Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Making the News, or Making it up?

How eager was Newsweek to print something that would make President Bush look bad? So eager that this popular news magazine, when it couldn't find anything damaging enough, resorted to fabricating stories. In 2005, Newsweek published a story about how interrogators at the Guantanamo Bay camp were torturing and humiliating the terrorists who were being housed there. The most graphic story centered around a prisoner who was forced to watch as a guard allegedly flushed a copy of the Qur'an down the toilet.

Obviously, the Qur'an (or Koran) is the sacred text of Islam, and the thought of it being abused this way would horrify any Muslim. This would indeed be a cruel act.

But it never happened. Within a week of publishing these stories, Newsweek was forced to admit that had been fabricated - that it simply was not true: a deliberate deception. What was the impact of Newsweek's lie?

In Islamic countries around the world, riots had already broken out, buildings and cars burned or otherwise destroyed, and at least seventeen people killed in the violence.

There are actually two stories here: the first story is about a group of reporters and editors who were willing to create a story and falsify facts when they needed them for political purposes. The second story is that even the unproven allegation of disregard for the Koran seems to be grounds to commit murder. People died because someone heard that something disrespectful had been done to the holy book of Islam.

What shall we say about the rioters, and their culture, which condones, and even celebrates, the wanton murder of innocent people, mayhem and destruction in response to the alleged and unproven destruction of a book? The question here is one of proportionate response. If a Koran had indeed been flushed, Muslims would have justifiably been offended. They may justifiably have considered the perpetrators boors, or barbarians, or hell-bound unbelievers. They may justifiably have issued denunciations accordingly. But to kill people thousands of miles away who had nothing to do with the act, and then fulminate with threats and murder against the entire Western world, all because of this alleged act, is disproportionate.

A few weeks prior to this incident, the government of Saudi Arabia had arrested forty Christians, and kept them jailed without bail, without any communication to the outside world, and without even explaining why they were arrested. The explanation finally given by the Saudi government was that these people had been guilty of discussing religious topics. Where was the proportionate response? Where were the thousands of people protesting about freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of thought and belief? Were there any riots or killings? No.

There is a cultural divide here: in North America, most citizens have been taught about peaceful and non-violent civil protest, so when someone called an "artist" chooses to insult the religious beliefs of millions by creating obscenities out of human urine and a Christian cross, or out of animal manure and a Bible, the reactions are not violent. Christians are offended and insulted, because this "artist" has deliberately worked to oppress their beliefs, but there is no violent reaction.

On the other side of the world, violence is seen as the logical response: we find cultures in which an innocent rape victim is stoned to death by the members of her village. Rioting and killing are seen as the appropriate way to respond to the idea that someone may disagree with one's religious beliefs.