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Profile of Muslim discord

Facebook is a forum for furious debate between the devout and the secular. But does one side hear the other?

September 19, 2008|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO — His fingers tapping like a tiny army over laptop keys, Waleed Korayem, a university student who quotes Einstein and Voltaire, skims the Internet in a noisy cafe and opens his Facebook group, the one that drives Islamists into fits of rage: Yeah, We Are Seculars and We Are Proud.

It's hot and he is sweating, clicking through cyberspace venom and passionate screeds of Muslims debating Islam and democracy in the Middle East. Some of it is playful, some of it mean, but beyond the aliases and funny log-on names, this electronic parallel world has given young Muslims a voice beyond their mosques and repressive governments.

"This is not just a technical war, but a moral one. Facebook is reflecting what's happening in Muslim society," Korayem said. "I'm engaged in dialogue between Islamists and secularists. But there's too much tension. No one wants to revise his opinions. It's turned into a screaming war. Islamists speak to me as a disbeliever. They want to convert me. They quote verses of the Koran as if to awaken me."

The struggle is over Islam's role in the new century. Facebook groups like Korayem's seek separation between the spiritual and the political. Conservative pages and groups call for Islamic states and a pulling away from liberal Western influences. One Facebook group literally wants to awaken the faithful; it provides wake-up calls so its members don't sleep through dawn prayers.

With dueling names such as the International Day to Take Off Your Veil and Prophet Muhammad: The Greatest Leader of All Time, they taunt one another; they agree to disagree and occasionally they hack into opposing Facebook pages to mute, at least temporarily, the offending polemic.

It is an invigorating Internet landscape, a place where opinions on fatwas and female genital excision are played out in a culture that typically is sensitive about how far to push and question religion. But with no central structure, Islam, whose tenets have been interpreted different ways by countless imams and mullahs, is now being analyzed by thousands of new, young and disparate Web surfers. Some are as devout as the weekly sermons crackling from minarets; others are confused, searching; and some push for change with paeans to human rights and modernity.

Korayem believes he's living in a transformative time in Islamic history, when a new generation can express whatever it wants on screens that can hold infinite numbers of words. It's exciting, but he wonders where it's going. Is it chatter and discourse in a vacuum, provocative but not powerful enough to overturn oppressive governments or contemporize religious thought?

"Egypt is caught somewhere between Islam and a civil state," Korayem said. "That's why we have all this angst."

Beneath the hum of an air conditioner in Cairo's upper-middle-class neighborhood of Heliopolis, Amr Ali, a dental student who is a devout believer, sits in his bedroom and types furiously on his Facebook page, We the Muslim Youth Can Change This World. The quest has become so consuming that Ali's father, an orthopedic surgeon who worries that his son might be unfairly tagged as a radical by security forces, disconnects the family's high-speed Internet line during exams.

"Secular and atheist groups are posting on my group, accusing Islam of promoting terrorism," said Ali, a slight man with rimless glasses whose Facebook group has nearly 22,000 members. "I'm very surprised at all the secular Facebook groups out there. I'm concerned. They are young people and they are lost, following misleading slogans. Some of them are totally against religion and all the prophets."

In the dim cool of his room, Ali is part missionary, part explainer, seeking to abolish Western stereotypes about Islam while spreading the Koran's message from Casablanca to Paris. His Facebook group has crossed geographical, if not ideological, boundaries, flashing with the images of moderate Islamic thinkers as varied as televangelist Amr Khaled, South African preacher Ahmed Deedat and Yusuf Islam, formerly Cat Stevens.

"We can change perceptions about Islam," he said. "I now have a relationship with an American guy on Facebook. He first contacted me by calling me a terrorist. 'Do you belong to Al Qaeda?' But I've explained the nature of Islam, using Koran verses to correct his misperceptions. Now he and I discuss Islam and Buddhism online.

"I'm also helping a British woman who wants to convert to Islam. She messaged me through my group. I've helped to find the nearest mosque in England. It has all become my mission."

Ali's Facebook page conjures at once globalization and tradition. It is a mix of English and Arabic, reaching out to educated Muslims in the Middle East and Westerners beyond. The page's inviting message is conveyed by an English-speaking narrator whose voice grows urgent over music that sounds like hip-hop tamed by New Age:

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