If you were to do an internet search for the word “Islam,” you’d often get the following search suggestions on Google — anti-Muslim websites, lies about the religion, and other pieces of negative information. That’s what a new report is suggesting, as a Dallas-based imam has an interesting strategy to kill the hate with kindness, so to say — posting accurate information on Islam to hopefully influence the tech giant’s search engine algorithm.
According to the Huffington Post, Muslim-American imam and Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research founder Omar Suleiman, 30, is hoping to replace the hate propaganda and lies with truthful articles about Islam. The idea came to him a few years ago, when he discovered that right-wing groups were oftentimes making generalizations about the world’s Muslim populace, based on the statements and actions of the Islamic State.
Generally, searching for the words “Muslim or “Islam” will yield benign search results linking to credible websites. But as an example of how Google could suggest anti-Muslim results, the Huffington Post pointed out that users would often see Islamophobic websites when searching for words such as “sharia,” “jihad,” and “taqiyya,” three words that the HuffPost believes are often misused and “co-opted” by white supremacist groups.
The report described how one of Suleiman’s articles, a piece on taqiyya, had become quite a popular one — as illustrated, taqiyya is a “centuries-old” concept allowing Muslims to withhold their faith if threatened with persecution. It’s a practice that isn’t too prevalent among today’s Muslims, but as Suleiman explained, taqiyya is often used by Islamophobes to “instill fear,” and to intimidate patriotic, yet “woefully misinformed” Americans into thinking that all Muslim people are bad.
Other topics posted by Suleiman and the Yaqeen Institute in an effort to replace Google’s anti-Muslim search results with truthful articles include reports on honor killings, jihads, and the process of stoning, which are often used by Islamophobes to portray Muslims and the Islam faith in a negative light.
At the moment, however, it appears to be an uphill battle for Suleiman and his attempt to get his articles ranking highly on Google. The taqiyya report in particular only shows up on the second page, while the first link on the first page is an article from a website called meforum.org — the Huffington Post notes that this is an ostensibly legitimate-looking website, but is, in fact, the website of an “Islamophobic think tank” whose goal is to “protect Western values from Middle Eastern threats.”
Experts believe that this tendency for Google to suggest anti-Muslim websites and articles is dangerous, especially since the average internet user only looks at articles listed on the first page of the search results.
“Ninety percent of people don’t make it past the first page,” explained Southern Poverty Law Center project director Heidi Beirich.
“It’s miseducating millions, if not billions of people on many subjects.”
Beirich cited the example of Charleston, South Carolina church shooter Dylann Roof, who went from someone raised in a troubled, but non-racist household, to an alleged white supremacist who targeted African-Americans.
“We are teaching [people] reasons to hate black people, Jews, Muslims and [other] minorities.”
Earlier this year, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Alex Amend wrote that the facts often get buried by negative propaganda when it comes to searches for Muslim and Islam-related topics on Google. He described this phenomenon as “near-total SEO dominance,” where Google is dominated by anti-Muslim and fake news websites, due to the construction of the company’s search algorithm.
Fortunately, there appears to be some hope on Google’s front when it comes to anti-Muslim and other racist content. According to the Huffington Post, the company removed “are Jews evil” from autofill search suggestions, while Google-owned YouTube also reformed its policies earlier this year, stripping advertising from, and de-prioritizing videos that may technically be within their guidelines, but nonetheless have the potential to be considered offensive.
As for the Yaqeen Institute and its leader, Omar Suleiman, he knows that his organization is severely underfunded as compared to the network that fuels online and offline Islamophobia. But he concluded his interview with the Huffington Post by saying that he remains determined to discredit any sources spreading misinformation while doing so through the peaceful act of posting truthful articles to ideally replace Google’s anti-Muslim search suggestions.