Dec 27 2015

The Tyranny of Anti-Islam Internet Memes

misinformation everywhereBy Ghanim Khalil
December 27, 2015

The following essay will address the role that anti-Islam Internet memes play in the distortion of Islam and the demonization of Muslims. These memes originate from America and other Western societies, and are used to reinforce certain Islamophobic political narratives of our times. I will focus on a particular meme and address the issues which make most anti-Islam memes problematic, especially in times of mass hysteria pertaining to the so-called “war on terrorism”.

Internet memes play a considerably efficient and effective role in spreading ideas (whether good or bad) from the periphery of society to the center of the social, business, and commercial worlds. Their ability to convey concise messages make them highly influential in shaping the way we see certain issues, groups of people, and even history.

Unfortunately memes also play a major role in spreading misinformation and negative messages which include bigoted, stereotypical, and divisive views. These views truncate vastly complex issues or subjects into a single simplistic image and set of words, and are meant to communicate the misinformation to a large viewer base. This oversimplification is then used to reinforce a particular negative message. In the context of the “war on terrorism”, memes have played a key role in spreading the stereotypes and ignorance that are needed to generate and maintain peoples fear of Islam and hatred of Muslims.

What Islam Has to Offer


Here is an example meme, representative of the many internet memes making waves in the sea of contentious posts about Islam all over the English speaking world:


The conclusive message of this meme is simple: what Islam offers is evil. A point-by-point refutation of this and other similar memes requires the meme to be present and popular enough to reach a wide audience in the first place. It has passed its simplistic message to perhaps tens of thousands of viewers until a credible rebuttal takes place. Credible or effective rebuttals, however, seem scarce for multiple reasons – and one being that these types of memes don’t generate healthy dialogues. They instead tend to produce wholesale emotional agreement on one side versus wholesale reactionary views, which seem equally emotional, on the other. In the middle, it is hard to determine how many people dismissed such memes by not engaging in a response. It is similarly hard to determine how many may agree with it to a certain degree but not agree enough to merit a “like” or “share”.

Although each point in this meme can be addressed in its own article and discussed at length, I will offer a quick point-by-point rebuttal in order to demonstrate how a complex subject like what Islam teaches or advocates, is reduced into simplistic memes that play into and fuel divisiveness in American society between different social groups. This divisiveness then complicates how Americans analyze and react to current events that are affecting billions of people. I will also add a little historical and scholarly context to counter the message of the above meme beginning with the subject of pedophilia and moving clockwise.


  1. Pedophilia: Islam is often disingenuously attacked for advocating pedophilia. This view stems from the practice of child marriages which occurred in the premodern Muslim world and still happen today in certain Muslim communities. Many non-Muslim premodern societies also practiced this and still do in some areas. Islam sanctions marriage only after puberty and only by consent. Despite this, Islamophobes continue to argue that pedophilia is a norm in Islamic teachings. Complicating this issue is the complete absence of knowledge that many premodern societies culturally practiced early marriages due to short life expectancies and other sociopolitical reasons, and not because of what scholars and psychiatrists define as pedophilic disorder. Early marriages slowly changed after societies industrialized in the 19th century and older norms/conditions were mostly replaced by newer ones.


  1. Rape: Rape of Muslims and non-Muslims is explicitly forbidden in Islam and there is a harsh punishment for rapists, where rapists can even be subject to execution. Some Islamophobes have claimed that Islam exempts Muslims who had historically owned female captives due to war, from charges of rape; however, the Qur’an states, “But force not your maids to prostitution when they desire chastity in order that you may make a gain in the goods of this life.” – 24:33. Historically, Islamic scholars condemned forcing anyone into any type of sexual relations inside and outside of marriage and Islamic law not only forbids rape, but has given Muslim jurists and judges the authority to combine a punishment for rape with a punishment for armed assault (if, for example, a weapon was used during the rape).


  1. Beheadings: In Islamic and Judaic law, beheadings are sometimes sanctioned as a form of punishment for high crimes such as murder, rape, rebellion which leads to civil strife, and hirabah (highway robbery or the incitement of violence as in acts of terrorism). Though the death penalty is enacted as a punishment in various countries of the world, including the U.S., beheadings are generally seen as a symbol of premodern times. For this reason it is identified as a particularly backwards or barbaric form of punishment – though the criteria to label what forms of violence are deemed barbaric, opposed to those which are not, seems to be based on shifting ideas and meanings of civilization, society, order, power, and security. But as many Muslim and non-Muslim scholars have pointed out, the application of this punishment in Islam has been nowhere near as popular in Islamic history as it is presented in the distorted characterizations of Muslim life, past and present, found in Orientalist literature and art. It has also been pointed out that when beheadings were carried out, it was enacted swiftly compared to various methods of killing criminals in the history of the U.S. justice system (like electrocution and lethal injection). Opposing beheadings as a method of capital punishment while advocating, tolerating, or ignoring other forms of the death penalty is disingenuous. Even more disingenuous is to justify, tolerate, or ignore the increasing use of the tools of war as extrajudicial forms of executing suspected (often not confirmed) terrorists and their supporters via military drones that end up killing thousands of innocent children, women, and men in Muslim countries while blaming a minority of Muslims for beheading innocent people.


  1. Burning People Alive: Islam strongly prohibits the use of fire as an instrument of death. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) clearly stated that “No one may punish using fire except the Lord of fire” (Abu Dawud, Sunan, #2674). Historically some Muslim scholars advocated its permissibility in certain rare circumstances, but the majority of Muslim scholars opposed it in all circumstances.


  1. Female Genital Mutilation (FGM): There is absolutely no scripture or prophetic tradition that command Muslims to perform FGM.  FGM is a cultural practice which predates Islam, and is also practiced by many non-Muslims. Muslims who practice FGM, do so in contradiction to the teachings of Islam.


  1. Hostage Taking: There is no basis in Islam for taking hostages – that is to deprive an individual of his/her right to security and freedom. Islamic laws of war prohibit the harming of civilians and other non-combatants.  


  1. Honor Killings: There is no basis in Islam for honor killings. Muslim scholars liken honor killings (found in Muslim and Arab societies) to the pre-Islamic age of ignorance where men could kill those they perceived to have besmirched their honor or the honor of their family or tribe. Islamic law considers honor killings acts of murder.


  1. Slavery: Historians (Muslim and non-Muslim) have long pointed out that Islam does not advocate slavery, but does advocate emancipation of slaves as a means of attaining righteousness and salvation. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and many of his closest companions freed thousands of slaves. They took their instruction from various verses of the Qur’an like the following ” But he would not attempt the uphill road. What will make you comprehend what the uphill road is? It is the setting free of a slave.” (90:11-13). People ignorantly point out that the Qur’an mentions slaves as what “the right hands posses” and use this to argue that Islam is pro-slavery. However, scholars like Kecia Ali, Ronald Segal, Sylviane Diouf, Ehud Toledano, Timothy Marr, and even Bernard Lewis have shown that slavery in Muslim societies was far more complex and didn’t mirror the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade familiar to most Europeans and Americans. Some have revealed that slavery was a world-wide fact of life, and that Islam alleviated the treatment of slaves by offering numerous opportunities for slaves to escape their predicament. Many slaves were gradually integrated into the tribes and households they were a part of, thus eventually eliminating their status as slaves. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) famously stated: “Your slaves are your brothers and Allah has put them under your command. So whoever has a brother under his command should feed him from what he eats and dress him of what he wears. Do not ask them to do things beyond their capacity and if you do so, then help them” (Bukhari, Vol 1, Book 2, #29). To the surprise of many Westerners, Islamic scholars throughout history advocated an almost egalitarian treatment of slaves in the name of upholding Islamic principles; And they condemned any mistreatment (including even slapping them, let alone using whips or canes) of slaves, which they classified as grave offenses to Islam. To say that Islam promotes slavery is therefore a fiction that ignores the fact that Islam presents a non-violent and purely voluntary solution to the problem of slavery.


  1. Oppression of Women: Oppression of women in Muslims societies exists just as it exists in all societies. However, Islamophobes have utilized evolving stereotypes of the Muslim woman (silent, passive, concealed, victimized, economically deprived, politically absent, and sexually exploited) popularized by what the anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod has called “gendered Orientalism“, to argue that Islam is the source of their oppression and therefore they need rescuing. One of the most potent symbols used by Islamophobes is the hijab (as well as the burkah, nikab, and full body dress) to argue that the Muslim woman is a victim of a male-dominated religion constructed by men and for men. Not only is this historically and religiously inaccurate, it also reduces Muslim women to simple caricatures void of any reality of their own (as has been shown by numerous Muslim and non-Muslim scholars like Annemarie Schimmel, Sachiko Murata, Karen Armstrong, Katherine Bullock, Yvonne Haddad, Aminah B. McCloud, and Lila Abu-Lughod). Much of the oppression of Muslim women today takes place in cultural and political contexts that violate Islamic principles; And many Muslim women react to this oppression (especially oppression established in the name of Islam) by using Islamic religious texts. This is a reality that undercuts the myths and stereotypes prevalent in the Western world.


  1. Jihad: Though jihad means “to struggle” or “exert effort” into doing what is right, it has long been used as a trigger word for Islamophobes to create and maintain fear of Islam and Muslims. In the meme it is assumed that listing the word (with a hand holding a knife over it) is sufficient to generate the intended fearful response. This is a well founded assumption due to the fact that American and European popular culture is replete with stereotypical and incoherent uses of the word jihad (often mistranslated as “holy war”) – uses which are overwhelmingly based on false understandings and meanings of the word. Jihad is used in Islamic sources to signify a number of different but related aspects of the human self and the ideal Muslim society, most of which has not provoked objections in Western views of Islam. The Qur’an uses it mostly to describe a person’s struggle to uphold truth, justice, and self-discipline. The word is also used to describe defensive combat as defined by the laws of war as set down by the Qur’an, the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and the sayings of some of his closest companions. In Islamophobic works, the term Jihad is used to conflate Muslim violence, past and present, with Islamic teachings; And this is despite the fact that most Muslim violence (especially what is witnessed today) is prohibited by Islamic law and is overwhelmingly opposed by Muslim religious scholars and institutions of learning all over the world. A number of scholars of Islam like Marshall Hodgson, Norman Daniel, Philip Hitti, Ira Lapidus, Caesar E. Farah, Carl Ernst, John Esposito, William Chittick, and Michael Bonner have debunked the many myths associated with the misuse of jihad by both Muslims and non-Muslims.  



Even a brief look at the above issues show that internet memes can reduce and shape reality and history to conveniently fit into simplistic messages meant to produce or maintain fictions that are readily deployed as talking points in divisive narratives. They have complimented and in many instances overtaken the place of newspaper and other print media (cartoons) that have historically been used to denigrate minorities like Blacks and Jews. Obviously, common flaws within these memes rely heavily upon already existing assumptions and stereotypes of Islam and Muslims. These memes almost always conflate negative Muslim behavior with Islam, and lack any coherent scholarly input. Many scholars have also pointed to what scholar Nathan Lean calls the “Islamophobia Industry” where a handful of hate-mongers and so-called “experts” of Islam like Robert Spencer, David Horowitz, Pamela Geller, Brigitte Gabriel, Debbie Schlussel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and their powerful political, business, and religious allies have been exposed as the ideological base behind the current wave of fear and misinformation about Islam and Muslims.

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