There is a popular myth that we live in the age of information. If all the noise that passes for news were factual, the world would be full of knowledgeable people. They would not allow the horrors that we witness today. The reality is very different.
Let us consider an extreme example to better illustrate this point. In the US, supporters of the Republican frontrunner Donald Trump believe a wall should be built along the US-Mexico border to stop the flow of illegal immigrants. But China must pay for it! Trump’s supporters also say that he should not reveal how he plans to fix America’s problems because other candidates will steal his ideas.
Trump is a dangerous demagogue and a racist. He has targeted Hispanics, blacks, Muslims, and other vulnerable groups. His supporters love his rants. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Americans, and not just Trump supporters, are woefully ignorant. Given the drivel dished out on Fox News and CNN, it is not surprising, but it is dangerous, nonetheless. If people in Timbuktu or Bujumbura were ignorant, it would not matter much but it does if Americans are ignorant. Politicians of all stripes exploit such deliberately created ignorance to advance their militaristic agenda that results in the killing of millions of innocent people globally. The American people thus become accomplices to crimes perpetrated by their rulers.
The problem, however, is much broader and goes beyond Trump supporters. Muslims and Islam are especially targeted and demonized through such disinformation campaign. A poll by the Brookings Institution last November revealed the depth of hatred and distrust of Muslims and Islam in America: over three-fifths of those polled have unfavorable views of Islam. This rises to a massive 73% among Republicans. True, terrorist attacks such as those in San Bernardino and amplified by the media contribute to mass hysteria but it overlooks pertinent facts. The San Bernardino shootings resulted in 14 deaths. Every year, 33,000 people die of gunshot wounds. The gun lobby refuses to allow any restrictions on guns. At least 40 people or more are killed each year due to falling furniture or improperly placed television sets. Lightning kills an equal number. While humans cannot prevent lightning, Trump wants to ban all Muslims from the US. He has not called for banning killer TV sets, yet!
Lack of knowledge is the primary reason for such strong negative views about Islam and Muslims. For instance, among Republicans who have not met Muslims, only 22% had a favorable view but this rose to 59% if they were acquainted with some Muslims. Among Democrats, the favorable view was as high as two-thirds. Attacks on Muslims and their places of congregation (masjids) have risen alarmingly since 9/11 but they have spiked further since Trump’s racist crusade was launched, now joined by other Republican presidential hopefuls as well.
Muslims became the target after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1992. The “green peril” replaced the “red scare” as American neocons went hyper. It would be wrong to assume that the problem is confined to the US alone. Similar campaigns have been underway in Europe. In 1990, when the Iraqi dictator Saddam Husain occupied Kuwait — lured into the trap by the US, one might add — this still was not enough to mobilize the American public into attacking Iraq. Along came Nayirah, a 14-year-old Kuwaiti girl who told the Congressional Human Rights Council on October 10, 1990 that she had witnessed Iraqi soldiers throwing babies out of incubators in Kuwaiti hospitals to die while the wicked soldiers carted the incubators away to Iraq. It was not revealed at the time that Nayirah was the daughter of Kuwait’s ambassador to the US, Saud al-Sabah and had been coached by the public relations firm, Hill & Knowlton, working for the Kuwaiti government. The story was completely false but was repeated by then US President George H.W. Bush as justification for attacking Iraq. Even Amnesty International was roped into this diabolical plot.
Nayirah’s was not the only false story. In 2003, the US and Britain concocted the lie that Iraq possessed chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons even when UN inspectors had rubbished such claims. This propaganda was used to launch another war on Iraq that resulted in the destruction of its infrastructure as well as the death of more than one million civilians. The country has been effectively partitioned with sectarianism running rampant.
The same vicious and interventionist propaganda has been repeated against Syria since the foreign-instigated war was launched in 2011 to overthrow the government of Bashar al-Asad. Civilians trapped in war zones and on the verge of starvation are blamed on regime forces and not the terrorists when ample evidence to the contrary exists. While truth may be the first casualty of war, this is deliberate distortion to advance a nefarious agenda. Western regimes talk about “moderate rebels” and the media duly parrot such lies.
We live in an age of ignorance. Truth is irrelevant. Not surprisingly so many innocent people die worldwide.
Zafar Bangash is Director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought (ICIT).