‘Lots of uncertainty’: Imams fight Covid disinformation in Australian Muslim community | Health
Whenever Imam Alaa Elzokm stumbles upon conspiracy theories – whether in person or online – he holds back on their poor supply.
“This[âs] always from people who say âpeople say this, people say that,â but never from a real expert, âhe says.
Over the past year, Elzokm has seen posts on Instagram, Facebook and Whatsapp shared within the Australian Muslim community, spreading misinformation about Covid and vaccinations.
Based at Elsedeaq Heidelberg Mosque in Melbourne, he is one of many Muslim leaders who have worked throughout the pandemic to combat the spread in his congregation and community.
As the Covid vaccine began rolling out across the country last month, it hosted an online event with three doctors in an effort to allay any concerns people might have about vaccination.
âMost people are just confused, they don’t know what to do. Some people are scared, after hearing these conspiracy theories, but once we talk to them, and they hear from the doctors, they’re usually very satisfied, âhe says.
Dr Ashraf Chehata, orthopedic surgeon and vice president of Muslim Health Professionals Australia who attended the event, said he felt it was his responsibility to better educate his community.
âThe idea is really to phrase a conversationâ¦ to just present the medical information, hopefully in a way that really resonates with people,â he says.
“I feel I haveâ¦ a responsibility to the community as a whole – not just the Muslim community – and I love that responsibility, it’s something I have to honor.”
Chehata and Elzokm were involved in the development of the coronavirus vaccine fatwa recently released by the Australian Fatwa Council, which declared the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines to be halal for Muslims.
Elzokm says he thinks it was imperative that the vaccine be labeled halal, because without the fatwa, many in the community would have been reluctant to take it.
âWe felt we had to talk about this issue because people had questions,â says Elzokm. “We expected them to ask questions about the religious eligibility of the vaccine, so we worked on and published the fatwa.”
âIt was our own job, our own decision. We did it as a service to the community. We wanted to give our perspective on the vaccine without any pressure from the government. “
Independent government imams
The federal government recently stepped up its campaign to tackle misinformation around the vaccine and its contents, but these Muslim leaders say their efforts are not motivated by the government.
Ibrahim Dadoun, director of public relations at the Australian National Council of Imams, said that while the government was working with the council, “we delivered a verdict without any direction from the Department of Health or the government in general.”
âWe are working closely with the government, but our work to resolve these issues has been done at arm’s length from the government. “
A spokesperson for the health ministry said the government recognizes the important role community leaders will play in disseminating factual information about the vaccine. deployment and a series of round tables were held with religious leaders.
“[It] was an opportunity for us to hear from multicultural religious leaders share their concerns and general views on Covid-19 vaccines, identify communication gaps and ensure they have access to the information they need on the deployment of the Covid-19 vaccine. “
Adel Salman, spokesperson for the Islamic Council of Victoria, said without the commitment of community leaders, the vaccine rollout would fail.
“I think communication really needs to step up, at all levels.”
Salman says it’s not just about flooding public platforms with information, but understanding how information travels in particular communities and taking the time to process it appropriately.
“They really need to engage with communities, especially minority communities, in the right way, in the right forums and with the right channels.”
This is not a sales pitch
Chehata has spoken at several events, both online and, where restrictions allow, in person at community centers and mosques.
He tells the Guardian that people are looking for answers.
âI’m not trying to convince you. I am not trying to sell you anything or gain any benefit from it. I’m just delivering the information and leaving it up to you to think about it.
âOnce you’ve explained it, there isn’t really a hindrance per se because of the way I present it. I’m not a guy who pushes an agenda. I’m just the guy who says I’m just going to explain the situation to you in a really simple take it or leave it way.
Mental health advocate Tareq Ahmed says he campaigned against misinformation using his own social media accounts.
âThere is a lot of information showing up on my news feed that is just plain incorrect. And if you spend time online researching it, you’ll usually find it overdone or distorted.
The spread of disinformation is not dispersed, Ahmed says, but is fueled by people with high-profile platforms.
âI think peopleâ¦ use positions of influence to disseminate such information. And I understand why people can be afraid, there is a lot of uncertainty, a lot of questions that need to be answered.
âBut the worst part is that it’s taken and shared thousands of times, and considered gospel. While I like to share the other side.
In his ongoing battles against conspiracy theories, he has noticed that many skeptics focus on unique details, such as the ingredients of a vaccine or the number of daily cases.
“People look at the ingredients of the vaccine and jump to conclusions, regardless of the dosage or something, they just look at the names, and it can sound scary.”
Elzokm has often returned to the importance of expert advice, saying he believes the best way to combat disinformation and conspiracy theories is to provide people with access to experts.
âYou would take your legal advice from a lawyer and your financial advice from an accountant, so we have to take our health advice from a doctor.
âAnd we have to share this expertise. We believe that we will be held accountable by God for the information we hold. “
This is a sentiment shared by Ahmed, who told the Guardian that he has so far not encountered any government work to tackle disinformation.
âThey need to do a lot more to target minority communities. I haven’t really seen anything that focuses directly on Muslim or Arab communities.
“I just think more can be done.”
He has focused his efforts on ensuring that everything he shares comes from trusted sources.
âThe first thing for me is to share resources and information from evidence-based pages and reputable scientific and government sources.
“The least I can do is share this information online and have these conversations in person.”