It was the first thing she did in the morning.
After joining the social networking Web site Facebook in April, Essma Bargewee spent hours on the site daily. But the 21-year-old Montclair University student recently deleted her account.
Bargewee, a practicing Muslim, soured on the Facebook phenomenon after getting embroiled in a controversy over Facebook groups denouncing Islam and other religions. In July, a self-described atheist created a group with a name that explicitly curses Islam, angering many Facebook users.
The group’s creator, who goes by the screen name “Variable Variable,” also administers groups targeting Christianity and Judaism as “false ideologies,” but the harsh condemnation of Islam — and the expletive in the group’s title –has drawn fierce backlash.
“The Quran contains many lies and threats,” a description of the group reads. “Islam is false, no god exists, and someone should say that loud and clear.”
Defenders of the group insist they are free to criticize any religion and do not target Muslims specifically. Those who oppose the group say postings spread an angry and inflammatory perception of Islam as promoting terrorism, violence and oppression.
Less than 24 hours after the group was created, it was discovered by users in predominantly Muslim countries like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
More than 150 counter-groups have since been created criticizing the anti-Islam group and calling for Facebook to remove copycat groups, some with the same name. A handful of groups target Variable Variable specifically, and the account holder has opted not to receive messages on Facebook.
Aya Fouad, an 18-year-old student at American University in Cairo, Egypt, said she was shocked when she stumbled on the group. “I couldn’t believe it was there. It’s very offensive,” she said in a phone interview.
Fouad decided to create her own group — a petition threatening to quit Facebook if the anti-Islam group is not removed. In three days, the group’s membership was more than 2,000. “People multiplied dramatically overnight,” Fouad said. “I thought, ‘There’s a point in what I’m saying.'”
At last count, her group had more than 76,000 members.
Running the group became a summer job for Fouad. She was spending between five and seven hours a day combing through related sites and rallying users. One of the people who found her way to the petition was Bargewee, who be came an officer of the group.
Bargewee said she initially exchanged comments with Variable Variable, but grew frustrated when her comments were deleted.
“This guy wasn’t there to discuss anything,” Bargewee said. “He was just there to make up things about our religion.”
Even after she stopped posting on the group, she continued to receive threatening messages from strangers, she said. One person cursed her because women in his country had started to wear the Islamic headscarf. When the petition’s original deadline came on Sept. 25, she left Facebook.
“I just quit everything. I just got sick of it,” she said. “If Facebook is allowing these things, then I really don’t want to be a part.”
But the petition forged on. Fouad said she closed her account at the end of September, but reactivated it when she found so many people were unable to join her petition because the group creator no longer existed.
“The petition is still on and people are joining and quitting,” Fouad said in an e-mail. “I’m only staying a while longer to get more people to quit.”
Other users say quitting is extreme, however.
“Why should they quit Facebook? The group stays open and they’ve done nothing,” said Soheal Malik, 23, of Birmingham, England. “There are hundreds of anti-Islamic sites on the Internet.”
Malik, who recently completed law school, said he was embarrassed by vitriolic language used to denounce the group’s creator. But he saw an opportunity when a copycat anti-Islam group lost its administrator. Keeping the provocative name, Malik took over the group and is using it as a forum to talk about Islam.
“People are going to join thinking it’s the same group. Maybe they’ll be exposed to some information,” Malik said. “It would be good a thing to get people talking instead of fighting.”
“The courts haven’t got into this yet,” said Frank Askin, who teaches constitutional law at Rutgers School of Law in Newark. “It’s like the Wild West. … I don’t think there are any rules.”
The free-for-all has led to bitter exchanges involving abusive or threatening language — often from those claiming they are offended by indecency of the original group.
“That maybe exacerbates and spreads the kind of venom that goes back and forth between these two sides,” said Robert Kubey, di rector of Rutgers’ Center for Media Studies in New Brunswick.
Angry and emotional exchanges could inflame users, Kubey said, tempting them to take their frustrations into the outside world.
“It’s dicey,” Kubey said. “We just don’t know what we’re dealing with here.”