New Islamic “Facebook” to Strengthen Global Muslim Unity

A strictly Muslim-focused social network called Salamworld is set to launch this summer, during Ramadan. The Turkish-based company is thinking big: 50 million users in three years, all interacting in a worldwide – and sex free – “umma.”

Connecting in Istanbul (chrisschuepp)
Connecting in Istanbul (chrisschuepp)
Sonja Zekri

It's not as if the Net didn't already have plenty to offer Muslims. Mail-order companies, for example, offer two-piece amira hijabs for about $9, and black, embroidered abajas, tailor-made, for girls under 10, for around $30. Other sites sell meat butchered to Islamic specs – halal meat, a principle that has now become an election campaign topic in France.

Topics pertinent to Muslims include spiritual guidance, exegeses of the Koran, advice on fasting, charity work, education – there are even online fatwas. Chats and forums answer questions like: Can Muslims eat crabs? Can they buy life insurance? And in the Arab world, where a majority of people are Muslim, whole conventions and seminars have been dedicated to the subject of the Internet – about the rising influence, for example, of Facebook and Twitter. So why, to top it all off, would Muslims need Salamworld?

"There are some 1.7 billion Muslims around the world. About 300 million use the Internet, and some half of those use social networks. Unfortunately, not a single one of those networks is run by Muslims," says Jawus Selim Kurt, the PR director of Salamworld, a soon-to-be-launched social media site based on Muslim principles. Salamworld targets both Muslims and non-Muslims interested in the religion, and seeks to foster "harmony and peace" by strengthening moral (Islamic) values and the Islamic community, or umma.

Istanbul-based Salamworld launches mid-July during Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting and celebration. Its creators hope within three years to have 50 million Muslims from Indonesia to the United States downloading Salamworld.com podcast sermons, buying travel packages for pilgrims, getting distance-learning degrees in theology, and ordering travel guides that tell them how to get to the nearest mosque. Along with its main office in Istanbul, the company has branches in Egypt and Russia. The main investor, Abdul Wahid Nijasow, is a Kazakstani entrepreneur, Kurt says. Other investors are Russian and Turkish.

Communication will be in eight languages: in English, of course, but also in Arabic, Turkish, Urdu and Russian, with other languages added later. The umma, or global Muslim community, is an often sentimental – and politically charged – concept of a kind of oceanic unity of all believers.

In practical reality, umma doesn't often pan out. Differences in culture and language are too great: a DJ in Istanbul isn't going to have much in common with a Taliban fighter in Afghanistan. Salamworld expects computer technology will help smooth out those differences to create a virtual version of umma.

Keeping sex and terrorism out of the equation

Offensive material like pornography will be filtered out. The site will also prohibit anything inciting terrorist activity or human rights violations. Chat rooms moderated, and online communities will be called upon to remove or report offensive content. But what exactly constitutes offensive? And wouldn't young people in conservative countries like Egypt or repressive societies like Saudi Arabia look on this as an opportunity to form Internet friendships, to flirt – in short, to do exactly what it is so difficult or forbidden to do in real life?

"We aren't a mosque," says Kurt. "We don't censor, and there will of course be the same kind of freedom users enjoy on other social networking sites." It will be possible to upload videos, also photographs – albeit no nude shots. "Every freedom in the world has its boundaries," he says.

An online study conducted by Internet giant Google found that of all the countries in the world, the one where people most often used the word "sex" for Internet searches was Islamic Pakistan. Wherever sex shops and prostitution are forbidden, the Internet becomes a major substitution outlet, the study concludes. It remains to be seen if young Muslims in the Russian Caucasus, in Algeria or in Malaysia really do start using squeaky clean Salamworld. Another possibility is that it becomes a network for religious families who want to keep their kids away from content they deem unsuitable.

For the project to work, it needs a high number of users because at base it's more of a shopping mall than a political platform. "It's a commercial project, we don't support political ideas," says Kurt. Interest in Salamworld is running high; there are already 100,000 registered users. So even if online umma doesn't happen right away – or at all, as a marketing idea it's certainly valid.

Read the original story in German

Photo - chrisschuepp

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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