Reader contributions to iviews.com are always interesting, and the diversity of the opinions presented reflects the underlying diversity of the Umma. Diversity, both in background and perspective, can represent a tremendous source of strength and intellectual renewal for the rapidly growing Muslim community of North America. However, at times, some of the submissions to the reader contribution section betray an underlying arrogance on the part of the contributors. While no doubt sincere in their intentions, these readers too often feel compelled to frame their responses to comments posted by fellow Muslims in the form of insults or self-righteous proclamations. This may have the unintended effect of discouraging others, who may be less knowledgeable (or less secure in their knowledge), from posting their thoughts or queries on the site in the future.
Civility does not connote surrender or compromise, nor should the relative anonymity of internet communication imply immunity from norms of social behavior.
Whether presenting an individual opinion or a statement supported by a mountain of factual evidence, it is important to keep in mind the example of the Prophet (peace be upon him). The Prophet (p.b.u.h.) was a polite, civil man, particularly in his dealings with his followers but also in his complex interactions with the non-believers and hypocrites of his time, who conspired on a daily basis against the nascent Muslim community. This decency was not a reflection of an underlying weakness, nor was his civility to be confused with compromise or an abandonment of principle (something that his enemies would learn repeatedly). Rather, it set the tone for a devout, humble community that genuinely sought to influence the hearts of others through acts of generosity and kindness. On numerous occasions, the Prophet (p.b.u.h.) cited this as one of his motives for dealing gently with his enemies, and he encouraged the believers to follow suit. This civility did not preclude the willingness of the Muslims to defend themselves against aggression but continued even in the face of the disrespectful and often abhorrent behavior of their critics.
Members of the Muslim internet community should at the least extend this courtesy to one another. Marginalizing the opinions of other Muslims -- even those not wholly grounded in the Quran, sunnah, or Islamic jurisprudence -- serves no higher purpose. Issues of concern to the community, on a local as well as on a global scale, will inevitably spur vigorous debate and produce differences of opinion within our community. Disagreements are not unique to this generation of Muslims, and, indeed, the community that derived maximum benefit from exposure to the example of the Prophet (p.b.u.h.) differed on significant issues following his death.
My recommendations: when disagreeing with a posted comment, state your opinion in as clear and concise a manner as possible. Provide all the supporting evidence you can muster, but avoid employing strident or polarizing language that might alienate your intended audience. Avoid the inclination to belittle what you may regard as an inaccurate or misguided statement from your Muslim brother or sister. If your intention is to correct an erroneous impression or to guide others to the truth, a civil approach is more likely to yield success.
On a related subject, many readers have undoubtedly stumbled across statements from individuals who make no effort to conceal their hostility to Muslims and Islam in general by posting belligerent and defamatory statements. These are not to be confused with the mostly neutral comments posted by other non-Muslims who are genuinely interested in exchanging ideas and learning more about Muslims, their beliefs, and issues of concern. Often, these comments are framed as responses to specific articles on the Middle East, the question of Palestine, and the issue of continued Israeli aggression. In some instances, a definite pattern emerges, revealing a sub-population of web surfers who frequent the numerous Muslim and Arab websites and chat-rooms, engaging in non-productive, tit-for-tat exchanges with understandably outraged readers. My recommendation would be to simply IGNORE the rubbish posted by these folks. Keep in mind, many of these individuals literally thrive on the controversy sparked by their rhetoric and the notoriety earned through engaging Muslims in pitched verbal warfare. Their continued interest requires that readers explicitly acknowledge their often-bigoted diatribes by responding in a similar vein. On a certain level, the response from these readers serves as a testament to the success of iviews.com and the growing clout of the American Muslim community. Success invariably draws critical attention and opposition, and Muslims should expect nothing less.
In the future, scholars may well reflect upon the current explosion in information and communication technology as an essential step in the renaissance of the worldwide Umma. Communication across the information superhighway, then, should be subject to the same set of rules governing communication in the workplace, school, Islamic centers, and general public. Civility does not connote surrender or compromise, nor should the relative anonymity of internet communication imply immunity from norms of social behavior. In the long run, maintaining a healthy respect for the opinions of others will only promote greater unity, goodwill, and sense of purpose among the geographically, ethnically, and socially diverse segments of the internet Muslim community.
Basil Abdelkarim is a physician and research associate for the Council on American Islamic Relations, Southern California.