Whenever imam Alaa Alzokum comes across conspiracy theories – whether in person or online – he bridles at their poor sourcing.
“It[’s] always from people who say ‘people say this, people say that’, but never from an actual expert,” he says.
During the past year, Alzokum has seen posts on Instagram, Facebook and Whatsapp shared among Australia’s Muslim community, spreading misinformation about Covid and vaccinations.
Based at the Elsedeaq Heidelberg Mosque in Melbourne, he is one of a number of Muslim leaders who have been working throughout the pandemic to combat the spread throughout his congregation and community.
As the Covid vaccine began rolling out across the country last month, he held an online event with three doctors with the aim of clearing up any anxieties people may have had about vaccination.
“Most people are just confused, they don’t know what to do. Some people are afraid, having heard these conspiracy theories, but once we speak to them, and they hear from doctors, they are usually very satisfied,” he says.
Dr Ashraf Chehata, an orthopaedic surgeon and vice president of Muslim Health Professionals Australia who was involved in the event, said he felt it was his responsibility to better inform his community.
“The idea really is to formulate a conversation … to just present the medical information, hopefully in a way that really resonates with people,” he says.
“I feel I have … a responsibility to the community at large – not just the Muslim community – and I love that responsibility, it’s something I have to honour.”
Chehata and Alzokum were involved in the development of the recently released Coronavirus Vaccine fatwa from the Australia Fatwa Council, which pronounced both the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines as halal for Muslims.
Alzokum says he believes it was imperative the vaccine be labelled halal, because without the fatwa many in the community would have hesitated to take it.
“We felt we needed to talk about this issue, because people had questions,” Alzokum explains. “We expected them to ask about the religious permissibility of the vaccine, and so we worked on and issued the fatwa.”
“It was our own work, our own decision. We did this as a service to the community. We wanted to give our perspective on the vaccine without any pressure from the government.”
Imams independent of government
The federal government has recently stepped up its campaign to combat misinformation around the vaccine and its contents, but these Muslim leaders say their efforts are not driven by the government.
Ibrahim Dadoun, director of public relations at the Australian National Imams Council, says while the government had been working with the council, “we issued a verdict without any directives from the Department of Health or from the government in general.”
“We do work closely with the government, but our work to address these issues has been done independently of the government.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Health said the government recognised the important role community leaders will play in distributing factual information about the vaccine rollout and a series of roundtables had been held with religious leaders.
“[It] was an opportunity for us to hear from multicultural religious leaders about their concerns and overall views on the Covid-19 vaccines, to identify any communication gaps and to ensure they have access to the information they need about the Covid-19 vaccine rollout.”
Adel Salman, spokesperson from the Islamic Council of Victoria, says without the engagement of community leaders the vaccine rollout will fail.
“I do think that the communication has to really ramp up, across the board.”
Salman says it’s not just about flooding public platforms with information, but about understanding how information spreads in particular communities and taking the time to address them appropriately.
“They really need to engage with communities, especially minority communities, in the right way, in the right forums and with the right channels.”
It’s not a sales pitch
Chehata has spoken at a number of events, both online and, when restrictions permit, in-person at community centres and mosques.
He tells the Guardian that people are looking for answers.
“I’m not trying to convince you. I’m not trying to sell you something or I’m not getting any benefit in any way. I’m just delivering the information and leave it up to you to mull it over.
“Once you explain it, there isn’t really much pushback per se because of the way I present it. I’m not some guy pushing an agenda. I’m just the guy saying I’ll just explain to you the situation in a very simple way, take it or leave it.”
Tareq Ahmed, a mental health advocate, says he has been campaigning against misinformation using his own personal social media accounts.
“There’s a lot of information that pops up on my newsfeed that’s just simply incorrect. And if you spend some time online to research it, you’ll usually find its exaggerated or misrepresented.”
The spread of misinformation isn’t scattershot, Ahmed says, but is fuelled by people with far-reaching platforms.
“I think people … use positions of influence to spread such information. And I understand why people might be afraid, there’s a lot of uncertainty, a lot of questions that need to be answered.”
“But the worst part is that it’s taken and shared thousands of times, and taken as gospel. Whereas I like to share the other side.”
In his running battles against conspiracy theories, he’s noticed many doubters focus on single details, such as ingredients in a vaccine or daily case numbers.
“People look at the ingredients of the vaccine and jump to conclusions, without consideration for the dosage or anything like that, they just look at the names, and that can sound scary.”
Alzokum often returned to the importance of expert advice, saying he felt that the best way to combat misinformation and conspiracy theories was to provide people with access to experts.
“You’d 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.
“And we have to share that expertise. We believe we will be held accountable by God for the information we hold.”
It is a sentiment echoed by Ahmed, who tells the Guardian he hasn’t come across any government work to combat misinformation so far.
“They need to be doing a lot more to target minority communities. I haven’t really seen anything that directly focuses on the Muslim or Arab communities.
“I just think more can be done.”
He has been focusing his efforts on making sure whatever he shares comes from reputable sources.
“The number one thing for me is to actually share resources and information from evidence based pages and from reputable scientific and government sources.
“The least I can do is share this information online and have those conversations in person.”