In early January, an 11-year-old girl in Toronto set off a firestorm when she said a stranger had cut her hijab with scissors while she was on her way to school.
School administrators called the police, who sent out an alert on social media. Local media rushed to the school for a hastily arranged press conference in which the girl described the alleged attack in front of a sea of cameras. By afternoon, it was an international news story. Meanwhile, prominent politicians across Canada rushed to condemn the incident as an act of hate. “Canada is an open and welcoming country, and incidents like this cannot be tolerated," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted.
A few days later, however, the whole thing crumbled. Police released a curt statement saying an investigation revealed the attack “did not happen,” and the girl’s family issued an abject apology for the invented story.
But where some saw a child’s concerning tall tale, others read more sinister motivations.
”There is a Muslim word for this: taqqiyah,” tweeted Ezra Levant, founder of the far-right website the Rebel. “It means deliberate deception of infidels, to promote an Islamic goal.”
Levant was referencing a false interpretation of an obscure Islamic doctrine that has become a bedrock belief among anti-Muslim writers and activists, alt-right trolls, and even by current Trump cabinet member and former presidential candidate Ben Carson. Misinformation about taqiyya continues to surface in search results on Google and spreads widely on other platforms.
There are few Islamic teachings that are as widely misunderstood by non-Muslims as taqiyya; likewise, few other teachings are as frequently invoked to impugn the motives of Muslims, according to Islamic scholars and advocates.
Imraan Siddiqi, executive director of the Arizona chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he constantly encounters false claims about taqiyya.
“I mean, 99.99% of Muslims don't even understand what taqiyya is, but every alt-right Twitter troll is an expert on Islamic theology now, which is completely absurd,” he said.
Mohammad Fadel, an expert on Islamic law at the University of Toronto, described taqiyya (and its many alternative spellings) as “a doctrine of prudential dissimulation” that arose from a time when Muslims were minorities in hostile societies. It instructed Muslims that hiding one’s faith could be permissible to escape persecution. It’s more closely associated with the Shiite branch of Islam, whose adherents are themselves often minorities within Muslim societies.
“The Qur’an permitted Muslims in that situation, who were fleeing death or torture or other bad treatment, to dissemble about their true beliefs. And as long as they were faithful in their hearts, they would not be considered sinful,” Fadel told BuzzFeed News.
But this idea has mushroomed, Fadel said, into a false claim that Muslims are permitted, or even commanded, to lie to non-Muslims as part of a larger project to take over Western countries and impose Sharia, or Islamic law. He said taqiyya does not allow for broad deceptions and has no connection to Sharia.
“Unfortunately, it’s really become dogma among the right in North America, really the entire anti-Muslim coalition you see in the West,” Fadel said.
When Texas teenager Ahmed Mohamed was arrested for bringing a homemade clock to school in 2015, numerous right-wing figures suggested he had in fact meant to bring a hoax bomb. "It's called al-taqiyya," commentator Gavin McInnes said in a video for the Rebel. "This pranking, this lying, is an integral part of jihad."
Taqiyya was also trotted out to attack Khizr Khan, the Gold Star father who came to prominence after he criticized Donald Trump’s policies at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Frank Gaffney Jr., whom the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as one of America’s most notorious anti-Muslim figures, told Breitbart that Khan was hiding his true beliefs and “lying for the faith.”
Taqiyya was even cited in 2015 by Ben Carson, at the time a frontrunner for the Republican nomination, when he said no Muslim should ever be president of the United States.
“Taqiyya is a component of Sharia that allows, and even encourages you, to lie to achieve your goals,” Carson falsely told the Hill when pressed to explain his opposition.
Carson now serves as secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Siddiqi said such misinformation from prominent anti-Muslim activists and politicians is part of a larger trend in American life.
"We can't deny that there is a massive rise in anti-Islam sentiment and anti-Muslim hate crimes," he said, adding that while false reports do occur, they are exceedingly rare.
Reported hate crimes against Muslims rose by 20% from 2015 to 2016, according to the most recent FBI hate crimes report. That’s higher than for any other group. A recent BuzzFeed News analysis found that Republican lawmakers in 49 states have publicly attacked Islam, with some sharing "hate-filled social media posts urging violence against Muslims."
One of the biggest hurdles in countering the widespread impression of Muslims as inherently untrustworthy is technological. There is simply too much negative and false information about Muslims and Islam on the internet, and online platforms are giving those sources greater prominence than others, according to Imam Omar Suleiman, founder of the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research in Texas.
"Google definitely has a role to play to not allow for these well-funded, bigoted groups to dominate the conversation on Islam and hijack the search engine," Suleiman said.
Until recently, most of the top Google search results for Islamic terms like "Sharia" and "jihad" came from anti-Muslim sources. While these websites may have neutral-sounding names like religionofpeace.com or WikiIslam, Suleiman said they present a skewed view of the faith.
Google tweaked its algorithm late last year following criticism from Suleiman and others, and now features more neutral links on the first page of search results.
“Over the past year, we’ve made improvements to surface more authoritative content for search terms that may have had low-quality results in the past,” a Google spokesperson told BuzzFeed News.
A Google search for "taqiyya" now returns a Wikipedia entry as the top result, but sources with strong anti-Muslim leanings still dominate the first page of results.
Suleiman said one of the reasons he founded the Yaqeen Institute, a think tank, was to help Muslims and non-Muslims alike find more accurate information about the religion. And he pointed to the historic discrimination faced by Catholics, Jews, and Japanese Americans as reason to take the issue seriously.
"The harm that comes from portraying an entire faith community as disloyal and deceitful is genocide and ethnic cleansing and internment camps," he said.