Vienna, October 23 – Islamic sites are an increasingly prominent part of the world wide web, a trend that many Muslims welcome because it ties their community together but one that many more traditional Muslims and Western governments fear because of the Internet’s ability to promote radical ideas and organize extremist groups.
But, according to Dinar Muguyev, a Muslim commentator in the Russian Federation, this trend welcome or not is less important than many think and another trend – the increasing impact of the Internet on Islam as a community of the faithful is far more significant than most non-Muslim writers have noted (www.islam.ru/pressclub/analitika/virtumma/).
The “stormy,” even “explosive development” of Islamic websites has won for the faith, he argues, a new “virtual” space and given Muslims new opportunities to promote the core notion that the followers of Islam are first and foremost Muslims rather than members of particular nations or cultures.
Islam, Muguyev writes, is not hostile to science, and consequently, Muslims on the whole have seen the Internet as a new tool for spreading the word, not so much a radical break with past practice than an extension of the various media, from books and newspapers to radio and television, the followers of Islam have used in the past.
But that does not mean that the Internet has not had an impact on Islam. First of all, the Russian commentator points out, “the process of presenting the Muslim religion on the Internet began with the so-called ‘periphery’ of the Islamic world – with the Muslim communities of the United States and Europe.”
Not only did this mean that the first exponents of Islam on the web were living in non-Muslim countries and thus profoundly affected and even radicalized by their experiences in these countries, but it has meant that the Arab world, the traditional center of Islam, has lost yet another hold on the faithful.
“However strange it may seem,” Muguyev continues, “the most popular Islamic websites on the Internet today are not the resources of Al Azhar … [But rather] the most often visited sites are those like IslamOnline.net, IslamWeb, Al-Islam.com, [and] Islam Today,” all of which are prepared by people from outside the Arab world.
That in turn means that the nature of Islam as presented on the Internet “began to be clearly distinguished” from the way it was presented in the past, especially to young people and to Muslims like those in the former communist countries who did not receive adequate religious instruction earlier.
“If a user knows what, where and how to search on the Internet,” Muguyev says, “he can find for himself a remarkable amount of information, including an unbelievable large number of styles, trends, and approaches” to Islamic questions of all kinds,” content that may lead him to the truth or in another direction depending on how well he understands Islam to begin with.
Many Muslim writers now speak of “a virtual Islamic umma,” of “the formation and development of Islamic consciousness on a global scale.” That too has positive and negative aspects. On the one hand, it reaffirms the centrality of faith rather than ethnicity, politics or anything else in the life of Muslims.
But on the other, Muguyev notes, it can lead people astray, especially if what is online is considered “separately from the social and historical context of Islam,” as is all too often the case with Muslims in countries where they do not define the society because they are only a minority of the population.
Muguyev points to two other aspects of the situation which he said were particularly matters of concern, the use of the Internet to spread radical ideas at odds with the core values of Islam and the way in which the Internet has dumbed down the language in which many issues, including Islamic ones, are discussed.
Members of fringe groups, he says, were among the first to recognize the way in which the Internet could be exploited to promote their views and organize others who agreed with them. It is not that they were not using other means earlier but rather that the Internet has made their job easier and what is more stand out in the eyes of their enemies as well as supporters.
More serious in the longer term, however, is the primitivization of thought that the language many people use on the Internet is producing. In many ways, the Internet is leading to the impoverishment, simplification and vulgarization of the unbelievably varied and rich cultural and religious tradition of Islam,” trends that are reducing its influence and attractiveness.
But Muguyev ends his article with the observation that despite all the media hoopla surrounding it, “the Internet is only a medium,” and its influence is uncertain. After all, he says, people cannot agree “even after 40 years of research,” what the influence of television is on the minds of people.
And consequently, while there can be no doubt that “the Internet is playing an ever greater role in human socialization,” there can as yet be no final answer on its impact or even on the ways in which whatever appears on the web will have an impact not just on the virtual world but on “real life.”