When a Culture Makes Information the Enemy

When I began my career as a journalist, working as a science editor at an online media organization that unfortunately no longer exists, I fantasized about becoming a war correspondent. I wanted to go into war zones and cover the truth about conflict. My naïve view was that all I needed was to be savvy about staying out of the line of fire. And I’ve always figured I’m pretty savvy. People at war, I wrongly thought, don’t target the people communicating the truth about a conflict they are involved in. It’s in their best interests for the truth to get out. Or so I naively believed.

It wasn’t until the middle of Egypt’s 2011 revolution when I experienced first hand and witnessed the targeting of journalists. My personal experience was fortunately very limited: a thug pounced on me and broke my video camera while filming the renowned Battle of the Camels, when men on camelback raided Tahrir Square.

But since then, I have become acutely aware that journalists are constantly targeted in my region and by people from my region. Journalists covering Israeli insurgencies in Gaza have been targeted and killed by the Israelis. Journalists covering the situation in Egypt are killed and jailed by the state for doing their jobs. Journalists covering the situation in Iraq and Syria are kidnapped and then brutally beheaded by IS militants.

And today, 12 people working at French satirist magazine, Charlie Hebdo, were killed by masked gunmen apparently saying God is Great.

Targeting journalists is not, obviously, something only people of Arab or Islamic origins do. It is incredibly frightening to me as an Arab Muslim, though, to see this happening in significant numbers in my region and by people from my region and religion.

I can’t help but see that much of this stems from a culture of enmity towards knowledge and information. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people from my culture warn against reading books not written by “trustworthy” writers. Or the constant fear I see among so many of my fellow countrymen of any “other”. Egyptian Christians have faced countless violent attacks against them over the years. Atheists in Egypt are vilified and now even jailed for their lack of belief. Shiite Muslims are attacked in my country and I understand our Ministry of Interior has a special division dedicated to monitoring their every movement. There is a constant fear that “the other” will poison the thoughts of a helpless population who will then be lured into leaving their religion of truth.

What are “they” afraid of exactly? What truths do they not want people to know? What kind of a flimsy, slimy religion do they belong to that cannot tolerate any other opinion or truth than their own? What are these values that demand that whatever they see as sacred must be treated as sacred by all, while what an “other” considers sacred, such as freedom of speech or even human life, can be viciously and barbarously attacked?

In my region and among my people thrives a culture of enmity towards knowledge and information. Religion is used time and time again, by the state and by extremists, to shield people from both. They deem themselves the only credible sources of knowledge and information. They deem themselves the only ones allowed to propagate misinformation. Only they have the right to insult, vilify and desecrate what others hold sacred.

The roots of evil and extremism are many; countless even. But one thing we, as Muslims and as Arabs, need to take a serious and frank look at is our enmity towards knowledge and information. We claim that our religion encourages both. Yet our reality is that we live in fear of knowing anything but the truths we are spoon-fed by the state and by our elders.

The senseless cruelty we witnessed today in Paris, the barbarity we’ve seen happen many times now in Iraq and Syria, and the journalists rotting in Egypt’s jails are symptoms of a deep-seated culture in our societies. My fear is that it will take generations until real change is seen.

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3 comments

  1. Information is not the enemy. Information (propaganda) is a weapon that both sides of a conflict use. Truth blunts the effectiveness of that wespon, so a speaker of truth is targeted by both sides of a conflict.

  2. There is the question of being scared of the truth, there is also an argument that they are scared of falsehoods.

    Ah, but falsehoods can be the most revealing. Understanding a broken argument helps understand a valid argument.

    An analogy in engineering: A bridge that stands, solid and strong, isn’t always as interesting as a bridge that fails and falls. Understanding why one bridge fails is valuable in understanding why another bridge stands.

    Similarly, if one is interested in the truth, then certainly there should be no fear of the truth, but there should be no fear of falsehoods either: for the truth stands up to scrutiny, but lies are fragile.

    Fear of information comes from insecurity. A worry that truths one holds dear might be fragile. Fear they might be wrong.

    -kb

  3. Hi Nadia. I am Irish and have worked in the ME for 6 years, incl KSA, UAE & Qatar. I have said for some time that Islam needs a big debate. Like Christianity had during its reformation and at other times. There are parts of Islamic scripture that are not acceptable to many Muslims, while the more extreme insist on a literal interpretation. Example – Sura 9:5. There are many other similar verses & hadith as you are fully aware. And when you have the foremost country of Islam practicing zero tolerance to all other religious practices under threat of death sentence from the nations courts, then let us all admit that the more extreme elements of Islam are even possibly a majority. Look what happens in Pakistan to anyone who tries to make any modern change to the blasphemy laws – as another example. Boko Harem in Nigeria – another. A very educated Muslim friend of mine tells me I must ignore majority Muslim opinion and instead look to the true meaning of Islam. He believes that because the majority of Muslims are living in 3rd world countries with poor education and little freedom of speech, opportunities etc, then what else can I expect. What a sad statement to have to make. And to answer him, what I do expect is that the intelligent senior political and religious figures of Islam would promote an honest debate about whether a literal application of certain verses is appropriate in the modern world. You & I both know that those who would suggest anything like that would be branded kaffirs by the extremists and face death at any moment. Much bravery would be required. And if that were to result in a divide in Sunni Islam then so be it – the Modernists and the Traditionalists or whatever they might call themselves. But I doubt very much that such a debate will ever take place. Sadly. I agree with you ‘generations’ assessment. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. Not a single ray. Islam has reached a very dark place.

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