Religion faculty member Kristin Sands has been studying how Islamic Web sites represent human suffering, largely among Muslims. She says the sites pose many of the same questions that humanitarian organizations do in response to crises: Who is responsible? Who should respond, and how?
“A site will post an e-mail someone has sent to religious scholars, requesting a fatwa (religious opinion) asking, ‘What is my responsibility, if my Muslim brothers are suffering in parts of the world?’ While some scholars reply, ‘It’s your duty to respond with your body, if at all possible, to protect the Muslim brothers and sisters who are being oppressed or hurt,’ others counsel putting pressure on one’s government or forming economic boycotts; or they provide prayers that can be said in support of Muslims.
“This question of responsibility raises another question, which is how one should define community in an increasingly globalized world. Our primary allegiances are to—what? Is a Moroccan Muslim’s first responsibility to his nuclear and extended family, then just to other Moroccan Muslims? To North African Muslims? All Muslims? And what is his relationship to other religions, or the nonreligious?
“These are questions we all need to consider. To those of us in prosperous circumstances in the United States, what is our responsibility to people in the U.S. less fortunate than us or to people suffering elsewhere in the world? From a global perspective, what is the relationship among prosperous regions of the world and places of enormous strife or conflict?
“Iraq, for example, is presented on some Muslim Web sites radically differently from what we see here. It’s something Americans need to see, and these different perceptions should affect our policy decisions. We’re very interested in the question, ‘Why do they hate us?’ It’s not a hard question to answer if you look at some of the more evocative visuals on the Web.”