The girl’s blue-check dress is dirty and dishevelled. She is very young but it is difficult to guess her age. She has no face. Her head is gone.
You might have seen this image in the past week, shared as it has been countless times on social media via websites keen to draw attention to the unfolding threat from Islamic State militants in northern Syria and Iraq. “A distraught father in Syria holds the lifeless body of his decapitated daughter, executed by militants because she was of a Christian family,” recounts one of those sites, Catholic Online. “All humanity owes a debt to this baby girl, to find her murderers and bring them to justice, dead or alive.”
Perhaps what we also owe is the decency to accurately relate the circumstances of her killing. A year ago her image was circulated as being of a Christian girl beheaded by members of the Free Syrian Army, a group distinct from and in conflict with the IS, and the man holding the girl’s tiny body was not her “distraught father” but a “fanatic” displaying his “trophy”. Two years ago the dead girl was identified as two-year-old Fatima Meghlaj, a victim of the Syrian military’s bombardment of the town of Kafr Owaid.
Regardless, the image has been used hundreds of times as evidence IS militants have begun the systematic beheading of Christian children in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. The sole source for these reports is Mark Arabo, an Iraqi-born American citizen living in San Diego who acts as a spokesperson for Chaldean Christians. “The world hasn’t seen an evil like this for a generation,” he told CNN interviewer Jonathan Mann on August 6. “There’s actually a park in Mosul that they’ve actually beheaded children and put their heads on a stick.”
There are many credible stories of IS atrocities. Human rights organisations report numerous cases of executions of civilians from various minority communities. The heads of dozens of executed Syrian Army soldiers have been displayed in a park in Raqqa. Hundreds of members of the Yazidi faith have been massacred. Tens of thousands have been forced to flee their homes, adding to the millions of refugees created since the Syrian civil war began.
It is fair to call what is going on a genocide, in the third sense defined by the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, of deliberately inflicting on a national, ethnic, racial or religious group “conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part”. The preconditions exist for something even worse.
But stories of the systematic beheading of Christian children, along with other with lurid hearsay accounts such as such as jihadists ripping unborn babies from the bellies of Christian women and hanging them from trees, deserve to be treated cautiously.
The lack of any corroboration should be cause enough for caution. The Syriac Orthodox Archbishop of Mosul, Nikodimos Daoud, for instance, spoke in an interview on August 7 of the wholesale eviction, robbery and mistreatment of Mosul’s Christians. “They stooped so low as to take a gold earring from a six-month-old girl’s ear” he said; he but made no mention of any child losing their head.
Adding punch to Arabo’s claims, however, are photos of alleged atrocities committed against Christians. Catholic Online published 10 evocatively captioned photos to show that the situation is “the purest manifestation of evil witnessed since the Rape of Nanking during WWII” – a bold claim given the appalling death tolls of Darfur, Rwanda and Cambodia.
One shows a toddler “waiting to be killed by militants”. Three rifles are pointed at the child’s head. The picture is purported to have been posted, with the caption “Our youngest hostage from among the hostile sects of Kessab”, on social media by a supporter of Free Syrian Army in mid-April, though it seems to have turned up on a Yemeni Facebook page before that. Kessab, a mostly Armenian-populated town on the Turkish border not far from the Mediterranean coast, was overrun in March by rebels associated with the Al-Qaeda-aligned al-Nusra Front, a group distinct from both ISIS and the FSA.
Despite reports that up to 80 civilians were killed, credible sources including the town’s mayor have since denied any massacre of innocents, let alone children, during the rebels’ three-month occupation. Given the existence of other fabricated images of atrocities in Kessab, including a particularly gruesome scene lifted from a 2005 Canadian slasher flick, a cautious question mark must hang over this image’s authenticity – and an even more emphatic one over the caption supplied by Catholic Online.
The same can said about the other eight other images. “How can anyone turn away from a child, facing mortal terror?” reads the caption of a photo showing distressed children. “ All Christian children in Mosul are reportedly being killed.” This photo, however, is from the aftermath of a car bomb explosion that killed two and wounded dozens in a market in a rebel-held suburb of the Syrian capital in June, a day before the start of the holy month of Ramadan. The children most likely are not Christian.
A further two photos show children “who died after being driven from their homes with nothing to eat or drink” and who “lie where they were killed by militants”, which is curious given it is the same children in both photos. They are not Christian but Yazidi Iraqis, who have fled their homes to Mount Sinjar; and though they might be exhausted, starving, thirsty and in a desperate situation, neither photo shows them to be dead.
But the piece de resistance is a horrific picture captioned: “Islamists killing a woman by slitting her throat and capturing her blood in a bowl.” This one comes from a series of faked photos that circulated in China in 2007, involving a hoax about a village of cannibals who entrap lone female travellers and eat them during New Year celebrations.
The first casualty of war, as the saying goes, is truth. Exaggeration, distortion and fabrication is old as war itself. Mobilising public opinion with atrocity stories, as Phillip Knightley notes in his history of war journalism, The First Casualty, is a “timeless ploy”.
The barbarity of the Islamic State jihadists is real enough to require no concoction, so why is it happening? Is it because public consciousness is seen to be so immune to stories of everyday violence that only the most cruel acts against the most innocent are seen as sufficient to spur a reaction?
Or is it an even darker reason, that such stories resonate because they provoke instinctive heartfelt emotion while also perversely satisfying deeper cultural and religious prejudices? Is there a desire for stories of atrocities so beyond the pale that there justification to not only think of the jihadists as animals and sub-human but the creed they proclaim as barbaric and satanic?
Some evidence of this comes from the more than 1500 comments published on the Catholic Online article. A few call for prayers. Most do not. Amid the continuation of domestic politics by other means – with the usual denunciations of Barack Obama as a treasonous, non-American, Christian-hating Islamist sympathiser – is a relentless barrage expressing rage, hatred and a thirst for vengeance that seems decidedly at odds with the Christian principles the website ostensibly stands for.
“I was tempted to say that these people are animals but animals do not inflict this type of cruelty on others,” says one comment. “This is demonic but sadly this is Islam.” says another: “They aren’t animals, they’re evil demons,” says yet another. On and on it goes: “Those Muslims beheading children are doing exactly what their religion asks them to do”; There is nothing good which has come out of any Muslim country”; “The only good that can come of these photos is that people will wake up and see that all muslims are really animals!”; “Time for another crusade”; “Exterminate all Islam now”; “Drop a bomb and rid the world of them in that part of the world once and for all!”; “Blow ’em to hell. Ask for forgiveness later”; “Bomb the heck out of Iraq and call it a day.”
One would hesitate to suggest these are the sentiments Catholic Online’s editors wish to provoke, but its decision to censor comments correcting its misrepresentation of photos and its failure to respond to emails pointing out the same suggests more than just a honest mistake or momentary lapse in editorial rigour. It is a repeat offender. A more recent post proclaiming “Most graphic photos yet of Islamic State brutality” attributes more gruesome pictures of executions to ISIS posts on Twitter, though IS supporters have attributed the same images as being Yemeni soldiers killed by Shia Houthi insurgents. In one photo the face of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah is photoshopped onto that of a victim. Given Saudi Arabia is generally regarded as supporting the Sunni insurgency against Syria’s Iran-supported Assad regime, this raises questions about its supposed origin as IS propaganda.
“What these men gleefully did to the unfortunate victims in the images below, they will do to you,” Catholic Online warns archly. “The world needs to see the truth now.” Indeed it does, but the website, which boasts of delivering “dependable and reliable content” to more than 100,000 readers a day, appears to have joined a group of more overtly anti-Islamic websites in emulating the standard operation procedure of war propaganda, where the truth of news matters far less than its effect.
One can appreciate the desire to focus attention on the humanitarian disaster in Syria and Iraq, and to spur the international community to raise either alms or arms. Recent history affords too many instances of the failure to prevent genocide. But fabricated propaganda, no matter how well-intentioned, is dangerous when it so recklessly encourages sectarian and jingoistic responses.
Gregory Stanton, the president of Genocide Watch, identifies 10 stages of genocide. Among those stages are classification, dividing people into “us and them”; dehumanisation, equating members of a group with animals, vermin or disease; and polarisation, driving groups apart using hate propaganda and other methods.
What, then, is to be reaped when the response to news of genocide mirrors the very attitudes that drive it?
Tim Wallace is an Australian journalist who has worked for the Canberra Times, Australian Financial Review, Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.