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The Muslim World And The Digital Divide – Analysis

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The Image Of Islam

In this age of globalization, information explosion and the multiplicity of audio-visual media and channels, the issue of image has acquired more weight and urgency in view of the impediments that may hinder the flow of information and its communication capacity.

This has become even more relevant following the international changes to which Islam and Muslims were party, and in the aftermath the image of the Islamic civilization became the subject of a tremendous amount of premeditated and unpremeditated distortion.

There has been talk of the phenomenon of Islamophobia, which has taken many forms of which the most blatant is the discrimination against Muslim immigrants in employment, housing, education and other fields.

Some Western parties have even gone further and began to flaunt their hostility towards Islam, desecrate and denigrate its sanctities and make racist statements that are punishable by law and condemned by international conventions.i

Some Muslim institutions were the victim of vandalism and desecration as were some mosques, graves and cultural centers in the West.

Faced by the escalation of this phenomenon and its progression from a state of dormancy to one of active notoriety, it is necessary for Muslim intellectuals to take charge of the mission of countering this phenomenon and addressing it following a two-tiered and tightly devised plan.

The first part consists of the emergency measure of monitoring and compiling what is written and said about Islam, condemning it and engaging legal action against it in cooperation and coordination with regional and international partners.

The second part is presenting the truthful image of Islam on the ruins of the erroneous misconceptions and stereotypes circulating either in the media or school curricula, history books or biased literary works, which action represents a long-winded and strenuous road.

Paul Findley writing on the image of Islam in the West in Washington Report on Middle East Affairs argues:ii

“When I lecture in the United States, I sometimes begin by asking individuals in the audience what comes immediately to mind when the word Muslim is mentioned. Almost always the answer is terrorism. In public discourse, the words Muslim and terrorism are linked together. The linkage is false and offensive of course, but it recurs nevertheless.

The sad, harsh reality is that most Americans view Islam with concern, if not alarm.

Muslims are seen as the most common source of terrorism and senseless violence.

Muslims are almost always portrayed as the bad guys, Jews as the victims.

Muslims are viewed as worshipers of an alien deity, intolerant of other religions and eager to use physical force to expand Islam.

Muslims are often cited as a sinister threat to representative democracy and the U.S. Constitution, and many Americans question their basic loyalty as U.S. citizens.

Islam is considered by many normally well-informed people as anti-Jewish and biased in favor of African Americans.

This is because their impression of Islam is heavily influenced by Minister Louis Farrakhan, leader of the organization called the Nation of Islam. Farrakhan’s primary interest is an understandable focus on the plight of African Americans, and my impression is that Muslims generally, including many of African ancestry, question the legitimacy of his identification with Islam.

But because Farrakhan is the only personality appearing frequently on U.S. network television who presents himself as a Muslim, it is not surprising that many Americans mistakenly identify Islam with his primary focus on the problems of African-Americans. Moreover, Farrakhan is frequently reported as expressing anti-Jewish and bigoted comments. When this happens it is not surprising that poorly informed Americans conclude that these expressions accurately reflect Islam.

Most Americans believe that Islam subjects women to harsh and demeaning discrimination and relegates them to a status inferior to men. Little is being done to counter these false images.

Muslim Americans, although the second largest and fastest growing religious community, have not yet become a significant influence on public policy, and they have only begun to defend Islam from negative stereotyping. No Muslim occupies an elective office or a prominent appointive position in the entire federal government or in any state government.”

One of the major objectives that Muslim thinkers must seek to fulfill is to modify this erroneous image. Their action in this regard consists of many joint programs that they must begin to implement with international partners to cleanse school curricula from these stereotypes, and produce an Islamic Encyclopaedia which will present an alternative and full image on the Islamic world and its civilization, penned by Muslim and fair-minded Western authors.

Courtyard, Al-Qarawiyyin University, Fes. Morocco, the oldest in the world. Photo by Khonsali, Wikipedia Commons.
Courtyard, Al-Qarawiyyin University, Fes. Morocco, the oldest in the world. Photo by Khonsali, Wikipedia Commons.

Universities in the Muslim world must monitor seriously the Islamophobia phenomenon and draw up a database on all the manifestations of animosity towards Muslims and Islam, thus enabling researchers to study them or engage legal action against them, in addition to helping countries build up their cultural policies.

Information society

The attention paid by the international community to information and communication technologies increased at the wake of the new millennium, so much so that they are now regarded as a basis for socioeconomic and cultural sustainable development. Since the last decade of the 20th century, economists and information experts have foreseen a new and gigantic wave of sustainable development for all, fueled by information and communication technologies. These experts have also correctly predicted the capacity of these new technologies to create what is known as the society of knowledge.

The Tunis Agenda for the Information Society, which was adopted by the World Summit on the Information Society (Tunis 2005), stressed out expressly that the challenge of information and communication technologies and the information society is not only an economic one, but include also cultural and social dimensions. Similarly, funding information and communication technologies for developmental purposes must lie within the scope of the increased interest granted to the role of these technologies, not only as mere communication mediums, but also as a key component for development and a tool that allows achieving the universally accepted development objectives, especially the Millennium Development Goals.

Investing in equipment and infrastructure to facilitate access to the communication and information technologies is not sufficient. Carrying out successfully such process would require a minimum access to information and knowledge for populations, as well as designing information and communication plans and legislations, as well as training human resources working in the public sector of information and communication technologies. Furthermore, scientific research must be promoted towards producing infrastructures for information processing and channelling.

ICT companies and institutions in the developed world, which exert a monopoly on the information and communication field, have become key players in the globalization of the economies and trade. These effects of globalization on developing countries need no more be proved. In fact, this monopolization of information and communication technologies involves a cultural model and a uniform vision of a world in which 70% of people are marginalized. Hence, many information experts believe that we are still far from the global village predicted by McLuhan in the 1960s.iii

In fact, the existing gaps in information sources, contents and infrastructures challenge this universality concept that was given to the information society, since information and communication technologies remain under the monopoly of developed countries, consecrating further the North-South disequilibrium.

Today, multinational corporations that are monopolizing the ICT field are operating as giant international news agencies, and they are putting increasing pressure on developing countries to liberalize their information sector. Fear is, however, that the desire of these countries to integrate the world communication network does dissimulate a secret desire to penetrate their markets and their resources, as well as denigrating their moral specificities and cultural diversity.

ICT in the Muslim world

In their bid to attain the Millennium Development Goals, many developed countries have managed to meet the necessary conditions for restructuring the sector of information and communication technologies. This entailed the creation of departments dedicated exclusively to information and communication technologies, restructuring the sector through the reorganization of state-run communication services and liberalizing the sector through the privatization of telecommunications.

This evolution was accompanied by regulatory and legislative measures, laws and legal systems applicable to the services sector of information, communication, and e-commerce. They also encouraged scientific research in ICT, allocating entire budgets that were fed to a large extent by the private sector.

Muslim countries have followed on the same path and most of them have created departments dedicated to managing the ICT sector and strategies and laws that provide for building infrastructure, benefiting from human resources and developing their ICT skills. In these early years of the third millennium, most countries of the Islamic world are witnessing a growing interest for the full liberalization of the ICT sector. However, most of these countries continue to struggle with difficulties as to developing a comprehensive concept of scientific research in ICT, to the financial resources allocated to R&D, as well as to the problem of brain drain of people skilled in ICT and who choose more lucrative careers in the West.

Developing the sector of information and communication technologies requires that relevant parties in Muslim States take the measures necessary to consolidate scientific research in these fields and allocate the necessary funds to prevent the brain drain to countries offering better careers and opportunities. It also entails formulating an all-inclusive conception of scientific research in ICT and defining its levels and the resources that can be allocated to it. These resources should be no lesser than 3% of the GNP as recommended by international institutions specialized in scientific research.

For Muslims, ICT is of vital importance in getting knowledge and making true Islam Known. In this regard, Seyed Ebrahim Hosseini of the Faculty of ICT at the International Islamic University of Malaysia Selangor, Malaysia, Abdollatif Ahmadi Ramchahi, a post-doctoral researcher affiliated at the Center of Quranic Research of the University of Malaya Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and Raja Jamilah Raja Yusuf from the Center of Quranic Research of the University of Malaya Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, argue in a paper entitled: “The Impact of Information Technology on Islamic Behaviour”:iv

“Information Technology gives Muslims the opportunity to gain Islamic education from their homes through virtual classes. Islamic games and videos are accessible for children to learn Islam. These interactive softwares motivate Muslim children to learn Islam. Today, every Muslim and non-Muslim can listen not only to Islamic talks by famous researchers of the Muslim world but can take part in online discussions on various Islamic topics. They have the opportunity to ask questions and convey their perceptions. The significance of IT in Islam is duly acknowledged in the Muslim world. From the perspective of the researchers, the Muslim world should generate a concentrated online accessible Islamic library to translate Islamic literature into every language for the global society.”

Digital gap

The information world is developing at a mind-boggling speed. The fast-paced correlation of communication, broadcasting, multimedia and ICTs gives rise to new products and services and to advanced styles in managing public life and economic sectors.

In parallel, commercial, social and professional horizons expand with the opening of new markets to competition, investments and foreign capitals. The modern world is undergoing a radical transformation at a time when the information society is rapidly replacing the industrial one. This dynamic process heralds radical changes in all fields of life including information, social behaviour patterns, economic and commercial practices, the media, education, public health and leisure.v

Information and communication technologies remain monopolized by the North countries as relevant indicators point out, predicting, at the same time more imbalanced relations between the North and the South. Multinationals which hold the reins of ICTs have begun pressurizing the South countries to liberalize their telecommunications sectors and integrate the world communication network, masking a secret plot to infiltrate their markets and even lay claim to their resources, thus threatening their moral values and putting at risk their cultural and linguistic specificities.

The impact of IT on Muslims is tremendous; it is shaping their lives and strengthening their faith and belief. In article entitled: “Islam and technology: The online ummah,”

The Economist writes :vi

“Muslims use their gadgets in much the same way as everyone else: they text, they use social networks, they buy online. But the adoption—and Islamification—of the technology has a deeper meaning, says Bart Barendregt of Leiden University, who has studied South-East Asia’s growing digital culture. “Muslim youngsters are adopting technology to distance themselves from older, traditional practices while also challenging Western models,” he argues. Many smartphone apps cater to religious needs. Some show mosques and halal businesses close to a user’s location. Salah 3D is an iPhone guide to how to pray. Another app, Quran Majeed, includes text and audio versions of the Koran not only in Arabic, but other languages, making the holy book more accessible to Muslims whose first language is not Arabic. It has been downloaded more than 3m times. Websites tailored to Muslims also abound. Artik Kuzmin, a Turkish entrepreneur, will soon launch Salamworld, a Facebook for Muslims. “People told us that they worry about moral standards on the internet. They don’t feel it is safe for them,” he says. Salamworld’s moderators will try to allay such fears by taking down photographs with too much flesh and deleting swear words. Online dating services are multiplying. “Far more is permissible in Islam than people think,” explains Abdelaziz Aouragh, who runs Al Asira, which claims to be a sharia-compliant sex site, from the safety of Amsterdam.”

While most Islamic countries have taken an interest in this new challenge, more efforts are needed if one considers the advantages made possible by the information society, particularly in terms of the attention paid to promising ICT sectors identified by leading international experiences as essential for speeding up the process of comprehensive development. Although some countries have achieved a degree of success in using ICT in the educational, administrative and economic fields, attention to the cultural and intellectual dimension of these technologies is still at the budding stage.

You can follow Professor Mohamed Chtatou on Twitter: @Ayurinu

End notes:
i. https://www.foreignpolicyjournal.com/2010/05/18/images-of-islam-and-muslims-in-western-media/

ii. https://www.washingtonreport.me/congress-u.s.-aid-to-israel/u.s.-financial-aid-to-israel-figures-facts-and-impact.html

iii. http://www.kanoonline.com/publications/islam_and_the_internet.htm

iv. http://www.jmest.org/wp-content/uploads/JMESTN42350200.pdf

v. http://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780195390155/obo-9780195390155-0116.xml

Turning now to the study of Islam and the Internet, it is clear that individuals and groups that emphasized their “Muslimness” were among the earliest users of the new media. According to studies by Jon W. Anderson in Eickelman and Anderson 2003, this has to do with the fact that Muslim guest students in the United States had enrolled in technological programs at universities that were to become leading departments in the development and promotion of the Internet. As Bunt 2009 and Roy 2004 have documented, Muslims from a large variety of ethnic, linguistic, religious, and political backgrounds are using the Internet for discussing Islam and Muslim affairs and for apologetic or polemical reasons. A growing number of Muslim scholars (ulama) as well as established Islamic institutions (for example, the Sunni Muslim Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt) have also started to use the Internet and satellite television to promote their interpretations of Islam (for example, Skovgaard-Petersen 2004, which deals with the Egyptian theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s use of new media). It has also become more important to reach out to Muslims in the West, that is, individuals of Muslim cultural background who live in Europe or the United States. The transnational dimension has also been highlighted in several studies, such as Mandaville 2001, that directly or indirectly discuss Islam, Muslims, and the Internet. As noted in the Introduction, the Internet provides new opportunities to explore and find alternative interpretations of Islam or to ask questions about Islam (for example, to ask for a fatwa), but it is also clear that this possibility can be perceived as a problem by religious authorities and political leaders, since the Internet is an arena for a large number of different groups ranging in interests from sexual orientations to various political and ideological tendencies. The tension and complexity of the new media are highlighted in Eickelman and Anderson 2003, Brückner and Pink 2009, and Larsson 2006, which deal with Islam, the Internet, and the new media in local, global, and transnational contexts. It is also evident that a growing number of Muslim preachers (for example, the popular Egyptian lay preacher Amr Khaled) are using the Internet to promote their specific interpretations of Islam.

vi. http://www.economist.com/node/21560541

Selective bibliography:

1. http://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780195390155/obo-9780195390155-0116.xml
Brückner, Matthias, and Johanna Pink. Von Chatraum bis Cyberjihad: Muslimische Internetnutzung in lokaler und globaler Perspektive. Würzburg, Germany: Ergon Verlag, 2009.
This book covers both the social and the political functions of the Internet in the Middle East and the use of the Internet by German-speaking Muslims.

2. Bunt, Gary R. iMuslims: Rewiring the House of Islam. London: Hurst, 2009.
This is an informative and detailed description and overview that provides information about how various Muslim groups are using the Internet and how the development of the new information and communication technologies has influenced and affected the discussion of Islam and Muslims in contemporary society.
3. Eickelman, Dale F., and Jon W. Anderson, eds. New Media in the Muslim World: The Emerging Public Sphere. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003.
This is an excellent volume that deals with a large number of aspects of the Internet and the new media in the wider Muslim world. The chapters include examples from the Middle East to Indonesia, and the editors bring in new theoretical discussions by applying the theories of the German philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas about the public sphere.
4. Larsson, Göran, ed. Religious Communities on the Internet: Proceedings from a Conference. Uppsala: Swedish Science, 2006.
This conference volume includes, among other things, both empirical papers describing how Muslim groups use the Internet and theoretical papers that discuss the differences between online and offline communities.
5. Mandaville, Peter G. Transnational Muslim Politics: Reimagining the Umma. London and New York: Routledge, 2001.
This books deals with how Muslims are influenced by the new information and communication technologies, globalization processes, migration, and transnationalism.
6. Roy, Olivier. Globalised Islam: The Search for a New Ummah. London: Hurst, 2004.
This book explores how globalization processes, migration, and the new information and communication technologies have affected the Muslim community (especially in the West, where Muslim live as minorities). According to Roy, it is obvious that these processes have delocalized Islam and made room for interpretations arguing that it is necessary to free Islam from cultural traits and return to a so-called pure form of Islam.
7. Skovgaard-Petersen, Jakob. “The Global Mufti.” In Globalization and the Muslim World: Culture, Religion, and Modernity. Edited by Birgit Schäbler and Leif Stenberg, 153–165. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2004.
This chapter deals with the Egyptian theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi and his use of the latest information and communication technologies (that is, the Internet and satellite television).


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Dr. Mohamed Chtatou

Dr. Mohamed Chtatou

Dr. Mohamed Chtatou is a Professor of education science at the university in Rabat. He is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, Gulf, French, Italian and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East, Islam and Islamism as well as terrorism. He is, also, a specialist on political Islam in the MENA region with interest in the roots of terrorism and religious extremism.

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