“We’ve all seen the power of social media, and how it helped in the recent uprisings that toppled the Tunisian and Egyptian dictators. And while there has been a lot of talk about that subject, there has hardly been any discussion on perhaps an even more important topic, and that is the impact of new media on Islam.” – Amir Ahmad
The recently-concluded conference on “The Future of Islam in the Age of New Media” was a refreshing change from the fusty, often esoteric discussions of Islam that I’m used to. The interesting and timely topic, and the unorthodox format of giving an eclectic group of 60 speakers 60 seconds each to share their thoughts made this a unique online audio seminar.
Most of the speakers were optimistic about the benefits of the Internet for today’s Muslims. Some cited the easy access to fatwas and religious advice online as a way lay Muslims can begin to take charge of their own religious understanding without imams and scholars as intermediaries. Others saw it as an opportunity for peace-loving Muslims to correct the image of our religion set by terrorists who commit heinous violence in the name of Islam. Many of the women speakers acknowledged how the Internet has given a voice to women who traditionally have less say in religious discourse.
But some warned that the image is not as rosy as it seems: the Internet also plays host to insidious information that may promote extremist or violent ideologies.
You will not agree with all the speakers, but listening to the seminar will help you form your own opinion of what the future of Islam will be like in this digital age.
Here are some of the more interesting snippets from the conference…
Reza Aslan: “A decade ago, if a Muslim in a place like Cairo wanted a fatwa, he had really only one choice, and that is to go to the venerable scholars of Al-Azhar University, whose opinions on religious and social matters are essentially law. Now, that Muslim can just stay home and troll through the Internet’s vast archive of new and previously published fatwas, by global assembly of scholars on any issue imaginable…and that more than anything else indicates the way in which the Internet has not just democratized Islamic authority, but fractured the Muslim community into ever competing schisms and sects, and looking forward, we’re going to find an even more eclectic Islam…”
Wajahat Ali: “The future of Islam in the age of new media is one in which the ground is accessible by our thumb on our iPod, where there are apps for halal food, the mimbar and the pulpit is a domain name, and the imaam is no longer affixed to one city but he’s using Skype and giving us khutbas globally.”
Ethan Zuckerman: “I think the future of Islam in the age of new media is a future where people have a harder time making sweeping misinformed judgements about 1.6 billion Muslims, because they’re having meaningful encounters online with Muslims, even if there are few in the communities they live in…When people don’t know Muslims in their everyday life, we’re vulnerable to stereotypes that are all too prevalent in the media, unfairly associating Islam with intolerance and violence. There’s a virulent strain of Islamophobia today, promoted by people seeking political advantage by demonizing Islam. The best way to fight these absurd and offensive representations is to help people interact with real Muslims, not just emotions created by the media. For me the most exciting possibility of a digital age is building real online friendships across cultures and shattering stereotypes.”
Shahirah is an aspiring journalist who is interested in social issues, women’s rights, the Middle East conflict, and Islam in the Western world. She is also interested in languages and is currently studying the Arabic language.