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“Islamists and necrophilia.” If you enlarge these words in a headline, and type them in a bold font, you would be boosting your Western readers’ Islamophobia and your story would go viral.
That must be what reporters in Daily Mail and The Huffington Post, among others, were thinking when they put up a recent "news" story on an alleged parliamentary bill allowing necrophilia and child marriage in Egypt. On the Huffington Post, the headline read, “Farewell intercourse law: Egyptian Parliament reportedly drafts measure to allow husbands to have sex with dead wives.” The headline is of course appetizing for prejudiced Western readers, since a story on how Egypt’s Islamists advocated that a man could have sex with his deceased wife up to six hours after her death serves to reinforce Western prejudice and Islamophobia. Hundreds of comments were posted, decrying how perverted Egyptians are. And the story was shared thousands of times through Twitter, Facebook and blogs. But the story was a hoax.
There was never any bill in the Egyptian Parliament that authorized necrophilia, nor was the question ever raised. Instead the whole story has turned out to be based on a bizarre chain of rumors, with journalists seeing what they want to see and hearing what they want to hear, without any fact checking.
The story came to life two weeks ago when the controversial columnist Amr Abdel Sami wrote a column addressing necrophilia in the Egyptian state-owned newspaper, Al-Ahram. In the article, he warned of the Islamization of Egyptian society, specifically what he considered an alarming Salafi success in the parliamentary elections. To heighten the acuteness of his argument, he gave some examples of what such a development might lead to. Among several things, he alluded to a statement from the controversial Moroccan Sheikh Zamzami Abdul Bari, in which the sheikh proposed that it would be halal for a man to have intercourse with his wife after death. It should be noted that Zamzami is infamous for his startling fatwas, having earlier embraced consumption of alcohol for pregnant women, for example.
Abdel Sami proceeded to state that he was afraid that a proposal like this could be presented in Egypt. He also mentioned that the president of the National Council of Women had sent a letter to the (now dissolved) Constituent Assembly, addressing the importance of protecting women's rights in the new constitution.The day after, Tuesday, the well-known TV host Jaber al-Qarmouty discussed the column in his TV show on the private satellite channel ONTV. After reading the passage concerning necrophilia aloud several times, he also wondered whether the proposal could be introduced as a bill in the Islamist-controlled Egyptian Parliament. Without having any further proof other than the column itself, he asked rhetorically whether Abdel Sami had some access to secret discussions concerning the proposal, as basis for his speculation about the alleged necrophilia bill. Qarmouty’s own assumption on Abdel Sami’s access to “sources” only gave the false story more credibility.
The day after, the reputable Saudi-owned news channel Al-Arabiya brought up the matter on their English website. By now, all the little fallacies had been synthesized, and the last twist added to articulate yet another bold headline: “Egyptian women urged parliamentarians to reject the draft laws that allow child marriage and sex after death.”
What is puzzling about the spread of this hoax story is that it could not have been that difficult for journalists to fact check it. When we contacted Ziad Bahaa Eddin, MP for the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, he replied within an hour, stating that no such “ludicrous” bill had ever been discussed or brought up in Parliament. But Al-Arabiya has a large audience and many took note of the astounding “news,” which consequently spread around the globe. Soon, the same fallacious story was published by news outlets in the West, such as the Daily Mail, the Huffington Post and the influential American feminist e-zine, Jezebel.
When we got in contact with Sweden’s biggest morning newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, which had also published the necrophilia rumor, they were quick to defend their publication. They argued that they had “trusted the source of the story in earlier occasions” and that they did not see “why they would be dishonest in this case.” Only after being presented with extensive proof that the news was fabricated did they remove the article, and admitted that the whole story was “quite embarrassing.” No such apology has been published by the Daily Mail, the Huffington Post or Jezebel, and none of them has removed their articles to this day. Their adjustments amount to insignificant disclaimers on how the story “provoked widespread skepticism.”
The fact remains, however, that around the world, people are left with the idea that crazy Egyptian Islamists are advocating necrophilia as characteristic of their faith. Judging by the contemporary attitudes towards Muslims in the Western world, it is not hard to guess which narrative will linger in the public consciousness. Regardless of the fallacy of the necrophilia story, it is likely to stick in many Western minds.
It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the reason this story was allowed to go viral without raising any skepticism on the part of the publications that spread it was simply because it reinforced Islamophobia among prejudiced Western journalists and their readers.
Helena Hägglund is a freelance journalist based between Cairo and Stockholm. Sam Carlshamre is an Arabic PhD candidate at Lund University.