The XX Factor

The Real Reason Facebook Is Huge in the Muslim World

Facebook has racked up 15 million users in the Muslim world, just 14 months after its Arabic-language service was launched. How did it become wildly popular so quickly? Max Fisher of the Atlantic Wire offers a civic-minded explanation . According to Fisher, Facebook has caught on particularly well in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates because the site is a treasure trove of news and information in a region where anemic newspapers feed their readers a steady diet of political propaganda and salacious crime stories. But he completely missed what is perhaps the most alluring and obvious charm of Facebook to Arab youth: sex.

I live in the Gulf state of Qatar, where, in order to maintain propriety, a date between locals can consist of two young people sitting on opposite sides of a coffee shop talking to each other discreetly on cell phones. The ability of technology to facilitate romance is one of its most striking uses in this part of the world. Qatari youth, like others in the Gulf, lead romantic lives not unlike those of protagonists in Jane Austen’s novels, and it’s no coincidence that you’ll find quite a few fans of her work here (while enthusiasm for the racier SATC2 is … tepid, to say the least ). Since unchaperoned male-female interaction is frowned upon, arranged marriages are commonplace, and so is unconsummated true love. Not to mention gay rendezvous: Facebook flirting is no substitute for the sexual act, and homosexual interactions will surely remain a part of life in the Gulf, though online tête-à-tête promises to fill the emotional chasm that divides men and women lusting after one another. Facebook is the next frontier in halal dating; it allows Arab youths to flirt and form attachments without doing anything haram , like the horizontal dabke .

But it’s just the newest addition to the technological arsenal put to use by Gulf youth to circumvent the strict constraints imposed on opposite sex interaction by traditional society. “Bluetooth cruising,” wherein cars filled with young men pull up beside women’s cars and use their devices to exchange phone numbers, is especially common in Kuwait. Messaging and “poking” on Facebook are potentially more satisfying modes of interaction than furtive texts sent back and forth at a darkened stoplight. Austen’s heroines treasured love letters; Gulf women have Facebook messages that let advances escape censorious eyes. There’s something to be said for a romantic life lived through letters (albeit LOLs and WYWHs).