Like any other social media platform, Facebook hosts a wide range of users. Some users look for intellectual stimulation, and some others seek companionship. Yet, one has to be no less careful with Facebook friends than with one's next-door neighbors, perhaps more so given the website's 400 million active users that it boasts about.
You can waste your time uploading Doppelgänger pictures onto your profile and fill your status bar with the meaning of your name from UrbanDictionery.com. For example, my name, Fahad, means someone who is a math genius. The irony, however, is that I cannot calculate a tip in a restaurant.
But there is a lot of math that may not add up on open social platforms like Facebook, especially if one is a practicing Muslim. How should men and women who are not married to each other interact in such electronic venues? Do the rules of life discourse apply?
Recently rumors about a religious ruling against Facebook went viral. A known Al-Azhar figure, Sheikh Abd Al-Hamid Al-Atrash, allegedly gave a fatwa against Facebook, finding it a breeding ground for illicit relationships between men and women, married and unmarried. The sheikh has since denied issuing any such fatwa, but has not officially disagreed with its essential holding.
The rumors about the fatwa sparked a discussion on the grounding of the fatwa in all corners. Some felt it ridiculed religious opinion, while others understood the underlying wisdom. The sheikh may have given the fatwa and retracted it after the outburst, or he may not have said it in the first place. However absurd the heading "Egyptian Cleric Bans Facebook" may sound, the rationale and the language that we read between the quotes attributed to the sheikh are familiar to many of us.
"Fatwa Against Facebook" may sound grave and new, but many have heard local imams and conservative sheikhs labeling Facebook a fitnah, because of the underlying temptations that may lead to haram acts.
Mohamed Altantawy, a 29-year-old doctoral student at Columbia University, said that the alleged fatwa reminded him of the time when satellite channels were first introduced in Egypt and the campaign that followed to prohibit them.
Altantawy has been on Facebook for five years; he logs on several times a day to stay connected with his circle of friends back home in Cairo, as well as other friends and colleagues. The posts range from serious political debate to celebrating the Egyptian football team after their performance against Algeria.
"If anyone is using Facebook for illicit purposes, banning it wouldn't solve the problem," Altantawy said, "only educating them can bring change, so that they consciously make the right choice."
The alleged fatwa figured that the divorce rate has risen in Egypt because the website offers a platform for potential lovers. Abdul Rahman Ibrahim, a 25-year-old who is pursuing a graduate degree at the School of International and Public Affairs in the US, pointed out that the recent census in Egypt does indeed prove that one out of every five divorces is due to finding a partner on Facebook.
Sadly, the census does not concern itself about whether the couple had a happy marriage or not. One thing is for sure that the couple were not like Hermia in A Midsummer Night's Dream, or Othello's Desdemona or Portia in The Merchant of Venice, or Juliet, all of whom had embraced and committed themselves to their partners.
My noble father,
Desdemona epitomizes someone who knows her own constitution. She is not someone who is torn between duty and love. She has not chosen her beloved one over her father, as both relationships are unique and separate. As chosen is the operative word, we should perhaps ask how many of those marriages were predicated upon mutual understanding or (may I dare say?) love. The assumption that Facebook is the root cause of women's cheating on their husbands, and vice versa, is resoundingly troublesome.
If one in five break the sacred bond of marriage merely because of an Internet infatuation, this spells trouble for society. Maybe the issue is much deeper than we think, or maybe we are unwilling to face it. The divorce rate has increased, so we should ban male-female interaction.
In some parts of the Middle East, men are banned from parks and family areas; many websites are behind proxy walls that the masses spend hours to bypass; religious police march inside shopping malls to ensure there is no interaction between the opposite sexes, which does nothing but buck up the sales of cell phones with Bluetooth capability, which are used to initiate contact. All of this happened long before there was Facebook, so perhaps Facebook should be blamed for making things easier in an environment of forced seclusion and segregation. What about the divorce rate there? It is peaking, but hushed up.
"They would have to ban the Internet, cell phones, e-mail, and landline phones," said Nesrine Basheer, a 30-year-old teacher, "Just banning the tool and disregarding the reasons [for divorce] does not make sense."
Abdul Rahman Ibrahim moved to New York from Cairo only last year. He has made a conscious choice to limit his circle of friends on Facebook to only those he believes will respect his privacy. Right now, he has 23 friend requests from female colleagues at work and schoolmates that he will not accept. He wants Facebook to be a private place where he can interact with his friends, family, and classmates from his school days. He does not want to be exposed to a picture of a woman who "has just enjoyed a Safari trip or a beach outing with her other female friends and wants to celebrate it online."
Ibrahim is neither someone whom you will find navigating for a mate in a shopping mall nor someone who is trying to go around the firewall to access adult sites. He has set principles that he strongly adheres to, and he gives all the credit to his well-founded upbringing.
Banning networking sites, chat rooms, messengers, or Internet applications for voice calls will amount to nothing if the seed of wisdom is not planted at an early age. In the end, it is the marriage partner who has to make the choice whether to stay in the marriage or not. If everyone knew what marriage entails and then wisely chose a companion for life, we would not hear that one in five annulled marriages were primarily due to a partner's finding a spouse on Facebook.