talked about anime, and agonized over the latest atrocity in Syria, and also shared pictures of lions, or dinosaurs, or baby tigers, or their baby sisters. ...
Though ISIS promoted a hitherto unknown pageant of cinematic brutality to the world, believers like Hamzah and Mariyam were hearing a different message. By declaring the "caliphate," ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was fulfilling a dream cherished by generations of Muslims and Islamic leaders, including Osama bin Laden, who saw it as a long-term goal, albeit one that might take generations to realize. In his first video appearance as self-annointed caliph, Baghdadi issued a direct call to not just fighters, but also doctors, judges, engineers and experts in Islamic law to help build the new "Islamic State," where all Muslims were now obligated to go. This is a vastly different message from what previous iterations of jihadis have promoted, noted Loretta Napoleani, author of a new book on ISIS, The Islamist Phoenix. "In the old days, Al Qaeda was sending a negative message, which was 'Come be suicide bombers and live in paradise with 72 virgins,' " Napoleani said at a recent talk in New York. "This time, the message is 'Come and help us build a new state, your state . . . a Sunni political utopia . . . that will protect every single Muslim. . . .' This is a very, very seductive message, and it's also a positive message."
Read it all. It's heartbreaking and worth the time. Trust me on that.