In Iraqi Kurdistan, imams battle against smartphones

By MUHAMMED ABDULLA, Written for UPI  |  Nov. 26, 2012 at 4:38 PM
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RANIA, Iraq, Nov. 26 (UPI) -- Ari Mala used to visit hundreds of people during Eid, a Muslim holiday. But this year, the 22-year-old student sent text messages instead. Many of his friends and family members did, too.

"I expected my friends to visit me as they did before but technology physically disconnected us from one another," said Mala, who attends the University of Raparin in Rania, a city in the northern Iraqi region known as Kurdistan.

Mala's experience is a testament to how technology is changing age-old traditions in Iraqi Kurdistan, a region that has witnessed the swift proliferation of smartphones and social media over the past five years.

This technology might be connecting towns like once-isolated Rania to the world but critics say they fear that it comes at the cost of weakening traditional kinship ties, one of the deep and abiding features of majority Muslim societies.

Some go so far as to say technology, including social media, is evil. Mam Hassan, 64, said he blames his son, Omer, for isolating himself from his family to feed an addiction to technology and Facebook.

"They are created to corrupt our daughters and sons," he said. "Our kids will gradually forget about their culture, tradition and religion."

Ibrahim Hassan, the imam of Raparin Mosque in Rania, said attendance has dropped among the youth in his congregation. He fears technology has become a hindrance to religious devotion in general and a direct threat to festivals such as Eid, a celebration that involves slaughtering animals and sharing the meat with family, friends and the less fortunate.

"Social media and new technology potentially make Eid a problem in particular because being there in person is so important religiously, as it is more emotional and spiritual," Hassan said.

At rural mosques, people regularly attend services but in Rania, Hassan said, even adults are so busy with technology that they neglect their religious duties.

Advocates of technology and social media say being present for Eid events isn't always possible. Rasul Khidr, 35, is from a small town outside Rania. Many of his relatives live in Europe. The online phone service Skype enabled Khidr to connect with family face to face through his computer screen.

"This Eid, Skype was the best possible choice I had, so I'm really pleased with technology," he said.

The disparity between Khidr's experience and the skepticism of critics such as Hassan, the imam, presents a troubling dilemma for religious leaders in Iraqi Kurdistan. Some say they worry that if religious leaders don't warm to technology, the youth will grow cold to their message. In Rania, mosques have yet to tap Facebook or Twitter to promote Eid and other religious holidays. There remains among many mullahs and imams the assumption that an embrace of technology is an embrace of Western ways.

Christine van den Toorn, a professor of social sciences at the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani, said this is a mistake. She cited the 19th-century Islamic thinker Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, who stated, "Islam and science are not incompatible."

Toorn, an American, said she believes that if Afghani were living today, he would urge religious leaders not to fear or shun smartphones and social media.

"If Islamic mullahs are seen as opposed to technology and to development, they're going to lose the battle," Toorn said. "Mullahs need to figure out how to incorporate technology into their practice."

Whether religious leaders begin to view technology as a boon to their public ministries or not, the youth of Iraqi Kurdistan show few signs of setting it aside.

Like Khidr, 21-year-old Tania Othman of Chwarqurna spent Eid largely online.

"I have a lot of friends who live elsewhere," she said, "so I was busy texting and posting on my Facebook wall."

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