Much attention has been given to the use of social media technologies and their ability to spark massive social change. Some commentators have remarked that these connection technologies, ranging from cellular phones to Twitter, can cause revolutionary digital disruptions, frustrating traditional balances of power and allowing both human rights workers and suspected terrorists to escape the scrutiny of state security agencies. Others have even gone so far as to suggest that Facebook and Twitter may have facilitated, if not instigated, the Arab Spring.
These commentators have often exclusively focused on if and how the Internet, and connection technologies more specifically, have transformed economic and political circumstances. Rarely is attention and analysis dedicated to how the Internet has and is transforming its users’ personal convictions, going as deep as one’s spiritual and religious core.
In his most recent monograph, Gary Bunt, a senior lecturer in Islamic studies at the University of Wales, examines how the increasing growth of the Internet is reshaping Islamic communities in iMuslims: Rewiring the House of Islam.
Bunt’s research focuses mostly on a decade-long survey of various forms of online and digital Islam-related content, predominately blogs and social-networking sites. Based on this research, Bunt argues that, while the teachings of Islam have always been spread through new technologies such as trade routes, the Internet has greatly transformed how individual Muslims connect, interpret, and live Islamic teachings and rituals.
As described by Bunt, the term “iMuslims”, stylized in the same vein as the ubiquitous Apple products, connotes both interconnectivity and information technology. Throughout the book, the term is crassly used to mean a Muslim who utilizes Internet technology to access Islam-related content.
This digital content can be found in, what Bunt terms, cyber Islamic environments (CIEs) such as blogs, e-mails, or even in virtually created Muslim social communities like SecondLife and dating websites aimed to connect potential Muslim spouses.
Bunt’s goal in examining iMuslims is to understand how individual Muslims approach these online communities and the kind of content found in CIEs. Bunt argues that the Internet has exposed many Muslims to new influences and content outside their traditional spheres of knowledge. Exposure to such content, he argues, is causing “paradigmatic shifts at a grassroots level” throughout various local contexts.
Bunt’s book poses essential questions that academics and reporters seem to shy away from asking. For example, what are the implications of relying on digitally hosted religious knowledge instead of turning to a prominent Imam in one’s local community? Take for instance the problematic authority of an e-fatwa, where the geographical and educational background of a self-declared jurist may be obscured.
Similarly, what historical precedence does one look toward to determine if a digitally based interaction is Islamically appropriate? For example, does cybersex count as marital infidelity? Is SMS/texting the term “talaq” (Arabic for “divorce”) enough to meet the religious requirement that it be said one, if not three, times to initiate a divorce? An increasing number of individuals have grappled with these questions, whether through local newspaper columns or court rulings found throughout the Muslim world. However, the bulk of this material and discourse have been hosted electronically and, prior to Bunt’s work, remained unexplored by self-firewalled Western observers.
Bunt’s book extensively documents the work of many prominent bloggers located throughout the larger Muslim world. While his listing of the Islamic blogosphere is at times tedious, it is a resource for those interested in, so-called, jihadi cyberspace. These sections of Bunt’s book focus almost exclusive on the ways in which e-content has facilitated Muslim radicalization. His three main subject areas focus on al-Qeada’s use of technology in recruitment processes, the reactions of local populations to the 2003 US invasion and subsequent destabilization of Iraq, and e-journalism on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Published in 2009, iMuslims obviously lacks many more timely references and events that many readers would expect in a contemporary publication on Islam and the Internet. It is clear that any update of this work must fully account for the landmark events of the past three years, giving critical attention to the use of connection technologies. Whether examining the Iranian government’s censorship of blogs during the Green Revolution or Bahrain’s continued campaign against prominent political activists and bloggers, more critical work must be done on the use of technology in the Arab and Muslim world, in general.
In terms of the Internet’s impact on theology, an even deeper and sophisticated analysis must continue to examine the impact of individuals like Yousef al-Qaradawi, whose religious interpretations have been widely accessed by tens of millions of Muslims through his Al-Jazeera broadcasted show, ash-Shariah wal-Hayat, and e-fatwa’s featured on IslamOnline.
While Bunt focuses exclusively on the jihadi blogosphere in this first edition, he should be encouraged to examine the work of civil society groups and activists to paint a fuller picture of online Islamic activism. Namely, looking at commentary and interpretations of Muslim Women’s Shura Council of the Women’s Islamic Initiative on Spirituality and Equality and other Islamic feminists groups, like Musawah in Malaysia and BAOBAB For Women’s Human Rights in Nigeria, would provide a pivotal counterweigh to Bunt’s analysis. As these examples demonstrate, while the Internet has played a role in Muslim radicalization, it is also being utilized to encourage Muslims to advocate for gender equality and human rights within an Islamic framework, more generally.
At times, Bunt’s book can be frustrating, making the reader wish he had taken his arguments one step further, adding a critical depth the work appears to lack. That being said, the author does note that a study focusing on user communities and how online content affects offline behavior was beyond the scope of the book and outside his Religion Studies-academic frame. Rather than producing an ethnographic work on any such communities, Bunt hopes iMuslims will spark such scholarship.
The work’s limitations aside, the clear strength of iMuslims rests in boldly going where many have not: laying the groundwork and asking scholars to unpack what, at first pass, looks to many like unholy bedfellows for the sake of understanding the effect of Internet technologies on theology. Like any piece of original software, the bugs and glitches may be overlooked while users eagerly await an upgrade.