Have you heard the one about how Christians are being nailed up on crucifixes and left to die in front of the Egyptian presidential place?
It’s a story worth dissecting — not because it’s true (it isn’t), but because it is a textbook example of how the Internet, once thought to be the perfect medium of truth-seeking, has been co-opted by culture warriors as a weapon to fire up the naïve masses with lies and urban legends.
The Egyptian crucifixion story gained critical mass five days ago, when WorldNetDaily, a popular right-wing web site that promotes anti-gay and anti-Muslim conspiracy theories from an Evangelical perspective, published a story entitled “Arab Spring run amok: [Mulsim] Brotherhood starts crucifixions.”
“The Arab Spring takeover of Egypt by the Muslim Brotherhood has run amok, with reports from several different media agencies that the radical Muslims have begun crucifying opponents of newly installed President Mohammed Morsi,” author Michael Carl declared. “Middle East media confirm that during a recent rampage, Muslim Brotherhood operatives ‘crucified those opposing Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi naked on trees in front of the presidential palace while abusing others.’ ”
The article quickly went viral. It has been tweeted thousands of times, and has 14,000 Facebook “likes.” Education is apparently no defence against this sort of web-peddled nonsense: Some of the people who credulously sent me a link to the article in recent days included an Ivy League-educated U.S. lawyer, and a former Canadian Senator. Britain’s Daily Mail reported the story, as did thousands of blogs.
It is, of course, theoretically possible that Muslim radicals truly have “crucified” someone, somewhere, sometime, in Egypt. Islamist mobs have staged countless murderous attacks on Copt “infidels” in recent years — and a crucifixion would hardly be a more barbarous tactic than truck bombs and beheadings.
But the story doesn’t just allege that a crucifixion has taken place somewhere in Egypt: It alleges that multiple crucifixions have taken place in front of the presidential palace. That would be the equivalent of, say, mass lynchings taking place in front of the White House, or a giant gang rape taking place in front of Ottawa’s Centennial Flame fountain.
“If that happened, wouldn’t someone, you know, take a picture?” I asked one of the friends who emailed me the WorldNetDaily link. Maybe just a few shots with a cell phone camera from one of the tens of thousands of people who no doubt would have witnessed this Biblical horror in one of the most densely trafficked patches of real estate in the entire Arab world?
And yet, not one of the stories I saw had a photo — or even names or descriptions of any of the supposed crucifixion victims. So I decided to check out the “several different media agencies” that supposedly have reported the crucifixion story.
WorldNetDaily, and other sites that are reporting the story, all trace the claim of multiple Arabic sources to a Jewish web site called algemeiner, which has published its own highly-trafficked article on the subject, and to something called The Investigative Project on Terrorism. Like the cited Arabic sources, they in turn base their claims on reports from Sky News Arabic — a recently formed joint venture between BSkyB and Abu Dhabi Media Investment Corp. Sky is supposedly the original source on the story, everyone agrees. Yet neither algemeiner nor WND nor any of the other sources supply the original Sky reporting that purportedly outlines the facts.
That’s because there is no Sky report on the subject.
Yesterday I contacted the management of Sky News Arabic, and asked them about the crucifixions. According to Fares Ghneim, a Sky communications official, the crucifixion claim “began on social media. It started getting pick-up from there and eventually reached us.”
“Our reporters came across reports of the alleged crucifixions and a story very briefly appeared on the Sky News Arabia website,” he added. “The story — which was taken down within minutes — was based on third-party reports and I am not aware that any of our reporters said or confirmed anything along the lines of what is quoted in the article [by WorldNetDaily] … What’s unclear is where websites in North America got [the] Sky News Arabia bit from. As mentioned [previously], none of our correspondents confirmed this issue or commented on it. Clearly there is an intermediate source the websites got the info from, but as of yet we haven’t been able to identify it.”
Nevertheless, web surfers already had begun sourcing the story to Sky, at which point it went viral in portions of the Arabic media, and then on U.S. Christian web sites, and pro-Israel blogs. And thus was born an Internet urban legend. (Update: In response to my article, WND has posted a new article claiming they have confirmed the original Sky report — but the only relevant new evidence produced is an obscure Youtube video produced by a third party, which purports to reproduce text from the deleted Sky web story).
Enter the terms Brotherhood crucifying 2012 into Google and you get numerous hits, the most prominent being the articles I have discussed in this column. Every single one of them swallows this made-up story whole. Indeed, some are even more emphatic than the original WorldNetDaily story, such as a well-trafficked Free Republic headline that claims, plainly, “Muslim Brotherhood Are Crucifying People.”
Such sites also have carried other nonsense articles about the Muslim Brotherhood, such as that it plans to blow up the pyramids — which the New York Times thankfully took pains to debunk back in July. Yet till now, no one (that I can tell) has taken the time to investigate or debunk the crucifixion tale, even though it only took a few emails to Sky to show that it was bunk. (Ordinary Egyptians also could have helped debunk the story. Here’s how one Copt put it in an email to WorldNetDaily: “I am an Egyptian Coptic Orthodox, i.e. Egyptian Christian, my mother and members of my family live within a stone throw from the presidential palace. I talk to my mother every other day. If something like what you mentioned in your article took place, she [would] be the first one to know.”)
Why do so many people believe this made up story? For the same reason that people believe all urban legends — because they play to some deeply held narrative that resides in our deepest fears. In this case, the narrative is that the Arab Spring is part of an orchestrated Islamist plot to destroy Western civilization (beginning with Israel). Believers in this narrative (who are especially numerous in America’s right-wing Evangelical circles) are so hungry for news items that purport to offer confirmation that they ignore the credibility of the messengers. If they had checked out the credibility of WorldNetDaily, for instance, they would have found that the site’s past “scoops” have included the claim that drinking soy milk makes you gay, and that Barack Obama himself is gay (presumably from aforesaid soy milk).
As James Callaghan once put the old adage, “a lie can be halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on.” He was British PM back in the 1970s, decades before the Internet expedited the process. These days, the truth doesn’t even bother rousing itself from bed. It just turns over its sleep, and puts a pillow over its exposed ear to drown out the nonsense from the world’s web-enabled conspiracists.
AUGUST 24 UPDATE Earlier this week, I debunked the story — spreading like wildfire on WorldNetDaily and other Internet sites — that Christians were being crucified by the Muslim Brotherhood in front of Egypt’s presidential palace. As I noted, the story was based on nothing more than a social-media rumor that had been posted for a few minutes on the Web site of Sky News Arabic, before an alert Sky editor deleted it. From that small seed of nonsense, it traveled far and wide, as such urban legends do in the Internet age.
In response to my debunking, WorldNetDaily published a new article purporting to “confirm” the original crucifixion story. But the only relevant new evidence WND provides is a link to a video that purports to show the deleted text from the Sky web site. Since I already reported the existence of the original, short-lived Sky article, I’m not sure what this is supposed to prove. (More generally, the article also supplies links to Arabic-media images of people who have been brutalized — allegedly at the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. I have no reason to doubt that these photos are genuine. But as I made abundantly clear in my original article, I don’t dispute that Egypt’s hardcore Islamists are a nasty lot. My article was limited to debunking the crucifixion claim. And none of the photos provided show any hint of crucifixion.)
Over the last day or so, I have had an ongoing email correspondence with Michael Carl, the WND reporter who wrote the crucifixion article. He tells me he is sticking by his story. When I asked him if he has “any information from any of the tens of thousands of people who would have seen an actual ‘crucifixion’ if one really did take place in front of the presidential palace,” he told me that he had. Tantalized, I pressed him for details. Alas, he refused to divulge any of the evidence to me — or anyone else. If he did, he explained, the Muslim Brotherhood “would kill my sources.” And so ended our correspondence.
More enlightening than my emails with Father Carl (he describes himself as a priest, as well as a reporter), was a note I got from a reader pointing out that this is not the first time that Islamists in the region have been falsely accused of crucifixions.
As Nathan J. Brown pointed out in early 2009, on the web site of the Carnegie Endowment, an internet rumor circulated in late 2008 to the effect that Hamas was “celebrating” Christmas by crucifying Gaza’s non-Muslims. And amazingly, it wasn’t just the conspiracy theorists at WND who got sucked into this one. According to Brown, it was featured in blogs connected to such respectable publications as The New Republic, National Review and Commentary. Even the Simon Wiesenthal Center was pushing the story.
Here is the real story, as Brown describes it:
Some officials of the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Justice (answering to Hamas) have been drafting a new criminal code based on Islamic criminal law. They have not released its work (at least outside of Gaza), but they did hold a workshop to discuss a draft. A copy of this document fell into the hands of a reporter for the Arabic daily al-Hayat. While that newspaper is generally reliable enough, the reporter made a significant mistake: He thought the draft had been fully and finally passed by the parliament, not that it was the subject of a small group discussion. And he quoted from some passages in the law — including the title of a section dealing with categories of punishment that mentioned crucifixion (a legal category in Islamic criminal law). There was no evidence that the law went beyond using the term as a legal category. And since the reporter did quote some fairly strong provisions in other areas it seems unlikely that he would have missed the opportunity to mention any actual provisions for crucifixion. The small (and mistaken) article in al-Hayat was picked up by the Jerusalem Post (it also circulated in some Arabic media outlets) which — in perhaps the only glimmer of responsible journalism in this strange episode — added that it could not confirm the report. But that qualification got lost. So did the explanation from Hamas legal officials that no law had been passed. One Israeli activist working hard to circulate the charge (Itamar Marcus) actually went so far as to cover up his mistake by claiming that the Hamas denial (which was actually quite accurate) was simply a “lie” … And so columnists (generally on the right side of the political spectrum) began to claim that Hamas had legislated crucifixion — in the more lurid report — for any “unbelievers,” “enemies of Islam,” or even Christians. And few could resist mentioning that the timing coincided with Christmas.
The people reporting this false story were not deliberately lying. As I noted in my original post, they have simply become so wrapped up in the idea that we are fighting an existential war against militant Islam, that they are willing to believe any nonsense story they come across without checking it. If it sounds like it could be true, then it must be.
The first casualty of war, as always, is truth.
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