A couple of weeks ago, a Belgian woman called Zakia Belkhiri became Internet-famous for appearing at a fascist anti-Muslim rally flashing peace signs while wearing a hijab. Her photos went viral (I myself tweeted them happily) as it was pointed out that anti-Islamic bigotry was best fought with a sense of humor.
Indeed, even the protestors themselves seemed to be smiling or laughing at the irony of the situation: one brave Muslim woman in a scarf making funny faces against a backdrop of hostile people carrying posters, and the horror of fascism can be forgotten because everyone is friends again!
Yesterday old tweets and social media posts of Belkhiri came to light, some from as far back as 2012: Belkhiri declaring her hatred for Jews, her understanding of Adolf Hitler’s methods, her hatred for the Hebrew language. Horrible, ugly stuff, which is unacceptable in any circumstances. Belkhiri was 18 years old, old enough to know better, when she posted those words. Instead of offering a full apology she claimed her tweets were fake, then deleted them, then deleted her social media accounts altogether.
In the wake of this debacle are now “I told you so’s” from all corners: Muslims are anti-Semitic, Muslims don’t belong in Europe, the fascists were correct all along about them. The hot takes and think pieces are coming in fast and furious, as they tend to do when digital newsrooms need clicks and views. But in this case there’s also a particular need to divorce themselves from their previous endorsement of Belkhiri and her hijab heroics in the fascist rally in Belgium.
We’re forgetting something, though: here’s a photo we saw a month earlier of a lone woman in the midst of a fascist protest in Sweden, Tess Asplund.
Belkhiri’s hypocrisy, her stupidity, her grandiose beliefs that social media works differently for her than it does for everyone else, are one thing. Her ugly anti-Semitism is another. But we turned her into a hero by projecting her all around the world with our tweets, retweets, breathless blog posts, and excitement about her stunt. She’s going to face ignominy for a very long time (and she may come up with a Ted talk in about ten years on the subject of Internet shaming and forgiveness and compassion, who knows?).
We could take this as an object lesson in choosing our heroes more carefully.
And yet even if you’re right about the Muslims and they’re everything you think Belkhiri is, it doesn’t erase this fact:
No matter who its target, fascism is still evil.
(UPDATE: There are reports that she has since fully apologized and explained her posts as the result of anger when reading about Israeli aggression against Palestinians. Perhaps she has realized her mistakes, but I don’t think this is going to help her case at this point, even though some will argue that she was immature, ignorant, or misled. We all need a team of PR advisers when dealing with the Internet. And we all love a scapegoat when it comes to someone else screwing up online.)