ARCHIVE: Globalizing Politics and Religion in the Muslim World
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EDITOR'S NOTE: This paper was prepared for and distributed at the April, 1997 United States Institute of Peace Conference, and is available on the USIP Virtual Diplomacy Web site under the title "Is the Internet Islam's 'Third Wave' or the 'End of Civilization'?" We include it here because Jon makes a cogent argument for the importance of e-publishing to a diaspora community.—J.A.T. (Conversion note: Broken links from the original article have been removed.)
In a recent report from Iraq, the government newspaper al-Jamhuriyya denounced the Internet as an "American means to enter every house in the world" and "the end of civilizations, cultures, interests, and ethics" (Associated Press, 17 Feb 1997). The New York Times take on this story was conventionally to balance it with the counter-example of "Iraqi exiles [who] are using the Internet to preserve the culture and interests they miss, the Iraq of old that they loved" ("Iraqi Exiles Reach for Home on Web Site," by Lisa Napoli. The New York Times, Cyber Times. 20 Feb 1997 — access is free, but you have to register). This familiar journalistic device of setting points of view into opposition parallels and echoes terms in which the Internet as a social, political, economic and, more broadly, cultural phenomenon is increasingly cast that, like the journalist construction, places issues ahead of analysis.
Cyberspace and Internet enthusiasts envision a new paradigm of knowledge, information and work replacing those of the industrial revolution with an information age/society/economy. Beyond the new-age formulations in works such as Alvin Toffler's The Third Wave (New York, 1981) are more specific enthusiasms for distributed (i.e., decentralized) networked computing as social models, such as in Howard Rheingold's The Virtual Community (New York, 1993) with its metaphors of "electronic frontiers," and for multimedia as new epistemology, such as Nicholas Negroponte's Being Digital (New York, 1995). New Paradigm-ism extends to social scientists' treatments of "electronically mediated" forms of being and relating to others, as in Sherry Turkle's Life on the Screen (New York, 1995), subtitled "Identity in the Age of the Internet."
On the other hand, detractors include liberal humanists, particularly among academics and journalists, who are tied to older information regimes of print, editors, their values and institutional forms (for example, "A Neo-Luddite Reflects on the Internet," by Gertrude Himmelfarb. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 1 November 1996, A56). But detractors also include disappointed former enthusiasts, such as Clifford Stoll, whose Silicon Snake-Oil (New York, 1995) develops a strong form of the end-of-work thesis as "deskilling" white-collar workers, which some social scientists have seen as parallel to the earlier effect of industrialization on the craft trades (e.g., The End of Organized Capitalism, by Scott Lash and Joseph Urry. London, 1987). In an interview, Stoll makes plain that the locus of this issue is rights to interpret and to legitimate:
"the data coming across America Online, or CompuServe or whatever, nobody stands behind it. Is the author a medical doctor or some bozo? I don't know, and they're behind a screen name anyway. It might be an 11-year old girl or a 70-year old wizened philosopher. What's missing is anyone who will say hey, this is no good. Editors serve as barometers of quality, and most of an editor's time is spent saying no. Another thing missing from the information highway way is professional reporters who are paid to post to it."
-(Matthew L. Wald, "A Disillusioned Devotee Says The Internet is Wearing No Clothes," The New York Times 30 April 1995: E7).
Beneath such brouhaha is one clear fact, whose most recent version is that Iraq is not on the Internet, but Iraqis are, and one of the things they do there is to represent and extend Iraq into an international "cyberspace" populated by self-authorizing authors independently of Iraq's formal authorities.
Almost from the time that the Internet emerged from research labs that gave it birth into the wider research and educational world that brought it up, it has provided facility for more than strictly vocational interests. Early among those of engineers and scientists who built it were more avocational political and cultural interests, ties and associations, including those of emigrés professionals and foreign students in the high-tech precincts of western universities, polytechnics and commercial laboratories. The New York Times story cited above focuses, characteristically, on a "computer consultant in Detroit," who happens to be Iraqi and who has successively used e-mail to connect with friends, created a bulletin board and now a World Wide Web site, called "Iraq Net." For such persons, the Internet is a public outlet. And any number of counterparts from other Middle East and Muslim countries have used their skills to create, join, and debate in this new space where otherwise aborted or suppressed projects of nation-building, cultural exposition and religious outreach find outlets not available at home. Since 1992, I have observed this development as editor of the Middle East Studies Association Bulletin for potential information on the Middle East, some of which is summarized in On-Line Resources for Research and Teaching in Middle East Studies (Middle East Studies Association, 1995).
Broadly, these efforts migrate existing discussions on-line, highlight the concerns of diaspora communities in their home cultures and in political and religious issues of their home societies, offer cultural profiles, political news and commentary and religious witness, and usually in advance of more official voices. The most striking feature of the Internet in this regard is spontaneous, unofficial representation. What this activity marks is an increasingly public, unmoderated (and not infrequently immoderate) representation that additional participants can join on their own authority and interest plus ability to use the technology. The Internet is preeminently a realm of publication, less a new consciousness than a forum greatly extended by an additional medium with its own properties, felicities and barriers to entry that have the effect of greatly expanding the range and number of persons who can participate at the same time that participation is nearly world-wide and nearly instantaneous.
This does not resemble broadcasting and mass media so much as it is comparable to spread of printing, whose impact among the overseas "creole" populations of early modern European empires fostered what Benedict Anderson termed senses of "imagined community" of ethno-linguistic nationalism that marked the modern period (Imagined Communities, Verso 1991). Their counterparts in the electronic information age of late modernity are "new creoles" enabled by a new publication technology. This creolization has several aspects:
- First are mixed discourses, intermediary between more established forms that they borrow and mix. This mix may include wire-service copy and other news items reposted as an electronic bulletin board or e-mail list, interspersed with comments and requests for information. Such, for instance, was the format of the Muslim Students Association, until ownership and copyright infringement issues caused them to reorganize as a list of connections to advocacy groups, university and other research centers, and to news sources.
- Second, the characteristic activity is to seek and forge links. This may begin with electronic mail, grow into special interest mailing lists, and emerge as World Wide Web homepages of links to similar others, each betokening a sense of gathering information toward an eventual composition.
- Third, a characteristic of these efforts is mixed intellectual techniques—classically but not only met in the application of modes of reasoning and organization drawn from science and engineering and applied to cultural, political and religious issues. The result is a re-intellectualization of otherwise popular political and religious ideas in a space legitimating the values of engineering and applied science rather than those of traditional learning and conventional authority.
- Fourth, the first participants are members of the Middle Eastern and Muslim world's overseas, who occupy an intermediate social space that they in part define and help to build; they are part of a diasporic population of labor migrants, political exiles, longer and shorter term emigrés and students who, through communication, form communities, some of which predate the Internet and its "virtual communities," others of which arise or expand with it.
Taken together, these features are components in a process by which projects of nation-building, intercommunity relations, intercommunal dialogue and outreach not only take on a newly public life that Internet theorists celebrate as a Third Wave, comparable in impact to the neolithic and industrial revolutions, or Internet detractors decry as the End of Civilization. In addition, they mark a broad "creolization" that extends from discourse (mixed messages that were previously kept apart by institutional boundaries) to intellectual techniques (that were similarly the realms of specialists) to personnel (who were previously marginalized).
The process can be broken down into stages that permit more precise specification of what "new voices" mean, facilitate and invite in the way of public discourse and new qualifications for it and for participating in it. In this case, there is a difference between the Middle Eastern world and the Muslim world: the latter has been transnational from its beginning and today appears to be becoming so again, while the former is emerging from a long period of extended emigration and urbanization. The Internet facilitates but does not determine a process of rethinking Islam's social reach, which is already underway. But its impact may be different than the relinking the Middle East's "overseas" with the homelands and foster different kinds of convergences.
In each perspective, the initial stages are similar. The Internet social organization grew from work models and needs of engineers and applied scientists, who built into it their professional values of open, decentralized, economical, reliable communication for multiple kinds of data. A careful reconstruction of Internet history by Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon (Where Wizards Stay Up Late. New York, 1996) shows that it was not the alleged need to survive thermonuclear war that motivated the original defense project, but an environment of scientists' values and work needs that were designed into the Internet. Early on, it became a link to others outside the science and engineering communities who shared those interests, so the Internet grew not only technologically but also socially to encompass interests that could be fitted to its values and frames, sometimes summarized as "narrow-casting."
Notable among those frames and values are political and religious interests and debates, which quickly found their way onto the Internet. A sort of demarginalization was a primary motive. Usenet, the technology for electronic discussion groups, was developed by Australian universities. In the case of Middle Eastern and Muslim interests, Middle Eastern and Muslim students scattered around the world pioneered discussion fora and electronic publication for views about Middle Eastern countries andabout Islam, to find countrymen and co-religionists, to talk about home, diaspora life and their issues. In the process, they intersect with larger and established immigrant communities, particularly among professionals, who follow them into on-line worlds. Those feature a mix of "alternative" organizations and persons with interests, but not necessarily with training, in discussing political and religious issues.
Such settings are notable for the absence of traditional authorities and styles of interpretation, and the initial impression is of almost post-modern variety:
- There are few official organizations currently on line, mostly embassies and ministry sites of governments; the Organization of the Islamic Conference and Muslim World League do not have locatable presences in cyberspace, but some of their documents may be found under UN, ICRC and other international organizations/auspices, including advocacy auspices.
- Unofficial movements and volunteer organizations have established at least toeholds; their distinguishing characteristics are outreach, publicity and providing arenas for their programs, sometimes for discussion and debate, and their intended audiences appear to be largely individuals; propaganda and seeking adherents, or countering existing points of view; i.e., providing information, is their primary emphasis.
- Most institutional efforts arise in the diasporas of Muslims, particularly in the West; among them are the International Institute of Islamic Thought in Herndon, VA, The Wisdom Fund, and the Muslim Students Association (which lists activist organizations), dozens of additional organizations and a variety of publications from scholarly journals to popular presses and resistance groups.
So, while an increase in communication afforded by the Internet is, in the first instance, a migration of existing messages, it especially enables messages heretofore expressed in much more limited settings — say of coffee houses, university dormitories, political cells - to find more public outlets and thus to change the balance of who and what is published.
The subsequent stage is one of convergences, and here the experience differs. On the one hand, transnational networks, cultures and discussions in diaspora settings draw in and, subtlely, draw on new sources of authority and legitimacy such as those of applied science and higher education. In this, they follow rather than lead a pattern of vastly expanded access to mass and higher education that has transformed the Muslim world by, among other things, making Islam a subject among others and subject to comparisons on grounds not always of its traditional authorities' own choosing or advantage. It is versions of this world, not the world of the 'ulema who traditionally spoke for an intellectualized and legalist Islam, nor the "folk" world of "popular" Islam of non-literate masses, that comes onto the Internet. What comes is a more middle-brow Islam associated with a more middling population: its versions range from fundamentalist to liberal. James Piscatori and Dale Eickelman (Political Islam. Princeton, 1996) have pointed out the diverse social bases and expressions of these searches for meaning, which take the form of re-intellectualizations of Islam that seek to relate it to perceptions of current conditions and respond to the range and in the forms of those conditions.
The Internet is now part of that range. On it, increasingly "official" voices find their way not just to challenge, or to meet the challenge of, alternative voices; they also join the new forms for propagating, defending and witnessing the faith beyond those of conventional madrassa-based Islam of the 'ulema and community-based forms of popular or "folk" Islam. Among these new forms are modernized educational programs, including one offering international-standard masters degrees in Islamic studies and, tellingly, pastoral practice. This offering is from a School of Islamic and Social Sciences in Herndon, Virginia, with ties to an earlier project there for islamization of knowledge and particularly of social science. Another is the formally constituted International Islamic University of Malaysia, co-sponsored by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, as an international-model comprehensive university. Both have established presences on the Internet, where they describe programs on offer and solicit applications much like other, western universities, whose model of curricula and degrees they adopt in preference to those of traditional madrassa.
In part, Internet communities harbor potential new elites not unlike the physicians and engineers and military cadets who for a century and a half have proceeded them overseas for study and returned home subsequently to contest for power. This has not happened yet with computer science and multimedia students and professionals from Middle Eastern countries. Neither has the emergence on-line of alternative politics and religious discourse at regional universities appeared in these media. Unlike the case in North America and western Europe, it is not universities that have led the way on-line in the Middle East, perhaps out of anxiety over just such a development, but "public-private partnerships" between official and commercial sectors.
In Egypt, RITSEC is a joint project of the cabinet, engineering societies and commercial firms to establish Internet policy, presence and access for the public outside those previously restricted to international organizations and select research labs. This program is specifically designed to bring the Internet particularly to the commercial public, where its first non-founder customers are public relations firms. Similarly, Internet services in Gulf countries are provided through government-sponsored or sanctioned enterprises that invite public use and attract mostly commercial users emphasizing business services and commerce-enabling information services. These, and similar, more "private" enterprises in Jordan, Morocco and London, have begun with slicker production values and a mix of "cultural" news with business and political information (especially about regulatory and development matters) reminiscent of the content of the Wall Street Journal and the style of USA Today than of student papers or amateur-produced newsletters. Their typical sponsors are Islamic banks and trade services firms. In other words, shifting attention from the larger Islamic world to Middle Eastern countries, it is commerce that conveys and justifies the Internet, which is arriving at the time not of its development in research and educational worlds, or in the hands of the denizens of those worlds, but in the time of its "graduation" and going to work in the globalized financial and services economy.
By comparison to the larger Islamic world, convergence of the Middle East's overseas with the homelands on the Internet is in so far in commercial realms where private meets public enterprise. The members of Middle East diaspora communities that are most able to reconnect with the homelands through the Internet are not the overseas professionals and students in the first instance, although they have some capabilities, particularly in exile havens such as London; instead, those in the Middle East's overseas able to reconnect with the homelands through the Internet are engaged in business, at least initially. Whereas the convergence in the Muslim world is on new intellectual models that directly replace both high-brow and low-brow forms with comparatively middle-brow ones, the convergences in the Middle Eastern world are located in commercial classes and around commerce-enabling information.
In each of these domains, the Internet's impact is to facilitate entry of additional participants, rearrange the priorities of discursive styles and include more of the Middle Eastern and Muslim worlds' overseas. Overall, the phenomena is an expanding "civil" sector or society, expansion of linkages and in some cases relinkage to transnational communities that increasingly are seen to complement political society (Augustus R. Norton, ed. Civil Society in the Middle East. Leiden, 1995, 1996). This overall process is set in motion less by technology than by larger structural parameters in which the technology is delivered and from which, in part, it derives. The most narrow are, first, the world of engineering and applied sciences which produced the Internet in their own images and values of open, distributed communications. Second comes a social connection through otherwise "avocational" interests in the world of mass higher education, whose forms it assists in spreading. Third, projected into the international realm is a world of new people and newly creolized discourses that draw additional sources and forms of authority, not only for alternative formulations but for alternative legitimations for interpretation and even participation that change the discursive ecology of political and religious interpretation. No forms diffuse on their own: instead, they are fitted into expanding international arenas in the form of new people and widening arenas of discussion.
We should expect to see the early "new creoles" of the information age to coalesce senses of community based on its properties of communication. Whether or not these result in world-wide or at least transnational senses, or more cultural and historical senses, they challenge existing modes of authority tied to previous informational-communicational regimes, much as print capitalism made religious senses of community and dynastic senses of state problematic in the transition to modern times. Just as an "official nationalism" grew up in response to "creole nationalism" by adopting its means and senses of (in that case, ethnolinguistic) community, so a contemporary counterpart is the semi-official sponsorship of otherwise volunteer efforts, and a gamut of forms from the IIIT to the IIUM. These, by comparison to the OIC and MWL, which are intergovernmental organizations, are aimed at populations and at emerging community and organizations of authority. The OIC and MWL belong to the world of international organization diplomacy, not to communities based on shared techniques of interpretation. Cast into this frame of reference, the Internet has the appearance less of an epistemological Third Wave or of an institutional breach and more that of a third force so far loosely identified as civil society, and with all the associations of that notion with professionalized middle classes, whose impending arrival it may mark.
It is well to recall that Benedict Anderson labeled the combination of printing and expanding literacy that took advantage of it print capitalism. The recent and rapid emergence in the Middle East of commercially based networks, Internet presences and service providers, to be sure, often depends on official sponsorship in some measure, such as in Egypt, the Gulf and in fledgling services from within and outside Middle East countries, from arabia.on.line in Jordan to Arab Net and the Middle East Business Review from London. On-line, they join embassy public affairs homepages on the one hand and the Muslim Students Association or the Movement for Islamic Society in Algeria, on the other. The "third" force between the outright official and the spontaneous alternative shares command of the technology with avocationalists and of infrastructure with the officials, as well as the widespread sense in an increasingly information-oriented (and thus education-based) commercial world that this is part of the wave of the future, perhaps a business opportunity and at the very least a business tool that promotes, as in the case of the migration of Islam to cyberspace, already developing international standards for developing international contexts.
The Internet's impact comes in its ability to globalize existing forms, to magnify the impact and reach of communications that previously had limited reach, whether in the formal international conference or in the informal modes of discussion and consultation such as the majles, bazaar and madrassa and other informal networks through which communication flows and in which information is sought in the Middle East and Muslim world. Many issues are already being overtaken as individuals and non-official bodies take it upon themselves to serve up a New Information Order beyond anything discussed in the inter-governmental fora of UNESCO. Peace and human rights, environmentalist, opposition and resistance groups, for instance, have been able to open up and join discussions by, essentially, making them more public; and such groups proliferate on the Internet whence political dialogue, too, can be carried on from a distance but without the distractions of distance.
For this reason, the compelling comparison for globalization of communication via the Internet is the development of newspapers in the early modern period more than the electronic mass communication of radio and TV of late modernity. The Internet does not pioneer new forms; it gives some forms new reach, impact and scope. By comparison to the asymmetrical arrangements of broadcasting, on the Internet barriers to access are very little higher for senders than for receivers, and those are coming down all over. This also means that, while those in a position to take advantage of it are relatively few, they are strategically placed in a globalizing information order that will in important respects be less like the modern one of mass (centralized) communication than like the decentralized one of face-to-face communication. And this means not a single "new" form of communication/information such as imagined by Internet theorists (and Internet alarmists), but a continuum of forms that mediate a pattern of convergences that in turn begins to reverse a pattern of elite and institutional maintenance through emigration.
Jon W. Anderson is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the Catholic University of America, Washington, DC, and editor of the Middle East Studies Association Bulletin, the journal of review of the Middle East Studies Association of North America.