[Update: See the letter I received from Catholic University below confirming my take on this story.]
“Catholic University investigated for offending Muslims by having too many crosses,” reads the May 11, 2015 headline at Breitbart.
Judging from many comments at Breitbart and on social media, the popular impression many people seem to be taking away from the story is this: Pushy Muslim students at Catholic University in Washington, DC are professing themselves offended by the sight of Christian crosses. They’re demanding that crosses be taken down and Muslim-friendly prayer spaces opened up.
Here’s a small sampling of the type of comments that are cropping up in response to this non-story, specifically on Breitbart but also all over the conservative blogosphere and social media:
Breaking News…Muslims offended what a shock
Muslims need to lighten up and stop being pansies.
Muslim whining offends me… So do their mosques, burqas and jibjabs. They need to be banned.
Everybody take a deep breath. Nothing is actually happening here.
The source of the confusion appears to be an undated article posted on BeliefNet — a story that dates back to 2011. (Undated news stories are the worst. Actually, as I recently noted, even dated news stories are often revived years later on social media by people who don’t bother to check dates, but you don’t generally get news outlets like Breitbart making that mistake.)
It’s important to note what the 2011 BeliefNet story says — and what it doesn’t say.
As even the Breitbart story admits, there seems to be no evidence that any Muslim students at Catholic University have complained about anything at all. (When I pointed this out in the combox at Breitbart, I was immediately called a “blithering moron,” since Muslims always object to the cross. Don’t confuse some people with facts!)
Instead, the sole source of grief was a professor — a non-Muslim professor who doesn’t even teach at Catholic University, or at any Catholic school. He’s a law professor at George Washington University, and he seems to be a general sore tooth, a guy who goes around making a nuisance of himself.
As far as I can tell, after a flurry of stories in 2011, nothing ever came of this. At least, I can’t find any evidence that the story ever made headlines again, or that Catholic University was ever asked to do anything as a result of the professor’s frivolous complaint. So this was pretty close to a non-story to begin with, and now it’s an old non-story.
Even as I write this, I know I’ll get impatient pushback from readers convinced that, even if this particular story isn’t true, the larger and more important point is that this kind of thing is happening all the time, and it’s much more important to warn people about what is happening than to keep talking about what isn’t happening.
It’s true that there are real problems in the world. Islamism is actually one of them.
But alarmism over misinformation, which spreads like a cancer over social media, is also a problem — a debilitating, destructive problem.
A confused, fearful movement serves the enemy. We bleed ourselves of energy, clarity and credibility by uncritically embracing anything that comes along that fits our favored narratives.
Outrage and anger spread faster on social media than any other emotion because they trigger a “Do something now!” knee-jerk response that bypasses our critical centers. Outrage and anger are effective because they bolster our commitment to our cause, intensify in-group solidarity and heighten opposition to the enemy.
But they also obstruct understanding and critical judgment. Alarmism riles people up, and that can be socially useful, but it also obscures the fact that there’s good news in the world as well as bad.
In this case, misinformed alarmism over this story obscures the more relevant fact that, as Rod Dreher pointed out at the time, Muslims are attending a Catholic university in our nation's capital — and they’re happy there.
They don’t feel oppressed by the university’s Catholic identity, and they aren’t out to impose Sharia on anyone.
Of course, that’s a portrait of Muslims in America that doesn’t serve the culture-war narrative. The other story is more useful, so that’s the one that gets exhumed going on four years later.
Update: Hours after posting, I received the following email confirming my take on this story.
Dear Mr. Greydanus,
Thank you for your blog post. You are correct that this story is from 2011, that nothing came of Mr. Banzhaf’s complaint, and that our Muslim students are happy — none of them supported the Banzhaf complaint and in fact they choose to attend the national university of the Catholic Church because they know that their faith and their expression thereof will be respected.
The Catholic University of America