Wednesday, May 06, 2009
Recyclopedia: Factoids in the Blogospheric Echo Chamber
It seems that more than half the time when I try to track down evidence for a claim I see on the Internet relating to the problem of Islam, I run into dead ends—or rather, into cul-de-sacs—where no source can be found to verify the claim.
When this happens with regard to particularly juicy claims about the issue, it becomes highly frustrating. While I often find plenty of sites that repeat the claim, I find none that actually provide a credible source for verifying that claim.
For example, while Googling for something unrelated, I stumbled across this claim on some forum or other whose name escapes me at the moment:
On March 8 1989, while speaking in London's Regents Park Mosque, when asked by a Christian Science Monitor reporter how he [Yusuf Islam, aka Cat Stevens] would "cope with the idea of killing a writer for writing a book" he is reported to have replied:
In Islam there is a line between let's say freedom and the line which is then transgressed into immorality and irresponsibility and I think as far as this writer is concerned, unfortunately, he has been irresponsible with his freedom of speech. Salman Rushdie or indeed any writer who abuses the prophet, or indeed any prophet, under Islamic law, the sentence for that is actually death. It's got to be seen as a deterrent, so that other people should not commit the same mistake again...
The person who posted this did not indicate the quote he was posting with quote marks or italicization: the reader assumes that the text set off as the second paragraph is the quote, since the wording indicates so.
This is a nice, plump, juicy quote allegedly reported by an eminently reputable source (the Christian Science Monitor), and if nailed down with adequate verification, could help considerably to buttress the claims of those who argue that extremism is more systemic among mainstream Muslims than is commonly assumed. In this case, this money quote issues from the mouth of an otherwise pleasant and famous pop singer who converted to Islam over two decades ago, Cat Stevens, aka Yusuf Islam. While other directly related damning evidence about Yusuf Islam exists that is verifiable (this 1989 New York Times article and this video of a 1989 BBC panel discussion), it is always nice to have more evidence on hand.
Now, the first problem with this claim presented by the aforementioned commenter is that no link is provided. At least, however, the commenter provided a date and venue—March 8, 1989 in the Christian Science Monitor.
Reasonably assuming that this commenter provided a verbatim quote, I copied the first line—In Islam there is a line between let's say freedom and the line which is then transgressed—and pasted it into the Google search bar and framed it in quote marks.
To my now weary lack of surprise, this yielded not one result based in the Christian Science Monitor. What it did yield was 302 results from various websites and blogs, all apparently parroting someone else in the Blogospheric Echo Chamber, but no one of them actually grounding the Cat Stevens quote in an actual credible source—even if from another reputable newspaper, other than Christian Science Monitor, I would have been happy.
At the head of the list, we see the likely culprit, that secondary source of ungrounded claims throughout the Blogosphere—indeed, throughout the Internet—Pseudopedia, aka, Wikipedia: initially, some of the other sites and blogs that have repeated this quote probably got it from Wikipedia, and the rest of them just regurgitated the first few who had uncritically cited that Recyclopedia.
Checking out the Wikipedia entry for this, the citation of sources for verification provided there is laughable where it is not abysmal: No footnote is provided for the quote, and in the introductory paragraph, there are highlighted link-words, but they do not lead the reader to any relevant verification: For example, the date March 8, 1989 is highlighted as two separate links (the month and day being one, the year being another), but when the reader clicks on them, they only lead to Wikipedia articles about those dates in general having nothing to do with the Cat Stevens quote supposed to be on that date! The same goes for the other highlighted link-words there, “Regents [sic] Park” and “Christian Science Monitor”.
The second result on the first Google page is another Wikipedia entry, from an apparently subsidiary site called “Wikiquote”. There as well, one finds no linked citation to a source. In fact, it only notes the year (1989) along with “Christian Science Monitor”, but no month or day. If that isn’t bad enough, when referencing the Christian Science Monitor, it refers to the title of the article and puts it in quote marks as “Yussuf [sic] Islam, Formerly Cat Stevens, Expresses Support For Rushdie Death Sentence”. However, when one searches the archives at the Christian Science Monitor for “Yussuf Islam” (as opposed to its correct spelling, “Yusuf”—cf. above), one gets zero results.
Okay, back to the Google results:
The third result takes us to a website that seems to be a mindlessly naive celebration of the musical talents of Cat Stevens, where in the comments section, a person with good intentions simply regurgitated the quote, probably taken from Wikipedia, but of course, provided no source.
The fourth result is the above-mentioned commenter from Dhimmi Watch.
The remainder of the Google results on the first page have the same problem: no actual credible source for verification of the quote.
While the first page indicated that there were 302 results, when I tried to click on successive pages 2, 3, 4, etc., they all lead me to a second page with only two results on it, indicating an end to the results—after only 10 results on the first page and then two on the next page.
In addition, there was, of course, no link among them directly to the official Christian Science Monitor site.
Today’s example is only one of many I have noticed over the past year since I began to become aware of this problem. This unfortunately reflects a sorry state of basic evidentiary quality to the communications activity of the "Counter-Jihad" in the Blogosphere. And, since the Blogosphere continues to be the main venue for this most crucial aspect of that movement—if only because the world of mainstream media (including the news, arts & entertainment, the art world, and pop culture) remains so inhospitable to anything vaguely critical of Islam—this augurs ill for the success of the movement, or at least for its timely success. Again, this is not rocket science: most of these claims and quotes can be nailed down, if they exist. All it takes is a bit of meticulous labor.
The fact that nobody in the movement seems to care about this, and that even among the more effective luminaries of the movement (Robert Spencer, Daniel Pipes, Pam Geller, Andrew Bostom, Ibn Warraq, Ali Sina, etc.) there is no sign of any concern about this, reflects poorly on its state of organization—or more accuately, its lack thereof. If the movement were better organized, matters like this would be noticed when individuals like me brought them to the attention of the movement (for, there would be a system whereby important matters could be raised and actions to take adjudicated), and then certain people would be delegated to do something about it: like physically walking to a library, sitting down in front of a microfiche machine with a spool of the relevant archives of the alleged Christian Science Monitor source, finding it (if it exists), transcribing on a piece of paper its contents as well as the precise and complete referencing information (including the precise page number as well as the number of the tape spool and company that produces the microfiche archives), then writing it up on a blog for all to have as a reference for any future occasion where the quote becomes useful. Ideally, such researchers would be paid for their efforts, as the movement acquires increasing organization, which would include funding for its ongoing project.
As it is now, however, the movement remains “still inchoate”—which means it mostly lopes along in sloppy fashion with little coherence in ideology and not much coordination of practical matters ranging from marshalling public rallies (like a Million Man March on Washington, for example) to providing basic services in its communications activity, as discussed in my essay here today.
The Anti-Islam Movement: Prospectus for Improvement