I am writing in the shadow of a small mosque. This morning I visited several other mosques, admiring their architecture, and then listened to some sermons and recitations from the Quran. While having my coffee I talked to acquaintances on Islamic issues and went to other sources for information on Islamic medicine, fatwas and jihad in Somalia.
The fact that I happen to be in the heart of Wales and stuck in my university office has not prevented me from making these visits and engaging in these discussions.
Admittedly, I’d rather be having my coffee in Abu Dhabi, Cairo or Istanbul – and I’d rather be visiting the UK mosques in person instead of using Google Street View.
Using my computer has opened me up to a range of sources that in the pre-internet age would have been unimaginable in terms of breadth, immediacy and quantity.
When I started researching this area in the mid-90s, I could fit all the Islam website addresses on a single page. Connections were torturously slow, browsers primitive or non-existent, most of the content was in English and it was hosted on western servers. It was the domain of the geeks and web-heads as relatively few had access to the net. Now it’s information overload, Islamic style.
Determining the impact of all this is clearly a contextual issue and any analysis is linked to the fact that computers, software and the internet are not static. Technological developments and products emerge regularly and are being integrated to a degree into what I define as cyber Islamic environments.
These can represent innovation at the highest level, especially in relation to the Web 2.0 social networking applications. It’s not my intention to idealise these but aspects are certainly making an impact.
Online Muslim communities have built up around blogs and chat forums, with lively discourse on at times controversial issues.
Facebook presents opportunities for networking and campaigning, as well as fun, with its Arabic version having appeared recently.
Twitter challenges us to say something useful in 140 characters – impossible for academics – and is being utilised not just at the micro level but also by more substantial, transglobal communities on Islamic issues: I await with interest the first khutbah in Tweet form.
On one level, critics might argue that the internet is superficial in relation to Islam – and of course they would be correct. The internet is not going to change the nature, content or message of the Quran or the essence of religious principles.
However, in some contexts the internet has already changed the way Islam is approached and interpreted, especially for those “digital natives” who have been born and educated into high levels of internet literacy. For them, it is only natural that expressions relating to Islam should be articulated or sought online.
These are the same children and young adults who don’t need to read the instruction booklet for hours after acquiring new technology, who instinctively can operate all the functions of your new mobile phone at first sight and who can fix your broadband in exchange for an increase in pocket money. Where do they go for information about Islam? The same place they go to hang out with their friends, buy products, view media and get entertained: the internet.
Whatever the age range or level of internet literacy, if surfers are seeking information about Islam, the chances are that the first place an increasing proportion of people will go is the World Wide Web. They will go to a search engine, and – chances are – won’t go beyond the first couple of pages in their search. They may skim read a site or search Wikipedia for a particular term. If the metadata doesn’t give them what they are searching for immediately, surfers will go elsewhere. Islamic internet content providers that responded to this shift in reading styles and “quick fix” knowledge acquisition are now reaping the benefits.
Islamic platforms, organisations and Muslim individuals are competing in the internet souq – amid numerous distractions – to establish an abundance of online materials marketing their understandings of Islam. The fact that individuals or small groups present online content in an informative and authoritative manner about Islam and acquire the same or greater readerships than traditional governmental “authorities” has not gone unnoticed. Some of this is down to content design: visiting Second Life to interact with peers in virtual Islamic settings might be a lot more exciting than reading text-only “official” government Islamic sites. The representation of aspects of Islam on the internet also influences the perception of “outsiders”, whether they are Muslims from other social and cultural contexts or non-Muslims.
Whether presenting the Quran or other forms of “knowledge”, devotion and community life, there is a plurality of ways in which these digital platforms compete for attention in the cyber world. An intellectual and knowledge management battle between shades of Muslim opinion and interpretation is occurring online, seeking out influence from Muslims in a variety of settings.
The phenomena of “shopping around” for a fatwa to fit a particular situation may predate the internet. However, now there is an online fatwa for every occasion and perspective – or a website willing to provide one – which has led some scholars to raise at times panicked concerns about legitimacy, religious authority and this proliferation of online opinions and interpretations.
One gets a sense that some are trying to catch up with the early adopters of technology, who have enhanced their profiles through canny implementation of online strategies. Portals and platforms have invested considerable resources, not always successfully, in attempts to authoritatively present their perspectives of Islam on the internet.
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.
Access also raises the issue of censorship. Muslim states are responding in different ways to the opening up of their societies, engendered in part by the internet. In some cases, they are unable to fully control the information flow. Opposition voices, creating websites outside the direct influence of governments, have propagated their views through channels that have been difficult for authorities to censor or block. The investment by governments in filtering and censoring technologies has led to an increase in the technical ingenuity of opposition and activist platforms. Abundant advice is made available online on how to evade controls of internet usage.
This advice has also featured on sites associated with jihadi activities in cyberspace, which have been the focus of scrutiny at many levels. The particular focus has been the use of internet technology by entities and networks that share an al Qa’eda ethos, for which the net has acted as a logistical tool, a propagation outlet and a reinforcement weapon for global brand under many names.
Those applying militaristic approaches to the term jihad have benefited from improvements in internet access, a reduction of the digital divide and increased web literacy. The use of video and publication of online magazines has been augmented by Web 2.0 applications to enhance the effectiveness of their message. Online distribution of content is now an essential element of jihadi strategy.
Even 10 years ago, much of this development would have been difficult to imagine. Technology and its users do not conform to rigid patterns of innovation or usage. While we can speculate on what will happen next in relation to Islam and the internet, clearly the internet is shaping how Islam is interpreted and approached in Muslim and other contexts, and – whether one is in Wales or Abu Dhabi – cannot be ignored.
Dr Gary R Bunt is programme director for the MA Islamic Studies at the University of Wales Lampeter. His latest book is iMuslims: Rewiring the House of Islam (London: C. Hurst & Co./Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press) His blog and research website are at www.virtuallyislamic.com