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Islam and the Power of the Internet

  • Carolyn Weaver

The Internet has become a vehicle for change in many things. Some moderate Muslims hope to use it for religious reform, as they engage in often heated discussions that are reshaping opinions and agendas.

One of the most popular websites in America is alt.muslim.com, founded by a married Indian-American business student, a father of two, who grew up in California. Carolyn Weaver produced the following "first-person" report:

"My name is Shahed Amanullah, and I created the Website altmuslim.com. I started the site because I wanted to see some more open dialogue and discussion and debate about things that are happening in the Muslim world.

"Before the Internet came around, Muslims lived in relative isolation and obscurity from each other. They never had to deal with Muslims of different colors, of different schools of thought, of different political persuasions. And when the Internet came about and these people had to find each other and see each other for the first time, it was really jarring. I mean, Muslim discourse on the Internet for the first several years was nothing but fiery debates and insults and things like that. Muslims need to learn together in cyberspace in a way that's civil and respectful.

"Only now are people starting to get together as Sunni, Sufi, Shia, without it automatically meaning, 'let's have a theological argument.' And that change has been happening slowly over time. Friendships have been happening between these different people, between Muslims in the West and in the Muslim world, between Shia, Sunni, Sufi, even between Salafis and progressives.

"I think one person put it that the Muslim community has an 'irony deficiency.' Because of that, we wanted to interject humor and wit into all the work we did, because we felt that it was a really good way to defuse tension and make the pill easier to swallow, so to speak. So one of the things we do, at the top of our Website, is we have little taglines that describe who we are, 'cleared by Homeland Security,' 'no assets to freeze,' 'all the news that's not fit to print.'

"Some people might look at that and think it's being facile or making light of situations, but we just felt it was important to differentiate ourselves from some of the dialogue taking place, which was really heated and not solving any problems, generating a lot of heat, but nothing substantive. So, we wanted to kind of change the tone a little bit.

"Over the last several years, we've seen an emergence of just amazing Muslim thinkers and writers on the Internet, various Web logs, news sites, various commentators -- people, who in some cases have never spoken out publicly about anything before, but with the ease of the Internet have been able to express themselves in a way that makes an impact on so many people. It's a blessing, it's coming from every country in the Muslim world, not just America.

"It's also created a real dialogue even within traditional conservative communities about, for example, women's access in the mosque, or financial accountability in our institutions, or about terrorism, suicide bombing, all these issues. If it weren't for Muslims bringing these things up on the Internet, they would never get discussed. Because they don't get talked about in the mosques, or in polite company in society -- they get talked about on the Internet, that's where it starts. So yes, absolutely, the Internet is the place where reform's going to start, it's where it's going to be accelerated, and where it's going to be disseminated to the masses."

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