The bare tree branches above Noha Elsayed make the sky look like shattered glass, and a quiet but strong stream of water flows behind her.
Inspired, Noha Elsayed decides to share a thought with her friends online.
She opens the Facebook app on her phone. The cursor blinks as “What’s on your mind?” stares back at her.
Elsayed’s thumbs flutter across the keyboard. Thirty seconds later, her post is sent.
“And if all the trees on earth were pens, and all the oceans were ink, the words of God would not be exhausted,” it reads.
This line is a verse from the Quran, the Holy book for Muslims. In today’s world, it is not uncommon for individuals to use social media to express their religious identity like Elsayed does.
The Pew Research Center conducted a survey in 2014 asking 3,217 adults if they had engaged in different kinds of religious activity during the previous week. The study found that 20 percent of Americans share their religious faith on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. The study also found that nearly half of Americans had seen someone else in the past week share something about their religious faith online.
Little research, however, has been done to figure out why Americans self-disclose their religious views on social media. Self-disclosure on social media can mean much more than filling out the “religious views” section on Facebook. For many, this means posting quotes from scriptures, retweeting a scholar, or sharing an inspirational video.
To get a better understanding of reasons to self-disclose religious views on social media, various followers of one religion, Islam, were given the opportunity to express their views on the subject.
Jwayyed Jwayyed, 22-year-old law student, chooses to share his religious views online as a way of making social media valuable for himself and others.
“Social media is used to express ideas. I post about current events, social occurrences, politics, sports, my day-to-day life and various other topics. Religion is no different,”
Jwayyed said. “But for me, life is about understanding your purpose and religion plays a major role in that. I want to utilize social media as part of the way I fulfill my purpose.”
20-year-old Saeed Khoncarly, an advanced molecular biology student at Cleveland State University, regularly shares his religious views on social media as well.
“Social media is my way of expressing myself,” Khoncarly said. “My religion is a part of my identity, and I am proud of my religion. “
According to the Pew Research study, Americans who attend religious services often are more likely to engage in electronic forms of religious activity than those who attend services less often. The study also says that young adults ages 18 to 29 are about twice as likely as Americans ages 50 and older to see people sharing religious views online.
51-year-old Laila Eddeb, a teacher from Cleveland, avoids religious posts on social media. Although Eddeb is a spiritual person who attends religious gatherings often, she prefers to draw a line between social media and her religious views.
“I believe social media is for communicating and religion is different than that,” Eddeb said. “I follow people who are wise and smart, whether they are religious scholars or not.”
In contrast, Sanaa Ziadeh, 50, says she interacts with religious posts as often as she can.
“I post about Islam a much as possible,” Ziadeh said.
“I feel a sense of community with other Muslims when sharing posts because it’s a way of reminding each other the importance of being a good believer and obtaining a close relation with God.”
Ziadeh does not believe, however, that social media deepens her spirituality because “my faith is a religion of practice and therefore is not dependent on social media.”
A spiritual boost?
We know that social media is changing the way we communicate, but there is little evidence to prove that it makes someone more or less religious.
In an article titled “Religion and Social Media: Got Web?” author Pauline Cheong explains that her research on religion and new media have revealed ways in which blogging and microblogging–for example, tweeting in 140 characters or less–can function as religious practices. Cheong says that for some, social media is a platform to teach and inform about their faith, and to engage people in meaningful dialogue. It’s also used, she said, as a form of social and prayer support.
There are plenty of social media accounts made for the purpose of informing, reminding, and engaging with followers of various religions. For example, @IslamicThinking has over one million followers on Twitter. The account tweets inspirational quotes, friendly reminders such as “Speak kindly of others,” verses from the Quran, and short prayers.
Sabrean Quraan, a 24-year-old speech pathology student at Cleveland State University, said although these accounts are good reminders, social media doesn’t make her a more religious person.
“I would feel the same with or without social media,” Quraan said.
21-year-old Summer Matar, a biochemistry student at The University of Akron, feels somewhat different. Matar said she might be a little less religious without social media.
“Seeing religious posts regularly will cause you to think more about your spirituality, therefore strengthening it when you are reminded of something you forgot or when you learn something new.”
She went on to say, “On social media I am friends with family members all over the world and each one will post something religious that I may have never seen before. Each time I learn something new, I feel like I get a little more religious.”
Cheong also says that even if social media can enrich and supplement an individual’s religious devotion, there are concerns that these online religious experiences are inclining people to withdraw from houses of worship.
Raeed Tayeh, a Muslim-American activist, said that social media has changed how humans socialize in general, but believes we still need to socialize in person sometimes. For this reason, he said, planners of religious activities must be more creative to attract people to their events.
“At the same time, for those who seem content to be intellectually lazy and surf until they find religious teachings that mesh with their pre-existing beliefs or desires, social media can provide a comfortable, albeit lonely perch, where they can nest their hearts and minds without feeling the need to personally interact with co-religionists,” Tayeh said.
Quraan said that although social media is an outlet for religious expression, it shouldn’t take away from a person’s desire to partake in religious events, such as lectures, youth groups, Friday prayers, and community gatherings. Matar agrees with this as well.
“In no way does social media replace traditional religious behaviors. I think that a large part of your religion is gathering and remembering your faith together,” Matar said. “Actually, I feel more of a need to attend those events because I have a social media. I realize that social media doesn’t replace those events so I find myself really wanting to go to events.”
As social media becomes more predominant with religious followers, Islamic scholars are learning the language of social media.
Suhaib Webb, a popular Muslim scholar in America based in Washington D.C., is among many imams using social media as an educational tool. Currently, he has over 87,000 followers on Twitter and over 210,000 on Facebook.
Webb reaches out to people through various social media outlets. His most notable appearance, however, is Snapchat.
Webb uses 10-second videos to address a wide range of topics from drugs to marriage advice, dropping pop-culture references along the way. In an interview with Quartz, Webb says he uses Snapchat for two reasons: to reach a demographic of young Muslims age 13-23, and to learn the language of the youth.
What attracts so many young Muslims to his message? Accessibility is key.
“You have to be accessible to people,” Webb said in the interview. “And that’s why I encourage imams, thought leaders, and activists, to get on Snapchat.”
Feeling at home, online
Tayeh recognizes that there are some positives that come out of using social media to express religious views. According to Tayeh, social media gives people an outlet to express themselves and feel equal in a society where they are a minority, as well as encourage others to be more comfortable with their religiosity.
Yosra Nadhimi, an 18-year-old psychology student from Chicago, says she feels a sense of community with other Muslims when she engages with religious posts.
“I feel a sense of community on positive posts where I feel safe and welcomed around people who are like me and can agree and relate to my feelings about different situations.”
A study called “Give me that online-time religion: The role of the internet in spiritual life” found that those who engage in “online religious forum” benefit in that they feel more social support and feel more connected to others who share their faith. Just as with those who join religious places of worship frequently, these online users experience “a greater sense of purpose in their own lives and they have greater trust and faith in others.”
To support this statement, in 2014 Pew Research found that 45 percent of Facebook users say they use the social network to receive support from people in their network.
21-year-old Mohammed Abuaun from Cleveland said his Muslim friends interact more with religious posts than other kinds of posts.
“It makes sense. Not every Muslim likes sports, movies, et cetera; but all Muslims have one thing in common: that they are Muslims and their beliefs as far as religion are the same,” Abuaun said. “I would say it definitely strengthens your faith….when you see other people who have the same beliefs as you, it makes you feel like you are never alone.”
Khoncarly says he also feels a sense of community on social media, especially when Muslims come together to promote peace and condemn violence.
“This shows me that we are all striving toward the same goal: Promoting the peace of Islam,” he said.
The power of a hashtag
In February 2016, the Pew Research Center found that nearly 50 percent of Americans believe “at least some” Muslims in the U.S. are anti-American. Another question in the study asked if Muslims face a lot of discrimination in the U.S. today, in which most Americans (59 percent) said they do.
After the recent ISIS attacks in Belgium, the Twitter hashtag #StopIslam trended worldwide.
The result of its trend, however, could be because so many people were criticizing it.
In a time when Islamophobia–a hatred or prejudice against Islam or Muslims–is on the rise, many use social media to dispel stereotypes and misunderstandings about their religion.
Another campaign, #NotInMyName, challenges the misconceptions of Islam with messages explaining that all Muslims cannot be blamed for the actions of a few. The campaign originated in 2014 by The Active Change Foundation to show solidarity against ISIS and their actions. The campaign soon trended worldwide and the hashtag has been used over 94,000 times.
Tayeh believes that social media can be a good tool to tackle Islamophobia, especially for those people whose main source of information is the internet.
“Islamophobia grows through propagated ideas based on ignorance and fear. These ideas can be countered with other ideas that educate people about Islam, help them overcome their fears, and promote tolerance,” Tayeh said. “And because these ideas can be expressed with a photo, cartoon, word or phrase posted and re-posted on social media, there is a real potency there to combat Islamophobia through social media.”
On September 10, 2015, just a day before the anniversary of 9/11, 22-year-old Fatima Shendy uploaded a video on Facebook titled “The Twin Towers: A Muslim Perspective.” The video showed Shendy performing a spoken word around a small group of people at Kent State University, where she attends college.
Shendy’s poetry began with an anecdote about a time when her mother’s headscarf was ripped off her head, then continued to explain what it’s like growing up in America when terrorists hijacked your religion.
“Fingers pointed to my chest, tearing through tender cartilage,” the poem read.
“I’m trapped inside your vision, my religion made me hostage.”
The video went viral overnight. Shendy’s five-minute video attracted 962,000 views, and was shared over 16,000 times.
“It was extremely shocking,” Shendy said. “I didn’t know my words could impact such a large mass of people. This has nothing to do with popularity or being famous –but the idea that, when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and talk about the truth, it touches everyone. Nothing is fabricated nor masked, just raw truth.”
Shendy said she wasn’t planning to put her video on social media, and she was nervous to hear what people were going to say to her.
“But I realized how many similarities there are between people across oceans that have never seen me but understood my words” she said. “I realized this journey really had nothing to do with me, but more so had to do with opening people’s hearts.”
Social media is a plug for reaching thousands in a unique way, Shendy said, and hopes to continue using it to share her message.
“It’s the way our generation connects with one another rather than generalized news that doesn’t really touch the substance of those around us. It gives us dimensions,”
Shendy said. “I don’t think we realize how important our voices are. We tend to think being one person isn’t enough, but often times it is the prerequisite.”
Written by Zaina Salem