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Dale F. Eickelman and Jon W. Anderson, eds.

, New Media and the Muslim World: The


Emerging Public Sphere, 2nd ed. (Indiana University Press, 2003).

Book review by John Postill (Sheffield Hallam University) for Comparative Studies of
South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, forthcoming 2008

Sheffield, 9 April 2008

[* NB draft only, to quote or cite please refer to published version *]

This edited volume is the result of a series of international meetings on civil society and
'new media' in the Muslim world that took place in the second half of the 1990s. Most
contributors, including the editors, are anthropologists based in the United States. Although
the volume's aims are never spelt out (an issue addressed later in this review), we can
surmise from the book's title and introductory chapter that the main aim is to explore the
relation between the proliferation of 'new media' and the seeming emergence of a public
sphere in the Muslim world. More broadly put, contributors are asking to what extent such
media are helping to transform the civic and public lives of Muslims around the globe.

The book is a fascinating exploration that will engage - and sometimes surprise - readers
with its varied case studies drawing from an in-depth knowledge of the languages and
societies covered. Chapter contributors discuss in rich empirical detail media developments
in the Middle East (various media), Lebanon (TV, internet), Egypt (cartoons, pulp fiction),
Turkey (TV), Bangladesh (religious texts, pulp fiction), Indonesia (internet), and among
Black Muslims in the United States (secular media, religious texts). Uniting all these
disparate studies is a concern with how middle-class Muslims around the world are
harnessing new media technologies to pursue civic and religious goals that are midway
between those of traditional Muslim scholars and clerics and those of the semi-literate or
illiterate masses. Paving the way are Western-educated professionals (especially engineers
and scientists) who are challenging the authority of an earlier generation of religious
interpreters through new technological and discursive means (chapter 1).

It is among these new mediators that the main struggles reported in the book are taking
place. For example, Maimuna Huq (chapter 8) discusses the difficulties faced by political
Islamists in Bangladesh to overcome the entrenched popular association in that country of
Islamists with pro-Pakistan elements during the war of secession. Unable to use overt
propaganda, these activists have resorted to spreading the word through romantic novels
that make little direct reference to Islam, a strategy riddled with contradictions. By
contrast, the obstacles faced by political Islamists in Indonesia are of an entirely different
order (Robert Hefner, chapter 9). Taking advantage of the arrival of the internet to urban
centres across the Archipelago in 1997-8, the radical movement Laskar Jihad used internet
technologies to recruit volunteer fighters to wage holy war against Christians in the
Moluccas (Maluku). However, their leaders’ ties to high-ranking army officers made them
highly vulnerable to 'the changing winds of elite politics' (p. 175). Thus, in the wake of the
Bali bombings of 2002, their erstwhile military backers suddenly began to regard them as a
political burden. As a result, Laskar Jihad collapsed in a matter of days. A different
scenario altogether is presented by Gregory Starrett (chapter 6) who in the mid-1990s
conducted fieldwork among Black American Muslims attached to a local mosque in the
Carolinas. Focussing on their media consumption practices, Starrett shows how mosque
leaders seek to transform both Islamic and secular media commodities (e.g. American TV
shows) into instructional materials amidst a perceived paucity of media contents deemed
relevant to the lives of African American Muslims.

For all its empirical strengths, this book is marred by a number of omissions and
weaknesses. First, the rationale, aims and organisation of the volume are never stated. This
is compounded by its not being placed in relation to existing scholarship. We are not told,
in other words, how the book contributes to previous discussions of media and public life
in the Muslim world, or what gaps it seeks to fill. Moreover, whilst most chapters draw
their strength from the historical specificity of the materials under discussion, the editors
often slide into a vague, ahistorical register of perpetual imminence with usages such as
'increasingly', 'emerging' and 'prospects'. Ironically, Walter Armbrust's critique of recent
Middle Eastern scholarship (chapter 7) could equally well apply to this volume. Armbrust
decries regional scholars' ceaseless 'search for signs of imminent change' that portent either
hope or gloom for the region, depending on an individual author's own inclinations (p.
122).

The book is, furthermore, conceptually and theoretically underdeveloped. With one or two
exceptions, highly contested notions such as 'public sphere', 'new media' or 'information
age' are left undefined and there is a general lack of engagement with social theory -
especially media theory. There are even hints in places of an underlying hostility towards
theory. For instance, commenting on existing scholarly debates on civil democracy,
Augustus Norton (chapter 2) suggests that rather than 'focusing on competing theoretical
perspectives, it is much more relevant...to look at what is actually happening' (p. 27). But
surely the two practices are not mutually exclusive; that is, empirical studies invariably
gain from resting on strong theoretical foundations?

Three final issues are worthy of note. First, although the back cover blurb to this second
edition promises us 'new chapters dealing specifically with events following September,
11, 2001' this, in fact, is not the case. Admittedly these events are mentioned in three or
four places (see index), but no new chapters are chiefly concerned with post-9/11
developments. Punctual updates notwithstanding, with the bulk of its contents based on
early to mid-1990s research, this second edition remains as much a product of the 1990s as
its prequel. This is by no means a problem in itself - all books are of necessity artefacts of
their own time. It only becomes one when exaggerated claims are made that may mislead
potential buyers or readers. Indeed, one of the undoubted strengths of this book is precisely
that it arises from long-term research into the politics of public media in Muslim countries
well before the events of September 11, 2001, i.e. this is not a hastily assembled,
opportunistic reaction to these events. Second, none of the chapters deal with the crucial
question of what audiences make of the 'new media' genres and contents they discuss, an
absence that reflects the relatively scant audience research conducted to date in Muslim-
majority states when compared to, say, India or Brazil. Finally, the volume pays little
attention to media produced and/or consumed by Muslim immigrants in Western Europe,
with the exception of an interesting – albeit brief – section on Kurdish television initiatives
in several European capitals in the early to mid-1990s (M. Hakan Yavuz, chapter 10).

Despite these shortcomings, the present volume fills an important gap in the comparative
media and political change literature and will be invaluable to scholars and students
interested in media-related changes and continuities in the Muslim world, particularly in
the 1990s. It will also serve as a counterweight to the heavy concentration of media and
public sphere research in Western countries. Used in conjunction with more recent works,
the present book provides a rich set of case studies that demonstrates the sheer diversity of
Muslim ‘public media’ and their varied entanglements with middle-class and elite projects.