At last Muslims can navigate the online world safely — or so proclaims the Dutch firm behind ImHalal.com, a newly launched search engine that allows Muslims "to surf the internet without the fear of accidentally encountering sinful material." The site works by grading search phrases according to the probability of haram (forbidden) content being listed:
When a search rates one or two on the haram scale, the user can still decide to take the risk and click through to the results. But a three-rated search yields no results, only the message: "Oops! Your search inquiry has a haram level of 3 out of 3! I would like to advise you to change your search terms and try again."
As expected, terms that lead to sexually explicit material are judged haram. (But note that even Google lets users filter out such content.) A pleasant surprise, though, is that searches on most hot-button religious and political topics yield respectable results, free of Islamist manipulation. Indeed, for "Jews," "Israel," "Jerusalem," "Christianity," and "Jesus," the engine outputs links to prominent and mainstream websites, similar to those obtained on Google or Yahoo.
Nor does ImHalal censor information about groups and individuals that criticize Islam. For example, searches of "Andrew Bostom," "Oriana Fallaci," "Robert Spencer," and "Geert Wilders" are halal and highlight those figures' work. (Getting to Jihad Watch does, however, require a bit of effort.) Even images of the Danish Muhammad cartoons can be located by ImHalal, whose operators must view them as less dangerous than Yale University Press does.
On the downside, ImHalal exhibits pervasive gender bias. Consider the following queries: "girls" (haram level one) vs. "boys" (halal); "chicks" (haram level two) and "babes" (haram level three) vs. "studs" and "hunks" (both halal); and "breast cancer" (haram level two) vs. "testicular cancer" (halal). Interestingly, there is gender bias in the opposite direction regarding homosexuality, with "gays" (haram level three) being judged worse than "lesbians" (haram level two). Furthermore, in what could prove the most puzzling result of all, "polygamy" is classified as haram level two, despite its being sanctioned by the Koran.
While one might argue that ImHalal contributes to Islamic self-segregation, the site also will attract some Muslims who have avoided the internet, thus opening doors to the many expositions on democracy, human rights, and gender equality that can be found online. In addition, ImHalal represents a significant improvement over another site, TheIslamicSearch.com, which previously was named IslamicGoogle.com and sported an obvious rip-off of the Google logo. (The Middle East Forum alerted Google to the copyright violations in February.) This unabashedly Islamist search engine yields Islamocentric links, an outsized fraction of which point to radical sites such as IslamOnline.net, run by Muslim Brotherhood cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi.
With a recent study estimating 1.57 billion Muslims in the world, we surely have not seen the last new "Islamic" search engine. And many of them will be far more worrisome than ImHalal.