iMuslims are coming!
Exploring ways in which radical Islamists use the Internet has become a favorite pastime for many pundits, journalists, and academics. Most of them reach the inevitable conclusion that social networking, text messaging, and blogging empower hardcore extremists and help them grow their ranks. It’s precisely for this reason that most discussions on this issue are ...
Exploring ways in which radical Islamists use the Internet has become a favorite pastime for many pundits, journalists, and academics. Most of them reach the inevitable conclusion that social networking, text messaging, and blogging empower hardcore extremists and help them grow their ranks. It’s precisely for this reason that most discussions on this issue are still crippled by alarmism, with recurring fears over the rise of the “virtual caliphate” (also the title of a recent report on how Islamist extremists use the Internet from UK-based Center for Social Cohesion).
Widespread concerns that virtual worlds like Second Life are being used for terrorism financing , with “e-currencies” serving as an alternative remittance system – the subject of last year’s heading-grabbing congressional hearing on the “virtual world” best portrayed in this Daily Show clip – are just one example of how the anonimity of the cyberspace still makes policy-makers feel uneasy.
The bright side is much harder to notice. For example, the fact that the Internet has also empowered various moderate Islamic groups still remains overlooked by the general public; since the moderates don’t usually use Second Life to conspire to blow up embassies or military targets, we rarely see government-funded reports of what exactly they are doing online.
Similarly, the pivotal effects that an “always-on” and 24/7 access to Islamic texts and materials-as well as the ability to discuss them with peers – have on Islam itself are also barely discussed, even though other faiths are undergoing similar changes and it would strange to expect Islam to stay the same forever (mind the proactive use of blogging, podcasting, and YouTube channels by the Vatican – a smart way to secure loyatly from the younge generations and good way to satisfy their online curiosity).
Most crucially, we may have missed the fact that the Internet is helping to reshape denominations within Islam as well; the CyberShia movement in Iran – visualized in terrific graphs of the Iranian blogosphere by John Kelly at Columbia and anayzed by Hassan Rezaei at Max Planck Institute in Germany and Babak Rahimi at University of California at San Diego – is only one example of how the Internet is enabling to challenge the prevalent Shia norms from the inside.
So I was quite surprised to discover that someone has actually bothered to thoroughly research these issues and write an entire book about the relationship between the two big I’s – Islam and the Internet. Called iMuslims: Rewiring the House of Islam and to be published by the University of North Carolina Press in May 2009, the book will show how “social-networking sites, blogs, and other “cyber-Islamic environments” have exposed Muslims to new influences outside the traditional spheres of Islamic knowledge and authority”.
Since the book won’t be out for at least another four weeks, we have to satisfy our curiosity by this very interesting piece on the “digital Islam” that the book’s author, Gary Bunt, has just published in The National. The piece is worth reading in full; the portion below is just a highlight.
The organisations supporting media-savvy preachers such as Amr Khaled, Mostafa Hosni and Moez Masoud have integrated web content as part of their dissemination strategies through the use of YouTube and other media distribution channels. The IslamOnline.net portal has enabled Yusuf al-Qaradawi and his supporters to acquire a global audience through nuanced and regularly updated online channels, presented in accessible and user-friendly formats.
As the digital divide reduces, they and others are taking advantage of opportunities presented through increased access to the internet. As can be seen across the UAE, wireless technology is integrated into new building projects, such as hotels or mosques. Cyber cafes have a place within the fabric of many places with Muslim populations, including new and emerging markets.
Mobile phone access has become a thriving channel for internet networking and information distribution. Islam can be accessed on BlackBerrys and iPhones; the Quran is packaged for mobile devices; RSS feeds syndicate the latest sermons for download; dialogues on Islamic issues are immediate, and can rapidly mobilise public opinion. There is a sense that Islam is “always on”, not only in a spiritual, religious, legalistic and political sense, but in a digital sense also.
Judging by this short piece alone, Bunt’s book may not be a media sensation – especially if he succeeds in dispelling the myth that the Internet is only a breeding ground for extremists – but at least it would arm us with a much sharper understanding of how Islam might look like in a decade or so…
One thing that I personally take away from Bunt’s piece is that even conservative and centuries-old institutions are not immune to decentralization; the exact vector of this Internet-facilitated change- i.e. whether it empowers moderates or extremists – would probably be shaped by social and cultural conditions, but technology itself doesn’t favor a particular ideology.
Photo by Chrisschuepp/Flickr
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