'Haqqathon' Takes Anti-ISIS Fight To Cyberspace

May 7, 2015
Originally published on July 24, 2015 4:19 pm

In Arabic, haqq is the word for truth.

Last week in the United Arab Emirates, group of Muslim scholars held what they called a "haqqathon" – a hackathon meant to create new ways for Islamic scholars to connect with young Muslims and, by doing so, defuse violent extremists like the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

The competition took place in the UAE capital Abu Dhabi, on the sidelines of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies. More than 400 Muslim clerical scholars — Sunni, Shiite and others — gathered for the second year to talk about how extremists are hijacking Islam, and what to do about it.

The urgency for something like the haqqathon is clear, because groups like ISIS have had great success recruiting young people on social media.

"We do want to start speaking the same language as our youth," said Zeshan Zafar, the group's executive director. "What is that language, and who are the individuals that need to be part of that whole mix as well. So that's vital for us."

Zafar, working with the Virginia-based business incubator Affinis Labs, helped choose the participants, who included a journalist with the British newspaper The Guardian, a psychologist, an imam who is also an attorney in the U.K., a consultant to the pharmaceutical industry and others.

"I'm hoping that in the channels and the energy that is being created here we'll have something that's very, very relevant, and we actually invest into, incubate until we get an actual end product that is really worthy and ... develops that connection between scholars, all the way down to the grassroots," Zafar said.

Five teams competed over two and a half days for funding to get their project up and running. The teams had to develop an idea, have their designers and programmers turn it into a running prototype, and then present it to a panel of judges.

One team came up with Marhubba — a website and app that would answer young Muslims' questions about male-female relationships in "the Prophetic way." Team member Wajahat Ali, a playwright from Pakistan, made the pitch.

"Welcome to Marhubba.com," he said, "where [students] and traditional Islamic scholarship meet to learn about sex, relationships, marriage and intimacy in an honest and relevant manner."

A panel of judges, a global online audience and everyone in the room cast their ballots electronically. Think of it as an American Idol final round meets "countering violent extremism."

The judges chose a winner: Champions of Islam, a social media site where users can upload photos of everyday Muslim heroes.

But they unexpectedly presented a "people's award," to Marhubba, which will also be funded.

That night, the young Muslim entrepreneurs could be found at a celebratory dinner on the hotel rooftop, overlooking the lights of Abu Dhabi, still pitching ideas to one another and making more connections.

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Last week in Abu Dhabi, Muslim entrepreneurs took up a challenge - take the message of moderate Islamic clerics and make it accessible to young people glued to their smartphones. It was the first ever haqqathon to support Islamic scholars. Reaching Muslim youth is something extremists, such as the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS, have done with considerable success. NPR's Dian Temple-Raston went to Abu Dhabi and has this report on innovative ways to counter violent extremism.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: I had a general idea what a haqqathon would be. I imagined a noisy room littered with pizza boxes.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYPING)

TEMPLE-RASTON: A bunch of computer programmers feverishly tapping on keyboards while others called out ideas.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And I'm thinking about scalability. I'm thinking about storytelling. I'm thinking about something that's cool - #Muslimavengers.

TEMPLE-RASTON: But this one is different.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

TEMPLE-RASTON: I'm looking at over 400 scholars who are streaming into this hall in Abu Dhabi from all over the Muslim world. They're here to talk about violent extremism and how they, as Muslim scholars, can diffuse groups like ISIS. One problem they're having is transmitting their scholarly messages to young Muslims who get their information through Twitter and Facebook. So the leaders here have actually asked hackers to come and join them.

ZESHAN ZAFAR: We do want to start speaking the same language as our youth. What is that language and who are the individuals that need to be part of that whole mix as well? So that's vital for us.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Zeshan Zafar. He's the executive director of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies and one of the haqqathon organizers. Here's how it works - five teams have two-and-a-half days to come up with an idea, have their designers and coders turn it into a running prototype and then present it to a panel of judges who will decide which idea gets financial backing. The teams are populated entirely by Muslim entrepreneurs.

YASSER: My name's Yasser. I'm a journalist. I work for The Guardian.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: So I was 14 years in our Royal Canadian Mounted Police. My background is clinical psychology. I am a psychologist.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I'm imam at one of the largest mosques in the U.K., and also by profession, I'm a lawyer.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I actually work in the pharmaceutical arena. I do drug development consulting.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Zeshan Zafar helped choose the participants.

ZAFAR: I don't know what's going to come up, but I'm hoping that in the channels and, you know, the energies that has been created here, we'll have something that's very, very relevant, and we can actually invest into, incubate until we get something, you know, an actual end product that's really worthy and it has that - you know, develops that connection between the scholars all the way down to the grassroots.

TEMPLE-RASTON: One of the five teams charged with doing that includes a Pakistani animator, a community activist from the U.K. and someone who goes by the online name EMKWAN. The title on his business card reads digital influencer. I'm not sure what that is. His real name is Moshim Khan

MOSHIM KHAN: A digital influencer is somebody that has a network and uses that network to help influence people indirectly.

TEMPLE-RASTON: How many followers do you have?

KHAN: Collectively, it's about 45-50,000 I think.

TEMPLE-RASTON: This weekend, he's trying to influence people who are thinking of joining ISIS. By midafternoon on the last day of the haqqathon, the team is in the homestretch.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN # 4: You got the header, you got the Twitter page, you got the Facebook; let's just agree on some of that stuff.

KHAN: No, it's done. I just don't know how to use Photoshop.

TEMPLE-RASTON: With just hours to go, the team practices its pitch. Playwright Wajahat Ali presents their idea - a website and app called Marhubba aimed at Muslim students, or the shabab.

WAJAHAT ALI: Welcome to Marhubba.com, where the shabab and traditional Islamic scholarship meet to learn about sex, relationships, marriage and intimacy in an honest and relevant manner.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Just two days after the group came together, there's a website that's already live. There's an app that actually works, and there's now a place where moderate scholars can provide Islamic answers to questions to young Muslims are asking, instead of, for example, what ISIS provides. Now all that's left is the big reveal - announcing which idea will get funded to become a full-fledged business.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: OK. So we've gone through all the votes.

TEMPLE-RASTON: A panel of judges, a global online audience and everyone in the room cast their ballot electronically. So essentially, the haqqathon is "American Idol" final round meets countering violent extremism.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: And the winner is Champions of Islam.

(APPLAUSE)

TEMPLE-RASTON: Right, not Marhubba. And then this happened...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: But wait.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: Wait.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: There's a shocker - we are also going to have a people's award, and the project that got the highest vote for the popular vote from here and online also will be funded. And that one is Marhubba.

(APPLAUSE)

TEMPLE-RASTON: Later that night, there's a celebratory dinner on the hotel roof overlooking the lights of Abu Dhabi. One participant was talking about funding a videogame to engage young Muslims. Another was taking down contact information from her neighbor and everyone is now following the digital influencer EMKWAN on Twitter. Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, Abu Dhabi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.