According to the Pew Research Center, 38 percent of Americans report that they often get news from social media and web sites or apps. Within that group, a significant number get some of their news via Facebook. That number includes me. Although I have digital subscriptions to the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, I frequently click on links embedded in the timelines of some of my 1,000+ Facebook friends. They, in turn, can click on links to news stories, op/eds, etc., that I think worthy of their attention.
Many have lamented that because most people on social media interact with persons who are politically like-minded, this phenomenon creates a filter that reinforces what we already believe and distorts or excludes what we don't already believe. I entirely agree. But lament all we want, this phenomenon isn't going to go away.
Related to it in an important way is our ability to "talk" to one another about news items: in the case of Facebook, through "liking" a particular link or adding a comment. This brings us to the question of what political discussion online looks like, and whether it leads anywhere or is merely the equivalent of a cat chasing its tail.
Three days ago I posted this article link on my Facebook timeline: A Lesson for Newt Gingrich: What Shariah Is (And Isn't) (New York Times, July 15, 2016). The article--and my decision to call attention to it--stemmed from comments by former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich after the latest ISIS-inspired massacre, this one in the French city of Nice.
Gingrich made the comments in an interview with FOX News commentator Sean Hannity. The full transcript is here. The entire interview is laden with eye-popping statements, but the remark that made the most headlines was this: "Western civilization is in a war. We should frankly test every person here who is of a Muslim background, and if they believe in sharia, they should be deported. Sharia is incompatible with Western civilization."
From the way that Gingrich (and Hannity) talked about Sharia law, one would suppose that it consisted mainly of instructions about how to oppress and kill people. The article I posted explained the actual nature of Sharia:
The article squared with what little I knew of Sharia law, mainly that it bore scant resemblance to the caricature all too often peddled as truth--including Gingrich, who should have known better and probably did.Put simply, for believing Muslims, Shariah is the ideal realization of divine justice — a higher law reflecting God’s will.Muslims have a wide range of different beliefs about what Shariah requires in practice. And all agree that humans are imperfect interpreters of God’s will. But to ask a faithful Muslim if he or she “believes in” Shariah is essentially to ask if he or she accepts God’s word. In effect, Mr. Gingrich was proposing to deport all Muslims who consider themselves religious believers.Start with a crucial distinction. Shariah doesn’t simply or exactly mean Islamic law. Properly speaking, Shariah refers to God’s blueprint for human life. It is divine and unchanging, reflecting God’s unity and perfection. It can be found in God’s revealed word in the Quran and in the divinely guided actions of the Prophet Muhammad.In contrast, another Arabic word, “fiqh,” refers to the interpretation and application of Shariah in the real world. Fiqh is Islamic law as practiced by people. Because it’s a product of human reasoning used to understand God’s word, Islamic law is subject to debate and imperfection.The distinction between Shariah and fiqh matters especially because Muslims, including religiously traditional Muslims, do not all agree on what Islamic law requires in practice. They’re disagreeing about what God wants, to be sure. But almost all faithful Muslims would say that they believe there is a single, truthful answer that lies in Shariah — we just cannot be absolutely sure as humans what that answer is.
I did not expect anything more than a few "likes" to the link I posted. Instead it generated dozens of comments, replies to the comments, replies to the replies, and so on. The one I found most interesting was this one: "The article obfuscates the reality of Sharia law. I notice it doesn't get into any specifics of what Sharia law prescribes."
"In that case, enlighten me," I replied.
Facebook Friend 1: "Google it. It's too depressing."
Me: "Oh come on. If you're going to make statements as if you know what you're talking about then you should be able to demonstrate that you know what you're talking about. On an issue as controversial as Sharia law, telling someone to simply 'google it' will not do."
Facebook Friend 1: "Shariah law contravenes the US Constitution. To give a few examples, it relegates women to an inferior status. A woman who has been raped cannot testify in court against her rapist. It criminalizes homosexuality. It allows an adult male to marry girls as young as 9 years of age."
At this point a second Facebook friend joined in. "Sura? Hadith? Author? Where do you get this stuff?"
We were thinking exactly the same way, because an instant later my next response appeared. "Sources! What are your sources??"
Facebook Friend 2: "Or, I'd like to play: the Bible is inconsistent with the Constitution, allowing incest (Lot and his daughters) and polygamy (Abraham and Sarah) and forbidding the accumulation of private property (Jesus and the camel through the eye of a needle).
At least this bigotry is semi-informed, if utterly devoid of context."
In the meantime I looked up Sharia in a college textbook, An Introduction to Islam (3rd ed.), by Frederick Matthewson Denny, which I happened to have in my library. Then I wrote:
"Sharia 'law' is somewhat of a misnomer, but essentially it is sweeping in scope and forms what might be called the scaffolding of Muslim spiritual life. So to place a ban on Sharia law would be to place a ban on Islam itself. But to take one of your allegations--about marrying 9 year olds-- no country in the world allows girls to be married at 9. The lowest is 10. Massachusetts has a law on the books permitting marriage at 12 under "exceptional circumstances. Indonesia, which has the largest population of Muslims in the world, has a threshold of 16. A strong query can be lodged against the phenomenon of child brides, but it is a worldwide problem." I supplied the source for the marriage age issue, an article in the London Daily Telegraph.
Facebook Friend 1 correctly noted that the chart showed that in Iran the lowest age is indeed 9. I didn't see the correction until hours later, because by that time I'd gotten off Facebook to get on with my day. In the meantime Facebook Friend 1and Facebook Friend 2 had exchanged twenty responses with one another.
Taken on the whole, the Gingrich statement and the string of comments and replies to the link I posted left me wondering about how we exchange information with one another, because if we can't get our facts straight meaningful dialogue is impossible. But since nowadays one person's fact is another person's opinion, at a minimum we need to be clear about the sources of our information. I'm not saying that we must footnote everything, but when someone asks us for a source we should be able to supply it.
I decided to follow Facebook Friend 1's suggestion when I asked him to supply me with specifics about Sharia law as he understood it.
"Google it," he had written.
So I did.
Here are the top ten Google hits to "Sharia law" as of 1 a.m. today:
Sharia Law (Simple English Wikipedia, accessed July 18, 2016)
Sharia (Billion Bibles, accessed July 18, 2016)
Obama Makes JAW-DROPPING Statement About Sharia Law (Allen B. West, July 16, 2016)
Sharia Is Nothing to Fear (TIME, July 16, 2016)
Sharia Does Not Mean What Newt Gingrich Thinks It Means (The Atlantic, July 15, 2016)
Sharia (Wikipedia, accessed July 18, 2016)
5 Things You Need To Know About Sharia Law (Huffington Post, July 15, 2016)
Shariah (Islamic Law) (New York Times, accessed July 18, 2016)
In a Swipe at Gingrich, Obama Rejects "Repugnant" Call To Test Muslims (CNN Politics, July 15, 2016)
The Ugly Truth About Sharia Law (Washington Times, June 13, 2016)
I'll have more to say about this in a future post. In the meantime, take a look at these links and consider what, after perusing them, you would reliably know about the specifics of Sharia. Or whether you think anyone would actually take the time to look at them. Or whether they would read the articles which fit their existing world view and dismiss those that did not. Or whether they would give up and watch cat videos.