Islam in the Digital Age: E-Jihad, Online Fatwas and Cyber Islamic Environments

Book Review

Bunt, G. A. (2003). Islam in the Digital Age: E-Jihad, Online Fatwas and Cyber Islamic Environments. London: Pluto Press. 237 pages.

Image courtesy of catalogue.library.manchester.ac.uk

Islam is usually seen as a community left behind in the matter of technology. The majority of Muslim community does not live in developed countries. Therefore, this conclusion makes sense. Only those who live in an advanced country will be benefit from by the technology, while the Muslim majority had not had this privilege. However, this perception nowadays is relatively incorrect because of the technology penetration, especially communication technology such as the Internet since it is becoming global. This trend makes the Muslim community in each part of the world now have the same access to the Internet as the rest.

More than just recognizing the fact that the Muslim world today has gained the Internet literacy, it is rather significant to explore what will the Muslim world do with the Internet. While there are numerous research and literature about the Muslim world and the mass media, there are still low studies which have identified the relationship between the Muslim world and the Internet practices. This deficit is worsened by the stereotype that has been given to Islam and the technology like the conclusion that the Muslim community has left behind. However, this perception is getting more critiques especially because there is a change happening in the Muslim world in this digital era. Gary Bunt tries to offer a closer observation of this brand new phenomenon with a more narrative language and also wants to offer explanation on how the Muslim communities interact with and within the virtual world like the Internet.

In general, this book develops three major issues which are covered in several chapters. His discussion started with his attempt to define the concept of Cyber Islamic Environment. His idea about this concept is based on the simple definition that Cyber Islamic Environment is anything that a Muslim does related to the Internet activities with the emphasis on his/her religiousness and identity expressions. Although this concept is relatively general, Bunt’s definition helps to describe how a Muslim as an individual, as a community or an institution interacts with and within the Internet in reference to their religious faith as a Muslim. For instance, it helps us to understand how the Muslims’ daily basic practices in using email, mailing lists, chat-rooms, social media, web based forum discussions are mentioned as the examples of the concept of Cyber Islamic Environment.

General awareness on using the Internet as a religious field is also considered as a global phenomenon. Daniel A. Stout (2012) for example, mentioned that the vast majority (74%) of religious affiliated groups are using the Internet. In addition, there are nearly 3 million people accessing religious material each day in the United States (Larsen, 2004).  Bunt’s description informs our understanding about this trend especially in the Muslim world. Furthermore, he also explores the possibility of the evolution of the Muslim communities in using the Internet as an ‘Islamic tool’ in order to express religious ideas and the involvement in raising of political consciousness.

Focusing on the political involvement in Muslim online activities, Bunt mentioned the concept of e-jihad. His attempt to define e-jihad has created several disagreements where it seems vague to some extent. Bunt tries to simplify the meaning of jihad by defining it as “jihad with swords” and places this analogy into the wider discussion about the Muslim ‘political’ activity on the Internet. From this point, he proposed that e-jihad means Muslims are using the Internet as their sword to fight in the name of God. In addition, he gave a contextual background when he refers to the September 11 incident as the rise of e-jihad where it was used as counter-propaganda for the Western misleading opinion on Islam. Generally, the Muslim community felt that they were targeted by this wrong perception about who should be blamed for the 9/11. Therefore, e-jihad is also considered as the way they defend themselves during this “propaganda”. In some cases, Bunt claimed Muslim activities are related to hacking and cracking American or Israelis websites as the evidence of this jihad with swords in the virtual world.

This hacking activity is not always successful or effective since on several occasions it just went wrong. Some hacking and cracking activities have been dismantled by the authorities, while other targeted sites just had a strong firewall that could not be penetrated by the hackers. Bunt mentioned that some hackers are related to the Al-Qaeda groups, but interpreted their main agenda was simply to get the world’s attention to their existence. Therefore, this “e-jihad” is merely considered to be another approach to propaganda using the newest technology like the Internet rather than old mass media.

In the more detailed discussion in Chapter 3, the author examined this hacking and cracking activities in the name of Islam. Bunt showed Muslim Hackers Club as one of the examples where it provides ‘virus tutorials’ for everyone who wants to infiltrate others’ website. The author also mentioned that these websites are using Islamic terminology such as Nabi, Ummah, and Insha-Allah, and as a result can be identified as owned by Muslims (p. 39). Another example came from World’s Fantabulous Defacers (WFD) who had attacked Israeli, Indian and Yugoslavian sites during 2000 until 2002 (p.41). The issues that were posted by these activists were mostly around Pro-Palestine, freedom for Kashmir, Kosovo, Bosnia and Chechnya, which are generally issues associated with global Muslim solidarity. However, the writer also noted that not all of these kind of hacking activities are always related to Islam. Several online activists are only using the same issues to get attention from the public, or its just purely criminal, and some others only want to support these ‘global injustice’ issues even though they are not affiliated with Islam.

On the last part of his book, Bunt examines the role of Muslim authority in the age of the Internet. This discussion is especially influenced by the facts that there are trends among modern Muslim individuals who seek religious advice online. Since nowadays we can easily download online khutbah, sermons, or any other Islamic materials through the Internet, it also means that we can easily access fatwas and make an online consultation with many Imams or Islamic scholars.  In analysis, Bunt argues the role of authority in Muslim world is shifting related to these online fatwas. His study also analyzed some Sunni websites around the Middle East, South East Asia, Bosnia, North America, and also those used by Islamic minorities like Shi’a in Iran.

Bunt’s book works best in introducing the Internet and new media discourse in the Muslim world. In the level of explorative studies, this book provides detailed description on how modern Muslim communities around the world are using the Internet for religious purposes in general, both with good positive and negative aspects. However, in analyzing the connection of Islam to the term of e-jihad this book seems trapped in the global framing on how the Western world has seen Islam. Islam is considered the whole activity of a Muslim daily life involving Islamic values, and as a result when an individual or a Muslim institution using the Internet it cannot be separated from his/her Islamic values. This consideration is difficult to be applied in Bunt’s idea of e-jihad, even though he has mentioned several activities that he claimed as evidence of this e-jihad. For his discussion about online fatwa, it is true that there is a change on how modern Muslim generations seek information about Islamic laws or discussing about the religion. Rather than as a replacement, I believe this trend is more likely a complimentary development for the traditional media usage of the same patterns in the information seeking of Islam. The fact is, in the offline reality, Muslims around the world are still considering mosques as their center of religious activity in their daily Islamic environment where Imam and ulama remain their central figures in Islamic life.

References:

Stout, D. A (2012). Media and religion: Foundations of an emerging field. New York; London: Routledge.

Larsen, E. (2004). Cyberfaith: How American pursue religion online. In L. L. Dawson & D. E. Cowan (Eds.), Religion online: Finding faith on the Internet (pp. 17-22). New York: Routledge.

2 thoughts on “Islam in the Digital Age: E-Jihad, Online Fatwas and Cyber Islamic Environments

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s