Social Media in The Muslim World: A Discussion

by Faiqa Mahmood

Recently, Fletcher Forum Legal Editor Faiqa T. Mahmood sat down with Farah Pandith, Special Representative to Muslim Communities for the U.S. Department of State, and Riyaad Minty, Head of Social Media for Al Jazeera, both of whom were visiting Fletcher for an event sponsored by the World Peace Foundation. (Image by Alonso Nichols / Tufts University)

A Fletcher alum, Special Representative Pandith has spent the last several years designing strategies to help engage global Muslim communities through social media, outreach, and dialogue. 

Riyaad Minty joined Al Jazeera in 2006 and currently is the head of social media for the international news organization, which just recently acquired Current TV and will be inaugurating national U.S. broadcasting.

In two separate interviews below, The Forum asked each guest a series of questions relating to the role of social media in Muslim societies today, and how new technologies are changing opportunities for civic engagement for Muslims around the world.


FLETCHER FORUM: In your special role and in your personal opinion, how do you think social media is changing Muslim societies?

PANDITH: So the first thing I want to say is that in this position as Special Representative to Muslim Communities, my finger has been on the pulse of the generation that we call “Digital Natives.” Secretary Clinton has asked me to focus on young Muslims under the age of 30. And I say that because this demographic is really critical. You’ve done the math. You know that sixty-two percent of Muslims in the world are under the age of thirty. There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. When you think about the influence of ideas that are being spread throughout the world, the way in which this generation of young people—whether they’re Muslim or not Muslim—think about their role in society, and how that is being shaped by what’s taking place in the palm of their hand—on their smart phone, through images that they are seeing on Instagram, or on Flickr, or on Facebook, the 140 characters on Twitter—that carries with it mobilization; carries with it a deep profound emotion; that carries with it an opportunity to express themselves in new ways. All this absolutely makes a difference.

And so when I think about what I’ve seen on the ground with young Muslims around the world—I have been to almost 80 countries around the world in the course of the last three-and-a-half years—whether I’m talking about Muslims in Surabaya, Indonesia, talking to Muslims in Sao Paulo, or whether I’m talking to in Muslims in Suriname or in Spain, it doesn’t matter. It’s this generation that’s making a difference.

So yes, there are huge indicators that tell me the importance of making sure that the U.S. government is in the space of social media. We’re doing what Secretary Clinton has defined as “21st century statecraft”—allowing us to get in to that space and finally open the door in a brand new way for young people in this demographic to communicate their ideas at the civil society level, not just to each other around the world, but to senior officials in our government. So by virtue of the fact that our embassies, our ambassadors, are Tweeting, they are on Facebook, that they are watching the social media space, means that an average citizen anywhere in the world can give a direct message to a senior U.S. government official. That is a really big deal.

And I know firsthand in my job that when I go overseas and I Tweet out what it is I’m seeing, or what I’m doing, or that somebody said this or somebody said that—I get an instant response from people. So I think it is absolutely important, certainly when you are looking at it from the Fletcher point of view as you think about your careers going forward: social media is, in fact, part of your portfolio. It is not a sideline issue. This is something that is part of the calibration as you think about how to do diplomacy.

FLETCHER FORUM: You mentioned that you travel extensively as part of your job. So in all your travels to Muslim countries, have you noticed social media impacting women’s lives? In particular, how they perceive themselves in their political lives, and their human rights?

PANDITH: So a couple of things, just because I think lexicon matters. My travels involve connecting with Muslims around the world. They are Muslims in Muslim-majority countries and Muslims that live as minorities. For me as I think about that, just in terms of the lexicon as Fletcher students, to give dignity to all voices means that you have to talk very accurately. So that’s why I am poking at you. But on the issue of how women are looking at social media, there are a couple of things.

First, I think when we look at the way in which both more conservative societies and non-conservative societies use social media, you’re seeing a convergence across the board. So it’s not having to do with how affluent you are or how well educated you are, or are you in a city or are you in a rural place. You’re seeing, across the world, your generation communicating. So whether you’re male or female, this is happening.

When you put the layer of being female on it, here is what I’m seeing with women: they’re very interested in hearing what other women are doing in other parts of the world who happen to be Muslim. They are asking me questions about the role of women—Muslim women in other parts of the world. They want to hear from them. They’re interested in finding out who’s online, what NGOs are doing here, what individuals, NGOs, and civil society are writing about on blogs, what they are Tweeting. They want to know who the players are out there.

They are also really interested in identity issues. That is a very central thing that I’m going to talk about later on tonight—that identity is at the core of where your generation is. So when I look at the questions that women are asking—it’s the same as men—how can you be modern and Muslim? What’s the difference between culture and religion? But the way it is affecting the identity of a woman is very important. How so? You will see lots of conversation about the right way a woman should be. And heated conversation about dress; heated conversation about character; heated conversation about the role of the family; heated conversation about the role in society. And so these things are percolating all over the world, and I think it’s really important because the social media aspect allows the women to express themselves, sometimes in a more protected environment, because they are able to do it online.

FLETCHER FORUM: So you mentioned your unique position as a bridge between the West and majority Muslim countries. In your travels, what do you think are the greatest challenges facing the U.S. government in communicating with Muslim communities? And also vice versa. What do you think is the biggest challenge to that exchange?

PANDITH: They’re many levels of opportunities and challenges, and again I want to go back to the way you phrased the question. My role is to represent the United States government as a connector with Muslims around the world. So it’s not just Muslim-majority countries. It’s across the world. That is important because there are manygovernments in the world that have Muslim majority-communities. But the voices that are taking place, that are influencing around the world, are not just those players in Muslim majority-countries. And they’re not just in one region in the world. So we’re not just looking at the Middle East. We’re not just looking at Africa. We’re not just looking at East Asia. And I know that when we begin to unpack the various components of how the United States government needs to interact, how they need to open up, they’re three things that I need to say that are really important to begin with.

One, are you listening to a wide range of voices? Are you on the ground, not just going to the same places that you always go?  The U.S. government is going deep and we are going wide. We’re getting to know non-traditional actors, influencers, if you will, credible voices in a wide variety of ways. So it’s not just the head of an NGO, it’s also a poet. It’s also a hip-hop artist. It’s a graffiti artist that I meet in Bahrain. It’s a women’s activist on Twitter. It’s a blogger in Oman. It is a business executive in Kuala Lumpur. It is across the board. Who are the actors out there that are influencing ideas or influencing the conversation? So, [to interact with] civil society, [one must go] go deep and going wide.

The second piece in terms of being that connector between the United States government and many people around the world is how we work with our embassies so that we’re facilitating opportunities that are uncommon, that are not the usual. We have always—the United States government for decades—has wonderful programs between our country and communities of faith all over the world. So this isn’t the first time were engaging with a faith community, specifically Muslims. But we are, in the context of a post-9/11 world, looking at a very different set of challenges—challenges where an organization, for example, like Al Qaeda, can hijack a narrative and create this momentum of an “us” and a “them.” Now I remember very specifically when I was here at Fletcher—I was a first-year student in 1993— when Samuel Huntington came out with theClash of Civilizations. That was the thing that everyone in the halls of this school were talking about. Is there a clash of civilizations? You look at the narrative out there of Al Qaeda and its affiliates. They want you to believe that there is an “us” and a “them.” They would spark that conversation, and try to build that engine, so that people believe that.

Well, I don’t believe it, and I want to debunk the idea of an “us” versus “them.” President Obama has said, “There is no ‘us’ and ‘them.’ There is just a ‘we.’” And in order to connect those ideas, as part of the U.S. government, we have to listen. We have to be on the ground. So civil society is important. The youth demographic is really, really important. Going to non-traditional actors is really important.

And finally, the greatest strength of the United States government is to be the convener, the facilitator, and the intellectual partner with the ideas that we hear on the ground. So building platforms by connecting really great ideas around the world is one way of creating alternative narratives to the narrative of an “us” and a “them.” If the only voices you hear are extremist voices, you will never know the other conversations that are going on. It is important that the microphone be given to uncommon voices so that people can be heard.

FLETCHER FORUM: You mentioned the “us” and “them,” narrative, and I find that really interesting because we see social media being used, but unfortunately, more often, it is the negative aspects which get more attention, such as the YouTube video about the Prophet Mohammed leading to riots across the Muslim World. Do you feel that there is potential for the positive aspects of social media to counter the negative aspects effectively?

PANDITH: I don’t feel it. I know it. I see it everyday. I see young people all over the world who have in their own ways created the narratives that they need to create to counter the narratives of extremists. The idea that organic things can happen, that it’s not just a government—any government in the world— telling somebody what to do, but rather real people who are saying, “These extremist messages are not going to live in my backyard.” They are doing it by flash-mobs. They’re going out there and pushing back. They’re blogging. They’re creating cartoons online. They’re creating YouTube videos. They’re creating movements that are taking place. And yes, it is true that maybe the mainstream media doesn’t always pick them up. But there has been significant change over the course of the last ten years of regular citizens doing more in the social media space which I think is really profound and really hopeful. What we can do is to make more platforms available so that those voices can be heard. And my government, and many other governments around the world, must do more of that.

But I don’t think its only government that should create the platforms. I strongly believe that business can help create new platforms for young voices to be heard, and things that are really mainstream. For example: TED. We just did a Ted conference—TedX—in Uganda, for youth, because we wanted to have young people from Africa be heard. And we know that’s a platform that’s watched by 1 billion people who have access to TED. So you’re creating new spaces that these voices can go to. By ceding an initiative called “Generation Change,” where we are talent scouting around the world, finding young people under the age of 30 who are change-makers, and connecting them to each other on Facebook. So all were doing is putting people together, saying, “You guys need to know each other,” and walking away. It’s a great way of making a difference in your community. It’s by doing media training and leadership training with a program called “Virtual Peace,” which was featured in Wired magazine, for young people to push back against extremism. These are the things you can do to harness the new voices and put them out there.

I believe I am optimistic because I know that there are more voices that push back against extremism. There are more people who are not extremists than extremists. Why are we giving the megaphone to the extremists to do that? What you’re hearing is more and more people of your generation, my friend, who are saying, “No, I don’t want to give that voice to extremists. I am going to do more.” Look at what’s happening in places like Somalia. Look at what’s happening in many parts of the Middle East, where young people have taken it upon themselves to say, “I don’t like what’s being said. They don’t represent me. I want to be represented in terms of my generation.” And I think it’s very hopeful.

FLETCHER FORUM: As a Fletcher graduate who has worked in public policy for many years, what advice would you have for Fletcher students who are graduating with an eye towards public policy?

PANDITHThere is not enough I can say about my experience at Fletcher. It was a pivotal experience for me for so many reasons. When I look at the new generation of young Fletcher people, I would say a couple things if you are interested in being a part of foreign policy in whatever country you come from and in whatever way you can see it.

There isn’t one route. That’s the first thing. There isn’t one route to success or to make a difference. You have to think about many different options. But the core at every step is where your passion lies. I firmly believe you have to do what you are activated to do–What drives you? What you are passionate about?–and find that thing and move in a direction in which you are making an influence. Because when you begin to do that, people notice you. And you will see your career unfold in ways that you cannot even imagine.

When I left Fletcher in 1995, there is no way I could have predicted the trajectory of my professional career. First of all, the jobs that I ended up with didn’t exist. Second of all, you advance and understand through experience, so your learning curve becomes really steep. What I say to many Fletcher students who talk to me is, “Is your learning curve steep in the job that you are in? Are you almost scared to go do what it is that you’re doing?” You have to be a little bit half-sick when you go to work everyday, asking yourself if you can do this job. And do not be the smartest person in the room. Always work for people who are far smarter than you, and learn what you are capable of. You would not be at Fletcher if you did not have the raw talent to make a difference in this world. And that is not just about what title you have. It’s about where you are impacting a particular place.



FLETCHER FORUM: In your position as the Head of Social Media at Al Jazeera, how do you feel social media is impacting Muslim societies?

MINTY: In terms of social media specifically, if you’re talking about within Muslim societies, it is opening them up quite a bit. I think it’s opening people through access to information, going beyond the traditional hierarchy you might have within Muslim societies where you’d have your religious leader who then would, to a large extent, be the only access to information. Instead, we now find a meaningful conversation emerging online.  And we find with things that might not have been questioned before, people are coming to forums and finding that space to question. They’re trying to understand, to take ownership of their religion a lot more, which among the younger generation is positive.

What is negative is that people tend to get lost in the amount of information available. There is a lot of information and disinformation, it’s very easy to take a Tweet out of context without having a depth of understanding. When not just Muslim communities but any community is trying to understand their faith or relation to God, it needs to go beyond a surface level of understanding, it needs to move into the conversation space. Often in social media, and specifically in Muslim communities, you tend to see people keeping very polarized within their community and within what they know well, and anything that may challenge that can make them very upset.

It’s very responsive, not proactive. There isn’t a lot of conversation happening. And that’s a challenge, from my experience. If people see anything sensitive that deals with the Muslim world, you’ll likely find both sides criticizing and screaming at each other without actually talking. That’s the challenge, and that’s something that the social network, as it is right now, hasn’t addressed. Consider the commenting system on Facebook: people leave individual comments and there’s no conversation. That’s the space into which, over the next year or two, networks will move to enable conversation more. But we’re finding these niche communities in which there is a willingness to move in that direction, and that is positive.

FLETCHER FORUM: Do you think going forward there is potential for social media platforms to counter polarization? Not only within Muslim societies, but also when juxtaposed with the West, do you think the potential is there for social media to act as a bridge?

MINTY: The potential is definitely there. How it will be executed and the direction in which we move to get there is the question. I haven’t seen anything really moving in that direction; rather I’ve seen it become more polarizing with the introduction of “grouping,” such as the way you can add people on Google+ interest groups. The only challenge to this in the Muslim world was “SalamWorld,” which was something that was supposedly based out of Turkey, it had considerable backing, and wanted to be the Muslim version of Facebook. But why do you want to be the “Muslim version of Facebook,” when you could create a new platform that encourages engaging with the other? So, the indications are that we aren’t moving in the right direction.

I think there is an opportunity for a network to come in that doesn’t allow people to polarize, that allows different thoughts and opinions to enter into the conversation, and allows people to actually discuss things. We’ve seen the desire to move in that direction, but the existing platforms don’t accommodate yet. But there is an opportunity for that to happen.

FLETCHER FORUM: How does Al Jazeera use social media, and how do you see their role as acting as this bridge?

MINTYWhen I joined Al Jazeera six and a half years ago, my task was to look at the future of media. I initially joined in the mobile department because that was my experience and we had an empty block for social media, which we knew was going to be big at some point but just wasn’t mainstream yet. Around 2008, I transitioned into that role full-time to take on social media. The way we saw it, media in general is usually either speaking at an audience or down to an audience—when you watch a presenter on TV, they are speaking down to the audience. So, the first phase we wanted to move into was to have our audience have direct input into our TV screens. You comment via text, email, go on Facebook, or tweet, whatever you have, and your comments would come on the screen. It’s nice, but it’s not ideal—it’s still a commenting system and not a conversation.

Where we see ourselves moving is with one person in the middle and two people on either side, so you have a conversation between communities that can come together to discuss issues that are important to them side-by-side. That’s the role we see ourselves playing, we provide the facts that are out there and we just moderate the conversation.

People need to have the ownership of their own stories. The best example we have of that is probably “The Stream,” [an interactive program that aggregates online sources and discussion] which has been received very well because people have the opportunity to use their own voices. Again, it’s highly curated because you have to select the guests and there is a lot of production that goes into it. It isn’t as simple as, “here is a platform, come and talk,” because you’d never get anything tangible at the end of the conversation. But The Stream was an experiment, and it’s been successful. That’s the direction we want to move.

As a network, we’ve always wanted to be the bridge between the street and power; we don’t just serve governments and we don’t just serve the street, we facilitate the conversation. What we find is that governments are still going towards mainstream media organizations and their structures, and the street is completely rebelling by adapting the social platforms and thinking digital to have their voices heard. So, we need to think between the two.

Long-term, I think brands like Al Jazeera, CNN, BBC, won’t be as relevant as they are today. We’ll be one source of information, we won’t be the only source of information. People will go wherever they need to in order to get a variety of opinions and variety of facts, and people will go online to other conversations and will reference “Al Jazeera said this,” or “CNN said that,” and we’ll become a reference point. That’s the space I think we’re moving to.

FLETCHER FORUM: Al Jazeera will be gaining a national U.S. presence soon. Do you think that gaining that national presence will aid in removing some of the misconceptions that the United States might have about Muslim societies? Or do you think there is a potential to reinforce those stereotypes?

MINTY: Unfortunately, I am not allowed to talk about the project yet. But in general, first, Al Jazeera is not a Muslim network. We have an Arabic name, but our entire English channel has something like sixty nationalities working there and very few are actually Muslim. When we come into the United States, we would be hiring local American talent. We believe in being the voice of the people; we don’t believe in being on the outside looking in, we would rather be looking at issues from local voices, which we’ve done with our Arabic channel and our English channel, which I believe there are approximately seventy bureaus around the world, because that’s where we need to be.

For instance, our Turkish channel is completely run by Turkish people, broadcast in the local language and with local culture. Al Jazeera Balkans, which is headquartered in Sarajevo, is based on this same concept. And Al Jazeera America will be of the same concept, it will be with Americans, American voices, and Americans speaking about issues that matter to them.

Once you start opening that conversation, instead of talking down to people, that’s our opportunity. People learn through conversation, they don’t learn from fighting and screaming at each other, and that conversation is what we want to have.

About the Author

Faiqa Mahmood is a MALD candidate at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy where she focuses on International Security Studies, Southwest Asia, and the Islamic Civilization. She is a licensed attorney at the Islamabad High Court, Pakistan and has been called to the Bar of England and Wales. Prior to Fletcher, Faiqa taught a law course to second-year law students in Pakistan. She has also worked with research organizations in Egypt, Lebanon, and Washington, D.C.

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