Present Barack Obama's visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore, located in the old Catonsville suburb, was an event that was both important and symbolic for a number of reasons.
For starters, violence linked to the rise of the Islamic State, as well as acts of terrorism inspired by radicalized forms of Islam, have become a bloody normality in world headlines during the years of the Obama presidency. President Obama has attempted to maintain what his supporters argue is a graceful, calm stance on these trends in an attempt to avoid pouring gasoline on the flames. His critics insist that he has chosen blindness, for motives that remain unclear.
Oh, and then there are those bizarre numbers that keep showing up in polls whenever Americans are asked if they believe Obama is, in fact, a Muslim (despite his adult conversion into a liberal, oldline Protestant band of faith).
Thus, the speech at the Baltimore-area mosque received major coverage, as it should. Most of the coverage did a good job of covering, in glowing terms, the content of the Obama message (full text here). What puzzled me, however, was the lack of attention focused on the location. This left me -- as usual -- puzzled about current trends in "liberal" and "conservative" journalism. Hold that thought.
This passage in The Washington Post report captured the mainstream media tone:
The historic 45-minute speech at a large, suburban Baltimore mosque was attended by some of the country’s most prominent Muslims. In what appeared to be a counter to the rise in Islamophobia, Obama celebrated the long history of Muslim achievement in American life from sports to architecture and described Muslims as Cub Scouts, soldiers and parents, pointing out the mother of the pre-med college student who introduced him at the podium.
“There are voices who are constantly claiming you have to choose between your identities…. Do not believe them…. You fit in here. Right here. You’re right where you belong. You’re part of America, too,” Obama said, his volume rising as he said he was speaking in particular at that moment to young Muslim Americans. “You’re not Muslim or American, you’re Muslim and American. And don’t grow cynical.”
While Obama has many times, including in the last few months, spoken out against anti-Muslim rhetoric, Wednesday’s visit was the longest and most direct such effort -- an intimate conversation between a faith community and a president who has at times seemed to put himself at arm’s length.
Note that phrase stating that the event drew "some of the country’s most prominent Muslims." Add that fact to the recent history of this mosque and reporters faced some interesting decisions on what issues to discuss and what to avoid discussing.
At the very end of the long piece, the Post team added this (leaning, strangely, on The Baltimore Sun as its authoritative source):
The community at the Islamic Society of Baltimore is diverse but consists predominantly of immigrants from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh and their families. The society has its roots in the small group that began meeting on the Johns Hopkins campus to pray, discuss scripture and study Arabic.
The Sun ... noted that since Saturday there has been a low buzz about a former longtime imam, Mohamed Adam El Sheikh. In 2004, after he left the Islamic Society, he was quoted as saying that suicide bombings might be acceptable in extreme circumstances. He told the Sun on Tuesday that he had spoken out “repeatedly” since that time against religious extremism and terrorism -- a view he expressed to the Sun in 1985, when he was an imam there.
The coverage in The New York Times included a similar short, glancing passage -- focusing on an issue linked to Israel. It focused on a criticism of the mosque from a source that was sure to be controversial, for many reasons, among Times readers.
Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, one of the country’s oldest and largest pro-Israel organizations, denounced Mr. Obama for visiting a mosque whose leaders, Mr. Klein said, have among other issues criticized Israeli military actions. “Going to such a mosque only encourages radical Muslims to harm Americans,” Mr. Klein said.
White House and Islamic Society of Baltimore officials did not respond to Mr. Klein’s criticism. Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said that “any mosque would have been attacked similarly.”
Now, the assumption is that elite newsrooms such as those at the Post and Times are highly interested, when it comes to religion news, with collisions between ancient doctrines and modern trends related to moral and cultural issues -- especially anything tied to gender and sex. In other words, as former Times editor Bill Keller once noted (click here for source of the GetReligion "Kellerism" term). They tend to be urbane, progressive, socially liberal places.
President Obama met behind closed doors on Wednesday with 13 Muslim leaders at a Baltimore mosque with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. And, according to a White House pool report, one of the participants is the Islamic Society of Baltimore’s anti-gay resident scholar, Imam Yaseen Shaikh. ...
Introduced by ISB’s president, Muhammad Jameel, who in 2014 accused Israel of engaging in “genocide” against Palestine, praised the mosque for its inter-faith outreach efforts. He also praised the mosque’s school, “where teachers open young minds.”
But ISB’s schools, the Al-Rahma School and Qur’an Academy, are led by Imam Shaikh, a British citizen who formerly served as imam in Plano, Tex., who has said that Islam is adamantly opposed to homosexuality.
A 2013 YouTube video uncovered by The Daily Caller also shows Shaikh lamenting that gay rights activists have “hijacked” the political system to further their agenda.
The DC is, of course, a website offering a mixture of news and conservative commentary. In this case, the "conservative" site was more interested in the gay-rights angle of this story then several elite, "liberal" news organizations.
That is interesting, to say the least. Imagine if Obama had spoken at, let's say, an African-American evangelical megachurch that has consistently opposed gay marriage and argued that sex outside of marriage is sin. Would this angle have been noted in coverage by the Times and the Post? What if, oh, Sen. Marco Rubio spoke in such a church?
The Daily Caller also listed some other facts about this mosque that would, if covered in a mainstream publication, ignite strong debate worthy of informed coverage.
The mosque’s imam for much of the 1980s and 1990s also has close ties to extremists and terrorist groups. Mohammed Adam el-Sheikh was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Sudan, his home country, in the 1970s. He also co-founded the Muslim American Society, which is controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood.
While in Baltimore, el-Sheikh served as a regional director at the Islamic American Relief Agency, which the Treasury Department designated as a terrorist organization in 2004. The organization’s African arm reportedly funneled money to al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and other terrorists.
After leaving ISB in 2003, el-Sheikh served as imam at Dar al-Hijrah in Falls Church, Va. That mosque has numerous links to terrorists and terror sympathizers. Before el-Sheikh’s tenure, Dar al-Hijrah’s imam was Anwar al-Awlaki, the al-Qaeda recruiter killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011.
In 2004, el-Sheikh defended Hamas’ use of suicide bombers against Israelis.
So, by stressing the gay-rights angle, was the Caller -- which tends to be rather libertarian on social issues -- leaning to the "left" or to the "right"?
Let's turn that question around. With their silence on issues of sex and gender at this mosque, were the Post and Times teams leaning "left" or "right"? Perhaps, in this case, the need to avoid information that might cast a shadow on Obama's triumph trumped other concerns?