Media Distorts Mars Fatwa, Making Mons Olympus From a Molehill

(This is the second of two op-ed pieces I wrote concerning this issue. The first is here.)

Last week, reports began circulating through some media outlets that a fatwa committee underneath GAIAE, the UAE’s General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowment, had issued a fatwa prohibiting Muslims from taking one-way voyages to Mars and, by analogy, from doing so with the Mars One project. The story soon spread through the media like wildfire. Mars One issued a respectful response, requesting that GAIAE retract their fatwa.

On February 24, GAIAE issued an official press release. The press release stated in unequivocal terms that the Agency has no connection with “corrupting a question and its [associated] fatwa on the ruling of humans making a one-way voyage to Mars that the media has been spreading and attributing to the Agency.” GAIAE’s account of the fatwa bears almost no resemblance to the original article which the media outlets had spread almost verbatim. This press release calls into question the veracity of the original report and subsequent reports that still assert GAIAE’s fatwa.

Some individuals will be suspicious of GAIAE’s clarification since it comes after almost five days of silence. But even if we did not have access to the original question presented to the fatwa council, the quotations attributed to it in the article would lead us to deduce that the council had addressed a question concerning Muslims making a one-way trip to Mars where the chance of surviving the voyage and staying on Mars are so low that it is deemed suicidal. The council’s prohibition is appropriate for the very reasons they gave: the body of textual evidence which lead scholars to their consensus that preservation of life is among the higher objectives of Islam, and that it is unlawful to engage in activities that present a significant risk to life or limb.

We expect qualified muftis to answer this way. Indeed: if GAIAE’s muftis had permitted a trip that was so risky and reckless that it was suicidal, we would question their knowledge of Islamic law and their concern for life.

The type of voyage Mars One plans is not analogous to the type of voyage presented in the article. Mars One aims to establish a permanent and sustainable human colony on Mars, as is apparent from its mission goals, roadmap, and the risks and challenges involved. It is obvious that this isn’t the type of voyage addressed in last week’s article, nor is it the type deemed impermissible in GAIAE’s clarification.

A careless and malicious misreading of GAIAE’s fatwa turned a rather mundane and reasonable opinion into a sensational and ridiculous absurdity. Unfortunately, this misreading is just part of a broader problem. There’s a ready market for fatwas that are sensational – especially those that are incendiary, salacious, involve sexual practices of Muslim women or men, or – better yet – all of the above. It’s a market that thrives on demonstrably fraudulent goods.

There is a story here. But it isn’t the one attributed to GAIAE and how some members of the media made a Mons Olympus out of a molehill. The story here is how the media repeatedly takes fatwas out of context and presents fictions as fact without any sort of reprimand for their unethical journalism, or accountability for the consequences of their mendacious and misleading reporting.

Many Muslims look to fatwas as a source of guidance and salvation. For them the value of a fatwa depends upon on its quality and validity. However, for some unscrupulous individuals, the value of a fatwa depends on its ability to attract attention. For these individuals, validity and veracity are of far less import than sensational. If it bleeds it leads. If it’ll cause outrage, stick it on the front page above the fold. Such irresponsible use of fatwas should be the exception rather than the rule.

The types of fatwas Muslims value concern their everyday lives, which are relatively ordinary, and are issued by muftis and fatwa institutions they consider trustworthy. These fatwas are rarely newsworthy, scandalous, sensational, or controversial. Perhaps it is time for fatwas to be picked because they are of value to Muslim readers and not because of their immediate value to attract attention. This is likely to be a smarter business move since the Muslim consumer market includes 1.8 billion Muslims and is expected to grow 35% by 2030. Where Muslim audiences go, ad revenue from the Muslim market will follow.

Media outlets concerned with keeping or building Muslim audiences should take steps to ensure that the religious content they provide is something their audience themselves value. This is even more emphatic for countries with large Muslim populations, and in countries where Islam is the official religion and the government is concerned with the religious welfare of the community. This may require media outlets to hire specialists who are knowledgeable in the topic, and who can present it in a way that is accurate, authentic, and accessible to their audiences. And this is hardly unprecedented, as the media already take care to ensure that their medical and science reporting are accurate, and that their lifestyle advice is of practical benefit.