January 2, 2012

Debunking Myths About Islam and the Muslim World (Part 5)

This is the fifth post in a series commenting about The Debunking Handbook from the perspective of debunking the myths about Islam and the Muslim world.

Filling the Gap with an Alternative Explanation

The previous three posts focused on various backfire effects that may occur when trying to debunk misinformation. In this post, we look at how to provide the correct information to the misinformed.

When people hear misinformation, they build a mental model, with the myth providing an explanation. When the myth is debunked, a gap is left in their mental model. To deal with this dilemma, people prefer an incorrect model over an incomplete model. In the absence of a better explanation, they opt for the wrong explanation.

For many non-Muslims, this situation, opting for the wrong explanation, is not only all too commonplace, but is very frequently the preferred situation. Many non-Muslims want to believe the misinformation because to believe the correct information is too threatening, especially to their worldview.

The most effective way to reduce the effect of misinformation is to provide an alternative explanation for the events covered by the misinformation.

For the alternative to be accepted, it must be plausible and explain all observed features of the event. When you debunk a myth, you create a gap in the person’s mind. To be effective, your debunking must fill that gap.

From an Islamic perspective, what we must do is provide a new orientation to non-Muslims when discussing Islam and the Muslim world. We must cast a new light on these topics. With respect to discussions about the Qur’an and ahadith, we must explain this information with respect to the contexts that are most applicable, whether they be theological, historical or linguistic (in my experience, these are the three most important contexts to understanding Islam). With respect to the Islamic world, we must explain as best we can the cultural contexts that shape the Muslim world and the non-Muslim’s interpretation of our world. For example, back in December 2007, I wrote a post about a picture of an Afghan wedding.

At the time of this picture, the girl was eleven-years-old and the man was forty. Here’s what I wrote about this photo:

The problem I have with this photo in that, without context, the image may lead to wild conjecture. What is the man's motive for marrying this young girl? We don't know. I'm sure most Westerners would focus on the sexual aspect. I think this is what most Western men would first think of if they were given the chance to marry someone as young as this girl. That being what they would do, they ascribe this motive to the Afghan man.

But we don't know what's really in this man's heart, and his having sex with her may be years away. In a country where the average life expectancy (for both men and women) is less than 44 years (CIA World Factbook), the chances of him surviving much longer are not too good. Is she an orphan and he's providing a stable home for her? Does she come from a poor family and marrying her is a way for him to help provide for her now and later, after death, through an inheritance? Allahu alim.

Unfortunately, people often judge other cultures through their own cultural biases and, all too often, find the other culture wanting, even though they rarely have enough information to make an informed judgment. This is culture shock, no different than if a person went to Afghanistan and witnessed this scene him or herself.

We Muslims know there are alternative explanations that are perfectly logical and feasible to explain this type of situation; the thing we must do is make the explanation, to fill the “gap” in the non-Muslims’ minds.

One gap that may require filling is explaining why the myth is wrong. This can be achieved by exposing the rhetorical techniques used to misinform. … The techniques include cherry picking, conspiracy theories and fake experts.

We Muslim writers do this to a degree, especially when pointing out that various verses in the Qur’an either have been taken out of context or that they are only a partial answer provided by the Qur’an (meaning only part of the verse has been shown, or the following verse or verses have been conveniently ignored because they show the proper way in which the verses are to be understood; for example, verse 9:5, in which the second half of the verse is often ignored (…but if they repent, and establish regular prayers and practice regular charity, then open the way for them: for Allah is Oft-forgiving, Most Merciful.)

Another alternative narrative might be to explain why the misinformer promoted the myth. Arousing suspicion of the source of misinformation has been shown to further reduce the influence of misinformation.

What we Muslims should work harder at is to expose the conspiracies and the fake experts (the two go hand-in-hand). Fortunately, much of the dirt on the fake experts has been gathered by others, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Center for American Progress. Frauds like Brigitte Gabriel, Pam Geller and Robert Spencer need to be exposed to the general public again and again, showing that for them, Islamophobia is a get-rich-quick scheme. (Follow the money.)

Another key element to effective rebuttal is using an explicit warning (“watch out, you might be misled”) before mentioning the myth. Experimentation with different rebuttal structures found the most effective combination included an alternative explanation and an explicit warning.

Now this is something that I had not considered before, but I think the use of an “explicit warning” is great advice.

Graphics are also an important part of the debunker’s toolbox and are significantly more effective than text in reducing misconceptions. When people read a refutation that conflicts with their beliefs, they seize on ambiguities to construct an alternative interpretation. Graphics provide more clarity and less opportunity for misinterpretation. … If your content can be expressed visually, always opt for a graphic in your debunking.

I am not sure just how relevant this suggestion will be for Muslim writers. When we discuss Islam we are dealing primarily with concepts that may or may not be well-presented graphically. This may be easier to do with respect to the Muslim world, where we can deal with people and different aspects of culture, such as food or clothing. Once again, however, if you incorporate the technique into your writing, go for it.

Next: Anatomy of an Effective Debunking

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