Vikings and Magical Thinking in the Times

Being the New York Times means never having to say you’re sorry.

The Grey Lady was, along with other media outlets, taken in by claims made by a Swedish university professor about Islam and Vikings. The story played into the post-Charlottesville progressive narrative denigrating the alt-Right. White supremacists had championed the Vikings as the progenitors of a superior Nordic race -- but new archaeological evidence showed some Vikings had converted to Islam and brought the faith to Scandinavia.

The problem with the story was that it was not true.

The New York TimesGuardianIndependent and other outlets uncritically ran with it, but the Independent, unlike the Times, followed with a second article walking back the story.

The first day stories followed the pattern set in the Independent’s “Researchers find name of Allah woven into ancient Viking burial fabrics.” It cited a study released by a Swedish professor that claimed in its lede: 

Allah's name has been found embroidered into ancient Viking burial clothes, a discovery researchers in Sweden have described as "staggering".

It doubles down on this “staggering” news to note:

The silk patterns were originally thought to be ordinary Viking Age decoration but, upon re-examination by archaeologist Annika Larsson of Uppsala University, it was revealed that they were a geometric Kufic script. They were found on woven bands as well as items of clothing, in two separate grave sites, suggesting that Viking funeral customs had been influenced by Islam.

In support of her claims, Larsson stated that the silks she examined contained “ancient Arabic script, Kufic characters, invoking both Allah and Ali.” There were, however, some questions still to be answered, she conceded.

“One exciting detail is that the word ‘Allah’ is depicted in mirror image," Ms Larsson said. "Perhaps this was an attempt to write prayers so that they could be read from left to right?"

The importance of the find lay in acknowledging the influence of Islam on the Vikings, she argued.

It is a staggering thought that the bands, just like the costumes, [were] made west of the Muslim heartland. Presumably, Viking Age burial customs were influenced by Islam and the idea of an eternal life in paradise after death. She added: “In the Quran, it is written that the inhabitants of paradise will wear garments of silk, which along with the text band’s inscriptions may explain the widespread occurrence of silk in Viking Age graves. The findings are equally prevalent in both men’s and women’s graves."

The Independent noted that its story was based upon a press release from the University of Uppsala, and no other voices -- other than Larsson and the author -- appear in the story.

It comes as no surprise that some American and English newspapers would tout the benefits  of multiculturalism and the privileging of Islam. The left-leaning Independent has a reputation for being fiercely PC and at the forefront of the European culture wars. What may surprise the reader is that it did not check into the story. Larsson is described as an expert on fabrics, not on Islam.

The failure to verify the claims made in the press release led to a climb down a week later, when it published a story noting the claims put forth in the first article could not withstand scrutiny. It was entitled: “Viking textile did not feature word 'Allah', expert says." It reported:

Media around the world, including the Independent, reported on the finding, but now a leading expert in medieval Islamic art and archaeology has disputed the claim and said the inscription contains "no Arabic at all." Stephennie Mulder, a professor from the University of Texas in Austin, said the error stems from a "serious problem of dating."

Mulder took to twitter to debunk the article, writing Kufic script emerged in the 15th century in Central Asia, 500 years after the end of the Viking era. And also:

[E]ven if Kufic script did exist, the inscription embroidered into the textile still does not mean anything in Arabic.
"Let’s assume there are 10th century Central Asian textiles with square Kufic. Even so, it turns out Larsson’s drawing doesn’t say ‘Allah'," she wrote. "Instead the drawing says للله ‘lllah’, which basically makes no sense in Arabic.

Artnet.News provided the backstory.

The story quickly went viral, largely because it seemed to counteract a far right-wing narrative that the Vikings represent a uniform Master Race. The march in Charlottesville most recently brought white nationalists’ appropriation of Nordic symbolism to national attention.

Artnet offered a detailed debunking of the claims of Dr. Larsson and this explanation from Dr. Mulder of why she felt called to speak up.

Why does this matter? As Mulder explained on Twitter (across five tweets) “When [the] medieval and particularly [the] Viking age is used as [an] ideological weapon by white supremacists, and scholars are risking [their] careers to fight white supremacist appropriation, then it matters that we get this right. [The] media can report on [the] diversity of [the] global middle ages without trumped-up scholarship. We need news media to be our allies, consult experts, and get the facts right.”

But the Independent did not want to let go of the story. It closed its admission of error with this defense. Dr. Larsson responded:

“These finds are with no doubt from the Viking Age. They are found in several of the Birka graves and Viking Age boat graves north of Gamla Uppsala. The geometrical Kufi is also to be found in similar textile ribbons from Spain. Even if the characters should be interpreted as “Illah” it is still Kufic and, as I have understood from the arabic experts, it still refers to 'Allah'."

This contretemp over fake news being used by academics to combat what they see as the appropriation by the far right of the Viking mantle -- (Adolf Hitler had a 75 year head start over white supremacists in the US on this point) -- does not show the the media who ran this story in a good professional light.

‘There is nothing new under the sun’.  The first run of reports about Islamic influence upon Vikings was reported in an echo chamber. Newspapers pushing a common ideological line turned to academics willing to provide ammunition for the crusade.

The collapse of critical thinking is not a phenomenon of our Trump-addled age. I am marking the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution by reading November 1916, the second volume of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s magisterial novel, The Red Wheel. I was struck by this passage describing the intelligentsia in the years before the revolution:

“Each of them knew in advance what the others would say. But . . . it was imperative for them to meet and hear all over again what they collectively knew. They were all overpoweringly certain they were right, yet they needed these exchanges to reinforce their certainty.”

Reading the New York Times, Guardian, Independent and many other newspapers, one gets the sense that they are “overpoweringly certain they were right” -- repeating and reinforcing the certainties they collectively knew. That may be acceptable for opinion journals -- but not for news journalism.