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Faith, hope and Call of Duty: 21st century spirituality

Brussels, London, October 20th, 2015 (Zoe Kleinman/BBC/SIGNIS). From the young Muslim YouTubers teaching fashion and beauty to women who must remain modest, to the art of mindful computer gaming and the Jewish students using Google Translate to learn Hebrew - lots of young people are looking online for ways to embrace both their religion and their interests.

But not everybody approves. A quick scroll through the comments below YouTube star Nabiilabee’s videos soon reveals an audience deeply divided. "Love this and you are so beautiful!" gushes a young fan. However, there are some furious critics as well. She’s a Birmingham fashion graduate, who uploads video tutorials about how to style the hijab and wear make-up.

She insists that all her guidance has modesty at its heart and describes herself as a religious woman, for many Muslims the Koran’s instruction that women should not "display" their beauty outside of the home is unequivocal.

Alongside names like Dina Tokio, Ruba Zai and Amina, Nabiilabee, a practising British Muslim, is high-profile in the world of so-called Hijabi YouTubers. A quick YouTube search for "hijab tutorials" brings up more than 100,000 individual videos, but Nabiila claims to be one of the genre’s founders - uploading her first tutorial at the age of 16.

She has certainly built a strong brand, with 150,000 followers on YouTube, 228,000 on Instagram and more than 400,000 Facebook members currently liking her official page.
"I’ve been doing this for so long I’m OK when it comes to hate comments," Nabiilabee told BBC Radio 1.

Nabiila dedicates entire videos to responding to questions from her audience - about Islam in general as well as beauty - and also addresses the personal criticism. In one such video she asked the men who take issue with her why they were watching hijab tutorials in the first place.

’Not just a headdress’

"I feel like I’ve been helping people wear a scarf," she said. "It’s helped me to keep my scarf on and be better each day because I’m a role model. I know a lot of people do take me as that and do copy what I do - we’re helping each other."

However it’s not just men who are cautious about the Hijabi fashion genre.
"Hijab is not a fashion accessory or a headdress. It is an act of worship and obedience to God’s command," wrote Fatima Barkatulla, a London-based lecturer in Islamic thought, on Facebook. Ms Barkatulla added that while she understands the "good intentions" of hijab fashion vloggers and designers, they need to act responsibly.

Hebrew help

Videos and Google Translate can help young Jewish people get to grips with their faith. At the Elstree Liberal Synagogue in Hertfordshire, the 12-year-old members of the congregation preparing for their Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony are never far from their Smartphone. They take weekend classes for up to a year before the big event, a Jewish coming of age ritual which includes learning about Jewish beliefs and reciting sections of the Torah in Hebrew in front of their family and friends.

At first their tutor, Rabbi Pete Tobias, was less than enthusiastic about their fondness for phones. "There was one point a couple of years back where we had a box and they had to hand their phones in before they came into class because they were permanently playing with them," he says. "Now I think it’s a challenge for me to make sure they’re paying enough attention for them not to need to be fiddling with their phones."

The youngsters themselves are wary of discussing Judaism online. One says: "You don’t know who is reading your message." But for others it is a useful font of knowledge. "At the moment we’re studying Judaism and everyone is asking me questions - I’m the only Jew in my class," says one young student about their secondary school. "We looked at some YouTube videos in class and they are actually useful - but they do leave out little things. They get the gist of it right."
Another pre-teen adds that the Google’s language translation tool has been valuable in learning Hebrew. "Sometimes it gets it wrong," she adds. "But it is helpful."

War and Peace

Another student has learned a surprising lesson in ethics from Call of Duty, a violent shoot-up game that is definitely not aimed at 12-year-olds. "You kill a lot of people in shooter games," he says. "It shows the message when you’re older, say there’s a war and they need you, you’d be like, ’no, I played Call of Duty when I was younger and killed a lot of people and didn’t like it.’"

Malath Abbas, a Dundee-based computer games designer, goes even further. While the psychological effects of video gaming often cause fierce debate, for Mr Abbas, who practices the Baha’i faith, the very act of losing yourself in a virtual world has an important spiritual quality and enables a mindfulness that is also central to his religion. "Most people associate video games with guns and shooting and mindless entertainment, whereas I’ve been a player and creator for a number of years now," he says. "I see another side to it and I definitely see a space for spirituality within that." If something engages you, you tend to be really pulled into the experience and I find it allows for an interesting space within my mind to mediate and be mindful. "I would call that spirituality."


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