How progressive AlterNet and Salon fell for “gang rape” fatwa peddled by Islamophobes

This post has been updated since publication.

Progressive news organization AlterNet has fallen for and disseminated a story, pushed by Zionist, Islamophobic and Iranian outlets, claiming that a prominent Saudi cleric issed a religious edict authorizing sex-deprived fighters in Syria to rape women there.

Earlier today, AlterNet claimed:

A prominent Saudi cleric has issued a fatwa (a religious ordinance) that calls for the gang rape of Syrian women. Expressing frustration that the “warriors of Islam” fighting in Syria may be getting weary for the lack of sexual pleasure, the religious leader issued a decree that promotes hours-long “intercourse marriages.”

The story was later updated to include a statement that the cleric, Muhammad al-Arifi, had issued a denial. But the story has – as of this writing – not been retracted (see update below), and even worse, it was picked up by Salon.com whose story has not – as of now – been amended with the denial (see update 3 below).

Al-Arifi is an ultra-conservative Wahhabi cleric with 3.5 million Twitter followers and more than 1.4 million Facebook fans.

He has been prominent in calling Syrians to join the armed opposition to the government of President Bashar al-Assad and demanded that other countries intervene militarily and send weapons to overthrow it.

Al-Arifi has openly engaged in sectarian incitement against Shia Muslims, for example in this video from February 2012, which has more than 1.1 million views.

The claim about the “gang rape” fatwa should raise immediate red flags. It is reminiscent of other recent shocking claims about Muslims that turned out to be libels disseminated by Islamophobic organizations.

These include a false story – disseminated credulously by LGBT magazine The Advocate – that a Muslim cleric had issued a “fatwa” declaring that sodomy between men was permissible if it was for the purpose of widening their anuses for the insertion of explosives to carry out “jihad.”

There was also the libel of a Muslim “rape epidemic” in Norway that The Electronic Intifada debunked a year ago.

Al-Arifi’s denial

A video posted on YouTube on 1 January shows al-Arifi ridiculing the supposed fatwa, saying such a thing could never be said by any “sane person” and warning that he knows of at least nine social media pages that impersonate him and try to attribute words to him that he hasn’t spoken. He also said that such falsehoods were disseminated by stations – which he did not name – whose goal is to harm the image of Sunni Muslims.

Al-Arifi also posted a denial on his Facebook page and on Twitter.

Embedded rich on Twitter

The Twitter denial includes an image of a fake tweet al-Arifi said was circulating online, which was an obvious hoax because it contained far more than 140 characters.

Genealogy of the lurid story

The claim about the “fatwa” was made on Lebanon’s Al-Jadeed channel (New TV) at least as early as December 29. Al-Jadeed does not provide any evidence of the “fatwa” or say when, where or by what means it was supposedly issued. As of now, no one has produced any evidence that the “fatwa” exists, which means that no responsible news organization should behave as if it does.

News of the “fatwa” was then disseminated widely on social media in Arabic, particularly by personas eager to discredit opponents of the Syrian government.

What is also interesting is how it traveled through Zionist and American Islamophobic networks to AlterNet and Salon.

Iran’s English-language Press TV carried a report on the alleged fatwa on its website. However it is not the Iranian report that appears to have been the most influential.

Effort to discredit Syrian opposition

On 29 December a Twitter user called @Eretz_Zen tweeted the New TV video except now with English subtitles and a logo with the words “Eretz Zen” obscuring the New TV logo.

Embedded rich on Twitter

Twitter user @Eretz_Zen’s bio claims to be “A secular Syrian opposed to having my country turned into a Taliban-like state.” This is of course completely unverifiable.

Zionist and Islamophobic connections

On 1 January the English-subtitled “Eretz Zen” video was embedded in a report on the website RadicalIslam.org with the headline “Cleric Issues Fatwa Allowing Gang Rape of Syrian Women.”

RadicalIslam.org states that it is supported by the Clarion Fund, which several years ago distributed tens of millions of copies of a virulently anti-Muslim film titled Obsession: Radical Islam’s War Against the West.

As Ali Gharib and Eli Clifton reported, Clarion Fund is closely tied to the Israeli organization Aish HaTorah, and the group is at the center of a web of ultra far-right Islamophobic, Zionist and anti-Palestinian organizations. One of its “advisors” has been notorious anti-Islamic and anti-Palestinian agitator Daniel Pipes.

Another key figure in this anti-Palestinian and Islamophobic network is Frank Gaffney, another Clarion Fund advisor. Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy sponsors Latma TV, an Israeli “satirical” show responsible for producing virulently anti-African propaganda and disseminating the Norway “rape epidemic” hoax.

What’s notable is that the RadicalIslam.org report uses the term “gang rape” which also appeared later on AlterNet and Salon.com. The term “gang rape” does not appear in the New TV report.

This is a clue that perhaps the story traveled from ultra-right-wing RadicalIslam.org to “progressive” AlterNet without anyone raising any red flags.

Indian website jumps on the bandwagon

Notably the AlterNet report links directly to an Indian website called Daily Bhaskar that also carries the “Eretz Zen” video.

Daily Bhaskar appears to be a website that habitually reports lurid and dubiously sourced stories of non-Muslim women being raped and victimized by Muslims.

Going viral

It’s a telling sign of how deep and common liberal Islamophobia is that even progressives at AlterNet will believe anything they hear and not stop to ask a question.

What these repeated episodes show is that it is easy for many people to believe negative and shocking information about unpopular and disreputable figures. When the claims are lurid – especially involving sex and violence – they spread more rapidly. And when they fit multiple agendas – as in this case – there’s apparently no limit to how far they can go.

Update

AlterNet has posted an apology and analysis of the story’s origins.

On January 2, AlterNet was one of several outlets that published what turned out to be an article based on a false report. We would like to apologize to our readers for the error.

Read Exhibit A in How an Islamophobic Meme Can Spread Like Wildfire Across the Internet by Sanam Naraghi Anderlini.

Update 2

Even after this analysis and AlterNet’s apology and retraction, MSN.com promoted the hoax with the title Saudi cleric calls for gang rapes to soothe weary Syrian fighters. It was published one hour after The Electronic Intifada posted this analysis.

Update 3

At approximately 15:30 UTC on 3 January 2013, Salon deleted their story which was sourced from AlterNet.

Update 4

At 18:22 UTC on 3 January 2013, The Electronic Intifada was notified that the MSN Now story has been amended with this correction:

AlterNet, which was one of several outlets reporting on the allegations, has issued a retraction on this story after Muhammed al-Arifi denied he made these comments. “No sane person” would’ve said such a thing, the cleric says in a new YouTube video.

Embedded rich on Twitter

The online news portal of New Zealand’s Channel 3 promoted the hoax before it was exposed by The Electronic Intifada and corrected by other publications. Other reports of the hoax “fatwa” at The Inquisitor, B92, and Digital Journal also report the denial.

Comments

While I condemn this hoax, aren't you committing a similar mistake by writing this line without much proof?
"Daily Bhaskar appears to be a Hindu nationalist website that specializes in lurid and dubiously sourced stories of non-Muslim women being raped and victimized by Muslims."
Related links always appear below an article. That does not automatically mean the website is what you claim it to be.

I rephrased my description of Daily Bhaskar slightly, but stand by my description as it is now. Thanks for your comment.

You are right in standing by your description of Daily Bhaskar.
I myself have, on several occasions, read the Daily Bhaskar, and its anti-Muslim bias is evident.

"It’s a telling sign of how deep and common liberal Islamophobia is that even progressives at AlterNet will believe anything they hear and not stop to ask a question."

The offending item was posted to our blog by a young editor who normally focuses on domestic issues.

We have run, and will continue to many, many articles (some by yours truly), exposing Islamophobia from many different angles. It's a semi-regular beat at AlterNet.

Anyway, thanks for the speedy update. Any chance you could tease it up top with 'updated below'?

Liberal Islamaphobia is doing a great job for Islam,but alas! they don't know.

Unfortunately I see a frightening parallell to the stories about the Jewish people in europe that went around in the 1930s. We where told the jewish people where terrorists (stein gang), went around in "jewish rape gangs", had all sorts of strange sexual customs, dressed strange, wore funny hats, didn't integrate, and so on. Well the end result was a tragic holocaust.

And now we are doing the same things to our muslim peoples. When will we ever learn from history instead of blindingly repeating it.

Your comment is either naive or sarcastic, I can't tell, but ALL the Islamophobic hate sights are run by, funded by and propagated by Jewish settlers and hateful Zionists who think this hate is "good for Israel". Check out who runs radicalislam.com -- a bunch of insane Jewish settlers!

I retweeted the story, and also visited one or two blogsites about Muhammed Al-Arifi.
Some of the other bloggers showed great skepticism over this story, but I did not listen, because I was judging a Saudi cleric by the standards familiar to students of crusades and the Bosnian civil war, where rape was used as a form of oppression and the spreading of terror in a military context.

Whoever did this perhaps unintentionally performed a scathing send-up of Western culture's intersections of racism and sexism. Alternet and Salon are very much for the capitalist-approved prostitution of women whom they call sexworkers, but switch a few words to put prostitution in a Muslim context and suddenly only barbaric heathens would sexually abuse women as "temporary wives" for sexual relief. Hypocrites.

That is not even vaguely true.

Both publications and liberal thought in general, unless I have missed a memo, argue that you can oppose the use of prostitution without shaming the women who are involved in it, by choice or circumstance. There is a very complex discussion that goes further than that about whether any form of consensual prostitution can be ok, but that is nothing like what you are talking about.

Essentially, the possibility of "ok" prostitution would require equal social standing and no coercive aspects. It would require a true right of refusal. It would require ability to revoke consent. I most certainly would require a social situation where the woman and the man are equally respected after the event, be it sexwork or short-term marriage.

There is certainly horrible Islamophobia in Western countries right now, and particularly promoted by many media groups, but this issue is not a strong one to argue because there are tons of reasons the practice you describe is problematic.

I was guilty of posting the article, but I also added war rape articles from the US and Britain. For me, this was not about Muslims, but about the overall attitude toward women as casualties of war. This is not just a problem is Islamic countries, though FGM and child marriage IS a problem in Islamic countries. Rape happens in ALL countries. THAT is the issue for me, regardless of religion or culture, women are victims of violence and violation.

The fact is that rape is a disgustingly accepted part of war. If you look at statistics in the US, the UK, and many other countries around the world,
rape is apparently an accepted part of life.

It is a thing from Africa, no matter the religion. As far as I know, in USA

Then, is India an Islamic country? "Additionally, the report declares that "In spite of these legal provisions, child marriage is still widely practiced and a marriage solemnized in contravention of these provisions is not void even under the new PCMA, 1929, the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 and also under the Muslim Law."

In short, bigotry and Western imperialism are two sides of one coin, and regarding Western "progressives" as well.

It's good that the story is being verified. I checked several sources before deciding to buy it (and report it myself). It's entirely possible that we all fell for a hoax. If it was one, then it was skillfully crafted, because al-Arifi IS an extremist cleric who has in the past justified the beating of women (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...) and made clearly anti-semitic statements (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v...).

Despite of al-Arifi's denial it currently still seems difficult to judge whether the story was indeed a complete hoax, whether statements of his were exaggerated or whether he is now simply denying them because of the stir the statements have caused.

To judge whether the “fatwa” is genuine or not, or whether his denial is credible or not, you first have to have evidence that the “fatwa” exists. No one has presented any evidence that such a thing exists. As I noted, the Al-Jadeed TV report does not explain where, when, or how this fatwa came into existence. It just claims it exists. Any responsible media organization would say how and where the fatwa was issued. Given Al-Arifi’s prominence surely someone would have found this evidence by now. So you are debating whether a thing exists for which no evidence of its existence has yet been presented. Please don’t fall for that.

That Al-Arifi has a history of extreme and unpleasant views does not change the fact that no one has provided evidence of this particular “fatwa.” But his history certainly make claims about thim issuing this fatwa more immediately believable to a lot of people and that to me makes it more important to debunk such nonsense when it is used as fodder for widespread prejudice against Muslims everywhere.

No objection to what you're saying. The null hypothesis is that there was no fatwa – and it cannot be dismissed by the available data. For the moment it however still seems valid to check whether further data can be obtained.

Other angles of this story that should be considered are how feminism and Islamophobia are frequently used to promote each other's goals, and the limits on how much support we can rely on from the "progressive" media, especially when anything related to women's issues is involved.

"Al-Arifi has openly engaged in sectarian incitement against Shia Muslims, for example in this video from February 2012, which has more than 1.1 million views."

I watched the entire video, and it calls for taking up arms against the Bashar Al-Assad. However it appears not to be sectarian. He mentions the Shia helping Bashar among other "traitors," but I hardly think that's "incitement." Did I miss something in the video?

Yes. Absolutely sounded like sectarian incitement to me when he is generalizing all Shia as “traitors” — which he did.

I don't know. Your article and research are excellent, so I don't think this is such a big deal.

The quote (from the English translation) is "If he asks for victory from the Persian, the Shia, the traitors, the villains, and asks victory from Hezbollah, we ask for victory from Allah ..." It has derogatory connotations, but I'm not sure if it's inciting anything.

My observation is that there are both Saudi & Iranian demagogues, of which this cleric seems to be one. Reading into a bit I think that being anti-Iranian in KSA is a political move which helps the royal family forget that he's advocating jihad against a ruling family, something that the Saudi royal family would be wise to notice, but they're not of course.

I agree with Jamal, if you listen to him and others like him about the issue of Syria, they are not exactly inciting sectarianism. He is speaking about those who align themselves with the Assad regime. Some Shias are included but it doesn't easily cut across sectarian lines as there are Shia's on both sides and who are neutral, I think it only sounds like incitement in this context.

Jamal says he’s relying on the English translation, which is much milder. It’s clear to me that he targets all Shia without exception, and this fits quite well with Wahhabi rhetoric from him and others.

I KNOW THE WORK IS TOUGH BUT THESE SLANDERERS MUST BE EXPOSED.

You should probably remove the reference toradicalislam.org because even though they printed a so-called "retraction" in the above-mentioned article, they also said the following:

"It is also possible that Al-Arifi made the statements and then later retracted them under pressure, possibly from the Saudi government who has been trying in recent years to present an image of modernity to the Western world."

Doesn't sound like a "retraction" to me when they conveniently include that little caveat that the story "may" be true.