- iMuslims: Rewiring the House of Islam
In the digital age, cyberspace offers an alternative outlet for religious piety, practice, and polemics. With this eclectic monograph, Gary R. Bunt, a senior lecturer in Islamic Studies at the University of Wales, cements his reputation as the most prominent and prolific scholar of today's "cyber-Islamic landscape." In six wide-ranging chapters (plus an introduction and conclusion) Bunt charts Muslim community networking and identity politics online across a wide social, political, and cultural spectrum.
The book's opening chapter, "Locating Islam in Cyberspace," examines the complex interconnections and tensions within Internet Islam —and the vexing questions about audience, anonymity, and insider/outsider perspectives that scholars face while tracking Cyber Muslims. Bunt's analysis highlights the complexity of Islamic authority in cyberspace, a medium that both facilitates personal interactions and undermines normative modes of hierarchy and power. "The Internet is facilitating communication that could make the ummah more cohesive," he argues, "but it also represents and exposes diversity of expression and understanding, which can facilitate fractures rather than heal the divisions within Islam" (p. 36). "Accessing Cyber-Islamic Environments" documents the demographics of Muslim web users. Tracing the fault lines along the digital divide, Bunt charts the sharp disparities of connectivity within Muslim countries, emphasizing the lack of computer access among Muslim women and the consequences of pervasive government censorship.
"Decoding the Sacred: Islamic Source Code" offers important insights into how the Internet simultaneously facilitates and reconfigures Muslim discourse and practice. Bunt surveys a variety of Islamic digital platforms: from Qur'an recitation, translation, and interpretation, to ritual performances and polemics. His analysis focuses on key Muslim exemplars in a range of cultural spaces, including the Qatar-based Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Iraq's Ayatullah 'Ali al-Sistani, and the Egyptian popular preacher Amr Khaled. Bunt demonstrates how new technologies and new media spaces —Podcasting, video blogs, social networking sites —reach new Muslim audiences and create alternative markets for Islamic knowledge, all of which stretch the boundaries of normative tradition.
"The Islamic Blogosphere" narrows the focus to explore the emerging global networks of Muslim bloggers. With diverse backgrounds as information technology (IT) specialists, scientists, journalists, and students, bloggers represent powerful new Muslim voices, from Morocco to Malaysia and all points in between. As Bunt illustrates, by harnessing technology their influence transcends their numbers. In his words, "The impact of blogs reaches from the cybercafe in the souq to governmental offices and international media" (p. 133).
The book's final two chapters spotlight a key (and controversial) dimension of Muslim cyberspace discourse. "The Cutting Edge: Militaristic Jihad in Cyberspace," depicts the Internet as a critical tool in the propaganda, recruitment, and logistical operations of Muslim militants. Bunt provides rich examples of the use of multiple media forums by tech-savvy jihadists, from video clips and blogs to e-magazines. With a palpable sense of irony he notes that, "Developers in [End Page 152] Silicon Valley have played an involuntary but critical role in propagating jihad —in many ways as significant as the motivating Muslim ideologues espousing their interpretations of war" (p. 178). The book's final chapter, "Digital Jihadi Battlefields: Iraq and Palestine," traces a variety of jihadi cyber-networks and highlights the "use of violent and elaborately choreographed online pronouncements and performances" (p. 247). Within the fluid political landscape of contemporary Iraq and Palestine, diverse groups —insurgents, politicians, religious scholars —each use the Internet to advance their own divergent ideological and political goals.
With its thematic approach and array of examples, iMuslims: Rewiring the House of Islam offers an unmatched portrait of the myriad manifestations of digital Islam.
In Bunt's succinct summation, "The Internet has reshaped the boundaries of Muslim networks, created new dialogues, and presented new transaction routes within the Islamic knowledge economy" (p. 276). The book raises as many questions as it answers, however. Amid the cacophony of online chatter, is it possible to draw broad social conclusions and...