In the very first GetReligion post in 2004, Doug Leblanc and I created a concept that has been central to this blog's work ever since -- the idea of religion "ghosts" in mainstream news reports.
The basic idea is that many important stories are shaped, in part, by religious beliefs and traditions, but journalists often fail to realize this (or don't want to deal with it). Thus, you get a "haunted" story in which readers can sense that something important is missing, but they can't tell what.
As you would expect, readers frequently send me emails with a URL to a news report and then the phrase, "Major ghost in this story," or something like that. The key is that they often don't tell us what they think the ghost is.
Here is a perfect example, taken from The Washington Post. The headline hints at the horrors in this hellish case: " ‘A crime so horrific’: Mom gets 50 years for poisoning, burning her 5-year-old son."
In the two years since she poisoned her 5-year-old son with cold medicine and staged a fiery car crash with his body wedged on a back-seat floorboard, Narges Shafeirad has never publicly said why she did it.
On Monday, in a Maryland courtroom, she had her chance. Shafeirad, 35, spoke about a bitter divorce and custody fight she was enduring, and how she’d been depressed.
“I was a broken woman,” she said, adding that her son was everything to her. “I am still not able to believe that I have lost my son.”
Shafeirad’s words -- spoken just before she was sentenced to 50 years for the murder of Daniel Dana -- left the judge in front of a packed courtroom searching for an explanation.
One more horrible detail, out of many:
Earlier in the hearing, prosecutors listed bruises and abrasions around Daniel’s mouth that showed how Shafeirad force-fed him a full bottle of cold medicine. She continued doses every two to four hours until he was dead, according to prosecutors.
Now, why did our reader think that there was a religion ghost in this story? I can only assume it was because this case involves to telltale words -- "Iran" and "divorce." You put those two words together and people are going to assume that this bitter divorce, including fights over custody of their son, had something to do with Islam and Iranian culture.
Truth be told, I do not know if that is the case here. What relevant information does the story contain? Next to nothing. Would it have been better if the Post team had asked this question, in order to resolve it one way or the other? Maybe. Honestly, I don't know.
In this story about the end of the trial, this is all readers were told:
Daniel was the only child of Shafeirad and Hamid Dana. The couple had met in Iran and married in 2007, according to court records. Daniel was born in 2009, and by 2011 all three were living in Gaithersburg.
But two years later, the couple separated and went through a bitter divorce, previous court filings show. Joint custody was worked out, with Daniel staying with his mother four days a week and his father three days a week, according to court documents. But the acrimony grew.
At one point, according to documents, Shafeirad told her husband: “I will make you cry. You will be sorry.”
Now, note that this does not appear to be one of the infamous cases involving a man from Iran and a woman from America or some other location in the West.
In an earlier Post story about the case there was more information that makes this clear, including the husband's full name -- Hamid Azimi-Dana.
Court records -- both for her divorce and the murder case -- capture pieces of Shafeirad’s history.
She was born in Iran, where she met Azimi-Dana, who had immigrated to the United States but made trips back home. ... The couple were married in Tehran on Dec. 17, 2007, according to court records. Daniel was born July 21, 2009. By July 2011, all three family members were living in Gaithersburg.
But the marriage was troubled. In June 2013, the couple separated. A month later, Shafeirad and Azimi-Dana filed requests for restraining orders against each other -- with each alleging in court filings that the other had physically abused them in front of their son.
Jealousy may have played a role, since Azimi-Dana had hired a nanny to help care for the son.
But the most recent story, the one sent in by our reader, also included this statement:
One of Shafeirad’s attorneys, Melanie Creedon, said her client wasn’t driven by jealous rage and that the 2015 crime did not follow a calculated plan. The custody battle, Creedon said, had left Shafeirad suffering from anxiety and a sense of “impending doom.” Shafeirad lost her job caring for an older person, and found out she was about to be evicted. “This was an act of a helpless and hopeless, broken woman who had basically reached the end, and who saw no way out,” Creedon said.
So what else is there to say? May religion and culture have played a role in this?
It's possible that, due to the divorce, Shafeirad had been cast out of whatever Iranian community they were part of in Maryland, including a mosque that would normally have helped members in this kind of emergency. This would have added to her sense of isolation and doom.
If you read up on marriage and divorce in Iranian culture, it is clear that patriarchy plays a major role and that women get the short end of this. As is often the case, cultural rules are often stated in ways that make it sound like they are linked to faith and tradition.
Was that the case here. We do not know. There is not enough information. It's possible that the judge didn't allow these topics into the trial, fearing prejudice. In the end, we know nothing about the family's faith or the degree to which they practiced their faith.
So is there a "religion ghost" here? Should the Post team have probed this point simply because many readers -- once again "divorce" plus "Iran" equals trouble -- would assume that Islamic culture had something to do with this tragedy? Should they have interviewed feminists and legal scholars who have studied these issues in depth?
Frankly, I would have dug into that. However, I do not think this is a clear case.
What think ye, readers?
MAIN IMAGES: Photos from Montgomery County Sheriff's office