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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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