Thou shalt not Facebook

Muslim clerics should provide good reasons for young Muslims to use the Internet responsibly instead of trying to regulate it, writes Ary Hermawan

The Jakarta Post
Saturday, May 30, 2009

By Ary Hermawan

Muslim clerics in Kediri, East Java, recently grabbed media attention and created an uproar among netizens for suggesting they could introduce regulations on Facebook use since they believe the site is often used for gossip or to exchange pornographic material.

Before clarifying their statements to the media, there were fears that the popular networking site would end up banned and labeled "un-Islamic" by the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI).

Muslims familiar with ushul fiqh (the philosophy of Islamic jurisprudence) are not worried about the prospect of clerics telling them to choose between their Facebook accounts and hellfire. The reason is quite simple: Web 2.0 did not exist when the Prophet Muhammad preached the Koran in the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century.

What is haram has been clearly stated in the Islamic holy book. No one, not even the Prophet himself, has permission to add anything new (no, nothing) -- to the list of things God has said are haram. Facebook, if you read the Koran, is not on the list, and never will be.

The clerics' concern is the impact of the crazily popular social networking site. They believe it lures people into committing acts of sin. And such apprehension, although it sounds a bit outrageous, is hardly surprising.

Facebook, like all Web 2.0 revolutionary inventions, has had a huge impact on its users' lives. The thing is, we are not sure yet whether these impacts are positive or negative, or whether the good outweighs the bad. Let's be honest: We know the clerics are not the first and are certainly not the only people against Facebook.

It seems we are too overwhelmed by the brutal novelty of the Internet that our desire for new experience has really put off our sense of caution. The World Wide Web, figuratively speaking, has become the exotic Wild Wild Web, with a big screen on its giant door reading "ENTER AT OWN RISK!"

Facebook is an alien creature even to some free-thinkers, let alone Muslim clerics who devotedly seek answers to problems facing human kind, in a 1,500-year-old holy book. Their concerns are thus quite reasonable.

People have responded differently to the Facebook frenzy. The Iranian government has banned Facebook for political reasons, knowing that the voice of reform is prettier and louder on the networking site ahead of elections.

The University of Indonesia, providing a free wireless Internet connection on its campuses, has also blocked Facebook during study hours, acknowledging that many of its students -- mostly digital natives -- are spending more time checking their friends' statuses than reading at the library.

But "pulling the plug" is obviously an obsolete, if not anachronistic, strategy. A webpage is not a newspaper whose life depends entirely on a permit, advertising and dozens of writers. The Internet is a totally different world. The Internet is just too vast to be regulated, and it is actually not too difficult for real netizens to outsmart regulators.

Singapore, known as a nation of controls, is now trying to redefine freedom of speech as it "negotiates" with individual bloggers, some of whom call themselves citizen journalists, who have demanded greater freedoms and the deregulation of the Internet. Creating an ombudsman body and drafting a special code of ethics are among suggestions they have proposed after the government told them to "self-regulate".

Western countries have also begun to realize that blocking websites is not effective even to curb the alarming rise of jihad websites, as terrorists are often more elusive online than offline. Community-based counterterrorism measures are now seen as the best way to keep youths away from tech-savvy jihadists.

Indonesia passed the Electronic Information and Transaction Law, but, apart from the criticisms of its many loopholes, it has not had an impact on the country's digital life. It only gives a legal basis for cracking down on cyber crimes, but law enforcers do not have the capacity to police the Internet entirely by meticulously checking the contents of millions of websites and chat-forums.

There is probably no perfect model for Internet regulation. This is something that civil society, or netizens, should find out themselves, perhaps through a painful trial-and-error process. The Indonesian blogosphere, for instance, was recently shocked that several bloggers fell victim to the fraudulent behavior of a celebrity blogger they believed to be "nice, smart and friendly".

They lost money, but learned their lesson.

The challenge is how can we incorporate (or "upload") offline values, that have been tested throughout history, into the digital world. No, this won't be as easy as saying it, but we have learned that government's controls are not the answer to handling the Internet's menace.

Muslim clerics can fill this gap, but they need to do more than just saying, "Thou shalt not Facebook!" since to do so is theologically and logically irrelevant.

Young people today seem to be quite allergic to commandments. They need good reasons (there's a reason why safe sex, not abstinence, is today's morality).

The clerics should give young Muslims good reasons why they need to Facebook, blog, Youtube and tweet, responsibly.