The Associated Press attempts to sum up the man’s life by adding that he was also an ideological force — but offers nothing about his ideology, his religious education, or his place within (or outside of) the theology of Islam.
From The Washington Post, a reporter of which visited Yassin in 1997 to get the “flavor” of the man, we learn that he was an advocate of martyrdom, and, again, that he was a spiritual leader — dedicated to the establishment of an “Islamic state.” Well, then, now we know — sinceall Islamic states look alike.
The Los Angeles Times offers even more confusing coverage, failing to note the material appeal of Yassin’s ideology — medical clinics, aid for the hungry — to poor Palestinians. “‘Martyrdom,'” writes Laura King, “was the constant watchword, shouted over and over at mass rallies that flowed like unruly rivers through the streets of the Gaza Strip….”
We have to turn to the foreign press to learn anything substantial about the religious views of the “spiritual leader” whose worldly terror has been a constant factor in U.S. foreign policy. The British Guardian charges into the subject with a denunciation of religion as ideological inspiration, suggesting that a “narrow, religious frame,” is necessarily inferior to “lofty humanism,” but from there it goes on to do the expected work of obituaries — chronicle the deceased’s life. Five facts The Revealer learned that we did not see reported widely, or at all, in the American press:
1. For most of his career, Yassin opposed violent action — a strategy he learned from the Muslim Brotherhood.
2. “He was more devoted to the revival of Islam than to the salvation of Palestine.”
3. His religious convictions were shaped by his family’s exile from its farm in 1948, the poor conditions of the refugee camp in which he subsequently lived, and the crippling accident he endured as a child. (The American press reports the accident, but makes no connection.)
4. He began close study of the Koran as a literature major at the University of Cairo, engaging not with traditionalist texts but “radical interpretations.”
5. His late-life turn toward violence was a political rejection of his spiritual ideals, which held that “re-Islamicization” of society was to be achieved through social work and preparation for jihad, not jihad itself.
There’s more — David Hirst‘s obit is a solid piece of work, albeit sketchier than it should be for a subject whose death has been fervently sought or desired by powerful nations for some years.
Given that the U.S. is one of those nations, why has our press ignored the “spiritual” dimensions of this “spiritual leader”? Two possibilities. One is that the journalists assigned to cover the Middle East are political reporters. They approach religion as simply a veneer for political motives, and rarely bother to learn its intricacies.
The other, deeper problem, is with the narratives available for religion stories even when a reporter tries to pay attention. Most religion writing is divided between innocuous spirituality and dangerous fanaticism, with subcategories for “corruption,” “traditionalism,” and wacky.
Yassin’s broad support amongst Palestinians forces the press to concede that he was not purely a psychopath channeling his aggression through religion. And yet he was certainly not “innocuous.” Corruption can’t explain him, as he was revered for his honesty with Hamas funds, and, despite the use of empty terms such as “fundamentalism,” nor can traditionalism, since his violence grew out of his rejection of tradition.
So what does our press do? Nothing. A major enemy of peace in the Middle East has just been killed, and yet we learn almost nothing about what made him fight or why he is mourned. Opponents and supporters of the Palestinians remain in the dark, uninformed by a press incapable of breaking the narrative to investigate — and perhaps help eradicate — the roots of terrorism. It’s easier to stick to the “he-said/she-said”-with-guns version of events that reduces it all to retaliation, to hopeless spirals of violence and ancient ethnic hatreds, to enmity without reason.