Generation M: Muslim millennials and the rise of the inclusive digital ummah
In 2014, global pop star and producer Pharrell Williams released the hit song Happy, prompting cover versions around the world. In the UK the #HappyBritishMuslims wanted to show that “British Muslims are just as happy” as anyone else.
Along with further covers from around the Muslim world, the video also sparked controversy among young Muslims online, debating whether Muslims could or should be happy, or even why such demands were being made.
The raging debate was testament to a new kind of young Muslim identity that has emerged globally in the past decade. It is a global group that believes that faith and modernity go hand in hand, and that they have every right to enjoy the best that life has to offer them. Most are young and have therefore grown up in the shadow of September 11 and in the land of the internet. One in three Muslims worldwide today are under-15 and two in three are under-30.
Busy producing high-quality digital content to assert and express their identity, these young Muslims are comfortable in their own skin bringing together faith and modernity. They feel faith can make the world a better place and modern life can support them in improving their religiosity.
The ummah is one of the most deeply rooted and distinctive concepts within Islamic teachings. This global Muslim nation connects together all Muslims, irrespective of culture, language, geography, race or affluence. Historically, however, the ummah could only be an emotional and spiritual attachment, for practical reasons.
For today’s generation of young Muslims, the ummah is extremely real thanks to technology, which follows their voices, struggles and interactions as close as a heartbeat. Boundaries have melted away, allowing them to connect with their co-religionists anywhere in the world. News is relayed first-hand via social media, and most significantly, they can exchange ideas about what it means to be Muslim today. The result is a shared identity built on values, a sense of solidarity and a shared community of purpose.
This new online space has given rise to a whole range of Muslim lifestyle activities ranging from religious devotion to Muslim fashion blogging, YouTube diaries, new Muslim music to charitable campaigns. There’s a new look, sound, language and culture for our futuristic faithfuls.
Nigerian Yusuf Hassan created the Tutlub app as a social forum where “Muslims meet with friends and families who share the same belief with them”. “With this set of people,” he says, “it is religion that forms the basis of their social interactions.” One of the app’s key features is the ability to post a dua (prayer) and for Muslims around the world to respond by clicking the amin (amen) button.
SalaamSwipe, based in North America, opens the door to finding a life partner using its website and online app. HalalGems focuses on seeking out gourmet halal dining options wherever you are in the world, tapping into the growing halal foodie culture, along with sharing experiences and recommendations. Modlist offers fashionable young women the chance to curate and buy collections of modest clothing from big names like Mango and Uniqlo.
The role of the internet in the emergence of this new market segment that believe faith and modernity go hand in hand has been particularly strong for women. It is a space where they can ask questions, gain knowledge, set up businesses and build solidarity with the wider Muslim women’s rights movement.
In fact, if I were to pick one face that encapsulates our global future it would be a female – urban, digitally connected and Muslim. Her rise is bolstered by more education, growing levels of employment and therefore a higher disposable income, with marriage and children coming later. But part of it is the surmounting of traditional obstacles to knowledge acquisition, access to influencers, and an inspiration from her Muslim sisters around the world in asserting her identity and rooting it in her faith. Technology has made her nimble, and in particular has propelled her forward into entrepreneurship and social activism.
These young Muslims shop online too. In their aspiration to uphold and express their faith, they have gone to the bricks and mortar high street, and when they have found it lacking, have turned to the internet instead to set up their own businesses.
Cyberspace has given them access to wide audiences, allowing the economics of the internet to enable their businesses to flourish. And equally, having access through the internet to a vast array of products and services specifically tailored to their hope to live a full Muslim lifestyle, this has allowed them to purchase these products and reinforce their shared Muslim identity. The digital space offers these young Muslims a blank canvas on which to paint this new culture and identity in their own terms. Tumblrs like Superhanallah take the superhero genre and express scathing social commentary.
Ramadan and prayer apps help young Muslims navigate daily life. Digital games weave Islamic ideals into play, such as one Iranian puzzle-solving app based on Islamic geometry. Even robots have been developed to teach children how to pray. And when you go for Haj, apps can guide you through the rituals and even navigate your location.
Alongside the important physical rituals that anchor Muslim life – the Haj, the prayer, the fast, the mosque, the concern with immediate community – the online world is just as important to Generation M as the real world; it shapes and reinforces their global identity and is a place where they share with the wider global non-Muslim world about who they are and what motivates them.
The internet’s democratisation of knowledge has opened up access to religious learning for young Muslims in a way that was not previously possible. This has had many positive aspects, including online religious academies and the accessibility of scholars through Facebook status updates, even sharing sermons via Snapchat. Now there are celebrity scholars, whose lectures are shared tens of thousands of times, and whose quotes get turned into memes and who have millions of followers on Twitter.
Digital humour, especially via social media, is employed against extremism and hatred. In the #MuslimApologies campaign, Muslims mocked the incessant demands to condemn terrorists who have nothing to do with ordinary Muslims. As one said: “As a Muslim, I apologize for World War I and World War II, even if it has nothing to do with Muslims, but just in case.” Another said: “Sorry for trigonometry and astronomy.”
The space is used as a platform through which to hear voices that mainstream media and politicians won’t grant access to. When the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump dismissed the silence of Ghazala Khan, whose son was killed while serving in the United States military and whose husband spoke at the Democratic National Convention, by saying, “She had nothing to say... Maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say. You tell me,” Muslim women responded with the hashtag campaign #CanYouHearUsNow.
While the ummah aspires to be diverse and inclusive, the reality is that it often falls short. Online, this is challenged vigorously. In the US, campaigns like #BlackMuslimRamadan aim to highlight the diversity within the global Muslim population.
Too often “Muslim” equates to one ethnicity or culture when in fact the ideals of the ummah, which put egalitarianism front and centre, are forgotten. With India’s Muslim minority at 311 million people about to become the world’s largest Muslim population – eclipsing Pakistan at 273m, Indonesia at 256m, Nigeria at 213m and Bangladesh at 182m people – and the internet user base across India almost doubling, from 233m in 2012 to 462m users this year, the digital ummah is likely to offer hope to realising the diversity of the ummah.
A tougher challenge for the internet age is how misguided “religious” information appeals to vulnerable minds. Beautifully produced high quality content exists alongside evil ideas and shouting loudly can easily drown out the quieter, more peaceful and diverse voices.
The answer surely lies in reinforcing shared Muslim identity, bolstering religious knowledge and in particular, highlighting the positive power of online interactivity. These will dismantle terms like Dar Al Islam and Dar Al Kufr, which once had political currency. These were convenient for those who want to divide Muslims from the wider world, ignoring the fact that ordinary Muslims feel confident and comfortable with co-existence.
The rise of the inclusive digital ummah puts an end to those labels. Instead, the hope is that people will know them for who they are, and that it will be a space where they can fully live out their faithful modern lives.
Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World and a regular contributor to The National.
Published: September 15, 2016 04:00 AM