N.Y. Times Pulitzer-Winning Series on Imam Was Panned by Right and Left

The latest Pulitzer Prize awarded to the New York Times wasn't so honored when it originally came out -- by conservatives or even by some liberals. Andrea Elliott's three-part series exploring Islam in America through the imam Reda Shata of the Bay Ridge mosque in Brooklyn was powerfully critiqued by Washington Times columnist Diana West:

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

Such journalistic jaw-droppers abound: gaping holes, like the one above, but also dead ends that leave countless questions that the female reporter, it seems, never thought to ask. For example, she notes, over six months of interviews, the Egyptian-born imam refused to shake her hand. "He offers women only a nod," she writes. Why is shaking hands with a woman "improper"? What does the imam think about sexual equality? She doesn't tell us....

Instead, we get a load of happy talk: "Married life in Islam is an act of worship," Mr. Shata says. So impressed were the editors of the New York Times by this load that they ran the quotation, not just above the fold, but across the very top of the front page over a gold-bathed family photo four columns wide. Does Miss Reporter ask the imam to reconcile this ecstatic notion with the Islamic custom of arranged and forced marriages, the spate of spousal abuse and "honor killings" within European Muslim communities -- as recounted in clarifying detail in Bruce Bawer's important new book, "While Europe Slept" -- or the tradition of polygamy which exists to this day in portions of Islamic society? No, no and no.

Even The Revealer, a liberal blog on religion and the media, panned the series, suggesting Elliott’s writing was too pat, the imam was too perfect, it had the smell of public relations and official tours. In short, to use liberal lingo, she was Judith Miller inside a mosque. Nora Connor asserted:

In the first article, we encounter our sympathetic hero; in the second, we encounter conflict; in the third, we find resolution. Or do we? Shata’s bigger problems remain, of course, and Elliott wins her happy ending only by substituting a de-politicized personal for the plainly political reality of a Muslim community leader in America. The public-relations feel of the series reaches a peak here. Elliott writes that the imam "offers long, stubborn theories about the value of marriage." Instead of elaborating on them, though, or taking them seriously enough to consider them within the context of current cultural debates about marriage, Elliott devotes a dozen paragraphs to a sugary-sweet domestic scene that seems designed to illustrate that the imam loves his wife and kids. "When he walks in the door," she writes, "his face softens. Loud kisses are planted on tender cheeks. Mohammed squeals, the girls smile, sweet laughter echoes."

Connor was also dismissive of the notion that Shata's flock is somehow completely removed from the temptations of the Western world:

Are the temptations of the "West" really so new, either to Islam or to Shata himself? The Times articles make it seem as though none of the imam’s congregants in Germany, Egypt or Saudi Arabia ever ate a Big Mac or interacted with scantily clad women. Are we really to believe that Muslims the world over remained unaware of the existence of oral sex for the past 1400 years?

Despite her declarations of fandom for Elliott's reporting on American Islam in general, Connor saw the series as "tritely posed." Obviously, the Pulitzer panel did not agree.

Religion New York Times
Tim Graham's picture