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Jewish Journal

iMuslims Reforming Islam Online

by Mona Eltahawy

February 3, 2010 | 5:49 pm

You’ve seen their mugshots: a Nigerian charged with trying to blow up a plane on Christmas Day; five young American Muslims detained in Pakistan, apparently desperately seeking jihad.

You’ve heard they used the video-sharing site YouTube in search of Muslim militant groups fighting U.S. troops in Afghanistan or to find “Internet imams” spewing hate. Already we’re hearing dire warnings that radical groups are recruiting every Muslim within a foot of an Internet connection.

I bet you haven’t heard of these mugshots: Iranian men in chadors and headscarves.

As part of the “Men in Headscarves” campaign, Iranian men — inside and outside Iran — have been posting pictures of themselves wearing the head and body coverings the Iranian regime imposes on women. Their pictures — one was even taken in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris — have spread on the social networking site Facebook and YouTube in support of Iranian student activist Majid Tavakoli.

Authorities arrested Tavakoli in December after he called for more democracy and urged his fellow students to reject “tyranny.” The next day, government newspapers published pictures of Tavakoli dressed in a chador and claimed he had tried to escape arrest disguised as a woman. The Iranian regime was trying to humiliate him but the “Men in Headscarves” had the last laugh.

Like everybody else who uses the Internet, Muslims shop online and post embarrassing pictures of themselves on Facebook. Undoubtedly, violent radical groups such as al-Qaeda and others have used the Internet to their advantage. That is not new, as U.S.-based monitoring groups who follow such sites will tell you.

But what is new is how young people have been using the Internet to challenge authority (political, social as well as religious) in Muslim-majority countries or where Muslims live as minorities. The attempt to humiliate Tavakoli backfired as dozens not only rushed to his defense but used their pictures in headscarves and chadors to criticize the dress code Iran imposes on women.

I research and teach graduate-level courses on the impact of blogging and social media on mainstream media and society in the Middle East. Such new media offer unprecedented platforms for self-expression. Harvard University’s Berkman Centre for Internet and Society estimates there are 60,000 to 100,000 blogs in Iran and around 45,000 in the Arab world.

My students have interviewed bloggers and online activists whose exciting work is invariably overshadowed by news of angry, young Muslims online.

Do you know of the Egyptian blogger who helped convict police officers for the sodomy of a bus driver by posting footage of the crime on YouTube? How about the Saudi woman blogger who challenges her country’s restrictions on women (she is married to a former officer of the morality police, who often enforce those restrictions)? Or the lesbian blogger who runs a support site for lesbian and bisexual women and the transgendered in Lebanon? And have you heard of the young Bahraini activist and blogger who champions the rights of migrant workers in a region where they are largely invisible?

Pick up Gary Bunt’s “iMuslims: Rewiring the House of Islam” (University of North Carolina Press, 2009) and learn that for every online al-Qaeda recruiter there are thousands more Muslims reforming Islam online. In recognition of the power of the Internet, religious institutions such as Sunni Islam’s Al-Azhar in Egypt and Shiite Islam’s schools in Qom, Iran, have Web sites. Interpretations and commentaries on the Quran fill the Internet and recreate the vibrant intellectual atmosphere that many Muslims lament we’d long ago lost.

Bunt says many Muslims identify more with a Web site than with a mosque or a particular sect. I know exactly what he’s talking about. The majority of American Muslims don’t go to mosque. Soon after I moved to the United States from Egypt, I found my community through the now defunct Web site MuslimWakeUp.com, which became a virtual home for liberal and progressive American Muslims. The site inspired progressive Muslim meetups in several cities across the country and new groups such as Muslims for Progressive Values.

Remember, it was the father of Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab who warned the U.S. embassy in Nigeria that he feared his son was turning to extremism, and it was the families of those young American Muslim men arrested in Pakistan as well as an American Muslim civil liberties group that alerted the FBI to those young men’s disappearance.

Not every Muslim online is learning how to make bombs or looking for jihad. If anything, by loosening the chains of authority the Internet deals a blow to radical violence: it gives anyone online the chance to answer back. For every Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, there are dozens of Iranian men taunting the regime at the helm of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Join me and the rest of my “friends” — I have almost 5,000 — on Facebook as we argue over polygamy, burqas and being gay and Muslim. Every day I avidly follow several threads of comments running on my Facebook Wall, all showing a diversity of opinions you rarely see in news reports on Muslims: Just today, several Pakistanis from around the world responded to an article I posted in which I cursed the Taliban for the bloodletting they’ve unleashed on Pakistan.

Or follow me on Twitter, where an American Muslim I follow summed up the sentiments of many toward the five young American Muslim men from Virginia: “I say we welcome these kids home from Pakistan with a swift kick in the ass. Who’s with me?”


Mona Eltahawy is an Egyptian-born columnist and public speaker on Arab and Muslim issues. Reprinted with permission.

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