Saturday, August 01, 2009

Faith reunited: How cyberspace is dissolving barriers to a Muslim nation

Muslims must give thanks to the internet, because it is cyberspace that has allowed the ummah to finally come of age.

The Muslim nation, ummah, described in the Quran as a fundamental part of the Islamic faith, aims to be a global, borderless community that feels the sufferings and joys of its members no matter where they are. The internet has dissolved the barriers of time, distance, culture and ethnicity and has finally made available with immediacy the spiritual love and social consciousness that underpin the notion of ummah.

No longer are Muslims located in unreachable territories and lands, but rather the e-ummah is at the tips of your fingers. You can access instant news coverage from across the Muslim world and diaspora, often picking up stories that are not carried in mainstream publications.

During the invasion of Iraq, it was the voices of online citizen journalists that let us hear the authentic words of those under siege. The recent elections in Iran and subsequent turmoil were punctuated by the fact that young activists were trying – despite the government’s best efforts – to get their stories out via Facebook and Twitter. In December of last year during the bombing of Gaza, Al Jazeera experimented with combining the stories that their reporters in the Gaza Strip were filing along with their GPS co-ordinates in order to create an online map of the war zone.

For those with spiritual, religious or artistic interests, they can watch videos, lectures and new Islamic music and rap on YouTube, reflecting the growing globalised nature of Islamic content, products and services. Religious scholars, too, are accessible by e-mail, and if you need an Islamic edict on any subject from an imam of any school of thought, it just takes a couple of clicks to gain a fatwa.

The search for love is always looking for new methods to help the lonely, and online matchmaking and matrimonial services have been extraordinarily popular, with thousands of profiles posted by love-hungry Muslims, or worry-laden parents, in the pursuit of a happy marriage. Young people are no longer willing to meet their spouse-to-be on the wedding night, but instead want to find someone who shares their views without having to engage in “western-style” dating. The internet seems perfect – access to countless prospects, within the framework of a formalised marriage search.

As for those who want to know more about the world around them, no longer do they have to wait for the epic travelogues of the likes of Ibn Battuta; instead, you can get to know those who share your interests and faith on Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. No longer is your circle of friends bound by your location – a real trial for those brought up in faraway small towns with few or no other Muslims.

You can read blogs with news, opinion and sometimes information that has been previously restricted to you from anywhere in the world – Canada, France, China, Russia, Indonesia, Ghana, South Africa, Mexico – as though you were talking to a fellow Muslim who lives next door.

This is a particularly important step forward for Muslims along with other minorities who feel excluded from the mainstream press in western countries. Breaking into the media is tough anyway, and promoting an alternative view harder still. Joining the e-ummah is at last a way for them to be heard on their own terms.

In majority Muslim countries it has been even more critical, slowly chipping away at tight controls over the media. How will governments cope? It will be interesting to see the impact of increased political knowledge and awareness in countries where an official line is often the only information available.

Governments in general have been slow to talk to their populations in cyberspace, but this is more so in Muslim countries. In an Economist Intelligence Unit survey of e-readiness among 70 countries, the UAE was the highest ranked among Muslim-majority countries, coming in 34th, with Malaysia at 38 and Turkey at 43. This should come as no surprise given the significant focus in the Emirates on the internet, as well as developments in new media laws.

Nonetheless, not enough attention has been paid to the massive social change that the internet and the related groundswell of opinion and energy that the e-ummah is creating. The internet has too often been seen either to be peripheral, or so subversive that it must be stifled and its proponents dealt with heavy-handedly. What leaders need to do is realise that the mobilising cross-boundary power of the internet is unstoppable and use it instead as a force for dialogue and reform.

This democratisation of the news, participation and influence has brought positive benefits to those who have been traditionally excluded from the spheres of religion and politics. In both the corridors of power as well as in mosques, it is women and youth who have been denied access. But within the broad, welcoming e-ummah they have found a place for expression and belonging. There is the opportunity to ask questions, challenge social mores and explore ideas without the fear of being judged.

There are pitfalls to this flat structure – how do cybercitizens recognise true expertise and credibility if they are looking for direction and truth? And those who are ordinarily vulnerable can become even more so. The e-ummah – much as it is distasteful to admit – is also full of charlatans and misanthropes. The anonymity which is the hallmark of the internet offers many the room to explore ideas and learn about themselves, but it is sadly exploited by others to hurl abuse and foul language. The codes of conduct we observe in ordinary life are crushed in a stampede to be as obnoxious and offensive as possible and to stir up racial and religious hatred on the most spurious grounds.

People forget that in fact the e-ummah doesn’t really exist, and that for those who take their religion seriously, it is critical to engage in the physical rituals and human interactions that are the foundations of Islamic activities. Without the internet, it is true that many people would be isolated from any community with whom they feel a sense of spiritual belonging. However, the physical presence required in congregational prayers, at the Haj and in other social activities is for a reason. The internet should not be allowed to make people too lazy to go out and interact with other human beings.

This nascent nation is a community of purpose, brought together by its interests and principles, eschewing the constraints of geographic boundaries in favour of a shared world view called Islam. Traditional scholars in early Islamic history divided the world into Dar al Islam and Dar al Harb, an easy split to make in a world where Muslims were connected by where they lived, even though they exhibited great variation in culture.

Today, scholars, academics and experts on all sides of the political divide busily occupy themselves with the debate over whether these divisions are still relevant and how these notions affect mindsets, politics and even wars. Those distinctions are irrelevant today, for it is in fact Dar al Internet that will be at the vanguard of creating social, spiritual, religious and political change in the Muslim world.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is a British commentator on Islam and author of Love in a Headscarf, a new memoir of growing up as a Muslim woman