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Selfies at the Hajj: Is nothing sacred? How tech allows narcissism to run riot

By Andrew Keen, Special to CNN
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu October 30, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam, is the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia
  • Islam requires every Muslim who is physically and financially able to make the journey once
  • Hajj 2014 has been dubbed "the year of the selfie" and has drawn criticism from clerics

Editor's note: Andrew Keen is a British-American entrepreneur, professional skeptic and the author of "The Cult of the Amateur", "Digital Vertigo" and the upcoming "The Internet Is Not The Answer". The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.

(CNN) -- The selfie pandemic -- the cultural Ebola of our networked age -- is going global. It's bad enough that we've had the selfie as the word-of-year, the selfie as a "brilliant and terrible" TV show, the smiling selfie at Auschwitz, the selfie with a suicide as its backdrop and the selfie proudly blocking Rembrandt's most masterful self-portrait.

But that's just the beginning of this digital disease. Now the selfie has turned its narcissistic gaze upon Islam. The selfie has gone on the Hajj and has turned up at the Kaaba, the cube-shaped black stone building in Mecca that is the holiest place in the Muslim faith.

Hajj 2014 is "the Year of the Selfie" -- and Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook are all abuzz with digital self-portraits of pilgrims who, to fulfill one of the five pillars of faith in the Islamic tradition, have gone to Mecca.

"Epic #selfie #hajj #Mecca," wrote @dan_a_lowe on Twitter as he posed, Ellen DeGeneres-Oscar-style, in front of a group of smiling fellow Hajjis.

But, of course, not all Muslims are selfie enthusiasts -- even if camera phones are no longer strictly banned at the Kaaba. Although one pilgrim described the selfie craze as an "endemic not easy to stop," some clerics are doing their best to remind Muslims that digital self-portraits in front of the Kaaba are an insult to the Prophet. "Say no to Haj selfie!" thus implores the Arab News.

"O Allah, I ask of you a pilgrimage that contains no boasting or showing off," adds Jeddah-based scholar Sheikh Assim Al-Hakeem. "Taking such selfies and videos defy the wish of our Prophet."

"The hajj is all about overcoming your "self"! " reminds @yshirin on Twitter. "#hajjselfie wont bring anyone anyhere (sic)."

Muslims reflect on Hajj experience
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So is anything sacred anymore?

Yes. In our networked the age, the sacred -- like everything else -- is being reinvented. What Hajj 2014, "the Year of the Selfie," represents is the democratization of the sacred. In traditional religion, unique places like the black stone Kaaba or the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem represented the sacred. But in our age of digital narcissism, it's the familiar which is made most sacred and we imagine ourselves as the center of the universe. Therein explains the selfie pandemic of placing ourselves in the middle of every photograph.

Everything -- or at least everything about us -- is now sacred.

The sacred has been turned on its head in a world where tech has allowed narcissism to run riot. In our selfie-culture, we now thinks of the world as revolving around us. So all the hundreds of billions of images we snap -- from Auschwitz to the Kaaba -- comes with a personalized signature. The sacred has been de-mythologized. It now exists in several billion different colors and flavors.

So should we expect similar selfie pandemics in the world's other major monotheistic creeds? Unfortunately, that's already happening. Back in August last year, Pope Francis authored the first papal selfie. "Make the future with beauty, with goodness and truth," Pope Francis told some of the kids who posed with him. "Have courage. Go forward. Make noise."

And "make noise" is exactly what we are all doing in our technology-fuelled age of digital narcissism. From Mecca to Rome, we are all making as much noise about ourselves on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook as we can. Traditional monotheistic creeds were all about overcoming ourselves. But our selfie-centric culture is the reverse; today, Muslim pilgrims are turning the Hajj into an epic selfie.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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