The rumor spread across Pakistan in a blitz of text messages on cellphones.
There was a killer virus on the loose and all you had to do to catch it was answer a call from an infected number. The virus didn't hurt cellphones, but would -- eyewitnesses confirmed this -- cause users to drop dead. The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority was forced to issue a denial telling users that it was safe to turn their phones back on.
Then there were messages claiming that Israeli trucks were carrying a million HIV-infected melons to Arab consumers in a new biological-warfare plot. This was not to be confused with other urban legends about a "Western-Zionist conspiracy" to use polio vaccines and other medical means to sterilize the next generation of Muslims.
"The contemporary Muslim fascination for conspiracy theories often limits the capacity for rational discussion of international affairs," argued Husain Haqqani of Boston University, at a conference in Istanbul entitled "Fact vs. Rumor: Journalism in the 21st Century." This recent gathering of journalists and scholars was organized by my colleagues at the Oxford Centre for Religion and Public Life.
Haqqani stressed that the "Muslim world's willingness to believe rumors is not a function of the Islamic religion. Like other Abrahamic faiths, Islam emphasizes truth and righteousness. The Koran says: 'O ye who believe! Fear Allah, and (always) say a word directed to the Truth.' And one of the sayings attributed to Prophet Muhammad ... specifically forbids rumormongering: 'It is enough to establish someone as a liar that he spreads what he hears without confirming its veracity.' "
Nevertheless, these rumors roll on, creating a cycle of fear and bigotry. The result is a climate of confusion and cynicism that prepares millions of people to believe the next round of rumors, often with violent consequences in an age in which ancient prejudices and modern technology merge seamlessly.
The results can be seen in recent WorldPublicOpinion.org surveys in Egypt, Morocco, Pakistan and Indonesia, said Haqqani, who is an active Muslim. As a rule, participants had positive attitudes about globalization, freedom of religion and democracy. Yet roughly three out of four surveyed said that Muslim nations should strictly enforce Sharia, or Islamic, law as part of efforts to reject sinful "Western values." Large majorities affirmed the belief that the United States is trying to "weaken and divide" the Muslim world and slightly smaller majorities said America's goal is to "spread Christianity in the region."
The impact of the rumors can, perhaps, be seen in another paradox seen in these surveys, said Haqqani. Large majorities in Egypt, Indonesia and Morocco (results were mixed in Pakistan) agreed that violent groups that kill civilians are guilty of violating the "principles of Islam." However, less than a quarter of those polled believed that Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda were responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.
"Many Muslims seem to believe that 9/11 was a great achievement, but that Osama didn't do it," he said. "They are confused by all the rumors."
Leaders in the West must understand that almost half of the world's Muslim population is illiterate. Meanwhile, the 57 Organization of the Islamic Conference nations contain about 500 colleges and universities, compared with more than 5,000 in the United States and 8,000 in India. That is one university for every three million Muslims.
Yet this painful fact is not the only source of this predisposition to embrace conspiracy theories, said Haqqani. After all, the digital consumers who use their cellphones to spread ridiculous text messages are not illiterate.
"What we are seeing is not just a crisis rooted only in religion or education," said Haqqani. "This is a culture-wide crisis of politics and economics and technology and education and it is easy to see the role of religion because of the powerful role that faith plays in the lives of millions of people.
"The greatest fear of most Muslims is that their societies will be over run by the Western world. ... They believe that modernity equals Westernization, Westernization equals promiscuity and licentiousness and all of that equals a loss of faith. We cannot change that overnight. It is a project of a century or more, in which millions of people must learn that the modern world is built on values, laws and tolerance, not just highways, airplanes and cellphones."