Be Careful What You Believe

I was recently sent an email about a shopkeeper in Houston, Texas who had posted a sign that stated "We will be closed on Friday, September 11, 2009 to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Ali."  The message accompanying the email read "Only in America Can You have the Gall to do This" and "Imam Ali flew one of the planes into the twin towers."

This is an example of how serious damage can be done to innocent people when viral internet photos go wrongGeoff Berg and Snopes clearly explain the misunderstanding of the people who mistook what the sign was about.

...all the indignation is the product of a massive misunderstanding, illustrating the awesome-and sometimes damaging-power of the Internet.

The hysteria whipped up by this email could easily spiral out of control.  If you were this store owner, would you feel safe knowing that hate-filled people had come to precisely the wrong conclusion for no reason other than their ignorance?

Like the Golem of old, who was meant to protect Jews from the murderous intent of the mob, the power of the Internet must be handled carefully and judiciously.  Otherwise it will run amok, destroying both good and bad. 

In this particular instance, someone snapped a picture of a real sign and then made claims that were completely erroneous.  But the email took off and people became emotionally charged without reviewing the real issue. None of the 9/11 hijackers was named Ali and the word Imam is not a name but rather a title that refers to a Muslim religious leader.

Imam Ali is not a modern day terrorist; he was a 7th century religious figure.  Disagreement over Ali's role in Islam led to the division of Muslims into the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam.  Ali was attacked by an assassin while praying and died on the 21st day of Ramadan.  It is a religious commemoration for the Shia. 

The Islamic calendar is based on lunar months.  Thus the months of the Islamic calendar move around from year to year with respect to the Gregorian calendar.  Consequently, in 2009, the 21st day of Ramadan coincidentally fell on the Gregorian calendar date of September 11th.

This had nothing to do with the 9-11 attacks on America.  This was not meant to commemorate any of the terrorists of that dastardly event. The store manager was stunned by the reaction of people.  He has since apologized for the confusion and put up a sign explaining the background of the holiday.

Yet, the hostility has not let up.  Angry letters are mailed to the store.  Workers are yelled at by irate customers.  In fact, there have been threats to kill the shop owner.

For those who know me, I am ardently committed to exposing jihadist activity but what has happened with this storekeeper is absolutely wrong and should put everyone on notice to be careful about what is accepted as factual.

If we are to fight the enemy's lies, we must not engage in dishonesty ourselves.  Theologian Martin Buber once explained that the reason we repeat the word justice in "Justice, justice, thou shalt pursue justice" is because people need to remember that coming to a just conclusion through unjust means is not ethically correct. 

If we do not check our sources and, instead, immediately fall for emotionally-laden material, then we are no better than the genuine enemies we seek to diminish.  If we do not understand the awesome and often dangerous power of the Internet, then we do ourselves an injustice in seeking the truth.

The email and internet photo should be put to rest.  The Houston shop owner should not be in fear for his safety and the rest of us should be wary of these types of occurrences.

Especially, as the midterm elections draw closer, we have to be very vigilant but also keep to the moral high ground if we are to be truly victorious over the enemies of freedom.

Eileen F. Toplansky can be reached at