Editor's note: On January 2, AlterNet was one of several outlets that published what turned out to be an article based on a false report. We apologize to our readers for the error.
On January 2, the story of a Saudi sheikh issuing a fatwa that condoned "intercourse marriage" or gang rape in Syria exploded over the Internet.
According to various sources, Sheikh Mohammad Al-Arifi stated that foreign fighters in Syria had the right to engage in short-term marriages to satisfy their sexual desires and boost their determination to fight against the Assad regime. Syrian girls and women from age 14 upward were considered fair game and apparently secured their own place in heaven if they participated in these "intercourse marriages."
By evening, a simple Google search of the words, "Saudi Sheikh, Syrian and women" brought up some 5 million references and at least three pages of links to articles spreading the news. Not surprisingly, there was immediate online uproar, too, though as one commentator put it, much of the discussion was about whether these arranged temporary marriages technically constituted rape. This in itself is worrying.
There was also skepticism from many quarters about the veracity of the report, particularly among savvy Mideast experts. Rightly so. The story, much like one a few months ago about Egyptian Islamist MPs proposing laws that permitted sex with a deceased spouse up to six hours after his/her death, turned out to be a gross lie. Sheikh Al-Arifi has issued a denial via his Facebook page. Over the next few days, the various Web sites and media outlets that spread the story will no doubt issue their retractions.
But the story also raises many questions. For starters, where did it come from? AlterNet inadvertently picked it up from the overtly anti-Islamic Clarion Fund site. Others pointed to the Iranian regime-backed Press TV as the primary source on Dec. 31, 2012. But the earliest English language reporting comes on December 29 from an obscure YouTube news site called Eretz Zen, tagged as a YouTube channel by a “secular Syrian opposed to having [his] country turned into a Taliban-like state."
What's extraordinary and depressing is that a slew of Web sites picked up the story and ran with it, some claiming legitimacy because others had posted it and clearly no one bothered to do some basic fact-checking. Arguably this is just the nature of the net and minute by minute news updates. The story was too sensational to give up. But one would imagine that if a similar story emerged about a Christian cleric or a rabbi, someone, somewhere would have paused before posting it. Sadly, in the case of stories about Muslim clerics or Islamists the same red flags don't seem to apply.
Perhaps Western journalists are so ignorant of Islam and the cultures in the Middle East that they are willing to believe anything. It's nothing new -- after all, Western notions of the East were always immured in sexual decadence and the allure of harems. That was a trademark of the patronizing Orientalism of the past. Today we have a phobic version of Orientalism -- expecting and only seeing and reporting the bad and the ugly.
It's not just ignorance that fans these flames. The Syrian war is being manipulated by all sides and if journalists and their Web sites want to be taken seriously, they need to be bit more savvy about who's who on the net. The Clarion Fund is so extreme in its Islamophobia it's almost satirical. Anything it posts must be taken with a pinch of salt and more. Press TV is the English language satellite station of the Iranian regime. Given that the Syrian conflict is turning into a de facto proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, it should come as no surprise that either side would opt for any smear tactics and propaganda for its own ends. Finally, the timing of the so-called story should have been questioned. It broke just as the world was up in arms about the death of a 23-year-old Indian woman gang-raped by six men on a bus. It's hard to imagine this would be so coincidental.
The issue of sexual violence against women is serious and seriously under-reported everywhere, including in Syria today. There are countless stories to report on that topic that are horrific and true. Yet time and again the news media opts to bypass the real cases, question the validity of sources or claim that these "rape" stories are too graphic and sensational, while hopping on the band wagon of false stories that could themselves lead to more rape. Hopefully this fake news story will lose wind and die a quick death. But on the net nothing disappears forever. What if this story becomes a sort of urban myth of its own, morphing into a justification of even greater numbers of forced marriages, or even results in gang rapes? These things are happening all the time and there is always some rationalization behind them.
Sometimes a story like this takes a life of its own, despite the later retractions. For example, in Africa the urban myth that sex with a virgin can cure AIDS has lived on for years in shanty towns, cities and villages. From South Africa to Liberia, the number of child rapes -- including babies -- has been reported, and too often the explanation given is that the rapists believed some myth about curing AIDS or gaining strength from a virgin's blood.
Regardless of the story or the country, the end result is the same. Women and girls are the primary victims and ever more vulnerable when these myths emerge. Hopefully the Internet explosion remains just that. Another blip, another day and then it's done with no impact on the real lives of people on the ground in Syria. In other words, one hope could be that all this news and journalism is basically inconsequential. But what a depressing way to think of journalism. I'd much rather see these writers dig a little deeper, investigate a bit further, reach out to legitimate active sources and sites to write up the true stories, the untold and unheard stories of Syrians today: their stories of courage and resilience, their stories of striving for peace and justice for everyone, and yes, their true stories of sexual violence and torture. It's all there waiting to be reported on. It is much more sensational than a fake news story.