While ISIS descends further into cartoon villian territory as story after story surfaces illustrating just how Evil™ they are, one report, in particular, struck a cord on social media over the past few days: that ISIS was not only purging Mosul and parts of northern Iraq of Christians but was in fact mercilessly burning down centuries old churches in their path. Human Rights Watch CEO Kenneth Roth's reaction summed up the social media sentiment quite succinctly:
The broader narrative of Christian oppression, reported on by everyone from The New York Times to The Daily Beast to CBS News, while certainly very troubling (though likely overstated) wasn’t enough to get the Christian community en masse, to say nothing of a war-weary and cynical public, up in arms. After all, Iraq is far away and most Americans have more or less written off violence in “that part of the world” as a law of nature. But, the visual of a church on fire with its appeal to Christian solidarity and its broader offense to both culture and secularism writ large stuck a universial cord. A uniquely vulgar act of medieval barbarism that united liberal and conservative, communist and conspiracy theorist, believer and nonbeliever. There was only one problem: the story, as it turns out, was entirely bunk.
First reported by Saudi-owned Al Arabiya News, it was clear from first glace that something was suspect, and upon closer inspection, that something was a rather cynical - if not fairly shoddy - piece of anti-ISIS PSYOPS. A quick reverse image search revealed most of the pictures of the alleged burning churches were neither from 2014 or from Iraq. The article's prose was sloppy, its claims suspiciously vague, and its descriptors loaded. From the first paragraph it seems unsure of its own bold claims:
Militants from the radical jihadist group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria have set fire to a 1,800-year-old church in Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul, a photo released Saturday shows.
"Released" by whom? If there's a goddamn church on fire, why are photos in need of releasing at all instead of "holy shit, this church is on fire"?
The burning of the church is the latest in a series of destruction of Christian property in Mosul, which was taken by the Islamist rebels last month, along with other swathes of Iraqi territory.
Which church is "the" church? Are there more than one in Mosul? Which sect?
Fortunately for me, while fishing on Twitter for a corroborating source (shocker: there aren't any) I stumbled upon an intrepid archaeologist by the name of Sam Hardy who, being intimate with the region and its historical treasures, quickly called bullshit on the whole ruse and wrote out a rather scathing and dispositive indictment of Al Arabiya’s story and, by extension, the subsequent scare stories that cited it, namely pieces in mainstream outlets like The Atlantic and The Independent - the latter of which was later republished in the Times of India, the third most read newspaper in the world.
Mr. Hardy gently tweeted his explanation to the News sites' corporate twitter and, like all tweets directed at corporate accounts, it went nowhere (protip: always tweet the journalists not the company). Still, the Mosul church-burning story picked up steam; online outrage steadily grew by midday. The narrative of a faceless, all-evil ISIS was becoming not just consensus, but a matter of objective reality that crossed ideological lines. Driving out Christians was bad enough - but torching their centuries old houses of worship? Surely these people are monsters. So, in concert with a newly invigorated Mr. Hardy, I alerted the journalists who cited the story until eventually they conceded the error and retracted any mention of Mosul church fires.
First, is The Atlantic Wire which handled the correction with speed and professionalism:
The Independent, however, did not acknowledge the material change and just re-edited the piece to scrub any mention of the church burning:
Unfortunately, since the erroneous version was "published" in The Times of India before the correction was made to the UK version, the incorrect version remains online at the Times of India's website. The Times of India is the most widely-read English-speaking publication in the world.
Despite the frustration of letting Times of India slip through the cracks, having two versions of the same story up at once (corrected UK version can be read here) provides a unique and interesting window into how radically different far-off news events read when not animated by visceral stagecraft like the violent destruction of cultural institutions. Of course the alleged atrocities against Christians - from displacement, to extortion, to intimidation, to terrorizing - if true, would be a crime in their own right and, given the historically pressing nature of religious-based genocide, more than run-of-the-mill collateral damage. But until an independent, non anonymously-sourced (and theocratically-run) outfit validates these hugely consequential stories, the press ought to be wary of them on their face. The buildup to war with ISIS - just as with the last war in Iraq - does not happen by accident. It's the finely woven fabric of thousands of narratives - some real, some fictious, but all equally essential to strengthening the charge to war and the "othering" of another far-off, brown population in urgent need of our disdain.