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.
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”.