Social networking: Fatwas against Facebook?

No poking, please

Like any other social media platform, Facebook hosts a wide range users, some looking for intellectual stimulation, and some others looking to seek companionship. One has to be no less careful with Facebook friends than with next door neighbors, perhaps more so given the 400 million active users that it boasts about.

You could waste your time uploading doppelganger pictures onto your profile or fill your status bar with the meaning of your name from urbandictionary.com. For example, my name, Fahad, means: “Someone who is a math genius.” The irony, however, is that I can’t calculate tip in a restaurant.

But there is a lot of math that may not add up on open social platforms like Facebook, especially if one is a practicing Muslim. How should men and women who are not married to each other interact in such electronic venues? Do the rules of live discourse apply?

Recently, rumors about a religious ruling against Facebook went viral. A known figure from Al Azhar, Sheikh Abd Al-Hamid Al-Atrash, allegedly gave a fatwa against Facebook, finding it a breeding ground for illicit relationship between men and women, married and unmarried. The Sheikh has since denied issuing any such fatwa but has not officially disagreed with its essential holding.

The rumors of the fatwa sparked a debate from all corners. Some felt it ridiculed religious opinion, while others understood the underlined wisdom. The Sheikh may have given the fatwa and retracted it after the outburst, or he may not have said it in the first place. But however absurd a heading “Egyptian cleric bans Facebook” may sound, the rationale and the language that we read between the quotes attributed to the Sheikh are familiar to many of us.

Twenty-nine year old Mohamed Altantawy, a doctoral student at Columbia University, said that the alleged fatwa reminded him of the time when satellite channels were first introduced in Egypt and the campaign that followed to prohibit them. A fatwa against Facebook may sound grave and new, but many have heard local imams and conservative Sheikhs labeling it as fitna, because of the underlying temptations that may lead to something haram.

Altantawy has been on Facebook for five years and logs on several times a day to stay connected with his circle of friends back home in Cairo, as well as other friends and colleagues. His posts can range from serious political debate to wowing the Egyptian football team on their performance against Algeria.

“If anyone is using Facebook for illicit purposes, banning it wouldn’t solve the problem,” he says, “only educating them can bring change, so that they consciously make the right choice.”

The alleged fatwa claimed that the divorce rate has risen in Egypt because the site offers a platform for potential lovers. Abdelrahman Ibrahim, 25, who is pursuing a graduate degree at the School of International and Public Affairs, pointed out that a recent census in Egypt indeed proves that one out of every five recent divorces owe the debacle to finding another partner on Facebook. (link to census needed)

Sadly, the census doesn’t concern itself whether a divorced couple was happily married or not. Presumably they were not like Hermia, in Midsummer Knight’s Dream, or Othello’s Desdemona or Portia, in the Merchant of Venice, or Juliet, all of who had embraced and committed themselves to their partners.

My noble father,
I do perceive here a divided duty:
To you I am bound for life and education;
My life and education both do learn me
How to respect you; you are the lord of duty;
I am hitherto your daughter: but here\’s my husband,
And so much duty as my mother show\’d
To you, preferring you before her father,
So much I challenge that I may profess
Due to the Moor my lord.
(Othello: Act 1, Scene 3.)

Desdemona, for example, epitomizes someone who knows her own constitution. She is not someone who is torn between duty and love. She hasn’t chosen her beloved over her father, since both relationships are unique and separate. Since chosen is the operative word, we should, perhaps, ask how many of those marriages were predicated upon marriages based on mutual understanding or – dare we say – love. The assumption that Facebook is the root cause of women cheating on their husbands and vice versa is therefore troublesome.

If 1 in 5 break the sacred bond of marriage merely because of an infatuation on the Internet, it spells trouble for society. Maybe, the issue is much deeper than we think, or is something we are unwilling to face. If divorce rates have increased, do we then ban male-female interaction?

In some parts of Middle East, men are indeed banned from parks and family areas; many Web sites are behind proxy walls that the masses spend hours to bypass; and religious police march inside shopping malls to ensure there is no interaction between the opposites sexes – which only boosted sales of cell phones with Bluetooth capability that are used to initiate contact. All of this happened long before there was Facebook, so perhaps Facebook could be blamed for making things easier in an environment of forced seclusion and segregation. The divorce in Egypt is still peaking, but hushed-up.

“They would have to ban the Internet, cell phones, E-mail, and landline phones,” said Nesrine Basheer, 30, a teacher. “Just banning the tool and disregarding the reasons [for divorce] does not make sense.”

Abdelrahman Ibrahim, a 25 year-old student at School of International and Public Affairs, has recently moved to New York from Cairo only last year. He has made a conscious choice to limit his circle of friends on Facebook to only those he believes will respect his privacy. Right now, he has 23 friend requests from female work colleagues and schoolmates that he won’t accept. He wants Facebook to be a private place where he can interact with his friends, family and classmates going back to his school days. He does not want to be exposed to a picture of a woman who “who just enjoyed a Safari trip or a beach outing with her other female friends and wants to celebrate it online.”

Ibrahim is neither someone whom you’ll find navigating for a mate in a shopping mall nor someone trying to go around the firewall to access adult sites. He has set principles that he strongly adheres to. And he gives all the credit to his well-founded upbringing.

Banning networking sites, chat-rooms, messengers, or Internet applications for voice calls will amount to nothing, until you plant a seed of wisdom at an early age. In the end, it is the person who has to make the choice whether to stay in a marriage or not. If one really knew what marriage entailed and then wisely chose a companion for life, we would not be blaming the failure of 1 in 5 marriages on something as ubiquitous as Facebook.

Fahad Faruqui is a writer and broadcaster, based out of New York City. He can be reached via email on mff11[at]columbia.edu, and you can connect with him on Twitter.


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