Archive for the ‘Specific Discussion’ Category

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Believable Fiction as a Beacon in the Fog of War: Easy Falsehoods and ‘the Islamic State’

In General Discussion,Specific Discussion on July 28, 2014 by tinfoilturban Tagged: , , , , , , ,

Bismillah iRahmen iRaheem

Asalaamu Alaykum Wa Rahmetullahi Wa Baraketahu

More than a year ago I wrote regarding the Syria conflict that ‘when a narrative appeals to you, that is the point at which you must be wary, for we rarely accept unappealing falsehoods, it is those that appeal that slip through the cracks in our incredulity.’

It is an example of a failure of this wariness that spurred me to write another blog post on this much neglected platform.

Today I write about Iraq, and about one of the groups that was made by that conflict, though it existed before. The Islamic State (tIS), the group formerly known as ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) has made, with the aid of a broad coalition of local Sunni tribes, serious gains in the North of Iraq. In the wake of the capture of Mosul the group made the bold move of declaring the Khilafa, ‘crowning’ their leader as ‘Caliph Ibrahim’.

Now I don’t need to tell you, dear brothers and sisters, the appeal that the office of khilafa holds for many Muslims, though many have so far been unimpressed with its tIS manifestation. However this declaration also holds much fear, especially for those whose interests were already in conflict with groups like tIS.

The corollary of this fear has been the spread of appealing falsehoods; news stories that confirm and justify already deeply held anxieties.

As images emerged of churches in Mosul burning, a story of a massive bank heist spread like wildfire. Yet both stories turned out to be entirely false. These tall tales exaggerate and emphasise both the power of tIS and its targeting of Christian communities in Iraq. They gain such purchase because they feed upon that fear, and feed into a narrative around tIS that easily finds confirmation.

The same was true of the recent report that claimed that the Caliph had ordered that ‘FGM’ be carried out upon all female residents of Mosul.

This story was suspicious from the start, to anyone familiar with either tIS’s brand of Islam or with any contact with their supporters. To such people the likely falsehood of such a story was obvious, but our protestations came too late.

It was spread rapidly and published by news organisations from the BBC to the Guardian and al-Arabiya. Pre-existing perceptions of tIS acted as a stand in for evidence, despite calls for scepticism and confirmation.

If one goes on twitter, the occasional person will have their profile picture or avatar punctuated with the letter ‘ن’. This letter is the sound ‘n’ in English, and comes from a report which emerged from Mosul soon after tIS captured the city. The story goes that tIS fighters were marking all the houses of Christians with the letter ‘ن’, which was short for ‘Nasrani’ (Christians) in order to mark them out to be dealt with later.

The origins of the story, as far as I can tell, lays with an announcement by the Patriarch of Baghdad, Mar Raphael Louis Sako, on the 17th of July, which additionally claimed that ‘ر’ (short for ‘Rafiḍah’) marked Shia houses as well.

This image, of minority houses marked upon sectarian lines has much currency in a post-Nazi world. The picture of the Star of David painted upon shops in a ghetto in Germany is an arresting and evocative one. That cultural currency is strikingly illustrated by the aforementioned twitter trend, the image has spread rapidly, and Muslims, Christians and other groups have resoundingly adopted it as symbol of solidarity with Mosul’s Christians.

However how much do we know about the truth behind it? Having asked fighters and tIS supporters alike, one finds little clarity, which brings us to an important point.

tIS isn’t ashamed of what it is. What tied together the stories of Church burnings and FGM was that they were ultimately never confirmed or spread by members or representatives of tIS itself. Yet one finds that they are not at all afraid of spreading the news of those Mosques and Shrines they do destroy, or of the rulings they do enforce in areas they control.

They have, for example, no qualms about issuing details of the ‘jizya’ (tax upon their Christian subjects), issuing ‘urgent clarification’ of its amount and nature. The ‘urgency’ behind the clarification is not clear, but one could well argue that a Christian exodus from tIS controlled areas could have something to do with it.

They also do not shy away from posting publically about their killing. Indeed in a response to a tweet saying exactly that, one of their supporters sent me an image of a severed head…

Accompanied by a smiling emoticon.

While one has to rely on third hand information for much of what occurs on the front lines in Iraq and Syria, when it comes to tIS policies, there is a remarkable amount of clarity, which is pretty easily attained through what is, for such a group, a pretty slick media operation.

When it comes to the marking of Christian houses and an impending genocide against Iraqi Christians, there is little such clarity. Asking members I was met with a number of contrary replies, all of which said it was either rare or faked. Some asserted that it was sprayed on those houses who had paid the jizya (and thus were under the protection of tIS) and others said it indicated empty houses, abandoned by Christians and therefore property of tIS. Early reports of the practice seemed to confirm the latter, but that idea soon vanishes from the reports.

Of course this is not definitive, but what is clear is that the claims of an impending genocide are arguably far exaggerated by media to whom it appears a certainty. Indeed those tIS affiliates I spoke with were eager to argue that they had no problem with the Christians, as long as they paid the tax… and that the option on not paying it was not death, but rather expulsion. The latter claim should be taken with a large grain of salt.

At the beginning of the Iraq war, Mosul’s Christian population numbered between 30 and 50 000, by the beginning of this year, that number was 10 000. Many media outlets now report that almost no Christians remain. Regardless of the realities on the ground, the impression of impending ethnic violence has been sufficient to clear the city of most of its Christian residents. This flight must surely have been enhanced by the writings of the Patriarch of Baghdad who, along with making the claim about ‘ن’, called upon Christians to abandon areas in the control of tIS.

The steady flow of information and misinformation is itself an actor in Iraq and Syria. The impression of tIS’s policies towards minorities is far more effective at ethnic cleansing than any reality. The truth or falsehood of the claim itself remains to be shown, but what remains is that the fog of war obscures much.

 

In such times of uncertainty, relying on the stories we already believe will often only lead us further astray. The desire for a strong, easy, ‘truth’ often outweighs even an experienced reporter’s doubts. In the sake of brevity I have focussed on one ‘muddy’ truth about the situation in Iraq and Syria but there are a multiplicity of similarly curious claims that are thrown out in reports by even the most mainstream of news organisations, many of them contradicted by other reports from the ground.

So scepticism remains an imperative.

I wish you all a blessed Eid, and may Allah bring clarity to us all.

And Allah Knows Best.

 

Note: Shoutout to @naza_kat and @prohairetic on twitter as well as Mohamad Tabbaa on FB for the conversations which spurred this post and their contributions to its form. I would have liked to have footnote it fully but this format is tricky for that and many of my sources, for obvious reasons, are unnamed.

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Ragged Human Edges

In General Discussion,Specific Discussion on March 1, 2012 by tinfoilturban Tagged: , , , , , , , , ,

Bismillah iRahmen iRaheem

Asalaamu Alaykum Wa Rahmetullahi Wa Baraketahu,

😀

I hope this finds you all in the best of health and iman. I would start with an apology for my lack of posts, but since that ends up being what I do every time, I will try and stop it from becoming customary.

Jason Stearns, in his book ‘Dancing in the Glory of Monsters’ about the war in the Congo said the following:

The Congo war had no one cause, no clear conceptual essence that can be easily distilled in a couple of paragraphs. Like an ancient Greek epic, it is a mess of different narrative strands – some historic, some venal, all combined in a narrative that is not straightforward but layered, shifting and incomplete. It is not a war of great mechanical precision but ragged human edges.

That idea, of ragged human edges, is what I wanted to focus on today in talking about the relationship (yet again) of scepticism and politics.

While scepticism defines no particular political ideology, it is an essential tool for anyone who involves themselves in politics, and exists as often a counterpoint to ideology. Ideology is, at the end of the day, about narratives. An informed scepticism is a check to those narratives, a balance for the tendency of ideology to encourage self-deception.

I began to think about this in relation to the book that the quote is from. Stearns discussed how the balance of media coverage, of Africa anyway, was strangely skewed towards conflicts with easily grasped narratives. The Congo, a conflict that has accounted for at least 3 million lives, thousands of rapes and war crimes that makes one numb with horror, received a tiny percentage of the coverage of things like the civil war in Libya or the conflict in Darfur.

This, he argues, is because for those conflicts one can draw out easily recognisable ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. There are the heroic rebels, the genocidal Islamists, the comical dictators and the simple story of a rebellion, or genocide or whatever.

What his point shows is the level to which human beings generally balk from nuance. The conflict in the Congo is not covered because of a conspiratorial menace, but rather because people shy away from things that require a complex understanding; conflicts where the line between perpetrator and victim are constantly shifting, or don’t exist at all.

The reality is that that nuance is the norm, not the exception. Life and politics in general, rather than being about goodies and baddies, is precisely about the ragged human edges. No conflict conforms perfectly to an ideological narrative because such narratives usually stem from self-interest, and such interests usually lead to self delusion.

I have been engaging in discussion relating to Syria of late, and found that the above trend is very much present. One finds two extreme positions, one that wholeheartedly endorses the rebellion, endorses Western intervention and anything else to get rid of Assad. The other swallows the Baathist party line, where the people in Homs are massacring themselves to get sympathy and Assad is the great defender of the Palestinians and without the Baathists the entire Middle East will be conquered by Israel.

I am not on the ground in Homs or Damascus, so what I know of the conflict is always going to be viewed through the lens of a range of biased sources. However what we should instinctively do is question such clear, black and white narratives of the conflict. We must ask ourselves to what extent all the assumptions of either side are required.

Does one have to support intervention to support the Syrian people? Does one have to support Assad to oppose it? Does a fear for what will happen after Assad automatically have to equate to a support of his regime?

Of course interests abound that muddy the waters. Ideology plays a huge role here. Western Leftists naturally like the idea of a socialist hero, standing without support against American imperialism. The idea of a kafir Alawi government oppressing a Sunni majority with the backing of Iran appeals to Sunni /Arab narratives of the Iranian menace. Enthusiastic Westerners love the idea of a popular uprising against a dictator and the Shia can readily view an attack on pseudo-Shia Assad as reinforcing a persecution complex.

When a narrative appeals to you, that is the point at which you must be wary, for we rarely accept unappealing falsehoods, it is those that appeal that slip through the cracks in our incredulity.

This is not a world of easy, pleasant narratives, it is a world of ragged human edges.

I pray that we are all given the sagacity to see truth clear from falsehood, to seek nuance and intellectual conviction.

Keep well til next time!

Walaykum Salaam Wa Rahmetullahi Wa Baraketahu.

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Beware Tinfoil Turban Sprawl!

In General Discussion,Specific Discussion on May 31, 2011 by tinfoilturban Tagged: , , , , , ,

Bismillah iRahmen iRaheem

Asalaamu Alaykum Wa Rahmetullahi Wa Baraketahu 😀

I have on occasion been known to engage in fruitless debates on the internet. The centre of all fruitless debates is YouTube. It was one such debate that got me thinking about this post and prompted the lame title.

I was attempting to point out the problems with the common assumption that the Afghani Taliban are both a US puppet group and inseparable from Al Qaeda. The grand conclusion of the one whom I was debating with was that there was a broad conspiracy involving pretty much all major and minor world powers, Pakistan, Iran, Russia and the United States, all acting with a single goal.

Now the way he came to this conclusion was Tinfoil Turban sprawl. This is where, when one is questioned on a point of a conspiracy, the conspiracy expands to encompass the new point. A perfect example would be the moon landings. A Tinfoil Turbanist will tell you that the moon landings were faked by the United States. In response, I usually ask ‘well if this was the case, surely the Soviet Union would have jumped at the chance to show the world that America lied’.

The conspiracy theorist responds in one of two ways, they either admit that it is a good point and reconsider their position (rare) or they expand the conspiracy to include the Soviet Union (more common). What this does is expand the conspiracy to a top heavy, evidence light position. One is forced to ever expand the conspiracy until it encompasses the entire globe. In the case of the moon landings, it even expands to make the very point of the conspiracy pointless (as the moon landings occurred as part of the ‘Space Race’ with the USSR, something rather pointless if the lizard men control the USSR).

This fact is arguably a blessing and a curse to the sceptical Muslim. It can mean that in discussion, one can use this technique to make a Tinfoil Turbanist expand upon their conspiracy until it becomes unwieldy and impossible to defend, making them recognise the illogicality at the heart of it. The flipside of this is that in my experience, the more an individual extends the conspiracy, the more likely they are to stick to it.

The primary hallmarks of Tinfoil Turban spoil are the use of statements like ‘they are lying to us’ or ‘this is bigger than you know’. Another is the simplification of complex political situations to a single actor with a single motive.

Good luck in your debates brothers and sisters, I am off to think up more sad puns that make use of the ‘urban’ in Turban.

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The Truth about ‘the Jews’.

In Specific Discussion on May 21, 2011 by tinfoilturban Tagged: , , , , , , , ,

Bismillah iRahmen iRaheem

Asalaamu Alaykum Wa Rahmetullahi Wa Baraketahu 😀

‘History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes[1]’ is a quote that ran through my head when I read over some old notes of mine today. I was reading a polemic by a German author about the evils of the Jews and I found myself replacing ‘the Jews’ with ‘the Muslims’ and then re-reading. This was not because I am particularly fond of discrimination, but rather because if one had have made that substitution, the altered article would not have looked out of place on any anti-Muslim website.

What they said about the Jews then, they say about us now. They are a fifth column. Their loyalty is to their religion, not the state. They are part of a conspiracy to Judaize/Islamisize Christian society. They killed Jesus[2].

Okay, maybe not the last one.

The history of the Jewish community in Europe is rife with conspiracy theories that swirled around them, forgeries like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and viscious accusations. They were plotting, always plotting, seeking to undermine the good Christian states of the day. They were deceitful and you could never know their true allegience.

The truth of the matter was nothing so sinister. Jewish communities in Europe varied from semi-autonomous units within society to being subsumed by the greater culture. This was especially the case in Germany, where many Jews converted to Christianity and adopted German culture absolutely. The Jewish communities in Europe were widely persecuted, banned from wearing certain types of clothes, and through discrimination as much as anything else, were often forced to live in ghettos.

The connection between different Jewish communities throughout Europe was such that these links were ripe for the conduct of trade. This led to many Jewish communities being quite wealthy. However the flip side of this was that such wealth never translated to political power. When the state needed money, and wanted to take it from a community no one cared about, they turned to the Jews.

Now I’m sure that no one out there would claim that we Muslims are in some great position of influence in Western societies. One would be rare to find a Muslim claiming any conspiratorial stranglehold on the reins of power. Yet it is disturbingly common that people attribute a similar thing to the Jews, who, like us, ‘the Muslims’, become some monolithic identity in the eyes of the ignorant.

If we do not incline towards believing the conspiracies about ourselves, why do we incline towards believing those about others?

Now I am aware that this new found love of Jewish conspiracies does not occur in a vacuum. The creation of the state of Israel for many indicates the greatest aspect of the nefarious Zionist conspiracy. However any decent look at the history of Zionism will show that the Western states were hardly unwilling puppets in a Zionist plot. The United States for example often was on the other side of disputes between the Arabs and the new Jewish state. Similarly the reason that the Zionist movement had to resort to terrorism against the Brits was based in the fact that the British were no more likely to honour the promises they made to the Zionists as they were to honour the promises they made to the Hashemite Arab leaders.

A second important distinction here is that political influence does not equal conspiracy. Saudi Arabia has political influence in the United States, at least on some level. So does the United Kingdom and even Australia. Does this equal a conspiracy? No. The same is true of Israel. That the United States often sides with Israel has far more to do with shared interests in the region than some shadowy Jewish new world order.

We should not be blinded by the political stance we find ourselves taking on the Falastin issue. One can support the Palestinians in their struggle and reject the ideology of Zionism, without falling headfirst into tinfoil turbanist conspiracies about Zionist plots and the evils of the Jews. Such things damage us more than they help us. The fact that Judaism and Zionism are put forth as inseparable is part of the problem, encouraging this gets us nowhere, nor does believing in unsupported conspiracy theories.

In looking at our fellow Ahlul Qitab, we must take the lessons we can. The Jews in Europe managed to on the whole maintain their religion and their culture despite almost constant pressure by states far less liberal than the ones we live in. What is that if not an example for us? We need to avoid falling for the same tactics that are used against us and be sceptical about the kind of conspiracies that if they were describing Muslims we would laugh and mock.

I hope you are all in the best of health and faith 😀


[1] Attributed to Mark Twain, though not verified.

[2] Alayhis Salaam

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Media Fallibility and OBL

In Specific Discussion on May 18, 2011 by tinfoilturban Tagged: , , , , , , ,

Bismillah iRahmen iRaheem

Asalaamu Alaykum Wa Rahmetullahi Wa Bareketahu 😀
Waking for dhuhr on the Monday of the 2nd of May, I was witness to the unfolding news barrage that surrounded the killing of Osama bin Laden. I then began to brace myself for the coming onslaught.

One of the things that I have learnt is that the birthing place of many a conspiracy is the early coverage of an event. The speculations flew left and right, on Facebook, forums and the blogosphere. As we know, speculation and conspiracy stand hand in hand.

If one asks a Muslim what one of our most common sins are, they are likely to answer that backbiting and slander are pretty high up on the list. I have lost count of the number of talks I have attended upon which ‘guarding one’s tongue’ is the primary focus. One of the many wisdoms behind the prohibition of speculative speech about another person is that if you hear something from somebody else, about somebody else, it is probably wrong. The same is true of much of that which follows a breaking news story.

One can find that as the story progressed, the reports swung wildly, first Osama bin Laden was killed while hiding behind his wife, then he was hiding behind a woman, then another man was killed using a woman as a human shield and finally a woman was killed in the cross fire. Especially in the early moments of a story, information is scarce, and the news media are far from above speculation. Unfortunately, this gives rise to many reports which are later shown to be wildly inaccurate. The sceptical mind looks upon such things as a natural function of the media, who are after all, not God, and more than capable of error. It is in this error and wild inaccuracies lay the roots of many a conspiracy theory.

A prime example of this would be the oft cited 9/11 conspiracy theory that one of the hijackers was alive and well, days after the 9/11 attacks. This is based upon a news report focussing upon a single person, who shared a name with one of the people identified as a hijacker. Despite the article being later corrected, and the story being shown to be a mistake, the misconception remains.

The same is often true of other conspiracies, things like UFO reports and other strange phenomena are reported uncritically by some sources, and then later adopted by conspiracy theorists as proof. What this all highlights is that the sceptic must be wary of the dangers of uncritically accepting news reports, especially when they occur moments after an event. A proper evaluation of an incident only comes with time. The best approach is to remain patient and reserve judgement until more is known about an incident. It is an unwise person who jumps to conclusions before all the facts are known.

My apologies for the short post and the lateness in posting, I have been busy over the last few weeks and I thought I should type something up before motivation departs entirely. Keep well insha’Allah.