Facebook (FB) has won a near-billion following around the world by being all things to all people. Nearly anyone can join and search out people and groups they know (or would like to know). It’s a teeming and sometimes raucous online party—and nobody gets turned away. Does the same model work with a user base that shares a common identity and that at some level is more interested in defining cultural boundaries than blurring them?
Abdul-Vakhed Niyazov, the chairman of Salamworld, thinks the answer is yes. His company, headquartered in Istanbul, aims to launch what it hopes will be the world’s next great social network—a Facebook founded on what he calls “core Muslim values.” Salamworld’s founders, an array of Turkish, Russian, and Central Asian businessmen and media professionals, say the site’s development is driven by the absence of an online environment that fosters Islamic community rather than Western-style individualism. Other sites contain content that would be objectionable to most Muslims, he says.
“There are 250 million Muslim Facebook users because there is no halal [Islam compliant] alternative,” says Niyazov, who is also the president of the Islamic Cultural Center of Russia. “We’ve created a virtual model society in a climate of peace … and a halal alternative that answers to the needs and requirements of the modern Muslim.”
Last month, Salamworld released a beta version of the site, with ambitious plans to launch in 17 countries by November. Besides the photos and posts familiar to users of other sites, Salamworld plans to offer counseling from certified imams; a library of e-books on Islamic heritage; city guides with information on Islamic centers and halal restaurants; and a Muslim news network.
Muslim-focused social media ventures don’t have a glorious history. Finland-based Muxlim.com, launched in 2006, shut down earlier this year after piling up losses. Others, such as London-based AlWahy.com, haven’t gained any real traction. In 2010, the Muslim Brotherhood, now Egypt’s powerful ruling political party, introduced Ikhwanbook.com but soon shut it down. “Efforts that seek to provide a parallel Muslim platform often fizzle because the market is just not there,” says Dalia Mogahed, executive director of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies. “Muslims, like anyone else, tap into social media to connect to the world, to transcend boundaries. Making a social networking platform unique to one group undermines the power of the medium.”
Salamworld has offices in 12 countries, and its creators say they have funding secured for the first three years of operation from independent businessmen mainly from Russia and Central Asia. The company’s goal is to attract 50 million users within five years. Yavuz Kurt, a Salamworld spokesman, says the site will be a gold mine for advertisers. “We are a huge population,” he says. “Three hundred million Muslim Internet users is a big market, and we have a big social and economic footprint in Asia, Africa, everywhere.” The company aims to generate revenue through an advertising-based model similar to other social networks and plans to begin selling clothing and other halal products on the site next year. Analysts at Halalfire, a market research firm, estimates the global value of halal products and services to be around $1 trillion, with the bulk in financial and food services.
Ziad Mokhtar, a partner at Ideavelopers, a $50 million venture capital fund based in Cairo, says that while attempts to create a Facebook rival like Salamworld seem like a good idea at first, they won’t replace it. “Facebook doesn’t contradict Islam, so there’s not an inherent issue with the current product,” he says. Salamworld might “have more success in investing smartly in applications. A network just isn’t needed.”
Salamworld also will have to accommodate a group of users who are unlikely to always agree on what is acceptable content. “We’re still working on our community guidelines and debating on whether to allow users to post pictures of, for example, women in bikinis,” Kurt says. The company says it will have a strict filtering process, which may be even more important when it comes to religious and political content, says Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. “The Arab-Muslim world and non-Arab Muslim world are quite divided,” he says. “We’re talking about two different universes.” Kurt says the site won’t necessarily censor opinions but remains noncommittal about its censorship rules. “We’re still in the beta phase,” he says. “We’ll see what happens, but luckily there is only one Koran as a basis.”
Ultimately, Salamworld will need to strike the right balance to avoid alienating members and to bring in new ones. “The world of social networking is already overpopulated with various platforms,” says Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, a commentator and investor based in Dubai. “If they don’t give users what they want, then they simply won’t migrate from existing platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. For me, I’m satisfied with what is available.”