Fundamentalism: Knowing History, Culture Help in Tracking Paper, People Trails

Article excerpt

America's relationship with Islamic fundamentalists could be the nation's No. 1 issue over the next decade. So how can reporters more thoroughly, accurately and fairly cover this crucial topic?

During the past year, the Chicago Tribune published "The Struggle for the Soul of Islam," an occasional series that was two years in the making and written by staffers from the foreign, national, metro and projects desks. The series explored the roots of Islamic fundamentalism, how many moderate voices have been silenced, and what's at stake for Muslims, Islam and the West.

The series included stories documenting how a Chicago-area mosque was taken over by fundamentalists; how a wealthy Saudi businessman used his U.S. charity to help wage jihad on three continents; and how the Muslim Brotherhood, the world's most influential Islamic fundamentalist group, has operated secretly in America for 40 years.

Some reporting tasks were tricky. Language barriers, self-styled "experts" and misleading government statements all presented headaches.

And because Islamic fundamentalism is such a politically charged topic, subject to considerable spin, reporters must seek out as many original documents and first-hand sources as possible.

Here are several tips for reporters and editors considering similar stories:

Public records

Begin with public records. Property records, IRS filings and lawsuits will get you off to a good start.

Property records will tell you who owns a mosque. If it is owned by a group called the North American Islamic Trust, it might be a sign that the mosque is conservative. NAIT is a nonprofit that helps build and preserve mosques, and it has been criticized for aiding only conservative mosques.

Many Islamic groups and charities seek tax-exempt status from the 1RS and submit annual 990 1RS forms, which contain officers' names and salaries. The more detailed application for tax-exempt status often gives the group's mission and why it believes it should not pay taxes.

The Tribune would not have been able to document the takeover of the Chicago-area mosque without records from a little-known 1981 lawsuit in which the local American Arabian Ladies Society sued mosque leaders over the mosque's ownership. The suit contained correspondence, minutes of meetings, membership lists and fund-raising brochures.

"It not only contained hundreds of pages of documents on the history of the mosque, but also the names of people who were important in that history," reporter Laurie Cohen recalls. "That provided our basic list of people to talk to."

Annual reports

Get annual reports, election results. Some mosques compile annual reports of their finances and activities, similar to what companies provide shareholders. These are not public reports, so you'll have to find a mosque member to give you copies.

These annual reports revealed the scope of the Chicago-area mosque, showing how many members it had and what programs it sponsored. The reports also contained subcommittee reports, progress reports from the president, and fund-raising data.

We learned that much of the mosque's money was sent to Palestine and some was given to three U.S. charities whose assets were later frozen by the government because of suspected terrorism ties.

Also, many mosques and Islamic institutions have elected boards. You might want to interview those who have run for office to discover the policy differences.


Use terrorism researchers carefully: There are a handful out there, and they might help you on the condition that they be named in your story.

Terrorism researcher Steven Emerson gave us an audiotape of an Islamic conference in which a local imam spoke. We translated the tape into English and found that the imam was raising money in the name of suicide bombers.

French terrorism researcher Jean-Charles Brisard provided us with documents regarding a jihad training camp in Afghanistan that was financed by the Saudi businessman who was the subject of one of our reports. …