America's Islam Problem

When did newspapers start phrasing headlines as questions?

I ask because the current vogue to do so grates on every last one of my nerves -- and to make a larger point. To begin an article with a question (in this case as the lede rather than the hed) implies not only that the question asked will be the question answered, but that finding the answer will be the main point of the article. 

Sadly, such is not always the case. I blame the Washington Post online outfit Slate for the popularity of the question-hed (it's also present in WaPo's Foreign Policy magazine), though that blame may be misguided. It's simply where I started to notice the trend. 

The reason I bring this up: I found myself duped into reading three articles in the Christian Science Monitor because the questions were interesting. I say duped because the answers to those questions weren't really central to the articles. All three revolved around the House Committee on Homeland Security's hearing on "The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and that Community's Response".

I've got some semantic issues with that too, but one thing at a time.

First, the headline, "Who's testifying at controversial House hearing on radical Islam?"  -- a question I thought really needed answering. I imagined a list of witnesses, credentials, political affiliations, etc. A real who's who of House witness testimony. Instead I got "Families of radicalized or 'brainwashed' young Muslim Americans", "a Los Angeles sheriff", and a couple names of who wouldn't appear (those being U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI director Robert Mueller). That's a pretty weak answer to a very specific question. Much of the article focused on the controversy surrounding the hearings, rather than the actual meat of what was slated to happen. That L.A. sheriff, by the way is Leroy Baca.

Next up was the ironic "Why won't media -- or Muslims -- address Islamism in America?" Here Boston College political science professor Peter Skerry does a hell of a job of taking the current keywords about Islam (read: Muslim Brotherhood, Islamists) and demystifying some of the myths with a gentle nudge that informs without being didactic, but really doesn't say much about media -- or Muslims -- and the conversation.

"Muslim Americans: What Would Jesus (Or George Washington) Do?" actually came closest to answering part of the question. (That'd be the George Washington part, not the Jesus part, by the way.) While the whimsey of wild speculation about what either of these iconic characters would do in relation to Muslim Americans would probably be a fun, and divisive read, it's pretty obvious that's not going to happen. Instead we get another academic, Thomas S. Kidd of Baylor University, explaining American Christian sectarianism at the time of founding.

I'm picking on the Christian Science Monitor here not just because its inquisitive headlines grabbed me, but because -- despite my feelings about its headline tactics -- its hearing-related content is the most diverse and informative I've read. The opinion pieces by the academics are strong essays that seek to contextualize the controversy rather than simply reiterate. Despite not answering the question that was asked, staff writer Gail Russell Chaddock's piece adds some good reporting to what could easily be a roundup and regurgitation of existing coverage. What Chaddock doesn't do (and I think this is to her benefit), is go into depth about why the hearings are controversial. It's mentioned in passing, but the heart of the article focuses on what might actually be said during the hearings and the variety of  likely views that will be offered.

What I haven't seen in any of this is a discussion of the language of the hearing itself. The strongest criticisms, for example, have focused on House Committee on Homeland Security's chairman Peter King and his McCarthyesque witch-hunt of U.S. Muslims. That's strong language, and the kind of thing that's brought up in U.S. media pretty much anytime an American legislator wants to discuss controversial topics surrounding societal "others".

Preconceived notions of what will or won't be said run something like this: on one side of the spectrum. claiming everything about American Islam is dangerous; on the other, focusing on how everything is fine and we can all live in peace and harmony. Setting that aside, a quick look at the title of the hearing suggests something rather comforting. Instead of framing the hearings as Radical Islamism in America -- which is what I'd was going on, based on the media panic of the last few days -- the hearing seeks to discover the extent of radicalization. This is actually pretty important in the larger American dialogue in which often all Islam is assumed to be "radical". I separate that word here because in the American context "radical" is meant as a dangerous, separatist movement and one that excludes the progressive movements that are likely more common in American Muslim communities. 

The only real semantic issue I have with the name of the hearing is "that Community's Response". In other words, the Muslim community. Separated and demarcated from the rest of American society. It implies that the Muslim community alone is responsible for the activities of people who call themselves Muslim. I think the genuine intent of the hearings, though, is to focus on the wider community's response to Islam and Muslim Americans.

I listened to the hearings,  and they went down pretty much like anyone would imagine. A few references to American ignorance about Islam, a discussion of sharia and its implementation in the United States. There was partisanship, there were efforts to include other groups (ie. KKK) in the definitions of those participating in religious terrorism. It will give pundits on both extremes something to complain about.

The real question is whether the House hearing will flounder in controversy or whether any actual dialogue will emerge. Sadly, that's a question that can't be answered in a simple blog post, but one that will unfold over time. Quick guess though, since I don't like to leave questions unanswered, it's a whole lot of fuss over a very little bit of content. Next week, we'll all be riled up about something else and a new "McCarthyist" inquisition.

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