By MOLOUK Y. BA-ISA - ARAB NEWS - Muslims must counter bigotry and hatred online - According to the British Runnymede Trust, Islamophobia “is a useful shorthand way of referring to dread or hatred of Islam — and, therefore, to fear or dislike of all or most Muslims.”
Islamophobia is a form of intolerance alongside xenophobia and anti-Semitism and these days it’s not difficult to find online. Hate mongers spout vitriol against Muslims on Facebook, YouTube and BlogSpot. Just returned from an internal OIC workshop held in Brussels to discuss Islamophobia, Ahmed Rehab, the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) Chicago Office, asserted that Muslims must do more to fight this scourge.
“Islamophobia is rampant online. There is almost a monopoly by the Islamophobes on Islam and Muslims online,” remarked Rehab. “What we're trying to do is to encourage others to be more active online. People need to start blogs and have websites that engage in commenting on Islam and which link to positive material that is informative about Islam and Muslims. It is necessary to push back against this onslaught of Islamophobic attacks.”
Rehab noted that Islamophobia is getting worse in the sense that there's more blatantly bigoted information online that's readily available and that Islamophobes are regularly engaging in online sharing with others where they push their agenda of intolerance. Even where websites and social networks have a policy of prohibiting hate speech, it is very difficult to remove Islamophobic postings as sites do not want to impinge on people’s freedom of expression.
“Our policy is not to call for shutting things down but rather to have more speech that responds to the Islamophobic material,” said Rehab. “Pretty much anything goes online, even if it’s hate speech. Because the online world is unmoderated for the most part, that’s what makes it such a successful venue for anyone that wants to engage in Islamophobia. Unfortunately, a lot of the Islamophobic materials that are posted online then get into mainstream media such as radio and TV.”
Islamophobia has become a business. Rehab advised that many Islamophobes are well known, although there are some who do use pseudonyms or are anonymous. These Islamophobes have made a name for themselves and in some cases have enriched their bank accounts by bashing Muslims. While hate speech is nothing new, the Internet has made it much easier for bigots to get out their disgusting messages.
“The Internet wasn't around when other forms of racism were at their zenith,” said Rehab. “Plus, this is a focused ideological agenda driven by a network of people, many of whom get paid to do it. They are very aggressive, energetic and well funded. It's not just ignorance. These are people who probably know better and are using every brain cell to indoctrinate others. It's not the uneducated guy next door who is doing this. The agenda is well-defined and these people are highly motivated.”
Sadly, not enough is being done to counter the Islamophobes and they are gaining more ground in the virtual world. Rehab pointed out that one reason for this is that many Islamic scholars and academics aren't active in social networks and blogs. They tend to write articles in journals that aren't widely disseminated and the material that they share may be too “highbrow” for a general audience.
“The Islamophobes who are online are not scholars. They have no expertise or qualifications in the study of Islam. Many of them have never been to the Muslim world,” said Rehab. “They draw rampant generalizations and faulty conclusions, but they're very good at persuasion and they make what seems like good arguments. Basically their psychological tactics indoctrinate a lot of the gullible consumers of these online postings and you see Islamophobia on the rise as a result of that.”
CAIR-Chicago’s executive director urged Muslims to take the situation seriously and not to shy away from challenging the Islamophobes online, despite the fact that these bigots may have notorious reputations.
“The Islamophobes are known to be very vulgar and offensive and they engage in smear campaigns, intimidation tactics and cyber bullying. This is the main reason why a lot of Muslims who are capable of engaging, responding and countering, probably have been taking the higher ground,” he explained. “But the problem with that strategy is that the Islamophobes' arguments are out there online and unchallenged. Then they say things such as ‘Nobody wants to debate me because I'm right.’ Silence as a response to the bigots harms Muslims further.”
If Muslims don’t want to engage the Islamophobes directly, at least they need to put out their own positive material. Muslims must take the time to refute the general Islamophobic arguments in a proactive manner on blogs and social networks. Islam needs increased, better representation online.
“Islamophobes make everything about religion. What they try to do is pretty much create a climate of suspicion and fear against Muslims,” said Rehab. “Any positive imaging of Muslims will put a chink in that armor. That’s why they attack moderate Muslims more than extremist Muslims. Islamophobes online are much more concerned with positive moderate Muslims than they are with the ones who are negative and terroristic. They would wish for all Muslims to sound as crazy as extremists, because that would play right into their world view. When they see there are intelligent well-spoken Muslims, these are the ones they attack.”
There needs to be a cultural shift in the Muslim community to counter the lies of the Islamophobes. To limit the impact of the propaganda spewed by the bigots, Muslims must be more publicly active online. Starting blogs, contributing to forums, commenting on positive aspects of the Islamic world through Twitter, are all ways to fight Islamophobic rhetoric. And when the Islamophobes attack Muslims online — and they will, Muslims must work as a community to counter the ignorance. There's no shortage of Muslims with an Internet connection and the ability to participate in the virtual world. There is a lack of focus though and it’s time that Muslims made it a priority to speak out positively about themselves and their faith.
“The Arab Spring is one of the biggest events that devastated the narrative of the Islamophobes in that it broke a lot of stereotypes in the Muslim majority countries,” said Rehab. “The Arab Spring is a great example of where social networking and social media were used to instigate change. We do have that legacy now. We are educated enough, talented enough and informed enough to be able to utilize these very important tools for positive change. For me, fighting bigotry and hatred, not just against Muslims, and that’s a point I cannot emphasize enough, but against all groups, is something that all Muslims and all Arabs should make a priority.”