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Internet sites foster a dialogue that may turn out worthwhile

Wednesday, October 10, 2001


While military forces are engaged in a war of weapons in Afghanistan, frustrated civilians on both sides of the conflict are waging a war of words online.

Discussion boards and chat rooms across the Internet have become a battleground for pro- and anti-American Web surfers locked in well-reasoned debates as well as vicious clashes in which vitriol-fueled tirades are the weapons of choice.

"I SAW MY FIRST DEAD AFGHAN (deleted expletive) TODAY on CNN ... I want to see more!!!" wrote Joebob, a member of the discussion board at www.us-afghanwar.com.

"I hope you baby killers enjoy your stay in hell," responded a writer using the handle Holy Islam. "I hear that it gets quite warm this time of year."

At the IslamiCity.com discussion board Hajir24 wrote, "Your government started this war many years ago by putting its nose in any place of this planet. What a hell you were doing in vietnam? What a hell you were doing in hiroshima with your dreadful atomic bombs?"

"As your post indicates, you are ignorant, and perhaps not intellectually capable of understanding the history of the world," fired back Charlieplus. "Furthermore, you seem to be incapable of recognizing the irrational hatred that is coursing through your veins. God have mercy on your soul, if you still have one."

As the battle between the United States and the foreign terrorists has intensified, the Internet has become a place where frustrated, angry and ultimately helpless people are finding an outlet for action -- even if the only action they can take is surfing the Net and typing on a keyboard.

While sites like IslamiCity.com and About.com's Islam forum tend to feature more moderate and informed discussions, the chat forums found at Web sites like the pro-American Us-afghanwar.com and the London-based Young Muslims Web site YMUK.net tend toward vicious one-sided tirades.

Meanwhile, the "Ranting" section at NukeAfghanistan.net is filled with such racist and violent messages it's nearly impossible to find a message that's suitable to repeat here.

Clearly, many of these missives are little more than a cathartic release of emotions. But beyond that, they are also an important way for people from radically different backgrounds to actually talk to one another and, hopefully, learn from each other, said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which studies how Americans use the Web.

"The Internet allows people in a broader context than ever before to have those discussions with all kinds of people in all kinds of places in all kinds of circumstances," Rainie said.

Mohammed Abdul Aleem, CEO of the California-based IslamiCity.com, said his Web site is the largest Islamic e-community in the world. It is moderate in its religious stance, and Aleem hopes the articles and chat forums offered there will help "bridge the information gap" between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Aleem acknowledges that the messages on the discussion board occasionally veer toward hateful (he only censors messages that use foul language). But for the most part, he believes these conversations "provide a very valuable tool in helping us understand what our differences and similarities are and, at least, develop a respect for each other's differences and similarities.

"This is the only way to a peaceful coexistence."

And, indeed, many of the discussion threads at IslamiCity are thoughtful, well-reasoned conversations about Islamic law as it applies to terrorism and jihad, the treatment of Muslim Americans and the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis.

Of course, it's also worth noting that the war of words is not just between Muslims and non-Muslims. The Islamic Web sites often find Muslim pitted against Muslim in heated discussions about Osama bin Laden and whether or not there is any justification for terrorism. And some of the fiercest debates rage between Americans who are more than happy to argue about almost every aspect of the recent events.

For example, a writer using the handle Islamasatan at About.com wrote: "Jesus Christ is Lord! Islam is perpetuating the lies of Satan."

Many were quick to respond.

"Shame on you. You are a bad example of a Christian ... and I am not Muslim," wrote Loka777.

A writer using the handle DML66 responded: "Satan wants us to fight. Satan wants us to hate. The question is, are you going to do his work, by perpetuating hatred, or not?"

The writer then signed the note: "Proud to be an American!!!"

Rainie insists these disputes will ultimately be good for the world.

"When people express their opinions, when people are exposed to other opinions, that has to be a good thing even though some of it is hateful," he said. "There will be some people who come out with awful, twisted views of the world, but many more people will know more about their world and feel more socially engaged than they ever did before."

P-I reporter Winda Benedetti can be reached at 206-448-8223 or [email protected]

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