Cleric says the social networking site is causing a rise in divorce and moral corruption
An Egyptian cleric has issued a religious decree banning the use of Facebook, on the grounds that it encourages adultery.
Sheikh Abd Al-Hamid Al-Atrash, former head of the fatwa council at the influential Al-Azhar Institution, based his ruling on a sociological study linking the use of Facebook and other forms of new media with moral corruption.
He called the site a destructive tool that helps form “forbidden relations.”
“When one side in a relationship is working hard, if the other side has lots of free time and hasn’t got much of a conscience, they form illegitimate relationships,” the cleric said.
Heba Morayef, a researcher with Human Rights Watch said Facebook is used extensively in Egypt, both for social networking and for political purposes.
“It’s a relatively conservative society,” Morayef told The Media Line. “For a lot of people, meeting people online is a way to date. What’s interesting about it is that it’s heavily used by activists to organize demonstrations and share information.”
Your average young Egyptian who wants to learn about politics will go onto Facebook,” she added. “I think the security services still view this activism as something that is dangerous.”
Nevertheless, Morayef does not believe that this fatwa was sanctioned by the government as a way to silence opposition activists.
“For the most part, the government will only issue fatwas through the mufti who is closely aligned with government policy, to the extent that he will issue things that are criticized by the rest of the religious institutions,” she said. “I don’t think the government uses other low-level sheikhs because they are keen to monopolize the religious authorities in Al-Azhar.”
Kareem El-Behirey, an Egyptian blogger, said the ban was part of a government tactic to employ religious people against channels of communication such as Facebook.
“[The Sheikh] says that Facebook isn’t good because it pits the woman against her husband,” he told The Media Line. “But I think this is an attempt to stop people from using Facebook, blogs and certain websites. I think you can’t stop them and it’s a good way for activists to be heard on the streets so I don’t think they will stop using Facebook.”
El-Behirey said he did not think there was any basis to the claim that Facebook encourages cheating in marriages.
“I think that if a woman wants to cheat on her husband, she won’t do it through Facebook,” he said. “They know very well that the Facebook management has copies of all the accounts, even after they’re deleted.”
“If a man and a woman want to engage in a relationship they won’t just use Facebook or chat,” El-Behirey added. “They can meet in the street or at work or any other place. I believe that the only way to stop people from cheating on each other is if the couple has a good relationship and love each other.”
“The sheikh should look at the real reasons that people cheat on each other,” he argued. “The government has made people poor, the man can no longer provide for his family so he and his wife have to work long hours. This makes things difficult for their relationship.”
A fatwa is an opinion and is not binding, unless the government makes it law. They can be issued by anyone who is seen to have sufficient Islamic scholarly training for the task, usually a Muslim with high standing in his community.
Morayef said that the adoption rate of the fatwa depended on his influence and the size of the his following.
A study carried out by the National Center for Social and Criminological Research said that one in every five divorces in Egypt is caused by extra-marital affairs through the Internet.
The report on which Al-Atrash partly based his ruling, found that if one partner feels their life is boring or monotonous, Facebook helps them find someone else, outside the legitimate framework.
“One must not go into this website,” he said. “Moral corruption has spread among young men and women and it’s used to destroy homes and break down families, which could herald the end of Arab and Islamic societies.”
“This website and other means of communication such as satellite television are a double-edged sword,” Al-Atrash continued. “They can be used for preaching about Allah and strengthening bonds of affection that Islam encourages, but it can also be used for forbidden love and illegitimate relationships.”
While some clerics have voiced similar objections to those of Al-Atrash, other opinion makers are more skeptical.
Muhammad Shukr, a journalist with the opposition paper Al-Wafd said claims that Facebook allowed more space for couples to cheat on each other was “illogical”.
He said he was active in several positive activities on these sites and added that anyone seeking a forbidden relationship can do it easily without Facebook.
“Facebook first and foremost serves social networking and supports opposition activists,” he told the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi. “Making an Islamic ruling to forbid it only serves dictatorial regimes.”