By Saif Shahin, New Age Islam
Islamism has become a worldwide phenomenon over the past couple of decades, emerging from the arid interiors of the Arabian Peninsula and the far-off madrasas along the AfPak border to step into the cities and towns, colleges and offices, playgrounds and drawing rooms of our everyday life. This is also the period, in which the Internet has taken over as a global medium of mass communication, virtually linking everyone with everyone.
Is There a Connection?
Of course, there is a straightforward link between the two phenomena. People, especially the young, are easily exposed to Islamist teachings on the Internet. Many Islamist organisations actively promote their ideology and seek recruits online. They also use the Internet to communicate among themselves and coordinate activities across time zones.
But is there a deeper relationship as well? Has the Internet been more than a mere facilitator of the Islamist contagion? Has it, in its own way, helped create the monster?
Studies on the Internet and digital technologies in general, show that it is changing how we perceive ourselves, our relationships and our society in very basic ways. Some studies are sanguine, arguing that the Internet’s capacity to bring together people from diverse cultures promotes multiculturalism, open-mindedness and liberal thinking.
People interact with all kinds of people in chat rooms, read about other cultures and civilisations on websites and get exposed to fresh ideas on bulletin boards. This makes them more socially responsible and more willing to accept differences. In short, the Internet is making the world one big, happy family.
The Dark Side
Some other studies, however, are quite pessimistic. These claim that actual patterns of Internet use are far from ideal. People typically visit only websites that conform to particular viewpoints―indeed, RSS feeds allow them to receive very specific kinds of news reports and opinions on their desktops. Tools of personalisation and customisation help them further refine their activities online.
On Facebook and Twitter, they connect with their “own kind”; technology allows them to filter out the rest. Thus, instead of breaking down barriers, the Internet is helping people build new walls around and among themselves. Instead of promoting diversity, it is enhancing cultural conservatism.
Psychological studies claim the fact that people are spending more and more time online is itself problematic: it means they are spending that much less time in the “real world”, meeting with “real people” and forming “real relationships”. And it is addictive. So, along with the mobile phone, the Internet ensures that people’s direct interaction is now almost exclusively with some kind of technology: friendships, familial ties and even love is now “mediated” by cells, tablets and laptops. Instead of enhancing social responsibility, these changes are undermining society itself.
These studies, mostly conducted in the United States and Europe, see growing fear of immigrants, xenophobia and Islamophobia in the West as at least partly caused by the deleterious psychological and social impact of the Internet and other digital technologies.
Have the flames of Islamism been fanned by the same winds? At one level, by making the world a smaller place, the Internet has certainly made it easier for Muslims to feel a part of a global ‘ummah’. That in itself is, in my view, a positive development. But has the Internet simultaneously fed the Islamist fear, mistrust and hatred of “the other”―no different from xenophobia and Islamophobia in the West?
Also, at another level, is the Internet simultaneously aiding the implosion of the Islamic ummah into ever shrinking sub-groups? Sectarian boundaries are increasing as Muslims see themselves and label other Muslims ever more as Sunnis, Shias, Wahabis, Ahmadiyas and so on. These divisions are, of course, not new, but they certainly seem to have suddenly become more significant for us in recent years. Websites and Facebook/Twitter groups allow the formation of ever smaller communities that nonetheless have members from around the world.
The Terror Net
What about Islamist terror? The insensitivity that terrorists exhibit towards life and the coldness of their mass violence tactics suggests the sort of social disconnect that pessimists ascribe to the Internet. Empirical studies that can conclusively establish a link are obviously difficult to conduct (terrorists are hardly likely to present themselves for surveys). But some studies do suggest a link.
Marc Sageman, a former CIA officer in Afghanistan and a counter-terrorism consultant to the US government, studied the lives of nearly 500 foreign Islamist terrorists who arrived to target America. “Most people,” Sageman writes, “think that terrorism comes from poverty, broken families, ignorance, and immaturity, lack of family or occupational responsibilities… Three-quarters of my sample came from the upper or middle class. The vast majority—90 percent—came from caring, intact families. Sixty-three percent had gone to college, as compared with the 5-6 percent that’s usual for the third world. These are the best and brightest of their societies in many ways.”
Three out of every four terrorists from Sageman’s sample were professionals or semi-professionals. Many were engineers, architects and scientists. In short, these were all people who can be expected to be regular Internet users―young people who have grown with the Internet and other digital technologies as a fact, even a necessity of everyday life.
Does the Internet, then, encourage or perhaps even spawn Islamist tendencies? Is it having a toxic influence that manifests in the West as Islamophobia and among Muslims as Islamism? I can’t see any simple answers, but that does not mean these questions should not be asked.
The Internet is here to stay and grow, and understanding its social and psychological effects is necessary. Even if the pessimists are right about its regressive impact, the optimists are also not wrong in talking about at least its potential as a tool for promoting social cohesion and cultural and intellectual diversity (NewAgeIslam.com is itself a wonderful example). Let the debate continue…
Saif Shahin is a research scholar at the University of Texas at Austin. He writes regularly for New Age Islam.