Never thought I'd write a post like this.
At GetReligion, we complain all the time about "ghosts" -- religious or spiritual angles to stories that news media miss or downplay. But in one report on the torching of a mosque in Florida, one religious angle may have been actually overplayed.
Just after midnight Monday, someone set fire to the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce, the home mosque of Omar Mateen, who shot 49 people on June 12 at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. On Wednesday, officers announced the arrest of Joseph Michael Schreiber, who they said confessed to the crime.
Schreiber left a lot of clues. Aside from surveillance cameras and eyewitnesses, he'd posted Facebook messages saying that "ALL ISLAM IS RADICAL" and that its followers should be considered terrorists and "crimanals" (sic). He also has a record of theft and robbery.
So far, so routine. But then comes the Daily Beast, which says Schreiber "describes himself as a Jew for Jesus, a religious sect that believes Jesus is the messiah."
Says the Beast:
The first clues to Schreiber’s religious beliefs also come from his Facebook page, where his cover photo features the seal of messianic Judaism. It shows a menorah and a Jesus fish intersecting to form the Star of David.
Many of Schreiber’s three dozen Facebook friends also self-identify with Messianic Judaism, either proclaiming themselves members of the faith in their profiles, or saying that they work at Messianic Jewish synagogues.
Previous media reports described Schreiber, who spewed anti-Muslim hate on Facebook, as Jewish. But Messianic Jews, colloquially known as Jews for Jesus, occupy a nebulous space in the religious landscape. (Jews for Jesus is also a recognized nonprofit organization that promotes a type of Messianic Judaism.)
The Beast alertly quotes Rabbi Bruce Benson of Temple Beth Israel in Fort Pierce, who says that messianics are “outside the parameters of accepted Jewish thinking." Benson says Schreiber studied Torah there awhile, and that Schreiber's late grandfather was once a member of the temple.
Interesting details. So, how do they play into Schreiber's hostility toward Islam and Muslims? That's where the article falls silent. It fails to show that messianic Jews tend toward hatred of Muslims.
The Beast does take pains to say that Jews for Jesus is a distinct organization in the messianic movement. More to the point: Why didn't the Beast get a comment from them or any other messianic group on Schreiber's words or deeds? You may recall that after Omar Mateen's shooting spree, media sought out Muslim leaders, who assured us that terrorism is un-Islamic.
As of this writing, I see only one other report that brings up Schreiber's messianic leanings. Late last night, the Associated Press reported that Schreiber said he was "embarrassed by the crime" and that he "never intended to hurt anyone." (BTW, the statements are accurate: Several articles linked to the arrest affidavit. which quotes him.)
AP says Schreiber had gotten into messianic worship behind bars:
Ralph Alfonso is a former inmate who says he served time with Schreiber at Lawtey Correctional Institution, a faith-based prison where both were incarcerated earlier this decade. In a telephone interview Thursday, Alfonso described Schreiber as being a "couple cans short of a six-pack" and doesn't think he is intellectually capable of setting the blaze without coaching.
He said Schreiber joined a Messianic Jewish group he led because he was looking for a place to fit in. Messianic Jews follow Jewish law and the Torah but also believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah. He said Schreiber sometimes would say something against Muslims, but "we would tell him that's not what we believe, that it is not godly."
That would have been a good infobit for a story like the one in the Daily Beast, which majors on Schreiber's beliefs, no?
I was also impressed that AP noted the timing of the blaze: just after the 15th anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attacks -- and with the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha. The latter detail is also in reports by CBS in Miami, the TV station TCPalm and the Washington Post.
(However, none of them explains what Eid al-Adha is about. It's the Festival of Sacrifice, where God spares Abraham from sacrificing his son Ishmael. The biblical account of the event says the boy was Isaac instead.)
Now, I don’t want to criticize the Daily Beast too much for reporting Schreiber's messianic side -- not when most media said nothing on it at all. And I am certainly not calling for ignoring or covering it up. That would produce yet another religious "ghost," and you know how we at GR feel about those.
What we need is proportionate reporting: divulging facts for their relevance. Media that totally ignored the messianic angle, like the Washington Post, the South Florida Sun Sentinel and TCPalm, probably went too far the other way. AP played it well, in my opinion: putting it in the 13th of 20 paragraphs, plus the response from a former inmate and messianic teacher.
At least some media carried the even-handed conclusion by Omar Saleh, a CAIR attorney. As he told CBS Miami and other media: “Just like on June 12, when I was stressing that Mateen’s actions do not speak on behalf of Islam, I know that whatever religion Mr. Schreiber is, his actions do not speak on behalf of his religion.”
Update: Jews for Jesus has just released a statement protesting the Daily Beast's headline, “Jew for Jesus Arrested for Torching Omar Mateen’s Mosque.” The statement stresses that JFJ "is not a membership organization — one cannot join Jews for Jesus. We are a one-issue ministry dedicated to sharing the message that Jesus is the promised Messiah of Israel and Savior of the world. It is disheartening that our very positive and life-giving message is being entwined with the horrendous act of torching a mosque."
Thumb: Islamic Center of Fort Pierce, from the mosque's Facebook page.