Facebook for Muslims
Does the world need a halal social network? The co-founder and president of Salamworld, Abdul-Vakhed Niyazov, thinks it does.
Salamworld, set to launch in spring 2014, is a social media project aimed at creating a platform based on the core values of Islam, for and by Muslims. Not only does it seek to connect the Ummah—the global Muslim community—but it also plans on providing Islamic services and products such as addresses of halal shops and mosques, an Islamic encyclopedia, games and news. Though there there have been similar attempts in the past, like the now defunct Finland-based Muxlim.com, which launched in 2006, and Egypt’s failed IkhwanBook.com in 2010, Salamworld has very deep pockets.
With $50 million in backing, Salamworld is gunning for the growing number of Muslim users on the Internet and planning to give them content that is filtered, moderated and safe. Porn, gambling, erotic music clips and extreme opinions will be banned. There will be no restrictions on women posting unveiled pictures of themselves, but users will not be able to share photos that show women in revealing clothes or bikinis.
I met Niyazov, a Russian of Tatar origin and a former member of parliament, at Salamworld’s newly renovated mansion-like headquarters in Istanbul, on top of a hill overlooking the Bosphorus bridge that connects Asia and Europe.
How did you come up with this idea?
It was a little more than two years ago. I was at a meeting with young people in Moscow. We were discussing the role of the Internet in today’s society. Afterwards I went to another meeting in Kazakistan on the same subject, and that’s where the idea was born. And when I was on the train from Astana to Moscow, I thought of the name Salamworld.
Why did you choose Istanbul as your headquarters?
Istanbul is the cultural and media center and one of the technology and finance centers of the Islamic world. This city had been the center of Christian world for more than a thousand years and the center of the Muslim world for more than 600 years. Logistically it is a perfect location. You can reach Istanbul from anywhere in the world within 24 hours. Even though Turkey is developing dynamically it is the most stable democracy in the Muslim world. In addition, we are on the same page as the Turkish government and PM Erdogan’s vision and ideas about the development of the Muslim world and the use of technology for the good of the Muslim world. This was also a factor.
Why do you think we need a halal social network?
Today there are 400 million Muslim Internet users in the world. According to our surveys there is a need for a platform that could respond to the needs of Muslims. We are talking about [one of the world’s] fastest growing [groups] of people. In 12 years time the number of Muslims using the Internet will be 1.4 billion. As Muslims are becoming more educated, more aware and more connected to their Muslim identity, the need for this kind of Internet infrastructure will be bigger. Fifteen years ago people would not understand why someone would open a halal shop selling halal products. But today halal products and services’ total revenue reached 2.3 trillion dollars. This shows that when the awareness of Muslims increases they would like to consume products and services in line with their preferences. What we are doing is not a mosque project online. This is an advanced infrastructure project.
How do you plan to deal with the different traditions, habits and languages of Muslim countries?
Facebook could gather 1 billion people without paying attention to differences. We are giving a platform and—Shia, Sunni, Turkish, Iranian, Russian—whoever wants to join can join. We invite everyone to our home but our house has some rules. If you accept these terms then you are welcome. We will build a moderation system that will try to eliminate the harmful content and marginalized views. We are hoping to create a platform where Muslims can find a common mainstream consensus.
What are your short- and medium-term objectives?
The success criteria for a social network are its number of users and the speed in increase. Within the three years after our launch, we are targeting reaching 100 to 150 million users. In the short term we are not targeting to cover the investment costs because in order to make money you have to reach a certain amount of users.
Could you tell us the amount of investment in this project?
It is a serious investment. Unfortunately time has long passed over projects that were realized in garages. This is a sector with huge human resources potential and billions of [dollars in] money. There is no quick and easy success. We are also planning to market our product to Muslims online and offline. This can bring a more dynamic and fast response.
What is your business model?
We are not going to invent something new. These kinds of projects get 75 percent of their revenues from advertisement and 25 from online products. We are going to follow this trend more or less. Salamworld will be an umbrella company which will cover a project called Muslim hub underneath which will contain Salam-market, Salam-bay sites.
Online social networks are so powerful that they can help people mobilize and change political realities. We saw this with the Arab revolutions. Do you see Salamworld achieving a big social movement like this?
It is a reality that social media has a big effect on real life, it can have a transforming effect. But this effect can be positive as well as negative. If these networks are helping young people to acquire an interest in politics this is positive but if they are increasing the youth’s rebellious trends against the state it is not positive. And the morality of youth has decreased to some extent because of social networks. Right now any content is available as soon as you open your computer. It is not a secret that more than half of the searches on Google are about porn. We will try to keep the negative out by emphasizing the positive aspects of social networks with our moderation system. Salamworld is a project for Muslims but it is open to anybody who agrees to its terms.