False by design: More than bad journalism

While it was not surprising that rabblerousing websites such as RadicalIslam.org or India’s Daily.bhaskar.com disseminated false reports that a well-known Saudi cleric issued a fatwa encouraging sexually frustrated rebels in Syria to gang-rape Syrian women, it was very surprising that Salon.com, and similarly well-reputed Alternet.org, were quick to publish this story as well, although they subsequently issued retractions and apologies as well. What can explain these two respected websites’ lapse in editorial judgment?

 
One of the unheralded allies of the American-Muslim community in recent years has been the editorial staff at Salon.com. They have been known to publish articles calling out politicians for exploiting and inciting Islamophobia, and provide aggressive push back to hate speech. In addition, Salon.com is where Glenn Greenwald, who now works for “The Guardian,” made a name for himself highlighting the civil liberties issues facing Muslims in America and attacking false claims made about Muslim countries by warmongers. So, while it was not surprising that rabblerousing websites such as RadicalIslam.org or India’s Daily.bhaskar.com disseminated false reports that a well-known Saudi cleric issued a fatwa encouraging sexually frustrated rebels in Syria to gang-rape Syrian women, it was very surprising that Salon.com, and similarly well-reputed Alternet.org, were quick to publish this story as well, although they subsequently issued retractions and apologies as well What can explain these two respected websites’ lapse in editorial judgment?

Among the predilections of the human mind is its fascination with the absurd. We often feign disbelief and disgust when sharing an example of human depravity and stupidity, but our glee is difficult to hide. Indeed, both people and the news media will suspend logic regularly for the pipe dream of having come across a story that is sure to horrify the listener. Our desire for outrageous stories coupled with the sad reality is that news outlets, in order to make a profit, have as much imperative to be shocking as they do to be accurate makes for a dangerous mix. Add the fact that we live in a world framed by the “war on terror” and you have an even more disastrous cocktail.

Among the most effective mechanisms to ensure that the people remain complacent in the face of a mounting American servicemen/women death toll has been to plant a fear in the American conscience of the “Islamic radical”. Even the conscientious fact checker is likely to believe in the fanatical Muslim boogieman. For the American-Muslim though it is not only a matter of religious pride that this caricature not be tolerated. As American citizens whose military service men and women are committing suicide at a stupefying rate, and whose drones are the cause of Muslim civilian deaths on a regular basis, it is imperative that American-Muslims recognize the role such reports play in preparing the American psyche for war against Muslim countries. For example, when President George H.W. Bush was seeking public support for the first Gulf War, there emerged a tale of Iraqi forces yanking babies out of incubators in Kuwait. This horrifying story became a key piece of evidence in galvanizing support for military action. Of course some years later, when facts were finally checked, it emerged that the key witness to this tale was a member of the Kuwaiti royal family who was brazenly lying.

Fast-forward 20 odd years and here we have a shocking story of a famous Saudi cleric giving the green light to aggressive Syrian rebels to gang-rape Syrian women. When the facts are double checked and the sources questioned again, the story crumbles, leaving the news outlets to sheepishly apologize. What is important to note here is that this “news” finding its way onto reputable, award-winning websites is not simply a function of rampant Islamophobia. That is only the first layer; the practical implications of such phony stories reach back to a concerted effort by attention-seeking sensationalists and various segments of the defense, intelligence, oil industries to maintain the American public’s readiness for perpetual warfare against Muslim countries by painting Muslims as the evil “other.”

It should of course embarrass and concern Muslims that a story about a well-known scholar sanctioning rape fooled even comparatively progressive websites such as Salon.com. Such falsities only have legs to stand on because of the many instances where Muslims have failed to treat women with the respect their faith commands them to.

We can glean lessons on multiple fronts from this phony story. As consumers of news, we must make sure that our attention is not disproportionately tilted towards the rare and absurd, so that the news is less dependent on the traffic from such stories. The war machine has utilized these stories in the past, and will keep using such techniques until the public catches on. Few readers read retractions, and disseminators of false information are well aware of this. And while not every report of Muslim struggles with gender issues is grounded in reality, nonetheless our communities must work towards expunging pseudo-religiously sanctioned violence against women. The believability of stories such as the one recently published should serve as a reminder of how far we have to go.

 
Abrar Qadir is a recent graduate from Georgetown University Law Center. Abrar maintains a regular blog at Punjabi Refill.

 

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