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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

American hegemonic position in cyberspace is becoming increasingly challenged and it has been known now for a while, that this dominance hides more complex realities. Firstly, the share of the English language is constantly, if slowly, receding, as more users worldwide get connected and demand local content (Ipsos-Reid, 5/14/01). More importantly, many sites situated in the USA are in fact portals to other worlds and cater to Others' needs. Thus, Gary Bunt's book, Virtually Islamic: Computer-mediated Communication and Cyber Islamic Environments, the "first broad-ranging academic survey to explore how Islam and the Internet combine and interact" should not surprise when it reveals how many Islamic sites exist and how so many of them are located outside Muslim countries, and notably in the USA. Indeed, the book is a timely offer, reminding the reader that what constitutes the "global" can have many different readings as the use of global communication tools allows the coalescence of world-wide meta-communities around some shared denomination.

As a sociologist interested in global Islamic movements, I received this book with much anticipation. The introduction promises a survey as representative, and as exhaustive as possible, within the inherent limits posed by the unregulated nature of the Web and its distorting effects. However, the book is more than a simple survey, as it also attempts to evaluate the effects of "Cyber Islamic Environments" on issues specific to the Islamic world, most notably: 1) its challenge to traditional Islamic authorities, 2) its practical use in fulfilling Islamic obligations, 3) as a tool, and a space, for Islamic politics, and 4) its potential role in Muslim countries.

Even "an introductory snapshot" of such effects demands some familiarity with contemporary Islamic issues, and Bunt does a remarkable job explaining some of the more technical questions such as the reliance in Islamic scholarship on a chain of impeccable witnesses as authoritative sources for religious pronouncements. Evidently, the anonymity provided by the Web is in direct contrast with such criteria of reliability and Bunt gives a whole chapter (chapter 5) to the exploration of the attendant problems. Another question explored in some depth is the nature of Islamic expressions online. I was interested to learn of the technical sophistication that allows not only the downloading of Qu'ranic texts in original Arabic and translation, but also audio "Qu'ranic recitations" in various interpretations. In fact, one of the major effects of the proliferation of Qu'ranic sources online has been the multiplication of alternate Muslim expressions. It is difficult to judge how much of this Muslim diversity online is actually perceived -- not to mention received -- by Muslim users. Most sites will present themselves as representatives of the "true Islam" and many warn of "deviant" competitors (http://www.jannah.org/me/internet/htm) in the same breath with which they denounce anti-Islam sites.

Bunt explores some of the problems posed by the easy access to such Muslim diversity online in chapters 3 (diversity in religious expressions) and 4 (political diversity and Muslim activisms). Chapter 4's survey of the more political Muslim sites duly notes how many are indeed located abroad. Not surprisingly, Bunt comments on the rivalries, divisions, and partisanships, whether religious or political, between many sites, while cautiously declining to offer a more detailed evaluation than that of the disproportionate place given on the Net to "fringe representations."

For me, chapter 5, which explores "Islamic obligations and authority online," provides the most fascinating section of the book. As mentioned above, Muslim practices are validated by a reliance on authoritative sources for religious pronouncements, though there are great differences between Sunni Islam (the large majority) and the Shi'a minority (the majority of Shiites live in Iran), as well as differences within these two branches of Islam. Online however, there cannot always be a way to verify the credibility of the cheikhs and imams offering religious advice and interpretation, though this does not apply to the few reputable Islamic centers entering -- timidly -- the virtual world. This, coupled with the diversity of Islamic interpretations available (in direct contrast to "real life"), can have destabilizing effects on the authority of tradition. Bunt refrains to speculate on such virtual destabilization (could it lead to a "protestantization" of Islamic practices, a thesis that had been suggested already about the effects of modernization on Islam?). He is more forthcoming about another effect of virtual anonymity -- that is, how it encourages individual believers to ask taboo questions about the limits of Islamic acceptability such as homosexuality (punished by death in some Muslim countries) or revealing anxieties about the proper Muslim management of modern everyday life. Checking on some of these sites to sample the range of advice offered, I was happy to note that many answers tried to temper the rigor of literal adherence to the Law with a good dollop of common sense. It would be fascinating to know of the trends revealed in such virtual Muslim advice columns, but of course it is beyond the scope of this book.

Though the book claims the strict limits of a survey, I found it to be a much more mixed genre. This is not a critique, as I do not think that evaluation could be avoided while talking for example about Muslim diversity online, though the author's reluctance to pass judgement is quite understandable. However, I wish the writer would acknowledge the elements of evaluation, if only because I found his definition of what counts as a Cyber Islamic Environments (C. I. E.) a bit hazy. Why, for example, would government sites be scrutinized and the Queer Jihad (one of many sites for gay Muslims) be a "C.I.E.," while none of the many Muslim women sites dedicated to "Women and Islam" is mentioned? Why would some personal Web pages dedicated to the author's vision of Islam be included and none of the many all-female mailing lists dedicated to the study and discussion of Islamic issues?

As a survey, Virtually Islamic offers invaluable information (note: Bunt has a "Virtually Islamic" Web page, which continuously updates the survey though without addressing the question mentioned above). However, many Muslim countries are not represented, and some of the more notorious associations such as the Islamic Salvation Front or the Armed Islamic Group, both of which, by the way, have sites located in the USA, are not mentioned either. I hesitate to evaluate such absences: could Bunt not find sufficient data or is it that his concept of Cyber Islamic Environments does not encompass such sites? The latter, however, would be relatively inconsistent as other Muslim activists groups are discussed, while the former would not explain the absence of Indonesia which has a lively Internet scene. I noticed that the countries mentioned fall all more or less within the former British colonial sphere of influence. There is a rather common failing whereby scholars in ex-metropoles, represent former colonial geographies as autonomous cultural spheres, neglecting evidence to the contrary. As a scholar of French Tunisian origin working in Australia, I am only too familiar with this, and I suspect that Bunt may have succumbed to it.

There are other absences in this book that are difficult to explain, given its acknowledged aims. For example, the context of site construction is important as it explains much about the nature of many Muslim sites. Most of those are located abroad, in the West, which is due both to overtight control as well as lack of Internet penetration in Muslim countries, worried about "Westernization" and political stability. Bunt mentions this, yet does not elaborate. But it has at least two consequences that one should bear in mind when trying to gauge the impact and range of Virtual Islam. Firstly, it disproportionately involves the Muslim Diaspora in the West, a fact which political significance is immediately apparent. And secondly, the fact that, for example, access to the Web concerns only an average 1.29% of Arab countries' population (Ajeeb.com survey, 25/3/01) is also extremely important. Significantly, both points mean that the challenge of Muslim diversity online is very likely to be contained within the perceptions of a tiny, educated elite already exposed to Western education and culture.

I would also have expected that Bunt, as a scholar of religious studies, would be aware of the significant impact of the Internet on religions generally, and at the very least mention this general religious context when discussing trends in "virtual Islam." A number of published works discuss such issues and revealingly note very similar trends to those discussed by Bunt. For example, some of the conclusions reached are 1) that virtual anonymity encourages the discussion of thorny spiritual matters on religious advice sites, 2) that religion on the Net contributes to the individualization of practices and beliefs, and 3) even that gay and lesbian believers generally speaking prefer Net services. In fact, some religious figures worry about the "menuification" of religion that the Internet can help bring about. Surely, indicating that these issues are part of generalized "virtual religious trends" would put Islamic ones in perspective. Yet, Bunt addresses the general context of religion on the Net only from the perspective of "cyber-crusades" so to speak, as he discusses the ongoing debate about the SuraLikeIt site (this site started a controversy by offending Muslims through publishing four made-up suras, or Qu'ranic verses).

Of course, by firmly claiming to present only a survey, Bunt neutralizes in some ways the above criticism. However, as I have already noted, the book has unavoidable evaluative elements. One of those is the underlying theme of Muslim identity(ies) and the linked issue of Internet Muslim activism. The author actually delineates, without entering into details, what is at stake there, in particular whether the Internet bolsters the formation of a global Ummah (community of believers) or encourages Muslim diversity. This issue has been debated for some years (see Anderson, 1997) in particular from the point of view of the creolization of intellectual styles, techniques, and discourses that is the mark of Internet Islam. I was surprised to see no reference to such debate, insofar as the above issue actually surfaces in every chapter of the book. I would have thought that a rapid sketch of this important debate, with possible references for further study, would be well within the boundaries of this book project. It would also stress its crucial importance.

In summary, Gary Bunt's Virtually Islamic: Computer-mediated Communication and Cyber Islamic Environments constitutes an important resource for scholars in the field who want to do further research on virtual Islam. It provides clear, well presented, interesting information for students in the field of Islamic and/or religious studies, and for those interested in the "identity effects" of the Net. I am not sure how far it can engage a non-specialist readership in spite of its addressing, in a way, the hot topic of global Muslim politics.

Ajeeb.com Survey. "Over 3.5 million Arabs accessing the Net," 3/25/01.

Anderson, Jon (1997) "Cybernauts of the Arab Diaspora."

_____, (1997) "Globalizing Politics and Religion in the Muslim World," The Journal of Electronic Publishing, 3(1).

"As the Internet moves into post-revolutionary phase America's share of global users decline," Ispsos-Reid study.

Chaudry, Lakshmi, "Virtual Refuge for Gay Muslims," Wired News, 5/8/00.

Huma, Ahmad, "Muslims on the Internet: the Good, the Bad ... the Ugly."

Leibovich, Lori (2000) "That Online Religion With Shopping, Too," The New York Times, 4/5/00.

Rachel A. D. Bloul:
Rachel A. D. Bloul is a sociology lecturer at The Australian National University. She publishes regularly on Muslims in the West. Her research interests include gender, Islam, intercultural communication, and more broadly the "identity effects" of new information technologies.  <Rachel.Bloul@anu.edu.au>

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