Beliefs Combating Online Hate Speech

Muslim civil rights advocates see the limitations of social media activism

A San Bernardino, Calif., police officer stands near flowers left near the scene of the Dec. 2 shooting rampage at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino on Dec. 3, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn *Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-NASRULLAH-COLUMN, originally published on Dec. 8, 2015.
A San Bernardino police officer stands near flowers left near the scene of Wedneday's shooting rampage, at the Inland Regional Center, in San Bernardino, California on December 3, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn

A San Bernardino, Calif., police officer stands near flowers left near the scene of the Dec. 2 shooting rampage at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino on Dec. 3, 2015. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn

(RNS) As soon as news broke that the San Bernardino, Calif., shooters were Muslim, skilled Muslim activists took to social media platforms to denounce Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and his 27-year-old wife Tashfeen Malik.

“Feeling heartbroken,” wrote Hussam Ayloush, longtime executive director of the Greater Los Angeles Area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, on Facebook. “Can anyone ever justify shooting at random people? This madness is impossible to understand. Praying for the victims of #ColoradoSprings and #SanBernardino.”

But after the New York Post’s online headline “Muslim Killers: Terror eyed as couple slaughters 14 in Calif.,” the term “Muslim Killers” began trending with more than 10,000 tweets.

READDaily News provokes with cover on Calif. shooting: ‘God isn’t fixing this’

“We are still a minority, so the only way we’re going to make an impact, since we don’t have the numbers, is through social media,” said CAIR’s national communications coordinator Nabeelah Naeem. “If we didn’t have social media, there would be no impact at all.”

A hashtag campaign, when it really catches on, can raise awareness about injustice, bring attention to a cause, criticize government policy, or hold corporations, institutions and individuals accountable for their actions.

Consider the following hashtag campaigns:

  • #AliceInArabia was started in March 2014 to voice concerns about potential ethnic and religious stereotypes in an ABC Family‘s pilot “Alice in Arabia,” about an American teenager who is unknowingly kidnapped by her extended Saudi Arabia family. After pressure from American-Muslim advocacy groups, and a backlash against the show online, ABC Family canceled the project.
  • #MuslimLivesMatter, a variation of #BlackLivesMatter, was employed after the February murder of three American-Muslim students in Chapel Hill, N.C. The next day the story of their deaths made national news and an outpouring of sympathy and an endowment was founded for humanitarian programs and service projects in the U.S. and abroad.
  • #UnitedForTahera was started after Tahera Ahmad, a Muslim chaplain at Northwestern University, was denied an unopened can of soda on a United Airlines flight by a flight attendant who said it could be used as a weapon. Ahmad posted about the incident on her Facebook page, which quickly went viral. Using the #UnitedForTahera hashtag, many called for a boycott of United. The airline apologized on Twitter.
  • #IStandWithAhmed, started by Texan Amneh Jafari, a recent college grad, registered 200,000 Twitter mentions within 24 hours after police detained Ahmed Mohamed on suspicion that the homemade clock the teenager brought to school was a bomb. Luminaries from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to President Obama tweeted their support and Ahmed, along with his clock, was invited to the White House.

These were notable successes.

But a new poll says favorability toward American Muslims has dropped significantly. The Public Religion Research Institute found that “Americans’ perceptions of Islam have turned more negative over the past few years.” The poll, released before the Paris attacks, found a majority (56 percent) of Americans agreeing that “the values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life.”

"The values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life." Graphic courtesy of PRRI

“The values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life.” Graphic courtesy of PRRI

This week’s shooting spree in San Bernardino is unlikely to help.

READThe Islamic life of the California shooter left no clues, say mosque leaders

Nabeelah Naeem, CAIR National Communications Coordinator. Photo courtesy of Nabeelah Naeem

Nabeelah Naeem, national communications coordinator of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Photo courtesy of Nabeelah Naeem

CAIR’s Naeem argues the backlash following the Paris attacks could have been much worse had the American-Muslim community not been actively combating hate on social media. Even in the face of all the “negativity” online, she said “there were also a lot of positive things coming out in the media saying how ridiculous it is to discriminate against Muslims.”

Because so often what’s trending on Twitter and Facebook drives the news cycle, high-profile American-Muslim influencers on social media are becoming more visible in mainstream media.

“Our community would be largely ignored by mainstream media if we were not so aggressive in using social media to promote ourselves,” said interfaith activist and blogger Amanda Quraishi (@ImTheQ), an Austin, Texas-based tech and marketing strategist who has advised American Muslims on social media strategies. “I’ve seen such leaps and bounds on how we are able to present ourselves in the public eye to the mainstream media and as American Muslims in the last five or six years.”

Amanda Quraishi: blogger, interfaith activist, and technology & marketing consultant living in Austin, Texas. Photo courtesy of Amanda Quraishi

Amanda Quraishi is a blogger, interfaith activist, and technology and marketing consultant living in Austin, Texas. Photo courtesy of Amanda Quraishi

Even so, Quraishi is pessimistic. Things are worse now for American Muslims than they were after 9/11, she said, and the community is “not just back at square one but before square one.”

“I’m actually a bit shocked at where we are right now. I don’t quite understand how we got to this point. I’m part of this national network and local network of people who have worked really, really hard for the last 10-12 years to combat this kind of anti-Muslim rhetoric and to promote our community and actively demonstrate our contributions to this country,” she said.

Despite a vast support network — online and off — she said, “the segment of America that is anti-Muslim has grown much, much stronger.”

READ: Muslim Americans fear demonization of Islam after mass shooting

Prudence Layne, Associate Professor of English at Elon University. Photo courtesy of Prudence Layne

Prudence Layne, associate professor of English at Elon University. Photo courtesy of Prudence Layne

“The fact that we’re unable to actually crack that nut, and get through to people who are operating out of this sense of fear and paranoia and misinformation is very frustrating, honestly,” she said.

Elon University English professor Prudence Layne, whose research and teaching interests are in protest movements (including the civil rights movement and post-apartheid South Africa), doesn’t put too much stock in anecdotal hashtag activism “success stories” precisely because they have not turned the tide of anti-Muslim sentiment.

She said that, in general, while there’s a place for social media activism in terms of raising money, tapping into public sentiment, and helping people “feel like they are doing something,” traditional grass-roots activism is “where real change will be bred.”

“It’s a long hard road,” she said. “And takes investment in the long haul.”

(Julie Poucher Harbin is an RNS correspondent.)






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Julie Poucher Harbin


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  • I’ve always objected to the use of terms such as “Muslim terrorists” and “religious terrorists”. These misleading terms provoke bias and hostility against entire religions while ignoring the vast majorities of believers who utterly reject violence in the names of their Gods.

    The religions have no more to do with the criminals who cite them than the bushes or trees they might otherwise hide behind. The only difference is that bushes or trees don’t suffer the consequences of slander or guilt by association.

    I wish the news media, and the public in general, would call these “faith-based” killers what they really are: “sacrilegious terrorists”.

  • @G Key,

    “These..terms provoke bias…”

    The terrorists are clear, their goal is to force you to surrender to Allah to summon the Hidden Imam by “inciting Armageddon” the last war against Satan – nuclear war to end the world.

    If you don’t think that is religious, you are not paying attention.

    The proper term for these killers is “Religious Supremacists”
    It is a Totalitarian Theocratic project as was Hitler’s Catholic Aryan Reich.

    The vast majority of Muslims and Christians are peaceful because they do not follow their holy books at all. If they did we would have worse problems:

    “Slay the infidel wherever you find them” – Allah (Surah 9.2)
    “Execute my enemies” – JESUS (luke 19:27)
    “Kill the unbelievers in daylight” – Yahweh (Deuteronomy)

    The only cures are Freedom of Speech, careful political strategies
    and ultimately the decline of religious ideas.

  • The problem with any ideology that claims to be the only source of absolute “truth” is a threat to our freedom. It doesn’t allow for any questioning, debate or opposition. It thinks in absolutes and doesn’t recognize any shades of gray in its perception of the world. Historically this has been true of secular based or religious based ideologies. Right now there are Muslims who have an interpretation of the Koran that is just as legitimate as the interpretation of the Bible used by those Christians who have killed and oppressed in the name of their God. The belief that one has supernatural permission to commit atrocities provides ample justification to them for their actions. To avoid calling these terrorist acts out as being inspired by religious belief is to be willfully delusional and unprepared on how to combat such an ideology.

  • My point is that, whether Christian, Muslim, or any other faith, it’s only a small, fringe minority — in each case condemned by the vast majority — that believes in trespassing into other people’s private lives and inflicting cruelties of every variety and severity imaginable.

    In the face of overwhelming internal/official religious opposition, I see neither reason nor value in stipulating the “legitimacy” of terrorists’ claims to religions which they sacrilegiously purport to represent.

    It dredges up what I consider to be quite literally the worst problem on Earth: that some people vociferously, violently, megalomaniacally maintain that others’ spiritual/existential beliefs, values, rights, choices, lives — other people’s personal boundaries — are subject to their proclaimed beliefs (which are never subject to anyone else’s).

    So, personally, I refuse to credit those King-of-the-World-wannabes with any legitimacy whatsoever. I wish others would do likewise.

  • Thinking as I type here, it s time to go to the source–the foundations and media outlets that play on the fears for political & financial gain? (is it a coincidence that Rupert Murdoch’s on the board of the first company to obtain oil drilling rights in the Golan?)

    In the case of the Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado the hateful pro-life rhetoric was called on the carpet for inciting people to violence. The connection is real.

  • The New York Post’s headline is totally accurate and appropriate for the specifc story that it covered — the San Bernadino shooting.

    Telling the truth is NOT an “anti-Muslim” thing. It’s time to tell the truth.

  • Dear Max, especially in Muslim and also other religious holy books, the verses are not so simple as you quoted above. They have so-called contextual and historical settings to be known before claiming the meaning for some purposes.