Monday, June 13, 2011

The Future of Islam in the Age of New Media

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.


Amir Ahmad, “an avid sociopolitical blogger” since 2006 and “a digital media and marketing consultant”, recently organized “the world’s shortest conference on Islam ever”. This online conference, on the future of Islam in the age of new media, consisted of 60 speakers, some more well-known than others, who each spoke for 1 minute on the topic.


The list of participants can be found on the conference’s website, with pictures and very short description of each person. Among the more scholarly names, one finds: Abdullahi An-Na'im (Islamic scholar, Emory University), Reza Aslan (author of No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam), Mohammed el-Nawawy and Sahar Khamis (co-authors of the book Islam Dot Com). Several reporters and broadcasters also participated, e.g. Brian Whitaker (journalist at The Guardian and blogger on Arab issues) and Ahmed Shihab-Eldin (co-host of The Stream on Al Jazeera English), among others.
There were also many bloggers, from some of the well-established blogs on Islam out there, including MuslimMatters.org, AltMuslim.com, AltMuslimah.com, Muslimah Media Watch, etc. I was surprised not find Salman and Irtiqa there…
The whole “conference” can be listened to on audio; there is, as far as I could tell, no transcript available; the audio file needs to be requested by registering oneself on the website.
I got the file and listened to it. I had two difficulties with the format: first, most speakers were rushing with their statements, being under pressure to say all they had to say in a minute or less (I myself was surprised at how much one can actually say in 1 minute); secondly, sixty people in a row is a bit too much – indeed, after a few dozen speakers, one starts to lose focus and not really digest the ideas being presented.
Nonetheless, there was a variety of interesting thoughts, covering a number of aspects pertaining to the topic. The majority of the speakers spoke enthusiastically about the effects that the new media (blogs, youtube, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) are having on Islam, both as a religion and as a culture. A few of the participants voiced concerns. I’ll try to concisely present those views below.
One of the main leitmotivs in the views expressed by the speakers is that the new media are allowing a larger exposure of ideas regarding Islam and giving people new freedoms to express views, whereas the traditional media (of publication and broadcast) used to be sanctioned by the powers-that-be, both political and religious, thus the more “interesting” views were oftentimes hidden from view. Now everything is out there, and there is no moderator. As a result, Muslims are becoming more aware of the diversity within their tradition; they can now shape their opinions in a more informed way, and they can see how much of a spectrum Islam offers.
There is also a much greater female participation in the discussions concerning Islam, unprecedented in scale in the history of the Muslim culture. I recently read that in Saudi Arabia, two thirds of social media users are female.
Another development that some speakers have stressed is the emergence of a virtual ummah (Muslim nation), new networks and bonds being created between Muslims from around the world, when such direct contacts and exchanges used to be extremely rare, perhaps limited to the Hajj gathering and commercial relations.
Some have noted, however, that the democratization of the Islamic opinions described above, can and has turned into a fragmentation, as now we have thousands of views with almost no core, or at least no central square (or a fuzzy one) to orbit around. Some referred to the “ghettoization of views”, a well known phenomenon of liked-minded people linking up and reinforcing each other’s views, that the internet has greatly enhanced (it’s so much easier to find someone who shares your views, no matter how peculiar, on the web than in your neighborhood).
Indeed, some have seen in these new media interesting opportunities for exchanges with “others”, a chance to counter islamophobia or just plain ignorance, provided one gets out of his/her “ghetto” or bubble of similar views. And in fact, these media can and have become a tool for proselytizing, and some have noted that political groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood have been quick to adopt them. Also, sermons and lectures, whether orthodox or heterodox, are so much easier to disseminate through these media. The success of various efforts and strategies remains to be seen.
I think all of these views have some merits and draw our attention to the importance of these media. I doubt that anyone reading these ideas (on a blog!) will strongly disagree. However, I think that we need to be careful not to give these new tools more credit or power than they actually have. After all, how many Muslims have access to the internet to begin with? According to the 2011 Global Information Technology Report that I presented last week, the percentages of internet users in the following (large) Muslim countries are: Algeria 13.5 %, Iran 11.1 %, Pakistan 11.3 %, and Egypt 24.3 % (this last figure I find surprisingly large). Moreover, the internet, and even more so the new media, require(s) a certain level of education and sophistication. And finally, there is still the language barrier, as English, although diminishing in dominance, is still the lingua franca of online exchanges.
So I would accept the views expressed above and take those remarks as interesting trends to keep in mind but only with the important caveat that they only apply to highly educated and sophisticated Muslims/people.

2 comments:

peppylady (Dora) said...

I think I know if we look at Islam or Muslim not as religion but as human as we do a lot of things right or wrong.
I don't like reading post from like minded people. I would actual find some bloggers who are from a Islam background that there hubby snores, the wife eat chocolate in closet and the children refuses to eat green beans.

Coffee is on

Faisal Bashir said...

Islam permeates all aspects of Muslim life including education and politics. Therefore, any evolution and new trends that emerge within Islam and Islamic thought, even in cyberspace, have the potential to influence important matters beyond Islam itself. Recite The Holy Quran