Religion Column: Misinformation about a faith threatens us all

“Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.” George Bernard Shaw

I remember a colleague complaining that some of her students lacked critical-thinking skills. She would give her students a hypothesis and ask them to prove or disprove it. Normally, a hypothesis is a conjecture that does not have a proven answer until it is passed through a rigorous analysis.

Oftentimes, some of her students would accept at the outset that the hypothesis was true without having done the necessary due diligence of investigation. After collecting data, these students would only consider the pieces of information that seemed to fit their preconceived thinking and would discard all other data that was inconsistent with the hypothesis even when the contradictory data was substantial and evidential.

Normally the scientific process of investigating a hypothesis requires one to consider all of the data and not just some of the data. By doing the latter, these students were deluding themselves and others who read their findings. They were no longer trying to make the theory fit the data. They were only considering data that fit their theory no matter how thin and sparse this data may have been. It may have been this type of intellectual delusion that prompted George Bernard Shaw to write his famous quote.

Two examples of false knowledge are misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation is a type of bad information that is presented as truth because the communicator does not have the facts straight. Disinformation is another type of untrue communication that is deliberately spread and represented as truth by the propagandist. Nowadays, misinformation and disinformation are virtually indistinguishable and easily spread through blog and discussion forums as well as through social media such as Facebook and Twitter. It is becoming harder and harder to distinguish what is what, but their harmful consequences are the same.

It is the duty and responsibility of those in position of authority to seek and acquire as much truthful knowledge as possible in order to govern responsibly. Legislators acting on bad or false information are more likely to create harmful decisions that end up punishing the most vulnerable elements of society.

At the end of March, 13 Idaho lawmakers hosted a closed luncheon at the Capitol building with a former Muslim turned pastor as a guest speaker. This traveling speaker from Washington state warned that Muslims are trying to infiltrate Idaho and gain a foothold by establishing “enclaves” around the state. These charges immediately drew outrage from many Idaho religious and human rights leaders.

When asked about the credibility of the pastor’s claims, the organizer of the luncheon said that he was on a “fact-finding mission.” As a member of the Board of Trustees of the Islamic Center of Boise, I can verify that no one in the Muslim community in the Treasure Valley was ever contacted to participate in his “fact-finding mission.”

I contacted the leader of the Bosnian mosque in West Boise, who was never approached either. A while ago, his congregation presented a cemetery project to city officials near Kuna. The project became controversial when some neighbors tried to block it because they were opposed to having a Muslim cemetery in their “backyard.” He confided in me that he did not understand how some people can be against burying the dead. He then added that, in this day and age, people seem to not only be afraid of living Muslims, but they are also afraid of dead Muslims.

I realize that many people do not know much about Islam and Muslims due to their limited interaction with this particular group. However, I have also come to realize that it is not this ignorance that is a danger. It is false knowledge like misinformation and disinformation that have become the new clear and present danger for all of us alike, Muslims and non-Muslims.

I will finish this faith column by reminding my readers that spreading bad or false knowledge about one’s neighbors is breaking one of God’s commandments in the Judeo-Christian traditions, namely, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” A similar commandment is found in the Quran. In Verse 2:24, we read, “And cover not truth with falsehood, nor conceal the truth when ye know what it is.” I hope and pray that Idahoans will reach out to their Muslim neighbors and get to know them. The doors of our Islamic Center are always open.

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.