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“Killing in the Name of God”?


When the Chicago Tribune first unveiled Struggle for the Soul of Islam on February 8 of this year, “A note from the editors” introduced this series of occasional articles as follows:

Many Muslims see America’s war on terror as a war against Islam.
And many Americans see Muslims as suicide bombers who murder innocents and target Americans.
Islam, the world’s fastest-growing religion, preaches tolerance, non-violence and respect for human life. But a struggle for the soul of Islam is under way, one that poses challenges for Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
Radical elements of the religion, bent on attacking America and its allies, use Islam and the notion of holy war to justify assaults by suicide bombers who believe a ride on a Jerusalem bus will buy them a trip to paradise.
The radicals who stoke the fires of violence aren’t many. But their influence extends far beyond their numbers. They form a magnetic field of militancy that threatens to pull the entire religion rightward.
Mainstream Muslim leaders insist they don’t back their radical brethren. Nowhere in the Koran, Islam’s holy book, these leaders say, is there any justification for the pageantry of terror that plays out in headlines nearly every day.
But the volume of these objections is hardly thunderous.
Part of the reason is fear. Muslims who speak out risk retaliation from radicals or ostracism from tightly knit Muslim communities.
The growing popularity of Islam should not be underestimated. Politically, culturally and spiritually, its increasing influence is felt in nations around the world. In some countries, radical Islamic groups deliver the health care, education and jobs often neglected by corrupt governments backed by generations of American administrations.
So, do most Muslims really hate America? Or does their tepid response to radicals stem from their resentment of America’s unquestioning alliances with discredited Muslim leaders and with Israel, a nation despised in much of the Islamic world? And how can Islamic and Western cultures coexist?
To address such questions, the Tribune sent reporters around the globe to understand the unfolding drama within this great religion. Throughout the year, we will publish their reports. The first story explores the struggle between moderates and conservatives for control of a suburban Chicago mosque.

Later the same week, Don Wycliff, the Trib‘s Public Editor (or ombudsman—its official “conscience,” if you will, with the emphasis falling upon ‘official‘), wrote in glowing terms about the “relief and embarrassment” he felt after having read the first installment in the series: “Relief,” he explained, “that the series finally was started and that the Bridgeview [Illinois] mosque story, which had been the cause of most of the Muslim community’s anguish, had turned out not just not bad, but quite good. Embarrassment that I had doubted my colleagues’ ability to strike the delicate balances necessary to bring that off.” (“A responsible series…,” Feb. 12.—For a copy, see below.)

Delicate balances indeed. Sort of makes me wonder whether the Trib‘s Public Editor had ever read his colleagues’ introduction to the series, a far more faithful expression of the series’ overall mission, which is an attempt to convey the sense of gathering threat to the modern world posed by a certain kind of Islam—but above all, by the kind that takes sides against the Americans, rather than siding with them. Which is to say: The kind that is rooted in the masses. Not the kind in which heads of state and foreign ministers take the time to engage when they are not toadying to the Americans.

Anyway. With “Killing in the name of God” (Sunday, Oct. 3), today’s latest installment in the series (and the seventh overall), the Chicago Tribune has carried this mission to a wholly new level. Published in bold lettering on the front page of the thick and most-widely-seen (read being another matter) edition of the newspaper, immediately below the masthead, “Killing in the name of God” also includes a front-page “Note from the editors” that instructs us:

The current war raging between Israel and Palestinian militants isn’t the only conflict under way in the Gaza Strip as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon plans to withdraw his troops next year. Another battle is under way there too, pitting a withering moderate Arab movement against militants, especially those from Hamas, the rising radical Islamic organization with an arsenal that includes the ballot box, the Koran and suicide bombers. Conditions in Gaza are awful. In the seventh installment of this series, the Tribune shows how the Gaza Strip has become a breeding ground for terror, particularly luring the young. Some observers fear that an eventual Israeli withdrawal could make Gaza a Palestinian state ruled by militants, an ominous turn in the struggle for the soul of Islam.

Militants. Militants. Militants. But not militant Israelis, please note well. Neither a militant Israeli Prime Minister nor militant Jewish fundamentalists turn up in today’s installment. Not even the militant practices of the Israeli state. Just Palestinian militants and radical Islamic organizations and so on. And all of these militants and radicals and so ons somehow are managing, collectively, to steer the Arab-Israeli conflict in the direction of a “Palestinian state ruled by militants,” the Chicago Tribune‘s editors fear, “an ominous turn in the struggle for the soul of Islam.”

How’s this for a gathering threat? No delicate balances here. Mission accomplished.

So. The arsenal of the Palestinian militants within Hamas includes the ballot box, the Koran, and suicide bombers? And these militants kill in the name of……..God?

(In the name of God? Come again? Did I read this right? What on earth could the militant editors at the Chicago Tribune—For how else to explain their behavior?—have been thinking when they used the name ‘God‘ in the headline of an article that sets out to show the gathering existential threat to Israel of the armed Palestinians who blow up both themselves and their victims along with them? The last time I checked, the name ‘God‘ did not appear in the Koran. Only the name ‘Allah‘. Indeed. This is the whole point of there being a Koran in the first place. Is it not? So as to distinguish not only Allah from God but Allah from all of the other gods too numerous to mention? (My personal favorite always having been the one whose breasts bestowed the cup of white gold upon Patera. But this is just me talking.) How could the editors at the Chicago Tribune confuse God with Allah? And how do you suppose the higher-order conscience of the Trib‘s Public Editor is going to explain this slip up? (Quick hunch: He won’t even catch it.))

Anyway. When one chooses the word ‘militant‘ to modify another word—whether the other word is ‘Islam‘ or ‘Palestinian‘ or ‘Israeli‘ or ‘Christian‘ or ‘American‘ or ‘Chicago Tribune‘—don’t you think that one in the very least ought to base this word choice on something real? After all. Isn’t it the case, ultimately, that militant IS as militant DOES? I mean, what else do we have to go on, when choosing our words? The sheer intuition of the essence of militancy among this or that group?

Taking this reality check as our working assumption (to repeat: that militant IS as militant DOES), and adopting, further, John Pilger‘s recent plea that we look behind or around or through the “one-way moral mirror” that a series such as the Chicago Tribune‘s Struggle for the Soul of Islam holds up before our tired eyes, and recognize instead the barbaric practices, customs, and norms of the militants much closer to home, let’s take a second look at this morning’s Chicago Tribune for evidence of actually-existing militancy, and see what we find. (And, yes, I am being selective here. Excluding two reports in particular that tell us about the violence committed by individuals and groups against the version of world order that places American Power at its center, in both cases acts of terrorism in India and Pakistan.)

Okay. Here’s seven articles. See what you think.

* “How did the United States lose South Korea’s heart?” Won Joon Choe, Perspective (like the New York Times‘s Week in Review section), sect. 2, pp. 1-6
* “Adoptee finds a part of self far, far away,” Laura Gannarelli, Perspective, sect. 2, pp. 1-6
* “Troop switch would place ally at risk,” E.W. Chamberlain III, Perspective, Sect. 2, pp. 1-6
* “Pro-Aristide unrest spreads to 3rd day,” sect. 1, p. 6
* “U.S. says mop-up begins after route of Samarra rebels,” Colin McMahon, sect. 1, p. 8
* “The extraordinarily long-life of the ‘dead-enders’. Reassessing the Iraqi resistance: How the U.S. demonized, minimized, and recognized the insurgency,” Mark Jacob, Perspective, sect. 2, p. 3
* “11 Palestinians killed as Israel intensifies Gaza offensive,” Laura King (taken from the Los Angeles Times), sect. 1, p. 5

Now. In each of these four cases (although there are seven articles, the first three articles, and the fifth and the sixth, cover the same ground), the one unifying thread is American Power. That is to say: American Power on the Korean Peninsula—and its legacy of distortions of history there, including the fifty-year American military occupation of the South, and the North’s desperation for nuclear weapons. American Power in Haiti—most recently, its overthrow of the Haitian President and its savage distortions of Haitian history, so routine that reading about them is like reading the label on a box of cereal. American Power in Iraq—absolutely savage distortions of the history of a country and an entire region of the world on a monumental scale, with 13 malicious years of “sanctions of mass destruction” followed by a war and a military occupation that has turned life in this country into hell on earth, there being simply no other word to describe it. And, last, American Power and the Gaza Strip. Which is to say: American Power and Israeli power in the Occupied Palestinian Territories—two world-class collaborators in the savage distortions of history there. And before the Americans’ military seizure of Iraq—which over the course of less than two short years has become a techtonic event in a class wholly by itself, surpassing even the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories in its distortions of everything imaginable—the most defining, most crystallizing, and most epochal event for the entire region.

Or, to repeat myself one more time: Militant IS as militant DOES.

Postscript. Well. It is now Monday morning, October 4. Today’s Chicago Tribune—like pretty much the rest (and perhaps all) of the mainstream American print dailies on this first Monday of October—began with a total of six different reports on its front page.

Including these two:

* “Raid’s success lifts vote hopes,” Colin McMahon, sect. 1, pp. 1-7
* “Sharon says Israel will widen Gaza incursion,” Joel Greenberg, sect. 1, pp. 1-20.

The lead to the first report, the one on the Americans’ resort to overwhelming firepower against the Iraqi city of Samarra over the weekend, informs us that “The weekend offensive in Samarra was not just about putting down guerrilla fighters who were attacking American and Iraqi troops. It also was the first step toward the Iraqi and U.S. goal of making the nation safe for democracy.” The accompanying photos depict “A boy with a white flag [walking] ahead of Iraqis taking a family member killed in the battle for Samarra for burial Sunday” (front page, above the fold), and “A U.S. soldier [scanning] his sector near the main mosque in Samarra, Iraq, on Sunday. Control of the city remains uncertain” (p. 7). One really ought to take a close look at this second photo in particular. It is a ghastly, frightening, close-up of a character straight out of a dystopic sci-fi film, with the American soldier’s whole face obstructed by the high-tech glasses he is using. Here, for once, the medium is the message. It is the kind of face the Americans present to the world on at least six different continents. The kind you ought to grab your family and friends and run from screaming, at the top of your lungs, looking for some other force to come and protect both you and the planet.

(Incidentally, the phrase “vote hope” in the headline refers to next January’s vote, the plans for which the Bush regime intends to hype at least through the November 2 presidential election in the States. The Americans’ massive display of state violence, terror, death and destruction over Samarra (as well as Fallujah and elsewhere, too) may be instrumental toward this end, the Trib‘s reasoning goes. Therefore, it is good. A “success” that also “lifts” the hopes that the January elections will go ahead as promised.—Of course, exactly whose hopes are supposed to be lifted by the Americans’ “success” in Samarra is implied more than explicitly stated. But, you catch the Chicago Tribune‘s drift, I am sure.)

The second report—”Sharon says Israel will widen Gaza incursion“—is more of the same: The existential conflict between the State of Israel and armed Palestinian militants from Hamas. As two of the paragraphs from midway through the article explain:

In the fighting Sunday, an Israeli aircraft attacked a group of militants after they fired a Qassam rocket near Beit Hanoun, hitting the squad and a cart loaded with rockets, the army said. Two militants were killed and a third critically wounded, hospital officials said.

Earlier Sunday, Israeli forces killed two militants planting a bomb, the army said. A third dead militant was found later, Palestinians reported.

You also should see the photograph from the Jabaliya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip that accompanies this report (p. 20—the back page—sorry I can’t reproduce it). “A Palestinian stands in the rubble of a school destroyed amid Israel’s incursion into the Jabaliya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip.” Additional words are unnecessary, however.

The final three paragraphs of this report sum up the whole of it pretty nicely:

To explain its mission, the army allowed reporters to interview a battalion commander at a position near Jabaliya. The officer, identified as Lt. Col. Ofer, said dozens of Palestinian homes have been destroyed or damaged during the operation because they served as cover for gunmen.

“They shoot at you from every alley, so you have to flatten the area,” he said.

He acknowledged that Palestinian civilians have been hit by army gunfire, but said those were mistakes and that the militants use civilians as human shields.

Makes me all the more anxious to learn what kind of collective structures and practical tools the UN Secretary-General’s increasingly ballyhooed High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change is going to recommend that the rest of the world—outside the United States and Israel, that is—adopt, not only to contain these two chronic belligerents, but to pre-emptively deter and to punish them for serial violations of international and humanitarian law that are so brazen, they can be reported on the front pages of major American and Israeli newspapers, and throughout their 24-hour-per-day news cycles, without so much as a tremor of concern expressed about them by their actual perpetrators.

Contemporary barbarism.—

Struggle for the Soul of Islam, Chicago Tribune (occasional series), 2004

A Note from the editors,” February 8
From a golden age to an embattled faith,” February 8
Hard-liners won battle for Bridgeview mosque,” February 8
How Saudi wealth fueled holy war,” February 22
Egypt’s cultural shift reflects Islam’s pull,” March 21
Iran loses faith in clerics,” May 2
In Kuwait, conservatism a launch pad to success,” July 11
A rare look at secretive Brotherhood in America ; Muslims divided on Brotherhood,” September 19
Killing in the Name of God,” October 3

Legal Consequences of the Construction of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, International Court of Justice, July 9, 2004
‘God Wills It’!” Uri Avnery, September 11, 2004

The Most Important Terrorism Is ‘Ours’,” John Pilger, New Statesman, September 16, 2004

Occupation Watch (Iraq)

A Failed “Transition”: The Mounting Costs of the Iraq War, Phyllis Bennis et al., IPS Iraq Task Force, Institute for Policy Studies and Foreign Policy In Focus, September, 2004
Key Findings” (summary of the same), September, 2004
“Just the Numbers” factsheet, September, 2004

United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA homepage), 2004
UNRWA Emergency Appeal Reports, 2004
Response by Commissioner-General Peter Hansen to allegations regarding misuse of a UN vehicle,” UNRWA Press Release No. HQ/G/30/2004, October 2, 2004
Urgent Appeal. Stop Impending Massacre in Gaza—At least 30 dead as Sharon re-engages Gaza,” Palestine.Monitor.org, October 1, 2004
Israeli raid on northern Gaza (28 September 2004-),” The Electronic Intifada (accessed Sunday, Oct. 3, 2004)

FYA (“For your archive”): Am depositing here a copy of Don Wycliff’s “A responsible series on the `Struggle for the soul of Islam’.” Wycliff, as I mentioned above, happens to be the Trib‘s so-called Public Editor. Its ombudsman. Or higher-order “conscience,” if you will. Which is to say: Nothing, really. So. In an higher-order sense, with this commentary the Trib‘s “conscience” was telling his colleagues that their god-awful Struggle for the Soul of Islam series had gotten off to a wonderful start. My, oh my. I wonder what he really thinks about it now.

Chicago Tribune
February 12, 2004 Thursday
Chicago Final Edition
SECTION: COMMENTARY ; ZONE C; From the Public Editor ; Pg. 27
HEADLINE: A responsible series on the `Struggle for the soul of Islam’
BYLINE: Don Wycliff.

For the better part of the last two years, many members of the Chicago-area Muslim community have lived in dread of a series of stories they heard the Chicago Tribune was preparing on Islam and its place in the world.

Especially in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, they said, no good could come from any such attention. Inevitably the stories would end up maligning their faith and labeling them all as suicide bombers, airplane hijackers and terrorists of other sorts.

And no appeals to the Tribune’s demonstrated record of good will and journalistic fairness on issues affecting the Islamic community could shake their conviction on this score.

On Sunday, after a long gestation, the occasional series began, marked by a star-and-crescent logo and the label “Struggle for the soul of Islam.” And as is often the case, the dreaded unknown turned out to have been far worse than the black-and-white reality.

“Thank you for an objective view of the Muslim community in the U.S.,” a reader who described herself as a “Muslim-American first generation female” said in an e-mail.

Oussama Jammal, president of the Mosque Foundation of Bridgeview, a profile of which was the centerpiece of Sunday’s package, described his reaction as “obviously outrage,” but said the story “could have been much worse.”

For what it’s worth, my reactions were relief and embarrassment. Relief that the series finally was started and that the Bridgeview mosque story, which had been the cause of most of the Muslim community’s anguish, had turned out not just not bad, but quite good. Embarrassment that I had doubted my colleagues’ ability to strike the delicate balances necessary to bring that off. My hat is off to them–especially to Robert Blau, associate managing editor for projects, and George Papajohn, deputy projects editor.

The Bridgeview mosque story could have gone in either of two directions. It could have become an investigative excursion into the mosque’s leadership, an attempt to prove persistent rumors of links with extremists, or even terrorists. Certainly those things were mentioned in the story–the paper would have been journalistically derelict if they had not been–just as it was mentioned that federal authorities, despite years of investigations, have never filed any criminal charges.

But the bulk of the story was about something much more interesting–and much more in keeping with the theme of a “struggle for the soul of Islam.” It was an intriguing study of a contest between two religious factions for control of an institution–a contest that also was a struggle within an immigrant community over how to adjust to life in modern America.

One group, the so-called moderates, wanted to embrace the society in all its modernity; the other, the “conservatives,” wanted to hold it at arm’s length and use their mosque as a refuge from modernity. In many respects, this intra-Islam contest sounds not unlike those now going on within Catholicism, within the Episcopal Church or among the other varieties of Protestantism.

The suggestions of sinister activities and affiliations; of adherence to an oppressive, excessively rigid, fundamentalist theology; of rules that exclude those who dare to dissent–all these charges have been leveled at, for example, the Catholic organization Opus Dei.

As for preachers inveighing against licentious behavior among teens, the breakdown of traditional families, the presence of temptations to sin and corruption around every corner or at every turn of the radio or TV dial–Sheik Jamal Said of the Mosque Foundation is far from the only one.

Scan the AM radio dial any night or Sunday morning and you can hear fire-and-brimstone preached from dozens of Christian perspectives. (For that matter, listen to the reactions in Congress and elsewhere in Washington to the baring of Janet Jackson’s right breast during the Super Bowl halftime show.)

What may be most noteworthy in all this is that the more “conservative” the mosque became, the more popular it also became. There was something quite powerful in the quote of Jeanean Othman, a woman who came to the Mosque Foundation initially to enroll her 3rd-grade daughter in school. “I started to understand,” she said, “that this was a way of life. For me, this mosque became a place of tranquility.”

This phenomenon–of demanding, conservative religious communities winning bigger followings–also is not unknown to other religious groups.

There is a lot of 2004 left, and a lot of the “Struggle for the soul of Islam” series yet to see print. Heartened by Sunday’s beginning, however, I’m eager to see the rest.

Don Wycliff is the Tribune’s public editor. He listens to readers’ concerns and questions about the paper’s coverage and writes weekly about current issues in journalism. His e-mail address is dwycliff@tribune.com . The views expressed are his own.

“Killing in the Name of God”?

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