In the crush of religion stories in the past week or two, a jewel of a Huffington Post article about YouTube’s battle against ISIS got lost in the shuffle.
Which is too bad, as it was a meticulously researched piece by Jaweed Kaleem that deserved some attention. So into the GetReligion file of guilt we go. Before everyone clicks on yet one more Pope Francis piece, or another trip into Kentucky culture wars, do give a listen to some inside information on how some of the techies are warring on Islamic extremists.
On a Thursday night late last fall, after leaving the Manhattan office where he works as a digital products specialist, Aman Ali -- a well-known comedian in American Muslim circles -- received an unusual email from YouTube.
“We need you,” read the note, which invited Ali to the company’s sprawling, 41,000-square-foot production facility in Los Angeles and promised a free flight and two nights in a hotel. “Muslim community leaders [are] struggling to have their voices heard against the overwhelming extremist and bigoted content currently surfacing the web.”
The words “Islamic State” appeared nowhere in the note asking Muslims like Ali to “change the discourse,” but the message was clear. The terrorist organization's vast media arm, with its slick recruitment videos, was winning the propaganda war. Muslims needed to figure out a way to fight back and “get your voices heard.”
YouTube, facing pressure after unwittingly hosting execution clips before the company could realize and take them down, was offering its helping hand.
What follows is a behind-the-scenes account of how 70 Muslims from around the country showed up at a YouTube studio (I am assuming it was in Manhattan but the story doesn’t say) and tutored on how to produce short, snappy videos that’d be more enticing for young Muslims to watch than ISIS recruitment fodder.
Judging from some of the links the article provides, these newbies have a ways to go before they can match what ISIS provides. The newer stuff is mainly talking heads whereas what you see from the social-media savvy extremists has the violence and gore of an Islamic Game of Thrones. But one has to start somewhere.
The best thing about the piece is it included interviews with unusual people and anecdotes about Muslims I’ve not seen any other American religion reporter get. We get quotes from YouTube executives and hear about ComeBack2.Us, a platform to help families of ISIS fighters try to lure back their kin; Affinis Labs, an incubator for start-ups with Muslim themes and other crooks and crannies of American Islam that most reporters have no access to. Plus some good quotes:
“Muslims are the biggest recipients of propaganda, and we have to fight back with our own,” said Mohamed Ahmed, a Somali-American gas station owner in Minneapolis who used his savings to launch “Average Mohamed,” a cartoon series aimed at kids. One of the first episodes, titled “Islamic State Job Description,” has the 40-year-old doing a voiceover: “Your job description is to commit genocide against Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and Jews; terrorize innocent women, men and children like your family, into blind obedience; behead unarmed innocent people you round up; destroy World Heritage sites, mosques, tombs and shrines. ... Not exactly Disney World or an action film like the propaganda says it is, is it?”
The one glaring omission in the piece is any mention of women. That's a big, big gap if you are following the media accounts about ISIS recruiting.
Of all the homegrown videos I watched, none of them had female voice-overs nor were female Muslim scholars quoted or even shown. Is there a reason for that? There are lots of Islamic females on YouTube showing us how to put on a hijab so the women are definitely up to it.
And near the end, one wonders if these small YouTube efforts are enough:
With conservative estimates putting the Islamic State and its supporters at sending out 90,000 tweets a day and several videos each week -- from gruesome executions to tamer propaganda -- critics also wonder if the Americans are doing too little too late.
No one knows. But at least we know how some American Muslims (it was unclear as to whether overseas Muslims are involved in similar efforts in YouTube studios overseas) are fighting this. What impressed me was the revelation of a little-understood segment of an American religious group by a religion reporter who got access to these folks. That's the kind of reporting religion specialists do so well at.
The efforts of a minority faith group, whether it's Muslims or Mormons, to improve their image and go after the radicals in their ranks is always a good story. I wish I could read more stories about these issues, including those focusing on the lives of women.