- Hashtag Islam: How Cyber-Islamic Environments Are Transforming Religious Authority by Gary R. Bunt
This slim volume by one of the major scholars writing on Muslims and digital religion packs a substantial punch: 150 pages divided into tight chapters that examine Muslims’ religious engagements with social media, aspects of faith online, presentations and evolutions of religious authority, and Sunni extremism over the past decade. While Gary Bunt’s early work focused on websites, this book expands to various platforms and interfaces for user engagements, focusing on how these technologies interact with Muslim religious discourses, beliefs, and practices—particularly around questions of authority.
Hashtag Islam opens with a brief but comprehensive summary of 20th and 21st century European thinking on public squares and their virtual incarnations, before turning to an incisive survey of social media. Muslims—like non-Muslims—engage with a variety of social media interfaces, posting messages on WhatsApp and liking photographs on Instagram, and have migrated from platform to platform in accordance with global trends. Muslims’ religious engagement on social media is best understood as organically part of online social engagement: Muslims, like all people, bring their whole selves to posts, likes, and retweets and to the applications that they download. In unfree contexts, they also face the same censorship and political policing when discussing religious topics as when discussing other social and political issues. Whether in Saudi Arabia, China, Pakistan, or Malaysia, Bunt notes, states police social media activity: prosecuting individuals for the content of their posts, and blocking genres of content or entire platforms. In these cases, religion may be cited as the reason for the prosecution or the blocking, but in the service of state interests and state control. Users do not respond by avoiding social media but by finding new apps, interfaces, and platforms—reflecting both the agency of ordinary people and the powerful embeddedness of social media in contemporary lives.
The elements of time and scale have raised recurring questions for scholars of globalization: how does it impact various aspects of human life to have so much information available so instantly? Bunt examines how online platforms enable Muslims to find answers to religious questions, access religious texts, connect with religious communities, and educate themselves about particular aspects of the religion (just as they do for other areas of life—professional, personal, social, political, and economic). As with all online content, determining the credibility of a particular Islamic website, Facebook page, or app can be challenging. In some cases, these sites magnify issues already present in print media: Qur’an web-sites, for example, can channel users’ understanding of key passages in the text by the [End Page 513] words chosen for the translation—just as printed Qur’an translations do. Fatwa collections on a particular website reflect the outlook of the overseeing scholar, and some of the best-organized, easiest-to-navigate, multilingual fatwa websites reflect the most conservative Sunni views. Bunt’s analysis of the many arenas for user engagement with Qur’an content is particularly rich, giving an apt overview of the importance of the digital arena as well as the anxieties it arouses: radical views, profit motives, sectarian incitement, etc. As his additional case studies indicate, the online arena offers many options for faith engagement, with hajj apps, moonsighting websites, streaming video from Mecca and other holy sites, convert YouTube channels, marriage apps, Instagram pious fashion feeds, Sufi orders’ websites, Ahmadi Twitter accounts, and more. The diversity and complexity of Muslim life offline is mirrored and supported by the diversity of Muslim life online.
Bunt’s chapter on religious authority online engages with a number of relevant issues. For example, the proliferation of online fatwa banks has enabled users to search for fatwas, picking and choosing the parts that they find meaningful. Further, the “marketplace” aspect of Internet media forms has benefited those individuals and institutions willing to brand themselves, to engage in careful website or app design, and to present their content in accessible ways...