Listening to Chattanooga voices, in the mosque and public square (but not in churches)

From the beginning, the New York Times reporters probing the shootings in Chattanooga have shown a willingness to dig into the religious questions linked to the troubled life and mind of Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez. They have not blown questions about the role of Islam out of proportion, but they have certainly not ignored them, either.

The journalistic task at hand was simplified by the faith-related blog materials that Abdulazeez left behind that, to some degree, described his state of mind. Meanwhile, the young man's personal struggles were right there in the public record. There was no need for speculation, other than covering the actions of authorities who were trying to find out if Abdulazeez had any online ties to violent forms of Islam.

As it should, this research led to the local mosque to see how this Muslim community -- deep in Bible Belt territory -- was reacting. The Times did an fine job with that story, as well. And the reactions of believers in the faith community on the other side of this drama? Hold that thought.

With the mosque story, the regional context (just down the road from my Oak Ridge home) was crucial:

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- Just beyond a massive strip mall, with its Best Buy and Hobby Lobby, Abdul Baasit, the imam at the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga, found himself preaching on Friday about a nightmare.
It was Eid al-Fitr, at the end of Ramadan, normally a time of gift-giving and carnival celebration. But the party that had been planned was canceled: A man who had attended prayer services at the center’s mosque killed four Marines on Thursday. And Mr. Baasit, 48, was trying to help Chattanooga’s Muslim faithful cope with their grief over the deaths, and their fear of reprisal. ...
The fatal shootings, carried out, the authorities said, by Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez, 24, a longtime Chattanooga resident who died later that day, have forced Muslims and non-Muslims all over the Bible Belt to again reflect on the South’s anxieties about homegrown terrorism, immigrants and anti-Muslim sentiment.

This story stressed the degree to which Muslims have felt at home in this city and, when slapped with this horror story in the press, experienced very similar reactions to their neighbors. I thought it was crucial that the story stressed the degree to which local Muslims were concerned about the fact that Abdulazeez was a typical, Americanized young man who, if anything, struggled with the disciplines of his faith.

This made the threat symbolized by his actions cut closer to home. This passage was crucial:

... Mr. Abdulazeez did not appear to leave an obvious online footprint of extremist sympathies. He may have also strayed beyond the tenets of his faith: In April, he was arrested on a drunken-driving charge, and Islam prohibits the use of alcohol. He was awaiting a trial date at the time of his death.
What is particularly disconcerting for many Muslims here and throughout the South is that Mr. Abdulazeez appears to have been no different from many other young American Muslims trying to make their way in a country and a region that have sometimes struggled with an expanding Islamic presence.

In a follow-up story on the gunman's state of mind, the Times team hinted that these struggles with the faith may have, in the end, been linked to his violent actions after all. Read the top of this story carefully, because it raises a crucial question about the role of faith in this story. This is very, very delicate territory:

 WASHINGTON -- Counterterrorism investigators have uncovered evidence the gunman who killed five service members last week in Chattanooga, Tenn., searched the Internet in the days leading up to the attack for Islamic materials about whether martyrdom would lead to forgiveness for his sins, like drunkenness and financial debt, according to law enforcement officials.
The searches are one part of a nuanced portrait of the 24-year-old gunman, Mohammod Abdulazeez, that investigators have patched together based on examinations of his electronic and online communications and interviews with his family and friends. The F.B.I., which is leading the investigation, has become increasingly convinced that Mr. Abdulazeez, who died in a shootout with police, turned to radical ideology as he struggled with severe mental health and financial issues, the officials said.

Note the thin line with which this report is flirting. Did the simple act of researching his faith's teachings on death, sin, martyrdom and forgiveness represent a deep dive into "radical ideology" or was the problem where this troubled young man was searching for answers?

Also, why use the word "ideology" when, so far, the evidence seems to suggest that "theology" was the more appropriate word?

After all, this story goes on to report that legal authorities have yet to show that the young gunman had any online (or personal) contacts with the Islamic State or any other radicalized form of Islam. Abdulazeez -- with a troubled medical history -- went searching for religious answers and it appears that his quest took a tragic turn.

At this point, it might have been good to ask his imam for some mainstream Islamic answers to these very questions, rather than letting the online world have the last word.

As you would expect, the Times team has also covered other Chattanooga events in the aftermath of the shootings, focusing on what local citizens think and feel about Islam and America.

What is interesting, to me at least, is that this story framed local reactions in terms of patriotism, alone, instead of -- as was the case in the mosque story -- mixing civic pride with questions about faith. Here's the tone, right up top:

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- The American flags are everywhere here: fluttering behind big pickup trucks and choppers growling across the freeways, at half-staff at the McDonald’s across the street from the bullet-riddled military recruitment center, and planted, in a long, straight line, in the grass near the place where four Marines and a Navy seaman were fatally shot.
This expression of patriotism and pride was the most visible emotion during the weekend in Chattanooga, the East Tennessee city where, officials say, Mohammod Abdulazeez killed the five servicemen in a bloody rampage Thursday, possibly because he was upset over the United States’ policy in the Middle East.
But there was also anger toward Mr. Abdulazeez, a Kuwaiti-born, locally raised 24-year-old, combined with soul-searching among some non-Muslims about their feelings toward the religion and its adherents.

So what was the content of this civic soul-searching?

Knowing this region as I do, I would have thought that it was absolutely essential to have visited some of the prayer meetings and worship services held after the shootings, where many local people wrestled with their grief and anger. The story talked about people showing up for patriotic events while dressed in their Sunday "church clothes," but that was about it. It does appear that there was on interfaith service after the shootings, but it seems that the Times reporters just heard about it, rather than covering it firsthand.

Patriotism and respect for military service are intense here, in a heartland state that produced Davy Crockett, Sam Houston and Andrew Jackson. So is pride in a culture of neighborliness and good manners, one that many Muslims say has made them feel welcome in Chattanooga, even while other Southern communities have curdled into suspicion and xenophobia after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
At an interfaith memorial service on Friday at Olivet Baptist Church, Mohsin Ali, a board member for the Islamic Center of Greater Chattanooga, was given a standing ovation by an audience of about 600 people even before he spoke.

Now trust me on this: Chattanooga is the kind of Southern city in which an "interfaith" -- as opposed to "ecumenical" -- service is primarily going to draw leaders and worshipers from the more progressive, oldline Protestant and mainstream Catholic side of the religious community. You know that there were other services held in Baptist, Assemblies of God and nondenominational evangelical congregations that drew large numbers of people into the pews.

Yes, it was crucial to cover the patriotic rallies and to report the painfully mixed feelings of the people attending these kinds of events. But down here in East Tennessee, it really would have helped if the Times reporters had taken the time to go to some churches on that troubled Sunday, as well.

You want some Chattanooga people wrestling with faith issues? Go to church.

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