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THE three papers in this section explore the media’s role in shaping the public and private spheres in Islamic countries. Each paper approaches the issue from a different angle and each focuses upon somewhat distinct national and cultural contexts or units of analysis. Each paper raises a series of questions, some of which are addressed and some remain unanswered. In this brief introduction I will point to two questions in particular. The first is the question of the tension between the form and the content of the media in influencing the nature and the potentials of media technology as a public sphere. To what extent are these two dimensions marching in different directions in the Islamic world? Here we would want to explore the extent to which the form of the new media, particularly the Internet but also newspapers and satellite television, are pluralistic and decentralized and thus lend themselves to a democratic public sphere of ideas and communication , whereas the major content or use of this space is dominated by individuals and groups with non-democratically oriented ideologies. The second, more general question concerns the extent to which the terms public and private mean the same things in Western democratic and Islamic discourse. Each of the writers necessarily bases his or her analysis on certain assumption about the meaning of these terms, but it is possible to argue that Islamic discourse conceptualizes these terms somewhat differently than the way they are used in Western academic discourse. SOCIAL RESEARCH, Vol. 70, No. 3 (Fall 2003) Media in the Islamic World: Introduction* KIAN TAJBAKHSH *I would like to express my thanks to Charles Kurzman for commenting on a draft of this paper. Jon Anderson’s paper explores the role of Internet technology in shaping a public sphere of discourse in Islamic societies. He examines the use that Islamic or (to use the more politicized term) Islamist groups have made of the Internet to communicate with audiences and communities that transcend the physical confines of neighborhood or even nation, the latter often characterized by authoritarian regimes with very low tolerance for an open public sphere with a relatively free press and exchange of ideas, or for a private sphere of freedom of conscience. One of Anderson ’s interesting suggestions is that the current proliferation of Islamic-oriented websites are more akin to the coffeehouses and salons of early modern Europe as well as to the early print capitalism that helped create an imagined community of “co-readers” out of fragmented populations (as highlighted by Benedict Anderson) rather than the current Western manifestation of Internet technologies as mediums of information overload and (perhaps) causes of individual and social atomization. He characterizes the Internet as an “intermediate” sphere between official public discourse and “private” communications among intimates. Two questions are prompted by the paper. Can these new virtual spaces of the Internet play a similarly transformative role in today’s societies as the imagined communities of co-readers or the salons and coffeehouses played in the earlier societies analyzed by Benedict Anderson and Jurgen Habermas? On the one hand, the vast amounts of information available on the Internet, organized through a very decentralized network of producers, the relative ease of accessing it, the ability to communicate with often anonymous others, and the interactive quality of websites, give this virtual space—like its more “real” counterparts such as coffeehouses and other public spaces—the capacity to act as a forum for strangers to enter a sphere of “dialogue” and communication . On the other hand, the Internet appears to have a binary quality more marked than other public spaces. If you are logged-in, so to speak, you are immediately inundated with information , the volume of which, through the hyperlinks, expands in 870 SOCIAL RESEARCH an apparently exponential direction. Once logged out, however, almost none of the exchanges that occur there enter into everyday life. This contrasts with public spaces, which offer an individual many potential and indirect opportunities for different degrees of public participation (from sitting passively in a park to participating in a conversation with strangers). Indeed, sociologically speaking, the Internet is not without paradoxes. An intriguing example is suggested by Iranian sociologist...


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