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‘Covering Islam remains a struggle’

by Brad A. Greenberg

February 6, 2008 | 5:40 pm

Terry Mattingly at GetReligion just posted part of a discussion he had with Andrea Useem, the freelance journalist who runs the site ReligionWriter.com (and is a proud God Blog groupie, I might add). Their discussion focused on the challenge of reporting on Islam, to which Useem is a convert.

Then, of course, there is the ultimate issue: Whether or not to link Islamic beliefs with acts of violence. How can reporters cover the facts — the terrorists themselves trumpet their faith — without implying that this interpretation of Islam is “normal” or “right” to millions of other Muslims? This was a major concern, both to me and to Useem.

It’s crucial to remember this fact — there is no one Islam.

  ReligionWriter: In Jimmy Allen’s 2007 update to Bridging the Gap (text here), Allen lamented that most editors did not see 9/11 as a religious story. But in a way I agree with the editors: Is calling 9/11 an Islam story like saying the Virginia Tech massacre is an Asian-American culture story?

Mattingly: To leave out the religious content of the lives of the bombers would be strange. Let’s look at an example in Christianity. Remember the man who lived out in the woods in North Carolina after blowing up abortion clinics? He had been thrown out of several different very conservative religious groups, and was living as a kind of Christian loner. Yet the press continued to identify him as a Presbyterian. First of all, there’s like 15 different Presbyterian churches: which the heck denomination do you mean? He doesn’t strike me as a PCUSA kind of guy; the world is not full of PCUSA bombers. But for that matter, the world isn’t full of PCA conservative bombers either. In fact, the PCA had thrown Rudolph out — the Orthodox Presbyterians had thrown him out. If you want to accurately describe Rudolph’s life, you end up saying, “Here is a man who said he acted on strong religious motivations, yet the religious groups he was involved with threw him out, and here is why they said they did.” . . .

There, once again, is a debate that has to be covered. You can’t say Eric Rudolph blew up abortion clinics because he was a conservative Christian. You can’t say the guys flew the planes into the towers because they were conservative Muslims. There are too many other conservative Muslims who disagree with them. But the question for journalists is: What are they disagreeing about? And where are the conservative Muslims who will stand up and critique Osama’s interpretation?

I know this struggle, and I’ve tried to tease out the American brand of Islam with stories like this one. But it’s difficult to separate Islam from violence when young American Muslims say their religion justifies suicide bombings or a father is accused of killing his daughter for not wearing the hijab (that was in Canada, but it’s close enough culturally).

Killing the infidel is, of course, not the chief focus of Islam. As despicable as some of the murderous Muslims of the Middle East are, they do not represent Islam to me. I’m led to believe that they are, like so many opportunists throughout history, simply using the endemic religion for political gain.

So how can journalists report the fact that there is variance in Islam—and it’s typically peaceful in the States—when media tend to focus on the dramatic over the mundane, on outrageous actions over everyday interactions? And are we giving most Americans the wrong impression?

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Since launching the blog in 2007, I’ve referred to myself as “a God-fearing Christian with devilishly good Jewish looks.” The description, I’d say, is an accurate one,...

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