In 2006, a child with only one eye in the center of her fore head was born in Chennai, India. The severe chromosomal disorder was aptly known as Cyclopia. When I went to research her case, the hospital told me that the mother was taking an unusual fertility treatment. There was a chance that she was the subject of an illegal clinical trial for an American anti-cancer drug. I wrote about her case in The Red Market and photos of the child went viral on the Internet after I posted them on my blog at at Wired.
The photos have since gone on to have a life of their own on the internet–particularly in the Muslim world. According to Islamic tradition*, right before the apocalypse a one-eyed prophet named Masih ad-Dajjal will emerge and teach a wildly popular and totally false gospel. People will follow the unholy teaching and get drawn into the Devil’s influence.
In 2009, the image that I took in Chennai went viral among apocalyptic muslims who were sure that the end was nigh. They wrote that the child was born in Israel and, as one viral e-mail stated, that “Dajjal will appear somewhere between Iraq and Syria , after the Battle of Istanbul takes place.” At the time, the photo resonated with Iraqis who were contending with American occupation and violent inter-sectarian conflict. The battle of Istanbul had not yet happened, but the world seemed to be falling apart. When the viral emails spread thousands of hits would flood my website.
Every now and then there would be a voice of reason when moderate Muslim websites would debunk the new claims and link to my work as the original source of the image. For a time, the popularity of the image would die down. Today, however, a new brand of violent fundamentalist Islam is spreading across the Middle East. As this lunatic fringe of Islam sweeps across Iraq and Syria leaving a bloody wake of murder and destruction in its path, it’s no surprise that many Muslims feel that the end of days is at hand once again.
In the last week I have been getting an inordinate number of hits on my website searching for pictures of the cyclopian child. After the break I’ll post the photo, but beware, some readers will find it disturbing.
The image of the child has become something of a bellwether for me to understand what sense of hope there is in the Islamic world. When times are bad hits pour into my website as moderate muslims, would be fundamentalists and jihadis seek out divine explanations for the tragedy unfolding around them. The sad truth is that the violence that has engulfed the Arab states is a manmade affliction, and no more divinely inspired than an cycloptic child’s chromosomal disorder.
It is important to combat the lies that spread across the internet. The militant group ISIS has an extensive social media network and is savvy about deploying false information to encourage converts to fight on their behalf. It behooves us–or at least me–to speak up when I see images misused by people who want to bring about their own version of the apocalypse and destroy any hope that there might be for peace in the middle east.
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* An earlier version of this post stated that prediction of Dajjal is in the Koran. This does not appear to be accurate. According to Reddit user Taharadi the reference to Dajjal is included instead in the Islamic commentaries of Al-Bukhari’s Hadith. I have updated the post to include this change.