Explaining That Crazy Rumor About Kids Being Forced to Say the Pledge of Allegiance in Arabic

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American Students Pledging Allegiance to the Flag
Photo: Jani Bryson/Getty Images

If you have the right sort of panicky friend or relative, or read certain right-wing-news sources, you may have come across a peculiar story in the last few days: Students at Pine Bush High School (which is outside Poughkeepsie  near New Paltz, New York), the story goes, are being forced to say the Pledge of Allegiance … in Arabic! Like most stories that don’t quite make sense on their face, this one, it turns out, is false. But it got big enough not only to elicit a really weird apology from the principal of the school in question, but to hit the major leagues of rumors — a Snopes.com debunking.

The BBC runs down what happened:

A school in New York state has apologised after receiving complaints because a student recited the US Pledge of Allegiance in Arabic.

The school’s foreign language department arranged for the pledge to be read in a different language each day for a week.

Complaints were received from people who lost family in Afghanistan and from Jewish parents, an official said.

Snopes explains that from a small kernel of truth and some mean heckling — apparently the Arabic-language pledge was jeered and booed by some as it was read over the school’s loudspeakers, and apparently the jeer-ers then complained to their parents — sprouted a viral-friendly hysterical rumor:

Although it is true that an Arabic-language version of the Pledge of Allegiance was included in Pine Bush High School morning announcements during Foreign Language Week, subsequent reports have exaggerated some of the details of that occurence [sic]. Top Right News, for instance, reported that students were “forced to recite” the Pledge in Arabic and to use the phrase “one nation under Allah.” But as the [local newspaper] Times Herald Record pointed out, foreign language versions of the Pledge of Allegiance were read over the school’s public address system; students did not (and were not forced to) recite those versions themselves.

It’s obviously easy to be judgmental here — the folks spreading this rumor are certainly doing so from a place of ignorance, and the complaints that sparked the controversy are unfounded (they don’t speak Arabic in Afghanistan, for one thing, and it’s unclear why being Jewish should mean one gets offended at hearing the language). Overall, the world would clearly be a better place if people didn’t spread rumors of this sort.

But it’s also interesting, and arguably more productive, to think about why people pass these stories along. The science of rumor research has shown that when people are presented with stories that are (1) accompanied by a lot of uncertainty; and (2) involve an emotionally resonant subject, false rumors are most likely to spread.

Both conditions are clearly in place here. On (1), since apparently the actual details and context of the reading didn’t really make it out into the wider world, it was easy for a scarier story — one nation under Allah! — to fill in the vacuum. And on (2), the sad fact is that a lot of Americans dislike or fear Muslims, the religious group most associated with the Arabic language; since people are naturally protective of their schools and their kids, this made for a toxic mixture.

Debunking rumors like this is tricky, and there’s evidence that when you’re dealing with folks who are already convinced Muslims are plotting a secret takeover of the U.S., there’s very little that can be done. The only possible silver lining is that as the country gets more diverse, people will have an increasing number of productive social or workplace encounters with actual, real-life Muslims that make it easier to see through this sort of nonsense.

This may sound like bleeding-heart idealism, but hey: There was a time not too long ago when crazy rumors about Jews and Catholics regularly spread in the U.S., but today they only take hold among a tiny subset of truly radical Americans. Hopefully in 10 (or, more realistically, 50) years, we’ll look back with a head shake at the time when everyone was freaked out about Muslims.