Young British Muslims putting their faith in Facebook

[14 February 2008]

By Tom Hundley and Margaret Ramirez

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

LONDON—Sabia Naz from Hounslow wanted to know if it was haram—forbidden—for pious Muslim women to show their feet in public. Ali Imdad, a student from Leicester, was interested in the reaction of British Muslims to Iran’s “fashion police,” who can arrest women for not adhering to strict Islamic dress codes.

Facebook, the immensely popular social networking site on the Internet, may have been invented by university students in the United States, but it has been taken up with particular fervor by inquiring young Muslims in Britain.

Britain ranks behind the U.S. and Canada in number of Facebook members, but is second only to Canada in per capita hours and average number of visits to the site, according to statistics from the company and from Ofcom, Britain’s communications regulator.

In Britain, discussion groups with names like East London Muslims, Bold Brave Liberal Muslim Girls and Proud 2 Be Muslim multiply each week.

Academic researchers say Facebook and other social networking sites could yield valuable insights into how young British Muslims form their cultural identity and where they see themselves fitting into a Western society that often views them with hostility and suspicion.

James Beckford, a sociologist at the University of Warwick, said that because Islam does not have a clear organizational structure, the Internet had become “a wonderful device (for linking) Muslims around the world, especially Muslims in diaspora.”

“Something like (Facebook) can kind of light up or activate communities that are already in place,” Beckford said.

For diaspora Muslims, the Internet may be replacing the mosque as the thread that binds the community together.

A survey conducted by the Federation of Student Islamic Associations in Britain shortly after the July 7, 2005, terror attacks on London’s transportation system found that only 2 percent of the respondents said the mosque was their primary source of religious knowledge; 7 percent cited the local imam and 20 percent said they turned to their parents first.

The vast majority of students cited “books, videos, the Internet and informal study groups” as their main source of religious information.

At the same time, there are growing concerns that most of the imams trained in Britain’s 26 government-funded seminaries understand little about British culture and lean toward extremism.

Imdad, the student who was interested in Iran’s fashion police, said it was difficult for young Muslims to “relate” to local imams, most of whom are foreign-born, because of language and cultural barriers.

“If I want to learn something about Islam, I go to a book,” he said in a telephone interview after being contacted through his Facebook page. “I don’t derive my knowledge from Facebook, but I do like to discuss things, and that’s why I like Facebook.”

Imdad, 20, whose parents emigrated from Pakistan, is studying business management at the University of Leicester, where he also is a member of the student Islamic Society. He said he often discussed matters of religion and identity with other Muslim students, and that he prefers this kind of face-to-face interaction.

“These discussions are more or less like Facebook, but at least I can see their faces,” he said.

In the U.S., use of Facebook among young Muslims also is increasing, said Zahid Bukhari, who studies American Muslims at Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. Reasons for the surge in America are similar to those cited by young British Muslims, including fast and easy access to the greater Muslim community and freedom to ask religious or cultural questions without fear of embarrassment.

But Bukhari said there were subtle differences in the Facebook phenomenon in the U.S. The wide diversity of American Muslims makes cultural questions a hotter topic here, he said. While most Muslims in Britain hail from India and Pakistan, Bukhari said American Muslims come from 80 different countries. That makes for varied cultural complications to interpreting the faith.

“The basic teaching of Islam is the same for all,” Bukhari said. “But cultural manifestations are varied. What is happening is we are seeing a new cultural zone of Islam, and the Internet is like an open market of ideologies.”

Hana Agil, a 21-year-old student at Britain’s University of Manchester, recently started a Facebook discussion group called Protect Hijab. Its purpose, according to Agil, is “to gather supporters of women’s right to choose to dress how they please, not in accordance with government’s or men’s preferences.”

The main attraction of Facebook, she said, “is that it gives you direct access to people all around the world, and you can talk about these things quite candidly and openly.”

One of the more revealing debates unfolding in Agil’s Protect Hijab group concerns the meaning of “Britishness” in a multi-cultural society.

“I was always taught that `big words’ and pronouncing your `t’ and `s’ was the way the Queen’s English should be spoken,” wrote one respondent who said her family had been expelled from Uganda by the dictator Idi Amin’s regime in the 1970s.

“The way I dress should be smart when going certain places, and casual dress does not mean I am allowed to go out in tatters,” she continued. “Is not speaking and dressing and living the way the natives live enough? Or does being British mean you have to be Caucasian, Anglo and follow the Church of England?”

A Muslim student from Manchester said her mother was British and that her grandfather had fought in World War II.

“We consider the men to have been fighting for their children and forthcoming generations to have freedom—freedom of belief, freedom of speech and freedom of dress. Surely that means I am free to be a Muslim and free to wear hijab, just as much as other British people are free not to do so,” she said.

But in a telephone interview, Agil, a Palestinian who came to Britain from the Gaza Strip when she was 8, was quick to downplay the significance of any Facebook discussion in shaping her own cultural identity.

“Coming to university 3 ½ years ago, mixing with so many people from different ethnic backgrounds, religions, classes—that has been much more important for me,” she said.


(Hundley reported from London; Ramirez from Chicago.)

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