x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Fake fatwas and false news, all to give Muslims a bad reputation

"News" stories about "crazy" Muslims are often perpetuated by those who wish to further a particular agenda. It's easy these days to send something viral and the crazier the story, the more people believe it.

A small group in Tunisia is supposedly upset with one of the nation's Olympians.

Oussama Mellouli, a swimmer who won gold in the men's marathon swimming in London, drank water in public during Ramadan. His compatriots, so news stories claimed, suggested he should be killed for his disrespect.

Such a story is baffling - it seems extreme as a response, particularly as there are plenty of exemptions from fasting. And then we ask the real question: is this story actually true? In this case the groups that are accused have said that calls for violence are not true.

Such non-stories fill newspapers constantly. There was a cleric who pronounced that Muslim women should not eat cucumbers in public for fear of indecency. There was the story of an Ikea-sponsored mosque.

One story said that the Prophet Mohammed supposedly forbade people from eating tomatoes because they are "Christian". And did you know that Muslims in the city of Birmingham had a share of the responsibility for eradicating Christmas?

There is one thing these stories have in common: all are fabricated. And yet they are perpetuated by those who wish to further a particular agenda of how "crazy" or "extreme" Muslims are. It's easy these days to send something viral and the crazier the story, the more people believe it.

The infamous cucumber fatwa turned out to be by an unnamed sheikh in an unnamed country, which the publication editor admitted could not be verified and should not have run. The tomato story came from a fringe Egyptian group and was unsourced.

The Christmas story was about a local authority that wanted a catch-all name for a range of events spanning several weeks. And the Ikea story was created by a Muslim as a spoof. Muslims saw the humour, but Islamophobes did not, and threatened to boycott the Swedish furniture chain.

Of course there is no denying many such stories contain a kernel of truth. But in a global population of 1.8 billion people there are bound to be a few Muslims who have crackpot ideas. The plan should be to quash the crazies and amplify the sensible. But press coverage and agenda-pushers prefer to do the opposite.

So many of the non-incidents that are given media coverage are insignificant and come from such minority voices they can only be called "manufactured controversy".

Take last week's case in the UK of the first episode of a sitcom featuring a Muslim family. The general Muslim opinion was that it was stereotypical, outdated and just bad comedy.

But the response the Muslim community is accused of having is to be outrageously offended by absolutely everything. So that's the story that one of the country's right wing newspapers, the Daily Mail, decided to go with, after fewer than one one hundredth of one per cent of the country's Muslims complained.

I hope the media discourse becomes more balanced and avoids amplifying these minority voices. In the meantime there are glimmers of hope from mainstream Muslims.

In the recent case of a young Christian girl in Pakistan accused of blasphemy, it currently appears that the imam who made the accusation actually planted the evidence himself. In this case there was indeed a fringe person who created the story. But a senior Islamic cleric has stepped in to squash the madness, and has instead declared the girl to be a "daughter of the nation". Hurrah for common sense. I hope for plenty more in the future.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk