Last weekend, CNN reported that an ISIS flag was spotted among the crowd at London Pride. The anchor described the sighting of the flag and the subsequent lack of alarm as “concerning.” The network even had its terrorism expert chime in.
But the flag was not a black flag with white Arabic script, promising terror and havoc.
It was a flag decorated with images of dildos and butt plugs.
The creator of the “ISIS Dildo” flag, Paul Coombs wrote a piece in the Guardian on Tuesday, criticizing CNN not only for their inability to recognize that it was not an ISIS flag flying in the crowd at pride, but also taking away from the original point of his creation. “It was important that I didn’t try to replicate the writing on the flag, because the words and their subject – Islam – are not the target,” Coombs explained. Instead his aim, he said, was to show “as little respect to this flag as Isis shows to the religion and people they claim to represent so that when people saw it they would think, ‘dildos.’”
Coombs went on. “The Pride festival is a pure celebration of the finest aspects of humanity: of tolerance, togetherness, acceptance and liberation, the polar opposite of what Isis stands for.”
Sound familiar? Coombs, whether he realizes it or not, is regurgitating that “us versus them” mentality that has become inherent in our vernacular when discussing the Middle East. While his goal may have been not to replicate the writing on the flag, he did have a CNN newsroom fooled.
So why would CNN run with this ridiculous claim of an ISIS flag at London Pride? After mulling over the absurdity of the initial report, and another spectacular mistake by CNN, I’m struck once again by serious concern over the media’s fear-mongering. A few months ago, a school in Colorado made national headlines after the pledge of allegiance was conducted in Arabic as a part of a week long celebration of diversity. Many parents were angered, in part because they had lost loved ones in Afghanistan. (By the way, Pashto is the most spoken language in Afghanistan). CNN was on top of the frenzy that ensued when national news picked the story up.
It’s hard to believe that a whole newsroom at CNN is naive enough to not know what a dildo or a butt plug look like. So does CNN think Arabic script is just a bunch of misshaped lines and squiggles that perpetrate terrorism?
Time and time again, the media has incorrectly appropriated meanings to Arabic words like “jihad,” and have helped foster culture of fear over a language spoken by over 240 million people. The exaggerated tropes about the Middle East and anything the media associates with the region coincide with the larger problem of orientalism.
Whether it’s the characterization of Arab women as severely restricted and oppressed, or the belief that the region lacks a “civilized” culture, the constant barrage of negative stereotyping has led up to this point. A major news network is so wrapped up in the game of fear mongering that they couldn’t tell the difference between Arabic script and dildos.
While it may have provided a good laugh on social media, there is real danger in overlooking the deep-seated orientalism driving the 24-hour news cycle.