Islamic clerics consider issuing a fatwa against Facebook

As one of the top — if not *the* top — social-networking sites, Facebook tends to draw a disproportionate amount of criticism from those concerned about the effect the site has on young minds or the welfare of society as a whole. And no one is more concerned about those risks than the various religious groups who routinely try to ban, block or otherwise crack down on the scourge of modern social networking.

The latest to make this kind of move — or at least a threat in that direction — was a group of Islamic clerics who were meeting in Indonesia. They declared that they were contemplating a religious ruling that would issue a “fatwa” or declaration about Facebook, requiring observant Muslims to practice what amounts to “safe social networking” or suffer the wrath of their imam (priest).

In a nutshell, a spokesman for the group said that Facebook and similar sites could be used for appropriate purposes such as education about the faith or keeping in touch with one’s family and friends, but noted that they could also present a temptation.

“The clerics think it is necessary to set an edict on virtual networking, because this online relationship could lead to lust, which is forbidden in Islam,” said Nabil Haroen, a spokesman for the Lirboyo Islamic boarding school, which was hosting the event. The head of the council of imams said that the growing number of Facebook users in Indonesia was a controversial subject among Muslim leaders and that he favored a ban because of possible sexual content.

“People using Facebook can be driven to engage in distasteful, pornographic chatting,” said Amidan, who — like most Indonesians — uses only one name. Another spokesman for the clerics said that “spreading ill words about others, gossiping and other things that go against religious teaching on social networking sites in the virtual world are forbidden according to Islamic law.” Despite these protests, one Muslim group on Facebook has 48,000 members, while a Muslim fan page has 18,000 fans.

The Indonesian clerical group’s move would not be the first time the country has stepped in to block social-networking sites for religious reasons. Last year, the country ordered its largest ISPs to block YouTube and MySpace because they both carried an anti-Islam film called Fitna, created by Dutch filmmaker Geert Wilders, and the government said that seeing it might “disturb relations between faiths.”

And Muslims aren’t the only religious groups to be concerned about the Internet and the intrusion of social networking into the lives of the faithful. Although Pope Benedict and other senior members of the Catholic clergy have made positive statements about the benefits of the Internet — and even at one point created a Catholic version of Facebook called to appeal to young people — not everyone is quite so sanguine about these new services.

In a recent address to his flock, the Bishop of Paisley, Rt. Rev Philip Tartagliawarned the faithful that “In dialogue with others we need to be wary of the inane chatter that can go on in the digital world which does nothing to promote growth in understanding and tolerance.” He also raised concerns about who young people might contact through the networks, saying: “What parent has not wondered what their child is doing on the internet? What material are they accessing? Who are they talking to in social networking sites?”

Jewish groups have yet to raise any substantial concerns about social networking and its effects from a religious point of view — although there are Orthodox adherents that believe Facebook and similar sites can lure the faithful away from the path of righteousness — but they have become concerned about the use of Facebook as a tool to spread hatred about their faith, including a number of groups that deny the existence of the Holocaust. So far, Facebook has said that it believes the groups fall under the category of freedom of speech, and has resisted efforts to close them.

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