A Pulitzer Prize for Evasive Reporting?

Andrea Elliott's series on a Brooklyn-based Muslim imam won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing - but suffers from a lack of curiosity about the unflattering sides of its subject matter.

The New York Times won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing for its March 2006 series about Sheik Reda Shata, an Egyptian imam learning his way in America after taking over a Brooklyn mosque, a three-part series reported by Andrea Elliott.

Washington Times columnist Diana West noted: "Both the New York Post and the New York Sun have already pounced on the most egregious flaw of omission: not a mention, in 11,000-plus words, of the day in March 1994 when a man walked out of that same Bay Ridge mosque and, inspired by the anti-Jewish sermon of the day (delivered by a different, unidentified imam), armed himself and opened fire on a van carrying Hasidic Jewish children. Ari Halberstam, 16, was killed. The Times series, as it happened, concluded on the 12th anniversary of his death."

Times Watch commented on one of Elliott's front-page entries, "To Lead the Faithful in a Faith Under Fire."

Elliott opened her March 6, 2006 story with this slant: "The F.B.I. agent and the imam sat across a long wooden table at a Brooklyn youth center last August. Would the imam, the agent asked, report anyone who seemed prone to terrorism? Sheik Reda Shata leaned back in his chair and studied the agent. Nearly a year had passed since the authorities had charged two young men, one of whom prayed at Mr. Shata's mosque, with plotting to blow up the Herald Square subway station in Manhattan. The mosque had come under siege. Television news trucks circled the block. Threats were made. The imam's congregants became angry themselves after learning that a police informer had spent months in their midst."

Here's Elliott's summing-up of the post-9-11 mood, portraying the imam as put-upon: "The competing demands on [Imam Sheik Reda] Shata became plain when he arrived in Bay Ridge about a year after Sept. 11. Crisis gripped the city's Muslim neighborhoods. Law enforcement agents searched businesses and homes, and held hundreds of men for questioning. Women were harassed in the subway. Elementary schools lost Muslim children as their families packed up and left."

Another one-sided snapshot: "The imam now rises to deliver his Friday khutba, or sermon, before rows of young men, some in low-hanging jeans and baseball caps turned backward. Many have come to learn more about their religion so they can defend it at work or at school. Others no longer feel at home elsewhere. They have been passed over for jobs, or stopped and questioned by the authorities too many times."

But deep, deep into the article, under the benign subheading "One Imam, Many Audiences" is the revelation that Shata isn't the ideal Muslim moderate. He supports the anti-Israeli terrorist group Hamas: "Like Arabs around the world, Mr. Shata disagrees profoundly with the United States' steadfast support of Israel, and views the militant group Hamas as a powerful symbol of resistance.

"When Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the founder and spiritual leader of Hamas, was killed by Israelis in March 2004, Mr. Shata told hundreds who gathered at a memorial service in Brooklyn that the 'lion of Palestine has been martyred.'

"Mr. Shata is also acutely aware that the United States classifies Hamas as a terrorist group. In the same speech, he condemned all violence. 'We don't hate Jews,' he recalled saying. 'To kill one man is to kill all mankind.'

"Yet in another sermon, the imam exalted a young Palestinian mother, Reem Al-Reyashi, who blew herself up in 2004 at a crossing point between Gaza and Israel, killing four Israelis. Mr. Shata described the woman as a martyr."

Elliott showed little curiosity about the imam's support of the Hamas terrorists.

"When asked about the speech, Mr. Shata seemed unusually conflicted. He has forged friendships with rabbis in New York - something he never imagined in Egypt. Engaging in a discussion about the Arab-Israeli struggle would invite controversy, he said, both within his mosque and outside it. 'I worry this will cause trouble with my Jewish brothers,' he said. He rarely broaches the topic in sermons and addressed it only reluctantly in interviews."

Elliott's three-part serieshad a muted but disturbing coda. It turned out Sheta left his Brooklyn mosque just three months after the series was published to take a similar position in Middletown, N.J. (Hat-tip to journalist Bill McGowanfor first drawing my attention to this aspect of the story.)

In Elliott's January 2007 follow-up article, one ominous reason why Sheta left Brooklyn is covered in the 26th paragraph. It could well have led the piece, which was benignly titled with typical uplift, "A Cleric's Journey Leads to a Suburban Frontier."

"Mr. Shata missed the city at times. But his relationship with Muslims in Brooklyn had changed after a series of articles about him appeared in The New York Times last March.

"At first, he found himself a minor celebrity. The articles were reprinted in Arabic-language newspapers, both in the United States and the Middle East. Hundreds of strangers reached out to him, seeking advice....But the articles also stirred a controversy Mr. Shata never expected. Many Muslims were shocked to read that the imam thought oral sex was permissible for married couples (even though respected Islamic scholars in the Middle East concurred with his opinion, he said). Others objected to his view that Muslims could sell liquor or pork if they could find no other work.

"One critique of Mr. Shata on a jihadist Web site in England singled out his hometown, Kafr al Battikh, which is known for its watermelons. 'Oh, Allah,' it read, 'preserve Islam and Muslims from the evil people of watermelons.'

"In Bay Ridge, the articles prompted a fistfight outside a Dunkin' Donuts. Fliers warned in Arabic that the imam was 'a devil.'...After weeks of defending himself, Mr. Shata felt worn down."

And threatened by radical Muslims? Elliott doesn't say.