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Sunday, October 12, 2014

When urban myths meet islamophobia

American journalist Liz Smith once said very aptly that gossip is just news in a red satin dress. Although there is indeed an intimate relationship between rumour and news, it is important to note that rumour can often be a form of fiction that dones the cloak of veracity.

Over the past couple of weeks a story has been featured in social media and email inboxes about a burqa-clad woman chastising a supermarket cashier for supporting Western bombing of Iraq. The most recent posting that came to my attention reached my facebook timeline from a user based in Israel and situated the alleged incident in a small Canadian town. The story sounded suspicious as, since the eviction of the Iraqi army from Kuwait in the first Iraq war, Canada has not been involved in military operations in Iraq and I therefore did some investigation only to find that the story must have been circulating in the internet since as early as 2003, during the early days of the second Iraq war. This original version was set in California, yet soon variants set in other parts of the US, Canada, Britain and Australia appeared.

The 'Canadian' version I received goes like this:
A Muslim woman dressed in a Burkha (a black gown & face mask) was standing with her shopping in a queue at the checkout. When it was her turn to be served, and as she reached the cashier, she made a loud remark about the Canadian Flag lapel pin which the female cashier was wearing on her blouse. The cashier reached up and touched the pin and said, ‘Yes, I always wear it proudly. My son serves abroad with the forces and I wear it for him. The Muslim woman then asked the cashier when she was going to stop bombing and killing her countrymen explaining that she was Iraqi.At that point an elderly gentleman standing in the queue stepped forward and interrupted with a calm and gentle voice, and said to the Iraqi woman, ‘Excuse me, but hundreds of thousands of Canadian men and women, just like this lady’s son have fought and sacrificed their lives so that people just like YOU can stand here in Canada, which is MY country, and allow you to blatantly accuse an innocent check-out cashier of bombing YOUR countrymen. It is my belief that if you were allowed to be as outspoken as that in Iraq, which you claim to be YOUR country, then we wouldn’t need to be fighting there today. However – now that you have learned how to speak out and criticize the Canadian people who have afforded you the protection of MY country, I will gladly pay the cost of a ticket to help you pay your way back to Iraq. When you get there, and if you manage to survive for being as outspoken as what you are here in Canada, then you should be able to help straighten out the mess which YOUR Iraqi countrymen have got you into in the first place, which appears to be the reason that you have come to MY country to avoid.’Apparently the queue cheered and applauded…share this if you applaud as well!

The narrative is simple. The Iraqi woman wears a burqa, a frequent marker of Muslim 'alterity' that also carries with it connotations of secrecy, misogynism and unwillingness of Muslim migrants or refugees to integrate in the West. 
Indeed, the story makes a lot out of the audacity of the Muslim woman who criticizes the Canadian cashier for wearing a patriotic symbol on her blouse - typical of the attitude of the ungrateful Muslims who settle in the West as we are led to believe later on. The capitalization of the possessive pronouns MY and YOUR serves as a means of clear demarcation of boundaries and a reminder of who is 'out of place' while the eagerness of the offer to repatriate the rude Iraqi woman by paying for her ticket (in other versions of the story the bystanders take their wallets out and start collecting money) completes the logical sequence embedded in the narrative: as Muslims not only refuse to integrate but are intolerant of our way of life they need and deserve to be repatriated.

The internet, and social media in particular, provide fertile ground for the spread of unsubstantiated rumours, mythologies of fear and hatred that reinforce stereotypes and prejudice. Racist groups like Britain First as well as their extremist Israeli counterparts have proved very adept in the manufacture of such stories and encoding them with their own messages of exclusion. 

This new industry of hatred is very sophisticated. It is based on an extensive network of websites that replicate the very same message, picture or story to the point that the boundaries of fiction and reality become muddled. The sense of immediacy of the internet, the multitude of sources that attest to the veracity of such reports give rise to a realm of superreality where misrecognition and prejudice become normalized, where an alternative truth is constructed. Once doubt about the veracity of a particular story is eliminated, the rumour becomes news thanks to a variety of like minded media outlets that thrive through the propagation of outrage and sensationalism.
A case in point is a picture from a Shiite Ashura procession that shows two women dressed in black chadors, leading a line of little girls shrouded completely in black, their faces unseen, and their hands tied together in chains.The chained girls are performing a reenactment of the aftermath of the battle of Karbala where the granddaughter of the prophet was brought chained to the Caliph in Damascus. The photograph, decontextualized, was posted extensively in social media with the false and misleading caption 'This is what Islam is about: Muslim girls being lead off in chains to meet their new husbands'. After some investigation, I realized that this piece of 'news' was manufactured by Britain first, a virulently islamophobic and racist group that sustains itself by propagating fear. The trail of the story went through a number of affiliated websites and facebook accounts that provided a critical mass that 'guaranteed' the credibility of the message and provided a springboard for its mass dissemination. But the coup de grâce is provided by the synergies between the 'disreputable' Britain First, or the various European 'Defence Leagues' and well known US conservative radio hosts who lend their 'gravitas' and 'respectability' to this industry of falsification and prejudice by reproducing such rumours into their shows and other relevant activities. The picture above comes from the website of Bill Bennett's Morning in America. It has been 'lifted' from the seedy confines of the extreme right cyberspace and vested with the 'credibility' of 'one of America's best-selling author and Reagan Education Secretary', the respectable redneck William J. Bennett. Even if this type of osmosis is not the product of intent but of an (unlikely) innocent yet monumental journalistic blunder, the fact remains that urban legends like this are resonant, mobilize people's misconceptions and anxieties and confirm their prejudices in a way that is hard to confront. They can be the breeding ground of the virulent politics that undermine coexistence and interaction, that alienate Muslims in the West and that feed the desperation and determination that pushes people to the lethal embrace of both racist extremism and islamic fundamentalism.

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