The Powerhouse of the Ignorant

Reenactment of Ashoura procession used to stir up anti-Muslim sentiment

Reenactment in Ashoura procession used to stir up anti-Muslim sentiment

A few days ago a close friend of mine posted a picture of two Muslim women dressed in black wearing the headscarf in a conservative fashion, covering not only the hair and neck but a large part of the chin as well, leading a line of little girls shrouded completely in black, their faces unseen, and their hands were tied together in chains. I normally don’t pay much attention to the many shares my friends post on Facebook because over the past few years I’ve realized that hardly any of the articles or pictures are accurate, but my friend’s horrified comment next to the picture made me want to see what the caption said. I clicked on it and went to its original post. The caption associated with the picture read “Muslim girls being lead off in chains to meet their new husbands.” Looking around within the picture I could see that the women in the background had their hands on their chest in what was clearly a rhythmic beating. I realized that I was looking at a Shiite Ashoura procession. The girls covered in black and chained were performing a reenactment of the aftermath of the battle of Karbala where the granddaughter of the prophet was brought chained to the Caliph in Damascus after her brother had been decapitated. Shiites mark this time of year to be a time of mourning and sadness and recall the heroism of the prophet’s descendants in the face of tyranny.

There were over five thousands likes and thousands of shares. There are over fourteen thousand likes to that picture as I write this and a sea of comments that doesn’t seem to end. Most of the comments are hateful rants towards Muslims and Islam that go all the way to extermination. Some have actually commented that Hitler “started with the wrong religion.” And in between these comments there were those who were trying to show the reality of the picture but they were either being ignored or shunned. The thread had become a powerhouse to the stubborn, angry ones who didn’t want to be told they were ignorant. Comments like “we don’t need to know the truth, this happens anyway” or “it doesn’t matter if the picture isn’t true” received dozens of likes.

Apart from the clear Islamophobia inherent in the post, there was more importantly a brazen show of disrespect to the audience that reminded me too much of the kinds of posts I see everyday about the situation in my country, where suddenly all people ever talk about is politics. There was a clear attempt to stir up emotions, and for the past three years most of the posts I’ve seen about Egypt were of this kind. One would think that ignorance is silent, receiving, acted upon, but I realized that there’s really no sound louder than the sound of ignorance, and no people more confident and outspoken than those who have no idea what they’re talking about.

We’re all ignorant about many things, and in difficult times when feelings are sore it’s hard to remain reserved and not say something, anything, to let the steam out. What we’re usually doing then is just that: letting out steam. We’re not adding anything and we’re definitely not receiving much. In conversations like these no one is even listening; it’s hard to dissociate what we’re receiving – be it a comment or a picture or a piece of news – from our feelings and from our previous related experience, so our reaction is usually marred by whatever that thing we’re receiving has conjured up. Rarely is it merely a reaction with the same size and magnitude of the action itself.

My friends recently bullied a person who was trying to pinpoint a technicality in the Egyptian justice system. She could have been saying something worth paying attention to or she could have been talking gibberish, but she was stating a fact worth looking into first before deciding on the value of her words or even her political allegiance. Yet somehow my friends quickly dubbed her as a voice from the enemy camp and tucked her away into a categorical mental box. She was immediately dragged into the forcefield of the powerhouse. Perhaps they knew her allegiance beforehand and perhaps they didn’t, but there was nothing in what she said, in my opinion, worth conjuring all of that. That is why I use the word “bully” and I mean it in every way. The mere fact that she was not joining in on the wailing automatically placed her in the opposite camp. They started jumping on her words and taking them to further hypothetical ends she never explicitly expressed. Needless to say the conversation got unnecessarily ugly from all sides, and I watched mortified as my friends continued to shoot at that person even though she had withdrawn from the conversation and blocked half of them. I actually considered interfering to her benefit, neither to attack them nor defend her, but rather to show them what their emotions made them do, or to just show them what the conversation looked like to me from the outside, but I thought better. My friends were way too emotional that I knew I would be risking being placed on the enemy camp along with her. I would say that that shouldn’t happen because, after all, they were my friends and they knew me well, but in reality I didn’t think our wounds allowed us to see each other anymore.

Behind the safety of the keyboard there is a liberty many of us aren’t really aware of. It just acts itself out as we clack our emotions away. Some people become passionate lovers and others become dreamy children, but the troubling ones are the sociopaths. I read some of the words in the comments on that picture of the little Shiite girls and I started wondering what the people who wrote those words were like in their actual lives. I looked at their profiles and there was nothing out of the ordinary, yet they seemed to be so ignorant of Muslim culture that they’ve been easily manipulated by fear of the unknown. I couldn’t help comparing them with our situation at home. Some of us show indifference to the suffering of others simply because they happen to come from the wrong side of the political camp. I know some such people personally, and some I know very, very well, and I know that they are nothing but regular individuals leading quiet, ordinary lives. It’s disturbing to wonder how many nice people in our lives hide inside them hating, aggressive, vulgar sociopaths that only come out in the virtual world, but I think the reality is that ignorance of the other has generated unbearable fear, a kind of fear so out of proportion that it can be easily manipulated into anything. Somehow, this fear only finds solace with the fear of others. From behind the screens we, the ignorant, bond and our confidence grows until we’re ready to gang up on anyone who dares to challenge the comfort of our ignorance. We choose to leave our real world and forever live in our powerhouse, and somehow, the scared, the lost, the confused become the confident, the know-it-all, the judgmental.

It scares me to think of what humans are capable of producing in collectivity, and I place myself as no exception. This realization that one is “not alone” is of course comforting, but it can have very dire consequences.

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  1. #1 by Jon Silver (@TheJonSilver) on June 30, 2014 - 4:35 pm

    Thank you for an excellent article, and for giving voice to those of us who are worried about the speed and voracity with which social media can spread lies as messages of hatred to an ignorant, indifferent majority.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. #2 by Arwa Salah Mahmoud on June 30, 2014 - 11:06 pm

    Thank you very much, Jon.


  3. #3 by Shir on July 27, 2014 - 6:02 pm

    I found your article after searching quite deep for the source of this picture because I tend, just like you, to have lots of doubts about the shares people post on facebook. I want to share with you that I am a great believer in the human nature and in the equality of everyone, no religion bias, but I sadly find that I can’t ignore all the stories about the treating women in Islam. I live in a country where young women are being worn not to be tempted to date a muslim since there are countless horrible stories where they were forced to stay in the village, couldn’t contact family, got beaten up as an educational measure… besides the statistics about female circumsition and steaching of the vulva until marrige, pictures of women being stoned to death for cheating or for being raped, child marriages in arabic countries, and so on and so on. please help me see how we are ignorant for seeing all of that, I really want to understand a muslim man’s stand on those issues. thank you.


    • #4 by Arwa Salah Mahmoud on July 27, 2014 - 6:40 pm

      Thank you for your comment, Shir. I wish I had an easy answer to your question but the issue is a lot bigger than the space provided.

      Much of the phenomena you refer to is a direct result of social and cultural values that have existed in some countries for centuries, even before the advent of Islam. With Islam there was an attempt to reform society’s understanding of women’s role yet due to the underdevelopment of these societies these ancient habits have persisted. Islam as a faith and a theory has been subjected to various interpretations most of which were colored by the cultural and social backgrounds of the scholars as well as the political contexts within which these interpretations took place.


  4. #5 by Michel Verheughe on August 3, 2015 - 9:26 am

    Thank you for your article. As many others, I received this hate mail via Facebook and, had to check it because I can’t believe anybody would be so cruel to their daughters. And, of course, it wasn’t true.

    I am a Norwegian atheist, socialist and pacifist and I believe that the best way to go to war against terrorism is to invite a Muslim at home and learn about each other. By sending Muslim hate emails, we do exactly what the terrorists want us to do: to increase the gap between us.

    Best regards from Norway,


    • #6 by Arwa Salah Mahmoud on August 3, 2015 - 10:01 am

      Thank you, Michel, for your comment. You voice my exact sentiment. I do believe that connecting directly as people spares us hatred, which is almost always perpetrated by governments and media.


  5. #7 by km on August 1, 2016 - 4:12 pm

    thank you very much for explaining this image – i was very keen to find the source, having seen it used online in the service of anti-islam propaganda.


  6. #8 by Jakub Kanior on July 2, 2018 - 8:56 am

    You must admit that this picture is horrifying even if it is some kind of traditional roleplaying. Maybe this is also what some really stupid people felt as the wrote something like “it doesn’t matter if the picture isn’t true”. It is really too easy for rightwing assholes to use this picture for their propaganda.


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