In Mideast, religion looms large in coronavirus misinformation blitz

In Mideast, religion looms large in coronavirus misinformation blitz

Some analysts see trend of crackpot cures, conspiracy theories as natural result of a society trying to come to terms with an unprecedented health pandemic

A man bows his head during prayers in an empty mosque in Plano, Texas, May 24, 2020. (LM Otero/AP)
A man bows his head during prayers in an empty mosque in Plano, Texas, May 24, 2020. (LM Otero/AP)

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AFP) — Mass conversions, immunity for Muslims: in the global maelstrom of disinformation spurred by the coronavirus, many of the more outlandish claims that went viral in the Middle East were religious-themed.

Some analysts see this as the natural result of a society trying to come to terms with an unprecedented health pandemic.

“At times of inexplicable crisis and conflict, people revert to their cultural myths and convictions to make sense of what is going on,” American University of Beirut (AUB) media studies professor Nabil Dajani said.

“I observe that this is happening everywhere and not only in Islamic regions.”

Globally, myths circulating online include crackpot cures for COVID-19 and conspiracy theories about its alleged origins, with even world leaders touting false claims.

In the Arabic-speaking world, AFP fact checkers have observed a trend for social media posts containing false religious-themed claims about the virus.

A video purporting to show Chinese people converting to Islam because the novel coronavirus “does not affect Muslims” was shared in February 2020.

The clip, however, actually shows Tagalog-speaking people converting to Islam in Saudi Arabia in May 2019 –- months before the first outbreak in China.

Another clip shared online claims to show Chinese people receiving copies of the Quran after the country had lifted a “ban” on the Islamic holy book following the spread of the coronavirus.

It is actually a clip that has been circulating since at least 2013 on reports of copies of the Bible being distributed in China.

‘Cultural myths’

A video has appeared on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter along with a claim that it shows the Islamic call to prayer, or adhan, being heard for the first time in 500 years in Spain, one of the countries worst hit by the pandemic.

However, there has been no ban on the adhan in Spain in recent times.

“In our region, religious claims are sometimes in tension with science and medicine,” said Sari Hanafi, professor of sociology at AUB.

“But religion is also a main source for social solidarity which is integral to resisting the psychological stress of quarantine.”

View of the prayer area of the Islamic Cultural Center and Mosque, empty due to social distancing guidelines during the coronavirus outbreak, in Madrid, Spain, April 23, 2020. (Bernat Armangue/AP)

Beyond religion, AFP fact checkers have also observed a trend of false claims suggesting the collapse of countries in the West as they grapple with the pandemic.

A video named “Italians commit suicide” was shared widely on Arabic social media platforms, purporting to show Italians committing mass suicide in a public square because of the coronavirus.

However, the video — filmed months before the COVID-19 outbreak — actually depicts a protest against the Italian far-right.

Social media users also circulated statements falsely attributed to Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte that only “solutions from the heavens” could save his country.

Mideast no exception

Dina Matar of the School of Oriental and African Studies in Britain said religious-themed “conspiracy discourse” is not only a regional phenomenon.

“We should not construe this in exceptionalist language that the Middle East is different,” she told AFP.

In the region, and elsewhere, these narratives are “symptomatic of practices that have intentionally invoked religion to legitimize political practices,” she said.

“Religion has always been used as a political discourse, not only in the Middle East, but in the West as well,” she told AFP.

In Israel an influential influential Sephardic rabbi claimed that the spread of the deadly coronavirus in Israel and around the world is divine retribution for gay pride parades. Another leading ultra-Orthodox rabbi also claimed that his community bore the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic because secular Jews aren’t as prone to divine retribution as the religious, whose sins are judged more harshly by God.

As in other regions, conspiracy discourse does not only focus on religion but also feeds on exaggerated patriotic sentiments, social stigmas and racist stereotypes, according to Hanafi of AUB.

Conspiracy theories claiming the coronavirus was created in US bioweapon labs to hit China and Iran, and misleading claims that refugees attract COVID-19, have featured alongside religious-themed posts on social media, the sociologist added.

This kind of disinformation becomes prevalent “when we feel powerless in the face of reality and do not know how to explain something scientifically,” he said.

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