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Online Muslim forums foster tolerance and fuel vitriol

WASHINGTON (RNS) Experts say Muslim websites can help foster dialogue and understanding, but they're also a forum for online fatwas and vitriolic discourse.

WASHINGTON (RNS) Amid calls to get more Muslims using the Internet, experts who have studied Muslims online caution that the virtual Islamic community can be a “double-edged sword.”

While the proliferation of Muslim websites provides a platform for a multitude of voices, Sahar Khamis, communication professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, said there is a shortage in the amount of rational, critical deliberation and debate taking place online.

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life recently released a report suggesting that Muslims who use the Internet tend to have a more favorable view of Western movies, music and television than their offline counterparts.

Though Khamis said she’d like to see more Muslims online — a median of 18 percent of Muslims worldwide regularly use the Internet, according to Pew — she wants it to be in a way that promotes civil discourse. As it stands, that is generally not the case.

Khamis, who co-authored the 2009 book “Islam Dot Com: Contemporary Islamic Discourses in Cyberspace,” highlighted three mainstream Muslim websites —, and — in a recent talk at the American Islamic Congress.

The problem, she said, is that all three sites tend to lack a negotiated middle ground. Like-minded posters reached consensus, while those with differing views often expressed themselves in aggressively inappropriate ways.

Using Arabic terms, she said that there is “no genuine shura (consultation) or ijtihad (interpretation) in an Islamic context online,” Khamis said, adding that those two elements are vital to a properly functioning virtual Muslim community. Without it, Muslim websites can be a “double-edged sword,” she said.

Khamis said that the growth of the online Islamic community has introduced the “threat of uninformed religious advice, or fatwas, from online muftis” (interpreters of Muslim law). She said online forums tend to lack traditional Muslim scholars, and websites from authoritative voices “are not very well-visited websites.”

Another missing piece of the virtual Islamic community? Moderators. Khamis said that the posts on IslamOnline’s English forum, where users often deride others as “kaffirs,” (heretics and nonbelievers), shocked her and her co-author, Mohammed el-Nawawy.  

“It’s a very troubling phenomenon, that we’re seeing this kind of uncivil discourse,” Khamis said.

This isn’t just an issue for the online Muslim community, said Jen’nan Read, a scholar at the Duke Islamic Studies Center, noting that the take-no-prisoners style of discussion is reflective of wider society. Most people seeking online forums, she said, are either looking for a place where others will agree with them or a place to argue.

“I’d be shocked if you found a real useful dialogue,” Read said. She also cautioned that the online Muslim community is not representative of all Muslims. “The online community is not representative of anyone. Period.”

Mohammed Abdul Aleem, CEO of another popular website,, said the presence of Muslims online has helped organize the Muslim community, allowing it to more easily counter anti-Islamic sentiments by relaying messages about Islam. Using informal polls, he estimates that 20-25 percent of IslamiCity traffic is from non-Muslims.

“We do see a good amount of discussion that is taking place,” Aleem said. While IslamiCity has rules against denigrating people or their religion, Aleem said there had been few instances where they’ve had to delete offensive posts.

“I think everyone is getting to terms with the freedom to express whatever they want to express,” Aleem said. “I think we are seeing that there is more rational debate about things.”