The battle of the e-Muftis

The Grand Mufti of Jordan
Image caption The Grand Mufti of Jordan: The young generation have more power to do this than the older one

In one corner, there's the religious establishment of a global faith - complete with 1,400 years of collected learning. In the other, there is the self-styled Islamic State (IS) and its daily dose of propaganda videos flooding the internet. Have traditional clerics got what it takes to be heard in this digital culture war?

Even if every Muslim scholar in the world constantly tweeted against IS, young Muslims on social media could simply turn their backs and carry on reading IS's output. But Jordan's e-Muftis are among those beginning, slowly, to put up a fight online.

Earlier this year, IS posted a video showing its fighters burning alive Jordanian air force pilot Muad al-Kasasbeh, in revenge for the country's role in international air strikes.

The group then backed that up with postings claiming a religious justification for the murder - and they trolled anyone who said otherwise.

I asked the Grand Mufti of Jordan, Abdul Kareem Khasawneh, what he and his department were doing to counter Islamic State's online narrative. A mufti is a state-appointed Islamic scholar who interprets the faith for day-to-day life, answering queries from the faithful.

Given IS's powerful online presence, are sermons in the mosques enough to defeat the extremist mindset?


Find out more about how Jordan is fighting back against the jihadists in The ISIS Social Media Machine, on the BBC World Service. Click here for transmission times, or to listen online. Producer: Anna Meisel. Research: Paul Raymond and Suha Kawar.


"To be realistic, [Islamic State] has acquired a great deal of experience as far as communication and social media are concerned," the Grand Mufti told me. "I don't think the department can carry out such a task on its own."

IS has used an estimated 46,000 Twitter accounts alone. Is he online, I asked?

"The young generation have more power to do this than the older one," he replied.

But then his team showed me something surprising.

A couple of floors up from the Grand Mufti's office, is a growing electronic department. It's staffed by young scholars, led by Dr Jamil Abu Sarah.

Like his boss downstairs, Abu Sarah wears a religious gown and tall hat. Unlike his boss, he's young and fiddles with his smartphone.

"We communicate with the audience through different mass media like Facebook, Twitter and so on," he tells me.

Image caption E-Mufti: Dr Jamil Abu Sarah and his Facebook account

"These are the means through which the world communicates nowadays. Many years ago, if we wanted to publish a ruling, we would print 2,000 copies and spread them, give them out to people.

"But now we can reach 100,000. Our audience is international. We are introducing translations of these fatwas - we've started with English."

The digital strategy has resulted a slick website that promotes the fatwa denouncing IS.

There are plans to expand to a presence to all the most popular social media platforms - and the team wants it status to be set to "available", 24 hours a day.

Abu Sarah says he has successfully made some young potential extremists think again, but his resources and current following are minuscule compared with his IS adversaries.

When the group's supporters spotted the Jordanian Muftis' efforts, they began attacking the site, posting messages aimed at undermining them because of their official role in the Jordanian state.

"When they killed the pilot, they came and made comments that it's lawful to torture him burn him alive," says Abu Sarah.

"We gave them clear answers and they were in communication for several days.

"Now we are not waiting for them to come and visit our website... Rather, we're now paying a visit to their websites and accounts. And we will address them with the language of true Islam."

Jordan's e-Muftis are not the first in the religious establishment to speak out.

Last year, Saudi Arabia organised an anti-IS campaign involving 40 TV channels. Scholars took questions on phone-in shows and they even had a stab at hashtags.

The day after the campaign's launch, IS posted one of its most gory epics yet - a video that, like many others, went viral.

In the West, there are some efforts too. The British-led Imams Online group is regularly posting counter-IS messages. It has even launched a glossy digital magazine called Haqiqah - meaning The Reality - to counter IS's equivalent, but utterly gory, publication.

Image copyright Haqiqah Magazine
Image caption Magazine: British-led attempt to counter glossy IS publications

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