The Muslim Internet

by Sune Haugbolle.

My review of Gary R. Bun’t recent book, i-Muslims: Rewiring the House of Islam, has just been published by H-Net. Despite my criticisms (it’s a review, after all), I hope it also conveys my admiration for Bunt’s untiring work to make sense of the Muslim Internet. I highly recommend his webpage Virtually Islamic.

Here is the review:

Not so much a “new media” anymore, after twenty-odd years the effects
of the Internet are discernable everywhere. It is spewing out an
outrageous amount of information, which has become part and parcel of
our daily lives linking phenomena in the real world with virtual
information and representations, just as it is linking people with
each other in truly different ways than before. Some things remain
the same, however, and scholars of Internet-based media face the
basic problem of the social scientist. Namely that, since as Max
Weber said, social reality is infinite, the most difficult choices
are methodological. What do we do with all this information, and how
can we study media flows, the incessant stream of ephemeral material,
in a way that provides more than a snapshot of the media? One answer
is to adopt an approach modeled on the Internet itself by forming
research networks that document and analyze particular phenomena on
the Net. Others link the Internet to an emergent historiography of
mass media and modernity dating back to the printing press, which can
be a healthy antidote to the hype about new media. Finally, with
regard to other mass media like cassette tapes and television,
anthropologists such as Charles Hirsckind and Lila Abu-Lughod have
adopted an ethnographic approach that goes close to the processes of
production, usage, and network formation.

To date, hardly any research of this sort has been done on the
Internet in the Middle East, although the topic is often commented
on, particularly in relation to Islam. Gary Bunt’s _iMuslims_ should
therefore be welcomed as one of the first major works that tries to
develop a coherent analyses of the ways in which Muslims around the
world use the Internet and the impact it is having on the duties and
rituals of Islam. Building on his own work of more than a decade
published in _Virtually Islamic: Computer-Mediated Communication and
Cyber Islamic Environments _(2000, also the name of his Web page),
and _Islam in the Digital Age_:_ E-jihad, Online Fatwas, and Cyber
Islamic Environments_ (2003), as well as the limited existing
literature, Bunt explores diverse aspects of online Islam, from
Islamic textual sources to blogging and jihadism. _iMuslims_ is more
grounded in the age of Web 2.0; hence the reference to mobile media
like iPhones and iPods, and more broadly to the integrated role of
information technology and mediatized social networks in the life of
Muslims in the book’s title. Bunt clearly shows that as scholars of
Islam and the Middle East, we cannot afford to ignore the Web, or to
treat is as incidental to politics, culture, and social life. The Net
revolution must be constantly analyzed. As Dale Eickelman, Jon
Anderson, and others pointed out in the mid-1990s, the Internet has
from the very beginning transformed how Muslims interact and practice
their creed. Since then, Internet media have become increasingly
user-oriented and mobile, and more and more people even in developing
countries have gained access to their riches, resulting in ever more
Islamic material online.

The Muslim Internet, writes Bunt, is essentially a number of venues,
or environments–playgrounds where new actors are drawn into the
discursive and symbolic contestation over Islam. His term for these
virtual places for Muslims to communicate and engage in
reformulations of their creed is “cyber-Islamic environments,” or
CIEs. The first chapter, “Locating Islam in Cyberspace,” includes a
spider web-like diagram illustrating the complex ways in which Web
2.0 is giving shape to CIEs. Although it is hard to distinguish where
non-Muslim media end and Muslim media begin in this diagram, it is
clear that everything from chat rooms, blogs, and vlogs (video
blogs), to social networking sites like Facebook, Myspace, and flikr
can be given an Islamic coloring on today’s Internet. Through this
process, Bunt argues, Islam is developing into an open-source system
that allows non-elites the opportunity to participate in the
reformulation of their creed. To some extent, this transnational
development in the age of globalization, theorized by Peter
Mandaville, Olivier Roy, and others, can be seen as a return to the
formative period of Islam when Islamic scholars collaborated across
boundaries. The forging of new interpretations, communities, and
global networks brings with it a number of challenges and dangers,
many of which are accentuated by the Internet.

At the same time, Bunt stresses the barriers that prevent the
formation of a transnational community, in terms of language,
sectarian orientation, and government censorship. While English was
the language of choice in the early CIEs, today Arabic, Persian and
Urdu, as well as numerous smaller languages compete for attention.
None of them are likely to become a lingua franca, even if Arabic
CIEs dominate. Furthermore, limited Internet access in most
Muslim-majority countries means that only select social groups are
connected to the new ostensibly open-source Islam. In terms of
digital opportunity, the GCC countries rank as high as some European
countries, while Yemen and Sudan are at par with most African
countries. These unequal opportunities have serious implications,
allowing some states to become power centers in the new Muslim public
sphere, while others are backwaters, even if this power does not
emanate from the state itself. Nation-states, even formally Islamic
ones like Iran and Saudi Arabia, are busy policing CIEs, which
engenders subversion. As Bunt argues, the latter is often the more
important kind of activity online, as the Net gives otherwise
marginalized groups a space for expression. Islamic bloggers and
programmers, just like (and often in tandem with) secular ones, are
finding ways to express dissent, even in repressive states like
Syria.

An interesting question is to what extent subversion and disagreement
has the potential to translate into actual debate about the common
good (_al-maslaha_), be it political or religious, in a diffuse
public arena like the Internet. This theoretical debate about a new
(real or idealized) public sphere and the particular role of the
Internet, has been dealt with extensively by, among others, Armando
Salvatore and Dale Eickelman. Bunt is mainly concerned with the great
multiplicity of CIEs and less with power relations involved in the
contestation over _al-maslaha_. For instance, in chapter 3 he
discusses how the sources of Islam, the Qur’an and the _sunna_, have
become mass-mediated and in the process are changing the way Muslims
use these sources and construct expert knowledge. For example, Bunt
details how the main duties of ordinary Muslims, the five pillars of
Islam, have become reinterpreted through various software that makes
it possible for more and more devout Muslims to connect and create a
shared set of practices and beliefs. Equally, the Web facilitates
praying, Muslim dating, fasting, and not least, counseling. Most of
these are perfectly prosaic quotidian aspects of Muslim life which
have become easier to perform because of the Net.

However, the Net also showcases conflicting interpretations, and this
is where the question of _al-maslaha_ becomes critical. Perhaps the
most critical effect of new media on Islam is the way in which they
challenge traditional religious authority. Men with less training
than traditional _ulama_ have emerged on television and computer
screens, offering alternative roads to _fiqh_. Perhaps even more
critical, Wiki counseling now makes it possible for a democratic
concept of _al-maslaha_ to emerge which bypasses Islamic
institutions. Of course, _ulama_ and Islamic centers of learning like
al-Azhar University also use the new media to resists the challenge
mounted against them. But CIEs generally favor dissenting voices. A
recent example is the October 2009 _niqab_ affair in Egypt, where the
Grand Shaykh of al-Azhar University Muhmmad al-Tantawi’s ban on
_niqab_s was met with a virulent Internet campaign from devout Muslim
students who ridiculed the learned man. Such (counter)public
undermining of an Islamic authority would have been unthinkable
before the Internet age.

In chapter 3, and throughout the book, one is left with questions
about the political implications of the plurality that Bunt
describes. Who stands to gain from the dispersion of Islamic
authority? What is Saudi Arabia’s role? What is al-Azhar’s? Do the
apparently organic developments of authority that Bunt describes
dovetail with existing, highly politically charged attempts to
create, maintain, or resist an Islamic international? These are
obviously open questions, but not all of them are raised.

The last two chapters of the book deal with what Bunt calls jihadist
online forums. The development of Al-Qaida from the mid-1990s has a
close affinity with computer networks and is closely linked to the
Web. The connection between jihadists, salafis, and the Internet is
the most researched area of CIEs, often motivated by security
interests. But even if jihadi research often takes place in a grey
zone between academia and security services, its extensive use of
collaborative research and number-crunching may still hold lessons
for the study of other Internet phenomena. Through Bunt’s insightful
description of jihadi milieus online, it becomes clear that jihadi
networks showcase both highly sophisticated network models for
publicity and communication, and examples of how the Net has become
an open-source entry to formulations of Islam. Jihadis put these
tools to use most places in the world today, but particularly in Iraq
and Palestine (treated separately in the book’s final chapter). He
provides plenty of examples of online radicalism, but also of the
many intersections between Islamic radicals and groups with other
agendas. Indeed, as Bunt stresses, the pressing need to map and
understand cyber-jihadis should not make us blind to the many
peaceful ways Muslims use the Net, or indeed the many other ways
Muslims live their lives.

At the end of the day, many Muslims are first and foremost media
users. In the emergent research on Islam and new media there is a
tendency to fall into the old Orientalist trap of particularizing
social processes which Muslims actually share with everyone else. In
addition, Muslims also use non-Islamic media, including Web-based
ones. A case in point is the blogosphere, dealt with in chapter 4. As
Bunt notes, Muslim blogs can sometimes be hard to differentiate from
other blogs. What characterizes the blogs he describes is often not
so much Islamic content as the way in which they interact with other
CIEs. The interactivity–the creation of Islamic pathways on the Net
through RSS feeds and other links–may be the key to understanding
the effect of blogs. However, the fact that some blogs interact with
other CIEs does not completely resolve the problem of
particularizing. Many, if not most, of the bloggers quoted in Bunt’s
overview of the most vocal or active Muslim countries in the
blogosphere, debate social affairs rather than religion as such. In
fact, many Muslim bloggers prefer not to be identified as Muslims,
but rather just young people, bloggers, or activists.

_iMuslims_ is the best overview of the Muslim Internet to date. It is
up-to-date, comprehensive, and should be compulsory reading for
students and scholars of Islam, media, and politics in the Middle
East. However, the paradox between, on one hand, identifying Muslim
public spheres energized by new media, while, on the other hand, also
admitting that they intersect with secular issues, aesthetics,
traditions, and forms of expressions, is never completely resolved in
_iMuslims_. Perhaps the most glaring illustration of the problem is
when Bunt categorizes the communist, Shiite professor Asad Abukhalil,
known as the Angry Arab, as part of the Islamic blogosphere (p. 173).
Of course Abukhalil regularly comments on Islamic topics, but so do a
large list of bloggers, hacks, and ordinary people on the Net. In
fact, the Angry Arab is one of the most secular Arab blogs. Would
Abukhalil mind being labeled an iMuslim? The term itself is  not
convincing; it sounds a little too much like a different species.
Could we for example imagine a book called _iChristians_, other than
perhaps about very fundamentalist Christians online? By subsuming
every phenomenon in Muslim contexts, or related to Islam, under an
Islamic heading, we risk underwriting claims about Islam as the
primary, sometimes the only valid, identity marker. The more
interesting debate concerning mass media, perhaps, is how we as
scholars can come to grips with contestations and intersections
between revivalist Islam and secular modernity.

11 Responses to The Muslim Internet

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  3. Excellent Review! Congratulations Sune!

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  5. There are so many things on the internet that are against the laws of Islam, but at the same time the net can be a wonderful thing for this religion. It all depends on which sites you choose to visit. Muslim dating and praying are just two excellent examples. I believe with the proper education of younger children, the internet can be an extremely positive thing for all Muslims.

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  7. I agree with Leather Armchair. Just like real world there are good people and bad people. Good things and bad things but if proper check and balance is maintained and we Muslims read Durood on our Prophet Muhammad Salallaho alaihi wasallam daily we can use this as our weapon. It is this internet that has also helped in spreading Islam so yeah why not? :)

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  9. Good and great article but it needs more information for me to understand Islamic things keep it up it’s an awesome post.

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