There’s a saying in Italian, Se non è vero, è ben trovato, that is understood across most cultures. The lesson it seeks to impart, however, is not well appreciated. The saying, translated, is “Even if it’s not true, it’s a good story”. That is, the story confirms the biases of the hearer and speaker alike.

Such is the case with the ‘news story’ that alleged a Saudi cleric, Sheikh Mohammad Al-Arifi, had issued a fatwa in late December authorizing Sunni fighters in the Syrian civil war to rape non-Sunni Muslim women. [Actually, the issue was short-term marriages, not rape, but whatever...] The story confirmed the dreads of several noted Islamophobes, but also caught up some usually reputable media outlets like Alternet.

The story was later revealed to be a piece of propaganda put out by the Iranian PressTV.com in an attempt to malign Saudi Arabia and Sunni Islam in general. Alternet published a retraction that reflections on the point that if you don’t know a subject, any malign comment is believable. It therefore helps to have some understanding of subject before you go spouting off about it, or even repeating rumors.

Exhibit A in How an Islamophobic Meme
Can Spread Like Wildfire Across the Internet

The apparently fabricated story of a Saudi cleric issuing a fatwa condoning gang rapes in Syria is an object lesson in the pitfalls of breakneck online journalism.

Editor’s note: On January 2, AlterNet was one of several outlets that published what turned out to be an article based on a false report. We apologize to our readers for the error.

On January 2, the story of a Saudi sheikh issuing a fatwa that condoned “intercourse marriage” or gang rape in Syria exploded over the Internet.

According to various sources, Sheikh Mohammad Al-Arifi stated that foreign fighters in Syria had the right to engage in short-term marriages to satisfy their sexual desires and boost their determination to fight against the Assad regime. Syrian girls and women from age 14 upward were considered fair game and apparently secured their own place in heaven if they participated in these “intercourse marriages.”

There are other moral lessons to be learned from this failure, of course. As Alternet points out, the rush to break news stories — or at least to not be left in the dust — ends up with reporters and writers using less caution than they should.

Another is that the sources of news stories must be considered. Any news story with a negative view of Sunni Islam coming out of PressTV needs to be taken warily. Similarly, stories coming from Sunni (or Christian, or Jewish) sources need to be held at arms length when they comment negatively about Iran or Shi’ism. Just because these sources say it is so, doesn’t make it so. Readers must be aware of their own prejudices and biases so that they don’t fall into the trap of believing stories that are “just too good to check”.


January:04:2013 - 07:09 | Comments & Trackbacks (10) | Permalink
10 Responses to “Trapped by Biases”
  1. 1
    Jerry M Said:
    January:04:2013 - 12:22 

    All news sources are a biased. Anyone who reads presstv.ir should be able to spot what is wrong with the articles. There is an article today (http://www.presstv.ir/detail/2013/01/03/281591/us-dollar-to-collapse-in-2013-analyst/) quoting an ‘economist’, claiming the US dollar will collapse. Their ‘economist’ is Max Keiser (who isn’t a trained economist if I can judge by wikipedia’s entry). Given the amount of unsourced material on the internet, the problem is huge. The only reliable thing to do is not to believe outrageous claims until their are multiple independent sources.

  2. 2
    John Burgess Said:
    January:04:2013 - 13:13 

    You’re right, but it also depends on a) whether a source is even noted and b) whether a consumer has any idea of a source’s biases.

    Sadly, people don’t do a lot of checking on sources. That the expression “Too good to be true” in its various language forms has been around for centuries indicates that it’s not a new problem.

  3. 3
    Jerry M Said:
    January:04:2013 - 15:19 

    Sometimes things are reported that are probably true but made into an issue when there is none. For example from this site:http://www.radicalislam.org/analysis/islamization-france-2012: “The exposé broadcast by France 2 television on February 16 also alleged that much of the religiously slaughtered meat known as halal is not labeled as such and is entering the general food chain, where it is being unwittingly consumed by the non-Muslim population.”

    If you are a non-Muslim why should you care if someone is selling part of his halal production as just meat to the non-observant? It is after all, meat.

  4. 4
    Dakota Said:
    January:04:2013 - 17:19 

    Jerry, there is some biblical injunction (Paul, I think) against eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols. On the other hand, the Bible also points out that it is not what goes into the mouth that is unclean, but what comes out of it–lies, malicious talk, etc!

    I know some Christians in Ethiopia who will not eat meat at all unless they buy it themselves, not knowing what ritual it has been slaughtered with, fearing that Moslims have “done something with it”. But I know Christians in Jordan who will not eat anything but halal meat, saying the quality is higher because the blood is drained during slaughter.

    I myself have been waiting in vain for a religious ban on mlooheeya. :)

  5. 5
    Jerry M Said:
    January:04:2013 - 18:19 

    @dakota

    When I was a child many people I knew (mostly Catholic) purchased kosher chickens because they were presumed to be higher in quality (and halal slaughter is similar to kosher slaughter except that in halal they pronounce the name of god when killing the animal). As far a halal meat, in the past most Christians would not regard that as being sacrificed to idols.

    The anti Muslim brigade has made people super sensitive to the appearance of any Muslim practice, so I assume that this would be regarded as wrong to some even though there has never been any theological reason not to eat halal meat (I am speaking about Christianity. I know that Orthodox Jews would probably not eat halal meat if they could avoid it).

  6. 6
    Jerry M Said:
    January:04:2013 - 18:32 

    When I read the part of 1 Corinthians about meat sacrificed to idols Paul seems to be equivocating. He starts out by saying that the idols have no real existence. Like most parts of the bible it can be interpreted in a few ways. It seems to be saying that if being seen to eat such meat gives others the appearance of sin, then we must not eat it, but otherwise it is just meat.

    Again since Allah is really just the Arab name for the God of the Bible, there is no sacrifice to a false god, so it is ok even for the overly scrupulous.

    I know many Christians for political reasons want to deny that Allah = God but it is simply a fact. Whatever the derivation of the word Allah, the stories of the Koran come from the same root as the stories of the Bible. One might wish to regard Muhammed as a heretic but he was not an idoloter.

  7. 7
    John Burgess Said:
    January:05:2013 - 06:39 

    @Jerry M: The same meme of fear is at large in the US as well. There have been campaigns trying to boycott Butterball brand turkeys, for instance, because their slaughter is halal. When I lived in Tunis in 1981, the most popular butchers in the city — and the ones with the best real estate — were all Kosher butchers, freely noting their status with Hebrew signage on their shops.

  8. 8
    Dakota Said:
    January:06:2013 - 08:53 

    Jerry, the Kosher seems to be popular with everyone. Where I used to live, the Moslems patronized Jewish butchers for years before they had their own halal shops.

  9. 9
    Niels Christensen Said:
    January:07:2013 - 17:18 

    Jerry, there is one problem here. Often slaughterhouses who want the meat approved as Halal pay
    a sum to an imam or a muslim organization. Why should I as a christian approve this ?

  10. 10
    John Burgess Said:
    January:07:2013 - 19:56 

    @Niels: Why do we have to pay a company’s marketing expenses?

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