HELSINKI (AFP) - A trial version of the world's first Muslim-friendly virtual world was launched Tuesday, where users can create an online persona, design their own rooms, buy virtual items and interact with others.
Called Muxlim Pal and created by the Finnish-based company Muxlim.com, the English-language site caters primarily to Muslims living in western countries who long to reconnect with other Muslims and Muslim culture.
"Muxlim Pal is just another channel for our users to socialise, have fun and express themselves using social media in a safe and friendly atmosphere," Muxlim chief executive Mohamed El-Fatatry, 23, told AFP.
On Muxlim Pal, which is free of charge to join, users can shop for clothes for their avatar at the mall, hang out at the beach cafe, pray at the mosque or go to concerts.
What makes Muxlim Pal different from other popular websites such as Second Life is that content portraying violence, drugs, sexual references or profanity is not allowed.
Users can flag content they find unsuitable and inform community managers, who will delete material after it has been flagged a number of times.
The absence of obscene material is not only out of respect for Muslim values, but also to create a family-friendly site.
"We are not trying to segregate anybody; we are trying to build a platform for Muslims to have a voice and dialogue with others," El-Fatatry said.
He said he believed Muslims who live in countries where they are in the minority have a greater need to express themselves and share content than those who live in countries where they are in the majority.
"In majority countries every restaurant is a halal restaurant, so you don't need to go online to find things like that," he said.
El-Fatatry discovered young Muslims were yearning for online content relating to their lifestyle after he moved to Finland five years ago from Dubai and set up a website.
"When (video-sharing site) YouTube started, I collected a number of Muslim songs and video clips from there and put them on a static page. In a matter of three days, that single page received more traffic than my whole website for one year," he said.
On Muxlim.com, visitors can read Al-Jazeera news, listen to the Koran and chat with people, among other things.
The site has some 1.5 million visitors per month from 190 different countries. Half of the visitors are from the United States.
"The US and the UK are about 70 percent of our market, so we will not be looking at any other markets for the time being," El-Fatatry said.
El-Fatatry pointed out it was easier to create revenues in countries with high Internet adoption and widespread online payment methods.
"This allows us to make money from those users and to sustain the company. Later we will look into (Muslim) majority countries as well," he explained.
A typical Muxlim.com user is a woman in her mid-20s who's looking for entertainment content online.
While 98 percent of Muxlim.com's users are Muslim, the company believes the number of non-Muslims will increase in the future.
Muxlim Pal is the company's latest attempt to create new income channels, in addition to advertising, a major source of revenue.
On Muxlim Pal, users can purchase coins and use them to buy clothing, furniture and other items for their avatar.
A number of Muslim countries are known to block access to some Internet sites, but El-Fatatry said he was not concerned about the issue.
According to Reporters Without Borders, Tehran blocks the YouTube site in Iran because it considers some of the content immoral, while Saudi Arabia has set up a commission to filter the Internet.
"Blocking is more trivial than people think. It is based on a fully automated system that categorises all Internet sites into categories and then whole categories are removed," he explained.
"Any company can run into that, but not every company knows how to get themselves off that. We happen to know."
Despite the current global financial crisis, El-Fatatry said he was confident Muxlim was solid and said the company planned to double the number of employees next year.
"Other companies are firing people; we aim to be 25-30 people in the end of 2009," he said.
The company plans to launch the full version of the virtual world next year after tweaking the trial product with help from users.