Thursday, March 9, 2006

Way back when I was a cub reporter at this newspaper, I got hold of a book about the “art” of interviewing. It was a thin book. There was no use spending thousands of words to tell a reporter, cub or old Grizzly, to bone up on a subject and let natural curiosity take its course.

That thin book came to mind on reading a three-part series in the New York Times about an imam named Reda Shata who presides over the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, N.Y. As far as the art of interviewing goes, the reporter got it exactly backward: Thousands of words; negligible expertise; and no curiosity.

Both the New York Post and the New York Sun have already pounced on the most egregious flaw of omission: not a mention, in 11,000-plus words, of the day in March 1994 when a man walked out of that same Bay Ridge mosque and, inspired by the anti-Jewish sermon of the day (delivered by a different, unidentified imam), armed himself and opened fire on a van carrying Hasidic Jewish children. Ari Halberstam, 16, was killed. The Times series, as it happened, concluded on the 12th anniversary of his death.

Such journalistic jaw-droppers abound: gaping holes, like the one above, but also dead ends that leave countless questions that the female reporter, it seems, never thought to ask. For example, she notes, over six months of interviews, the Egyptian-born imam refused to shake her hand. “He offers women only a nod,” she writes. Why is shaking hands with a woman “improper”? What does the imam think about sexual equality? She doesn’t tell us. In Belgium last year, she doesn’t mention, the female president of the parliament made headlines for canceling a meeting with an Iranian delegation over this same refusal to shake a woman’s hand (the parliamentarian’s own), while in Holland, the English-language blog Zacht Ei reported, a Muslim man lost a month’s worth of welfare benefits for not only refusing to shake hands with female municipal employees, but also refusing to acknowledge their presence. This is supposed to be “the story of Mr. Shata’s journey west,” but the story bypasses such landmark issues.

Instead, we get a load of happy talk: “Married life in Islam is an act of worship,” Mr. Shata says. So impressed were the editors of the New York Times by this load that they ran the quotation, not just above the fold, but across the very top of the front page over a gold-bathed family photo four columns wide. Does Miss Reporter ask the imam to reconcile this ecstatic notion with the Islamic custom of arranged and forced marriages, the spate of spousal abuse and “honor killings” within European Muslim communities — as recounted in clarifying detail in Bruce Bawer’s important new book, “While Europe Slept” — or the tradition of polygamy which exists to this day in portions of Islamic society?

No, no and no. She writes: “One Brooklyn imam reportedly urged his wealthier male congregants during a Ramadan sermon last year to take two wives. When a woman complained about the sermon to Mr. Shata, he laughed. ‘You know that preacher who said Hugo Chavez should be shot?’ he asked,” referring to a comment by Pat Robertson about the Venezuelan leader. ” ‘We have our idiots, too.’ ” One clumsy feint and presto — the New York Times loses all interest in polygamy, from Mohammed’s Mecca to Bloomberg’s New York.

Then there was the series’ look at terrorism. “What I may see as terrorism, you may not see that way,” Mr. Shata says. What does he mean by that? The reporter doesn’t tell us. Hamas is a powerful symbol of resistance, he says; the assassinated Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin was the “martyred” “lion of Palestine,” he sermonizes; and yet the imam says he condemns all violence. How does he square that? She doesn’t tell us. And when he sanctions violence against soldiers, not civilians, how does he define “soldier” and “civilian”? She doesn’t tell us that, either.

When asked about a 2004 sermon that “exalted” a female suicide bomber as a “martyr,” Mr. Shata seems “unusually conflicted,” the reporter writes. He declines to comment for fear of “[inviting] controversy,” and alienating New York rabbis he has “forged friendships with.” And there the question lies: She just lets him slip away. All the news that’s fit to print, apparently, doesn’t include the heart of the matter.

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