Islam in the Digital Age


Islam in the Digital Age E-Jihad, Online Fatwas and Cyber Islamic Environments

Gary Bunt explores how the application of electronic media has affected Islam and Muslims. He discusses how the increased speed of communication and information transmission, depending on bandwidth, has altered perceptions of time and space, bringing people together on a single platform to discuss and debate a wide range of ideas and notions.

Bunt explores the whole new life of cyber jihad, imams, and Muslim online communities. He defines the themes that characterize the Islamic lane on the cyber highway.

His work is pioneering in that no other scholar has aimed to launch a flight into the Islamic cyber world. He suggests that internet technology not only provides a platform for Muslim dissenting opinion but also a place where Muslims can obtain religious and spiritual guidance. In this sense, the internet serves as a unifying force amongst Muslim communities.

Bunt looks into e-Jihad which has had a very real presence on the internet, prior to September 11. Earlier efforts encouraged Muslims to fight the oppression being faced in different parts of the world such as Palestine, Chechnya, Afghanistan and Kashmir. Many of the websites contained graphic images of victims of oppression as a means of gearing support. Online recruitment could then take place. However, it seems that the author is exaggerating the connection between the internet and jihad as he was not able to provide any hard data.

After September 11, the American government began to crack down on all these forms of open resistance, which they deemed as ‘terrorist in nature.’ This resulted in the closing down of many ‘jihadi’ websites and the disappearance of hundreds of web pages. Many scholars who encouraged jihad were also condemned and no longer found a voice of expression on the World Wide Web. “As a result the US has intensified its scrutiny of websites and is moving to intercept any email traffic generated by the websites. Western intelligence agencies are also routinely snooping on visitors to extremist Muslim websites.”

This solicited various responses from Muslims all over the world. Online activism in the name of Islam, as described in Virtually Islamic, is an area in which tensions might escalate as internet technology becomes more widely available and accessible.“ Various ‘Islamic’ groups, especially in relation to conflicts in Chechnya, Palestine, Kashmir and Afghanistan, have proved this in online campaigns seeking to promote their cause, and at times disrupt the online activities of their ideological and military opponents.”

Others Muslims waged cyber warfare on whom they claimed were the real terrorists: the US and Israel. They hacked into American/Israeli websites, databases, and servers to send viruses, defamatory messages, and or replace words/images on the existing sites, a phenomenon which the author defines as hactivism.

“By September 2002, ‘pro-Islamic’ hacking had increased substantially, with various groups under the Unix Security Guards banner making 355 attacks between May and September 2002, including denial of service attacks and ‘protective hacking’, highlighting security loopholes in Islamic sites and advising site administrators of these deficiencies.” However, not all the messages were derogatory in nature. Some were decent but straight to the point.

And finally, some Muslims opted for a more peaceful approach. They created educational websites relaying perspectives from a Muslim point of view. They aimed to handle themselves peacefully through organizing protests, sending letters, and or signing petitions to express their points of view.

Missing from the author’s otherwise comprehensive survey is a reference to salaam.co.uk, a Muslim internet portal with over 50,000 pages of information and resources. The site is informative and enlightening, and has become very popular amongst Muslims in Britain.

The author seems to focus on the negative aspects related to Islam and the internet. He does not pay enough attention to the sites doing e-dawa. There are hundreds of sites that aim to educate the user about Islam and Muslims. These sites also provide an interconnectivity between new Muslims, reverts, and other Muslims, giving them a channel to express their views.

The author also identifies new trends amongst the Muslim online community. He points to the tendency of Muslim youth to obtain online fatwas when facing problems. While traditionally Muslims have preferred paying a trip to the mosque to speak directly to an Imam, now the interconnectivity between users and content providers has increased and so Muslims have opted for sending in a problem via e-mail, saving time and maintaining anonymity.

Both Sunni and Shia websites were explored and issues affecting Muslims were highlighted. Fatwas, often categorically divided, come under the general headings of Faith, Jurisprudence, Marriage, Worship, Women’s Issues, and Innovations.

The author also explores another dimension to the issuance of online fatwa which is how the Islamic community views the validity of online fatwas. Many of those issuing online fatwas are not even scholars and so their opinion is not recognized by the international Muslim community. Efforts are currently underway to establish an online legitimate legal council to oversee all of what is taking place online.

Bunt illustrates how internet technology has played a major role in redefining relationships between Islam, Muslims and the West. Online identities, cloaked in anonymity, have allowed for free expression of thoughts and ideas. Chat rooms, discussion boards, and forums have turned into political platforms where people have challenged each other. Without doubt, the dialogue has greatly intensified after September 11.