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Social Network Aims To Attract World's Muslims

An online social network for Muslims around the globe? That's how Salamworld, a private firm with origins in former Soviet republics, promotes itself.

Salamworld says that when it goes online in August, it will be unlike Facebook or other social networks because it will be "halal" compliant -- in accordance with Islamic principles.

Salamworld also plans to provide Islamic content to its users -- including an online Islamic library, podcasts of sermons by Islamic scholars, and video games created "by Muslims for Muslims."

With its first offices at Moscow's Islamic Cultural Center and in Cairo, and with a new headquarters in Istanbul, Salamworld says it wants to attract 30 million Muslim users within three years.

But some Muslims express concerns about Salamworld's apparent links to Moscow and governments of other former Soviet republics. They also want to know who provided the firm's $50 million in start-up capital -- still undisclosed despite company pledges to eventually release the names of what it says are "private businessmen in Kazakhstan."

Afghans have an inherent distrust for any Moscow-linked project purporting to be Islamic, says Noori Wali, who heads Afghan German Online, a website for expatriate Afghans around the world.

"As a Muslim and as an Afghan, I think it is a plot that by no means would benefit Islam," Wali says. "On the contrary, it would damage Islam. Using the ways they have known over the years, they want to spoil Islam and damage its reputation."

Azerbaijan's "donkey blogger," Adnan Hajizada, who was imprisoned for a year on hooliganism charges after satirizing Azerbaijan's government in 2009, says he has heard fears expressed about who is behind Salamworld.

"I still think it is a business project, but I also heard from some Muslims on Facebook that they are not going to join the Salamworld network because they fear this is a network created by some forces that want to identify active Muslims in different parts of the world and, later, do surveillance on them, or persecute them, or things of that sort," Hajizada says. "However, I do not possess any proof [of that.]"

Kremlin Connections

The identities of Salamworld's executives is the source of much of the concern. The company's director-general is Abdul-Vahed Niyazov, who also heads the Moscow-based Islamic Cultural Center, a public division of Russia's official Council of Muftis, a Kremlin-linked body.

Safe for Muslims to surf?
Safe for Muslims to surf?
An ethnic Tatar, Niyazov has a long history of ties to the Russian authorities and was elected to the State Duma in 1999 as a member of the Unity bloc, which later became Prime Minister and President-elect Vladimir Putin's ruling United Russia party.

He has spent the past year trying to build support among Muslim leaders around the world. Traveling across North Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Europe. Niyazov has won support from authorities like Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Said Aqil Siraj, the leader of Indonesia's largest Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama.

Niyazov declined to speak to RFE/RL, referring questions about Salamworld's "no politics" policy to his spokesman, Yavuz Selim Kurt, who insists the firm is apolitical and has no government ties or agenda.

"We say no politics. This means no politics for us. We are not in favor of any party. We are neutral. Everyone may express themselves freely, but Salamworld is not [getting involved] in any political discussion," Kurt says.

"We are just providing a service for users. They may have political ideas. They may express themselves freely," he adds. "However, we will have some criteria. There will not be any [promotion of] violence. There will not be any terrorist statements or expressions, and there will not be anything against humanity and human rights."

Pushing 'Official Islam'?

Salamworld's vice president, Akhmed Azimov moved from his native city of Makhachkala, capital of Russia's republic of Daghestan, in 1998 to study at St. Petersburg State University. He moved to Moscow after completing his studies in St. Petersburg, and now serves as the vice president of the Council on Nationalities Affairs under Moscow's municipal government. He also coordinates the Expert Board of the Russian Council of Muftis.

Elcin Asgarov, an Azerbaijani citizen who is a Salamworld board member, also has government ties. Until last year he served as deputy chairman of Baku's State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations, the body that supervises religion in Azerbaijan.

In that government post, Asgarov worked against the politicization of Islam, using the parliament's official newspaper to accuse the Islamic Party of Azerbaijan and its leadership of "sabotage against our nation and statehood" after they had criticized President Ilham Aliyev and had protested a ban on head scarves in schools.

Working for Salamworld, Asgarov traveled to Iran last year to discuss cooperation with the offices of the Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi, and with Iran's ministries of Communication, Youth, and Sports. Kurt says the firm now plans to open a Tehran office.

Salamworld's leadership also includes other prominent Muslims and businessmen from Russia, Azerbaijan, Daghestan, and former Soviet republics in Central Asia.

The chief editor of the website's Islamic content is Elmir Guliyev, author of a Russian interpretation of the Koran. Russia's Council of Muftis has also signed a memorandum of understanding with Salamworld.

...Or Infiltration?

There's a rich history of government infiltration into technology companies, notes Simon Davies, a fellow at the London School of Economics and director of Privacy International, either by starting companies that achieve market status or by gaining a controlling interest, because of national security interests.

The Kremlin associations of the Salamworld leadership raises suspicion, Davies says. "I was a bit skeptical at first and my instinct was this is just a front for a financial investor who is tapping the political motivation. But it sounds like it could be more than that. They seem to be playing a two-handed game here. This is intriguing. Definitely a political stitch-up. There is definitely an intent here to infiltrate."

But Kurt, the Salamworld spokesman, insists the project is nothing more than a commercial venture seeking profit for its unnamed investors by tapping into a growing global market for Islamic products.

With additional reporting by RFE/RL's Azerbaijani and Tatar-Bashkir services and Radio Free Afghanistan