Salamworld, the Facebook for Muslims?

The World is a social networking site for Muslims. (Photo: Youtube grab)

Manya Gupta

Salamworld isn't expected to come online until Ramadan in July. But that didn't stop the international Islamic startup from making its pitch at Istanbul's posh Ciragan palace last week. According to the company's commercial: "By filtering out harmful content, by making the content uphold and respect family values, we confirm to the requirements of Muslims throughout the world. As Salamworld, our aim is to overcome all political, language and cultural barriers, to open the world to Muslims. And open Muslims to the world." It's an ambitious project. Its goal is 50 million users in three years. The launch gathered Islamic leaders and campaigners from around the world. Many shared the feelings of Fouzan Akhmed Khan from Canada, who wants Muslims to engage with technology instead of cursing it as evil. "Anything you don't understand you criticize, you are scared," said Khan. "What I love about this initiative is that instead of criticizing what is wrong, they are providing an alternative to what should be done." What should be done, according to Salaamworld, is to create an online spot where users can find Islamic services and products, like halal food, which meets Islamic dietary laws, or a near-by mosque. The vision is being created here, at Salamworld's shiny new headquarters on the top of a hill overlooking the Bosporus. I got a tour from communications director Said Saidov. With 300 million online Muslims, private investors in Kazakstan and Russia figure this new business is a slam dunk. Asked whether the main goal of the project is to help the Ummah — the global community of Muslims — or to cash in on a wide-open market niche, Saidov says there's no reason you can't do both. "As a Muslim, religion and business are not separable," says Saidov. "Whatever you do for business has to be in line with your religious principles and values." Salamworld wants to be the online social media platform based on Islamic values, by and for Muslims. But part of its goal is to provide a better picture of Islam to non-Muslims. "We don't make an attempt to inform the world of what we are, we let people who have no relation to Islam to represent us, to hijack our religion and misrepresent it to others and this is sad," Said says. "So hopefully with Salamworld, we will be able to have an alternative and to change this." But its not certain Salamworld will catch on. The company says it will ensure halal content through filters, moderators and user-based moderation. Those are features similar to Facebook, but will likely be much more strictly applied. Omar Chatriwala, an online journalist in Qatar, is skeptical. He says young Muslims aren't so different from youth anywhere: They like Facebook. They like meeting people of the opposite sex online. So they might see Salamworld's "cleanliness" as censorship. "So its people trying to uphold the traditional values or the values of the religion who are saying 'we don't want our youth exposed to this, and this is a better alternative,'" says Chatriwala. "Its not necessarily the young people saying 'we don't want to be exposed to it.'" One Google trends study found that the most searches for the word "sex" and other pornographic terms, as a percentage of all searches in a country, came from Pakistan — a conservative Muslim country that's presumably a target market for Salamworld.