In the oft-cited glory days of the Islamic world, Muslim explorers like Ibn Battuta created vast networks around the world to promote trade and to learn about other cultures. The Silk Road Ibn Battuta travelled linked nations together in a way they never had before, changing them irrevocably and creating an interdependence that became the forerunner of today’s globalised world.
It’s hard to imagine what Ibn Battuta would think of today’s overly networked societies. Advances in transport, communication, and technology over the past century have made leaps beyond cultures instantaneous and accessible to nearly everyone. Commercial access and the free flow of money have been amplified immeasurably by the Internet. And on a personal level, online social networks have become the new frontier.
Among young people, these sites have proven themselves to be more popular than any other form of media. The rapid growth of Friendster (itself influenced by the music sharing site Napster) in the early 2000’s and the subsequent cultural phenomenon of MySpace (now 160 million users and growing), led to the latter’s groundbreaking $580 million aqcuisition by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. Facebook, which started as a network among Harvard students, is now the fastest growing social network site, adding some 150,000 users each day. All of these users form a valuable demographic for advertisers, which accounts in part for MySpace’s wildly speculative valuation.
For the ever increasing Muslim diaspora, the appeal of social networks has also become widespread. They have taken to them in droves, with over 2.1 million of them self identified by religion on MySpace alone. Scores of others have done so on Friendster (45 million total users) and Facebook (30 million total users). But it is this popularity that has spurred the formation of social networks that cater specifically for Muslims, with entrepreneurs seeking both to capitalise on a growing economic market and also aiming to provide services and protections for Muslims who feel that the freewheeling worlds of existing social networking sites aren’t sensitive to their needs. Sites like Naseeb.com, MuslimSpace.com, Muslimica, and the soon to be launched Mecca.com have approached these challenges in a variety of different ways with differing degrees of success.
“There are over 105 million Muslims online globally, and Internet adoption rates in Muslim countries are among the highest in the world,” says Sami Al-Taher, Mecca.com’s CEO. “It’s hard to believe that the only mainstream online communities available to us are based in the USA, and don’t resonate with the Muslim population around the world.” Naseeb.com, the first and currently largest of the Muslim social networking sites, has the most number of users, with over 320,000 so far. But others are catching up. MuslimSpace.com, a part of a Muslim portal called Muxlim, has 25,000 users and growing.
But what does a Muslim social network have to offer? For most users, it’s a sense of safety in numbers, with protection from content they find uncomfortable and a way to link with Muslims directly. “The aim of Muslim social networks is not necessarily to pull all Muslims away from general sites, but to complement users’ online experience with Muslim-oriented services, guidelines and features that they would not find otherwise in general communities,” explains Mohamed El-Fatatry, Muxlim.com’s CEO. “Each social network tends to have its own flavour and its own audience.” Saleem Baig, of Muslimica.com adds that he wants to “ensure Muslims from all over the world find a safe secure place to express themselves and their views.”
However, if a “safe” space implies that a user’s sensibilities are not offended, it doesn’t necessarily mean that views won’t be challenged. Even with the few Muslim sites available, there are variations in the aspects of “moral policing” that takes place. Naseeb.com is arguably the more liberal, with areas of the site dedicated to music and debate and less emphasis on monitoring content. But Muxlim.com makes it a key distinction. “Moral policing is one of the important aspects of Muslim-oriented sites, which I believe provides an extra degree of comfort to Muslim users who wish to use technology without crossing into grey areas of their values and ethics,” says El-Fatatry.
“Users are absolutely free to judge each other,” concurs Al-Taher. “That is part of what makes social networking and other online communities so engaging. People want to be free to express their opinions and to be heard. We encourage our users to be honest and open about their opinions.” Although a degree of these types of exchanges already occur between Muslims and non-Muslims on conventional sites, moderating it somewhat to attract a significant number of Muslims remains a primary motivator. Of course, many Muslim countries will moderate the sites anyway, potentially blocking access internally, as Facebook experienced recently in the relatively liberal U.A.E.
These issues are compounded for Muslim sites, which have to deal with targeted products and services that may be fewer in number and less developed than their secular counterparts. “Muslim businesses are currently too small or are simply not aware of the huge audience they can reach through advertising on Muslim network sites to reach their niche audiences,” says Muslimica’s Baig. Al-Taher is more optimistic. “We believe there are many ‘mature’ businesses that serve the Muslim community with exceptional products and services. However, it is true that these companies that have been leveraging limiting and antiquated media to reach prospective customers.” But if Muslim social networks can’t find enough funding to pass the startup phase, these theories may just be academic. Muxlim.com, in particular, has struggled to find Muslim investors.
Economics aside, the value of a Muslim social network may still be a hard sell. Any social network has to succeed on its utility and entertainment value. The argument for a safe space is understandable when viewed against the chaos of MySpace (where most “friends” can be anonymous and uninvited) but not necessarily with Facebook where friends are defined from the start as people you know directly. Muslims also may simply want to go where the buzz is, just like young people anywhere. In this regard, it’s far easier for well populated and well-designed non-Muslim sites to pull Muslim users in than vice versa. Facebook’s recent decision to open up its architecture to third party developers means that Muslims can create applications to modify the site’s functionality.
Recently, the Malaysian government criticised Britain’s Top Gear automotive show for buying a Malaysian-made Perodua Kalisa – a Muslim car, in other words – and blowing it up because it had “no soul.” The Kalisa, a budget car that sells for about $8,000 USD, may well suit the developing world, including Malaysia. But given the means, aspirational and increasingly affluent Muslim masses in Malaysia and elsewhere would gladly choose a Japanese or German make on the basis of quality, innovation, and branding. The marketing of a Muslim product alternative to Muslims means little if it is perceived as a pale imitation of a superior original.
For the young Muslim social networks available, this factor is both a warning and a challenge. To succeed in an increasingly crowded marketplace, developing a “soul” may be all they need – the “soul” of Ibn Battuta or the “soul” of the next big thing.
Zahed Amanullah is associate editor of altmuslim.com. He is based in London, England.