by Rhonda Roumani
This week, Muslims around the world celebrated the end of one of the most important events of their religious year—the hajj—with Eid al-Adha, or the Festival of Sacrifice. An estimated 2 million Muslims from around the world make the yearly pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia to spend five days on a grueling journey that commemorates the prophet Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son, Ismael, to God.
The coverage on Arabic language channels included live interviews of pilgrims at different points along the hajj as well as young anchors dressed in Western garb responding to comments and questions posted on Facebook. But if you were scanning English-language news outlets in the U.S., you might not even know the hajj was taking place.
If American journalists are aiming to do more than merely react to events that become news—specifically, if we want to get ahead of developments in Islam and the Muslim world–we could start by regularly covering Islam's most important annual event. There are plenty of potential stories in the mix. How about profiling American Muslims making the pilgrimage?
Another thinly covered development here in the States is the movement to outlaw the use of shariah law in local courts. The New York Times has followed the story of a constitutional amendment in Oklahoma that established such a ban, and prior to the recent elections there were a few briefs on similar proposals elsewhere. But the players behind this movement–and whether their concerns are warranted–merit much closer scrutiny than they have received so far.
And on November 28, Egyptians will hold parliamentary elections, which should be big news both because the last balloting in 2005 was marred by violence and because the political aspirations of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood are at the heart of the story there. Egypt's elections–an autocratic state's tentative and often volatile experiment with democracy–will be watched across the Arab world. But there has been little effort in the American press to cover or contextualize this important story.
A good resource for journalists who want to get a handle on the situation in Egypt and its broader significance is Sayyid Qutb and the Origins of Radical Islamism by historian John Calvert. The book chronicles the life of Qutb, the intellectual leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and 60s who has been credited with inspiring Islamists world-wide. But Calvert helps readers see Qutb not just as an Islamic radical but also a nationalist, a poet and a spiritual seeker who was trying to make sense of the tumultuous changes that were taking place around him.
Calvert provides a nuanced profile of a figure whose writings have been read by devout Muslims across the religious and political spectrum. It's the type of background material journalists urgently need as they work to help people make sense of Islam, Muslim movements and even Islamic radicalism.
Egypt's elections, the anti-shariah movement and the once-again-woefully-under-reported hajj are stories that desperately need telling. Unless reporters dig into them, they and their audiences are destined simply to react to events that have been unfolding in front of them and around them all along. So get ahead of these stories! You can't say nobody told you they were there.
Rhonda Roumani is a freelance journalist who has covered Islam and Muslim-related issues both in the U.S. and abroad. She has worked as a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and her articles have appeared in a number of other publications, including the Washington Post, USA Today, the Washington Times, the Chicago Tribune, Newsday, the Boston Globe, Columbia Journalism Review, the Daily Star, Bitterlemons.org and Beliefnet.com. She has also appeared on radio and television shows such as CNN International, NPR's “All Things Considered” and the Washington Post Radio. Before turning to freelancing, Roumani worked as a reporter for the Beirut-based Daily Star, where she covered Syria and other regional issues.