In Hashtag Islam, Gary Bunt – a pioneer of the study of Islam and the internet – builds upon the arguments of his three previous books; iMuslims, Islam in the Digital Age and Virtually Islamic, to illustrate how Muslims produce and consume digital content in “Islamic Cyber Environments.”
This book provides readers with cutting edge analysis of how technology influences the dissemination of Islamic thought, mobilisation and networking.
The author explores the impact of these developments upon Muslim beliefs and practices, particularly in relation to issues of power, communication and interpretations that have reshaped the understanding of Islam and religious authority.
Most of the early use of the internet by Muslims from the late 1990s onwards saw the creation of various online platforms that enabled people to access virtual fatawa banks, search religious texts and connect with like-minded communities around the world.
These trends have continued and accelerated in the last two decades resulting in the huge diversity web portals, social media interfaces and online digital platforms that mirror the complexity of offline, Muslim lives.
It has also reproduced the choices people make in the real world in how they align with their theological, ideological or juristic affiliations. Alternatively, some take a mix and match approach and go “fatwa shopping” or request a “snapwa” via Snapchat to suit their individual tastes.
Online Islam has produced its own challenges and helped enable the emergence of the “celebrity sheikh” and also allowed individuals without legitimate credentials to gain large followings to pronounce upon serious issues that they are not qualified to speak about.
Muslims are no different to non-Muslims in using social media such as Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, or utilise applications on closed messaging groups such as WhatsApp, or to use the internet to explore mundane matters as well as religious concerns.
Islam has become profitable and big businesses have caught up with lucrative opportunities presented in the Islamic knowledge economy when the likes of Google developed a Ramadan Hub and Qibla Finder back in 2017. This increasing proliferation of halal goods and services raise deeper questions about consumerism and Islam and appears to vindicate a suggestion made 10 years ago in Meccanomics, that ‘the great battle for the soul of the Muslim world will be fought not over religion but over market capitalism.’
While the internet has made it easier for some to find a spouse it is also blamed for being a factor in the rising rates of divorce among Muslims and has encouraged permissive behaviour and religiously inappropriate relationships as inevitable by-products of Facebook and marriage/dating websites such as SingleMuslim.com and muzmatch.
The net has also become a space where Muslim women have challenged traditional gender roles with increasingly reflecting female led religious, social and cultural activism. This has been criticised by some male scholars who reinforce patriarchal interpretations of Islam in the name of protecting women.
In Saudia Arabia, Sheikh Saad El-Ghamidi, argued that women should not be allowed log on to the web without a male guardian, but he was quickly challenged and mocked for his infantilising judgement. This type of paternalism is ignored by the creation of women-only digital spaces, such as internet cafés in Afghanistan as well as female academics and scholars such as Dr Farhat Hashmi, who offers religious instructions via her satellite television show, website and apps such as Quran and Hand.
The book also notes that despite censorship in some Muslim countries, the net is the most popular source of news and information for tens of millions of people.
The policing of social media activity and prosecution of individuals for the content of their posts, still poses a problem in certain states such as Turkey, Iran and Malaysia, However, tech-savvy users have always found ways to bypass these restrictions and use encrypted tools and alternative platforms as demonstrated during the Arab Uprisings and other recent mass protests.
The darker side of the web is explored in the chapters on E-Jihad and Gen-ISIS as Bunt examines the online campaigns of the Taliban, al-Qaeda, al-Shabaab, and others. Their messages on online videos and digital magazines are remarkably resilient to proscription on social media such as Twitter, Telegram and Kirk.
Supporters of extremist websites are able to target young people by adopting aspects of popular culture and gaming imagery such as Call of Duty, to create distinct brands that would appeal to ‘millennial mujahids’.
At the same time, governments and religious organisations have developed online strategies to counter the propaganda of violent groups through various ‘hacktivist’ networks and suspension of their social media accounts.
As the author notes, in an “increasingly complex digital souk of ideas, it is only through creativity and innovation that some messages will ever be heard, while others require the momentum of support (and perhaps a popular hashtag) in order to reach audience momentum.”
This book offers a concise overview of the consequences of information communication technologies. It is well-worth reading for anyone with an interest in the internet and will be of particular value to academics and policy makers.