A few weeks ago, a distraught friend of mine asked me to comment on an email that his work supervisor had received. After reading the message, I realized that I had come across this email in the past, one of countless chain letters denigrating Islam and Muslims.
Chain letters have been around for ages with the first recorded letters being circulated in 1888. Gullible readers are urged to reproduce them and forward them to a number of new readers with a promise of good luck if they comply or a threat of bad luck and misfortune if they ignore the request. While mailed chain letters had a slow rate of dissemination, the advent of email, text messaging and social networks makes it possible to reach thousands and even millions of recipients at the stroke of a button.
When we speak of unsolicited commercial email, we use the acronym "spam" which has become the code word for the annoying mass messages we receive daily. When it is your family members or relatives spending you spam, we refer to it as "spamily."
You yourself have probably received thousands of email letters from total strangers wanting to make you rich through various nefarious schemes. All you would need to do is send them a little money and your bank account and bank routing numbers.
For the most part, chain letters do not have a clear purpose. They are simply a vehicle for disseminating information or rather disinformation and misinformation perpetuating certain beliefs or stereotypes. In this day and age of political correctness, what cannot be said overtly can easily be publicized under the cover of email anonymity.
Chain letters are usually written in the language of an eighth-grader and contain unreliable information. Most chain letters contain false or vague information without references or sources that make it impossible to verify that information. Many such letters seem to promote an ideology of some kind or express hatred and bigotry toward certain minority groups. Due to their nature, it is always difficult if not impossible to determine where they originated.
If you receive an anti-Muslim chain letter and would like to check its facts, there are specialized websites like snopes.com that debunk urban legends, rumors and misinformation. Another route is to ask a Muslim friend to give you an honest appraisal of such a letter and its arguments.
So, what do you do when you receive a chain letter asking you to forward it to 10 or 20 relatives, friends or even strangers? Always bear in mind that you are a link in a chain that will eventually visit millions of people but only thousands will ever discover the truth.
The first easy action you can take is to ignore the email or simply delete it. By doing so, you tell yourself that you will not participate in a mass email that wants you to "bear false witness against thy neighbor." Another similar action is to set up an email filter that automatically identifies spam messages and quarantines them for a predefined period of time before discarding them. The problem with such a filter is that it will also stop all emails and messages from the one relative or friend that keeps sending you these pesky emails. It may be a good thing but you probably would not want to do this because they are after all "spamily."
If you are knowledgeable, you could try to refute the sender's arguments one by one. However, this is probably a lost cause. On the other side of the line, the original sender of the email is not interested in a discussion or a dialog about facts or substance. Their minds are already made up and they will swear that "it is a goat even if it flies." The above expression is used in Arab culture to refer to a rigid or stubborn person who will stand by a position in spite of available evidence to the contrary. In my own experience, I have had some people send me emails until the wee hours of the morning.
Eventually, I figured out that I could never win an argument with someone who does not sleep.
One of the most evil men who ever lived, Dr. Joseph Goebbels, propaganda minister of the Third Reich in Nazi Germany, said, "Repeat a lie a thousand times and it becomes the truth."
Spreading lies is not a spiritual or moral way to conduct one's life. Everyone involved must stop, delete or stand up to such behavior.
Dr. Said Ahmed-Zaid is a Boise State University engineering professor and the 2004 recipient of the annual HP Award for Distinguished Leadership in Human Rights.
The Idaho Statesman's weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.