Imams on the Internet

Posted on: January 4, 2016

mams in India are using social media to reach out to young Muslims and to counter online extremism, says Sonia Sarkar

His smartphone never stops buzzing, but Maulana Mohammad Yaqoob, 67, is happy. The imam of the Khalilullah Masjid in Delhi’s Batla House is on WhatsApp, the popular site for chats and group chats on mobile phones. He is flooded with text messages too. But that’s how Yaqoob connects with young Muslims.

“That’s the best way to catch the interest of the young,” Yaqoob says. “To remain connected to them, we have to use their ways of communication.”

The Indian Muslim preacher is at a crossroads today. The mosque is not where the young like to congregate – they’d rather connect with ideologues on the Internet. As a section of Muslim youths gets attracted to radical thinking propagated on the Internet, religious leaders are looking at ways of bringing the young back into their fold. And the tool for that, they believe, is the Internet.

Like Yaqoob, many imams – who lead prayers in mosques – have been using social media to reach out to young Muslims. They are active on online platforms such as WhatsApp, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. Efforts, clearly, are on to preach in a language that appeals to the young.

Take the Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind. One of the largest organisations of Indian Islamic scholars, it is planning to produce animated videos with lessons from the Quran.

“We have a lot of reading material but the effect of audio-visual material is always stronger. We plan to build a studio where a trained person will be appointed to make animated films carrying messages from the Quran. We can circulate those videos on social networking sites later,” says Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind general secretary Maulana Mahmood Madani, whose Facebook page has over 8,700 “likes”.

There is a growing belief that online extremism has to be urgently countered. Over 18 months or so, the police have arrested at least 20 Indian Muslims who were said to have been keen to join the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Concern has been expressed that young Indian Muslims are showing an interest in the ISIS and are mostly being radicalised on the Internet. The online magazine of the ISIS, Dabiq, is said to be popular among a section of Indian Muslim youths.

Many of those being lured by ISIS, the Delhi police say, are not madrasa-educated men, but educated professionals such as computer engineers, doctors and MBAs with easy access to the Internet.

“The problem is that the Internet is their imam and Google is their mufti (Muslim legal expert),” says imam Umer Ahmed Ilyasi, chief imam, All India Organisation of Imams of Mosques.

Islamic scholars believe that the young have to be steered away from what they see as dangerous propaganda. Take the word jihad, says Islamic scholar Maulana Wahiduddin Khan. “The word has nowhere been used in the Quran to mean war in the sense of launching an offensive. Instead, it is used to mean peaceful struggle with oneself to control one’s negative and undesirable feelings. It also means to communicate the message of God to all human beings with full compassion and well wishing,” he says. “It is important to tell the youth this.”

In many parts of the world, this is exactly what scholars and other experts are doing. Young Muslims being indoctrinated on the Internet is a worldwide phenomenon that some nations are already seeking to counter.

“There is a rise in ‘freelance’ religious figures who often have little depth in traditional religious disciplines but are charismatic speakers and often use modern communications tools to propagate their messages to wider audiences,” says Alejandro Beutel, a researcher at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, University of Maryland, US.

That’s one of the reasons Indian imams feel that the youth have to be addressed through platforms that they access, with a language that counters that of the extremists.

These concerns came up at a two-day conference on “Opportunities for Public-Private Partnership in Countering Online Extremism and Recruitment”, organised by a Delhi-based think tank in November. Religious leaders who attended the meeting urged Facebook to help them use social media for counter-speech – a term used for logically countering extremist positions.

“Counter-speech is an important part of responding to terrorism and we work hard to protect it,” says Monika Bickert, global head of product policy, Facebook, who was also present at the Delhi conference. “We’ve seen an increase in the number of non-government organisations (NGOs), community groups and student groups interested in creating and promoting positive speech against extremism,” she adds.

India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB), which is supposed to keep an eye on extremist activities within the country, believes that it is important for religious leaders to approach young Muslim men and women. “We cannot work in isolation. If the imams take a step forward to connect with the youth of the community, they can be dissuaded from joining radical groups,” an IB officer says.

It’s already happening elsewhere. A group of imams in London started a website,, and an online magazine, Haqiqah (The Reality), in March to “reclaim the Internet” from extremists. Imams and working professionals in the US and Canada started a website called The imam of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, Suhaib Webb, is on Twitter with over 81,000 followers, and seeks to engage young audiences with practical religious teachings.

Madani says that his organisation is now reaching out to a group of imams in the US to know more about the use of the social media.

“We have a saying, ‘you snooze, you lose’. Those who reject modern communication technology will lose out to those who embrace them. Sadly violent extremists have embraced these technologies,” says Jennifer S. Bryson, director of the US-based think tank Zephyr Institute, which works for religious freedom. “So it is very urgent for Muslim religious leaders to be, or become, familiar with the pulse of young Muslims.”

Imams in India admit that they have failed to do so, or capture the imagination of the youth. “Our popularity is going down and the gap between imams and the youth is increasing,” Madani rues.

The prayer leaders point out that there was a time when Muslim youths went to mosques regularly. But in recent years, technology has given a new platform to new-age preachers. The Mumbai-based televangelist Zakir Naik, for instance, became hugely popular with his television appearances and videos uploaded on the video-sharing platform, YouTube.

While other religions may also feel the need to reach out to the young through social media sites, Muslim religious leaders feel the pressure more because of the growth and spread of Islamist groups – and anti-Muslim sentiments – across the world.

“There is a sense of insecurity among Muslim religious leaders because of growing Islamophobia across the world,” contends Rakesh Batabayal, professor at the Centre for Media Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. “Imams are using social media sites to assert that they exist, and that they can fight growing radicalism.”

But the gap between the youth and their religious leaders hasn’t happened overnight, experts point out. For long years, the youth have been seeking answers to questions about their identity, the importance of Islam vis-à-vis the world, Islamic state, role of a minority in a democratic country, and moral and human values of Muslim society, says Khwaja Iftikhar Ahmed, principal advisor, All India Organisation of Imams of Mosques.

“But these questions have never been answered. The traditional clergymen do not have the knowledge required to address such issues,” he says.

Yaqoob points out that just 10 or 12 young men attend Friday prayers in mosques these days. “Also, not many have the patience to listen tokhutbah (Islamic preaching before Friday prayers),” he says.

  • The Internet is their imam and Google is their mufti
    — Imam Umer Ahmed Ilyasi, Chief imam, All India Organisation of Imams of Mosques, on young Muslim men

But then, as Madani admits, imams speak in a language and style that is not popular among the youth. “They feel that the imams are trying to impose their thoughts upon them,” he says.

To counter the dwindling numbers and interest, the imams are now planning to make their speeches available to the young (and others) through social media sites. “We could record the khutbah and send it to young people through WhatsApp groups to ensure that they listen to it even if they are not physically present in the mosque,” Maulana Mohibullah Nadvi, imam of the New Delhi Jama Masjid, says. “Tele-conferences on burning issues could also be organised using the social media.”

The moves are being welcomed. Delhi student Ramiz Abdul Wadood calls the move “progressive” and says these will create space for conversation and debate. “It is important that the imams motivate us and fill the void that we have been feeling currently,” Wadood, 17, says. He is a fan of Pakistani religious and Islamic scholar Tariq Jameel, whom he watches on YouTube.

What impact has all these had so far? It’s perhaps too early to assess this. Some imams opened Facebook accounts two years ago, some still don’t have any but are planning on opening accounts. Says Ashum Gupta, professor, department of psychology, Delhi University, “Young Muslims who have moved away from the ideologies and teachings of traditional clergy would, at least, acknowledge their existence now. But it is early to say if they will accept them in their current form.” Adds Farhan Ali, a Class XII student at a south Delhi school, who follows Madani on Facebook, “If we have any queries, we know that there is someone to answer them. Also, I listen to his video-recorded speeches, which may not be possible otherwise.”

But, of course, there is concern that the situation won’t change merely on the strength of the Internet. Islamic scholar Khan, for instance, stresses that imams’ attitude and mindset have to change, too. “Imams need to correct their self-righteousness and be more open. The young mind is reason-based and wants objectivity. Imams should keep that in mind,” says Khan, who heads the Delhi-based NGO, Centre for Peace and Spirituality.

Social scientist Zubair Meenai of Jamia Millia Islamia has a word of caution for the preachers. “They should learn how to deal with trolls. They should be ready for public abuse, too,” the professor in the department of social work points out.

Yaqoob looks concerned. ” Kabhi kabhi Internet aafat lagta hai(Sometimes, the Internet seems like a menace),” he says. “We have to be careful.”


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