Twice-Scooped Plain Dealer Takes Gratuitious Sideswipe at Bloggers

The Cleveland Plain Dealer apparently decided to do something wtih a story it was dragged into kicking and screaming last fall -- one that it seemed at the time to be wishing would go away.

Saturday, David Briggs, the paper's religion reporter, did something with a near non-story relating to previous events that he and his paper failed to do twice when it counted: He followed up, reporting on the difficulties a Cleveland mosque is experiencing in finding a new imam.

That contrasts starkly with how Briggs and the PD handled the story of the guy who was on the verge of becoming that mosque's imam last fall.

In September, Briggs wrote a PD puff piece a about the imminent arrival of Ahmed Alzaree as new imam for the Islamic Center of Cleveland. In that report, Briggs did nothing with a red-flag statement by Alzaree that he "would not confirm his hiring, at one point saying he would not come to Cleveland because a reporter was inquiring about his background." Keep in mind that the Center's previous imam, Fawaz Damra, as Briggs again noted Saturday, "was convicted of falsifying his citizenship application by failing to disclose ties to extremist groups. He was deported to the Middle East in January 2007 after more than a year in jail." Prior to that, Briggs noted in his September story, Fawaz had been exposed for "railing against Jews and raising money for Palestinian militant groups such as Islamic Jihad." Plain Dealer reporters filed over 45 stories on Damra during all of this.

After Briggs's September story on Alzaree, yours truly did extensive follow-up work, poring through years of records of Alzaree's activities. Well, not exactly. Actually, I took a few seconds and Googled "imam ahmed alzaree" (not in quotes), and quickly found a link to a sermon Alzaree gave in 2003 at the Omaha mosque where he had previously served. That sermon, since taken down from the Omaha mosque's web site but saved here for posterity, included this near its conclusion:

Dear brothers and sisters, the talk about the Day of Judgment is long and full of things that will confuse the human mind and put fear in the hearts of the faithful. Every day that comes is much more Worse than the day before it as we get closer to the hour. Among the signs of the approach of Day of Judgment is what the messenger of Allah PBUH said: “The hour of judgment shall not happen until the Muslims fight the Jews. The Muslims shall kill the Jews to the point that the Jew shall hide behind a big rock or a tree and the rock or tree shall call on the Muslim saying: hey, O Muslim there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him, except the Gharqad tree which will not say, for it is the tree of Jews.”

Patrick Poole at Central Ohioans Against Terrorism (COAT) also weighed in on Alzaree, pointing out that his also contained a lament that the Quran-based "jizya" tax that is supposed to be imposed on non-Muslims in Muslim-dominated countries wasn't an active practice. More important, Poole noted that Alzaree had an association with an Orange County, California Muslim cleric with apparent terror ties who had recently agreed to leave the US for 10 years rather than face a US trial on terror-supporting charges.

Having been scooped by two bloggers, the PD's Robert Smith sprung into action, following up with a comprehensive expose of Alzaree's activities and background. Well, not exactly. In a sympathetic piece, he noted that Alzaree was under "public scrutiny," and that the mosque was "standing by their imam."

It seemed reasonable at the time to believe that there would be more digging by Plain Dealer. Especially given what had happened with the previous imam, the paper, now awakened, would surely delve into Alzaree's past at the Omaha mosque and elsewhere.

Well, not exactly. In fact, not at all.

One month later, after no follow-up on the PD's part, COAT's Poole posted the results of work he had done investigating Alzaree's Omaha mosque using the Internet Wayback Machine (the mosque apparently scrubbed most of its content shortly after the Cleveland controversy began). He found posts sympathetic to Palestinian terror groups and characterizing Israelis as "the new Nazis," as well as links to Jihad-supporting, terror-financing, and "revolutionary worker" sites. As Poole noted, "virtually all of this material began to appear around the time that Alzaree took his position with the Islamic Center of Omaha (in 2002 -- Ed.), and these sources continued up until recently." Yours truly also noted that the Islamic Center of Cleveland itself still had officials who had been outspokenly sympathetic to deposed leader Damra and to the Palestinian terror group Hamas in high positions at the mosque.

Having been scooped yet again, religious reporter Briggs then jumped at the chance to use his paper's extensive resources to get to the bottom of all of this. Well, not exactly. He instead wrote an extensive "This Is Your Life" piece on Alzaree, reporting that the imam had "put aside his worries and will begin work Thursday at the center in Parma."

Three days later, Alzaree resigned from his new job even before he started it.

Briggs reported Alzaree's claim that "allegations by bloggers that he was anti-Semitic and was associated with individuals suspected of having terrorist ties so poisoned the atmosphere in Northeast Ohio that he and his wife, Marwa, decided to look elsewhere." The Associated Press dutifully piled on with the headline "Blog critics force imam to resign at Ohio mosque." Yeah, that's the ticket: Blame it on the bloggers.

The Feb. 2 piece by Briggs attempts to add to the Parma pity party, and takes a sideswipe at those who exposed Alzaree (bold is mine):

The Islamic Center of Cleveland is struggling to find a spiritual leader three months after a Nebraska imam bowed out under pressure from critics who accused him of anti-Semitism.

Leaders at the Parma mosque said there is a shortage of American-born imams who are Islamic scholars and fluent in Arabic.

"It's very, very hard to find somebody like that," said Ahmed Fellaque of the Council of Elders. "The ones who are good are not gettable."

..... Last September, the mosque hired Imam Ahmed Alzaree, an Egyptian-born cleric who led a mosque in Omaha. But the man mosque leaders thought would help rebuild interfaith relations in Northeast Ohio came under fire after bloggers posted a portion of a 4-year-old end-times sermon in which the imam quoted the Prophet Muhammad saying one sign of the approach of the Day of Judgment is that "the Muslims will kill the Jews."

Alzaree never substantively refuted the charges. The fact that decided not to stay on the flimsy excuse that bloggers who live hours away from Cleveland had ruined it for him would seem to indicate that he couldn't.

Continuing:

..... the mosque, having "been burnt so many times," wants an Islamic scholar who is fluent in the English language and culture, preferably born in the United States, can relate to younger generations and the larger community and can pass a strong background check.

Excuse me for thinking that the "background check" -- i.e., finding a cleric who will survive "public scrutiny" -- remains the biggest stumbling block.

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.

Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer
Tom Blumer is a contributing editor for NewsBusters.