When telling stories involving people motivated by faith, it is crucial for readers to be able to hear the voices of these individuals describing their beliefs and motivations. But what happens when it is either impossible to interview the key people, perhaps for legal reasons, or they have no intention of answering questions from journalists or anyone else?
This is where the Internet and, especially, forums linked to social media have become so important in this day and age. You can see how this works in a recent New York Times story, which centers on the latest shocking tale of young people from the American heartland who have been arrested while trying to flee the evils of America to join the Islamic state.
The story, this time, unfolds in Starkville, Miss., a university town in which the locals, as the Times team states in classic elite mode, "tend to be proud of Starkville’s relative tolerance." The key players are Muhammad Dakhlalla, a young man from an outgoing, community oriented Muslim family known as "a walking advertisement for Islam as a religion of tolerance and peace." His fiancé, 19-year-old Jaelyn Young, is an honor student, a cheerleader and a recent convert to Islam. The two tried to marry as Muslims, but her father refused to grant his permission. Their plan was to say they were flying to Turkey on their honeymoon.
Obviously, legal authorities have been following their activities via email and social media. That leads to this brief, but revealing, exchange:
Ms. Young, who three years ago was broadcasting silly jokes on Twitter and singing the praises of the R&B singer Miguel, had more recently professed a desire to join the Islamic State, according to an F.B.I. agent’s affidavit in support of a criminal complaint. On July 17, the day after a young Muslim man in Chattanooga, Tenn., fatally shot five United States servicemen, Ms. Young rejoiced, the affidavit alleges, in an online message to an F.B.I. agent posing as a supporter of the Islamic State.
“Alhamdulillah,” she wrote, using the Arabic word of praise to God, “the numbers of supporters are growing.”
This is not a long story, but the key details are quite vivid and built on material from basic research on site, as well as details that could only have come from legal authorities. I thought this passage was especially effective in describing the lives of the young man's parents, Oda and Lisa Dakhlalla. The key voice is Dennis Harmon, a lawyer and friend of the family.
They raised three sons in Starkville, were deeply ingrained in the life of the town and were hard to miss. Oda Dakhlalla dresses in a traditional gown, and his reputation as a miracle-working math tutor earned him, among students, the nickname “Yoda.” Ms. Dakhlalla was known as “the hummus lady” for the Mediterranean specialties she sold at the local farmers’ market.
From 2005 to 2009, the family operated Shaherazad’s, a Middle Eastern cafe. Ms. Dakhlalla has said they got out of the business because she was having health problems. Mr. Harmon said that their generosity may have gotten the better of them.
“They were great cooks, but they weren’t good business people,” he said. “Oda wants to feed everybody, but you’re supposed to sell it, not give it away.”
There was no question that the family had embraced the strategy, common in both the Middle East and the American South, of fellowship through food.
As for Young, The Times turned to several of her friends, Elizabeth Treloar and Marneicha Wilson, and the FBI's research into the buzzing world of social media.
It appears that Young was much more active online than her fiancé, Muhammad Dakhlalla. Thus, his voice is missing.
Mr. Dakhlalla met Ms. Young about a year ago. ... She had graduated near the top of her class at Warren Central High School, where she had been a member of the homecoming court. Marneicha Wilson, 19, an old friend, said Ms. Young had been raised in a Christian household and attended church, but had not been particularly zealous.
Ms. Treloar said Ms. Young had converted to Islam in April after being introduced to the religion by college friends. She recalled that Ms. Young was drawn to the Quran’s teachings because she believed it had been unchanged since it was first written. She thought the Bible, by contrast, had been translated so much that its original meaning was lost, Ms. Treloar said. ...
Ms. Young’s last Facebook post, on March 17, was a jokey altered photo, a pop-culture riff involving Whoopi Goldberg, the Star Wars character Jar Jar Binks, and the rapper 2 Chainz. Two months later, the affidavit says, an F.B.I. employee identified her “through social media platforms” as a supporter of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
According to Harmon, the couple performed an Islamic marriage ceremony on June 6. Under Islamic law, Young’s father was required to sign a contract for the union to be valid. However, the Times noted that the police officer and U.S. military veteran with experience in Afghanistan "refused to do so."
Finally, there are sobering words from legal documents.
After their arrest, the affidavit states, the couple confessed that they were on their way to join the Islamic State. On Tuesday, a federal magistrate in Oxford, Miss., ordered them held without bail, citing their methodical planning.
Why point this story out for praise?
This was a case in which I thought the Times did a good job of including crucial human details, including a few telling facts about faith.
Ask reporters about the difficult tasks they face in their work and veterans will mention the challenge of doing stories when it's impossible to interview the people at the center of the action. This was a case in which reporters (yes, with the help of the feds) were able to use the tools of the digital age to provide the a few faith details that made this story more vivid. Stay tuned for more details.