One often hears it remarked it’s ironic that Islamists employ the tools of modernity in their mission to destroy it. Those who rage against the modern world today do so with the assistance of cable television, DVDs, laptops, mobile phones and, in the extreme, a knowledge of ballistics, chemistry and aviation. The 9/11 attackers (and their ilk) who, it is routinely claimed, sought to ‘send us back to the Middle Ages’, were mainly university-educated individuals with backgrounds in engineering, communications and computers. And there remains something incongruent about the image, one intermittently conjured up by tabloid newspapers, of Osama Bin Laden hiding in a cave somewhere, tapping away on his laptop.
Islam in its entirety is periodically dismissed by Westerners as a ‘backward religion’ (a term some might argue is a tautology), which is why its adherents’ intimacy with the internet appears not only discordant, but positively alarming. The public will be familiar with television bulletins relating to Islamist threats posted on YouTube, tales of impressionable youngsters having been radicalised through extremist websites, or the pleas of kidnapped Westerners posted on the internet. The grisly murder of US journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002 came to epitomise Islamism’s perceived grim association with cyberspace.
So is a cybercaliphate providing a gateway for a real life equivalent? The answer is a vehement yes and no. As Gary R Bunt intimates, taken at large, the internet revolution should be hailed neither as an emancipatory nor apocalyptic one; like most revolutions, its fruits are ambivalent. It has achieved on a more extensive scale what the Gutenberg revolution did similarly 600 years ago: spreading both enlightenment and ignorance. This is what happens when information is democratised.
Cyberspace can indeed be a medium through which more orthodox strains of Islam is disseminated, and serve as a recruiting ground for violent jihadists. Yet it is also an avenue through which this religion’s tenets are interrogated, for instance, in regards to the incompatibility or not of figurative art and homosexuality with Islam. To be sure, websites that discuss such subjects are often shut down by Islamic states, but they often resurface under different server addresses. More vitally, there would be lesser opportunity for such subject matter to find an airing in physical print.
Many governments in the Arabic world are keen to censor websites because of insubordinate content that is profane as well as sacred. Under the title ‘Rantings of a Sandmonkey’, one Egyptian blogger describes himself as ‘an extremely cynical, snarky, pro-US, secular, libertarian, disgruntled sandmonkey. If this is your cup of tea, please enjoy your stay here. If not please sod off.’ Elsewhere, the author of ‘One Arab World’, in an article headlined ‘No more self gratifying lies’, takes issue with the anti-Western rhetoric employed by many Arab states, which is often used to quell domestic dissent. ‘Believe me, as a Muslim, I would love nothing more than to take comfort in an idea that it is all about the western media’s portrayal of us. That kind of self denial is the first thing we need to administer’. As the troubles in Iran last year showed, ostensible social networking sites such as Twitter can have a political liberating potential. What is more, Bunt relates, cyberspace can serve equally to turn people away from extremism as much towards it.
Bunt’s intriguing book reminds the non-Muslim reader that Islam, like any other religion, or category of people, is internally fractured and multilayered. Likewise, iMuslims indicates that the internet has provided a healthy means for those within the Islamic world to further appreciate and debate the complex nature of their faith. In one Bangladeshi blog called ‘Close Your Eyes and Try to See’, the author comments on technology, gender issues, religion, premarital sex and Bangladeshi heavy metal music. In a Saudi Arabian blog ‘The Everyday Natterings of an Exhausted, Repressed, and Bored “Saudi” Arabian Chick’ the author notes the irony of wearing Dior sunglasses over her full-faced veil. A website called ‘Ninjas on the Loose’ follows the lives of five British Muslim women, ‘ninjas’ being an ironic reference to Islamic dress. Light-hearted humour to can veer into risky satire, as in the case of ‘Iranian Girl’, authored by ‘Fatemah’, in which the blogger presents a cartoon entitled ‘How to Build a Mullah’, in which a man is shown having his brain gradually replaced by an imam’s turban. Bunt concludes that it is more accurate to speak not of a ‘Muslim community’ in cyberspace, but of ‘Muslim communities’.
But what of the ostensible contradiction between Islam and modernity? Far from being in antithesis to Islam, the internet is entirely germane to a religion that has always been ‘wiki’ in its nature. As the author writes:
‘The development of scholarship centered on the collection of the sayings and traditions associated with the Prophet Muhammad, known as hadith, required scholars to network between centers of knowledge production in order to collect and transmit the versions of the hadith that they acquired. This activity took place in the centuries following Muhammad’s death in 632 CE’.
Knowledge and doctrine in Islam is determined horizontally and through negotiation - unlike, say in Roman Catholicism, where knowledge/power ultimately flows down from a single authority. The internet is appropriate for a religion which may have a geographical centre, but no theological nucleus – just as the printing press in the 16th century enabled and suited a comparably ‘horizontal’ Protestant creed.
iMuslims is a fascinating study about Islam’s continual internal dialogue, a dialogue that the internet has heightened. It should make atheists and Christians rethink caricatures about Islam as a timeless monolith intent on world conquest, a stereotype that habitually resurfaces. It deserves to be read by many Muslims for the same reason.