The cyber-Ummah: Countering violent extremism online

Governments should act as a facilitator; to raise awareness of issues related to extremism, while promoting pluralism and interfaith activity.

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September 22, 2014 23:17
3 minute read.
ISIS militants

ISIS militants. (photo credit: ARAB MEDIA)

 
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While Islamic State (IS) continues its rampage across Iraq and Syria, the group’s presence on social media has sparked fear in western audiences, while simultaneously attracting citizens of countries across the globe to the front lines of jihad.

Amid such developments, how international governments, including the United States, have addressed the threat of jihadist groups on social media has not really been explored.

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While governments must take part in countering the narrative of IS, civil society, particularly Muslims, seem best poised to take aim at decreasing the appeal of jihad on social media.

Beginning around the commencement of the Syrian civil war, various online initiatives were created to reduce the “demand” for extremist material in what has been coined by some scholars as the “marketplace of ideas.”

In April 2012, the US State Department began an initiative called “Viral Peace,” which trains community leaders and social media activists abroad to counter the voices of extremists on platforms such as Twitter. While receiving positive support in countries like Pakistan and Indonesia, such an initiative would be difficult to support domestically, as free speech laws would oppose any such affiliation with a religious or ideological grouping.

In 2013, in an attempt to sway those desiring to fight abroad, the State Department launched a pilot project titled “Think again.

Turn away,” which uses Twitter to post images that attempt to reverse the effect of propaganda from groups like al-Shabaab and IS. One such posting is of the now-deceased American member of Shabaab Omar Hamami, with the caption: “Omar Hamami joined al-Qaida and al-Qaida killed him.” Unlike the “Viral Peace initiative,” “Think again. Turn away” uses the State Department logo and is carried out by a small team of area experts and linguists in Washington.



On a different front, civil society has shown the capacity to reach a vast audience on social media. The Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) maintains a large YouTube presence, hosting videos in which popular imams condemn the use of violence in the name of Islam. Imams including the NYPD’s Imam Khalid Latif and Suhaib Webb of Boston have galvanized large followings on social media.

Webb, who is based out of the Islamic Society of Boston’s Cultural Center, has started a “Virtual Mosque,” which acts as a venue for Muslims to discuss issues related to faith. In addition to Islamic law, and politics, discussions have revolved around topics that relate to extremism, including Internet safety.

RAND researcher Tom C. Helmus attests that such approaches are more appealing to a Muslim audience as they are not solely focused on issues of extremism. According to Helmus, these sites build foundations around factors impacting the Muslim community that, in large part, are vastly similar to the concerns impacting larger Western society. Around 70,000 users currently visit SuhaibWeb.com.

Particularly in the last year, Twitter has become the most active space for civil society organizations working to undermine the role of extremists. One campaign, known as My Jihad, “Seeks to share the proper meaning of jihad as believed and practiced by the majority of Muslims.” The group operates an account on Twitter @MyJihadOrg that has thousands of followers who are encouraged to Tweet what the word “jihad” means to them.

In 2010, Google launched a privately funded project titled “Google Ideas” which brings former extremists face-to-face with survivors of attacks. The site brings together “formers” and “survivors” directly to connect on a sleek platform. Groups can then raise awareness on extremist-related issues, fundraise and develop partnerships. All funding for AVE has thus far originated from the private sector.

While such initiatives are undoubtedly promising, there is no silver bullet in solving the problem of religious extremism. In any future initiative targeted specifically against IS, an online component that harnesses the power of social media is critical in order to reach the largest number of people and address the nuances that affect vulnerable youth. As Muslims interviewed for this article made clear, such initiatives will be slow to develop, as the majority of mosques in the country lack the time and capabilities to conduct outreach. Many are run by imams from foreign countries who lack command of the English language. In this respect, governments should act as a facilitator; to raise awareness of issues related to extremism, while promoting pluralism and interfaith activity.

The author is a US-based analyst who focuses on the use of social media by jihadist groups, insurgent movements and cartels.

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