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Islam for Journalists: A Primer on Covering Muslim Communities in America



More than 30 years ago, I arrived in Beirut as CBS News Middle East correspondent. My qualifications for covering this complex region? I had been reporting on wars in Africa, so I knew how to dodge bullets. Oh, and I had taken a class on the Arab-Israeli conflict as an undergrad in college. Of Islam, the dominant religion in the region, I knew essentially nothing. If foreign correspondents assigned to the Muslim world have such an inadequate understanding, there is no reason to expect reporters and editors based in the U.S. to be any more prepared to tackle stories involving Islam and Muslims. But in many parts of the U.S., Islam and Muslims have become local news. So a bit of background can come in handy. The problem is, entire sections of bookstores are devoted to Islam, terrorism, and related topics these days, and much of it reflects the huge ideological rift that surrounds the topic. What to read? Who to call? And how to penetrate all that academic gobbledy-gook and get to the basics when you’re on deadline? That’s why we compiled this book and the associated online course at It is meant to be a “how-to, what is” primer by journalists for journalists — and anyone else who wants a clear, straightforward briefing on this important topic. We have no axe to grind, other than a desire to see accurate, balanced reporting of this topic, which has such broad impact on American society today. My project partner, Stephen Franklin, is a former Chicago Tribune Middle East reporter, who was a Knight International Journalism Fellow in the region. He has also trained journalists in Egypt and Turkey, taught courses on covering Islam at DePaul University, and recently created and led an online course on religion and politics for journalists across the globe for the International Center for Journalists. My reporting background spans the Muslim world, from the first suicide bombing in modern history in Lebanon to the revolution in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country. I also headed the largest journalism training center in the Middle East, at The American University in Cairo. Along the way, I picked up a PhD in Islamic Studies, so I am painfully aware of how impenetrable much academic writing can be. I am equally aware of the damage that can be wrought by uninformed, inaccurate or consciously provocative journalism. Across the Muslim world today, extremists are wielding their swords with grisly effect, but the pen — and its modern day equivalents — can be just as lethal. To provide the kind of background and context that, we hope, will help general assignment reporters in large cities and small towns produce fair, balanced and informed reporting about Islam on Main Street USA, we assembled a team that includes noted academic experts on specific aspects of Islam who worked with us to present their academic knowledge in a format accessible to work-a-day reporters. We also roped in a few journalists who know the subject intimately. The project was supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York through a program run by the Social Science Research Council to bring academic expertise on Islam into the public sphere. We hope you find it useful. All of the images used here are from actual reporting and most link back to the original story (if still live). We leave it to you to decide which are sensitive, which are straightforward, which reinforce stereotypes, and which are just plain offensive.
A primer on covering
muslim communities
in A m eric A.
edi tors
lAwrence pintAk, phd
stephen Fr Anklin
islA m For
Other books by the editors
Lawrence Pintak
The New Arab Journalist: Mission & Identity in the
Time of Turmoil
Reflections in a Bloodshot Lens: America, Islam & the
War of Ideas
Seeds of Hate: How America’s Flawed Middle East Policy
Ignited the Jihad
Beirut Outtakes: A TV Correspondent’s Portrait of
America’s Encounter with Terror
Stephen Franklin
Three Strikes: Labor’s Heartland Losses and What They
Mean for Working Americans
Islam for Journalists
©2013 Lawrence Pintak
Islam for Journalists by editors Lawrence Pintak and Stephen Franklin is
licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0
International License.
Cover Art by
Ian Mikraz Akbar
Graphic Designer at Artimasa
Banda Aceh, Aceh, Indonesia
Digital Newsbook Design and Production by
Roger Fidler
Program Director for Digital Publishing
at Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute
Columbia, Missouri, USA
Islam for Journalists
Why We Compiled This Book 6
By Lawrence Pintak
Islam 101 11
By Lawrence Pintak
Covering Islam in America 28
By Andrea Elliott
The Many Faces of Islam 33
By Robert W. Hefner
Ten Questions about Islamic Civilization 50
By Carl Ernst
Islam and Global Politics 63
By Charles Kurzman
Covering the Anti-Islam Movement 76
By Bob Smietana
Islam for Journalists © 2013 Lawrence Pintak4
Islam’s Hard Edge 80
By Charles Kurzman
Covering the American Mosque Story 92
By Jason Samuels
Islam in America 96
By Karam Dana and Stephen Franklin
Covering Domestic Terrorism 128
By Bryan Denson
The Politics of the “Islam Beat” 133
By Jonathan Lyons
Covering Islam Over There From Over Here 155
By Stephen Franklin
Women and Islam 180
By Shereen el Feki
South Asian Islam 197
By Syed Javed Nazir
Islam for Journalists © 2013 Lawrence Pintak5
Digital Islam 212
By Philip N. Howard
Cutting through the Babble 231
By Reshma Memon Yaqub
Islam on Main Street 238
By Lawrence Pintak
Use of Language in Islam 244
Islam for Journalists by editors Lawrence Pintak and Stephen Franklin is licensed
under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Why We Compiled
This Book
MORE than 30 years ago, I arrived in
Beirut as CBS News Middle East cor-
respondent. My qualifications for covering
this complex region? I had been reporting
on wars in Africa, so I knew how to dodge
bullets. Oh, and I had taken a class on the
Arab-Israeli conflict as an undergrad in
college. Of Islam, the dominant religion in
the region, I knew essentially nothing.
If foreign correspondents assigned to
the Muslim world have such an inadequate understanding, there is no
reason to expect reporters and editors based in the U.S. to be any more
prepared to tackle stories involving Islam and Muslims.
But in many parts of the U.S., Islam and Muslims have become
local news. So a bit of background can come in handy.
The problem is, entire sections of bookstores are devoted to Islam,
terrorism, and related topics these days, and much of it reflects the huge
ideological rift that surrounds the topic. What to read? Who to call?
And how to penetrate all that academic gobbledy-gook and get to the
basics when you’re on deadline?
Islam for Journalists Preface
That’s why we compiled this book and the associated online
course at It is meant to be a “how-to, what
is” primer by journalists for journalists — and anyone else who
wants a clear, straightforward briefing on this important topic. We
have no axe to grind, other than a desire to see accurate, balanced
reporting of this topic, which has such broad impact on American
society today.
My project partner, Stephen Franklin, is a former Chicago Tribune
Middle East reporter, who was a Knight International Journalism Fel-
low in the region. He has also trained journalists in Egypt and Turkey,
taught courses on covering Islam at DePaul University, and recently cre-
ated and led an online course on religion and politics for journalists
across the globe for the International Center for Journalists.
My reporting background spans the Muslim world, from the
first suicide bombing in modern history in Lebanon to the revolu-
tion in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country. I also
headed the largest journalism training center in the Middle East, at
The American University in Cairo. Along the way, I picked up a PhD
in Islamic Studies, so I am painfully aware of how impenetrable much
academic writing can be.
I am equally aware of the damage that can be wrought by unin-
formed, inaccurate or consciously provocative journalism.
Across the Muslim world today, extremists are wielding their
swords with grisly effect, but the pen — and its modern day equiva-
lents — can be just as lethal.
Islam for Journalists Preface
In the fall of 2012, the photo
to the right began circulating on the
web. It shows the editor of the French
satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo
(Charlie Weekly), who goes by the
name Charb, holding in one hand a
copy of that week’s issue containing
lewd cartoons of the Prophet Mu-
hammad, with his other hand symbolically held aloft in a fist under-
scoring his self-proclaimed role as defender of press freedom. “I’m not
the one going into the streets with stones and Kalashnikovs,” he told the
AP. He didn’t need to; the weapon he controlled can do far more dam-
age, as evident in the conf lagration that was, at that moment, erupt-
ing across the Muslim world in reaction to a third-rate propaganda film
produced by an Islamophobic Egyptian Coptic felon in California and
readily seized on by Islamist hardliners to fuel their agenda. The Charlie
Hebdo cartoons were oil on the fire.
But the provocation does not need to be deliberate. A study of
eight years of British newspaper coverage by the Channel Four docu-
mentary unit found that
[t]wo-thirds focused on terrorism or cultural differences,
and much of it used words such as militancy, radicalism and
A separate report to a government inquiry directly tied such re-
porting to an increase in anti-Muslim hate crimes.
Islam for Journalists Preface
Let’s be clear. I am the dean of a journalism school that bears
the name of the patron saint of the American news media, Edward R.
Murrow. I have been a reporter for four decades. A commitment to
press freedom is in my blood.
I have also seen the handiwork of Islamist extremists up close and
personal. I saw bits of U.S. Marines hanging from trees after their Beirut
headquarters was obliterated by a truck bomb. I have known journalists
who were kidnapped and diplomats who were murdered and I have cov-
ered more acts of terrorism in more countries than I can begin to count.
That shapes how I view the Islamist fringe.
But, as I wrote in a 2012 Columbia Journalism Review column,
journalism is not supposed to be a weapon. The goal is to inform, not
inflame; to understand, not distort. Isn’t that what separates it from
Back in 2006, after the frenzy over the publication of an earlier set of
cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad by a Danish newspaper (see Chapter
One) many Muslim journalists simply couldn’t understand why West-
ern news organizations would republish the offensive images just be-
cause they had the legal right to do so.
“When I insult your religion or your feelings, it is crossing the limits
of freedom of expression,” Egyptian columnist Salama Ahmed Salama
told me at the time. Many Muslims had a similar reaction to the 2012
Newsweek “Muslim Rage” cover (see Chapter Five).
“There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against
ignorance, intolerance and indifference,” Edward R. Murrow said back
Islam for Journalists Preface
in 1958. “This weapon of television could be useful.” The words apply
equally in today’s multi-media world.
To provide the kind of background and context that, we hope, will
help general assignment reporters in large cities and small towns produce
fair, balanced and informed reporting about Islam on Main Street USA,
we assembled a team that includes noted academic experts on specific
aspects of Islam who worked with us to present their academic knowledge
in a format accessible to work-a-day reporters. We also roped in a few
journalists who know the subject intimately. The project was support-
ed by the Carnegie Corporation of New York through a program run
by the Social Science Research Council to bring academic expertise on
Islam into the public sphere.
We hope you find it useful. All of the images used here are from
actual reporting and most link back to the original story (if still live). We
leave it to you to decide which are sensitive, which are straightforward,
which reinforce stereotypes, and which are just plain offensive.
Lawrence Pintak
Founding Dean
The Edward R. Murrow College of Communication
Washington State University
Islam 101
Just the Facts
By Lawrence Pintak
REPORTER writing
about the Muslim
residents of his/her com-
munity does not need to
be an expert on Islam, but
s/he does need to know
enough to ask intelligent
questions, avoid mistakes
and steer clear of stereotypes that might unintentionally give offense.
Some basic facts can be found below, along with links to sources
that provide more background.
Fact #1: Islam is a religion, a culture, and a way of life
WHAT is Islam? Most of us think of it as a religion, but it is also
a culture and a way of life. The word “Islam” roughly trans-
lates as “surrender” or “submission.” Muslims surrender themselves
to the will of Allah. The word “Muslim” is the active form of “Islam,”
and means “I surrender” (“Allah,” BTW, is just the Arabic translation
Islam for Journalists Chapter One
of “God,” not a separate deity. Some Arab Christians also use Allah
when referring to God).
While we’re on definitions, the community of Muslims is the
ummah. This can refer to the global community of Muslims or the
specific group that worships in your local mosque, or house of wor-
ship. You may hear some Muslims refer to the mosque by another
name: masjid. This Arabic word literally means place of prostration
and is probably the root of the English word mosque.
Fact #2: Islam is the fastest growing religion in the U.S.
THERE are about 1.6 billion Muslims in the world — a bit less
than a quarter of the world’s population; that will rise to about
2.2 billion by 2030 (though the rate of growth is decreasing and the
percentage of overall population will only increase slightly). About 60
percent of the world’s Muslims are under 30 years old.
A 2011 Pew report estimated that the number of Muslims in the
U.S. will more than double by 2030, from 2.6 million to 6.2 million,
much of that through conversion and immigration, meaning the
country will have roughly the same number of Muslims and Jews.
Not every Muslim speaks Arabic. Far from it. Though we tend
to associate Islam most directly with the Arab world, less than 15
percent of Muslims are Arab. The reality is that there are more Mus-
lims in Indonesia alone than in the entire Arab world and Muslims
are the majority in more than 50 countries. Aside from Indonesia,
Islam for Journalists Chapter One
the countries with the largest Muslim populations include Pakistan
(137 million), Bangladesh (115 million), India (107 million, though
Muslims are not the majority), Iran (64 million), Turkey (61 million),
and Egypt (52 million).
In the U.S., only about a quarter of the Arab population is Mus-
lim; the rest are Christian, confounding most stereotypes.
Fact #3: Arabic is the language of the Qur’an
ARABIC does exert a strong influence on the religion since the
Qur’an (Koran) was first transcribed in classical Arabic (more on
that later) and, even though it has been translated into countless lan-
guages, only the original Arabic is considered authentic when it comes
to matters of the rules governing Muslim life. For that reason, many
non-Arab Muslims learn some basic Arabic so that they can read the
Qur’an — or at least they learn to recite it by rote. Qur’an recitation
contests in Arabic are popular among young Muslims around the world.
Fact #4: Islam is a “revealed” or “prophetic” religion
ISLAM is a “revealed” religion, in the tradition of the biblical
prophets. Muslims believe that the Qur’an was transmitted to the
Prophet Mohammed by the Angel Gabriel during meditation sessions
in a cave outside Mecca in what is now Saudi Arabia.
Qur’an literally means “The Work.” It represents the words of Allah as
Islam for Journalists Chapter One
revealed to Mohammed. This is an important distinction from the Bible,
which is a gathering of accounts of events. The Qur’an is said to be God’s
own words, not the teaching of the Angel Gabriel or Mohammed.
To get a little more esoteric, the Qur’an is considered to be the
earthly manifestation of an “Uncreated” Qur’an that exists in Heaven,
in roughly the same way that Christians consider Jesus to be the
human incarnation of God. That original transmission occurred in
Arabic, which is why translations of the Qur’an are considered mere
interpretations, not Allah’s exact words. Debates over which of the
many translations of the Bible is most accurate underline the reason
for this insistence on adhering to Arabic.
An example of how easily things can change in translation can
be seen on a site run by the University of Southern California that
provides language from three different translations of the Qur’an for
each passage. Compare, for example, this verse from Surah 32, As-
Sajda, in English translations by Abdullah Yusufali, M.M. Pickthal,
and Muhammed Habib Shakir:
YUSUFALI: He Who has made everything which He has
created most good: He began the creation of man with
(nothing more than) clay …
PICKTHAL: Who made all things good which He created,
and He began the creation of man from clay …
SHAKIR: Who made good everything that He has created,
and He began the creation of man from dust …
Islam for Journalists Chapter One
And another example from Surah 17, Al-Isra:
YUSUFALI: See how We have bestowed more on some than
on others; but verily the Hereafter is more in rank and
gradation and more in excellence.
PICKTHAL: See how We prefer one of them above another,
and verily the Hereafter will be greater in degrees and
greater in preferment.
SHAKIR: See how We have made some of them to excel
others, and certainly the hereafter is much superior in
respect of excellence.
Fact #5: Muslims recognize the teachings
of Christianity and Judaism
THE teachings of Islam recognize many of the Jewish and Christian
prophets just as they recognize the validity of the Torah and the Bible
and the “sheets” or commands given Moses. “It was We who revealed the
law [to Moses],” Allah tells Muhammad in the revelations (Qur’an 5:47
8), “And verily We have written in the Psalms” (Qur’an 21:105).
This is important. The Qur’an was revealed to Muhammad,
Muslims believe, because those previous messages from God were,
Muslims believe, corrupted in their retelling through the centuries.
That is why Muslims are so adamant that only the Qur’an in its origi-
nal Arabic is truly authentic.
Christians and Jews are called the “People of the Book.” Adam,
Islam for Journalists Chapter One
Noah, Moses, and John the Baptist are just some of the 25 prophets
mentioned in the Qur’an. Even Solomon, the biblical King of the Israel,
known to Muslims as Sulayman, is recognized as a messenger of God.
In the Revelations transcribed in the Qur’an, Allah tells Muhammad:
We sent messengers before you: there are some of them that
We have mentioned to you and there are others whom We
have not mentioned to you. (Qur’an 40:78)
To every people [was sent] an apostle. (Qur’an 10:47)
At one point, Allah, through the Angel Gabriel, commands Muham-
mad to repeat:
We believe in Allah and what has been revealed to us, and
what was revealed to Ibrahim [Abraham] and Ismail and
Ishaq [Isaac] and Yaqoub [Jacob] and the tribes, and what was
given to Musa [Moses] and Isa [Jesus] and to the prophets
from their Lord; we do not make any distinction between any
of them, and to Him do we submit. (Qur’an 3:084)
While Muslims do not recognize Jesus as the Son of God, he is
revered as a prophet sent “as a Sign unto men and a Mercy from Us”
(19:21). His mother, Mary, also holds a special place in Islam. “Behold!
The angels said: ‘O Mary! Allah hath chosen thee and purified thee —
chosen thee above the women of all nations’ ” (3:42).
Most of the key beliefs of Muslims have strong parallels in Chris-
tianity and Judaism:
Islam for Journalists Chapter One
Belief in the Oneness of God
Belief in Angels
Belief in a set of holy scriptures
Belief in the prophets and messengers of God to whom the
scriptures were revealed
Belief in a Day of Judgment
Belief in God’s divine will
Fact #6: Muhammad was not divine
SO who was Muhammad? First, and perhaps most importantly,
Muhammad is not the Muslim equivalent of Jesus. He is not con-
sidered to be divine and is not seen by Muslims to be the Son of Al-
lah, as Christians believe Christ is the Son of God. He is a prophet
or messenger who was the vessel through which God’s message was
revealed. What makes him different from previous prophets, accord-
ing to Muslims, is that he was the “final” prophet, which is why he is
called “the Seal of the Prophets.”
And although he is not divine, he is considered “the Perfect
Man.” By imitating him, Muslims hope to acquire his interior attitude
— perfect surrender to God.
(BTW: You have probably seen the Prophet’s name spelled many
different ways. All are correct; this is an issue of the transliteration
from Arabic. The most widely accepted spelling is Muhammad, but
what you use will depend on your news organization’s house style.)
Islam for Journalists Chapter One
The Prophet Muhammad was a simple trader before the revela-
tions began. He was born in about A.D. 570 into the Quraish tribe
that dominated the desert town of Mecca or Makkah.
As many in the West know, Mecca is today the most holy city
in Islam. Muslims around the world face Mecca when they pray. All
Muslims who can afford it are required to make the pilgrimage to
Mecca at least once in their lives. As part of the pilgrimage, Mus-
lims circle the Kaaba, the black square structure in the center of the
main mosque, which all Muslims face in prayer. Muslims believe it
was constructed by the prophet Abraham and his son Ishmael 4,000
years ago on the site of a sanctuary said to have been established by
Adam, the first man. It contains a black stone believed to have come
from heaven. Back then, it was also a pilgrimage site. The difference
was that pilgrims in those days were worshipping a pantheon of local
gods, of whom Allah was just one among many. Muhammad’s tribe,
the Quraish were the guardians of the Kaaba.
Muhammad was orphaned at an early age and raised by his
grandfather, and then by his uncle. As a child, he was a shepherd,
tending his uncle’s flocks. He is described as pensive and sensitive;
when he was older he became a trader respected for his honesty and
wisdom. But, it is said, he could neither read nor write.
A pivotal point in his life came when he led a caravan to Syria for
a wealthy widow. There are tales of miraculous events during the trip,
which was profitable. So pleased was the widow, Khadijah, that she de-
cided to marry Muhammad, even though she was 15 years older than he.
Islam for Journalists Chapter One
Fact #7: Muslims believe the Quran came to
Muhammad in meditation
MUHAMMAD frequently retreated to the caves of Mt. Hira
to meditate. In A.D. 610, on what is now called the “Night of
Power” (during what is now the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan),
Muslims believe the Angel Gabriel appeared to him and ordered,
“Proclaim!” (also translated as “Read!” or “Write!”).
This was the beginning of the Revelation of what would become
the Qur’an. The transmission would continue for 23 years. But in
that first otherworldly encounter, Gabriel is said to have taught him a
verse (Qur’an, Surah 96, Verse 01):
Proclaim in the name of thy Lord who created,
Created man, out of a clot of congealed blood.
Proclaim! And thy Lord is most Bountiful,
He who taught (the use of) the Pen,
Taught man that which he knew not.
At first, Muhammad didn’t know what to make of it. It might
just be his imagination or, if it was some kind of spirit talking to
him, how could he be sure it could be trusted? Remember, the desert
tribesmen in those days believed in a whole array of jinns, or desert
spirits, some of which were good and others bad.
His wife Khadijah convinced him it was the Word of God, which is
why she is considered the first Muslim — or first to surrender to Allah.
Islam for Journalists Chapter One
Fact #8: Allah was just one of many gods worshipped
by Muhammad’s tribe
AS mentioned above, the seventh-century Meccans worshipped a
pantheon of gods or desert jinns. Among those was a deity called
Allah who was considered among the more powerful. As in Greek and
Roman mythology, each of these gods had specific duties. Allah was
considered to be the creator of humankind and determiner of human
Some Meccans worshipped Allah exclusively, even though they
recognized the presence of the other gods. These Meccans were called
hanifs. Muhammad was a hanif. So when he was meditating in that
cave, it was Allah he was contemplating.
The first words of the Islamic call to prayer are: Ashhadu alla il-
aha illa Allah! (There is no god but God!). In the abstract, that seems
self-evident. But basically what Muslims believe Allah was telling
Muhammad was, forget about all these other gods, they’re just desert
spirits; I’m the only God with a capital “G”.
Fact #9: The concept of a single God is the
foundation of Islam
MUSLIMS use the word tawhid to describe the unity of God. As
the noted Pakistani Islamist thinker Syed Abul A’ala Maududi
wrote in his classic work Towards and Understanding of Islam.
Islam for Journalists Chapter One
The more a man increases his knowledge, the greater becomes
his dissatisfaction with the multiplicity of deities. So the
number of minor deities begins to decrease. More enlightened
men bring each one of them under the searchlight of scrutiny
and ultimately find that none of these man-made deities has
any divine character; they themselves are creatures like man,
though rather more helpless. They are thus eliminated one by
one until only one God remains.
The concept of tawhid is the bedrock upon which Islam rests. Is-
lam shares with Christianity and Judaism another fundamental belief:
that there will be a day of judgment and resurrection.
Fact #10: There are five “pillars” of Islam
THE five pillars of Islam are the commitments Muslims make to
their religion. These include:
1. To bear witness to the faith by reciting the Shihada:
Ashhadu alla ilah a illa Allah wa ashha du anna Muhammad
rasulu Allah [I witness, there is no god but Allah and I
witness, Muhammad is the messenger of Allah].
2. To pray five times a day, prostrating toward Mecca and
touching head to ground, to dispel arrogance and promote
God is most great, God is most great, God is most great, God
is most great, I witness that there is no god but God; I witness
Islam for Journalists Chapter One
that there is no god but God. I witness that Muhammad
is the messenger of God. I witness that Muhammad is
the messenger of God. Come to prayer; come to prayer!
Come to prosperity; come to prosperity! God is most
great. God is most great. There is no god but God.
3. To give portion of income as a tax (zakat) and one-fifth
of income to the poor (khoums), based on belief a soci-
ety cannot be pure if there is misery.
4. To fast during the month of Ramadan, to cleanse and
experience the suffering of the poor.
5. To make pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in lifetime,
for those who can afford it. This is known as the Hajj.
Fact #11: Anyone may convert to Islam
ONE needs only to recite the Shihada, “There is no god but Allah
and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah,” three times in front
of witnesses.
Fact #12: The teachings that govern Islam
are called sharia
BY this point, most Americans have heard some reference to sharia
law. Some reporters may even have written stories about a move-
ment in the U.S. dedicated to fighting what its members claim is the
Islam for Journalists Chapter One
encroachment of sharia — or Islamic — law in this country.
Sharia literally means the Straight Path. At some level, sharia
governs every aspect of Muslim life. But the proviso “at some level” is
important, because, just as some Catholics might ignore strictures on
birth control and some Jews eat pork, Muslims also sometimes veer
off “the straight path” in violation of sharia.
In countries governed by strict adherence to Islam, such as Iran
and Saudi Arabia, sharia is the law of the land. But in many other
Muslim countries, such as Egypt, there are separate civil and sharia
law courts, with the latter governing issues such as marriage and
family law, while civil courts decide the rest.
There are five main sources for sharia law:
The Qur’an
The Sunnah: Oral history of the Prophet
The hadith: The Prophet Mohammeds sayings and teachings
Legal opinions that ar ise from consensus among Qur’anic
Legal analogies based on the Qur’an and hadith
Just as the New Testament of the Bible consists of accounts of the
life of Jesus Christ, the hadith is a compilation of the sayings and teach-
ings of the Prophet Muhammad, while the Sunnah is an oral history by
those around him. These consist of thousands of accounts documented
and reconstructed by Islamic scholars through the centuries. These ac-
counts are only considered authentic if the scholars have traced an unin-
terrupted chain of connection to the family or entourage of the Prophet.
Islam for Journalists Chapter One
The legal opinions are the work of Islamic scholars through the
centuries, while the analogies represent the effort by Islamic scholars
to apply the lessons of Muhammad’s age to modern events and issues.
Fact #13: Muhammad was not popular
with his tribe’s leadership
ONCE he started telling people about the Revelations he was
receiving, Muhammad’s preaching angered the leadership of
Mecca. After all, Mecca’s economy depended on pilgrims coming to
worship the desert deities said to inhabit the Kaaba. By telling people
not to worship these idols he threatened the core of his fellow tribes-
men’s belief system, their power (protection of holy places), and their
Things eventually became very uncomfortable for Muhammad
and his followers. Verbal attacks became physical and the persecution
increased. Eventually, the people of a neighboring desert town, Yatrib,
offered him refuge. He traveled there with his followers in 622. This
is known to Muslims as the Hijira and is the start of the Muslim cal-
endar, marked by the sighting of the crescent moon (A.D. 2013 is 1430
A.H., Anno Hegira, Year of the Hijira).
Today, Muslims interpret Muhammad’s decision to embark on
this exodus as a teaching that they should not live under tyranny.
Yatrib would eventually be renamed Medina and is today con-
sidered the second most holy city in Islam. It was in Medina that the
Islam for Journalists Chapter One
first real community governed by the strictures laid out in the Qur’an
was formed and the first mosque was built. The overriding teaching
governing life in Mecca was that everyone — and everything — is
sacred in the eyes of God: “No creature is there crawling on the earth,
no bird flying with its wings, but they are nations like yourselves”
(Surah 6: verse 38).
The skirmishing with Mecca continued and two years after mov-
ing to Medina, Muhammad and a small band of followers attacked an
important Meccan caravan. Their victory was seen as confirmation of the
righteousness of their cause. In response, the Quraish laid siege to Me-
dina. Eventually, they reached a truce and, in 629, Muhammad returned
to Mecca as a pilgrim. But during the trip, one of his followers was mur-
dered and Muhammad decreed that the Quraish had broken the truce. He
gathered a huge army and led a “defensive” assault on Mecca. Eventually,
the city surrendered and it became Muhammad’s capital.
Within a decade, almost all the tribes of Arabia had converted
to Islam. Within a century, the Islamic empire was larger than that of
Rome at its height, encompassing the Middle East, North Africa, and
Spain in West, and India and Central Asia in East.
Fact #14: There is no Muslim pope
THE two main branches of Islam are the Sunnis and the Shiites.
The main reason for the split can be traced back to a dispute over
who should inherit leadership after Muhammad’s death. The Sunnis
Islam for Journalists Chapter One
said the Caliph, or leader, should be elected. Those who became the
Shiites argued it should follow Muhammad’s bloodline (more on this,
and their doctrinal differences, in Chapter 3).
The majority of Muslims are Sunnis. Since the collapse of
the caliphate (see Chapter 4), the Sunnis have had no single figure
of authority. There are several highly respected centers of Islamic
scholarship, most notably Al Azhar University in Cairo, but no single
religious figure is pre-eminent. This is one reason why we hear about
so many conflicting fatwas, or religious rulings, emerging from the
Muslim world.
The Shiites do have something more akin to the Vatican hierarchy
with their structure of Ayatollahs. The Grand Ayatollah Khomeini was
the dominant religious authority of his time. But the majority Sunnis do
not recognize the authority of the Shiite clergy.
Fact #15: Images of Muhammad are forbidden
THE first thing a Christian or Jew entering a mosque is likely to
notice is the fact that it is basically empty. There are no pictures
on the walls, no statues, not even an altar; just an empty room with
carpets on the floor and a depression (qiblah) in the wall at one end
to denote the direction of Mecca.
The reason for the absence of artwork can be traced back to Allah’s
command that the Meccans stop worshipping idols. Even images of Mu-
hammad are still forbidden to ensure he is not deified. In fact, members
Islam for Journalists Chapter One
of Saudi Arabia’s fundamentalist Wahhabi sect actually destroyed all
evidence of his tomb to ensure it did not become a place of pilgrimage.
The Shiites do sometimes
use images of Imam Hussein
and Imam Ali, the founders of
Shi’ism, but even then the faces
are sometimes obscured, as in
the image at right.
Members of the Sufi branch
of Islam, a mystical philosophy
best known in the West through the writings of Rumi, do depict and
revere their saints, which is one reason they are banned in Saudi Arabia.
All of this is why the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet
Muhammad in Western newspapers in 2005–6 was so offensive to Mus-
lims (for more on the controversy, see Columbia University’s case study).
Islam for Journalists Chapter One
Reporter’s Notebook:
Covering Islam in America
By Andrea Elliott
DUSTY packets of curry. That was my first
clue that a major story had been hiding
in plain sight.
It was May of 2003, and I had been sent
out on a daily assignment by the National
Desk of The New York Times. My mandate
was to capture, in 500 words, the impact of
a new counter-terrorism program on Ameri-
can Muslims. In the wake of 9/11, the media’s
gaze had been elsewhere. Much of the cover-
age focused on two groups: the victims and
the perpetrators. But little was known about
America’s millions of Muslim bystanders,
and if this federal program was any indica-
tion, their lives had been upended. Muslim immigrant men were be-
ing summoned to government offices to register their fingerprints
and other biographical data, and thousands had complied, only to be
Not knowing where to go that day, I headed to the Brooklyn neigh-
borhood known as “Little Pakistan.” Signs of distress were everywhere.
Islam for Journalists Chapter One
Countless families had packed up and left, the owner of a Pakistani
deli told me, pointing to the untouched curry packets. Attendance at a
mosque down the street had dropped by half. Businesses were shuttered
and the neighborhood’s elementary school was losing its Urdu-speaking
students. When I asked a local activist to describe how 9/11 had changed
his community, he reached for a thick volume of anonymous, handwrit-
ten accounts by Muslims chronicling hate crimes and job discrimina-
tion, fear and isolation.
I sat silently in his office, absorbing page after page of this hid-
den oral history. It called for so much more than a daily assignment,
I thought. It was a beat. My editors agreed and I was soon combing
the city in search of stories about Islam in a post-9/11 America. There
was no shortage of leads, but I quickly hit a wall. Muslims did not
trust the media. In headlines, “Islam” and “terrorism” shared space,
as if the two were synonymous. As the public’s perception of Islam
worsened, Muslims blamed the press. The irony was not lost on me:
I was trying to write about a backlash against Muslims that my own
profession stood accused of fueling.
For every ten doors I knocked on, I was lucky if one opened. I
began referring to my job as the “no-one-will-talk-to-me beat.” I was
sure that it hindered me to be such an obvious outsider — a non-
Arabic speaking, Catholic-raised westerner. But in time, I came to
see that my apartness actually helped. As an outsider, I was asking
questions that weren’t typically asked, like how it felt to ride the bus
wearing a headscarf. My presence, however jolting, was an invitation
Islam for Journalists Chapter One
to air grievances, to crack jokes, to enlighten an eager listener. I kept
saying, “Help me understand,” and that resonated with people, be-
cause they yearned to be understood.
Admittedly, I had a lot to learn. The media’s study of Islam largely
began on 9/11 as a frenzied crash course. Reporters were scrambling
to make sense of the attacks, and a fringe interpretation of Islam was
at the center of the story. Never mind that this complicated, sprawl-
ing, 14-centuries old religion is not a subject that can be learned on
deadline. The press lacked even the most basic guidance. If an un-
armed black teenager is shot dead, Al Sharpton’s phone starts to ring.
But there was no obvious spokesperson for America’s Muslims, who
were divided along lines of class, race, and national origin. Report-
ers turned to a random assortment of self-appointed “experts” whose
legitimacy could not be easily vetted. They fell into one of two camps:
the critics and the cheerleaders. One group blamed the religion for
the attacks, while the other repeated mantras like “Islam is peace”
and “Our faith has been hijacked.” It was as if they were describing
two different religions.
Reporters also fell prey to reductionism. We repeated the same
imprecise and shallow descriptions, like “firebrand” and “moderate.
Muslims were commonly written about as the other, as the unfamil-
iar and — by inference — untrustworthy aliens among us. When we
write about Hispanic Catholics, it’s rare to find a story that describes
them praying to Dios. Yet in stories about Muslims, reporters kept
using the word Allah, as if their God was a different one. In my first
Islam for Journalists Chapter One
stories, I reflexively described the hijabs of my female Muslim sub-
jects until it dawned on me that this was no different than always
describing non-Muslim women by their hairstyles.
Looking back, that period seems very distant now. The media’s
coverage of Islam has evolved into a deeper narrative, just as Muslims
have coalesced into a more organized and press-savvy community,
determined to reclaim their image. But after almost a decade of re-
porting on Islam in America, I would argue that the lessons I learned
in the beginning still apply today.
Getting inside a mosque, an Islamic school or the home of a newly
arrived immigrant family presents big hurdles. It’s essential to have a
conduit — a trusted figure in the community who will vouch for you
and your work, and even accompany you on your first round of report-
ing. Cultivating that kind of source in and of itself requires some serious
reporting. When I was writing about Somalis in Minneapolis, it became
crucial to understand the intricate clan divisions within the commu-
nity, as each faction answered to a different elder. Reporters tend to go
first to the imam, but Muslim leaders come in many forms: they are
lawyers, activists, Islamic school principals, business-owners, and blog-
gers. Covering a mosque is not too different from covering city hall. You
need to identify the true gatekeepers, because the trustees may be less
plugged in than the low-ranking volunteer who waters the plants.
Once your conduit has cleared the way, you need to do another
thing that is as old as reporting itself: show up. If there is one thing
I hope you take away from this, it is that. No amount of networking,
Islam for Journalists Chapter One
cajoling, clip-sending or working the phones will get you inside these
communities faster than your daily presence. With each visit, I found
that the barriers of suspicion dissolved a bit more. I went from being
“that reporter” to a familiar face whose interest was not fleeting, but
sincere. I learned to let interviews work more like conversations. If I
revealed a little about myself — my upbringing, my home life — it put
people at ease.
It’s important to show fluency in the cultural norms that de-
fine life for many Muslims. I never waited for a prompt to remove
my shoes before entering a person’s home. When being introduced
to men, I waited to see if they extended a hand in the event that they
were not comfortable with handshakes. I always carried a headscarf
in my bag, just in case I needed to step into the worship area of a
mosque. These small signs of respect go a long way.
No matter how much of an outsider you are, you can always find
universal points of connection with your subjects. And when all else
fails, eat with them. Nothing helps more to break the ice than break-
ing bread.
The Many Faces of Islam
Cultural Unity and Diversity
in the Muslim World
By Robert W. Hefner
MANY Wester n observers assume that
Islam is primarily an Arab and Mid-
dle Eastern religion. It is true that the first
community of Muslims originated in Ara-
bia, and the Qur’an, the hadith (t he canon i-
cal actions and statements of the Prophet
Muhammad, the second of Islam’s scrip-
tural sources), and much classical religious
scholarship are written in Arabic.
Across the Islamic world, too, Mus-
lims perform their daily prayers in Ara-
bic, and face Mecca as Arab Muslims do.
The study of classical Arabic remains at
the heart of religious learning to this day.
Although Arab history and language have a special place in Is-
lamic civilization, the fact remains that ethnic Arabs today constitute
only about 20 percent of the global Muslim population of 1.7 billion.
The greatest concentration of Muslims is found, not in the Middle
Islam for Journalists Cha p t er Two
East, but in South Asia (Pakistan, India, Bangladesh), home to a half-
billion Muslims.
Almost two-thirds of the world’s Muslims live in Asia. With its
255 million citizens, 88 percent of whom are Muslim, the Southeast
Asian nation of Indonesia is the largest Muslim-majority country in
the world. No less striking, the world’s Muslim population is today
experiencing its fastest growth in sub-Saharan Africa and Western
Islam’s great territorial expanse is not a new
FROM its third century onward, Muslim civilization has been the
most globalized and racially diverse of world religions. Whereas,
demographically speaking, Christianity in 1800 was still an over-
whelmingly Western religion, Islam had long been established over a
territorial expanse stretching from Morocco and Nigeria in the west to
Kazakhstan, the southern Philippines, and Indonesia in the east.
In the course of its historic expansion, Islam was accommodat-
ed to a diverse variety of languages, cultures, and political traditions.
The process of accommodation continues even today, and sometimes
assumes unexpected forms. For example, today the most widely used
language for Islamic books and Internet discussion is no longer Arabic,
but English.
Islam for Journalists Cha p t er Two
What do Muslims share amidst their
cultural diversity?
ONE of the questions that academic specialists of Islam have long
explored is: inasmuch as Islam spread over such a vast linguistic
and cultural expanse, what held the community of Muslims together?
After all, Islam has no pope, and it lacks the centralized ecclesiasti-
cal structure (a “church”) that undergirded religious organization in
Western and Eastern Christianity. Even with its centralized church
structure, Christianity experienced schisms far more regularly than
did Islam. Today Islam can be broadly divided into two doctrinal
communities: the Sunni (roughly 85 percent of the global population)
and the Shia (around 14 percent).
There are also some smaller, non-conformist varieties of Islam,
like the Alevis of Turkey, whom many mainstream Muslims regard as
heretical. Nonetheless, by comparison with the hundreds of different
Churches in post-Reformation Europe, Islam has managed to main-
tain an astonishing measure of cohesion even as it has accommodated
diverse peoples and cultures.
How have Muslims maintained unity amidst their
cultural diversity?
SOME commentators have speculated that that it was the close alli-
ance of religious and state authority seen in the early centuries of
Islam for Journalists Cha p t er Two
Islam that ensured the religion’s cohesion. However, from the ninth
century on, the centralized state authority known as the caliphate
had ceased to function as the real political authority in most Muslim
lands, and power was dispersed across an assortment of regional sul-
tans, kings, and rulers.
Although empires like those of the Ottomans (14th to 20th cen-
tury) in the eastern Mediterranean and the Mughals (16th to 19th
century) in India managed to control great swaths of territory, they
never administered more than a small portion of the total Muslim
The forces that unite Muslims
RATHER than a central polity, then, the key to Muslim unity lay
in the religion’s unstinting emphasis on three core convictions:
first, the absolute sanctity of the Qur’an and the canonical sayings
and actions of the Prophet (as recorded in hadith and known collec-
tively as Sunnah); second, the requirement that all believers fulfill the
Five Pillars of Islam (the profession of the faith, the five daily prayers,
the annual fast, the provision of alms for the poor, and pilgrimage to
Mecca for those of sufficient means); and, third, the idea that leader-
ship in religious affairs should be in the hands, not of politicians, but
of religious scholars, the ulama. The ulama come to prominence as a
result of their studies in madrassas, religious schools dedicated to the
study of classical religious learning.
Islam for Journalists Cha p t er Two
This last trait is particularly important for understanding Is-
lam’s civilizational cohesion. The study and transmission of religious
knowledge (‘ilm) have always been at the heart of Islamic tradition.
Islam is a religion of the Book and of religious commentary, and most
Muslims regard religious study as a form of worship in its own right
In principle, every Muslim is enjoined to acquire a basic knowl-
edge of God’s words and injunctions. From the earliest times, how-
ever, Muslims have recognized that those who devote their lives to
the study of God’s commandments are best qualified to exercise au-
thority on matters of religion (but not politics). The centrality of the
religious scholars and their associated institution, the madrassa, also
helped to keep religious law, the sharia, at the center of Islamic life.
Since its creation in eastern Iran in the 10th century, the madrassa
has provided the foundation for a trans-regional Islamic culture, one
centered on the commitment to the upholding of divine law.
The diversity of religious expression
WHATEVER its success at maintaining these core religious con-
victions, Islam has always had other religious streams in ad-
dition to the madrassa-based legal tradition. In pre-modern times as
well as today, many Muslims believed that there is more to the expe-
rience of the divine than knowledge of and conformity to God’s law.
For some believers, an equally important aspect of Islamic experience
was and is the mystical experience of God’s presence.
Islam for Journalists Cha p t er Two
Still today this emphasis, sometimes called “illuminationist,”
informs the way many Muslims profess their faith. The current is
widespread, but it assumes its most vivid expression in the religious
orders known collectively as Sufism.
Although today most Sufis are keen to demonstrate their fidel-
ity to sharia law, Sufism has for many Muslims been an important
complement to the more formalistic emphases of Islamic law. In pre-
modern times, Sufi masters and their disciples played a central role
in the dissemination of Islam to new frontier lands, in places as var-
ied as India, Senegal, Indonesia, and Kazakhstan. Sufi missionaries
proved especially effective because they were often more willing than
scholars of the law to tolerate a variety of devotional practices that
appealed to ordinary Muslims. These popular practices included the
veneration of saints (as in Western Catholicism, saints are thought
capable of helping the living), the mystical chanting of God’s names,
the use of music in religious festivals, and a host of other popular
practices that make religion a deeply emotional as well as a moral
In modern times, puritanical Muslims associated with groups like
the modern Saudi-influenced movement known as Salafism have come
to regard many Sufi practices as heretical, and they have sought to re-
strict or even abolish Sufi practices. In Pakistan in recent years, militant
Salafis have made Sufis the targets of deadly attacks. Many specialists of
Islam have seen actions like these as evidence that Sufism in the modern
world is bound to decline or even disappear. Although the Sufi stream
Islam for Journalists Cha p t er Two
in Muslim civilization has diminished compared to what it was several
centuries ago, it remains strong in many Muslim lands.
In fact, recent years have witnessed a neo-Sufi revival in coun-
tries as varied as Senegal, Morocco, Syria, India, and Indonesia. This
new variety of Sufism is centered, not among the peasantry and ur-
ban poor, but among an educated middle class interested in profess-
ing their faith in a deeply personal and experiential way.
Women and Islam: no single model
NOTWITHSTANDING media images to the contrary, the identi-
ty and status of women in the Muslim world varies greatly. Gen-
der is a matter of great importance in all Muslim-majority societies,
but it matters in complex and contextually variable ways.
Islamic law has had one important inf luence on Muslim atti-
tudes toward gender issues and women. The status of women in the
sharia was handled primarily through family law, especially that
dealing with matters of marriage, divorce, property, and inheritance,
as well as modesty and sexual decorum. With regard to property in
marriage, the sharia gives women fuller rights than they are thought
to have enjoyed in pre-Islamic Arabia. In general, too their rights are
greater than those enjoyed by women in in medieval Europe.
But on a number of key issues Islamic law puts women at a seri-
ous disadvantage relative to men. According to classical understand-
ings of the law, women’s testimony in religious courts counts as just
Islam for Journalists Cha p t er Two
half that of men. A woman’s right to initiate divorce is also severely
restricted compared to her husband’s. A girl’s inherited share of her
parents’ properties is one-half her brother’s.
Most troubling for Muslim proponents of modern citizenship,
classical jurisprudence stipulates that in both domestic and public
affairs women are not to exercise authority over men. Citing verse
4:34 of the Qur’an, traditionalist rulings assign men guardianship
(qawama) over women. Conservative commentators go further, se-
verely limiting the rights of women to appear in public or anywhere
where they might risk associating with men.
In practice, the actions and rulings of the judges (qadi) who
serve in religious courts are often more flexible than these legal pro-
visions imply. Court proceedings tend to be informed as much by lo-
cal notions of gender and fairness as much as they are by the terms of
classical jurisprudence.
In this way, court practices reflect the variation seen in the sta-
tus of women around the Muslim world. For example, in West Africa,
Turkish-speaking areas of West and Central Asia, and Muslim South-
east Asia, women have long played a prominent public role in the
marketplace; they also manage household finances, and often play as
active a role as men in choosing their marriage partner.
In these areas too, the tradition of adult women’s seclusion
(purdah) — still practiced in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and some re-
gions of the Arab Middle East — is either unknown or restricted to
a small number of conservative religious elites. In many of these lat-
Islam for Journalists Cha p t er Two
ter settings, the tradition of women’s seclusion has more to do with
traditional notions of honor, hierarchy, and male supremacy than it
does Islamic law.
The impact of greater piety and social changes
in the Muslim world
IN the 1970s and 1980s, much of the Muslim world experienced an
unprecedented resurgence in religious piety, and this too affected
Muslim women. The influences on this development were not just
religious; the resurgence occurred in the aftermath of social and cul-
tural transformations of a largely secular nature.
Urbanization, migration, and growing socioeconomic differen-
tiation combined to undermine received social authorities. The state’s
inability to meet all but a portion of the needs of the new urban mass-
es also created a demand for alternative providers of public services
in the fields of health, education, and public security.
Mass education, literacy, and a growing network of mosques
and Islamic schools combined to strengthen the determination of or-
dinary Muslims to take charge of their faith. Together, these social
forces generated a great popular appetite for a more active participa-
tion in religious life.
Less often remarked, but equally important, a gender transition
took place in many Muslim lands during these same years. The gender
transition was the result of several inf luences, including urbanization
Islam for Journalists Cha p t er Two
and, above all else, the movement of girls into education. The lat-
ter process had begun under the auspices of newly independent gov-
ernments in the 1950s and 1960s. By the late 1970s and early 1980s,
the process had given rise to an equally unprecedented movement of
young women into secondary and tertiary education.
In many countries, by the mid-1990s, the percentage of women
in higher education rivaled or (as in Egypt and Malaysia) exceeded
that of men. There were national exceptions to these trends: girls in
Afghanistan and Pakistan continue to lag far behind boys in educa-
tional achievement, and they are often subject to severe social restric-
tions. But the general pattern across the broader Muslim world today
is clear: heightened education and social mobility have created a new
generation of women eager to participate in modern public life.
The coincidence of these two developments — the Islamic resur-
gence and a shift in women’s aspirations — means that questions of
women and Islam have moved to the center of public debate in Mus-
lim societies, sometimes becoming bitter points of contention.
How should Muslim women dress?
WOMEN’S dress has been one of the most important sites of this
argument. Although the veiling of women was common in many
parts of the early 20th-century Muslim world, it was far from universal.
Headscarves were common enough around the Arab world,
particularly among women of the more elevated classes. But Muslim
Islam for Journalists Cha p t er Two
women in much of Africa, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia regarded
a simple, loose-fitting headscarf as more than sufficient for the pur-
poses of personal modesty. During the middle decades of the 20th
century, secular nationalists in many countries encouraged the adop-
tion of an even less obtrusive headscarf.
As in Turkey in the 1920s and Indonesia in the 1950s, some sec-
ular nationalist political leaders even recommended no head covering
at all. With urbanization and mass education in the 1960s and 1970s,
growing numbers of women were also invited out of the home and
into the labor force.
The Islamic resurgence had an ambiguous impact on this gen-
der transition. Many pious women began to wear more encompassing
veils, covering, not only the hair and the neck below the chin, but the
shoulders and chest as well. The headscarf was embraced by grow-
ing numbers of women even in countries like Indonesia and Turkey
where, prior to the resurgence, only a minority had veiled themselves.
But many women adapted the headscarf to a more personally
expressive style, using fine silks and bright colors to create a scarf
both modest and fashionable. In this and other ways, the forms and
meanings of the headscarf have become matters of intense public de-
bate and social variation.
In some countries, conservative activists promote the head-
scarf as part of a larger process of segregating men from women, and
ensuring the authority of fathers and husbands over daughters and
wives. By contrast, however, many independent-minded women see
Islam for Journalists Cha p t er Two
the headscarf as a vehicle of social empowerment, one allowing them
to participate more fully in public life without fear of being accused
of moral impropriety.
Female Muslim leaders
SINCE the 1980s, Muslim women have assumed positions of na-
tional leadership at a rate comparable to or even higher than that
of women in Western Europe or, especially, the United States. Women
presidents or prime ministers have been elected in Turkey, Pakistan,
Bangladesh, and Indonesia. The women who have assumed these roles
have typically done so in the face of opposition from Salafis and oth-
er conservative Islamists. Nonetheless, women were central players
in the student-activist groups that helped to overthrow Indonesias
President Suharto in May 1998. Women were also active in the grass-
roots organizations that helped to catapult moderate Islamist parties
to electoral victory in Turkey in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Women also played a central role in Iran’s Islamic revolution in
1979, as well as the green movement pressing for reform in Iran to-
day. Religious conservatives in many countries sometimes condemn
women’s activism as un-Islamic. But other Muslims insist that there
is nothing impious about women playing prominent public roles. As
these examples hint, gender relations are changing rapidly in the
Muslim world, and are likely to remain a key feature of public discus-
sion for many years to come.
Islam for Journalists Cha p t er Two
Islam, capitalism, and economic globalization
ANOTHER matter on which Muslim societies show significant
cultural variation concerns their engagement with market capi-
talism and new, globalized forms of consumption. The growth of
capitalism in the 19th and 20th century, and the spread of neoliberal
market reforms in the 1990s, presented a severe challenge to the once
proud countries of the Muslim world.
In the middle decades of the 20th century, large numbers of
Muslim politicians and intellectuals responded by advocating what
they called “Islamic socialism.” This was a variety of economics that
combined elements from Islamic tradition with ideas drawn from so-
cial and Christian democracy in the West.
In the 1980s and 1990s, however, socialism fell out of fashion in
much of the Muslim world, as it did in many other countries. Another
stream in the Muslim community emphasized that the Prophet Mu-
hammad and his first wife were merchants, and of all the major world
religions, Islam is arguably the most commerce friendly.
In recent years, this market-based view has become the domi-
nant one in most Muslim countries. However, although today most
Muslims support a market-based approach to economic development,
they disagree on the details of just how Muslims should engage West-
ern forms of consumption and capitalism.
Islam for Journalists Cha p t er Two
Adjusting to capitalism
THERE are several reasons for this ambivalence. First, the mod-
ern capitalism introduced into Muslim lands in the late 19th and
early 20th century was not the felicitous product of free individuals
shedding the shackles of feudal oppression; it was for the most part
introduced into most Muslim lands by conquering Western colonial-
ists. Worse yet, as far as many modern Muslims are concerned, those
colonialists had a habit of reserving the commanding heights of the
economy for fellow Europeans.
The second fact that has tainted Muslim perceptions of modern
capitalism is that the capitalism that f looded into Muslim societies be-
ginning in the 1970s was no longer the modestly dressed and appetite-
denying enterprise of Max Weber’s early 19th-century capitalism. The
new variety was far less ascetic and far more self-indulging. From Levis
and McDonald’s to Madonna and Lady Gaga, this consumerist capital-
ism was thick with lifestyle entailments, many of which struck obser-
vant Muslims as ethically questionable if not outright un-Islamic.
There continue to be significant areas of tension between mar-
ket-friendly Islam and Western capitalism, but some of these have
resulted in bursts of creative cultural development. Consider how
Muslims have adapted to Western-styles of banking.
One of the fastest-growing financial instruments in today’s
Middle East and Southeast Asia is Islamic banking. Islamic banking
proscribes the use of interest, on the grounds (disputed by some Mus-
Islam for Journalists Cha p t er Two
lim scholars) that the Qur’an forbids interest-bearing loans. Islamic
banking also prohibits investment in enterprises deemed irreligious
or immoral, including alcohol production and some forms of com-
mercial and property speculation.
In spite of these points of tension with mainline capitalism, Is-
lamic banking makes ready use of most of the instruments of con-
ventional banking, including savings accounts and mortgages. To
the surprise of some critics, Islamic banking has been proved to be
an effective and profitable financial investment instrument. Many
Western banks have enthusiastically developed their own sharia-
compliant branches, and these have proved every bit as profitable as
conventional banking.
These and other examples illustrate that, despite continuing
disputes over some aspects of modern capitalism, a market-friendly
economic ethic has now taken root in most of the Muslim world. The
proponents of market Islam tend to be more interested in helping
their Muslim fellows to develop market skills and a keen business
sense than in making blanket condemnations of Western capitalism.
More intriguingly, some of the most celebrated proponents of
market Islam borrow enthusiastically from the writings of Ameri-
can business management and self-help therapies. Although the pro-
ponents of market Islam will likely continue to oppose some of the
more permissive aspects of Western consumerism, they are helping
to make Muslim countries and businesses increasingly competitive
players in the global marketplace.
Islam for Journalists Cha p t er Two
Cultural diversity and the Muslim future
DURING the heyday of modernization theory in the 1950s, West-
ern analysts had forecast that Muslim societies would inevita-
bly experience the same processes of privatization and decline that,
it was assumed (far too simplistically), religion in the modern West
had undergone. Muslims might be latecomers to the secularization
process, the argument went, but they too would succumb to the secu-
larist juggernaut. By the time the Islamic revolution swept Iran in
1978–9, this forecast had begun to look premature. By the early 1990s,
it seemed simply wrong. For many Muslims, being religious is very
much compatible with being modern.
Whether in matters of culture, economics, or politics, this re-
surgence of interest in religiosity is neither unified in its expression
nor, as the example of Islamic banking shows so well, hostile to West-
ern society and culture. The range of political ideals voiced also var-
ies enormously.
Some Muslims insist on the compatibility of Islam with plural-
ism and democracy. Indeed, surveys of public opinion around the
world indicate that in most Muslim-majority societies, the majority
of people subscribe to the idea that Islam is fully compatible with
However, other actors continue to call for a far-reaching trans-
formation of the economy, society, and politics, insisting that these
be modeled on the first generations of Muslim believers. The latter
Islam for Journalists Cha p t er Two
view is, however, a minority one. Moreover it is a view that, notwith-
standing the ardor of some of its proponents, is encountering greater
difficulty in the face of the Muslim world’s continuing educational,
demographic, and social transformations.
Culture and society around the Muslim world are, if anything,
becoming more and not less pluralistic. Notwithstanding the tumult
seen in recent years in several Muslim societies, and contrary to the
image conveyed in much media coverage, the combination of eco-
nomic growth, educational advance, and new social media has fueled
a remarkable social optimism and desire to be modern. These simple
aspirations promise to be a force for continuing cultural change.
Ten Questions about
Islamic Civilization
By Carl Ernst
In the name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Praise
be to God, the Cherisher and Sustainer of the world; Most
Gracious, Most Merciful; Master of the Day of Judgment.
Thee do we worship, and Thine aid we seek. Show us the
straight way, the way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed
Thy Grace, those whose (portion) is not wrath, and who go
not astray. Al-Fatiha, Yusuf Ali translation
1. What do we mean by Islamic civilization?
THE concept of civilization was
born in the 1700s and embraced
only Western Europe. The notion was
that, beyond Western Europe’s bor-
ders, the rest of the globe writhed in
barbarism and ignorance. The think-
ing was that these distant lands lacked complex social, cultural, and
historic traditions.
And so, when the European colonial powers sought new lands,
Islam for Journalists Chapter Three
one of their rationales was that they were bringing civilization where
none existed. The French termed this effort their “civilizing mission.”
But today it is widely recognized that there has been an Islamic
civilization for the last 14 centuries and it shares the same Greek and
Hebrew roots as Western civilization.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks in the U.S. and terror attacks by
Muslim radicals across the globe, Islamic civilization came under a
new and intense scrutiny.
Although Samuel Huntington argued in the 1990s that there is
an inevitable “clash of civilizations,” most historians reject this argu-
ment as superficial and inaccurate. Muslim leaders have in fact ad-
vocated a “dialogue of civilizations,” and in 2005 the presidents of
Spain and Turkey established the Alliance of Civilizations under UN
sponsorship to promote intercultural dialogue and cooperation.
Islamic civilization eventually covered a huge territory, so that it
consisted of many established cultures, and it included multiple reli-
gious groups alongside Muslims (Jews, Christians, and others) as well
as different ethnic identities besides Arabs (Persians, Greeks, Turks,
Indians, etc.). For that reason, some scholars prefer to call it “Islam-
icate” civilization, to indicate that there has been a larger cultural
complex related to, but distinct from, Islamic religion, in which both
Muslims and non-Muslims participated.
Islam for Journalists Chapter Three
2. Was there such a thing as an Islamic empire?
And how Islamic was it?
SINCE the time of the Prophet Muhammad (d. 632), there have been
numerous political regimes led by Muslims. These range from the em-
pire of the Abbasid Caliphate (founded in 749, and overthrown by the
Mongols in 1258) to the various sultanates and later empires, such as the
Safavids in Persia, the Mughals in India, and the Ottomans in Turkey.
All of these empires were based on pre-Islamic political structures that
were essentially monarchies (Persian kingship, the Roman Empire, the
Mongol conquests). Their governmental apparatus and social institutions
included considerable amounts of local custom and ancient ethical and
philosophical traditions, so they differed from one place to another.
To varying degrees, these regimes employed Muslim scholars in
bureaucratic capacities, and they applied Islamic law for their Muslim
subjects, but they also issued purely administrative decrees based on
royal authority. None of these societies has had a 100 percent Muslim
population. In short, Islam was only one element in these societies.
Accordingly, the idea of a “Muslim world” is misleading — as if there
were a separate planet inhabited only by Muslims and detached from
everyone else. Granted, it has become media shorthand for the broad
swath of Muslim-majority countries, but it is important to realize that
the fantasy of reviving an Islamic caliphate, proposed by a few fringe
Muslim figures today and magnified by anti-Muslim propagandists, is
about as realistic as the prospects of bringing back the Roman Empire.
Islam for Journalists Chapter Three
3. What is Islamic law, or sharia?
What relevance does it have today?
SHARIA historically was an evolving body of law and ethics gener-
ally based on four sources: the text of the Qur’an, the sayings of
the Prophet Muhammad, the consensus of Islamic legal scholars, and
the use of analogy to deal with new subjects.
While sharia law was an important element in many pre-mod-
ern regimes, there has never been a society entirely governed by it;
non-Muslim groups such as Christians and Jews were governed by
their own legal codes for internal matters. Sharia has always exist-
ed alongside local custom and administrative rulings, which regu-
larly overrule it. Legal scholars belonging to the principal schools of
law (there are four Sunni schools of law and one main Shia school)
typically defined sharia as the current scholarship in that particular
school; Islamic law was essentially a form of case law with a high de-
gree of independence for jurists, who were not bound by precedent.
European colonial powers often retained Muslim personal law (mar-
riage, divorce, inheritance) to avoid alienating subject populations,
but colonial officials (and their successors in independent nation-
states) transformed sharia case law into European-style legal codes
with inflexible rulings. When contemporary nation-states claim to be
based on Islamic law, this declaration ignores the fact that most of the
modern state apparatus has little to do with Islam.
Accordingly, what may be called sharia today often bears
Islam for Journalists Chapter Three
very little resemblance to the sophisticated schools of Islamic legal
thought in pre-modern times, which evolved their teachings outside
of political circles (thought often with the patronage of rulers). Politi-
cal leaders with no training in Islamic law today claim to be applying
sharia by enforcing a handful of harsh medieval punishments, such
as stoning for adultery, but this is usually just a theatrical form of in-
timidation. For most Muslims, sharia functions as an ethical concept
comparable to Roman Catholic canon law or Jewish Halakha, both of
which are followed by the religiously observant alongside secular law.
As far as Muslims in America are concerned, sharia is no threat
to American constitutional law. Islamic law calls upon Muslims to
obey the laws of the countries where they live (which effectively rules
out polygamy). The main application of sharia for observant Muslims
will be in areas like marriage contracts, interest-free banking, funeral
rites, and dietary restrictions (availability of halal foods, similar to
Jewish Kosher food; pork is forbidden in both systems).
So-called “honor killings” have no basis in Islamic law, but are
customary practices of patriarchal societies with a high sensitivity to
shame. In effect, “honor killings” are much like the “unwritten law”
that for years permitted Texas husbands to shoot adulterous wives
and their lovers. Likewise, the practice of female genital mutilation
(FMG) has little to do with Islamic law. It is widely practiced in many
areas of Africa, especially in traditional “animist” religions, and in
Egypt it is more common among Christians than among Muslims.
Islam for Journalists Chapter Three
4. What was the role of non-Muslims
in Islamic civilization?
CONTRARY to popular myth, the aim of the empire of the caliph-
ate was not to spread Islam by the sword; it was really just another
empire seeking wealth and, as Muslims paid less tax, converts to Islam
meant lost tax revenue. It is also important to point out that non-Mus-
lims had a legally protected status under Islamic law, safeguarding
their life, property, and religion, though in a somewhat second-class
status because of additional taxes. Existing religious groups (first
Jews and Christians, and later Zoroastrians, Hindus, and others) were
given the legitimate status of “people of the book.” This recognition
stands in contrast to the lack of any legal protection for non-Christian
minorities (in particular, Jews) in Europe before the French Revolu-
tion. It is also noteworthy that Jews, Christians, and Hindus could and
did hold high office in Muslim-dominated regimes.
5. What is the relationship of the Prophet
Muhammad and the Quran to Jewish and Christian
traditions and communities?
THE Qur’an draws upon previous traditions of prophecy, includ-
ing biblical as well as extra-biblical precedents. The Qur’an was
aimed at an audience in seventh-century Arabia that was quite famil-
iar with biblical and related texts, and it frequently refers to proph-
Islam for Journalists Chapter Three
ets such as Abraham, Moses, Jesus, John the Baptist, and others. It
presents an apocalyptic message that warns of divine punishment for
those who disobey God’s express command. The monotheistic mes-
sage dominates in the Qur’an, and it rejects both pagan polytheism
and the concept of the Trinity or divine incarnation as infringements
on God’s unity. The Qur’an indicates that Muhammad debated these
issues intensively with Jews and Christians.
Recent research demonstrates, however, that alongside verses
reflecting conflict with Arabian pagans, and debates with Christians
and Jews, key passages occur in centrally placed locations that ac-
knowledge religious pluralism as part of the divine plan. The crite-
rion that the Qur’an applies is that those who accept the one God as
Creator, and fear the last judgment, will be rewarded or punished
according to their deeds rather than anything else.
Some Muslim scholars (and some anti-Islamic writers) argue
that there are a few late verses in the Qur’an that command unre-
stricted warfare against non-Muslims, and that these verses abrogate
or cancel out dozens of statements calling for mutual acceptance and
tolerance. The context of those verses indicates, however, that they
were directed against the polytheistic pagans of Mecca, and the his-
tory of the early spread of Islam demonstrates that monotheistic re-
ligious communities were recognized as legitimate in treaty agree-
Islam for Journalists Chapter Three
6. What are the main religious divisions
among Muslims?
THE chief division is between Sunnis and Shia (Shiites), which origi-
nated in a debate over succession to the authority of the Prophet
Muhammad. Those who supported the claims of Muhammad’s cousin
and son-in-law Ali (shia means “party” and Shi‘i means “partisan”)
identified his descendants as the rightful imams, or religious leaders.
But several of Muhammad’s other disciples succeeded to the office
of caliph before Ali, and after Ali’s death by assassination in 661, the
caliphate became a hereditary kingship. Ali’s son Husayn led a revolt
against the Umayyad caliph, but he and his followers were wiped out in
a battle near Kerbala (in modern-day Iraq). Shia recognize him and his
successors as martyrs who were persecuted by unjust tyrants. The larg-
est group of Shia today is the Twelvers (so-called from their recognition
of 12 imams after Muhammad), and they are the majority population
in Iran, Iraq, and (probably) Lebanon, with significant minorities in
South Asia and elsewhere; Shia probably make up about 15 percent of
the world Muslim population today.
Sunnis are not so neatly defined, since by default they were those
who accepted the status quo of the caliphate without wanting to chal-
lenge the established order. The name comes from the phrase “the
people who follow the Prophet’s example and the community,” and
in practice Sunnis have the option of following any of four accepted
Sunni legal schools (Maliki, Shafi‘i, Hanbali, or Hanafi).
Islam for Journalists Chapter Three
There are minor differences between Sunnis and Shia in matters
such as prayer ritual. So-called “fundamentalist” or reformist Muslim
leaders in the 20th century, such as Syed Abul A’ala Maududi in India
and Hasan al-Banna in Egypt, actually disregarded the authority of
the Sunni legal schools and proclaimed their own interpretations of
the Qur’an as authoritative, with no need for traditional authority.
There have been many other theological schools and divisions
among Muslims over the centuries. Modern debates among Muslims
are informed by a vocabulary and concepts that are familiar from
European ideologies and schools of thought.
7. What are the contributions of Islamic civilization
to science, medicine, and philosophy?
MUSLIM and non-Muslim scholars collaborated for centuries to
make considerable advancements over the scientific and intel-
lectual achievements of the Greeks and Persians. A massive trans-
lation movement, beginning around 800 in the Baghdad research
institute called “the House of Wisdom,” brought the scientific and
philosophical works of Aristotle, Plato, and Galen into Arabic — and
this was a time when it would have been hard to put together a single
bookshelf of such material in Western Europe. Hospitals and obser-
vatories were established to provide practical services and to advance
medical and scientific research.
The great Persian physician and philosopher Ibn Sina (Avicenna,
Islam for Journalists Chapter Three
d. 1030) wrote original interpretations of Aristotle’s philosophy and a
medical encyclopedia, The Canon of Medicine, that was still being used
in Europe in the 17th century. It was in fact from Arabic that Aristotle
was then translated into Latin in the 12th century, so that Christian
thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas first learned Aristotelian philosophy
from the Arabs.
Although it is often claimed that science and philosophy de-
clined in Islamic civilization after the death of the Andalusian phi-
losopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes, d. 1198), that statement largely ignores
many later developments, particularly in Persia and India, that were
unknown to Europe.
8. What is the significance of art and literature
in Islamic civilization?
THERE are immense literatures of poetry and prose in Arabic,
Persian, Turkish, and other languages, which are unfortunately
not very well known because so few translations have been done; only
a few isolated works like The Thousand and One Nights have been
widely popularized in Europe and America. Major works of Islamic
literature include the Persian poetry of Rumi (d. 1273), which has
become very popular in America in recent years
In the same way, there are vast traditions in the visual arts, ar-
chitecture, music, etc., in the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia,
etc., where Muslims and non-Muslims engaged in cultural creativ-
Islam for Journalists Chapter Three
ity. Some of the great monuments of Islamic architecture include the
Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Taj Mahal in India; it is note-
worthy that both these structures use Qur’anic inscriptions to convey
religious messages, yet both were constructed by royal dynasties to
make political statements. Although figural representation has been
frowned upon in some Muslim circles, there is in fact a remarkably
widespread tradition of painting among Muslims, illustrating both
secular subjects and religious texts. A wide range of regional musi-
cal traditions have been cultivated in different Muslim societies, with
characteristic instruments such as the Arabian oud, which gives its
name to the European lute. Other distinctive musical cultures devel-
oped among the Persians, Turks, Indians, and others.
9. What kind of spirituality developed among
Muslims as part of their faith?
FOR centuries, Muslims who sought a closer connection to God
sought to deepen their faith through extra religious observances
and meditations. Early practitioners of this kind of spirituality and
ethics were known as Sufis, from the word (suf) meaning “wool,” the
coarse garb of ascetics and prophets. For many, Sufi saints filled the
role of spiritual intermediaries between God and humanity, and their
tombs have become widely visited sites of holiness, from Morocco to
China. Some of these regional Sufi shrines (such as Tuba in Senegal,
and Ajmer in India) attract pilgrims in vast numbers that rival the
Islam for Journalists Chapter Three
hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. In a similar fashion, Shia imams play a key
role for their followers, who regard the pilgrimage to Ali’s tomb in
Najaf, or the shrine of Husayn in Kerbala, as an essential act of pious
Sufism expanded in the form of various orders, based upon fa-
mous Sufi masters, whose teachings were transmitted both in compli-
cated philosophical writings and in popular poetry. Rituals of musi-
cal performance are common in Sufi circles, ranging from the dance
performance of the “whirling dervishes” in Turkey to the ecstatic
singing of qawwali musicians in India and Pakistan.
While Sufis have received their share of criticism from mod-
ern reformists in many Muslim countries, as well as opposition from
secular modernists, this tradition of spirituality continues to play a
leading role for many Muslims today, particularly in rituals centered
upon the veneration of the Prophet Muhammad.
10. What have we learned about Muslim societies
linkage and legacy?
WHILE it is convenient to use the phrase “Islamic civilization”
to underscore the cultural and religious values that many Mus-
lims share, it is important to recognize that there is no monolithic Is-
lamic entity, nor indeed any single center of authority comparable to
the Pope for Christianity. The pragmatic ethnic and political differ-
ences between dozens of Muslim majority countries, and the varying
Islam for Journalists Chapter Three
situations of many Muslim minorities, make it impossible to imagine
a unified Muslim response to global issues.
As in the past, there will be those groups that claim exclusive
ownership of the true Islam, in the process rejecting any alternative
voices, but the diverse history of Islamic civilization demonstrates a
large capacity for accepting pluralism and multiple points of view.
That legacy of tolerance remains available to Muslims (and non-
Muslims) today.
Islam and Global Politics
What is “Political Islam”?
By Charles Kurzman
POLITICAL Islam is a set of political
movements, founded in the 1920s,
that seek to establish an Islamic state. Al-
though they share a common discourse of
Islamic piety and resentment of Western
influence, movements associated with
Political Islam vary in their goals, some
democratic and some theocratic. In many
Muslim societies, Political Islam forms
the single largest political bloc. At its
fringes, Political Islam has generated vio-
lent splinter groups, including terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda,
the organization created by Osama Bin Laden.
The mainstream of Political Islam, however, is non-violent,
pursuing power through evangelism, civic activism, and elections.
Political Islam challenges Western-oriented political agendas in
Muslim societies, but it rarely poses a security threat to the West.
If you decide to use the term “Political Islam,” be aware that few
supporters of this movement call it by that name — the movement
Islam for Journalists Chapter Four
considers itself simply the true expression of Islam. However, other
related terms are also problematic:
Wahhabism. This term — a reference to Muhammad Ibn
Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of an Islamic movement
in Arabia in the 18th century — is not widely used by
“Wahhabis,” who are more likely to call themselves
“Monotheists” (“Muwahidun” in Arabic).
Salafism. T his term — a reference to the “Salaf,” an Arabic word
for the revered companions of Muhammad, the prophet of
Islam — is considered a positive identity by many Muslims,
including many who do not support “Political Islam.”
Fundamentalism. This term comes from an analogy with
Christian Fundamentalism, a theological movement that
also became widespread in the 1920s. Christian Funda-
mentalism treats the religion’s holy book as literal revela-
tion; by this criterion, almost all Muslims qualify as fun-
damentalists, not just supporters of “Political Islam.” In
recent years, however, some supporters of “Political Islam”
have adopted an Arabic translation of the term “funda-
mentalism,” Usuliyya, from the word “usul” (foundations
or fund a mentals).
Islamism. This term is somewhat broader than Political Is-
lam, because it includes not just political movements but
also non-political religious revivalist movements, such as
Islam for Journalists Chapter Four
the Tablighi Jamaat in Pakistan. If you use the term “Is-
lamists,” please be careful not to mistake it for “Islami-
cists” (scholars who specialize in the study of Islam).
Given these complications, the term “Political Islam” may be the
preferable term for this movement, so long as it is used carefully.
Is “Political Islam” the same thing as “radical Islam”?
NO. The bulk of Political Islam is not radical, revolutionary, terror-
ist, or violent. Radical Islamic groups are a small subset of Political
Islam, and they are openly hostile toward non-radical supporters of Po-
litical Islam. In fact, radical Islamic groups have assassinated a number
of prominent non-radical leaders in recent years. In 2009, for example,
a large conference of religious scholars in Pakistan, most of them sup-
porters of Political Islam, denounced extremists for killing civilians and
for targeting religious scholars. Several weeks later, a suicide bomber
killed Sarfraz Naeemi, one of the organizers of the conference.
Other leaders of Political Islam have continued to denounce vio-
lence, and continue to receive threats from radicals. Most famously,
the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which abandoned revolutionary
tactics in the 1970s, is the subject of frequent threats by al-Qaeda and
other revolutionary organizations.
The non-revolutionary faction within Political Islam argues that
an Islamic state cannot impose religious regulations on a population
Islam for Journalists Chapter Four
that is not ready for them, citing the Quranic injunction that there is
no compulsion in religion (2:256). They say that the people must be
persuaded; first, through a hearts-and-minds campaign that Political
Islam calls dawa (invitation), which is analogous to born-again evan-
gelism in Christianity. The revolutionary faction argues that repres-
sive government and Christian imperialists will block this peaceful
approach, and that the government must be taken by force.
The outcome of this divide between radical and non-revolution-
ary factions of Political Islam is still up in the air. However, survey
evidence suggests that the radicals’ popularity drops when they at-
tack their non-revolutionary rivals.
Aren’t all Muslims supporters of “Political Islam,” since
there is no separation between church and state in Islam?
NO. Muslims have debated the relationship between religion and gov-
ernment since the first generations of Islam. The establishment of
dynasties with little religious legitimacy, beginning with the Umayyads
in the seventh century, led to a theological distinction between the state
(dawla) and government law (qanun) and constitution (dustur), on one
hand, and religious authorities (ulama) and religious law (sharia) on the
other hand, although the two sets of institutions were often intertwined.
On a more abstract level, it is inaccurate to use the phrase “in Islam,”
just as it would be inaccurate to write “Islam says …” — because Islam,
like other major faith traditions, has no single definition or interpreta-
Islam for Journalists Chapter Four
tion. Avoid these sorts of judgments, even if your sources use them. Re-
place them if necessary with phases like: “Most Muslims believe that …
Since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s abolition of the Ottoman caliph-
ate in 1924 with the birth of the Turkish Republic, only a few gov-
ernments have tried to implement Islamic law. Most Muslims in the
world live under secular authorities.
Even in places where aspects of Islamic law are in force, it is lay
authorities such as kings, generals, or presidents, who legislate and
enforce it. With the rise of government court systems worldwide over
the 20th century, Islamic authorities now have very little judicial role
outside of a handful of countries, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Political Islam objects to this international trend toward secularized
government. It emerged in the late 1920s and 1930s, in part as a response
to the disappearance of the Ottoman Empire, as a symbol of Muslim uni-
ty, often in competition with traditional Islamic communal leaders.
The first mass organization to mobilize for an Islamic state, the
Muslim Brotherhood (in Arabic: Jama‘at al-Ikhwan al-Muslimin, or the
Ikhwan for short), was founded in Egypt by Hasan al-Banna, a school-
teacher. It was followed by the Jamaat-i-Islami (Urdu for the Islamic So-
ciety; Jamaat for short), which was formed in British India by Abul-Ala
Maududi (also spelled Maudoodi or Mawdoodi), a journalist.
In subsequent decades, offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood
have spread throughout the Arab world, and descendants of the origi-
nal Jamaat-i-Islami have multiplied across South Asia.
Both of these organizations engaged in militant rhetoric about
Islam for Journalists Chapter Four
the need for a return to Islamic discipline and the bankruptcy of
Western-style governments. The Muslim Brotherhood also organized
paramilitary cadres in preparation for a possible putsch. After mas-
sive repression by secular military regimes, beginning in the early
1950s, both organizations gradually scaled back their militancy and
recanted their revolutionary ambitions, embracing a culturally con-
servative vision of democracy instead. When elections have been held
in Egypt, Pakistan, and other Muslim societies, the Muslim Brother-
hood has frequently participated.
As a result of the “Arab Spring” uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt,
and elsewhere, Islamic parties and organizations that once were sup-
pressed by their governments have come to the forefront. In Tunisia,
the leading Islamic movement, promising moderation, emerged as
the nation’s strongest political force. The Ikhwan and a smaller Salafi
movement, likewise, dominated elections in Egypt.
Small breakaway groups have rejected this turn toward modera-
tion since the 1960s, growing increasingly radical and violent. One
breakaway faction assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in
1981, and the leader of another faction, Ayman al-Zawahiri, later fled
Egypt and joined Osama Bin Laden to form al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
Despite the disavowal of violence by the Muslim Brotherhood
and other mainstream organizations of Political Islam, Egypt’s lead-
ers from Gamal Abdel Nasser to Hosni Mubarak considered the
movement to be a threat, as do authoritarian leaders in many other
Muslim-majority countries.
Islam for Journalists Chapter Four
While Political Islam now exists in every Muslim society, it re-
mains subject to government suspicion, limitation, or outright repres-
sion almost everywhere. Even in Saudi Arabia, where the regime is so
closely associated with Islam, Political Islam is considered a threat to
the monarchy and is kept under careful surveillance.
How popular is “Political Islam” among Muslims?
IN some Muslim communities, Political Islam is quite popular; in
others, much less so. In Egypt, one country where Political Islam is
particularly popular, 80 percent of respondents to the World Values
Survey agreed that “good government … should implement only the
laws of the sharia.” At the same time, 51 percent of Egyptian respon-
dents agreed that “Religion is a matter of personal faith and should be
kept separate from government policy,” according to the Pew Global
Attitudes Project. To complicate matters further, a majority of re-
spondents who support sharia and oppose keeping religion separate
from government policy also support electoral democracy, according
to these surveys. These inconsistent statistics remind us to be cau-
tious in evaluating the popularity of Political Islam.
Take the example of the country with the most Muslims, Indone-
sia. According to a survey in 2002, 71 percent of Indonesians agree that
the government should implement sharia, and 67 percent supported
government by Islamic authorities. But in parliamentary elections in
Indonesia, with high voter turn-out, Islamic parties won only one-third
Islam for Journalists Chapter Four
or less of the ballots — most of them cast for a liberal Islamic group, the
National Awakening Party, which opposes the imposition of sharia.
Political Islam has occasionally won elections. Some of the most
famous of these are:
Egypt, 2011–2012, during the country’s first free parlia-
mentary elections, when 65 percent of voters chose can-
didates associated with Political Islam, which fielded
the most extensive campaign organizations in the new
democracy. Months later, 42 percent of voters chose
presidential candidates associated with Political Islam;
in the runoff round, 52 percent chose the remaining
candidate associated with Political Islam. However, the
Brotherhood-led government was ousted by the mili-
tary in 2013, sparking widespread unrest.
Tunisia, 2011, where the Renaissance (Nahda) party won 37
percent of votes in elections for the Constituent Assembly,
in the wake of Tunisia’s pioneering “Arab Spring” uprising.
Algeria, 1991, where the Islamic Salvation Front (known by
its French acronym, FIS, for Front Islamique du Salut)
served as an umbrella organization for a variety of opposi-
tion forces, including many secular Algerians, who sought
to end the one-party rule of the socialist regime. With
the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the ruling
party allowed free elections, and the FIS won 81 percent of
Islam for Journalists Chapter Four
the first round of parliamentary voting. Then the military
stepped in, canceled the election, and a civil war ensued.
Turkey, 19 9 5 , where the Welfare Party (Refah Partisi or RP
in Turkish) won 29 percent of seats in parliament and
the prime ministership, more than doubling its previous
electoral performance. The military ousted the Welfare
Party from power in 1997, but it was followed by two suc-
cessor groups. One of these, the Justice and Development
Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, or AKP, sometimes
abbreviated as the AK party), downplayed the Islamic
rhetoric of the Welfare Party and won elections resound-
ingly in 2002, 2007, and 2011.
Palestine, 2006, where Hamas (the Arabic acronym for Ha-
rakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya, or Islamic Resistance
Party) won 36 percent of the vote in its first parliamen-
tary campaign. Because the ruling party, Fatah (the lead-
ing component of the Palestinian Liberation Organiza-
tion), had split its support among competing candidates,
Hamas won a majority of seats in parliament and as-
sumed the prime ministership. The following year, dis-
putes between the Fatah president and the Hamas prime
minister led to a breakdown in Palestinian government,
with Hamas taking control of the Gaza Strip and Fatah
taking control of the West Bank.
Islam for Journalists Chapter Four
Over the past generation, victories for parties linked to Political
Islam have been few and far between. Far more commonly, Muslims
declined to vote for Political Islam when given the opportunity. Islamic
parties averaged less than 10 percent of seats when they ran for parlia-
ment, and the percentage was lower in free elections than in less-free
elections. Political Islam did best in breakthrough elections, right after
transitions from authoritarian to democratic systems, and less well as
democratic procedures became more routine.
Surveys and election results do not always reflect individuals’
private opinions, of course. But this sort of evidence is worth consid-
ering when making generalizations about the popularity of Political
Islam. Do not assume that every Muslim man with a beard or every
Muslim woman with a headscarf supports an unelected Islamic state.
Is “Political Islam” on the rise?
PROBA BLY. In the 1960s and 1970s, Political Islam had been
marginalized by secular movements such as nationalism and
socialism, just as religious movements were marginalized in
Christian and other faith traditions as well. Over the last genera-
tion, religion has made a comeback. Socialism, secular national-
ism, and military juntas came to be seen as ineffective and overly
dependent on outside powers.
However, we should not make too much of these local sources of
Islamic revival, since Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and other societies have
Islam for Journalists Chapter Four
also experienced religious revivals over the past generation. Much of the
revival involves personal piety — praying more often, abiding by reli-
gious injunctions, and so on. However, political movements also gained
momentum. One landmark event in this trend was the Iranian revolu-
tion of 1979, which installed an Islamic republic in place of a monarchy.
In the 1980s, military governments adopted elements of sharia law in
Pakistan and the Sudan. In the 1990s, the Taliban came to power in
Today, many politicians in Muslim communities emphasize
their piety to an extent that they did not a generation ago. Just as
American politicians arrange photo opportunities at churches and
discuss their personal faith in interviews, Muslim politicians often
promise to promote the cause of Islam. Even unelected politicians
such as military dictators engage in this sort of campaigning.
Much of this is just talk. However, lay governments are also in-
creasingly adopting policies drawn from Political Islam, partly out of in-
creased piety and partly as an attempt to forestall Islamic critics. For ex-
ample, several governments have adopted aspects of traditional criminal
law, such as amputation of hands as a punishment for theft. The “Arab
Spring” has prompted a wave of activism associated with Political Islam.
The trend does not run only in one direction — there are also
recent moves to remove traditional Islamic regulations. One effort,
for example, was the family law reform enacted in Morocco in 2004.
In addition, there are indications that some Muslims have been disil-
lusioned by Political Islam, especially in regions where it has become
Islam for Journalists Chapter Four
part of the political establishment. Reform movements in Iran, such
as President Muhammad Khatami’s Second of Khordad Coalition
(1997–2005) and presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Musavi’s Green
Movement (2009–present) are a dramatic example.
How does “Political Islam” view Western journalists?
MOST supporters of Political Islam believe that Islam is under
assault, both military and cultural, by the West. Western jour-
nalists are often viewed as a key component in this assault, and you
are likely to experience some or all of the following criticisms from
sources associated with Political Islam:
Western journalists focus too much on Muslim violence,
and not enough on other aspects of Muslim communities.
Western journalists give too much attention and credence
to the news agendas and public statements of government
officials, both in Muslim societies and in the West.
Western journalists work for corporate news organiza-
tions that support Western interests. Even if a journalist
were to report and write a story undermining those in-
terests, the news organization would kill or bury it.
Western journalists need to embrace Islam in order to
truly understand Muslim societies.
Islam for Journalists Chapter Four
These objections can be overcome by building a relationship of trust,
or by appealing to the public relations benefits of Western news outlets.
Many leaders of Political Islam have become media savvy over the past
generation, and will recognize these benefits more keenly than you do.
Political Islam is a major phenomenon in Muslim societies. How-
ever, it does not fit the stereotype of a vast, well-organized threat. It
varies considerably from country to country, suffers from significant
internal disputes, and is not uniformly popular with Muslims. Since
Political Islam has been under government limitations in most Mus-
lim societies for generations, it is difficult to know what direction
the movement will take as political conditions change. Nevertheless,
there is consistent evidence that Political Islam has a substantial con-
stituency in many Muslim societies, and that it will play a role in any
freely elected government in these countries.
These expectations have been borne out over the past two years,
as the “Arab Spring” has opened political opportunities for parties of
all stripes in Tunisia, Egypt, and, to a lesser extent, in Morocco and
other countries. Many parties associated with Political Islam have en-
gaged in the new democratic politics, and have fared well in elections.
Fringe revolutionary movements like al-Qaeda continue to denounce
the mainstream of Political Islam for participation in electoral poli-
tics, but the bulk of the Muslim population has sided with the moder-
ate wing of Political Islam and rejected the revolutionaries.
Islam for Journalists Chapter Four
Reporter’s Notebook:
Covering the Anti-Islam
By Bob Smietana
MY introduction to the anti-Islam
movement started with a three-
word email from my boss in the fall of
“Got a minute?” she asked.
My boss had received a tip that
morning that a local mega-church was
showing a movie that labeled Muslims
as Nazis. Check it out, my boss said, and
see what you find.
For the next two years that’s what
I did. I found that the movie — The Forgotten People, produced by a
Nashville area nonprofit called Proclaiming Justice to the Nations —
was part of a larger anti-Islam movement growing in Nashville and
around the country. Its members believe that Islam is an evil religion
rooted in hatred and nurtured by violence. American Muslims, they
claim are part of conspiracy to destroy the American way of life.
In Nashville, that message is spread in meetings held in churches,
Islam for Journalists Chapter Four
community centers, and homes and through books, movies, websites,
and online social networks. The goal is to prohibit the free exercise
of Islam in the United States by social, political and legal pressure —
opposing mosque construction, opposing any religious accommoda-
tions — like time off for prayer and being excused from lunch during
Ramadan — in schools, and passing legislation that paints Islam as
incompatible with the American way of life.
As Brigitte Gabriel, the head of ACT! for America, a leading an-
ti-Islam group put it: “They must be stopped.”
Like any reporter, I wanted to answer some basic questions about
this movement — who, what, where, when, and why? But even those
basics are hard to find in the anti-Islam movement, where members
are often anonymous, some leaders use fake names, and meetings
are frequently off-limits to the press. Gabriel, for example, is really
Hanan Kahwagi Tudor, a Lebanese Christian immigrant who used to
work for Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network.
Reporting on this movement meant a fundamental change in
my approach. I’ve been covering religion since 1999 when I got my
first job as a journalist. Most religious reporting is about ideas and
institutions, about beliefs and spiritual practices. Most of it involves
visits to houses of worship, conversations with believers and clergy,
and reading sacred texts and the work of scholars.
That kind of reporting has helped when covering Muslims them-
selves — such as a long feature on an embattled mosque in Murfrees-
boro, Tennessee, or a story on how mosques in the U.S. are becoming
Islam for Journalists Chapter Four
more congregational in approach, and building complexes with class-
rooms and gyms and multipurpose spaces, inspired by Protestant
But reporting on the anti-Islam movement meant becoming an
investigative journalist. That began by first asking, “Who runs this
movement?” and “What are their real names?” Finding Tudor’s name,
for example, meant first pulling ACT! for America’s tax returns. Her
real name wasn’t in there but there were clues, such as her husband’s
name. I combed through property records and business records —
the Tudors owned a video production company — until I found her
real name. Then The Tennessean used that name in our stories despite
the objections of ACT! for America (see “Anti-Muslim crusaders make
millions spreading fear”).
Another breakthrough came from heeding that old adage, “fol-
low the money.” Anytime I heard about another group involved in the
anti-Islam movement — ACT! for America, the American Congress
for Truth, the Center for Security Policy, the Society of Americans
for National Existence or SANE, the Investigative Project on Terror-
ism Foundation — I pulled their tax returns and checked the back-
grounds of their leaders.
In many cases, running an anti-Islam group was a lucrative
business. Most leaders earned six-figure salaries, and their nonprofits
took in millions of dollars in donations. The other key to reporting
on the anti-Islam movement was showing up everywhere. Any time
I heard about a rally or church gathering or meeting in a politician’s
Islam for Journalists Chapter Four
garage, I showed up. Often people were unhappy that I was there —
and I got threatened once — but I kept showing up until someone
would talk to me.
Lastly, my editors were not satisfied with simple answers. They
wanted to know what makes this anti-Islam movement tick. The sim-
ple answer would have been to use the label “Islamophobia.” But the
real answer is more complicated. It turned out that a mix of factors
— the economic downturn, a rapid rise in immigration, fear among
evangelical Christians that they are losing home field advantage in
America, the rise of Christian Zionism, concerns over homegrown
terrorism, and the maturation of the Muslim community in Tennes-
see, so that Muslims were beginning take a more active role in local
politics and culture — had created fertile ground for the ant-Islam
It’s a story that won’t go away anytime soon. Until it does, I’ll
keep following my boss’s orders — following the money, asking peo-
ple what their real names are, and showing up even when I am not
Islams Hard Edge
Fundamentalism and Jihad
By Charles Kurzman
WHAT is Jihad? Jihad is Arabic for
“struggle,” including both armed
struggle and non-violent struggles such
as an individual’s effort to be a better
person. This struggle is imbued with re-
ligious virtue, as described in the Qur’an:
And struggle for God, as struggle is His
due” (22:78). For Muslims, jihad has a
positive connotation. It is used only to
describe Islamic struggles that one sym-
pathizes with, whether these are armed
struggles or struggles against poverty and disease.
For decades, Islamic revolutionaries have used the term “ jihad
to describe their battles against governments in Muslim societies
and Western supporters of these governments. It is inaccurate to use
the term simply as a synonym for violence, since that is only one of
its meanings. However, this has become common usage in English-
language news reports, along with the related terms “jihadis” and
mujahideen” (participants in armed jihad).
Islam for Journalists Chapter Five
Jihad, in this sense of religious violence, has become one of the
most important public issues of the early 21st century. The attacks
of September 11, 2001, which were conducted in the name of jihad,
sensitized Americans and the world to the dangers of Islamic revolu-
tionaries. To date, however, jihad has been limited in its scope.
Aside from small, albeit dangerous, cadres of international terror-
ists, the banner of jihad has failed to mobilize Muslims outside of a few
territories, primarily Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Palestine — and
it faces significant opposition from most Muslims in these areas as well.
The leaders of jihad welcome sensationalist news coverage,
which leverages the impact of their actions for national and interna-
tional audiences. As a journalist, your challenge is to report on vio-
lent incidents and plots responsibly, without exaggerating the scope
of the threat and contributing to the feelings of terror that terrorists
seek to instill in your audience.
Is jihad a religious requirement for Muslims?
ALMOST all Muslims consider armed struggle in defense of Is-
lam to be a religious requirement, just as most Christians be-
lieve in the doctrine of “just war.” Muslim leaders have long labeled
their armed conf licts “jihad,” even against Muslim opponents. As in
Christianity, Islamic scholars disagree about when armed struggle is
justified, who should carry it out, and what methods of combat are
Islam for Journalists Chapter Five
The most famous of these debates in recent times occurred just
after September 11, 2001. In a fatwa (religious judgment) three days
afterward, the heads of 46 Islamic movements around the world re-
jected the terrorist attacks as un-Islamic and not an appropriate in-
stance of jihad:
The undersigned, leaders of Islamic movements, are horrified
by the events of Tuesday 11 September 2001 in the United
States which resulted in massive killing, destruction and
attack on innocent lives. We express our deepest sympathies
and sorrow. We condemn, in the strongest terms, the
incidents, which are against all human and Islamic norms.
This is grounded in the Noble Laws of Islam, which forbid
all forms of attacks on innocents. God Almighty says in the
Holy Quran: “No bearer of burdens can bear the burden of
another” (Surah al-Isra 17:15).
Al-Qaeda responded with a statement calling this ruling apos-
tasy. According to al-Qaeda, terrorist attacks are justified because
Islam is being crushed by the West’s military presence, its support
for regimes like the Saudi monarchy, which al-Qaeda considers un-
Islamic, and its cultural influence in Muslim communities. “The only
way to liberation from this humiliation is the sword, which is the only
language the enemy understands that will deter it.” Al-Qaeda and
other militants often cite the “Verse of the Sword” (9:5) and similar
passages from the Qur’an in support of their position:
Islam for Journalists Chapter Five
When the sacred months are over, slay the idolaters wherever
you find them. Arrest them, besiege them, and lie in ambush
everywhere for them. If they repent and take to prayer and
render the alms levy, allow them to go their way. God is
forgiving and merciful.
In reporting on these debates — as in reporting on all religious mat-
ters — do not claim or imply that one side is more authentic than another.
To do so would be akin to serving as an arbiter of Islamic jurisprudence.
When did jihad morph into terrorism?
IN the middle of the 20th century, Islamic movements began to call
for armed revolutions to overthrow postcolonial regimes that they
considered overly secular. Among the most influential of these revolu-
tionaries was Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian intellectual who was executed
in 1966 for advocating the overthrow of the government.
Qutb argued that armed revolt, which he equated with jihad, was
necessary to defend Islam against the policies of government officials
in Egypt and other Muslim societies, who he felt did not deserve to
be called Muslim. Qutb’s old organization, the Muslim Brotherhood
(al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun), renounced his revolutionary vision, but his
writings gained a following with a younger generation of militants.
At that time, Islamic revolutionaries did not engage in terrorist
attacks on civilians. That was a technique used primarily by leftist and
nationalist movements. In the Middle East, the Palestinian Liberation
Islam for Journalists Chapter Five
Organization, an overtly secular organization, led the way. Islamic
revolutionaries began to imitate their secular rivals in the late 1970s
and early 1980s, adopting tactics such as kidnapping and car bombs
alongside other revolutionary actions like assassination.
At the same time, some Islamic revolutionaries turned from
local targets to global ones. The Soviet occupation of Afghanistan
provided a training ground for new techniques of violence. Heavily
funded by the U.S., groups of mujahideen waged war against the So-
viets. They had come mostly from the Arab world, Afghanistan and
South Asia. This was the ideological and military training ground
for Osama Bin Laden, who aligned himself with the fighters based
in Pakistan. U.S. officials later conceded that they were not aware of
the extremism of some of the groups fighting against the Soviet and
sought to curb their support too late in the effort.
But more significant was the sense of a global mission beyond
the national borders that Islamic revolutionaries had previously
worked within. This global vision survived past the withdrawal of
Soviet troops, forming the founding ideology of al-Qaeda and its as-
sociated movements. Instead of Soviet targets, al-Qaeda now aimed at
the United States as the chief threat to Islam. Al-Qaeda’s most famous
statement, issued in 1998, made no distinction between military and
civilian targets: “The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies —
civilians and military — is an individual duty for every Muslim who
can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it.” The attacks
of September 11, 2001, grew out of this strategy.
Islam for Journalists Chapter Five
How popular is jihad among Muslims?
MANY Muslims share al-Qaeda’s concern about American global
military inf luence. According to surveys by the Pew Global At-
titudes Project and other pollsters, as many as two-thirds of Muslims
consider the U.S. to be the greatest threat to their country’s national
security. In Pakistan, for example, more than twice as many respon-
dents named the United States as a greater threat to their personal
safety than al-Qaeda and the Taliban, who have been bombing politi-
cians, religious leaders, and ordinary citizens around the country for
several years.
However, this sympathy for the anti-American aspects of al-
Qaeda’s platform has not translated into support for al-Qaeda itself.
Large majorities oppose these groups. Gallup polls in a number of
Muslim-majority countries in late 2001 and early 2002 found that
only one in seven respondents believed the attacks of 9/11 were jus-
tifiable. Within this one-in-seven, most followed movies, television
series, and game shows; they were more likely than other respondents
to read art books and novels and to favor “living in harmony with
those who do not share your values.” These are not al-Qaeda charac-
As al-Qaeda and associated groups have turned back toward local
targets in the years since 9/11, their support has dwindled further, ac-
cording to international surveys. In Jordan, for example, suicide bomb-
ers attacked a wedding reception in November 2005, killing more than
Islam for Journalists Chapter Five
50 people. Support for al-Qaeda dropped by two-thirds. In Morocco,
sympathy for Bin Laden fell by half after the Casablanca bombings of
May 2003. In Pakistan, where attacks increased 10-fold between 2005
and 2008, opposition to violence against civilians more than doubled.
Among American Muslims, a survey by the Pew Research Cen-
ter in 2011 found that 70 percent of Muslims in the U.S. held a very
unfavorable view of al-Qaeda, up from 58 percent in 2007.
How coordinated is global jihad?
REVOLUTIONA RY jihad has two major branches. One is global
in scope, represented most famously by al-Qaeda. This branch
seeks to mobilize Muslims all over the world, and its goal is a transna-
tional Islamic state based in Arabia. The other is local in scope, aim-
ing to establish revolutionary regimes in particular territories. The
most famous of these movements are the Taliban in Afghanistan and
Hamas (the Arabic acronym for Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiyya,
or Islamic Resistance Movement) in Palestine. These two branches
have maneuvered around each other uneasily for the past generation,
with occasional coordination and occasional rivalry.
The closest coordination occurred in the 1980s, when Arab rev-
olutionaries joined Afghan militias in the fight against the Soviet oc-
cupation of Afghanistan. This coordination continued into the 1990s,
when Osama Bin Laden and other Arab revolutionaries established
paramilitary bases under the protection of the Taliban.
Islam for Journalists Chapter Five
This alliance frayed with Bin Laden’s pursuit of a global revolu-
tionary agenda. At one point Mullah Muhammad Omar, the leader
of the Taliban, forbade Bin Laden to give interviews to international
journalists, out of concern that the Taliban had enough foreign-rela-
tions problems without Bin Laden’s provocations.
Nonetheless, Mullah Omar was unwilling to shut down Bin
Laden’s camps or expel him from the country, even after the events
of 9/11 made it clear that Bin Laden had provoked an invasion of Af-
Since 9/11, the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda have coordinated
sporadically. Some Taliban commanders have adopted al-Qaeda tac-
tics such as suicide bombing and have arranged for al-Qaeda train-
ing with explosives. However, al-Qaeda’s closest local allies are a new
group, the Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan, or Taliban
Movement of Pakistan), which aims to overthrow the government of
This group is responsible for much of the recent terrorist vio-
lence in Pakistan, including the assassination of prime ministerial
candidate Benazir Bhutto in 2007, and it offers much more open sup-
port to al-Qaeda’s global agenda than Mullah Omar and the Afghan
Taliban have.
Other local jihad organizations have also affiliated themselves
with al-Qaeda: Abu Mus‘ab al-Zarqawi’s Group of Oneness and Ji-
had (Jama‘at al-Tawhid w’al-Jihad, now called al-Qaeda in Iraq); the
Salafist Group for Call and Combat in Algeria (now al-Qaeda in the
Islam for Journalists Chapter Five
Maghreb, or AQIM — Maghreb refers to the western portion of North
Africa); al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (originally in Saudi Ara-
bia, now based in Yemen); Jemaah Islamiyah in Southeast Asia; and
al-Shabaab (the Youth) in Somalia. The extent of coordination be-
tween these affiliates and the central organization of al-Qaeda is un-
clear, but is likely quite limited.
The largest and most powerful territorial jihad organizations,
however, are hostile to al-Qaeda: Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah
(Party of God) in Lebanon. Hamas has been opposed to global jihad
since before al-Qaeda was founded in the 1990s. It seeks to establish
an Islamic state in Palestine and views other territorial aspirations as
distractions from that goal. Hamas’s leaders and al-Qaeda’s leaders
have traded barbed insults for years, and Hamas’s rule in Gaza has
been challenged over the past several years by small revolutionary
cadres that claim solidarity with al-Qaeda. Hezbollah, for its part,
is a Shia organization; al-Qaeda and almost all Sunni jihad groups
consider Shia to be false Muslims (though this has not prevented oc-
casional collaboration with Shia militants).
Al-Qaeda faces severe logistical pressures and difficulties in at-
tracting sufficient recruits to replace the cadres who are captured or
killed, or who retire. As a result, it is no longer training several thou-
sand militants at a time, as it did under the Taliban. Instead, it now
trains dozens at a time, and focuses much of its energy on “virtual”
jihad via the Internet.
Although it is unable to maintain a stable Internet presence due
Islam for Journalists Chapter Five
to intergovernmental security cooperation, al-Qaeda issues frequent
pronouncements, PDF magazines, and videos through anonymous
file-sharing sites and online bulletin boards. Even before the as-
sassination of Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011,
militancy among revolutionary jihad groups had begun to shift away
from the central organization and toward regional offshoots and
small numbers of do-it-yourself individuals, some of whom took in-
spiration, strategic advice, and practical training tips from al-Qaeda
and its largest associate groups.
This pattern of decentralization is particularly visible in the Sa-
hel region of West Africa, which has developed since 2011 into a site
of particularly violent revolutionary jihad. Some of the most active
revolutionary jihad movements in the world operate in this region,
including Boko Haram, which has terrorized northern Nigeria with
bombings and armed raids on churches, newspapers, government of-
fices, and other sites; and two groups that have taken over north-
ern and eastern Mali, Ansar Dine (Supporters of the Faith) and the
Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (sometimes known by
its French acronym, MUJAO). These violent organizations express
solidarity with al-Qaeda and use some of its tactics, but have so far
remained autonomous. Their agendas are primarily local, although
they have apparently cooperated with AQIM, an al-Qaeda affiliate,
which is now operating openly in Gao, in eastern Mali.
Islam for Journalists Chapter Five
How big is the death toll from jihad?
OVER the past 40 years, jihad organizations have killed perhaps
165,000 individuals, including 10,000 during the mujahideen cam-
paign against the Soviets in Afghanistan; approximately 100,000 during
civil conf lict in Iraq and approximately 55,000 victims of Islamist ter-
rorism outside of Iraq.
Within the United States, the death toll from jihad is dominated
by the approximately 3,000 people killed on September 11, 2001. From
September 12, 2001, until the end of 2012, there were 209 Muslims, who
had lived in the U.S. for at least one year, and who had been convicted,
faced ongoing criminal cases or were allegedly involved in acts of terror
but died before they could be brought to trial. Their actions resulted in
approximately 33 fatalities. A handful of these were illegally in the U.S.
It is useful to put this terrible toll in context with other sourc-
es of violence. In the United States, the FBI reports that more than
14,000 people are murdered each year. All around the world, more
than half a million people are murdered annually, according to the
World Health Organization. At their peak, jihad organizations have
accounted for less than 2 percent of this toll — in most years, they ac-
count for well under 1 percent. (Another half a million die each year
from nutritional deficiencies, more than 800,000 from malaria, and
2 million from HIV/AIDS.) Jihad is not a leading cause of death in
the world, even in the three countries that account for the bulk of the
casualties: Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan.
Islam for Journalists Chapter Five
Of the hundreds of murders that occur each day, journalists
are far more likely to report on jihad-related incidents than other
violence. As a result, news consumers have developed a skewed im-
pression of the prevalence of jihad relative to other forms of conflict.
Journalists are just doing their job in reporting on this important
global story. However, in doing so, they amplify fears of jihad, just as
the jihad organizations intend.
There’s no denying that violent jihad-related movements exist.
The challenge for journalists is unraveling their roots and report-
ing their context, including the vocal opposition to terrorism within
Muslim communities.
Islam for Journalists Chapter Five92
Reporter’s Notebook:
Covering the American
Mosque Story
By Jason Samuels
SHORTLY after I joined CNN
in 2010, I was given a rather
broad assignment. I was tasked
with developing and producing a
documentary about Muslims in
America. There are an estimated
6–7 million Muslims living in
America. My job was to find one
story that would illuminate the ex-
perience of living as a Muslim in post-9/11 America.
When I began my assignment, the so-called “Ground Zero
mosque” debate was raging. The cable news networks, including
CNN, were covering the protests and heated rhetoric non-stop. Usu-
ally my instinct as a journalism is to ignore the pack mentality. When
a crowd of journalists is chasing one story, better stories are often left
undisturbed — waiting to be unearthed.
After a good deal of research I stumbled onto something. I read
an article in a Tennessee newspaper describing a community in Mid-
Islam for Journalists Chapter Five93
dle Tennessee rallying against the building of a local mosque. While
most of America was focused on the controversy unfolding in lower
Manhattan, few Americans were paying attention to what was taking
place, hundreds of miles away in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
The story was rather compelling. A small community of Mus-
lims in town had outgrown their current mosque. During some
prayer services at the mosque, worshippers had to literally pray on
the street. The congregation had raised money, purchased a large plot
of land and had announced plans to build a bigger mosque. Commu-
nity opposition followed. There were loud protest marches and heated
city council meetings. Residents argued that the new mosque would
increase the threat of sharia law, and negatively impact water quality
and traffic safety.
As a journalist I was instantly drawn the story, and I immedi-
ately set out to contact the leader of the Muslim community in Mur-
freesboro — the imam. When I reached the imam on the phone, I
told him I wanted to meet with him to discuss the possibility of a
documentary focusing on community divide over the mosque plans.
The imam was very pleasant, but informed me that wouldn’t be pos-
sible. He explained that he and members of his congregation had been
“tricked” by news media before, letting cameras into the mosque only
to be painted in a negative and false light. I offered a simple request. I
asked if we could at least meet in person to discuss. I would fly from
New York to meet with him. No cameras. I insisted. The imam agreed
to meet for lunch at Olive Garden in Murfreesboro Tennessee.
Islam for Journalists Chapter Five94
I was honest with the imam. I told him I knew very little about
Islam, but, given the rising level of questions and anxiety many Amer-
icans had about Islam, I felt the story of what was happening in Mur-
freesboro was important, perhaps more important in fact than what
was taking place in lower Manhattan. As we talked, he asked me ques-
tions about myself, my religious beliefs. In turn I asked him questions
I had about Islam. It was my job to establish a foundation of trust and
mutual respect that any journalist should strive to build with any po-
tential subjects. With regards to the documentary, I told the imam I
couldn’t promise he would like it, but that he would respect it. At the
end of the meal he said he would think about my proposal.
A few days later the imam called to tell me that he would agree
to let CNN cameras and me into the mosque to interview him and
members of his congregation. In the days, weeks and months that
followed I spent many hours “embedded” in the mosque and Muslim
community in Murfreesboro.
Most days I observed. I asked questions. I listened. I learned.
The first day I walked in the mosque, a congregant stopped me and
pointed at my shoes. Shoes are not allowed inside the mosque. I apol-
ogized and made sure it didn’t happen again.
I think it’s important for journalists to understand the commu-
nities they are covering. Yet I’m uncomfortable offering any specific
set of tips for journalists covering the Muslim community.
Indeed, as a working journalist, I think there should be one set of
guidelines for journalists covering any community. Treat your subjects
Islam for Journalists Chapter Five95
with respect. Listen more. Talk less. Be humble. Be open about what you
don’t know. Share a bit of yourself and your personal story. Be empa-
thetic; yet report without fear or favor. Maintain professional distance.
Value your subject’s time and make sure they understand your process
and their role. Don’t make any promises you can’t keep. Regardless of
the individual or community you are covering — credibility is earned.
Islam in America
By Karam Dana and Stephen Franklin