Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Covering God

In my journalism book, one reports what one knows to be true and shies away from assumptions. Analysis gives a journalist the opportunity to put events into context and to map out scenarios. Vincent Carroll, editorial page editor of the Rocky Mountain News, violates that rule in his otherwise excellent Wall Street Journal review of 'Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion,' entitled 'God Is A Problem, Sources Say.'

Carroll writes: "In a jarring misreading of the Islamist mentality, the New York Times last month described a Jewish center in Mumbai, India, as the 'unlikely target' of the terrorists who attacked various locations there. 'It is not known if the Jewish center was strategically chosen," the Times went on to declare, "or if it was an accidental hostage scene.'

As a writer of editorials Carroll enjoys the freedom to make opinion the driver of his writing. A reporter doesn't. Initially, during the Mumbai attacks, it remained unclear who the perpetrators were. Jihadis were obviously the first suspects that came to mind but at least in the public domain that remained initially unconfirmed. Similarly, the degree of coordination and determination of the perpetrators emerged only gradually during and after the attacks. As the story unfolded, reporters did not know for certain whether the perpetrators were Jihadis and therefore the Jewish center would have constituted a target for them, and even if it had been confirmed that they were Jihadis, whether the center had been part of the plan or something they stumbled on in the course of events. The perpetrators made no demands which would have suggested who they were; the statement to a news agency by the hitherto unknown Deecan Mujahedeen, remained unverified at the time. Certainly, the New York Times reporter's description of the center as an "unlikely target" should have been questioned by an editor since 'unlikely' presumes knowledge of the perpetrators.

Carroll's is a fair review and a legitimate criticism of the way Western journalists cover stories with a religious component. He quotes Blind Spot co-editor Paul Marshall as saying that some journalists are reluctant to accept the "fundamental religious dimension" of jihadist motives and concentrate instead on "terrorist statements that might fit into secular Western preconceptions about oppression, economics, freedom and progress." Mr. Marshall's statement goes to the heart of what is an unresolved debate: Are perpetrators inspired by their religion or do they gravitate because of social, economic and political circumstance to extreme interpretations of religion? Mr. Marshall apparently supports the first school of thought.

The second of school of thought is vividly illustrated in Young Jordanians rebel, embracing conservative Islam by Michael Slackman in today's New York Times, which portrays student members of Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood. They opt for conservative and strict forms of Islam as a protest because they are "angry, alienated and deprived of opportunity…. It is their rock 'n' roll, their long hair and love beads". Slackman continues: "As a high school student, Fawaz, 20, had dreamed of earning a scholarship to study abroad. But that was impossible, he said, because he did not have a 'wasta,' or connection. In Jordan, connections are seen as essential for advancement and the wasta system is routinely cited by young people as their primary grievance with their country. So Fawaz decided to rebel. He adopted the serene, disciplined demeanor of an Islamic activist… 'I find there is justice in the Islamic movement,' Fawaz said one day as he walked beneath the towering cypress trees at Jordan University. 'I can express myself. There is no wasta needed.'" Granted the students in Slackman's portrayal have opted for peaceful protest but joined an organization that supports the use of violence in Palestine. Yet religion is for them a tool to achieve political change and social justice, what religion means to them as they mature as did the 1960s rebels of Paris, Berlin and Berkley remains an open question.

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