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'Haqqathon' Takes Anti-ISIS Fight To Cyberspace

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Islamic scholars gathered in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, last week for a conference on how extremists are hijacking Islam, and what to do about it. A leading topic was how to use social media to combat the message of groups like the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

In Arabic, haqq is the word for truth.

Last week in the United Arab Emirates, group of Muslim scholars held what they called a "haqqathon" – a hackathon meant to create new ways for Islamic scholars to connect with young Muslims and, by doing so, defuse violent extremists like the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

The competition took place in the UAE capital Abu Dhabi, on the sidelines of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies. More than 400 Muslim clerical scholars — Sunni, Shiite and others — gathered for the second year to talk about how extremists are hijacking Islam, and what to do about it.

The urgency for something like the haqqathon is clear, because groups like ISIS have had great success recruiting young people on social media.

"We do want to start speaking the same language as our youth," said Zeshan Zafar, the group's executive director. "What is that language, and who are the individuals that need to be part of that whole mix as well. So that's vital for us."

Zafar, working with the Virginia-based business incubator Affinis Labs, helped choose the participants, who included a journalist with the British newspaper The Guardian, a psychologist, an imam who is also an attorney in the U.K., a consultant to the pharmaceutical industry and others.

"I'm hoping that in the channels and the energy that is being created here we'll have something that's very, very relevant, and we actually invest into, incubate until we get an actual end product that is really worthy and ... develops that connection between scholars, all the way down to the grassroots," Zafar said.

Five teams competed over two and a half days for funding to get their project up and running. The teams had to develop an idea, have their designers and programmers turn it into a running prototype, and then present it to a panel of judges.

One team came up with Marhubba — a website and app that would answer young Muslims' questions about male-female relationships in "the Prophetic way." Team member Wajahat Ali, a playwright from Pakistan, made the pitch.

"Welcome to," he said, "where [students] and traditional Islamic scholarship meet to learn about sex, relationships, marriage and intimacy in an honest and relevant manner."

A panel of judges, a global online audience and everyone in the room cast their ballots electronically. Think of it as an American Idol final round meets "countering violent extremism."

The judges chose a winner: Champions of Islam, a social media site where users can upload photos of everyday Muslim heroes.

But they unexpectedly presented a "people's award," to Marhubba, which will also be funded.

That night, the young Muslim entrepreneurs could be found at a celebratory dinner on the hotel rooftop, overlooking the lights of Abu Dhabi, still pitching ideas to one another and making more connections.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit

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