Alabama Muslims: Feature on converts doesn't ask many (or any) follow-up questions

Confession time: I used to write stories almost as wide-eyed as yesterday's feature on Muslim converts in Alabama.

I wrote up Muslim criticisms of Christianity. I retold their feelings about baleful attitudes from other Americans. I did, however, try to look critically at their claims of up to seven million believers in the U.S.

But see, it's two decades later, and mainstream media should have moved on. And I suggest that the Alabama Media Group, with seven regional editions, carries a heavy responsibility for perceptive reporting, not just writing up notes.

This particular article starts as a sensitive, detail-rich feature of the Alabaman Muslims: how they live, how they view presidential candidates, how they think other Americans view them. even finds a counter-intuitive lede:

Allie Larbi sounds like a Donald Trump supporter.
The Mobile resident supports building a giant wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and scrapping birthright citizenship. Syrian refugees, in her own words, should either be blocked from entering the United States or let in only to be housed in isolated refugee camps.
"I have what I like to turn around and call American views," said Larbi. "This is a great country and it needs to stay that way."

Larbi naturally takes offense at some of Trump's other statements, like "mandatory registration for Muslims, a ban on Muslim travel to the United States, or shooting Muslims with bullets dipped in pig's blood."  We'll get back to her in a moment.

The 1,600-word feature then stresses how ordinary the interviewees are. One sells hot dogs from a cart in Mobile. One leads a Quran study in the county jail. And a couple runs a farm, raising and slaughtering livestock for halal meat for other Muslims. There's even a brief explanation of halal practices. (But did the reporter ask if the hot dogs were halal, too? They're often made of pork, banned for Muslims.)

That’s one blemish on the various stories of how people decided to turn to Islam, usually either by marrying a believer, or finding answers they felt were lacking in Christianity. Those stories are rich in personal stories, but poor in follow-up questions.

But first, the easy stuff. The feature is pockmarked with basic errors:

* "Koran study." The Associated Press Stylebook has said for years that it should be spelled "Quran."

* "Conservative Pentacostal church." Aside from the fact that pretty much every such church is conservative, "Pentecostal" is misspelled.

* "Muslim principals." It should, of course, be "principles," as the sentence afterward says.

The problems grow as the article attempts some context. Take the numbers game:

But in the United States, where more than 70 percent of its citizens identify as Christian, Muslims remain a small minority making up less than one percent the total population. Converts and their children represent about one-third of the total U.S. Muslim population.
Estimates vary on the number of Muslims in the United States, placing the total anywhere from 1 to 7 million. That means if there were 5 million Muslims in the United States, for example, the convert population would be about 1.65 million. According to Pew Research Center, the U.S. Christian population is about 170 million.

First off, the "estimates vary" phrase resembles the familiar "sources say." Who estimated "one-third" and "less than one percent"? I'm guessing the writer saw the latest Pew survey in January. If so, he should have said.

And if less than one percent of Americans are Muslim, how could that be anywhere near 7 million? The U.S. Census Bureau counts about 323,050,000 Americans. One percent of that would, of, course, come out to 3,230,500, which is close to the Pew estimate of 3.3 million.

Another number: "In the United States, black people make up more than 60 percent of all Muslim converts." The source? Doesn't say, although the next sentence names one Patrick Bowen, an "independent academic" who has studied Muslim conversions in the United States. could have added that Bowen holds a Ph.D. from the Iliff School of Theology in Denver.

He tells that the Nation of Islam made the faith more attractive to African Americans. But the "how" is murky: "It is understood as a way to communicate Muslim principals, Islamic principles, in a language you can understand." Such as?

More vagueness:

There was a massive Muslim conversion in the black community in 1975 following the death of former Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad. He had preached a message of black separatism and self-reliance and established a network of temples nationwide.
His son, Warith D. Muhammad, reformed the group to practice mainstream Islam. This included the transition of more than 400 Nation of Islam temples into mosques.

If Bowen told that, it should have asked him to estimate the number of conversions. It also should have pointed out the difference between the attitude of Elijah Muhammad -- who famously called whites "blue-eyed devils" -- and that of his son, who renounced racism and separatism. If Bowen said so, didn’t choose to report it.

Even in the personal anecdotes, lots of threads hang loose.

Allie Larbi says she would like to block Syrian immigrants or segregate them in camps, yet she protests discrimination against Muslims. But the fear of Syrians is based largely on the fear of Muslims as potential terrorists. How does Larbi reconcile that? Was she asked?

Then there's Maisah Fatoom, who left that "Pentacostal" church: "It was just too much going on, too much confusion, no answers, and learning that the book that you're learning from, the book that you're being taught out of is not even the real book."

Eh? No answers to what? Which book are we talking about? The Bible? And where is the "real" book? It's a terribly tangled quote, and doesn't help unravel it.

Fatoom evidently didn’t like church garb:

At her church, women weren't allowed to wear pants, makeup or gaudy jewelry. Their shirts had to have long sleeves with high necklines. Now she covers herself with a dark colored hijab.

Hmmm. So the "don’ts" at the church are itemized, but her current outfit is not. And the church dress code was restrictive, but her current Islamic clothes are not.  Why not?

That's not the only criticism of Christianity here. The Quran teacher, who is black, talks about the "crippling effect of having a Caucasian image being God and the same people that had their foot on your neck looked like the same person." And the hot dog vendor retells his conversion in the 1960s:

"I saw that blacks at that time they had been faithful and loyal Christians but they wasn't making any social progress. Islam offered social progress to African Americans to the blacks and it offered a way out of the downtrodden position that we were in."

Did anyone at hear about people like Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, etc. -- pastors who led the civil rights movement of that time? And if you're criticizing another faith, wouldn't fairness call for reactions from ministers of that faith?

Yes, the article is a lengthy 1600 words. For that reason, it was even more important to take a hard look and scrub away the soft spots. After two decades, journalists should learn from past mistakes like mine.

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