South Florida Sun Sentinel

Confessed mosque arsonist said to be a 'Jew for Jesus.' What does that explain?

Confessed mosque arsonist said to be a 'Jew for Jesus.' What does that explain?

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.

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Mosque and state: Cut 'n' paste approach mars stories on polling controversy

Mosque and state: Cut 'n' paste approach mars stories on polling controversy

What would happen if mainstream media did their own reporting? They just might avoid the kinds of gaps and gaffes marring the coverage of a controversy over a South Florida mosque.

The Islamic Center of Boca Raton has been used as a polling site for some years by the Palm Beach County supervisor of elections, but this year she changed her mind. Why? Because she says she got a lot of complaints, including threats. 

It's a more than worthwhile story acting as a kind of microcosm for national questions of tolerance, terrorism, religious freedom and church (or mosque) and state. And it's worth more than the cut 'n' paste jobs that have been passing for, you know, showing up and/or phoning.

The story came out last Friday in the South Florida Sun Sentinel, but it wasn't till midweek that it caught on in national media. 

Then the gaffes began.

The New York Daily News ran a photo supposedly showing the Islamic Center. But it's really the Assalam Center, a different mosque a little more than a mile south. And the Washington Post today led with, "Since at least the year 2010, citizens have cast their votes within the pastel green walls of the mosque. No, they haven't. The light green mosque opened in 2012. Before then, the members rented space at a shopping plaza.

And those are just the easiest soft spots to spot.

Aside from its error on the ICBR building, the WaPo article may not contain a single original word. It's assembled from eight sources -- including the Sun Sentinel, the Palm Beach Post and West Palm Beach-based WPTV. The newspaper also added canned statements from two Congress members, the Florida Family Association and the Council on American-Islamic Relations. WaPo's only redeeming feature is admitting its sources.

The Associated Press doesn't even wait for you to read its lede. "People Vote in Churches and Synagogues. Why Not a Mosque?," says its headline, which was used by ABC News and elsewhere.

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Gays and Islam: Even after Orlando shooting, many news media skirt the hard questions

Gays and Islam: Even after Orlando shooting, many news media skirt the hard questions

After the 9-11 terrorist attacks, I suggested a story on the verses in the Quran that dealt with killing unbelievers, including how local imams interpret them. My editor hesitated and said, "I'd rather do stories about diversity in the community."

That looks like the attitude among most mainstream media, 15 years later. We know that Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people at an Orlando gay club, was Muslim and anti-gay. But what exactly does Islam say about homosexuality?

Many mainstream media seem to have been avoiding answering that, even when asking it themselves. They’ve chattered about how he checked Facebook and traded texts with his wife. They say he tried to buy body armor. And of course, they talk about gun control and homophobia.

But few have ventured into the minefield where Muslim communities border homosexuality. And of those that do, most concentrate on LGBT Muslims themselves.

In Florida itself, I could find only one newspaper -- my alma mater, the Sun Sentinel -- reporting on a "confused, broken community that lies at the intersection of the tragedy," as it calls them. One of its three subjects is college student Hytham Rashid:

There are not a lot of terms to describe gender identity or sexual orientation in Arabic, Rashid said. The word "transgender," for example, translates to "You are like a woman" or "You are like a man," which can be considered offensive, he says.  
As a gay Muslim, Rashid says he faces both Islamophobia and homophobia every day. He said in the wake of the Orlando tragedy, he doesn’t feel safe going to memorials and events.
"We can put up our stickers and wave around our rainbow flags in Wilton Manors, but the core issue is, there isn’t a safe space for us," he said.

The Sun Sentinel also imports a statement by the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity that there is "no religious justification or precedent in Islam for mass shootings targeting any population, regardless of identity." But it doesn't look at the Quran or the Hadith (the record of Muhammad's words and deeds).  Nor does it ask any leaders of the 15-20 mosques in its circulation area.

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Orlando shooting: Florida media scrambling to decide what it was about

Orlando shooting: Florida media scrambling to decide what it was about

Was it Islamic terrorism? Just regular terrorism? A hate crime? A wake-up call for gay rights and gun control?

Like a dropped glass, the Orlando shooting has already shattered into many stories, less than 48 hours after the event.  Activists for various causes have filled in a few details of the tragedy into scripts that seem otherwise pre-written. And many news media have been helping them.

The coverage has been overwhelming -- local and national alike -- and the cash-strapped newspapers have often borrowed from national news outlets. But here's what jumped out during my look at Florida media.

The Orlando Sentinel has done outstanding -- though not flawless -- coverage, with multiple updates. By 1:02 p.m. Sunday, it had produced an impressive profile of Omar Mateen, named by police as the man who stormed the Pulse nightclub and killed 49 people. Building partly on work by the Washington Post, the profile includes:

Omar Mir Seddique Mateen, the 29-year-old gunman accused of killing dozens of people in Orlando on Sunday, was a security guard, the divorced father of a 3-year-old and, in school, someone who acted "dorky."
He also was an extremist whose outspoken interest in terrorism twice put him on the FBI’s radar screen.
On Sunday morning, he became something far larger: a lone gunman who authorities say was responsible for the deadliest mass shooting in American history.
He called 911 from outside a gay nightclub just south of downtown Orlando, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, authorities said, then began his assault.

For comparison, check out the Tampa Bay Times' version, which came out at 12:13 p.m. today.

The Sentinel also reveals that Mateen grew up in Port St. Lucie, Fla., and bought two guns legally; worked for a security firm; been investigated by the FBI at least twice since 2013; made reference to the Tsarnaev brothers, the brothers who bombed the 2013 Boston Marathon; and was married for two years to a woman who left because of his abusiveness. All of those elements have become part of the standard narrative in other media.

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Atheism studies: New York Times scores scoop on a planned program at University of Miami

Atheism studies: New York Times scores scoop on a planned program at University of Miami

If there is a God, he must be smiling on the New York Times.

The newspaper beat everyone else in announcing a planned chair for the study of atheism at the University of Miami -- said to be the first in the nation.

The 1,000-word article suffers, however, from a lack of secular-style skepticism. But let's look at the good stuff first:

With an increasing number of Americans leaving religion behind, the University of Miami received a donation in late April from a wealthy atheist to endow what it says is the nation’s first academic chair "for the study of atheism, humanism and secular ethics."
The chair has been established after years of discussion with a $2.2 million donation from Louis J. Appignani, a retired businessman and former president and chairman of the modeling school Barbizon International, who has given grants to many humanist and secular causes -- though this is his largest so far. The university, which has not yet publicly announced the new chair, will appoint a committee of faculty members to conduct a search for a scholar to fill the position.
"I’m trying to eliminate discrimination against atheists," said Mr. Appignani, who is 83 and lives in Florida. "So this is a step in that direction, to make atheism legitimate."

The article notes a rise of interest in atheism, including conferences, courses and even a journal -- and names names, like the American Humanist Association and Pitzer College's "Secularism and Skepticism" class. Another coup is a phone talk with uber-atheist Richard Dawkins in Britain.

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CBS News asks how American Muslims feel -- surprise, they're unhappy about public opinion

CBS News asks how American Muslims feel -- surprise, they're unhappy about public opinion

By now, you'd think pretty much everyone knew how Muslims feel about other Americans' attitudes toward them. But no, CBS News trudged that worn path yet again yesterday.

Ace anchor Scott Pelley interviewed five young Muslims all American born. He asks how they feel going to work and school after an attack like the recent massacre in San Bernardino, Calif. And he seldom goes off script.

A hijab-clad student talks about being tripped by a man who then starts screaming "Go back to where you came from." Another woman complains about the mother of her "absolute best childhood friend" putting a "super-hateful post" about Muslims on Facebook.

"When I saw it, I just broke down in tears," she says, choking up a bit. She says she wrote the woman a long letter saying, "We're the Muslim family you know, and you know we're not like that."

What did the Facebook post say? And did the mother reply? Pelley doesn't ask.

The young Muslim does volunteer that the family are "white Christians." Why does that make a difference? Why didn't Pelley ask?

He asks about a poll by the Public Religion Research Institute, saying that 56 percent of Americans believe "The values of Islam are at odds with American values." The five interviewees naturally disagree. And interestingly, three of them deny that the faith is inherently violent or counsels killing the innocent -- interestingly, because Pelley's question didn’t bring that up.

He's clearly done some homework, but verses in the Quran and Hadith about violence didn't seem to be part of it (although the HuffPost wrote on it five years ago).  One of the young Muslims repeats a standard liberal line that you can use Bible verses to support violence, too.

Pelley does ask their reaction to the claims by ISIS that it's acting "in the name of all Muslims." Again, they unshockingly reject ISIS as Islamic at all. One says the word "Islam" means peace. (Actually, "Islam" means "submission"; the Arabic word for peace is salaam.) Another says that anti-Muslim voices, like that of Donald Trump, are "playing into the hands of ISIS."

Among the few surprises in the interview was from a young man: "I don’t like to identify myself as a Muslim-American. I'm an American who is Muslim." Other interesting comments come a uniformed Army lieutenant. He says that when he decided to join the Army, everyone -- Muslim and non-Muslim alike -- asked "Are you going to kill your own people?" This revelation of prejudice on the Muslim side doesn't draw any interest from Pelley.

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ISIS antidote? New York Times examines moderate Indonesian Muslim group

ISIS antidote? New York Times examines moderate Indonesian Muslim group

The faith-based hate of Islamic State has been lacking a counter-narrative, and an Indonesia-based movement may be developing one, says an
absorbing report in the New York Times

The Nahdlatul Ulama movement holds nothing back in the counter-attack, as the Times tells it. N.U. says the extremists are shallow, savage, unfaithful to God, even "mired in filth." And it challenges the ISIS claim that there is only one way to be Muslim.

This 1,300-word Times article is laudably ghost-free, providing a (mostly) thorough understanding of the issues, including religious ones. It offers background on the violence that has often plagued the world's largest Islamic nation. And it directly quotes several leaders of N.U., even its top man:

“The spread of a shallow understanding of Islam renders this situation critical, as highly vocal elements within the Muslim population at large — extremist groups — justify their harsh and often savage behavior by claiming to act in accord with God’s commands, although they are grievously mistaken,” said A. Mustofa Bisri, the spiritual leader of the group, Nahdlatul Ulama, an Indonesian Muslim organization that claims more than 50 million members.
“According to the Sunni view of Islam,” he said, “every aspect and expression of religion should be imbued with love and compassion, and foster the perfection of human nature.”

N.U.'s main weapon thus far is Rahmat Islam Nusantara (The Divine Grace of East Indies Islam), a 90-minute documentary that blends music, poetry, history and interviews with Indonesian Islamic scholars. They "challenge and denounce the Islamic State's interpretations of the Quran and Hadith," the story says. And it links to a colorful, two-and-a-half-minute trailer for the film.

We also read some background on ISIS theology and its roots in the Wahhabi movement. (However, the Times missteps in calling Wahhabis "fundamentalist," without defining that subjective term.) The story says ISIS "takes its cues from medieval Islamic jurisprudence, where slavery and execution of prisoners was accepted." Interestingly, N.U. leaders accept the medieval statements "but argue that Islamic law needs to be updated to 21st-century norms."

At times, the story verges on p.r. and marketing in praising Indonesia and moderate Islam:

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For Day of the Dead, mainstream media coverage is moribund

For Day of the Dead, mainstream media coverage is moribund

Folk holidays like the Day of the Dead make a good litmus test for mainstream media attitudes toward religion. A few reports interview adherents and research the spirituality behind the practices.  But most just seem to want to snap photos of the natives.

The two-day event, Nov. 1 and 2, is especially popular in Haiti and Mexico. It's a blend of Catholic and indigenous religion, either praying for the dead or asking the blessings of deities who care for them. 

That's one way to look at it. But for folks at the the Associated Press, these days, it's all about weird people and weird customs:

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) -- Revelers streamed into cemeteries across Haiti on Sunday bearing beeswax candles, food offerings and bottles of rum infused with hot peppers to mark the country's annual Voodoo festival of the dead.
At Port-au-Prince's sprawling national cemetery, Voodoo priests and priestesses gathered around a blackened monument that is believed to be the oldest grave. There, they lit candles and stoked small fires as they evoked the spirit Baron Samedi, the guardian of the dead who is typically depicted with a dark top hat and a white skull face.

Most of the story is pretty much in the same vein: Oooo, lookit that (click, click)! And that that (click, click)! 

Unfortunately, most of the "coverage" takes the form of images in "Photos of the Day" galleries. Even in far-off Australia, that nation's ABC News has a brief story with references to "sugar skulls, marigold flowers and other spirit offerings."

Not that AP's piece was a triumph of perceptiveness.

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Funny Muslims: New York Times runs a humorless advance on a comedy festival

Funny Muslims: New York Times runs a humorless advance on a comedy festival

One funny thing about the planned Muslim Funny Fest is that such things are still considered news. The New York Times introduces the idea as if it doesn't go back more than a decade.

Another funny thing is that the story has so few funny things.

"We should be able to tell our own story, and our story is that Muslims are hilarious," Negin Farsad, one of the organizers, says in the story. Unfortunately, they don’t get to show much of it here.

The article also strains at the seams trying to advance the comedy festival and tell of efforts to publicize it in bus and train stations. One topic is funny; one is not.

A quarter of its 17 paragraphs is on the tussle with the city over ads that Farsad and co-organizer Dean Obeidallah want to post on its bus and train stations. Only in the fourth paragraph, in fact, does the Times get to the news of the three-day Funny Fest festival, set to start July 21.

Then it segues into Obeidallah's background and how he met Zayid. They founded the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival back in 2003, focused more on ethnicity but still related to Muslim Americans. They produced a semi-serious documentary, The Muslims Are Coming!, back in 2013.  It was to advertise that film that they wanted to advertise on buses. Also to counter what they considered anti-Muslim ads by the American Freedom Defense Initiative, the group that sponsored the Draw Mohammed contest in Texas.

This section has what humor the story offers. The Times quotes one of the posters the comedians wanted on the buses -- "The ugly truth about Muslims: Muslims have great frittata recipes." They also say they won't censor any Funny Fest comedians who want to "talk about the fact that you love bacon sandwiches." That's pretty much all the laughs here.

Now, it's true that the organizers use humor for serious reasons:

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