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Virtually Islamic: Computer-mediated Communication and Cyber Islamic Environments

Author: Gary Bunt
Publisher: Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2000
Review Published: September 2001

 REVIEW 1: Rachel A. D. Bloul

Rachel Bloul's review of Virtually Islamic highlights some important concerns relating to the study of Islam in cyberspace. This response seeks to address some of the points raised in the review.

As with other areas of cyberspace, Cyber Islamic Environments (CIEs) are ever changing, evolving (and at times disappearing!). A future history of Islam in cyberspace might -- with hindsight -- be better placed to present a rigid methodological approach, incorporating aspects of cyber-theory as well as developments within other areas of religion-related cyberspace. Defining CIEs may become less "hazy" (to use Bloul's term), when various analyses can be brought together and evaluated, although the term's fluidity was essential in the creation of this book. Other commentators' definitions of CIEs are welcomed.

There are many areas relating to Islam in cyberspace that require further study and analysis, particularly by area and linguistic specialists. In Virtually Islamic I stated that, in such an introductory survey, there would be some underrepresented areas in the book: "The issue of Islam and politics within governmental settings could be expanded, to analyse all nations with Muslim populations . . . models of Internet activism and Muslim websites could be constructed" (95). As Bloul notes, the book operates as a survey. Virtually Islamic is not an encyclopaedia of Islam online.

Bloul's review on the countries mentioned in my book falling "more or less within British cultural spheres" has some merit. However, if the remark is made on the basis of the absence of the Groupe Islamique Armée or the Front Islamique du Salut, I can only assume that her copy of the book lacked pages 99 and 100. The book sought to display the diversity of online Islamic expression in many contexts, and cover numerous perspectives of expression, belief and political allegiance associated with Islam, if only with brief references, including material on CIEs associated with Algeria, Senegal, and Indonesia.

The websites and perspectives discussed in Virtually Islamic do not necessarily follow rigid nation-state boundaries of interest, and at times associate themselves with more globalized concepts associated with specific understandings of Islam and Muslim identity. I agree with Bloul that these websites are currently read and created primarily by an 'elite' (and for an elite), although this does not necessarily negate them as an influence (given the trickle down factor). Through new interfaces and technological access, the Internet may become more prevalent within Muslim majority population centres in the future. One aim was to avoid the Sunni (orthodox Islam)-centric perspective of many works about Islam. History and contemporary affairs demonstrate that numerous significant regions of Muslim interest may have, at one time, fallen directly or indirectly under British colonial influence, or indeed be influenced by other forms of colonialism. The domination of English as an Internet language, particularly in CIEs, is being addressed as a cause of concern by some Muslim Internet authors, seeking to provide Islamic content in other languages.

I agree with Bloul that the issue of Muslim women on the Internet is a very important one, which I hope will be fully researched by appropriate specialists in the field. In Virtually Islamic, I discuss what I believe to be one of the most important 'female' sites, that of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). This website has made an enormous contribution to knowledge about the contemporary situation in Afghanistan (not just for women), not without some risks to the safety of contributors. Whilst I am happy to analyse such a site, and other specificreferences to women contained in various websites, for reasons of ethics and gender I did not wish to enter (as a researcher or anonymous passive observer) into the area of all-female mailing lists! [1]

Virtually Islamic was written as an introductory platform, on which to build further studies and establish methodological approaches, both in my own work and hopefully as a contribution to the discussion for other commentators. These approaches are still in 'developmental stages,' but it is important to record, analyse, and publish about the phenomena associated with Cyber Islamic Environments, even if the framework of evaluation remains in constant development. Inevitably, since the book's publication, I have become aware of other related works in disparate fields. Some are now listed on the Virtually Islamic website, and are developed within a chapter for a future volume, a bibliographical and theoretical overview referring to many materials that were unavailable (or unknown) to me at the time of writing Virtually Islamic.

Virtually Islamic intends to go beyond the basic assumptions in cyber studies relating to anonymity and identities, and demonstrated the diverse concerns that can be unique features of CIEs. Since Virtually Islamic's publication I have received many constructive, interesting, and useful comments, such as Bloul's, together with detailed advice that has enhanced my own knowledge and introduced me to entirely new fields. For example, I have dialogued and worked with sociologists of religion and cyber-theorists for a volume and a conference on religion and the Internet, which has alerted me to many shared issues and theoretical concerns relating to "virtual religious trends" [2].

Whilst I was aware when writing the book that the study of Islam in cyberspace was a multi-/interdisciplinary field, the response from people operating from so many diverse subject areas and areas of interest has been both encouraging and surprising. I do hope that the book will be of interest to those working in the fields associated with cyber-cultural studies, as well as those operating in the aspects of Religious Studies, Islamic Studies and regional studies associated with the book. It is a very broad area, and there are some important questions requiring further work, including research from 'insider' perspectives (including from authors of Islamic websites, and their readers), and observation of the rapid developments occurring in Arabic language Islamic cyberspace.

My new book, The Good Web Guide to World Religions (London: Good Web Guide, forthcoming, October 2001), presents an introductory survey (aimed at the general reader) in which I address cyber cultural issues in the context of world religions. The parallels of CIEs with other religious interests, together with the differences, would make an interesting academic study, although I feel that more analysis by academics of the formative developments in religious-related cyberspace is probably required at this stage.

With such broad areas of interest, it is also inevitable that not every interest or perspective can be well served in a general survey book such as Virtually Islamic, but it is intended that the initial work contained in the volume will encourage others to present research on different (and as yet underrepresented) areas of Islam in cyberspace. I'd be happy to discuss shared concerns and interests.

1. I discuss the use by women of online advice columns, in a forthcoming chapter on online Islamic decision-making, based on a paper given at the Muslim Networks Across Time conference, Duke University, March 2001. Details of the publication (2002) will be posted on the Virtually Islamic website when available. See my brief discussion on women and Islam related sites, "Interface Dialogues: Cyber Islamic Environments and the On-line Fatwa," International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM) Newsletter (November 2000). Work on the subject of Women, Islam and the Internet is planned in collaboration with female academics.

1. See Gary R. Bunt, "Surfing Islam: Ayatollahs, Shayks and Hajjis on the Superhighway," in Jeffrey K. Hadden and Douglas E. Cowan, eds., Religion on the Internet: Research Prospects and Promises (New York: Elsevier Science, 2000): 127-151. I presented a paper at the INFORM (Information Network Focus on Religious Movements) Conference, London, May 2001, with Jeffrey Hadden, Douglas Cowan, and Lorne Dawson -- all of whom have substantial experience in the field of religion and the Internet. Future collaborations with other academics include a contribution to the Religious Encounters in Digital Networks Conference at the University of Copenhagen, 1-3 November 2001. I am also contributing chapters on Islam in cyberspace to ongoing separate volumes aimed as political scientists and Islamic Studies specialists.

Dr. Gary R. Bunt / 08.21.01
Lecturer in Islamic Studies
Department of Theology, Religious
Studies & Islamic Studies
University of Wales, Lampeter
Ceredigion, SA48 7ED, UK

Gary R. Bunt


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