In Brazil: A Muslim School Shooter? A correspondent reflects on reporting on Islam in a post 9/11 world

RIO DE JANEIRO – Early on April 7, 2011, in a worn-out neighborhood far from the downtown carnival and beaches of Rio de Janeiro, a 24-year-old who lived alone put two pistols in his belt. Wellington Menezes de Oliveira entered his blanching former grade school and picked off pre-teen girls. “I’m going to kill you. It won’t help to run,” a witness recalled him saying.

That the massacre of 10 young girls and two boys would resonate abroad as the latest case of Islamic extremism was not what I expected as I joined the crowd of journalists and still-stunned witnesses at the scene.

Vitor Abdala, a friend and Brazilian reporter, was the first to tell me in front of the school’s gates that local media was beginning to say the shooter was a Muslim convert.

My snap judgment? Of course someone would say that, like they had already said he had AIDs. I had a looming deadline and didn’t think much about what seemed to be an aberrant and hysterical Islamophobic rumor.

That’s why I was surprised when, after filing my first piece and returning on the long quivering train road home, I began to see the comments on my report: “The guy was a[n] Islamic terrorist. His sister said he was a convert to Islam. And Rio’s police commander said he left a letter saying he was doing that for the glory of Allah. Another Muslim killing children.”

“Brazil shooting puts spotlight on Islamists… again, as usual, the media is silent or blames inanimate objects. The gun did not jump up and suddenly start shooting by itself.”

“What they haven’t or won’t tell you is the guy is a recent dabbler and convert to Islam. … This must remain mum and don’t tell anyone.”

I know that online comments serve at best as a forum for educated debate and at worst as an anonymous board to goad other news watchers with the opinions we don’t want to attach our names to. But nonetheless, the frequency of comments on Islam alarmed me.

Many Brazilian and foreign reporters had either included little or nothing on the rumor, such as I had. However, the New York Times was a rare outlet to devote space to it, citing “a longtime neighbor and former member of Mr. Oliveira’s church” who said the shooter “had been a lifelong Jehovah’s Witness before turning to Islam two years ago.” It also noted that de Oliveira’s cryptic and largely incoherent writings asked for a burial that seemed to reflect aspects of Islamic traditions, though he also asked Jesus for forgiveness.

An older sister of de Oliveira gave a radio interview soon after the shooting, saying that “he spent a lot of time on the computer, he spoke often unintelligible things about Islam and had let his beard grow.” The rabble-rousing news magazine Veja would claim days later to have excerpts of letters written by the shooter, saying that he spent “some four hours a day reading the Koran” and that “sometimes I meditate on 9/11.”

Had it been another characteristic – be it that he was active in the divisive and massively popular Universal Church or had links to organized crime – other reporters and I would have likely considered these statements notable and credible enough to include in our pieces.

That’s why looking back, I started to ask myself: Was it different in this case? What is the responsibility of a reporter in a post-9/11 world, where Islamic extremism and Islamophobia is the stuff of daily news, now, apparently, even in the wornout schools fringing Rio de Janeiro?

I put that question to several others who faced it with me in the days of chaotic media after the shooting, Brazil’s first such school massacre.

My seasoned reporter friend Vitor, for one, simply consulted his editor and asked if she would like him to pursue confirming the shooter’s links to Islam. They decided it wasn’t important.

“After seeing my colleagues trying to report and confirm that rumor, I thought about how the Brazilian press is ruled by the behavior of the foreign press (especially the American and European, where terrorism practiced by Muslims is a real concern),” he later wrote me when I asked him what he thought of my judgment at the time. “It’s not religion that kills people. Those who kill are mentally unstable people who make evil use of religions. Also, the case in Realengo was an isolated case. I think the religious issue would become important if we started to notice several cases of murder or terrorism practiced by ‘Islamic radicals’ within Brazil.”

However, Suzana Singer, ombudsman for Brazil’s Folha de Sao Paulo, defended reporters’ inclusion of statements – such as those by the shooter’s sister – linking de Oliveira with Islam, though she agreed it was over-emphasized in the local media.

“I think that by the time his sister says this, the newspaper has to register it,” she told me, adding that Islam in particular does deserve particular delicacy in today’s political climate. “You have to be careful because, like you said, there is a shadow over this and any news can increase this prejudice. … It exists, not just with Islam, but with Evangelical [Christians] – people think they’re very radical.” It was the first time a national event had created suspicion with Islam in Brazil, she notes.

I also consulted Brazilian Sheikh Jihad Hassan Hammadeh, the vice president of the Sao Bernardo do Campo-based WAMY who, after the shooting, participated in an ecumenical service in front of the school. I had met Sheikh Hammadeh in the WAMY offices in Sao Paulo months before and was personally impressed with him as a public figure who goes out of his way to speak with Brazilian media. He told me that the emphasis on Islam after the massacre indeed led to harassment of women wearing hijab. He attributed the emphasis on the shooter’s sister’s vague statements about Islam to opportunistic journalists who were looking for new facts in a case that dominated the Brazilian papers for days.

“I believe that some journalists were totally irresponsible in search of a hole, a new fact. They ended up acting irresponsibly,” Sheikh Hammadeh said.

I wish I could agree with him. But after seeing how the news spreads in unforeseeable and twisted ways, I changed my mind from the snap judgment I made at the shooting site. I indeed should have included a line in my piece – one that would have emphasized the chaotic environment of rumors circulating at the scene and how this one on Islam fit within it. Having not done so, I left room for the growing body of skeptics to imagine something larger than was actually there. The mainstream media faces accusations of walking on politically correct eggshells and shielding Islam, which opens space and readership for skeptical, right-wing bloggers and writers – such as the ones cited in the manifesto of the accused Norway mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik. While I had thought I would feed hysteria by including a mention of Islam in my reporting, I believe now that I fed it more when I said nothing. We are in a delicate time that demands frank debate. In a post-9/11 world, the reality is that even in a shooting on the gritty outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, a rumor of Islam will indeed make its way around the world. The best we reporters can do is explain it. §

Taylor Barnes is the annual recipient of the Inter American Press Association scholarship in Rio de Janeiro. She writes for the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy and Miami Herald, among other publications.

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    Taylor Barnes

    Taylor Barnes is a freelance journalist based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

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