By Khaled Diab
A new search engine claims to filter out ‘haram' (sinful) content for the faithful. Should non-believers now demand their own version – let's call it Godpile – that blocks religious content?
10 September 2009
We live in tough times for the faithful, for vice has gone virtual and a worldwide web of sin has been weaved online. The fleshpods of the internet make the fleshpots of Egypt seem tame in comparison, and all the godlessness online would make the throne in heaven shake in rage.
Perhaps not to be outdone, a Muslim equivalent has also just been launched in time for Ramadan, a time when virtuousness is an extra-special virtue. I'mHalal claims to filter out haram or sinful content, and may soon promote halal or virtuous content through special widgets.
“Our goal is to create a safe environment for Muslims to search the worldwide web,” said the search engine's creator Reza Sardeha, an Iranian-Kuwaiti based in the Netherlands. In addition to blocking sexually explicit content, I'mHalal is also progressively excluding content deemed to be haram by selected Islamic scholars.
Secular and progressive Muslims are not amused. “Muslims are not children. What's the point of free will if someone else always decides for you what's right and what's wrong?” believes Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian journalist based in New York.
Even some devout Muslims find it objectionable. “Two words I'm absolutely sick of: halal and shari'a – and coming from a practicing Muslim that's saying something. One more Halal invention and I'm converting to Scientology,” said one commenter on Facebook discussion.
Despite the protests that this amounts to censorship, Sardeha insists that: “We have absolutely no intention of being a dictatorial search engine” and that I'mHalal is not intended to be a “political censor”.
But determining what is sinful is no easy feat. Halal, like its cousin kosher, is pretty straightforward when it comes to diet. The overwhelming majority of Muslims accept that eating pork and drinking alcohol is haram (sinful). Of course, many are willing to run the risk of divine retribution (“vengeance will be wine”?) to savour the joys of intoxication, but even if a flying pig landed beside them on a desert island, they might well not eat it.
However, beyond the bread-and-butter issue of food, determining what is halal is wrought with difficulty. In fact, it could spark a theological controversy and force this search engine, which is currently targeted at “moderate Muslims”, to install varying levels of virtue and vice.
For instance, like Judaism, the strictest interpretations of Islam ban “graven images”, not to mention poetry and song. Should an Islamic search engine, then, block YouTube, TV channels and all embedded images on a page?
How about non-halal views? Should a search engine like this not return results that contradict Islamic orthodoxy, are critical of Islam, or advocate atheism? Although I understand why people adhere to a faith and take a more nuanced view of religion than many other non-believers, I write plenty of stuff that would be considered haram.
Luckily for me and open-minded Muslims, I'mHalal does not seem to have blocked my writings questioning Islam and religion, such as my guides to Ramadan for the non-believer and the drinker, or my piece on atheism in Islam.
Although I don't like the idea of divine or worldly censorship, my belief in freedom of choice means I cannot object to self-censorship of this sort. The danger is that, once the technology is perfected, theocratic regimes, such as in Saudi Arabia or Iran, could force citizens to use it and block other alternatives.
But as the genie is now out of the bottle, at this rate we may soon have search engines designed to answer people's spiritual questions modelled on the Ask Jeeves format, possibly named Ask Jehovah or Ask Allah. Since there seems to be a growing market for niche search engines, may be we'll soon get one for atheists, perhaps it could be called Godpile, which blocks religious content. Personally, I wouldn't use Godpile, just as I wouldn't use I'mHalal, but there might be a market for it out there.