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Runaway rumors wreak havoc
Published in Daily News Egypt on 20 - 06 - 2006

What's behind the uproar of The Da Vinci Code, the Bahai, Danish cartoons and the rumors-law?
CAIRO: It s either one way or another, one extreme or the other. That is how we run things in Egypt. We either don t acknowledge bird flu or we kill all the birds; The Da Vinci Code is either on the racks of every bookstore in town or it is banned from the country. The latest news is that the rumors-law is up for debate.
People get involved with issues to the point that they begin acting irrationally, taking drastic and conflicting decisions. Emotions rise and rationality recedes. Take for example the Danish cartoon crisis. People only started reacting when the cartoons were republished - the emphasis on the re. Except for a couple of mass mails, no one even objected when the Danish newspaper first published the cartoons.
It s possible that the entire crisis that led to the worldwide demonstrations and cost a few lives could have been avoided by an early response or objection proportionate to the offense. But leaving the issue hanging and then deciding to react so forcefully was both surprising and perplexing.
When I got the mass e-mails asking people to protest against Danish cartoons a few months after I had first received them, I thought there was something wrong with my e-mail, showing me old messages as new. As the newscasts were filled with demonstration footage from around the world, all I could think about was why now and not earlier? What mobilized people now to react in such a way to something that they had disregarded a few months earlier? And more importantly, why when a group of youngsters decided to address the roots of the issue, the miscommunication between Islam and the West, did the agitated protestors refuse?
Although the issue wasn t exclusive to Egypt, the answers can easily be found in the psyche and culture of this country s population. It could be synonymous to other regions, but it is definitely something that characterizes and defines being an Egyptian: we respond to emotions, not information.
Just last week parliament hailed the government s decision to ban The Da Vinci Code in both film and book form. Surprisingly, the ban found its supporters on the street in spite of the objection of some activists and a number of organizations.
Anyone who has been into a bookstore in the past three years knows that the book is in high demand; it has been the best-selling English-language novel for the past couple of years, according to local bookstore owners. Author Dan Brown s previous books that carry ideologies similar to the one for which The Da Vinci Code was banned took prominent spots in the same stores. Books about The Da Vinci Code are receiving the same attention.
Even after the ban, the previous Dan Brown novels, most notably The Da Vinci Code prequel Angels and Demons, are still in stores. The books that explain the controversial ideology that was covered in The Da Vinci Code are also still in stores.
So, why ban the book now? And why only ban this book? Is it because there is a film about it?
Again, the same answer poses itself; public opinion was so occupied by the idea of an American big-budget film made about the novel that they took a decision that contradicts itself and its own rational. It s just because this book is popular, others aren t.
Take the recent court case regarding the Bahai faith. The focus of discussion was that if we acknowledge the Bahai religion, the infusion of its practitioners among the society will ruin its culture. The solutions people were offering in street discussions and on-air debates conflicted with the reasons why they were against it. If opponents really wanted to stop Bahai's from being integrated in the society for fear of undermining Islam, then they wouldn t have called for Bahai's to be identified in legal papers as Muslims. This would only increase their integration.
It didn t matter that Bahai's have been living in Egypt and in the region for more than 100 years, mingling with the Muslim and Christian majority. It seemed that the purpose was to achieve a superficial solution to the issue, satisfying the agitated, uninformed masses just to get the Bahai's out of the headlines.
This attitude, depending on emotions not information, has led on several occasions to either leaving the problem unsolved and then reacting disproportionately to it, offering superficial solutions to calm the masses and leaving the problem to mushroom beneath the surface, or, at other times, making a problem out of nothing.
The same attitude is being used to pass the new rumors law in parliament. After the country faced many rumors, at times causing a stir and financial losses, suggesting a law to fight such rumors sounds acceptable. Remember the rumor about a Cairo-based serial killer, which resulted in fear and anxiety, and more recently the one about the Nile being infected by bird flu virus, which led people to empty supermarkets of bottled water?
Almost all analysts have noted that rumors spread because of the lack of transparency. But again, no one is looking for a real solution, just something to calm the masses. Instead of putting forth a law that would demand more transparency in addressing issues, the rumors law is now being discussed. Instead of fighting rumors, it is expected to put more limitations on press freedom, since any piece of controversial news could be labeled as a rumor and the writer would face charges.


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