The title is perhaps misleading, as obviously it's virtually (no pun intended) impossible to describe Islam on-line. Yet that is in a sense what Dr. Gary R.Bunt's research is attempting to do – to chronicle, record and describe the diverse manifestations of an Islamic presence online, that veers from religious scholars, to gay rights groups, from theological discussion groups, to Jihad activists, from Al-Qaeda operatives, to 'geeks' with an Islamic edge. It's a fascinating world, and one in which Dr Bunt is a recognised authority. He has written two successful books, Virtually Islamic and Islam in the digital age, and maintains a popular and informative site centred on his researchVirtuallyIslamic.Com
How compatible with Islam is the Internet? Are there contradictions with Islam going online?
It depends how you define 'Islam'. According to some Muslim scholars, there is no incompatibility with Islam as a religion and the Internet, but it does depend on the purpose and intent for which the media is applied. There has been resistance to the Internet from some quarters, but this has often been tempered by pragmatism: whilst some community authorities and leaders were opposed to the Internet, Muslims within their communities were using computers. There is now a generation – in some contexts – which has grown up using computers, for business, leisure, and education. So, it would be a contradiction if Muslims were not online. Many diverse Muslim perspectives have found no contradiction with going online. It has been an ideal networking tool between dispersed communities. The Qur'an was available online in the early days of the Internet. The concept of knowledge development and communication has a high place in Muslim cultures. The Prophet Muhammad stated: &ldquoSeek knowledge even as far as China”. The Internet could be seen as an extension of that quest. It has to be noted that access to the Internet – whilst improving in many Muslim majority contexts – is still relatively low.
That begs the question: how widespread is Internet usage in the Muslim world? And indeed what reaction have Islamic Governments had to the Internet?
If, by 'Muslim world', we are talking about Muslim majority contexts, then it is a difficult one to call. Statistics can be misleading. A number of Muslim majority contexts – such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia – have relatively high Internet access rates compared with places such as Mauritania and Bangladesh. Whilst it is dangerous to generalise, there are a number of reasons for this low level of access (which is not exclusively an 'Islamic' phenomenon), including the absence of telecom infrastructures and the relatively high cost of computers – together with literacy issues and cultural constraints. Consideration should also be given to the urban/rural 'digital divide'. Until recently, the relative absence of materials in 'Islamic' languages was another inhibitor. We are seeing levels of change in this, as the Internet market adjusts: for example, there is now substantial material in Turkish, Malay, Farsi and Arabic, but a relative absence of material in Urdu.
Governments in Muslim contexts have had to adjust to the Internet as a phenomenon: some governments, such as Saudi Arabia, have attempted to censor or restrict internet access – with varying levels of success. Opposition groups and their supporters have found creative ways to circumnavigate these restrictions. Many governments have recognised the importance of going online, and have done so with varying degrees of effectiveness. Governments have developed websites, both for domestic and international audiences. Ministers have responded in various ways too: in Iran, for example, this has led to a minister developing a web log (blog). In Iran, governmental agencies have attempted to restrict access to certain types of web content. It has to be said that every context is different, and that the Internet is a subject of heated dialogues. There is a recognition that it is here to stay, and that governments (and other agencies and authorities) have to get on line.
Between writing Virtually Islamic and your latest book, what are the main developments that you've seen in terms of Islamic movements on line?
It has been a significant development to observe the channeling of resources into the web by some organisations, as the web has supplanted traditional approaches to knowledge management and dissemination. Saying this, one has to keep in mind the access issue, and also the languages issue: there has been a substantial growth in materials in non-European languages on the web. This growth is reflected in the sheer bulk of materials available online; it has become increasingly difficult to observe and record developments in cyber Islamic environments. This dramatic increase in materials occurred between writing Virtually Islamic and Islam in the Digital Age, and really has not stopped since.
Another main development that has been important in terms of my own research, has been a growing sophistication in the way that multimedia has been applied, for example in the presentation of film clips and audio broadcasts, reflecting developments in computer technology generally. I have been interested to observe the application of religious symbolism and iconography in Islamic digital contexts. It may contradict some of the stereotypes of Islam and Muslim cultures to note that there are some extremely sophisticated applications of Internet technologies being made by Islamic movements. More organisations have come online, some basing their web strategies on those of Hizbullah and Hamas, both of which have had a long term presence online (sites include: www.hizbollah.tv and www.palestine-info.co.uk).
A number of Islamic movements have seen Internet media as integral to their overall communication culture, especially as a means to propagate their world view, but also to network and obtain funding. One can add to this the dynamic ways in which chat rooms and e-mail lists have been applied. In looking at this question, it has been important to observe the development of different types of Internet applications, and their utility in various Muslim contexts. It should also be stressed that 'liberal' and 'progressive' Muslims have also applied the Internet in dynamic ways, especially in minority contexts, and this has been a further significant development (for example, see www.muslimwakeup.com).