Connecting through virtual communities has become the norm of social life for people across the globe. From acquiring cooking skills to dealing with relationship problems, from expressing political views to cribbing about economic incentives at workplace, the social media has emerged as a platform to discuss anything and everything.
You can tweet the Iranian political protests, blog live about President Obama's Inauguration Address, upload videos of you sky-diving stint and meet your long lost High School crush on social media sites.
A group of young American Muslims has taken upon themselves to put these impressive features of the social media to constructive use. They have sought to create a space where the Muslims, generally viewed as insulated and segregated, connect and interact within and outside the community. Contrary to popular expectation, this aggregate of diverse forums is not limited to explaining Islam; it is not confined to focusing on a liberal/moderate enunciation of the Quranic texts. It is simply a social networking tool for Muslims; platforms where Muslims discuss cooking skills, relationship problems, political views, economic concerns and even meet their long-lost High School crush.
Islam Today - Youth and New Media, a panel discussion organized by the Area Studies Centers of UC Berkeley- Centers for South Asian Studies, Middle Eastern Studies and Southeast Asian Studies - was hosted on March 9, 2010 at the California Historical Society in San Francisco.
According to Fatemeh Fakhraie, Editor of Muslim Media Watch, 'there is something for everyone' in the Muslim Blogosphere. By discussing everything from Fatwa against suicide bombings to youtube video on love marriage, Wajahat Ali's blog goatmilk is a 'by us [Muslims] for all' medium. The possibility of expressing oneself anonymously on the blogs, is considered by Zeba Khan, Founder of Muslim Americans for Obama, as an enabling feature. According to Zeba Khan, issues of stigma and trust that discourage many young Muslims from discussing their fears and concerns are countered through the ability to share views either under pseudo names or anonymously. 9/11, according to the panelists was not only a defining moment for America but also for millions of Muslims across the globe. Social networking via the web gained steam in the aftermath of 9/11. Zeba Iqbal, VP of Council for American Muslim Professionals, epitomized this sentiment by stating that before 9/11 she did not have to announce her religion, it was a private affair. But after 9/11 she felt a sense of responsibility, there was urgent need to address the sense of fear being experienced by the young Muslims. 9/11, according to Zeba Iqbal was like a calamity; unlike other calamities it was not possible to donate blood or money to help those who had been psychologically impacted. The only option for Muslims like her was to spread awareness and help young Muslims in addressing their anxieties; something that she continues to pursue.
Imam Suhaib Webb, an American Muslim convert highlighted the concerns of the Muslim community in America. Imam Webb's blog was awarded the 2010 Brass Crescent Award for being the most indispensable, Muslim-authored blog. Imam Webb elaborated on the idea of being an 'American Muslim'. The topmost concern for American Muslims is "Are we Muslim enough if we are living the 'American' way?" According to Imam Webb it was imperative for Muslims to allow fellow-Muslims the space to make mistakes, without being judgmental. Whether it is about homosexual Muslims or about a Muslim convert who still attends Sunday School, for Imam Webb it is important to discuss the dilemmas of the converts.
In 2001, altmuslim.com was launched as an introspective voice that helps promote a critical (and self-critical) analysis of issues regarding the Muslim world. The website has two million unique users per year. Shahed Amanullah, editor-in-chief of altmuslim.com, seeks to make this news site a feeder channel for mainstream media focusing on Islam and Muslims. Shahed believes that if the Muslims don't speak for themselves, it would allow misperceptions about the community to proliferate. The objective of altmuslim.com is to amplify the voice of moderate Islam for mainstream media to take notice of it. Monis Rahman, President and CEO of Naseeb Networks, elaborated on his unique social-networking cum matrimony site. From the click of a mouse to the dispatch of a digital Salaam, marriages are made on naseeb.com for many young Muslims. After being launched in October 2003, naseeb.com had sixty thousand users in the first six months. A new updated version of naseeb.com which integrates social networking functions of the Facebook with business networking functions of LinkedIn along with match-making services is due to be launched next month.
From interactions with Sherry Jones, author of The Jewel of Medina to showcasing The Domestic Crusaders, Muslim-American family drama, social media is being by young American Muslims to broaden intra and inter community dialogue. Given the tradition of open dialogue during the days of Prophet Muhammad, the only novel aspect of 'new' social media appears to be the medium and not the interactions per se.