Muslim activism and the new media
Islam as a source of normative ideological inspiration and mobilization has become more influential among young Muslim activists in Europe in recent years. Or rather, it has come under the limelight of public attention and has in general gained higher visibility. Since this is a phenomenon within a younger age group computer-mediated communication (CMC)Wikipedia: “Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC) is defined as any communicative transaction which occurs through the use of two or more networked computers. While the term has traditionally referred to those communications that occur via computer-mediated formats (i.e., instant messages, e-mails, chat rooms) it has also been applied to other forms of text-based interaction such as text messaging…” Click to read the rest of the article on wikipedia. like chat rooms, forums, internetsites etc. play an increasingly important role under Muslim activists. My questions therefore revolve around the relationship between CMC and Muslim activism.
It is usually within the context of migration, integration, the alleged radicalization of young mainly male Muslims, the so called “War on Terror” and the post-9/11 constellations that activism of Muslims has recently been noticed. It is usually labeled as Islamism, Islamic fundamemtnalism or Jihadism within European publics. However, activism within Islam has a much longer tradition, especially in the regions with Muslim majorities, and has taken many different and sometimes conflicting forms in the course of its history. One intellectual strand among Muslim activism is the salafiyyah. Muslims inspired by the salafiyyah strive to emulate the life of the prophet Muhammad and the first generation(s) of Muslims (al-salaf al-salih, hence the term salafiyyah or Salafism), as the perfect Muslim model in every part of life. This therefore implies a return to the original religious sources–Quran and SunnahThe Sunnah comprises the authentic transmission of what Muhammad has said, done and not done (Arabic: hadith, pl. ahadith). This is after the Quran the most important religious source for Muslims.–in order to know how Muhammad and his companions have actually lived. Now, many Muslims would subscribe to this definition and the importance of the sources. However, in practice, these Muslim activists are very careful to follow the model in every aspect of life. I like to use the term activists in this context because young Muslims inspired by the salafiyyah take a very proactive stance in shaping their own lives and their environments. Their role is an active one and not, as is often assumed, one of passivity consisting of receiving orders from religious authorities.
For sure, there are other forms of activism based on different understandings of Islam than the one inspired by the salaf al-salih. I am not judging with my research which kind of activism is the most true to Islam. I focus on the influence of the salafiyyah because increasing numbers of activists take their inspiration from there. There is a tendency to equate Salafism to extremism, Jihadism, radicalism etc. A quite small number of activists subscribes to “Jihadi thought” and most are radicalThe word comes from the Latin word radix (root). In this sense it denotes everything that grows from the root and is used in the terminologies of mathematics, biology and linguistics. Furthermore, radical indicates a considerable departure from the usual or the traditional. Thus one could call many movements, point of views and ideas radical, including many Muslim activists I have come across. in the sense that they want to effect a profound change, be it in their lives or in their local environment. In this they do not differ from other social or religious movements. However, as a scientific category the terms radical, extreme and in some cases even Jihadi or SalafiI have commented on the general problem of imposing labels on people as a researcher. I use Salafism as a case in point. Click to read my post., are not very helpful since they have become emotionally and normatively heavily charged in the public debate. The actual point of departure of the salafiyyah movements as described above has been superimposed by the meaningsMany activists actually avoid using the term Salafi or Salafism since they do not want to be associated with the meaning that these terms carry in the public debate. that the public debate on Salafism has generated: Salafism as used in the public debate vaguely means something radical, Islamic, extreme, violent, inhuman, intolerant, anti-modern etc. Therefore let me underline, that I understand the salafiyyah as I have described in the first paragraph.
Muslim activism in the virtual world
What I find intriguing about those Muslim activists I have met in Germany and the Netherlands is not only the “return to the sources” and their keenness to acquire knowledge about these sources and the life of the salaf al-salih. Furthermore, they have carried their activism into computer-mediated communication (CMC) environments. Discussion forums, da’wa= inviting somebody to Islam sites, personal homepages of accepted religious authorities, chat rooms providing online duroos= lessons over aqidah= creed as well as manhaj= method of practice, Salafi-inspired content on popular content-sharing sites like You Tube, blogs… you name it. They all create a web sphere of Muslim knowledge reproduction. Within this web sphere, ideas circulate and are appropriated. The translocal languages are English and Arabic. However, the vernaculars from the offline world dominate online discussions under activists as in the present case Dutch and German. This indicates that content “travels” in English or Arabic but is eventually localized and reproduced in the local languages of the activists. It seems as if computer-mediated communication has become integral to the (religious) life worlds of many believers.
What I want to find out
So my questions are: What is happening in this CMC environments where activists engage with Islam? Why are these activists online? How does it influence their religious experience and the reproduction of religious knowledge? How do Muslim activists “learn” within CMC environments?
My framework: activism not extremism
I look at Muslim activism in the actual as well as the virtual world in terms of social movement theory and knowledge practices. Knowledge practicesUnder this term I subsume all activities related to learning and gaining knowledge in its broadest sense. inform us about the incorporation of technology into the (re-)production of knowledge, the moral and cognitive horizons under which this process takes place and the cultural forms it includes and re-produces. Muslim activists as well as structures, technology and cultural forms involved in knowledge practices form a field of “Muslim knowledge production” which functions in many ways similar to the more recognized and “established” fields of knowledge production, be they popular culture, so called high culture or academia.
Understanding Muslim activism in this way has two advantages: It prevents an ex ante exoticization of Muslim activism, or Islamism and Salafism, as standing outside of the range of human sociality since it is labelled as “radical”, “irrational” and “extreme”. These labels actually tend to make researchers lazy: Why trying to explain a phenomenon that is irrational and extreme? Radicalism and irrationality is in some cases still taken as the explaining variable. Secondly, through the focus on social practices and their contexts, the danger of non verified presumptions is minimized. The latter is especially virulent when dealing with radical groups seen as the “repugnant cultural other”Susan Harding, who did research on Evangelicalism in the United States, critically reflects how researchers deal with “fundamentalism”. See: Harding, Susan. 1991. “Representing Fundamentalism: The Problem of the Repugnant Cultural Other.” Social Research 58(2): 373-393..