The Sun’s Wafer-thin Attack on Elliott’s Pulitzer Piece

For a right-wing paper, there is no such thing as a moderate Muslim.

The New York Times’ sole Pulitzer prize this year went to Andrea Elliott, a young metro reporter at the paper, for a series she wrote about the imam of a Brooklyn mosque. The portrait of Sheikh Rada Shata revealed a man, in Elliott’s words, “on the frontline of the battle to balance tradition with the pressures of American life.” He doesn’t come off as a zealous firebrand, but he does possess religious opinions that would discomfit many Americans. “He is in many ways a work in progress, mapping his own middle ground between two different worlds,” Elliott writes, introducing him to readers.

In other words, like the best of journalism (or fiction, for that matter) she struggled to present a complex picture, full of ambiguity, of a man who falls into no easy categories.

It’s hard to imagine anyone objecting to at least the attempt to bring readers this added perspective on Muslims in America. Anyone, that is, except maybe the New York Sun, which often seems to prefer that its news fit into those easy categories. The words “Muslim imam” - even one who has gained praise from NYPD and local FBI types - necessarily mean extremism and terrorism

And so, in an editorial that pretends to be an article (a typical tactic of the paper) the Sun contends that Elliot’s Pulitzer work “has come under fire from critics.” We’ll get to who these “critics” are in a moment. But first the accusation, if you can keep it straight: “Because [the articles] did not mention that a murderer who committed a 1994 terrorist attack had been incited by a former imam at the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge, [Sheikh Shata’s mosque].” The other complaint is that the article does not mention Shata’s praise of the Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yasin, after his assassination, or the imam’s description of a female suicide bomber as a “martyr.”

Actually, the two troubling comments are absolutely mentioned in the piece, dealt with in detail, and help contribute to the complex portrait of Rada Shata. The comments are worrying, but they become less so when measured against the considerable evidence that the Shiekh embraces very moderate viewpoints. As for the murder of the rabbinical student alluded to by the Sun, it occurred in 1994, seven years before Shata arrived in America. Not only would this fact seem to more than exculpate Shata, the only evidence that implicates the mosque itself is the fact that the murderer prayed there.

And who are these “critics” the Sun has conjured, to allow it to present this defamation of Elliott’s work as bono fide “news”? The piece quotes a March 2006 letter to the editor to the Times from Yehudit Barsky, a researcher at the American Jewish Committee, that offers no more reason to disparage Rada Shata than that he works at a mosque that Barsky says was connected to the shooting in 1994. Other than Barsky, the piece also had a word from the mother of Ari Halberstam, the murdered rabbinical student. The only other criticism comes from that reliable fount of right-wing spin on all things Middle Eastern, Daniel Pipes, who adds that, “Just from the between-the-lines information Elliott provides in her articles, it is clear that the imam is no moderate but an Islamist.” That’s it.

The Sun, it seems obvious, is simply threatened by the prospect of a Muslim moderate. It’s not surprising given the evidence in a recent article about the Sun in the Nation. The paper lives to take down both anything Muslim or Arab, and anything associated with Columbia, seen as a bastion of the loony left. The chance to smear Elliott (a graduate of Columbia’s journalism school), writing about a Muslim, and the Pulitzer, given out by Columbia, must have been irresistible.

But it’s unfortunate. One can argue with the balancing act the Brooklyn Sheikh is trying to perform, but good journalism should challenge readers with layered portraits of the people and issues we write about, such as the one Elliott presents of Rada Shata.

At the beginning of her series, Elliott wrote about the stereotypes she was trying to shatter: “In America, imams evoke a simplistic caricature — of robed, bearded clerics issuing fatwas in foreign lands. Hundreds of imams live in the United States, but their portrait remains flatly one-dimensional. Either they are symbols of diversity, breaking the Ramadan fast with smiling politicians, or zealots, hurrying into their storefront mosques.”

At the New York Sun, apparently, they seem to like it better that way.

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.