Richard Dawkins, social media and the problem of echo chambers

In an odd and provocative tweet, Richard Dawkins shared this image without context:

A lack of context left some followers confused. Some tweeted, ‘ISIS brides?’ and ‘@RichardDawkins Oh you ‘islamophobe’ Richard! Sharing the plight of Muslim women like this. How dare you! #sarcasm’

Others provide context:

The truth behind the tweeted image dates back to 2011. Ali Hashisho took the photos during the Ashura procession in the village of Saksakieh, southern Lebanon. It is important to view Hashisho’s other photos of the event.

What is Ashura?

The day of Ashura holds special significance for Shia Muslims. It falls on the 10th of Muharram (the first month of the Islamic calender).

It commemorates the martyrdom of Hussein in 680AD in Karbala (modern-day Iraq). Hussein (Husayn ibn Ali) was Muhammad’s grandson and the third Shia imam.

Men and women wear black during processions – some chant and slap their chests. A minority emulate Hussein’s suffering through acts of self-flaggellation.

But this bloodletting is not without controversy: some Shia clerics encourage blood donations. In 2009, over a thousand Shia in Afghanistan donated blood. Others did a similar study in Iran.

Hussein’s murder is defining event in historic Shiism. In historic terms, the Shia were a political faction (known as the ‘party of Ali’). They believe Muhammad’s religious and spiritual authority passed onto his son-in-law and cousin, Ali ibn Abi Talib (and his children).

The schism between Sunni and Shia deepened after Ali did not succeed as caliph following Muhammad’s death. Ali’s murder in 661AD cemented the divide.

Pilgrimage to Hussein’s tomb in Karbala is second in importance only to performing hajj.

But it is unfair to blame Dawkins alone. The image resurfaced in 2014 in a Christian Post article relating to ISIS’s horrific sex slavery trade.

The caption for the image reads, ‘These Christian women were chained and forced to wear veils by ISIS militants in Iraq’. The source of the image? Twitter.

Without context it damages the serious issues of sexual abuse and violence that impact women in the region. Appealing to echo chambers and confirmation biases undermines healthy debate.