Muslims and the media in the blogosphere
- First Online:
- Cite this article as:
- Varisco, D.M. Cont Islam (2010) 4: 157. doi:10.1007/s11562-009-0106-y
In the past two decades a virtual Ummah has evolved in cyberspace. While some of these websites are targeted specifically at Muslims, others attempt to provide outreach on Islam or counter Islamophobic bias. As noted by Jon Anderson, in his pioneering work on Islam in cyberspace, Muslims were among the first engineering students to create websites at the dawn of the Internet, before mainstream Islamic organizations posted official websites. There is a wealth of material by Muslims in English and Western languages, some of it archived for research. This article explores the methodological problems posed in studying the range of Islam-content blogs, from private individuals to religious scholars, as well as Muslim websites that feature comments from readers. The focus of the paper is an analysis of blogs about Islam or by Muslims that either act as watchdogs on the media or try to provide alternative views to the mainstream media of competing Muslim groups. Researching these blogs as a form of e-ethnography calls for a rethinking and refining of anthropological methodology as e-ethnography.
‘In effect, Islam does not need computers; in many parts of the “Muslim World,” Islam is practised without computer interfaces or the use of a mouse, and the Internet may remain a rumour or luxury in the hands of an elite.’ (Gary Bunt 2003, 1)
As a vibrant faith which has flourished and expanded over fourteen centuries, Islam does not need computers; neither do Judaism and Christianity, for that matter. But at the start of the third millennium Anno Domini and first part of the 15th century Hegira, Muslims increasingly choose to enter the technological frontier of cyberspace. The idealized we-are-one Ummah, a wish no more pragmatic than the spiritual sentiment in ‘All God’s children got shoes’ optimism, has a new, entrenched, virtual resonance among young Muslims. The cyberspace occupied by the minds of contemporary Muslims transcends the historical run of caliphs, crusades and Sufi missionaries. Rivalry with sister monotheisms and the post-colonial range of political ideologies continues, but the much-regaled ‘clash’ between religions masqueraded as civilizations must now be measured by mouse clicks as well as flesh-and-blood converts or de-fleshed and bloodied suicide bomb victims. As long as Muslims worldwide actually live in this pre-Barzakh world, many will surf the web for instant access to their sacred texts, join online communities of fellow believers, propagandize for their own views and against the views of nomenclatured apostates, seek spouses even until China, enter shoeless chat rooms and witness their sectarian Muslim identity on social networks such as MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and wherever.net. All varieties of Muslims are now at home in cyberspace; the question is how has cyberspace opened up new and transforming ways of being Muslim?
If, as Marshall McLuhan suggested in the 1960s in a seemingly medieval era of modern technology, the medium is the message, then the message must be undergoing unprecedented change. Computers, like the television that fascinated McLuhan, have been around in one crude form or another since the end of World War II, but it is useful to remind ourselves that Apple Computer was launched the year of the United States bicentennial in 1976. There were no PCs until 1981 and the World Wide Web (www) was still unlaunched less than two decades ago.1 The term ‘cyberspace’ is, in linguistic terms, a relatively recent frontier, having been coined in the Orwellian irony of a 1984 novel by William Gibson. Facebook, now indispensable to the current generation of students, began as a prank in 2003 when a Harvard undergraduate took revenge for being jilted by a girlfriend and hacked the personal data files of his classmates to create Harvard Face Mash; a year later Facebook jump-started the college and high school experience as a global network (Hoffman 2008). Half a decade later some 2.5 million users have joined Facebook, including young Muslims. To put things into perspective, scholars are beginning to study the phenomenon of personal use of the Internet in about the same interval of time between the invention of the automobile and the introduction of Henry Ford’s Tin Lizzie in 1908.
Muslims have been active in cyberspace since the start. As Jon Anderson (2007) has shown, the first Muslim cybernauts were ‘mostly students sent for advanced training to the centers where Internet technologies were developed and where they, like others, brought advocational interests on-line, in their case interests in seeing their religion represented in cyberspace.’ Muslim students introduced their understanding of Islam, leading to Muslim Student Association sites that provided the sacred texts of the Quran and traditions online. As the World Wide Web surfaced in the 1990s static archival sites and here-is-why-I-love-my-religion resumes were overrun by a variety of new forms for personal webpages, communal networking sites and rapidly expanding commercially-oriented sites. The ‘Islam’ that first evolved in cyberspace was haphazard, idiosyncratic and very much a bottoms-up effort. The total freedom of expression and lack of clerical oversight allowed for a diverse efflorescence in which the formal and institutional essences of the faith did not dominate. Current concerns of Muslims, often along political lines and sectarian fault lines such as Sunni vs. Shi’a, motivated many of the earlier websites, as has been well demonstrated in the analysis of Gary Bunt (2000, 2003). The ‘Cyber Islamic Environments,’ as Bunt styles the digital Ummah of Muslims with access to the Internet, is here to stay. There is much yet to learn about the presence of Muslims in cyberspace, but the starting point must be defining just who these Muslims are and the ways in which the profile changes as the web continually expands beyond its Western genesis.
One of the major grievances of Muslims worldwide is the continuing representation of Islam through stereotypes and political prejudice embedded in European and American cultural traditions. Given the extent of Islamophobia online and offline in Western countries, this is understandable. Like so many of the modern technologies that Muslims have embraced, from the telegraph and telephone to radio and television, these are imports from the same West that in many ways ‘others’ their existence as Muslims in the world community. Although Muslims were present at the birth of the Internet, this is yet another technology weaned outside the world in which the vast majority of Muslims live. Apart from a few head-in-the-desert-sand fundamentalists, most Muslims find no religious grounds for rejecting the Internet and indeed many actively exploit it for spreading the faith and comforting fellow believers. In this sense the medium is not the problem, but the message in its Western Orientalist frame often is.
In what sense can one think about an Arab Internet or a Muslim Internet? While Baron Montesquieu in his French disguise wonders how one can possibly be a Persian in the early 18th century, in today’s world he might ask how the Internet could possibly be Persian, Arab or Muslim. Unlike any earlier medium of communication, the Internet and indeed the entire technological cosmos created around it provide a community that transcends geographical and institutional borders in real time. The virtual Ummah of Muslim Internet users in theory can unite the online faithful in seconds. Not since the formation of Islam has such a unifying potential existed. Obviously this only applies to Muslims with access to the Internet and literacy in the languages available. To the extent cyberspace expands with Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Indonesian and the many native languages spoken by Muslims it is possible to speak of an evolving Muslim space, although it is by no means clear how the diversity of websites and individual Muslims allow for a generic ‘Islamic’ Internet any more than one could define a Christian or Jewish, American or European Internet.
The greatest access to cyberspace still occurs in the United States and Europe, although other parts of the world are adding users at far greater rates. By early 2009 total internet users, obviously not at one time, were estimated at 1.6 billion out of a total world population of 6.7 billion affecting 24% of the entire population of the globe.2 This represents a total increase of 342% from an estimated 361 million users in 2000. These figures, however, are heavily skewed and in themselves say little about Muslim presence. Significantly, although North America accounts for only 5% of the total world population, some 74% of North Americans are Internet users. In the Middle East, which only covers about 18% of the total Muslim population of the world and represents only 3% of total Internet usage in the world, only 23% of the region’s population are defined as Internet users; this is actually a higher percentage than for Asia (at 17%) as a whole, and well above the percentage of users in Africa (at 6%). Thus, access to cyberspace is most readily available to those Muslims living in North America or Europe and no doubt searching in large part with Western languages.
Internet usage in selected Muslim and Middle Eastern Countries_ (2000–2008)
Users in 2000
Users in 2008
Palestine (West Bank)
United Arab Emirates
Expansion in politically insecure countries is likely to remain limited to an elite for some time to come. The attempts by regimes in countries like Syria and Saudi Arabia to control what is available on the Internet as well as its public use will no doubt continue, although censorship of cyberspace is not easily made. If we assume that most of the new users will be young, then it is clear that the Internet will have a profound influence on the views of future generations of Muslims about themselves and others. What this influence will be, both in terms of the technology interface and the increased access to diverse views, will no doubt drive research agendas across many disciplines for years to come. Not only is it likely that some countries, specifically those with oil wealth and stable economies, will achieve levels of virtually total access in another 8 years, but the disparity with Muslims in poorer nations, especially those in Africa, will also increase.
Like all adolescents, the growth of the Internet introduces major changes in technological speed of communication and an extraordinary impact on how real-time teenagers spend their time and view (onscreen and off) the world. In the past decade there has been increased interest in the social and psychological implications of our increasing presence in a dual reality. In one recent study, Deborah Wheeler has contextualized the rise of Internet use in Kuwait. Her study shows that physical place, the notorious site for ethnographic interest, has continuing relevance. Wheeler (2006, 4) notes that ‘while the network links global users and enables information to flow across borders and identities, location still matters in shaping online activities.’ Specifically, it is still important to consider the ‘offline variables such as power and political norms, cultural values such as gender relations, religion, and demographic factors such as age, socioeconomic status, and geographic location’ (Wheeler 2006, 189). Thus, it can be argued that analysis of the ways in which people engage with the technology of the Internet and interpret the online world of representation cannot be divorced from the methods used in standard ethnography, whether in anthropology or related disciplines.
‘That is, the Internet and its surroundings that enthusiasts call “cyberspace” or envision as a new “information age” do not facilitate the spokesperson-activists of established institutions, but draw instead on a broader range of new interpreters or newly visible interpreters of Islam’ (Anderson 2003, 48)
Cyberspace is a vast frontier that deserves more than a Wikipedia-style overview. The focus of this article is on one part of this frontier, the somewhat chaotic digital cog known as the blog. The term blog, shortened from ‘web log,’ is essentially an open diary by an individual or group of individuals, from the vast sea of ordinary folk to the commercially viable famous and common-sense lacking eccentrics. In early 2008 there were an estimated 184 million blogs worldwide with readership of blogs rated around 346 million.3 The content on blogs ranges from the banal ‘what my cat did today’ to finger clicking netizen activists out to save the world from global climate change. In 2003 the Perseus Development Corporation conducted a random survey of over 3,600 blogs and concluded that ‘the typical blog is written by a teenage girl who uses it twice a month to update her friends and classmates on happenings in her life.’4 At that time two thirds of the blogs surveyed had not been updated in over 2 months. All of this occurred before Facebook and MySpace muscled these teenage blogs into a broader networked format. Yet, it is necessary to point out that the majority of blog networks are short circuits of friends (Anderson 2009). There are a few individual blogs which have gained a wide audience and the ears of politicians and other opinion-makers. Increasingly, journalists and prominent public figures maintain their own blogs for self-promotion.
Application programs are simple enough that almost anyone can create a blog; the only real limitation is finding a friendly server and that is relatively inexpensive in Europe and North America. For the most part blogs are not controlled by a censor or institution; within social-contract-level reason, the blogger can say just about anything he or she wants on a blog. Chances are only a few friends will ever read it anyway. The analyst of the blogosphere is faced with the same daunting problem that would be faced in any large-scale society, sampling an ever expanding universe of individual sites that not only can not all be examined but that often have little or nothing to offer. As a result, researching the proliferated corpus of blogs may be one of the most ambiguous venues for determining the impact of information in cyberspace on what people do in the real world.
Not surprisingly, many Muslims have personal blogs and, at the same time, non-Muslims simultaneously have a forum to attack Islam. Thus far there is no adequate survey of blogs by or about Muslims. Most no doubt have been created by Muslims outside Muslim-majority countries in environments where access is generally unrestricted and readily available. Originality is always at a premium, in cyberspace as well as in print. Some blogs created by Muslims function more as archives than as sites for mundane diary musings. For example, the hosting site Hadithuna includes a site named Rabbana Zidna ‘Ilma!! [Our Lord! Increase Us in Knowledge!],5 which is almost exclusively devoted to excerpts from classical and recent Muslim scholars and video sermons. Another top-listed blog on the same Islamic server is entitled ‘Born Confused,’6 and presents the poetry, musings, artwork and photographs of a Muslim woman who identifies herself solely as Ilana. Other blogs are primarily fronts for resumes or commercial purposes. The site maniacmuslim.com, for example, was put up by a satirist, apparently a recently graduated student intent on publishing a comic book.7 The creator provides links on his blog to both his MySpace and Facebook pages. Although the content part of the site is bare, there is an active discussion forum.
Cyberspace is a safe haven for marginalized Muslims. For example, the Lahore Ahmadiyya Movement maintains a blog for its members and potential converts.8 Not surprisingly, many of the blog posts respond to accusations against the movement. Typical of some blogs that are said to represent an organization, this one is dependent on an individual, who was unable to post for a number of days when his computer crashed.9 This Ahmadiyya group is not to be confused with the ‘Ahmadiyya Muslim Community,’ which has a far more polished and wide-ranging official website.10 Both groups are persecuted or banned in a number of Muslim countries.11 There are several anti-Ahmadiyya websites, the most prominent based in Dubai.12 Controversy over Ahmadiyya beliefs frequently spills over onto individual blogs. Indeed, for every proponent there is likely an opponent available with a Google search. Thus, Gay and Lesbian Muslims will not be appreciated at ‘Eye on Gay Muslims,’ a website devoted to showing homosexuals the Islamic error of their ways.13 Some Muslim web designers are fully aware of the controversy a website can generate. The Muslim Hip Hop Community Blog begins with a warning: ‘Before you judge: read our position on music in Islam.’14
Since both Islam and Christianity are mission-oriented religions, often competing for converts on the ground, it is not surprising that cyberspace becomes a rhetorical battleground for the great e-commission. There are a number of prominent anti-Muslim propaganda sites put out by Christian organizations, one of the most visible being AnsweringIslam.org, which is available in the major languages spoken by Muslims. This is very much a static site without an ongoing blog, open comment format or chat room. In an article on the website entitled ‘Why Islam today shuts down freedom of religion,’ the author observes that ‘with the advent of the worldwide web, information flows freely, shining a light in the darkness. Ordinary citizens should keep track of Islamic oppression, sending emails to each other and reputable web logs (blogs).’ A ‘reputable’ blog in this sense would no doubt be Joel’s Trumpet, which is subtitled ‘The Islamic Predominance of the Last-Days: A Biblical Paradigm.’15 The blogroll of this site includes Creeping Shariah, USA-Stop Shariah, and the pro-Israeli MEMRI blog.16 Such blatantly biased sites are unlikely to convert today’s Muslims, especially given the resistance to conversion by Muslims throughout history.
While leaving Islam is at time punishable by death in some Muslim countries, cyberspace is a welcoming environment for ex-Muslims. A prominent example is Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who maintains an official blog in Dutch and multiple languages, as well as a MySpace page available to the public.17 The prolific Pakistani author and proud ‘apostate’ who writes under the penname of Ibn Warraq has no website or blog, although fans have created The Unofficial Ibn Warraq Website.18 These sites are primarily for consumption by non-Muslims and spread Islamophobic commentary to an often gullible audience. But there are also websites in non-Western languages. An example of the latter is a an Arabic blog rendered in its English url as christforsaudi.blogspot.com. Begun in February 2008, the site had only 5 long posts by April, 2009. The profile of the author, who is visibly Saudi in dress, provides no biographical information other than the location of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The audience, which no doubt includes Saudi censors, has a mere 4,600 views of the profile. The posts criticize the lack of freedom of expression and human rights violations in the Saudi kingdom, but also argues that the Saudi tribes would be better off recognizing Christianity as the true form of Islam. In early 2009 the blogger was arrested, an event that stirred interest on Christian sites denouncing Islam.19
In addition to promoting views on Islam, cyberspace creates space for countering bias and prejudice. It is no surprise that the Obama presidential campaign created a special website, fightthesmears.com, immediately after clinching the Democratic nomination in order to combat the spread of politically-charged rumors and attacks. This was followed by a statement signed by over 150 concerned scholars of religion about the false claims that candidate Obama was a stealth Muslim.20 The Internet is rife with anti-Islamic websites, both those with Christian apologetic intent like AnsweringIslam.org noted above, as well as those with a political agenda, such as Robert Spencer’s Jihad Watch.21 There are several formal websites devoted to answering back at Islamophobic websites and writings, such as Islamophobia Watch,22 but this is also a common theme of Muslim bloggers. An example of the latter is ‘Islam & the West - Opinions of a Kashmiri Muslim.’23 On July 7, 2008 the blogger posted a critique of an earlier Islamophobic article in the British tabloid, The Sun, which claimed falsely that a ‘Muslim mob’ had ransacked a building in a quiet neighborhood.24 The basic information for the post stems from an article in The Independent, with a brief introduction and rejoinder by the blogger. An earlier post reported a story from the British press about a hate crime in which a Sikh war memorial was desecrated by miscreants who thought Sikhs were Muslims.25
Blogging can be dangerous when the comments posted are seen by governmental authorities as a political threat. Egypt is a case in point, in which 9 of Egypt’s 14 known blogger arrests occurred in the election year 2007.26 Among the more infamous cases is the arrest and sentencing of the Egyptian Abdelkareem Soliman, who is currently serving a 3 year term.27 His criticism of government inattention to human rights violations first resulted in his expulsion from al-Azhar University in 2006, and then in early 2007 he was accused on insulting Islam and Egyptian President Mubarak. In this case, which has major media attention outside Egypt, the blogosphere strikes back. A website called ‘Free Kareem!’ chronicles the efforts to pressure Egyptian authorities to release him; even a Youtube video can be watched about his case.28 Yet, as of this writing, the blogger was still in prison.
The key attraction of blogging, its spontaneity and relative freedom of expression, threatens not only on a political front. The Iranian blogger Seyyed Reza Shokrollahi in 2003 lamented the tendency of blogging to ‘drag every serious and intellectual topic into the scum of the disease of vulgarity’ (Doostdar 2004, 652). His concern included the disregard for proper Persian grammar, but it extended beyond style to a reckless form of commenting on everything that vulgarizes content. In Alireza Doostdar’s analysis of the controversy on Iranian blogs over vulgarity, the claim that blogging is mostly facile rather than thought-provoking is countered with the elitism haunting the online debate. Not only do certain political and religious institutions find blogging a threat to their authority; an intellectual elite may struggle to maintain hegemony as the right kind of commentators (Doostdar 2004, 660). As an emergent speech genre in the case of Iranian bloggers, the proliferation of emotionally charged and banal commentary replicates the ongoing class conflict above and beyond being Muslim.
‘As salaamu ’alaikum and hello to all!
I’m Faith and I’m one of the newest members of the MMW team. I’m thrilled to be here. Like Krista, I tend to overanalyse just about everything. So this is the perfect place for me. In addition to MMW, I also write on two other blogs: The Tales of a Modern Muslimah and Muslimnista. The former I write on just about everything from race, gender, and theology to my cat. The other has a more narrow focus on Islamic feminism.
I currently live in Cleveland but I won’t be here for much longer. I just finished my undergrad with a BA in Religious Studies. I have a cat and a hubby who take up a lot of my time. However, when I’m not thinking about Islam and gender, I could be found reading classic English Lit, watching figure skating, Bollywood films or Law & Order or something in between.
Thanks for having me and I look forward to blogging!’
The aim of the site is to counter misogynist and sexist images of Muslim women. It presents original commentaries, as well as a weekly list of links to relevant news items. Comments are welcomed, but within the guidelines presented:30
Don’t ever make threats of violence.
Don’t make personal attacks based on character or personal history. On anyone. If you can’t debate without character assassination, then your argument looks weak, and you look like a jackass.
Comments denigrating race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, ability, or gender will not be tolerated or posted.
This blog is about the media/pop culture representation of Muslim women. Please make sure comments are relevant to the posts, and do not get bogged down in historical, religious, or political tangents.
Please be respectful of other readers’ views and don’t use disrespectful language when posting. Posts that intentionally make comments that violate the tenets above will not be posted.
So how do Muslims blog their faith, at least in Western contexts? Even a cursory view of the blogs readily found indicates that these sites are first and foremost a forum for personal expression with little or no censorship from official institutions. Blogging seems to be especially important for recent converts, particularly those who may not have fellow Muslims nearby. While some older Muslims use blogs to educate or draw attention to past interpretation of doctrinal issues, the trend is for younger Muslims to express their views on multiple subjects, which are not exclusively about religion. I suspect that only a few Muslim blogs have a wide readership and most are visited mainly by friends or fellow believers within a small personal network. As Jon Anderson (2009) suggests, most blogging networks are little more than ‘echo chambers of mutual affirmation.’ Since many of the blogs I examined are by individuals under the age of 30, it is important in future research to assess the future of blogging against the competition from personal pages and groups, often with commentaries, on MySpace, Facebook and Yahoo.
A googled interlude
‘I don’t see the point of Islamic Google, but some may find it useful.’ Thabet31
Rather than try to parse the available data on and about Muslim blogs in a systematic way, it may be useful to follow the random and skewed manner in which many people surf the net. A random search on Google in April, 2008 for ‘muslim blog’ resulted in 1,240,000 hits, while the search for ‘muslim’ alone yielded 58,200,000 hits.32 Technologically speaking, a Google search is not random, but it may be characterized as a form of pragmatic serendipity, since so many users resort to this simple and always available tool.33 The first item in my search for ‘muslim blog’ was a site called, appropriately enough ‘The Muslim Blog’34 on blogspot, one of the more popular servers. Ironically, the top hit at the time was already a moribund site. As of January 26, 2007, this url had become inactive and shifted to a new site called Muxlim.com. The new site is in fact not a personal blog at all, but a combination for-profit and for-Prophet web home for Muslims. As self-identified in its online newsletter, ‘Muxlim Inc., World’s Largest Muslim Social Media Company has been chosen among the top 100 high growth success stories in Finland!’35 This, in a microcosm, demonstrates the slippery slope of serendipity of search engines for uncommon searches. The creators of this commercial hope for reaching Muslim pocketbooks online live from real time Finland. Not only is their start-up the first of its kind in Finland, but at least for 1 day in April it was first on Google for my targeted search. It even made Fox News, with a link provided on site to the cable television segment.
First ten websites for a google search of ‘muslim blog’ on April 6, 2008
The Muslim Blog. www.themuslimblog.blogspot.com/
muslim wake up blog. www.muslimwakeup.com/blog/
The American Muslim. www.salaamsblog.wordpress.com/
Islam in Europe www.islamineurope.blogspot.com/
MR’s Blog. www.mujahideenryder.net/
Virtually Islamic. www.virtuallyislamic.blogspot.com/
Muslim Blog. www.muslim.families.com/
Mere Islam. www.mereislam.info/
Muslim Blogs. www.blogcatalog.com/directory/religion/muslim
Al-Muhajabah’s Islamic Blogs. www.muhajabah.com/islamicblog/
The top ten hits include a commercial website aimed at Muslims (1), a family-oriented generic blog site with space for Muslim blogs (7), a site simply listing Muslim blog sites (9), an academic site about Islam on the Internet (6), the site of a reform-minded alternative space for Muslims (2), two sites by converts to Islam (3,8), a site on Islam in Europe that appears to be more a hobby than anything else (4), a site by and for Muslim women (10) and a slick, conservative site called Mujahideen Ryder (5), billed as ‘not the average Muslim blog.’ It is interesting to note the kinds of Muslim blogs not making the top ten: no real world imams or media personalities and no extensions of formal Islamic institutions. The Muslim blogosphere, at least in Western languages, was anything but traditional or censored at the top on this random day. As Jon Anderson (2003) has noted, the novice creolizes Muslim cyberspace, creating a space where the ways of being Muslim are open. To be cute about it, the pious charisma of Ahl al-Bayt (a reference to the elite status of descendants of the Prophet Muhammad) has been superseded online by a new order of Ahl al-Shabaka, shabaka being the common Arabic term for the Web or Internet.
It would take a comprehensive research agenda to determine what is an average Muslim blog, or indeed to define in any sense an ‘average Muslim.’ Inspired by Google, it is useful as an anthropologist engaging in participant webservation to start with a specific site. In the field the ethnographer encounters individuals and discrepant events before something called a local culture can be morphologically digested. Were I back in the village I would be intrigued by someone who self identifies as ‘not the average,’ if only to get a better sense of what that ‘average’ might be. Thus, the Mujahideen Ryder (MR) website may be worth the first ride. While it was only at #5 in April, 2008, it climbed the Google pool to #1 in April, 2009.
The MR site itself is commercial and slick. Along the top are prompts to Halal Tube, a cognate site that provides links to Muslim lecturers. This periodically updated site was profiled in December, 2008 on MySpace, Facebook and Twitter, the kind of exposure that no doubt increased its Googleocity.36 Also linked in April 2008 was Sports Halaqah, which was not online at the time; by April 2009 sports was reduced to one of the many subject categories in the left frame. There is a substantial amount of advertising, including ads from Google and e-bay sites. Ironically, one of the Google ads in April 2008 was for a Christian blog. By April 2009 the ads were clearly targeted to a Muslim audience, including a news release that Toms of Maine toothpaste is halal.37 The website creator, who remains anonymous on his blog and on his MySpace page, is self-identified as a web developer in Maryland.
‘I don’t have time to blog anymore. I wish I did but I don’t. I don’t even have time to read or reflect, or even surf! :Sob: My day begins with the leftovers of the day before, and I can never seem to catch up. And that’s only after the first kid, sheesh. What no one warns you about is the aftermath — pregnancy is the easy part! That’s right. While pregnant you still have a free will — the will to sit on your arse if you please.
This ‘fear of separation’ is my biggest fear.And this fear has clarified some higher truths for me...
Love is not just the result of our selfish desires but is sometimes indicative of something bigger than ourselves. Love is Divine. Love points to God.
Separation from the Divine, Our Creator, Our Lord, is what hell must be like.
I better start living my life in a way where Im not separated from that which I love...
May Allah swt remember us with those who are meant to be remembered. Ameen.’
Although billed as websites not by the average Muslim, perhaps it is best to think of Mujahideen Ryder and related links as a new kind of average, certainly not the media image of a Muslim mania for halal food and hijab fashion but rather an emergent type of Muslim coping in free form with contemporary cultural fashions. To the extent the blog has no set format, it provides a forum for designing the variety of ways Muslims can transform their identity outside the restrictions imposed within a community. The prevalence of such personalized and uncensored sites challenges the notion of a norm for Muslim identity. It also serves as a reminder that religious identity is always part of a cultural package. The institutional checks and balances that impose rules and guidelines are at least one step removed online, so that the kind of Muslim one would like to be takes precedence over supposedly normative behavior.
If there is one word to best describe the blogosphere, it may be ‘ephemeral.’ Many websites, particularly blogs, depend almost entirely on a given individual. When that individual loses interest or moves on to something else, the site may remain online without activity.39 Ironically, the second website on the Google hit is one of these. ‘Muslim Wake Up’ is an ambitious attempt to define a ‘progressive’ Islam, including a column devoted to ‘Sex & the Ummah’ by Mohja Kahf, a university professor and author. As of April 2008 the main site was last updated on November 10, 2007 and the sex column last saw a new post on September 13, 2006. The site’s blog was last updated on July 17, 2007. By April 2009 only the main page still functioned. The chief editor of the site, Ahmed Nassif, is also chair of the Progressive Muslim Union, a website which similarly has been abandoned in the last year. His biography on the PMU website identifies Muslim Wake Up as ‘the world’s most popular Muslim online magazine.’40 While it still shows up on Google, the site itself clearly had not been active for half a year in April 2008 and was offline in April 2009. To compound the irony, the Google ads continued to change on the site, and one of these in 2008 advertised ‘Sexy Arab Women,’ which would take ‘progressive’ to an uncharted level.41 The absence of a moderator is also evident from the failure to block spam postings, such as an an April 2008 ad on the site for porn with the tell-tale subject of ‘vids sex teen free now best free clips best video top xxx e.’ Another lesson about blog maintenance is that inactivity by the creator or moderator allows the omni-nuisance spammers eventual entry.
The tenth selection in the April 2008 Google search was www.muhajabah.com/islamicblog, which in fact is a set of three blogs by a Muslim woman who has been online since September 17, 2001. Self identified as coming from an ordinary middle-class American family with roots both Scots-Irish and Slovenian, this anonymous blogger is a convert to Islam. Although trained as a paralegal, Muhajabah works for a software development company. Her site has a number of resources for and about Muslim women, including a personal blog called ‘veiled4Allah.’42 As the blogger notes, her blog covers ‘occasional thoughts of a Muslim woman. Islam, current events, my life, and whatever else interests me.’ Like many personal blogs, the posting is sporadic; the most recent on a day in late April being a commentary on presidential candidate Obama from March 18, 2008 and the commentary before then from January 21, 2008. This is not an uncommon feature of personal blogs, many of which are started and then more or less sidelined, although not disappearing from the web.
The Google experiment, while instructive on how the novice or a hurried netizen might enter the blogosphere, is not representative of the range of blogs operated by or for Muslims. While there are ad hoc lists compiled by individuals,43 there is no overall master list of which I am aware. A report from October, 2005, suggested that there might have been as many as 700,000 Iranian blogs, of which between 40,000 and 110,000 were thought to be active.44 Individual blogs, as noted above, can be highly idiosyncratic. Some appear to have been created for family and friends, while others push the creator’s agenda or represent a formal institution. That agenda may be seeking converts, but more often is an outlet for self expression. Were one to survey a substantive sample of blogs, which no doubt currently number in the hundreds of thousands, the full variety of Muslim identities would likely be encountered from the most orthodox salafi to eccentric and at times delusional views. The issue is not so much the range of blogs available as which get the most traffic and have the most impact.
Participant webservation in the blogosphere
‘Dasein is an entity for which, in its Being, that Being is an issue’ (Martin Heidegger 1962, 236)
Being on a blog or being in the process of analyzing blogs necessitates a ‘being there’ both in a physical sense and virtual sense. Anthropologists traditionally engage the world around them through the methodology of ethnographic fieldwork. Indeed, such fieldwork is the backbone of modern cultural anthropology, one of the few things that separates the discipline from other fields. The fundamental contribution of ethnographers has been generating new data about how people live, usually in very different circumstances than the home country of the anthropologist. The process effectively started a little less than a century ago. When the Polish nationality of anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski forced him to be satisfied with research in Melanesia due to British World War I ideological umbrage, he ended up living on the Trobriand Islands off New Guinea, learning the language and inaugurating a novel approach of eliciting the ‘native point of view’ (Malinowski 1922). Anthropology came of age as anthropologists went to an exotic field, where only missionaries, intrepid explorers and military scouts dared go before. Until the latter quarter of the past century, this field was primarily outside Western societies, whether on a Native American reservation, in an African village or along a river in highland New Guinea.
In 1978 I left the home comfort of an anthropology graduate program and arrived in highland Yemen, finding ‘my’ villages and eventually documenting observations for the ritual Ph.D. of modern anthropology. I went (to the field), I saw (what people did) and I conquered (culture shock and language differences), so I could write a thesis (which virtually no one reads). The fieldsite I chose had been isolated from many of the global currents at the time. There was no television reception, no mail service, limited electricity and a car road had arrived to the valley only 6 months before I did. This represented the kind of seemingly pristine cultural setting an ethnographer gravitated toward at the time. There was no Internet in 1978, nor did I in my wildest dreams anticipate the world of cyberspace that has altered almost every aspect of my professional and personal life. As far as the fieldwork experience went, I followed the traditional mode of participation observation, improving my Yemeni Arabic and taking notes the old fashion way on paper and pencil.
Anthropologists did not invent observation as a research tool, but over time the pragmatic pursuit of ‘participant observation’ through being in the field, speaking the local language and listening to how individuals define themselves has yielded a rich source of comparative data on cultural variation.45 There was a time when getting to the field was in itself a heroic effort, as when E. E. Evans-Pritchard took more than a month in the 1930s to travel from his Oxford office to set up a tent among the Nuer in Sudan. In my own case, arriving in Yemen was only the start of a process of obtaining government permission to do research, finding a suitable field site and gaining the confidence of local residents to put up with a foreigner who seemed to be wasting his time. While fieldwork remains the hallmark of the discipline, most cultures in the Internet age are no longer confined by national or ethnic borders. Cyberspace offers an almost infinite space for creating new forms of identity and reshaping ‘real’ ones. Now that the ‘field’ is omnipresent to anyone with a modem and service provider, ethnographic research becomes a kind of participant webservation. Like the societies studied in real time, the raw material for observation should remain the individuals, who both identify with groups of varying sizes and purposes and distinguish themselves from others. But the rules of engagement are no longer the same. It is not the individuals who are observed online, only their virtual shades. In religious terms, it would be like entering a world where only the guardian angels are visible and the believers are invisible, though their movements can be imagined through their divine avatars. In cyberspace per se only the avatars are present, no matter how realistic the photographs and Youtube videos.
Sociologist Lorne Dawson (2006) raises an interesting question about the heuristic value of online religious communities. He notes that the term ‘community,’ at least in the standard Gemeinschaft sense, has been loosely applied to all kinds of social networks in cyberspace. A viable community is more than the sum of its individual members; relationships involve common values, a certain level of trust, and the opportunity for intimacy. Apart from utopian experiments, which rarely last beyond the charisma of a founder, social relations are never perfectly matched and tensions are inevitable. Entering an online community, however, is closer to shopping in the mall than getting along with neighbors. ‘To the extent that virtual life contributes to communal life,’ he concludes, ‘it is because it augments the pre-existing communal relations more than creating new strictly virtual ones. The Internet does not compete with the rest of life, it extends it’ (Dawson 2006, 35). To focus only on the phenomenon of being online is a worthwhile endeavor, as is analyzing a novel as fiction, but anthropologists and sociologists generally opt for grounding what is imagined with what can be observed or measured in comparable and verifiable observable terms.
While Dawson has a valid point, it is important to probe the notion that serving as an extension, analogous to other communication media in the past, does not ‘compete’ with the quotidian trajectory of everyday life. As is true for other forms of technology, the digital revolution is an extension of the human imagination. By minimizing the barriers of time and space, cyberspace forums such as blogs provide a venue for developing religious identity through extended contact with like-minded individuals or mentors who otherwise would not be known. This is especially the case for converts living in areas with few or no Muslims and no on-the-ground Muslim community in any sense.46 These online networks are translocal and transnational, involving individuals who are unlikely to meet in person. As avatars with real-life concerns off screen, virtual communities are nevertheless formed online, even if they do not directly lead to personal contact offline. There is indeed a competing demand on the time of individuals, but ultimately the online persona is another dimension of the fantasy worlds everyone creates.47
The Yemeni villages I first walked through three decades ago are still there and in theory I could revisit at any time. Indeed, I have returned several times over the years, noting the changes that makes every researcher wince at past failures to adequately predict the future. Ironically, I could also communicate with some of the children (and now even grandchildren) of informants I knew back then with a click of the mouse and an Arabic keyboard. The ‘field’ for many anthropologists is no longer just a ‘there’ that one goes to, but a ‘there’ that comes here and now in a nanosecond. To paraphrase a timeworn and admittedly stereotypical saw of the past, in virtual reality the mountain really has come to Muhammad. As I explained in an earlier essay on the transformation of e-ethnography as a kind of ‘Virtual Dasein’ (Varisco 2007b), cyberspace creates a space in which being there (in Heidegger’s Dasein sense) reconfigures the problem over wrestling with the concept of what the state of being (Sein) means in the real world sense. Ethnographies represent a purported reality based on the authority of the ethnographer’s presence, having been there and seen things, according to the demonstrable skills of observation and analysis. Reflexivist musing, at times outright whining, about the colonial baggage and untruth-to-power taint of the Western ethnographer aside, there are good ethnographic accounts and bad ones. The goal is hardly ever (at least in the non commercial market) to write mere fiction. The measure of an ethnography should be perceived fit with an assumed reality rather than the discursive entropy some critics think dooms objective representation from the start (Varisco 2006).
Cyberspace, unlike geographically defined field sites, is by definition an imaginary space where competing spins on reality can not easily be confused with the reality being represented. The avatars in Second Life may walk like a duck and talk like a duck, but they cannot fly south in the real winter. This does not make the process of analyzing human behavior and its representation any easier than face-to-face interaction. In a sense it opens a digitalized Pandora’s box in which the always problematic issues of sample size and representative behavioral norms are even further removed from potential verification. I believe that almost any veteran of ethnographic fieldwork would acknowledge that the unique aspect of the experience is the dialogic nature of interpersonal interaction with the people being studied. It is never a one-way glass mirror and rarely a colonial era backdrop where the visiting researcher calls all the shots. Ethnographers ask questions, but are just as likely to be asked about their own society and themselves. Written notes may be jotted down by the intruding anthropologist, but mental notes are made by all in the encounters. Being there is not simply a means, it is in hindsight a methodological end in itself, an emotionally charged life experience that cannot be repeated nor be dismissed as inconsequential. In the process of collecting information from real people, the tears of pain and joy are usually shared. Friendships are established; suffering is felt viscerally. Hal the HRAF file robot only exists in the imagination of ethnography’s naysayers. Being there in the field is Dasein in the full sense proposed by Heidegger, a kind of being there which cares about the very fact of being there.
To participate in cyberspace as an e-ethnographer is to imagine oneself in an already imagined world, one set loose from the moorings of formal institutions and traditional structural networks. Although in an abstract sense the millions of Muslims capable of being online constitute a virtual Ummah, in hyper reality it is only a potential and idealized grouping of individual believers forming links not possible in the space-and-time limitations of lived experience. In a geographical field site interaction is limited by space; propinquity prompts relationships. While in theory any Muslim online could connect via email, blog or chat room with any other Muslim, neither space nor time impede this relating. I could in the next ten seconds contact a Muslim in China, half way around the globe. But our relationship, even with webcam intervention, is still across a digital divide. And if we do not speak a common language, it is not even clear we could lol. Paradoxically, ‘webservation’ is necessarily performed blind to the interpersonal dynamics so crucial to the ethnographic encounter. In a chat room, for example, I cannot even determine if the person I am chatting with is male or female, really Muslim or faking it. It is not always possible to identify a Muslim by name alone.48 We can exchange words, but our eyes never meet. In this sense there is no interaction to be observed; we relate only by imagining alongside each other, blind to the myriad others imagining themselves through cyberspace at exactly the same moment.
The blogosphere frontier of cyberspace is more than a fieldsite; it offers the opportunity to blur the distinction, false as it has always been, between the dual roles of participating and observing.49 Webserving is primarily focused on others as they represent themselves online and battle rhetorically over identity issues. When I read a blog or engage with a blogger via email or a comment box, I necessarily assume the position of someone seeking to know something about the other. Yet at the same time I shape the ways in which others will view my digital persona, especially if I maintain a personal blog or Facebook page or can in any way be Googled into the presence of the myriad others sharing cyberspace. The two-way dimension of fieldwork is maintained through participant webservation, but in a way that opens up multiple identities on display. When I lived in a rural Yemeni valley in 1978, my identity was mediated entirely through my presence. Since my wife and companion ethnographer was Lebanese and I spoke Arabic, it was assumed by many that I too must be Lebanese. My American identity came to be filtered through television programs that left me coming from either the gun-toting Western of The Rifleman or drug-sniffing Kojak episodes, two of the major ‘American’ programs that arrived in the valley about the same time as I did (Adra 1996). But there was no way for the Yemenis I met to learn anything about my real life or any of the ways in which others in my own country might interact with me. Today, I am searchable in the nearest Internet cafe with a personal blog archive approaching 4 years and a Google return of over 4550 webpages in April 2009 for ‘Daniel Martin Varisco,’ my unique namesake. The contemporary ethnographer does not just go to the field but brings along a web presence that may archive far more than any one of us would want to have visible, even to our most intimate friends. Future analysis of this complicated and ephemeral space should not be twittered away.
Allow me to end with a brief comment on the anthropological entry into cyberspace. The literature, print and electronic, on Internet research has grown exponentially and in many cases is only a mouse click on Google away. Also present in the media watching blogosphere are scholars who attempt to present an objective or non-partisan perspective on Muslims. Among individual scholars, Professor Juan Cole has achieved a wide audience for his website Informed Comment, which extends beyond Islam to the history and politics of the Middle East.50 Cole reads widely in the mainstream media, citing news reports as often as offering his own ‘informed’ commentary, especially on the war in Iraq. On the other side of the Atlantic, Gary Bunt maintains a blog, Virtually Islamic, on Islam in the digital age.51 On the European continent, Vit Sisler has created Digital Islam, a major forum for emerging scholarly research.52 Other scholarly specialists on Islam post primarily through agencies, such as historian Richard Bulliet on Agence Global53 and anthropologist William Beeman.54 In 2005 I created Tabsir, an academic website devoted to informed commentary on Islam and the Middle East and shared with a dozen scholars across disciplines.55 The intersection of Islam and science is the focus of a blog, Religion and Science News, by Salman Hameed.56 Among scholars who have analyzed in depth the growth of ‘Cyber Islamic environments’ is Gary R. Bunt (2000, 2003), a Religious Studies professor at the University of Wales. Deborah Wheeler (2006) has provided a detailed ethnography of Internet use in Kuwait. Jon W. Anderson (2003, 2007, 2009), a cultural anthropologist, has written and spoken extensively about the “creolization” of Muslims on the Internet.
Crosscutting Muslim identity in cyberspace are ethnic and national affinities: Arab, Persian, Afghan, Turkish, African, Asian and many more. Thus, there is no pure Islamic presence, separated from other relevant forms of identity, in cyberspace any more than there is in what still might nostalgically be called the real world. All communities are imagined to some extent, but of course the imagination has greater play in the theoretically blank slate that links computers into one virtually uncontrollable web. Cyberspace, in this sense, recreates the imagined Orient of our colonially bordered past. To the extent that Edward Said (1979) was right to debunk the biased binary of East vs. West, Occident vs. Orient, the re-appropriation of ‘Orient’ for the virtual world in which Islam and Middle Eastern cultures are spun is virtually inevitable.57 In a sense we have come full circle in analyzing the imagined area once disparaged as an essentialized and inferiorized Orient. As the Orient of much past Orientalism did not reflect the real people of the geographic region, so the cyberOrient can be nothing but a digital representation of on-the-ground life. The difference is that the imagining is now shared, as real Muslims and Middle Easterners redefine themselves in cyberspace. Whether we will be locked into a World of Rhetorical Warcraft or if towers of SimCulturalDiversity will be constructed to impact reality, Islam in cyberspace will be studied long into the imaginable future.
For details on the history of the Internet, see Hobbes’ Internet Timeline, http://www.zakon.org/robert/internet/timeline/. Accessed April 4, 2009.
Taken from the website Internet World Stats, http://www.internetworldstats.com/. Accessed April 4, 2009.
Technorati, State of the Blogosphere Report, http://technorati.com/blogging/state-of-the-blogosphere/ Accessed April 4, 2009.
http://ahmadiyya.org/WordPress/2008/06/05/blog-resumption/. Accessed July 2, 2008.
The persecution of the Ahmadiyya community is archived online at http://www.thepersecution.org/. Accessed July 2, 2008.
http://www.muslimhiphop.com/forum/index.php?act=home. Accessed April 5, 2009.
http://persecutedchurch.blogspot.com/2009/01/saudi-blogger-arrested-site-blocked.html. Accessed April 5, 2009.
http://kashmiri-nomad.blogspot.com/. Accessed July 11, 2008. The blogger is self-described as: ‘Born in Kashmir, raised and educated in Western Europe. I presently live somewhere west of the Bosphorus and east of the Rocky Mountains,’ adding that his interest is in ‘Passing comments regarding things I may not necessarily be an expert about.’ Since November 1, 2006 this blog had received about 45,000 visitors by July 8, 2008.
http://kashmiri-nomad.blogspot.com/2008/07/exposed-how-parts-of-british-media-want.html. Accessed July 11, 2008.
http://kashmiri-nomad.blogspot.com/2008/07/tolerant-westerners-strike-desecrate.html. Accessed July 11, 2008.
http://muslimahmediawatch.blogspot.com/2008/07/salaam-and-hello.html. Accessed July 11, 2008.
http://muslimahmediawatch.blogspot.com/2007/08/salaam-waleykum-everyone.html. Accessed July 11, 2008.
Comment on Talk Islam, http://talkislam.info/2009/03/14/i-dont-see-the-point-of-islamic-google/. Accessed April 5, 2009. The reference is to a Google search engine designed for Muslims, with search functions in English, French and Arabic.
On April 5, 2009 the total number of hits for ‘muslim blog’ reached 22,400,000.
Although the main search engine is in English, there are versions for over a hundred different languages. To gauge the popularity of Google’s search engine, it is worth noting that in May, 2008 there were 135,291,588 different people who used the service, according to the site analysis of Compete (http://siteanalytics.compete.com/google.com/?metric=uv#, accessed July 2, 2008).
http://www.halaltube.com/halal-tube-on-facebook-myspace-and-twitter. Accessed April 5, 2009.
http://www.tomsofmaine.com/press/press-releases.aspx?id=59&s4=1. Accessed April 5, 2009. The MySpace account of MR, however, on April 5, 2009 included an ad for a singles site called plentyoffish.com; it was definitely not halal.
Consider this post for Tuesday, December 04, 2007 on the Indian Muslim blog, Oroosa’s Orbit: ‘Almost 5 months. Yes that’s a long period I kept away from my blog. I know there is no use maintaining a blog if you can’t update it. But...’ (http://oroosa.blogspot.com/2007/12/five-months.html, accessed July 2, 2008).
A number of Muslims found the website offensive. In late 2004 it was hacked with death threats, as reported on the blog City of Brass (http://cityofbrass.blogspot.com/2004/12/cowards-hack-muslimwakeup.html). The Progressive Muslim Union is now disbanded, according to an entry in Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Progressive_Muslim_Union).
Nassef already had his enemies in 2005, as the ephemeral website ‘Ahmed Nassef is Dajjal’ (http://nassefisdajjal.blogspot.com/) indicates.
http://www.muhajabah.com/islamicblog/veiled4allah.php. Accessed July 2, 2008.
For example, http://www.geocities.com/mutmainaa1/bloggers.html and http://www.anindianmuslim.com/2006/08/list-of-muslim-bloggers-from-india.html. Gary Bunt’s listing contains some blogs at http://virtuallyislamic.blogspot.com/. Accessed July 2, 2008.
http://www.blogherald.com/2005/10/10/the-blog-herald-blog-count-october-2005/. Accessed July 2, 2008.
The methodologies of modern anthropology, especially the role as both participant and observer in the field, are often conflated with the travel-through reflections of travelers, missionaries and journalists. The ethnographer does more than look in as an outside observer; this involves knowledge of the local language and dialect applied in a dialogic relationship with the people being studied.
G. Schmidt (2006, 154) cites the example of a young female convert in Denmark, where given the lack of fellow Muslims she felt an intimate sense of community with women across national boundaries.
There are, of course, virtual online communities with a Muslim presence, such as Second Life (Derrickson 2008).
One of the bloggers on Muslimah Media Watch introduced herself by saying ‘And yup, I really am Muslim... don’t be fooled by the name.’ http://muslimahmediawatch.blogspot.com/2008/07/introduction.html. Accessed July 11, 2008.
For a recent example of the combination of amateur blogging and concurrent e-ethnography of Iranian bloggers, see Doostdor (2004).
http://www.agenceglobal.com/author.asp?type=2&id=2. Accessed April 5, 2009.
This article has benefited from the stimulating discussion at the Workshop on Muslims and the Media, Princeton University, where it was first presented in May, 2008. I thank the participants, especially for the readings by Juliane Hammer and Roxanne Marcotte.