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The unaffiliated lota: it knows no religion

July 18, 2012

Last week Salon.com published a story about a pot used to clean one’s butt when using the bathroom. It got over 3k likes on Facebook and nearly 350 tweets. The article was about navigating the secret of the lota –as the pot is called in parts of South Asia.

I find the popularity of the article incredible and mind-boggling. Many time it crept into the territory of bad journalism–from misinformation about the lota’s history to, frankly, unbelievable anecdotes. Even life-style pieces require factual basis. Anyone who publishes their work on a major news site–or any place for public consumption–has a responsibility to share accurate information.

I’ve summarized the reasons I didn’t find this article enjoyable in four main points. Let’s start with the bad journalism.

  1. The lota is not just a Muslim thing: The lota is used among many South-Asians (Muslims, Hindus, Christians, atheists!). There is no reason for this story to have a religious component to it. Unfortunately, such a religious component is the premise of this article. Not only does Wajahat Ali, the writer, make false generalizations about who uses the lota and why, but he tries to substantiate those false generalizations with anecdotes, examples and misleading history lessons.
  2. The aforementioned misleading history lesson: As one commenter pointed out, the article fails to describe what a lota actually is. I assumed the section titled, “Origin of the lota”, was meant to do that. Instead, it describes how Islam may view the left hand as ‘impure’. He also inserts the tradition of Prophet Muhammad and the practice of cleansing, but this serves no purpose: it does not explain how long the lota has been used, why it is used or where it originated.

But now let’s talk about why this bad journalism is bad to spread, and what I find frustratingly wrong with this article:

  1. Overuse of “us versus them”: I’m not sure if anyone—ever—needs to start a paragraph about cleaning one’s bottom with “As a Muslim”. The article hypes up the writer’s and a lota-user’s Muslim identity–so much so that every paragraph seems to want to explain why “Muslims” are different from “Americans”. I know that the topic for the story is silly, but what Wajahat does, even in this silly story, is put further distance between Muslims and “Americans” – implicitly stating that they are two different people. He’s creating distances where they don’t have to be created. Needless to say, that is incredibly counterproductive during a time when the US media needs to understand substantive grievances of Muslims in the country. It’s also nice to be able to explain parts of a Muslim culture to a non-Muslim audience, but… [see point #1]
  2. Offensive to women: I wasn’t the only woman shocked by his comparison of the lota to a “homely girlfriend we adore but are ashamed to date in public”, or his anecdote about how a woman not having evidence of butt-cleaning in her bathroom is enough to break a relationship. But no one seemed to call Wajahat out on his (subtle?) insults . If Wajahat Ali really is letting out the ‘secret of the lota’, will he do the same with girls he’s “ashamed to date in public”? In fact, why not write something about how Muslim-American men are ashamed to date girls in public? Just please, stop talking about what a woman does in the toilet.

Wajahat’s story about the “Muslim bathroom” does not deserve a lot of time and critique — I understand it was meant to be funny. But what does deserve our attention is a news media that is willing to publish this type of inane, inaccurate and generalized stories.  In today’s US climate, we desperately need people to explain Islam. Just not like this.

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