When du’ā for damnation and eternal suffering comes much easier than seeking guidance and mercy, there is a system malfunction taking place. Welcome to the good, the bad, and the grotesquely ugly of online commenting culture.
In the bubbling cauldron of online hate in the pictures above, we have Diane Abbott’s fatness and blackness, a call to (a Muslim) Holocaust and a casual suggestion to “just kill yourself”. These few choice ingredients were casually typed up and thrown out without a passing thought.
We have all seen comments like these, maybe even worse. The Internet has provided an unparalleled platform for anybody with a hateful agenda to get popularity, air time, and a fan base. We can create sub-cultures that would have been driven underground and considered indefensible in “real life”. A WiFi connection, something triggering to say or do, and bingo! You have an audience and have found your voice.
Online comments sections are not exactly renowned as a platform for nuanced and intelligent discussion. We as Muslims are just as guilty of this too. The world of Islamic/Muslim-centred content is often an unholy mess of the good, the bad, and the ugly. In fact, we seem to have a particular problem reigning in our keyboard outrage and unleashing the darkest and often most embarrassing of things at the click of a button.
Muslim doing something we do not like? May Allāh guide you or break your back! Muslim having an opinion we do not like? May Allāh curse you and your progeny! Muslim putting the milk in before the tea bag? The embers of Jahannam, hot and ready, are at our fingertips for that too. A woman’s hijab, the mention of LGBTQ+, Muslims selling out, atheism, or any of our other trigger topics have us reaching for our damnation du’ā and invoking divine wrath as fast as digital lightning.
We are just text on a screen after all, often nameless and faceless. Open platforms with little to no moderation often give us the green light to reveal the ugliest parts of ourselves in full public view. Much has been written about the harms of online abuse, as well as why and how people get braver in saying and behaving in ways they never would in person. There are laws around online hate and ‘trolling’, but due to the unprecedented mechanics of this kind of hate, laws are hastily scrambled and enacted to keep up with (d)evolving digital cultures.
So, when it comes to content to do with Islam and Muslims, what is it that particularly seems to raise our ire? Understandably, most people feel passionate – perhaps even protective – of their religion. Many have strong opinions about the best way to live, be, think, and exist as a Muslim. All of us are at different points in how much we know, how much we do, and how we may have grown (or stagnated) along the way. With such a diverse audience, it is natural and unsurprising that there will be disagreement and debate. The etiquette of differing is not a new thing. There are entire libraries of classical works outlining how to disagree with decorum and dignity. The unqualified open platform of the online world has simply exacerbated a problem that has plagued humans from the beginning.
What tips the scale between discussion of differences and all-out abuse? Here the harder questions begin. When we are angered by what we see, is it our ghīrah (protective jealousy) over our religion and our upset that the rights of Allāh are being transgressed that drive us? Could it be our ego, our need to speak out and feel better? Do we feel assured of our own spiritual superiority when we call out and degrade others?
This is not to say we should be ambivalent to everything we see. Of course, calling out open and public harms is essential and an important part of safeguarding the community, even (perhaps especially) when it is online. When harm is done publicly in order to be seen, it must be challenged publicly for the greater good. In order to actually achieve its purpose, this zeal must naturally fulfil some basic conditions first.
The undoubted command of “enjoining the good and forbidding the evil” is an important one, and its main focus can be distilled as follows:
- Renew your intention and be sincere – it is only for the sake of Allāh that you are doing it; not for your ego, nor to prove you are superior, nor to shame and put someone down
- Know what you are talking about! Speak from a basis of clear evidence and verify your facts first. Know your subject matter properly so that you are speaking from knowledge, not sound bites
- When possible, always consider giving your advice privately first, and only do it publicly if there is a clear benefit in doing so
- Speak with compassion – be gentle, let the other person save face, and give them the benefit of the doubt
- Speak to people the way you would like to be spoken to if you were in their shoes
- Practice what you preach – do not malign others for indulging in behaviours of which you yourself are guilty
When doing all this, know that if you cross the limits and are excessive in your condemnation, then the ‘good’ you think you are performing is less than the evil you have put out.
This is a summary of a more elaborate discussion elsewhere, but it can be even further crystallised in a simple instruction from Allāh in the Qur’ān. Prophet Musa was sent to speak to one of the worst oppressors to ever walk the face of the Earth, Fir’aun. Prophet Musa was naturally anxious of what might come to be. Fir’aun had committed the darkest and ugliest sins a human is capable of, and his arrogance was unmatched. You would assume that Prophet Musa would be given advice on being brave, resolute, and steadfast in the face of a tyrant. Instead, Allāh ordered this:
“And speak to him with gentle speech that perhaps he may be reminded or fear (Allāh).”
Understanding that your message is going to be best received when couched in respect, honour, and compassion is not a new or revolutionary idea.
Have you ever witnessed the peculiarities of the British parliament? You will notice how, in the thick of old boys jeering at one another’s throats, arguments against your opponent are always directed to the “Speaker of the House”. No matter how much you may revile the one you are speaking to, you must address others as “my honourable friend/my honourable member opposite”. There are elaborate “Rules of the House and Courtesies” that serve as a rulebook of active reminders and conscious speech that everybody stepping into Parliament agrees to abide by – this is necessary for basic civility to exist when engaging in heated debate. This is a practice essential to core human needs, people without divine scripture recognise and therefore enshrine it into their political culture.
Engage with content that enhances, not enrages you
There are plenty of things to be angry about in the world today. Structural and violent racism, unequal access to health care, humans ravaging the planet – the list is endless. Do not go seeking or find yourself mindlessly landing on content only to vent and for an emotional release. If I do not have a sweet tooth, would it make sense for me to watch “Delia’s Best of Britain Desserts” so I can add vomiting emojis to every video in the stream? Be sensible. The really important issues need to be treated with due care. Your passion must be channelled through constructive means for effective change to occur. If your online raging leads to no real-world impact, then ask yourself why you are really investing so much of your emotional energy in the first place.
If – and only if – you feel your intentions are strong and you are duty-bound to speak out, then do everything possible for your words to have their intended effect. This means speaking from knowledge, insight, and empathy. Address people with compassion – the qawlan layyina that Prophet Musa was instructed to speak with to Fir’aun.
As we navigate an increasingly complicated world as Muslims, the best supplies we can carry are sound knowledge and wisdom in conveying it. In the furious and stinging inferno of instant reaction, we must learn to sit back and breathe. Begin by questioning yourself, and understand that you always catch more flies with honey.
 Al-Qur’ān 20:44
Zimarina is a freelance writer and researcher currently based in London. She holds an MRes in Linguistics from Kings College London and her interests include language, spirituality, social justice and … a bit too much baking.