One day, you end up having a discussion with someone about Zionism and Palestine. You simply cannot believe the other person’s opinions. Clearly, he must be insane, unintelligent, misguided, or evil! There is simply no other explanation possible for such a ridiculously wrong opinion. You try to convince him of his error, but he obstinately refuses to listen and digs in his heels even further against you. Your blood pressure rises, you throw up your arms in disgust, and you tell it like it is, mincing no words in letting him know what you now think of him. He responds in kind and others join in, taking sides. A whole group of people is quickly dragged down into a never-ending nasty feud. Hatfields and McCoys, here we come! Innocent bystanders are either dragged in or scared away. Perhaps the only thing preventing the shedding of blood and the breaking of bones is that the whole argument is happening on the Internet.
Or how about this?
“Last post,” Layla says to herself as she hits send. But then someone else replies and she just can’t help herself from pointing out a flaw in that person’s argument. She knows she is right. How could she not say anything and just let the error go? Then it would be like she didn’t see it or didn’t recognize it as an error. No, she needs to let everyone know right from wrong, she can’t let it go, she must correct that other person and make it clear how wrong that girl is. How else will people learn? Well, it turns out the girl doesn’t like to be corrected. She has a character flaw that prevents her from taking constructive criticism without getting angry. She accuses Layla of attacking her. “Hmph! How dare she accuse me and take offense! I was only doing my duty! She needs tougher skin!” Layla steams. And then, she just can’t help herself, a few minutes later she is hitting send yet one more time to point out the girl’s character flaw and advising her to learn how to take correction like a proper Muslim.
This kind of behavior, sometimes milder than this and sometimes more extreme, happens every hour of every day somewhere amongst Muslims online, especially involving youth. These things happen in person too, but somehow the physical separation between Internet users makes many people harsher in their debates, arguments, and criticism. But even when someone is 100 percent right about an issue, if he behaves to any degree like the above examples, then he destroys his reputation except in the eyes of others like him, and he damages how others witnessing the behavior view Muslims or any other group he belongs to, such as teens, people from a certain ethnicity, or people from a certain school. These days, colleges and potential employers are finding out what applicants post online. His online argument from two years ago could cost him a job or a college degree tomorrow (as could any other careless, immoral, or immature online behavior). Most importantly, he destroys his own heart and his own Eimaan. Even if he is defending a correct position on an Islamic matter, this argumentative, angry, or self-righteous behavior blackens his heart and eats at his soul, stealing his tranquility and maybe even his Hereafter.
Almost anyone can find himself in a situation like those above – it is very common to encounter such feelings and temptations. However, if you make these rules for yourself and commit to them, you can make a positive difference:
- If you feel any negative emotion or rise in blood pressure, do not post, not even one word. The world will not stop spinning because you did not get your word in. When you respond while feeling that way, your response will probably only deepen the divide rather than solve any issues. Get up and walk away from the computer and do not go back to that page for a minimum of 24 hours. After 24 hours, the discussion will have probably moved on enough that your post would now be irrelevant.
- If your brain will not let it go, then get out a piece of paper and a pencil and write everything you would want to post if you were online. But do not under any circumstances go to the computer. Put the paper away in a discreet place. After 24-48 hours, either destroy that paper or read it and then destroy it. Do not leave it lying around for someone else to find. Chances are you will be very glad when you read it that you did not post it.
- Use a “three strikes” rule. If you have to use either of the above two steps three times for any site, ban yourself from using or visiting that site for at least three months. Clearly, that site is not good for you, so take care of yourself and stay away. Even if it is Facebook! Maybe you’ll even lessen your Internet addiction in the process.
- If you are witness to an online discussion that is driving people against each other, do not publicly take a side or join in. If you are able to avoid anger, then see if you can make a post to lead the parties to reconciliation by pointing out what they agree on, or by some similar method. Then leave it. But if you feel any anger, then rule #1 applies to you. Get up and walk away.
- Get perspective. If something going on online is bothering you, get out in the real world for a few days before you allow yourself to revisit it or think about it again. Put the discussion in the context of the bigger picture and ask yourself how much it matters or how important it is. In most cases, you will find that it is something trivial in the grand scheme of things, so why not just let it go, even if you were right?
- If you become aware of something threatening, dangerous, illegal or scary going on, tell someone right away, even if you are not sure it is serious. People have died because things being said or done on the Internet were ignored. If someone posts video, pictures, or talks about beating someone up, committing vandalism, harassment or theft, killing people, bringing a weapon to work or school, torturing an animal, committing suicide, taking drugs, being involved in pornography or cyber-bullying, or anything else that alarms you as potentially causing someone real-world harm, it is time to act. Get someone immediately involved who can assess the situation and intervene if needed. Do not try to take care of it yourself.