- - Tuesday, April 13, 2021

“Do not hate one another,” the Prophet Mohammad teaches. “Do not turn away from one another. Do not undercut one another.” 

Similarly, St. Paul offers in Ephesians: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”

In Judaism, the concept of “hotzaat shem ra” forbids defamation. In Buddhism, backbiting and other forms of divisiveness run contrary to the values of right speech. 

Even secular traditions from ancient Greece until today offer us variants of the Golden Rule: Avoid doing what you would blame others for doing.

Yet even a cursory perusal of social media content published around the world shows how wantonly individuals of all backgrounds violate these most sacred of tenets. Studies show how each day hundreds of thousands of tweets, snaps, updates and posts break the rules for hate speech created by social media platforms. The problem is only getting worse.

When describing what constitutes virtuous behavior toward the other, none of our faiths or philosophies include a special exception for social media materials. There is no asterisk to be found pertaining to proper interpersonal conduct in the Quran, the New Testament, the Talmud or any other venerated text. Nor is there a moral carve-out buried in the footnotes of the humanist canon.

Around the world, diverse legal foundations and statutory frameworks guide us. But what the fundamentally peaceful religions and belief systems that undergird our societies impart is that online hatred ought to have no place in our world. Every day, men and women should not have to bear the psychological and even physical strain of social media abuse. We have seen how no one is immune when social media platforms allow for vile threats and dehumanizing comments, often cloaked behind protection of fake names and false images.

Last month, the chief executives of Twitter, Facebook and Alphabet all promised to curtail the use of social media for misinformation and extremism, laying out before a House committee what their platforms have done as well as their technological advancements to combat online hate.  None focused on the detrimental impact such material has on the daily lives of the people. 

In the United States, some of the biggest stars in sports have reported revolting abuse directed toward them. Even as English Premier League teams take the knee in opposition to racism, footballers of color repeatedly have had to decry the racist aggression they face on social media. 

I commend the efforts of athletes and sports leagues to stand up to the abuse. The Premier League recently wrote an open letter to the CEOs of Twitter and Facebook, Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg, imploring them to root out hatred on their platforms. Their plea echoes many of the sentiments we at the Muslim World League have expressed in our correspondence with social media companies.

In Islam, we learn to abhor backbiting, or gheebah, which Allah likens to eating the flesh of your dead brother. It is by no means a position unique to Islam.

That is why we are engaging other faith-based communities, and reaching out to the CEOs of Twitter, Facebook and other companies to clamp down on the online hate their services have helped incubate. 

We have seen some positive steps. In October, Facebook agreed to ban all content that denies the Holocaust. Such a prohibition was long overdue, though we note with sadness that the policy has yet to be thoroughly implemented.

Lamentably, hatred against Muslims hasn’t been pursued with the same vigor. Dehumanizing content continues to flourish related to the Rohingya in Myanmar despite what many countries have declared a genocide. Even in the liberal democracies of the West, open insults to Islam and its adherents proliferate widely.

Online hate doesn’t stop in cyberspace. Muslims from all walks of life are disproportionately subjected to verbal attacks, vandalism, discrimination and physical violence. Too often, the motivation stems from social media.

Such hatred is not inherently human or inevitable. In my work as an interfaith bridge builder, I have repeatedly found that the overwhelming majority of people abhor racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Christianity or prejudice and discrimination of any kind. Unfortunately, our voices rarely get amplified on social media when we are not famous influencers or millionaire entertainers.

For those of us in leadership positions, we bear special responsibility. We must use our voices to speak not only for ourselves, but for the millions of men and women, girls and boys, who suffer the scars of online hate. They are predominantly ordinary people who often struggle to stand up to the abusers.

The victims are very real and we all know them. They are our neighbors and our coworkers. They stock the grocery stores and deliver the packages in a time of pandemic. They teach our children, treat our illnesses and ensure our public services. They deserve the same outcry in response to hatred, the same promise of protection as the most recognized celebrity.

As a religious leader, it is not for me to prescribe a universal remedy across different national borders and legal codes. Some reforms are obvious, however. At the very least, social media companies should prevent individuals using their platforms to attack and denigrate others while keeping their own identities hidden. 

Even among the non-religious, can anyone argue such behavior is anything other than sinful? 

Mohammad Al-Issa is secretary general of the Muslim World League, an international non-governmental organization based in Mecca. Numerous Muslim, Jewish and Christian religious and community leaders have described him as the foremost advocate of moderate Islam around the world. 

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