Casualties of war

People are sharing an image purporting to show 13 children executed by ISIS for watching a football match on television. I did a reverse image search of the image using TinEye.com and found that it actually shows victims of the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Beirut, Lebanon, in 1982.

I have no way of knowing if the story about ISIS is itself true or false, but the use of images from other conflicts does demonstrate how unethical some reporters of news/rumours are.

Last summer I was Mr Unpopular for subjecting alleged photos of destruction in another conflict to the same kind of scrutiny. A few photos which I encountered — said to show Israeli violence during Operation Protective Edge — turned out to be from their confrontations in earlier years or, in a few cases, from other theaters of war.

Mr Unpopular, I suppose, because truth is supposed to be the first casualty of war… in conflicts like this a generic kind of truth is all that’s required. We’re not supposed to quibble about individual truths, as long as the narrative is broadly correct. Hence the BBC got away with reporting a massacre by Assad’s forces in the early days of the Syria war, even when it was demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that the images they used were from the Iraq war a decade earlier.

Ever since, the online press has shown no compunction about blurring the lines of reality, being economical with the truth or just being plainly malicious. Last year, dozens of photos were circulated online alleged to show ISIS atrocities — but many of the photos could be easily traced back to their origin, sometimes years earlier, sometimes on different continents. A Mexican woman beheaded by a drug cartel gang was one; a little girl killed during aerial bombardment by Syrian forces was another.

The propaganda used by all sides is used to prepare us for war of some kind. We could all then say that we are excused from probing. But just as the age in which we live provides ever greater opportunities to mislead and be misled (viral emails, retweets and Facebook posts hardly have a parallel in earlier times), so we have technology at our disposal to investigate and challenge the claims of the devious.

Don’t believe everything you read or see. Be prepared to ask difficult questions, even if makes you unpopular — and even if it seems to be against your own interests.1 Warmongers — on all sides — use extreme imagery to generate extreme effects. Many a goodhearted young man has been so repulsed by the suffering of an oppressed people — reaffirmed one hundred times over — by grotesque imagery on a news feed that he has decided to do something. Many a patriotic young soldier — fed a diet of the barbaric deeds of the other — has been led to war in foreign lands against the barbaric enemy of the day.

Truth need not be the first casualty of war in the modern age. We have powerful search algorithms at our disposal with which we can investigate the veracity of an image. We have access to vast databases of all that has been said before. While we may not be able to uncover the motives and intentions of others, we can at least scrutinize their claims.

  1. “Speak the truth event against yourself…”

Are any of these claims true?

A friend posts conspiratorial claims on the Internet. I am surprised, because he is a student of knowledge who knows all about the importance of verification in our deen. So I ask, “Are any of these claims true?” A friendly exchange follows, for we each have a different take on these matters. Perhaps we just have to agree to disagree.

But, alas, my disputations are not appreciated. Somehow I must be convinced, even if it means sharing an article from a website which is as much devoted to aliens and UFOs as to the political machinations of the State. A faked photograph showing video fakery will surely convince me that the latest conspiracy theory is absolutely watertight and true.

Convincing? No, not really. I’m a dab hand at Photoshop myself and could mockup pretty much the same image in about half an hour by raiding a Google Image Search. True, the photo was just an illustration, chosen to complement an article: but a bad start in the mission to convince.

Now, look, I’m as partial to conspiracy theories as the next man. The Running Man and Enemy of the State are two of my favourite films. I am quite happy to believe that nations whose economies rely on weapons sales and access to oil use underhand techniques to help pave the way for war. Tony Blair, George Bush, WMDs, cough. This doesn’t mean I have to accept every claim I read on Facebook, however, just because it fits with a narrative I wish to believe and hold to.

This is why I will go on challenging spurious, unverified and curious claims whenever and wherever I encounter them. Why? Because we are charged with being a people of truth, and therefore we need to be certain that every piece of information we pass on is true. If there’s doubt, I tell myself, leave it out.

Shouldn’t those six short words be our minimum starting point, every single time?

Gateways to the soul

Our senses, notably our eyes and ears, are gateways to our hearts.

In an interview, recorded just hours before his execution in 1989, serial killer Ted Bundy, spokes of the pervasive influence exposure to extreme, violent pornography had on him. While not abdicating responsibility for his actions, he nevertheless acknowledged the power of an addictive force. It is an incredibly important observation for our times, for what is being said here applies not just to this type of extreme media, but to numerous other influences from the benign to the dangerous.

On the benign end we have shiny gadget syndrome, Technolust and obsessive devotion to a football team. Each become all-consuming because we choose to expose ourselves to images, words and sounds which reach into us.

But as to the dangerous: I have absolutely no doubt about the internal processes that occur in those who expose themselves to the gratuitous violence of warfare. The shock of a solitary photo on Facebook depicting horrific destruction in Gaza, followed by the stream of ever more extreme imagery, gradually, stage by stage, transform the viewer’s heart.

Responses are not uniform. The natural reaction of some will be to avenge for the wronged, to send aid to the oppressed or even to fight on their behalf.

But others, who expose themselves to the actions of other avengers, may be to perpetuate such horrors themselves. If you expose yourself to the actions of the supposed liberators, as they execute their prisoners and meet out punishment on those who oppose them, will a time not come in some, when a line is crossed, somewhere deep within?

This is an extreme example, but we are living in extreme times. We have witnessed once sensible, polite, kind individuals suddenly thrust upon us in the newspapers as terrible supporters of barbarity.

It is crucial that we recall the wisdom of Lower Your Gaze in a time of all-pervasive imagery.

Nobody in 1989, could have imagined the world as it is today, with such extreme imagery on tap. The days of debates about the effect of the video tape, satellite TV and the arcade game are long gone. All of that seems tame now — although it wasn’t of course. We have just lost touch with reality.

Awake

Pinch yourself. Awake! The Internet is like Alice in Wonderland, a strange unreality, so unbelievably true. The maddening clamour of decapitated voices call to folly, chaos and the obscure, like a cloudy magic-mushroom induced alternative dimension. This tenacious entanglement is a web indeed, a pretender to reality, an exaggerated representation of a billion souls unfiltered by the constraints of worldly life; of eye contact, the weather forecast, the human touch.

A voice from within whispers, “Drink me,” and all of a sudden we are incredible characters on a tiny screen, engaged in amazing trancelike adventures, so fictitious that soon we believe that our lives in this alternative realm will never be held to account.

It scares me that so many appear willing to answer the call of an unknown entity, its impeccable social-media savvy unmatched; unquestioning masses in a stupor obeying without reflection, pledging allegiance to an idea made true only by its own propaganda. Verses of the Qur’an are passed on like business cards. Hadith are launched from great silos in a tale of shock and awe. To the young and uninitiated it is ever so convincing. But the rest of us have seen it all before.

Every time an army emerges in the East, its black flags a fulfilment of prophecy, the overexcited look on in wonderment at their messianic saviours and rush to pledge allegiance to the amir. At the turn of the century, it was the Taliban’s turn, celebrated by the naive as the perfect Islamic state. On the nascent internet, viral petitions were circulating by email, condemning the bedraggled band of students for its violation of women’s rights, but activists were undeterred, responding in kind with propaganda of their own. Then, as now, it was the Muslim’s duty to support these men without question; the Northern Alliance would become the great infidels to be vanquished, and after that the world.

But, just as it was not the last time, nor was it the first. In our own time, at the turn of the Islamic Century on 20 November 1979, a small band of heavily armed men likewise saw themselves as fulfilment of a prophecy about the end of times. It was the first day of the year 1400, after all, so significant and telling that it could only be true. After months of dreams, doubts and visions, the time had come to act: they would overthrow the House of Saud. With ecstatic self-belief they stormed Masjid al-Haram during the Hajj pilgrimage and made for the Kaaba. Here was the long awaited and promised Mahdi — Mohammed Abdullah al-Qahtani — the saviour of the Muslims. Then, as now, all the sincere Muslims of the world were supposed to pledge their allegiance the new Caliph. But instead blood flowed in that holiest of places and it became just another footnote in a long history of uprisings sold as the redemption of a nation.

But this time will be different, say the young activists, like the Zealots of Qumran on the edge of the Roman Empire 2000 years ago, clinging fast to prophecies of antiquity. Today’s Muslim does not need to study history, ancient or modern, for everything they need to know has been expounded by links fed via Twitter. Today’s Muslim does not need to ask questions, to scrape beneath the surface, to verify the news that has reached him. He will not ask, are these people friend or foe? He will not trace down IP addresses, lookup whois data on a domain. He will not wonder if it is a sophisticated honey trap, a malicious stunt, a family feud, sectarian hate-mongering, a counter-offensive, a rabble of bandits or even just an apparition created online, far removed from realities on the ground.

Many are confused — and rightly so — for on the internet truth and falsehood is irretrievably combined. Extremists spew hate, we learn one day, only to learn another that the extremists were counter-extremists fighting on the frontline of the war on terror, bringing down yet another extremist, who it turns out had extraordinary links to the security services. A young impressionable man reads of the tragic suffering of women and children overseas and is determined to go to their aid, we learn one day, only to learn another that he has been sucked into a dangerous war, unable to tell who is an innocent anymore. The kind and sincere have always easily been led astray, but in theses times, with these technologies, misguidance is boundless, uncertainty is the only certainty and time has no worth; everything is instantaneous. There is no time for reflection, no time to pause for thought. Patience is a virtue for which there is no time today. You must decide where you stand, here and now. Too late: it’s all over.

One hundred years ago, a small band of Serbian nationalists took action into their own hands, with a plan to assassinate Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo. With that burst of bullets, Gavrilo Princip accidentally sparked a war spanning continents, resulting in 16 million dead. Knee-jerk reactions by politicians across Europe resulted in one of the deadliest conflicts in human history.

And that’s the trouble with narrowly defined, self-declared noble causes: there is very little nobility in them at all. Just transgression of all boundaries. Only disaster lays ahead. Pinch yourself now, before it’s too late. Awake!

Keyboard warriors

The keyboard warriors are doing battle, clashing on all frontiers. With rage they tap ever faster on keyboards of glass and plastic, outdoing their opponents with snippets of sentiment, oblivious to the weight of their words. All is fair in love and war, they believe, unconscious of the cautious wisdom of old that sought to restrain the tongue from its visceral temper.

With unrestrained brutality, their opponents will be vanquished, indignation seething through their veins. It is a battle that must be won, right now, right there on a tiny screen, for all to see and witness. It is a battle that must be won at all costs, no expenses spared — work may suffer, a prayer might be missed, real life companions might sit neglected — all must wait, for in the heat of war, everybody must know of the rightness of the warrior, and every other view, opinion or passing thought must be defeated.

He who forsakes argument, even when he is right: a sunnah unheard. Speak good or remain silent: another sunnah ignored. Be just even against your own selves: a command unpracticed. He does not utter a sentence except that an angel is near him ready to record it: an observation unobserved. The most excellent are those from whose tongue and hands other Muslims are safe: the best of advice unheeded.

Isn’t it strange that war is so easy and peace so difficult, because peace just requires everyone to do nothing, while war requires them to do so much? Peace costs nothing, while war costs all.

On physical battlefields great armaments are fired, lives squandered, money dissolved, emotions crushed, innocents obliterated, passions heightened, humanity aborted.

On virtual battlefields words are weapons, emotions are bullets, anger bombs, but in the rage of the battle it is the soul of the attacking combatant that dies; it is his heart which shrivels up, his ego inflated. Incline to peace remains unrecalled. On this battlefield his words must reign victorious, and all others must be vanquished.

And so the battle rages on. Into the night and the following day. These words can never be exhausted. There is still so much more to say.

The way of truth

To me, it is remarkable that the progeny of a community which invested so heavily in the sciences of verification and authenticity to preserve the teachings of our religion will nowadays forward and repost every piece of unverified nonsense, malicious junk and political propaganda that appears before us on a slab of glass, without a second’s thought.

In the age of the internet everything and nothing is true. Whatever serves a purpose will be true for the moment. A lie become insignificant; it is all part of the push for truth.

We have forgotten, or are ignorant of, a verse of guidance: “And do not mix the truth with falsehood or conceal the truth while you know it.” –Quran 2:42.

But as we have discovered, it has always been so. Political machinations will trump even the sacred if it serves the agendas of the greedy and untruthful. Cruel and corrupt men often set us upon a path of their own design, heedless of the demands of truth, goodness and light.

We must resist. We must return to the way of truth. That is the true rebellion of our age.

Image Search

We are finding out the hard way about the power of the web. As site/blog/twit owners we need learn and relearn the ethics of posting media that does not belong to us. It’s all too easy to google an image and treat the search results as a clip art gallery. Of course Google simply trawls all content for relevant media; it does not distinguish Copyright material from CreativeCommons.

But as individuals we also need to seriously consider the wisdom of posting media which *does* belong to us.

Some friends constantly post images of themselves and their children on Facebook, believing them safe from the Google robots. Well they might be, but they haven’t fixed their privacy settings to prevent a distant acquaintance like me from witnessing every visit to grandparents, every bout of sickness, each momentous first step.

It only takes one person to borrow your Selfie to illustrate an article on the web for the process of Google dissemination to begin. Combined with popular keywords – african american, hijab, Muslim, niqab – it will soon appear on multiple sites, reused and reused, and out of control.

We have learned the hard way about the dangers of publishing to public media sites like Flickr. Realising our errors, as we notice others cataloguing, favouriting, reusing our images, we attempt to back track, only to discover that it is too late. We no longer seem to own our images – or our text, artwork, videos – they have taken on a life of their own, sometimes landing in the hands of the most despicable.

Here again ample illustration that we need a legal and ethical guide to navigating the great world wide web. May we all take heed.

Virtuous Reality

Who sits this side of the computer terminal, tapping out words that shoot out across the web? Nobody knows.

Nobody knows if the author is a believer or a doubter, the pious or a sinner, the learned or the ignorant, a guide, the guided, the misguided or a misguider. Nobody knows if the author is who she says she is, if she is a ghost-writer, a fantasist or an imposter. Nobody knows if what he says is honest and true, or if with his typing fingers he proclaims one thing, whilst his heart witnesses to another.

Of course only God and ourselves know what our hearts contain, but in this world of decapitated voices we are more easily led astray. A thousand admirers praised an author for their vast faith, sincerity and piety, whilst the applauded one’s faith withered away, witnessed only by God, close companions and their computer’s pale night-time glow. But how, but why, but please, oh no!

Such pain for one nobody ever even knew, except through their own words, selected and refined for public consumption. Who sits before the whirring box, its disk drives chattering, its fan blowing hard, its display imprinting the retinas with those small white squares that return whenever he looks back at his beloved? Nobody knows, except He who knows what our hearts contain.

May our Lord grant us virtuous non-virtual companions who guide by their actions and character, not merely by the words of their tongues or typing fingers, who emit that great light of faith that alone can carry us home.

Obsessive Compulsive 2.0

I’m not really sure about this Web 2.0 malarkey. I’ve just deleted my Facebook account again. Last time it was because I imagined a fantastical conspiracy in which key investors were databasing our identities for unspeakable ends. I can’t remember how the account came to be resurrected, but somehow I delved back in and rebuilt my global empire of friends. I found old classmates, connected with the Turkish relations and found myself sought by people who knew me from somewhere, or who were a friend of a friend, or who were just trying their luck.

But as of two nights ago, my Facebook account is no more (well technically, it will be no more in 14 days time; in the meantime I can change my mind and pretend this never happened). This time the reason was closer to home. Learning of another marriage on the rocks in which Facebook had played at least a part, I found myself heeding the alarm bells going off within. If this could happen to folk likes these—far better believers that I—it could clearly happen to me.

Although Facebook for me was just a glorified address book—as I shunned the invitations and applications that appeared on the dashboard when I logged in once a week—the analogy that sprang to mind was that of the marketplace. Now I can understand why sitting in such a setting without purpose is discouraged. ‘The nafs that walk the street,’ as a friend said recently, oblivious to the fallen relationships, ‘are the same nafs that surf the net.’ The face in a crowd that appears much more beautiful than that of your beloved is no different to the virtual contact who appears far more interesting than them.

In the past when my wife recounted yet another article describing a family torn apart by a blossoming relationship across the keyboards on Facebook, I felt able to dismiss it, pointing out that these things have always occurred, that it’s only the technology that’s changing. Why single out Facebook, I would ask? It was a valid argument, but it missed the point. She would condemn any forum where people were losing their senses and falling headlong into sin. But media accounts always carry a different weight to those of people you know. It is scary, to be perfectly honest, to realise that real relationships, real families, real spouses and real children are indeed reaping the consequences of our abandonment of the sunnah when we venture online.

I have enough experience of my own to learn that the Internet can be an addictive drug. There is something rather unsettling in the routine that sees one repeatedly checking back to an old favourite to see if it’s live again at last, even though it’s become perfectly apparent that we’re stuck with visual commentary for the rest of eternity. Such a habit is, of course, the least of the problem. Obsessive Compulsive 2.0 is rather more intrusive.

The weeks I spent offline, bringing the garden under control, were physically exhausting, but emotionally liberating. The world offline—for me—brings a peace to my heart (but often aches to my back, knees and arms). My return online soon has me spinning back into old, irritating ways. It is my curse.

And it is the curse of others too. Obsessive Compulsive 2.0 is taking over people’s lives, as they forget a multitude of sunnahs—the gaze of our eyes, the company we keep, our use of words, sitting alone (albeit with the intervention of fibre-optic cables) with those haram to us, and this list goes on.

‘What has happened to Tim?’ asks a friend. ‘Why such extremes, so suddenly?’

Is it an extreme, or is it the dawning of reality? Today ‘extreme’ is where Obsessive Compulsive 2.0 led two friends, but tomorrow I may change my mind. Today I am thinking out loud. Tomorrow I may make the hard choices.