Center for Strategic Communication

by Jeffry R. Halverson

Slated for destruction?

For the second time this year, remnants of the pro-Mubarak media in Egypt have caused a major stir in the international press and blogosphere by spreading false stories about alleged Islamist plans for Egypt. The latest claim is that the Islamist-led government of President Mohammed Morsi intends to destroy the pyramids of Giza and the rest of Egypt’s world famous Pharaonic heritage as un-Islamic or jahili remnants of pagan idolatry.

A story earlier in the year claimed that Islamist legislation was in the works in Egypt to allow men to have sex with the corpses of their dead wives. As documented by the NY Times and others, both stories are false. These stories picked up steam through the wild rumor-friendly world of the Internet. While unfounded rumors and allegations are nothing new to the world of politics (see the ‘secret Muslim’ and birth certificate conspiracies against the President of the United States), the latest Egyptian case is a very interesting illustration of how narrative systems work and inform contemporary attitudes and events.

Bamiyan Buddha before & after

As previously discussed on COMOPS Journal, the ancient city of Timbuktu has recently been the scene of tragic acts of destruction against Mali’s irreplaceable cultural heritage at the hands of Islamist extremists. Observers immediately saw parallels with the destruction of the ancient and monumental Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001 by the Taliban in Afghanistan. And although it has received little attention or condemnation, the destruction of historic Mecca has gone on for some two hundred years and continues up to the present, unabated.

In each instance, the extremists have justified their actions as a righteous act in accordance with the Prophet Muhammad’s exemplary destruction of the pagan idols in Mecca in 630 CE, or even the Prophet Musa’s (Moses’) destruction of the golden calf in the Sinai. In doing so, these extremists are vertically integrating local events and circumstances into a deeply culturally embedded narrative system (or master narrative). By doing so, the senseless acts committed by extremists are stunning examples of narrative rationality.

Beyond the perpetrators themselves though, the work of narrative is also being done by outside observers in the West. Western blogs and media outlets quickly adopted the false story about Egypt’s Islamists and the pyramids because the story so readily lends itself to an emotionally resonant and rhetorically advantageous narrative system. In certain circles, all things are believable when it comes to the Islamists. Such circles view Islamists only in abstraction, as a single-minded monolith. All differences among them are an illusion designed only to fool their enemies.

We can call this mode of thinking the “Green Scare.” In the Western context, the Prophet Muhammad’s actions in Mecca in 630 are not culturally embedded and don’t form the basis of the narrative system. Rather, the stories about events in Egypt, Mali, and Afghanistan, are understood as part of an interrelated system of stories (i.e. a narrative) that is readily deployed as evidence of the imminent Islamist threat to civilization. In other words, the “Green Scare” narrative.

The fact is that the realities of our world are far more complex and difficult to make sense of. However, as communication theorists have long argued, and  recent research in neuroscience has confirmed, human beings navigate and understand the world and daily life through narration or storytelling. Thus, the stories we circulate, even when proved to be false, often remain and inform our perspectives.  No doubt we will continue to hear more about the Muslim Brotherhood’s plans to destroy the pyramids, just as people continue to question the President’s birth certificate.