Why do otherwise thorough reporters lose their professional skepticism when covering the Middle East and Islam? This peculiar journalistic phenomenon has puzzled me since I began covering the Middle East and Islam, in lieu of the investigative financial reporting work I had done for most of my career. Indeed, it largely motivated my personal professional shift.
An informal conversation with a part-time journalism professor recently gave me important clues. Our professional dialogue was private; therefore, it would be a gross violation of trust to identify this person in any way, excepting to note that the professor lived and reported from the Middle East for a time and now teaches how to cover current-day religious affairs and relations at a major university.
The professor's classes often cover reporting on the Islamic community in the U.S. today. Therefore, I was keenly interested to determine the professor's familiarity with sacred and historical texts that motivate modern Islamic activity and dogma.
In financial reporting, it goes without saying that one cannot write a major investigative piece on a corporation, industry or economic issue without first reading a great deal. For public companies, this requires extensive review of all Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings--recent annual reports (10-Ks, or F-20s for foreign firms), quarterlies (10-Qs), and changes to business strategy (8-K) or ownership (13-D). A good sleuth also consults the filings of major competitors and customers, in addition to interviewing as many of them as possible.
Only after laying this groundwork will the thorough reporter contact executives at the subject corporation.
A similar procedure--research first, interviews later--applies to private companies. Before 1995, Fidelity Investor chairman Edward C. Johnson III (Ned Johnson) rarely if ever spoke to reporters. Therefore before requesting an interview, I read everything available on the giant money management firm--and talked to more than 140 industry analysts, consultants, competitors, former and then-current Fidelity employees, and so on. The resulting September 1995 Institutional Investor cover story was subsequently emulated by Fortune, The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, among others.
Likewise, for a May 1989 Forbes report on the world's largest private textile firm, Milliken & Co., which had never previously been profiled, before asking the secretive magnate Roger Milliken for an interview, I spent six weeks filling more than 12 notebooks with every shred of data I could gather from every available source. The late Senator Strom Thurmond, then 86, for example, sent me to Florida U.S. Representatives Sam Gibbons, who, in turn, described Milliken as “a protectionist hog, H-O-G.” And former President Richard M. Nixon replied to an interview request in writing.
Of course, not all my financial stories required so many advance interviews, but a large number did. This point is not boastful. Indeed, without intensive advance work, interviewing hard-to-get, controversial, evasive or famous sources would be wasted opportunities or completely fruitless.
Such exhaustive reportage has often helped to expose corporate, Wall Street or other financial corruption. Similarly, investigative journalists have similarly raked corrupt politicians over the coals.
But when it comes to interviewing Muslim community or religious leaders, mainstream reporters are little inclined to submit them to tough or probing questions. Frequently, the U.S. media present leaders of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), Muslim American Society (MAS), Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), or Muslim Brotherhood (MB) as “civil rights” activists, “soft-spoken,” regular guys to be taken at face value, “moderate,” “really respected,” and so on.
Corporate executives caught contradicting themselves--lying, in a word--are forced out, one way or another. Such was the case for former Radio Shack CEO David J. Edmondson in 2006, former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling, former Tyco CEO L. Dennis Kozlowski, and an endless list of others. Given the recent prevalence of American corporate corruption, in fact, legislators and securities regulators responded with a host of new rules.
On political religious matters, though, reporters don't even check readily available records to verify the claimed moderation of these men and groups. Otherwise, they undoubtedly would quickly find that these organizations are actually all radical--supporting violence and terrorism--and that the supposed men of reason have usually said terribly immoderate things. But unlike the immoderate quotations and deeds of Democrats or Republicans, lesser Muslim radicals than Osama bin Laden or Ayman Al-Zawahiri go largely unnoticed in mainstream broadcasts and reports.
The question is, why don't reporters routinely check on these subjects, as when covering any other public figure?
Consider the above-noted journalism professor, teaching undergraduate college courses on how to cover modern religious communities, especially U.S. Muslim communities. This professor (with financial reporting experience no less) seemed both predisposed to believe the statements of most Muslims and completely oblivious to the inherent journalistic problem with that.
Moreover, lacking familiarity with the Islamic practice of hiding the truth (taqiyya, or kitman)--it would be easy to misapprehend the importance of substantiating and corroborating everything--even “unquestionable” religious precepts.
Probably for this reason, the professor lauded the condemnation of the September 11 attacks by the world's preeminent Islamic university, Cairo's al-Azhar. The teacher had never heard of its author, the respected Islamic scholar Muhammed Sayyid al-Tantawi--and was astonished to learn that Tantawi's Ph.D. thesis, Banu Isra’il fi al-Qur’an wa al-Sunna (The Children of Israel in the Qur’an and the Sunna), consists entirely of Jew-hatred based on sacred Islamic texts.1
The professor, who speaks no Arabic, Farsi or Turkish, evidenced similar naiveté in suggesting that I read Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, by Columbia University's “moderate” Mahmoud Mamdani--although Mamdani, likewise, is no moderate. In the March 2007 London Review of Books, he blasts New Yorkers protesting Sudan's jihad genocide, which prefers to parallel with Iraq's “insurgency and counter insurgency.” And in 2005, Mamdani sounded like Osama bin Laden, when he blamed the U.S. for creating violent political Islam during the Cold War. That year, in Foreign Affairs, Mamdani also falsely equated jihadis and neoconservatives.
The inadequate skepticism of the journalism professor seems representative of attitudes among the vast majority of Western mainstream journalists covering this area. The acceleration of excessive credulity screams from this oxymoron--“The Moderate Muslim Brotherhood”--which Foreign Affairs recently ran instead of a headline on an equally unbalanced “report.”
Another source of gullibility crystallized as the professor admitted almost total ignorance of the Qur'an, Hadith (reputed sayings and deeds of Muhammed), Sira (Muhammed's biography), or such other critical Islamic texts as Al-Akham As-Sultaniyyah (The Laws of Islamic Governance) by Ali ibn Muhammed Mawardi (d. 1058); Reliance of the Traveller: The Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law Umdat by Ahmad Ibn Lulu Ibn Al-Naqib (d. 1368); or translations of any portion of Ibn Khatir's massive Qur'anic commentary, Tafsir al-Qur'an al-Azim.
Consider the supreme irony, given how Americans cherish freedom of speech, in contrast to the severe restrictions placed on it by Islam.
Slander, according to al-Naqib, “means to mention anything concerning a person that he would dislike, whether about his body, religion, everyday life, self, disposition, property, son, father, wife, servant, turban, garment, gait, movements, smiling, dissoluteness, frowning, cheerfulness, or anything else connected with him.”2 According to the latter definition, even the truth can be slanderous if its subject doesn't like it.
Lacking familiarity with these texts before interviewing a devout Muslim on religion or political Islam is akin to a financial journalist profiling a Fortune 500 CEO without reading his annual or quarterly reports, talking to any competitors, without even a rudimentary understanding of Securities and Exchange Commission regulations. The CEO could have stolen and stashed a million shares of stock somewhere, and the reporter would be clueless.
But unacquainted with most important Islamic religious texts and laws, this professor insisted that only Saudi Arabia's strict Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam is responsible for current Islamic terrorism and incitement to jihad--and that the original texts are devoid of radicalism.
In one regard, however, the professor should be greatly lauded--for requesting a “short list” of Islamic histories and important foundational Islamic texts, and promising to read and consider them all.3
If every reporter covering Islam similarly committed to read (or at least consult) Islamic texts and history (with special attention to skeptics) the general ability to pose pertinent and challenging questions would rise exponentially along with understanding how radical Muslims, parading as moderates, have thus far generally deceived them.
1 Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi, Banu Isra’il fi al-Qur’an wa al-Sunna [The Children of Israel in the Qur’an and the Sunna], Zahraa’ lil-I`laam al-`Arabi, Cairo. 1986-1987, third printing, 1407/1987, p. 9, pp. 107-126, 129-146, translated to English (forthcoming) in Dr. Andrew G. Bostom, The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism: from Sacred Texts to Solemn History (2007, Prometheus).
2 Ahmad Ibn Lulu Ibn Al-Naqib (d. 1368), Reliance of the Traveller: The Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law Umdat, translated by Nuh Ha Mim Keller, 1991 and 1994, Amana Publications (revised ed., 1994), p. 730.
3 The short list includes the Qur'an (preferably in multiple translations), aHadith, (Sahih Muslim, Sahih al-Bukhari, and others) Ibn Ishaq's Sira (the oldest extant biography of Muhammed), The Laws of Islamic Governance (Muhammed Mawardi--d. 1058); Reliance of the Traveller: The Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law Umdat (Ahmad Ibn Lulu Ibn Al-Naqib--d. 1368); Tafsir al-Qur'an al-Azim (Ibn Khatir's Qur'anic commentary), and historical summaries including The Legacy of Islamic Jihad: Islamic Holy War and the Fate of Non-Muslims (Dr. Andrew Bostom, 2005, Prometheus); Why I am Not a Muslim (Ibn Warraq, 1995, Prometheus); The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians Under Islam (Bat Ye'or, Farleigh Dickenson University, 1985); The Decline and Fall of Eastern Christianity Under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude 7th-20th Century (Bat Ye'or, 1996, Farleigh Dickenson University Press) Eurabia: The Euro Arab Axis (Bat Ye'or, Farleigh Dickenson University, 2005).
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