Monday, November 8, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Internet Helping to Define Identity of Russia’s Muslims, New Study Says

Paul Goble

Staunton, November 8 – The Internet has played a disproportionate role in the rise of Islam within the Russian Federation, a role that reflects the inability so far of Russia’s Muslims to break into the traditional print or national electronic media and one that has both positive and negative consequences for the umma, according to a new book.
Aynur Sibgatullin, the author of the widely-respected study on the role of the Internet in the development of the Tatar national movement, has now published a virtual guidebook to the Muslim segment of the Russian-language Internet, “The Islamic Internet” (in Russian; Moscow-Nizhny Novgorod: Medina Publishers, 2010).
In a review of that volume on the portal today, Larisa Usmanova says that while “not one has to be convinced that the Internet is an effective instrument in the education and instruction of the rising generation,” few have fully understood the role it plays in the formation of national and religious identities (
Sibgatullin’s book makes a significant contribution to that understanding, she continues, but in the first instance, it deserves attention because it is “the first handbook or guide to the Russian-language ‘Islamic Internet’ and the first substantial investigation of this Russian-language segment of the global information network.”
The author’s first book, “The Tatar Internet,” traced the role and significance of the Internet “in the national consolidation of one of the most numerous national minorities of the Russian Federation,” a minority in which Islam is “traditionally considered the religious component of the identity of the Tatar nation.”
His new book, Usmanova says, extends that research and broadens it out, simultaneously providing insights and dispelling myths about the role of the Internet. Perhaps Sibgatullin’s most immediately striking finding is that the Russian-language Islamic Internet is not as large as many people assume.
At the present time, he found, there are only about 400 “developed Internet resources devoted to Islam, among which are information portals and personal blogs, as well as sites prepared by mosques, Internet magazines, and social networks,” with the three most visited being,, and
According to Sibgatullin, there are two main reasons why the Internet has played such an important role in the lives of Russia’s Muslims. On the one hand, the Russian government’s national and religious policies have restricted the amount of information about Islam in central news outlets of various kinds.
And on the other, the author suggests, the Internet has proved attractive as a result of “the growing interest in Islam precisely among young people who as a whole prefer the Internet to other information sources.” Other faiths, like Orthodoxy for example, generally appeal to an older and less Internet savvy cohort.
The Russian-language Islamic Internet is only about a decade old. In 2000, there were a tiny number of Muslim resources with the leading one then and now being the news and analysis portal, Only in the last few years has the number of sites increased dramatically, and many of those have proved to be stillborn.
Among the characteristics of the Islamic Internet in Russia, Sibgatullin says, are that it is “not purely commercial” which often means it is not well financed and that it is both involved in missionary work and intended for practicing Muslims rather than anyone else, often slighting their need for studying the faith.
Most Islamic sites are primitive and poorly developed with few photographs and little interactivity, the author says. They also often feature “an unattractive language and style of presentation,” and they are currently far behind the sites of the Russian Orthodox Internet and foreign Islamic sites as well in this regard.
According to Usmanova, the book’s author devotes particular attention to “a special phenomenon of the world wide web – the formation in the Islamic Internet of a special virtual community with the name ‘Cyber-Muslims.’” Such people get more from the Internet than just information; they gain an identity by surfing the web.
“This phenomenon,” Usmanova points out, “has already been noted in national segments of the web, in particular in the Russian language the term ‘Cyber-Russian’ has appeared to designate those users who clearly express their national identity by means of the possibilities that the Internet offers.”
Such virtual groups should attract more investigators because these communities really are different, Usmanova notes, and she provides an intriguing example in the case of the Muslim net. “In virtual groups, communication between men and women is conducted on an absolutely equal basis, which is not entirely typical for traditional, ‘non-virtual’ Islam.”

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