Emoji Dei: Religious Iconography in the Digital Age

by Méadhbh McIvor and Richard Amesbury

Editor’s Note: this is an abbreviated presentation of a fully developed article that will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion journal.

In September 2016, Rayouf Alhumedhi, a fifteen-year-old high school student living in Berlin, submitted a proposal to the Unicode Consortium, a non-profit corporation “devoted to developing, maintaining, and promoting software internationalization standards and data” (Unicode, 2017). Although little known outside the world of coders and computer programmers, the Unicode Consortium exerts a significant impact on twenty-first century life through its regulation of emoji – the colorful pictographs that increasingly punctuate our texts, emails, and social media posts.[1] Alhumedhi requested that the organization approve a new emoji, one that represented girls and women like her: a hijab, or headscarf, that can be superimposed onto pre-approved human characters.

By November 2016, Alhumedhi’s proposal had been approved. Hijabi-emoji – hijabiji? – are likely to appear on Apple and Android phones by mid-2017. Speaking to The Washington Post, she said: “There will be people like, ‘It’s such a trivial topic, why are you worrying about this?’ But once you wrap your head around how influential and how impactful emoji are to today’s modern society, you’ll understand. Emoji are everywhere” (Ohlheiser, 2016).

Alhumedhi is right: emoji are everywhere. There are over 1,200 approved emoji, including a number that denote or connote religion in various ways. Here we might distinguish roughly and somewhat artificially between religious emoji – i.e., emoji that express “religious feelings” or practices – and emoji that represent religions. Among the former, we count such emoji as the praying hands (left); among the latter, we include symbols such as the three-barred Orthodox cross (below right).

Whereas the expressive emoji might be said to function grammatically as modifiers and verbs, the representational ones play a more noun-like role. Indeed, in Alhumedhi’s words, emoji are “the new language” (Ohlheiser, 2016).

But if emoji are a form of expression, then what, exactly, do “religious” emoji – such as the optional headscarf – express? What does Unicode’s list of approved religiously-themed emoji tell us about the popular conception of religion as a category? How are these emoji deployed by those whose social media use is dominated (or supplemented) by religious considerations – those who’d rather sectxt than sext?

In an article forthcoming in the Bulletin, we offer some preliminary reflections on the construction of religion in the digital age. “Religious” emoji, we suggest, pose questions about both normativity – what is considered “normal” in this context – and the matrices by which religious diversity is conceptualized – that is, which “units” of (religious) diversity are represented or elided. Of further importance, we argue, are what religiously-themed emoji might suggest about the default world in which they operate; a default, we submit, that functions to affirm the normative ascendance of the secular.

References

Ohlheiser, Abby. 2016. ‘There is no hijab emoji. This 15-year-old student is trying to change that.’ The Washington Post [online]. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-intersect/wp/2016/09/13/there-is-no-hijab-emoji-this-15-year-old-student-is-trying-to-change-that/?utm_term=.9d0b14115945.

Unicode Consortium. 2017. ‘The Unicode Consortium.’ Available at: http://unicode.org/consortium/consort.html.

[1] The term “emoji” (plural: emoji or emojis) is a portmanteau of the Japanese terms for “picture,” “writing,” and “character.”

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