UPDATE, Oct. 26, 10 p.m.: A Plain Dealer report by David Briggs entitled "New Cleveland imam hopes to ease Muslim-Jewish relations" went up today (Oct. 26) at 1:56 PM. I am deferring comment on it until sometime Monday, as new info has become available that requires vetting (original plan to respond Saturday was moved to Sunday, and has now been moved again).
Note: This has been posted at NewsBusters because it addresses an example of what I believe is lax local media coverage that may be occurring in other communities around the country. I have closed comments off at this post so that all comments end up at Part 2.
Don't Cleveland Plain Dealer readers and the community deserve to know if the Islamic Center of Cleveland's new imam is the same as the old imam?
On September 25 at 2:30 PM, Cleveland Plain Dealer Religion Reporter David Briggs posted a Cleveland.com blog entry ("Islamic Center hires new imam to replace deported cleric") about the naming of Ahmed Alzaree as the new imam at the Islamic Center of Cleveland (ICC).
In that post, he noted that:
Alzaree would not confirm his hiring, at one point saying he would not come to Cleveland because a reporter was inquiring about his background.
Briggs's September 26 print edition version of the now-archived article apparently included a bit of follow-up work which apparently enabled him to airbrush away the doubts, as he instead wrote:
Alzaree confirmed late Tuesday that he is coming to Cleveland, but declined further comment.
It appears that the confirmation of Alzaree's decision to take the position was enough for Briggs to justify ignoring the obvious more-to-the-story clue in the first excerpt. In both pieces, Briggs puffed his way to this conclusion:
After so many years of tension surrounding the imam at the Islamic Center, mosque officials are looking forward to a fresh start.
What seems incomprehensible in all of this is that the Plain Dealer devoted roughly 45 stories since 2001 to the saga of Fawaz Damra, ICC's previous imam. Briggs himself recounted in the Alzaree announcement article that "Damra was indicted in January 2004 on charges that he lied about ties to Palestinian extremist groups on his citizenship application," and that "In June 2004, Damra was convicted and stripped of his citizenship. He was deported to the Middle East in January this year after more than a year in jail."
In January, Damra was deported to the West Bank and arrested by Israeli authorities after 72 countries rejected his request (including Jordan, where he is a citizen) for what I presume was asylum.
In light of the history, it didn't seem unreasonable to me to wonder what Mr. Alzaree, who had been imam at the Islamic Center of Omaha (ICO), was so concerned about a reporter finding. So I Googled his name. One result contained a link to an ICO sermon he gave in March 2003 that has since been taken down (saved here; also found here in the Wayback archive). That sermon's conclusion can be interpreted to be the same kind of "railing against Jews" (Brigg's description) that triggered Fawaz Damra's ultimate downfall. Earlier in the sermon, Alzaree also appeared to long for the days of the compulsory Quranic jizya payments required of non-believers in Islamic-controlled countries.
Patrick Poole at Central Ohioans Against Terrorism also noted Alzaree's acquaintance with Wagdi Ghoneim, a now-deported former imam in Orange County, California, "who had allegedly given speeches that could be considered to support terrorist organizations," and about whom an ICE agent had remarked that "Frankly, our task is not to sit around and wait for people to blow up buildings."
I posted at BizzyBlog, Wide Open, and NewsBusters on all of this, wondering how Briggs and the Plain Dealer, given the historical context and the in-their-face warning sign, could possibly justify not digging, or for that matter even turning a shovel, to look into Alzaree's background.
On September 29, the Plain Dealer's Robert Smith did a partial follow-up relating to the issues raised by yours truly and Mr. Poole that fairly begged for additional work to be done, and quickly.
Key points Smith made include these:
- The mosque's leadership was "standing by their man."
- A truly odd what's-the-point assertion that Alzaree's sermon took place in March 2003, the month when the US invasion of Iraq began. I am at a loss to see why this matters, because Alzaree's March 7 sermon preceded George Bush's demand that Saddam Hussein and his sons leave Iraq by 10 days, and the actual start of the invasion by 12. In fact, on March 6, the day preceding Alzaree's sermon, George Bush stated that a decision had not been made to use force against Iraq.
- The sermon cited has many potential alternative interpretations besides the seemingly obvious, including that Alzaree "was relaying a well-known Hadith as he listed myriad signs of Judgment Day,"that "Alzaree's use (of the Hadith was) awkward and of poor scholarship (Muhammad's intent was to warn of conflict with Jews as a bad thing, and the prayer leader should have made that clear)," and that "It shouldn't be considered anti-Jewish, because this is a well-known Hadith in the Muslim tradition."
- A local leader with the Cleveland chapter of the American Jewish Committee hopes that "an imam would be chosen who is genuinely committed to advancing interfaith understanding."
But there were several quite important to-dos that Smith left hanging:
- Speaking with Alzaree, who "could not be reached Friday (Sept. 28), the Muslim prayer day, typically the busiest day of an imam's week." Smith apparently was not convinced that Alzaree even delivered the March 2003 sermon, saying "it is believed" that the imam did so, despite the presence of the sermon on ICO's site and Alzaree's name at the top.
- Getting further comment from Cleveland's Jewish community, because "The holy days of Sukkot ..... muted local Jewish response."
- Any kind of information about Alzaree's possible relationship with Ghoneim.
- Giving credit to yours truly as the "cleveland.com blogger" who "posted portions of the sermon" and who first coined the phrase, "Meet the New Imam, Same as the Old Imam?" (I know, dream on).
Almost four weeks have since transpired. Yet with this search, when I try to determine what the Plain Dealer has done since Smith's September 29 report, all I get is an ulcer:
No Alzaree interview. No further Jewish community comment. And, finally, no follow-up on the relationship between Alzaree and Ghoneim.A backup search done on Google shows nothing since Smith's September 29 report, and no activity at all since October 4.
That's about to change.
Maybe in the good old days of Old Media near-monopoly Briggs's September 26 report would have been the end of it. But those days are over; that Smith even had to write a follow-up report is testimony to that.
The Plain Dealer has been informed, and is clearly aware in any case, that others have been investigating Mr. Alzaree. I have learned that it is PD policy not to discuss stories or potential stories with other members of the media, so I can only surmise that the paper has either done nothing, or has followed up and found nothing they consider worth reporting. I believe that either decision is a mistake, and that Part 2 will demonstrate that.
The paper has had more than enough time since the September 30 update at my Smith report follow-up post, when I wrote that "it seems fair to allow the PD's reporters more time to develop the Alzaree story before critiquing their work any further," to do something with the story and avoid being scooped again.
But, once again, scooped they are. See Part 2 for details.