A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, April 27, 2012

Anatomy of a Hoax and Media Credulity: The "Egypt Necrophilia Law" Story

A quote attributed (dubiously) to Mark Twain has it that "A lie can go halfway around the world while truth is getting its boots on." And that was before the Internet. There was a classic example of this yesterday, when a story so grotesque, bizarre, and appalling that you'd think no one would believe it without evidence (and there was none) managed to turn up in print media and all over the Internet before a few intrepid souls noticed that there was no credible sourcing to the story. It's a case study in the down side of instant 24/7 reporting, and it tells us something about the tendency for Western media to believe absolutely anything about Islamists. Even this, from the (usually) respectable, liberal, Huffington Post, which is less sensational than some of the reports:
Egypt’s new Islamist-dominated parliament is preparing to introduce a controversial law that would allow husbands to have sex with their deceased wives up to six hours after death.
Known as the “farewell Intercourse” law, the measure is being championed as part of a raft of reforms introduced by the parliament that will also see the minimum age of marriage lowered to 14 for girls.
After an inevitable "WHAT!!!???" response, which of the following options do you think was the reaction of many (thankfully, not all) of the media?:
  1. Traditional journalistic due diligence: Who has introduced this outrageous law in Parliament. What are the sources of the story? Where is this supposed bill in the Parliamentary process? When was it introduced? Why would anybody believe this outrageous story without even citing the name of one Member of Parliament supporting such a bill? Or:
  2. Just reprint it without checking with anyone. After all, I saw it on the Internet, so it must be true. 
Yes, a lot of folks who should know better chose door number two.

It's such an outrageous story that one is reminded of Josef Goebbels' famous dictum that "the bigger the lie, the more people will believe it." This story, improbable as it ought to have seemed to anyone with common sense, somehow went halfway round the world before truth could get its boots on. Several Egyptian reporters/bloggers and an American or two have gradually reconstructed where this grotesque report came from, and I am trying to summarize all their findings here.

I'll cite specific instances below, but this story turned up in English first, I think, in the English website of Al-Arabiya, was picked up by the tabloid The Daily Mail, and then started to turn up all over the place: in rabid right-wing Islamophobic sites, of course, but also in liberal venues like The Huffington Post. For the right, it proves the morbid perversity of Islam; for the left, it proves the repression of women. Both points might be well taken if anyone had the slightest evidence that any such law exists. No one has produced any.Yet by the time it gets to The Daily Mail, the story has become:
Egyptian husbands will soon be legally allowed to have sex with their dead wives - for up to six hours after their death. The controversial new law is part of a raft of measures being introduced by the Islamist-dominated parliament.
Now it "will soon be legally allowed" under a law "introduced by the Islamist-dominated parliament." It sounds like it's a done deal, about to be rammed through a pliant parliament. Very alarming, except for the minor detail of not being true

There were a few voices who actually used their heads and called BS early on. Several Egyptian journalists and bloggers, notably journalist Sarah Carr and blogger Zeinobia, who I'll quote in discussing how this bizarre thing got started below, and Dan Murphy at the Christian Science Monitor, in a piece entitled "Egypt 'Necrophilia Law'? Hooey, Utter Hooey.  Murphy's response should have been the first reaction of any serious reporter, or of anyone familiar with Egypt. It was pretty much mine, which is why I didn't mention the story. (Well, my reaction wasn't precisely "utter hooey," because I'm not sure I've ever actually said, or even thought, "hooey," but apparently you can't say "bullshit" in The Christian Science Monitor.)

As Murphy put it:
There's of course one problem: The chances of any such piece of legislation being considered by the Egyptian parliament for a vote is zero. And the chance of it ever passing is less than that. In fact, color me highly skeptical that anyone is even trying to advance a piece of legislation like this through Egypt's parliament. I'm willing to be proven wrong. It's possible that there's one or two lawmakers completely out of step with the rest of parliament. Maybe. 
No one has proven him wrong. Although Murphy and the Egyptian blogosphere were raising red flags, the story made its way around. Gossip sites and sensational sites joined the Islamophobic sites in repeating the tale.

Andrew Sullivan, whose widely-read blog at The Daily Beast is usually above this sort of thing, but who distrusts fundamentalism whether Christian or Muslim, quoted The Daily Mail (since he's British, I doubt if he had it confused with The Economist as far as reliability goes), and had some harsh words for Islam. ("One wonders: what part of Islam requires fucking your dead wife?") Admittedly and to his credit, he has since noted and quoted the evidence that the story's untrue, but it's further evidence of how far this story went and how respectable media bought it for a while.

So how did this story go so far? The following reconstruction is based on others' work, mostly 1) Egyptian journalist Sarah Carr, who posted a response to the Daily Mail article (which is now buried in a comments thread that runs to more than 800, but which she posted to Facebook for the record) and has since pursued the issue, blogger Zeinobia, who was also on the case early, and Murphy's previously cited CSM article. Carr, I think, nails the unspoken presumptions that helped spread the story:
While I appreciate that the Daily Mail sifts the Internet daily for news pieces that will confirm to its readers that Muslims are all book-burning, wife-incarcerating, turban-wearing lunatics, and while I appreciate that this item is particularly attractive because of its salaciousness, if Lee Moran had troubled himself to do a little bit of research beyond translating an op-ed and a TV talking head, he would have discovered that in fact, a draft law to allow men to bonk their deceased wives does not exist. This may seem remarkable, given that Egyptians (i.e. scary mooslems) revolted in 2011 for PRECISELY this right, but there we are.
If Mr Moran's googling had been more thorough he would have discovered that this rumour was started by a local wacko who, alas, has a public platform by virtue of the fact that he owns a satellite channel.
This is what seems to be the timeline:

1. The only named person who is known to have actually claimed that Islam supports this bizarre idea is a Moroccan sheikh, Zamzami Abdelbari, a fringe figure, and even he apparently said it was a repulsive practice. I've spoken before somewhere on this blog about my reluctance to indulge in the latest "crazy sheikh/crazy fatwa" report, in which the media focuses on a so-called "fatwa" from some self-proclaimed "sheikh" with a following that may include his immediate family, and treat this as some sort of "official" ruling. This guy has nothing to do with Egypt.

2. Next, the plot moves to Egyptian satellite TV owner/talk show host/conspiracy theorist Tawfiq Okasha. Okasha has been a critic of the revolutionaries, a conspiracist who sees the US and Israel behind everything, a rabble-rouser last mentioned on this blog as being blamed for promoting attacks on the US Embassy. Zeinobia compares him to the US' Glenn Beck. This broadcast (Arabic) seems to be the first appearance of this idea  of "Farewell intercourse"  (مضاجعة الوداع) in Egypt:

3. Next, the story moves to the state-owned Al-Ahram where a secularist, anti-Islamist columnist named Amr Abdel Samea edtorialized that the Egyptian National Organization for Women were protesting this and a proposed law reducing the marriage age (which actually is advocated by some Islamists.) The link is in Arabic. It doesn't clearly cite a specific bill or any advocates of such a bill. It refers to "talk about" such a bill, but not specifying by whom. It's more a case of  a rhetorical "if the Islamists have their way they're liable to do something this crazy."

4. Abdel Samea's op-ed then provokes in turn a sensational TV commentary from Gaber al-Qarnouty on the channel ON TV. He quotes Abdel Samea but talks as if there is actually a draft law under discussion. It has gone from nightmare scenario to stated fact:

5. It's this Qarnouty broadcast that was picked up by the English website of Al-Arabiya, in the post that was then picked up throughout the West:
Egyptian prominent journalist and TV anchor Jaber al-Qarmouty on Tuesday referred to Abdul Samea’s article in his daily show on Egyptian ON TV and criticized the whole notion of “permitting a husband to have sex with his wife after her death under a so-called ‘Farewell Intercourse’ draft law.”

“This is very serious. Could the panel that will draft the Egyptian constitution possibly discuss such issues? Did Abdul Samea see by his own eyes the text of the message sent by Talawi to Katatni? This is unbelievable. It is a catastrophe to give the husband such a right! Has the Islamic trend reached that far? Is there really a draft law in this regard? Are there people thinking in this manner?” 
Of course, the answer to Qarnouty's rhetorical questions are "No, no, and no." But the next step is the jump to the Daily Mail report that "Egyptian husbands will soon be legally allowed to have sex with their dead wives." The fact that there's no basis for the report that anyone has yet found, is of course lost in translation.

Sarah Carr again:"Conclusion: It's a load of bollocks." That's the British equivalent of Murphy's "utter hooey." It's a crock.

Once again, at the end of the day there no "there" there, there's no story. Most of the respectable media that reported the story yesterday have put up hedging clarifications, but this is a story that didn't need to spread so widely to begin with. There may be a Moroccan sheikh who's this far over the edge, but there's no necrophilia bill in the Egyptian Parliament.


xoussef said...

Will there be no end to Zemzami's bringing shame on Morocco?!

Fascinating analysis though. One sad thing is that bad habits don't die out so easily, and many MPs in Egypt, I reckon, come from a background of systematic populist agitation, where outrageous declarations to the media, conspiracy theories and ridiculous court cases are commonplace. That and being familiar with Zemzami's debate where many rose to defend him, I sadly found the story to be outrageous but rather plausible.

Sayyid Fulaan said...

I am most disappointed in Al-Arabiya here. They are a news organization I usually trust. Just the fact that they chose to write a story about this lent credibility to it.

We see similar stories like this all the time though, even in the U.S., as it is common in every democracy for a lone legislator to introduce crazy legislation in a committee that has no hope of ever becoming law. Often it produces a sensational news story and fades away quickly.

Maryanne Stroud Gabbani said...

Thank you for this post. I've cross-posted it to my FB page which basically serves as a news aggregator for friends and family who want to know what is going on in Egypt. Completely rational people here in Egypt were aghast at the idea that this might be in the works but many failed to realise that the fact that "everyone in Egypt" was talking about it did not make it true. I follow Sarah and Zeinobia closely and began trying to put out the fire early. No one in the world needs this sort of viral insanity.

Zuhur said...

You know, Sarah Carr is the one who claimed it is a "hoax" but Zamzami declares the practice 'halal," (if repugnant) There are over 189,000 hits on his link. So now, if Okasha or any politician talks about a conversation about it … that isn't necessarily untrue. How does Sarah Carr singlehandedly know what anyone is discussing? Okasha's motives, if this is an exaggeration (I don't see how you can declare it a hoax without further proof) are interesting. Interview him and ask him? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zFWklBaFwc4&feature=share%27%2C%29

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Zuhur: "Hoax" may be a strong word, and when the commentators, including Okasha, started out they were saying "this is the sort of thing some Islamists believe," that's no hoax. By the time this has become the Daily Mail's "Egyptian husbands will soon have the right to .,,," that's completely misleading. When this went from "some people have said this" to "Parliament is about to pass a law" it was transformed into a falsehood. Even if one or two Parliamentarians have talked about this, it's not a serious bill. And no one has proven any sitting Parliamentarian is supporting the idea.

R said...

This is a very detailed post but I am afraid slightly insane. And wrong.

You repeatedly say that this "news item" was published and believed "throughout the Western media". You make the usual generalisations of how lies travel faster than truth, the more outrageous the lie the more widely believed, etc etc. You then go into great detail as to how this "lie" was promulgated around the western world, in which it becomes clear that almost the entire western media and I am sure the entire western world outside the media ignored the story altogether.
So it starts off in the website of Al-Arabiya, a Saudi-owned TV company based in Dubai, which to my mind (and theirs) would stretch the usual definition of Western. It is then picked up by the website (not the print edition) of the Daily Mail, which is, I think it is fair to say, read by absolutely no-one for its foreign news coverage and which - you don't say - notes that the story is probably spurious. From there it is picked up by two blog aggregator websites. And that's it. No major western international news organisation covered the story, it seems; not one.
While the Mail admits the story is spurious, you do not admit that the premise on which you began your piece - that lies travel faster and further that fact, the more so the more they are lies - is the opposite of what you describe, namely that while real Middle Eastern facts - as we have seen in the last year - are broadcast on TV and newspaper websites live, this particular lie was bought by virtually no-one.
What is really interesting to me about this and a rash of extremely similar blogposts is that they use postings on blog sites to discredit the "mainstream media", which feeds the narrative that mainstream media are rightly being replaced by social media. Some irony.

Michael Collins Dunn said...


I won't argue every point, but 1) the Daily Mail didn't question the story until AFTER the spuriousness was evident; as quoted, they initially reported it as if passage was imminent, later changing the site to acknowledge doubt; 2)I counted half a dozen or more major newspapers that picked up the story; all simply copied the sources I did cite, but it was reproduced in a lot of mainstream media.

R said...

Fair enough, I was going on your own analysis of what counted as gullible western media. I didn't see it picked up anywhere credible myself at the time (wouldn't count the Daily Mail as credible, even on domestic news for that matter) but must have missed them. Can't find them on google news either. Russia Today, yes...