09/01/2010 11:03 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Facebook Fatwas: Does the Social Networking Site Really Cause 1 in 5 Divorces?

Some Muslim clerics are not joking when they blame Facebook for swelling number of divorces. Like any other social media platform, Facebook hosts a wide range of users, some looking for intellectual stimulation, others seeking companionship. Not long ago, rumors about a religious ruling against Facebook went viral. A known figure from Al-Azhar University, 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. The sheikh may have given the fatwa and retracted it after the outburst, or he may not have said it in the first place. The rationale and the language that we read between the quotations attributed to the sheikh in news articles 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 forbidden actions.

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 applauding 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."

Sadly, the census doesn't concern itself with whether a divorced couple was happily married or not. Presumably they were not like A Midsummer Night's Dream's Hermia, Othello's Desdemona, The Merchant of Venice's Portia, or Romeo and Juliet's titular tragic heroine, all of whom 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 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 sui generis. Since chosen is the operative word, we should, perhaps, ask how many of those marriages were 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 one in five couples breaks 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 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 websites are behind proxy walls that the hormone-driven youngsters spend hours to bypass; and religious police march inside shopping malls to ensure that 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 rate in Egypt is still increasing (which is also true for Saudi Arabia and Pakistan), but this is hushed up.

"They would have to ban the Internet, cell phones, e-mail, and landline phones," said Nesrine Basheer, 30, an Arabic language teacher in New York. "Just banning the tool and disregarding the reasons [for divorce] does not make sense."

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 people really knew what marriage entailed and then wisely chose a companion for life, then we would not need to scapegoat Facebook for the failure of one in five marriages.