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Cyber-Islamophobia? The case of WikiIslam
Published online: 31 March 2007 # Springer Science + Business Media B.V. 2007
Abstract A large amount of academic research has analysed and documented the fact that Muslims are often presented in a negative or stereotypical way in Western media and popular culture. This article focuses on how the Internet can also be used in spreading and publishing anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim opinions. Although the Internet is significant in the development of contemporary society, no studies have focused on the importance of information and communication technologies in spreading Islamophobic opinions. However, the new technologies can also be used for monitoring and combating Islamophobia, and many Muslim organisations are today using the Internet for these purposes. The article is based on an indepth analysis of both anti-Muslim and pro-Muslim homepages that can be related to the debate over Islamophobia. Keywords Internet . Islam . Islamophobia . Reactive identities
A vast amount of academic literature and reports illustrate that Islam and Muslims are often presented negatively or stereotypically in the print media (in both the broadsheets and the tabloids), on television, and in popular culture (comic books,
A draft version of this article was presented at the 8th EUROFOR Marie-Curie Conference, European and National Agencies Dealing with the ‘Non-Accepted’, Berlin, 14–17 December 2006. I am grateful for the support I received from the Berliner Institut für Vergleichende Sozialforschung/Europäisches Migrationszentrum, the Swedish research project LearnIT, funded by the Knowledge Foundation (KK-stiftelsen), and the Linnaeus Centre for Research on Learning, Interaction, and Mediated Communication in Contemporary Society (LinCS), supported by the Swedish Research Council. I also appreciate all the positive comments and reactions I received from the participants at the above conference, especially from my college Dr Åke Sander. I would also like to thank Dr Henrik Bogdan, Göteborg University, who helped me with information about the new religious movement called Heaven’s Gate. G. Larsson (*) Department of Religious Studies and Theology, Box 200, SE 405 30 Göteborg, Sweden e-mail: email@example.com
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films, etc.).1 However, few studies have focused on the impact and role of the Internet in spreading anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim opinions.2 Although it is very difficult to demonstrate a clear correspondence between the content of a certain medium and public attitudes, the impact of the Internet should not be underestimated, especially since it is nowadays a part and parcel of everyday life in most Western Societies.3 Furthermore, the Internet is also used by journalists for gathering information and doing research for other media reporting in the broadcast media or the tabloids and broadsheets. From this point of view, cyberspace plays both a direct and indirect role in how Islam and Muslims are presented and represented in public discourse and the media. Regarding the impact of the media on public attitudes, Lorne L. Dawson writes: Media are not neutral or passive conduits for the transfer of information. They mold the message in ways that crucially influence the world views we construct. They adjust our self-conceptions, notions of human relations and community, and the nature of reality itself (Dawson 2004: 386). The aim of this article is threefold. First I want to illustrate and establish the rather obvious fact that the Internet can be used to spread anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim opinions. Although this article cannot produce a representative picture of the Internet itself, it focuses on the Internet hub WikiIslam and its collection of links. This site is an illustrative example of how the Internet can be used to spread anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim opinions to a global audience. However, Muslims and non-Muslims can also use the Internet to monitor and combat racism and Islamophobia. It is therefore my second aim to explore a number of homepages that have this ambition. The third aim is to discuss and explore possible methodologies for investigating and analysing anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim milieus on the Internet. Since the Internet is constantly growing rapidly, it is, of course, not possible to analyse and study every form of Islamophobia on it.4 Nonetheless there is still a
See, for example, Allievi (2003); Berg (1998); Said (1981); Shaheen (2001).
Several studies have been published on hate crimes, anti-Semitism and homophobia on the Internet and in printed books and reports. Cf., for example, the homepage of the Tolerance and Non-Discrimination Information System http://tnd.odihr.pl/?p=ki-in); Media awareness Network (http://www.media-awareness. ca/english/issues/online_hate/index.cfm) or the Anti Defamation League (http://www.adl.org/hate-patrol/ internet_hate.asp). However, to the best of my knowledge no study has specifically focused on Islamophobia on the Internet, though there are many studies of Muslim extremists spreading hatred and violence on the Internet.
3 However, it is important to remember that “The Internet is not contributing so much to the dissolution of the self or the modern social order. Rather it is facilitating the more complete development of the self as the focus of social life under conditions of intensified reflexivity, while continuing the very modern expansion of the range of our sense of community to the globe itself” (Dawson 2004, p. 390). 4 This limitation is related to both methodological problems and problems of definition. The Internet is expanding rapidly, and it is impossible to keep up with the pace of the expansion of cyberspace. Furthermore, the definition of Islamophobia is also problematic, and it is necessary to have a clear understanding of what we are looking for on the Internet (I will return to this problem below). The quotation is taken from Dawson (2004, p. 388).
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need for a “great deal of basic descriptive work,” to quote Lorne L. Dawson.5 My discussion in this article is therefore limited to the “community-edited website” WikiIslam and the collection of links provided by this site.6 Important questions are: To what extent is the Internet disseminating anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim attitudes? Is it possible to unwind a cyber web of Islamophobia by focusing on the link collection provided by WikiIslam? To put it more explicitly, is WikiIslam an expression of Islamphobia on the Net?
Religion, the Internet and discrimination Although the study of religion and the Internet has developed rapidly since the introduction of the new information and communication technologies in the 1980s, to the best of my knowledge no academic studies have specifically focused on how the Internet can be used to spread polemics and anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim discourses to a global audience. There are some studies that deal with internal Muslim debates and conflicts between the different branches of Muslim groups (for example, between Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, or members of groups such as the Ahmadiyya or the Nation of Islam). The analysis of the Internet has generated both utopian and dystopian visions of the future. For example, in her influential book Give me that online religion, Brenda Brasher argues that the communicative aspect of the Internet and the possibilities associated with the new technologies will foster peace and interfaith dialogue rather than conflicts and tensions (Brasher 2001). This optimistic prediction about the Internet could mainly be seen as a utopian vision about the future that needs to be substantiated with empirical data before it could be accepted. Without wishing to be too critical, I think that this and similar visions about the technology and its so-called liberating effects on the community are at least exaggerated, if not wholly wrong. Contrary to a peaceful and harmonious development, most researchers seem to argue that the Internet will not solve or remove xenophobic opinions or fears rooted and accepted in the society (cf. O’Leary 2005: 48). A more sober approach to the new information and communication technologies emphasises that the anonymity of cyberspace “may cause some users of the Internet to behave more unpleasantly or ludicrously than they would have in face-to-face contacts.” (Højsgaard 2006: 168) In my view, there is no reason to believe that a person who holds xenophobic, Islamophobic or homophobic opinions in “real life” (i.e. outside cyberspace) will become an open, tolerant, and enlightened person on the Internet. If this observation is correct, as I believe it is, the fact that many Europeans hold negative and stereotypical opinions of Islam and Muslims is most likely to have a negative effect on the climate of discussion on the Internet. If an individual perceives that Islam is,
In order to collect more empirical data on religious activities, identity processes and discrimination in cyberspace, there is a growing need for more heuristic and theoretical discussions about how to do Internet research in the field of humanistic studies and social sciences. An important contribution to this question is the book Doing Internet Research: Critical Issues and Methods for Examining the Net, by Jones (1999).
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for example, a dangerous, barbaric and patriarchal religion, his or her opinion will of course be transmitted, mirrored and expressed in offline milieus, as well as in cyberspace. However, by comparing anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim opinions articulated in cyberspace with corresponding offline discussions, it is possible to limit this methodological problem. Thus it is important to ask whether, and to what extent, the Internet is being used to spread and foster anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic opinions in contemporary society. Although the integration of immigrants, in particular those with a Muslim cultural background, is a vital question for the future development of the European Union, these questions are almost never related to developments on the Internet. The great majority of academic studies of Islam and the Internet have so far been descriptive and focused on providing an overall impression of Islamic or Muslim homepages: few studies have addressed the relationship between online and offline activities.7 According to leading researchers in the field of religious studies and the Internet, such as Christopher Helland and Lorne Dawson, it is essential to realize that on-line discussions are related to offline activities and prevailing norms and opinions (cf. Dawson 2004; Helland 2002, 2005). For these authors, it is essential to ask: What is the relationship between online and offline milieus? To what extent is cyberspace important for the establishment of new forms of communities? Is the perception of the self effected by the use of the Internet?8 The study of Islamophobia on the Internet should also be analysed in relation to questions of identity processes, xenophobia, integration, multiculturalism and tensions within contemporary European societies. For example, Stefano Allievi, who argues that a strong antiIslamic and anti-Muslim wind is blowing across Europe, indirectly addresses this issue. According to him, the rise of Islamophobia in the European Union must be related to the fact that many individuals consider that they have lost their national identities with the rise of the European Union. The negative and stereotypical opinions of Islam and Muslims could therefore be understood as the outcome of so-called reactive identities, that is “identities defined in opposition to others” (Allievi 2006: 37). With the help of preconceived and negative opinions about “the other”, it is possible to create an over-arching European identity that makes a separation between “Us and Them.” For example, we are not like them (i.e. Muslims) – we are civilized Europeans! Allievi continues: The debate on Islam, with the historical and symbolic overload it carries with it, has started to dominate public discussions about the “pluralisation” of Europe. Consequently, the public discussions about Islam seem to be the means by which Western societies discuss their recent and not yet fully understood evolutions and tendencies. In this context, immigrants are increasingly seen as Muslims, rather than as workers, students, parents, children, etc. In other words, society tends to define them by their (pre-supposed) identities rather than by their social roles. Thereby, the category of diversity, but also those of otherness
Cf., for example, Bunt (2000, 2003); Brückner (2001).
According to Dawson (2004, p. 389), “Two themes have dominated the research done on the sociological consequence of the Internet: its impact upon our shifting conceptions of personal identity and on alternative forms of community.”
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(if not extraneousness) and even incompatibility, are being re-introduced in situations where such categories had previously been excluded because they no longer made much sense. For instance, second generation new Europeans, who can no longer be considered immigrants and in fact have become less and less “other,” are now being “Islamized,” which means that they may well become reconstrued as “other,” different, and even extraneous (Allievi 2006: 37). In relation to the long quotation above from Allievi, it is relevant to ask whether the Internet hub WikiIslam also should be analysed in this light. A second question, of course, is whether WikiIslam is contributing to this development or not. Independent of our questions, it is important to stress that, in order to analyse online activities related to anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim feelings, negative feelings against people and institutions that are perceived as being Muslim or Islamic are widespread and accepted in several European contexts (cf., for example, Allievi 2003; EUMC 2006). This prerequisite is basic if we want to understand the anti-Islamic and antiMuslim opinions that are articulated by, for example, WikiIslam, treated in this article. This condition also reminds us that Helland and Dawson are right when they argue for the necessity of considering online and offline activities and prevailing attitudes together when analysing opinions expressed and formulated on the Internet. However, in this article I have only focused on and analysed the Internet as a tool for spreading anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim opinions. A second step would therefore be to analyse and interview people who take part in and seek information about Islam and Muslims on the homepage of WikiIslam, i.e. in order to see in what ways the information taken from the Internet influences their world views and how it affects their attitudes towards Islam and Muslims in “real” life. The present article therefore deals only with the first step and should mainly be seen as an explorative attempt to cover a number of anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim opinions that are expressed and spread with the help of information and communication technologies. In order to embark on this mission, we must now enter the world of WikiIslam.
WikiIslam Like the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, WikiIslam could best be described as a “community-edited website.” The site is thus open for editing, and its visitors and members update its content. According to the information provided under the section called FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions), “the main difference between WikiIslam and Wikipedia is that opinions critical of Islam are not censored on WikiIslam for political correctness.”9 Those who call up the homepage are also reminded that this is a critical site and that it does not contain any pro-Islamic content. In this specific context, to be “critical” is to hold a preconceived and negative opinion about Islam and Muslims. The purpose of the site is explained in the following way: The purpose of this Wiki is to archive those truths about Islam which are frequently censored by Muslims or political correctness. This project also
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provides a much needed relief for editors at WikiPedia whose opinions are constantly edited out by Muslims and others who are afraid of saying anything against Islam for fear of NPOV [neutral point of view] of bias.10 This declaration of purpose indicates that the setting up and starting of WikiIslam is partly a response to developments that have taken place on Wikipedia. To present a “correct” picture of Islam, it was necessary to start a new Wiki-site. WikiIslam was therefore created on 27 October 2005, though it was only opened on Monday, 4 September 2006.11 Since the content of WikiIslam is deemed controversial, especially for many believing Muslims, it is no surprise that the site has been vandalised by hackers, who have tried to edit it, modify it or shut it down. According to the information provided by the site, the first attack of vandalism took place on 26 October 2006, since when the site’s security protection has been updated to hinder further attacks.12 However, at the time of publishing this article the WikiIslam site was not functioning and it is unclear if it permanently closed or if is has been vandalised again. Although cyber vandalism is one of the downsides of being exposed on the Internet, new information and communication technologies are powerful tools that can be used for articulating anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim opinions at little risk and low cost. Compared to earlier forms of media, such as the radio or television, it is very easy to produce and set up a homepage at low cost. To broadcast a message or print a text for that matter requires more money and technical skills, and it is much more difficult to get one’s message out to a large audience. Technological developments have also made it much easier to be a producer of theological or political messages as compared to former periods. Prior to the Internet, most individuals were only consumers, not producers. From this point of view it is clear that the introduction of the Internet has created new possibilities for many people to get their voices heard and to question the established order in the society. The importance of the Internet is, for example, clearly stated under the section called “The Internet Toolbox For Islam Critics” on the WikiIslam homepage. Islam is a global challenge. It should be met with a global response. The best instrument for doing this is the Internet, the most international medium of all. As many news outlets may still be reluctant to openly criticize Islam, the Internet opens the possibility of a freer discourse on such subjects than more traditional media do. The intention behind this Toolbox is to encourage more people to use the Internet as a way of getting critical discussion of Islamic issues out to the general public. Any person who wants to is very welcome to copy this list or any parts of it that they may find interesting to their own websites.13 The quotation above and the content of WikiIslam are examples of how a large number of different and not always related opinions and critical remarks on Islam and Muslims are collected on the Internet. Although my article is primarily focused
10 11 12 13
See http://www.wikiislam.org/index.php/FAQ. See http://www.wikiislam.org/index.php/WikiIslam:About. See http://www.wikiislam.org/index.php/WikiIslam:About#WikiIslam.27s_first_vandalism_attack. See http://www.wikiislam.com/index.php/Internet_Toolbox.
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on the links provided by WikiIslam, it is pertinent here to give a broad description of the content of the “community-edited website.” WikiIslam contains information about Islam in the news; the Koran (especially on its perceived internal contradictions); the prophet Muhammad (570–632 A.D.); quotations on Islam; the persecution of former Muslims; the persecution of non-Muslims in Muslim countries; literature on Islam and Muslims, Islam and pedophilia, etc. Compared to “Muslim homepages,” i.e. those set up by believing Muslims, WikiIslam contains only negative and critical examples. This bias is clearly represented in the section called “laughing with the prophet”, which presents stories and reports from the life of prophet Muhammad (i.e. hadith reports).14 My impression is that the stories reported by WikiIslam have merely been selected to show that Muslims are ignorant, backward or even stupid. This way of presenting the hadith tradition is in stark contrast to how Muslims would introduce this material (cf. for example Siddiqi 1993). The outline of the material does not provide anyone visiting the homepage with any information on the history and importance of the hadith material in Islamic history and tradition. It does not even clarify the meaning of the word hadith, nor does it provide any information on the place and function of the hadith traditions within either an Islamic context or the academic study of Islam. This selection therefore does not give the reader any chance to make up his or her own mind on how to view or evaluate the hadith traditions (i.e. the basic principles of usul alhadith or the non-Muslim academic study of the reports), nor to obtain any impression of the rich variety of information that could be found within this material. WikiIslam also encourages its visitors to question and criticise all Muslims for their belief in Islam. This job is made easier by the help of the so-called “101 questions to ask a Muslim,” a list of 101 tricky and provocative questions that are formulated to demonstrate that Muslims are wrong and that Islam is not a “true” religion.15 For example: “Muslims believe that our body parts will testify [to] our sins in the hereafter. Is that true for donated body parts as well?” (cf. Wiegers 2002) or “Is the milk of those milk rivers in heaven cow’s milk? How many cows does it take for Allah to produce all that milk?”16 The visitor is also recommended to make use of the Internet to criticise Muslims and spread negative information about them and about Islam. This section is called “Practical Tips For People Working To Expose Islam.” The easiest thing you can do if you are concerned about Islam and what it is doing to the world is using the Internet. Email the links to some of the websites by ex-Muslims […] to friends, family, colleagues and everybody you know. You may include other Islam-critical websites such as http://www.jihadwatch. org/. This is free, and takes very little of your time, while increasing the knowledge of Islam in the general public.17
14 15 16
See http://www.wikiislam.com/index.php/Laughing_with_Muhammad. See http://www.wikiislam.com/index.php/101_questions_to_ask_a_Muslim.
The two quoted questions are numbers 2 and 3 in the list provided by WikiIslam. See http://www. wikiislam.com/index.php/101_questions_to_ask_a_Muslim.
See http://www.wikiislam.com/index.php/Internet_Toolbox#Practical_Tips_For_People_Working_ To_Expose_Islam.
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By “ex-Muslims,” the quotation is referring to Muslims who have abandoned Islam and become either atheists or secularists or else Christians.18
The link collection As already indicated in the discussion above, WikiIslam is an open source that best could be described as a “community-edited website.” From this point of view, the homepage, or I should rather say the portal or hub, is constituted by its links. Without the constant addition of new links and uploaded files, WikiIslam will most likely stop attracting new members and the website will generate fewer hits (i.e. fewer hits by people looking for “critical” information about Islam and Muslims via search engines such as Google or Altavisa). By December 2006, 268 links had been created under the heading “The complete list of sites offering an Alternative View on Islam.” Since the list of links provides the visitor with a short description – for example, if the forum or homepage is coloured by a specific outlook, or if it is written in a certain language – it is possible to divide the material according to the following scheme. The taxonomy set out in Table 1 should, of course, be read carefully. For example, it is difficult to make a clear separation between links that are placed under the heading of “Christian/Jewish/ex-Muslim/Arab Christians” and the category “general/ nationalistic,” and the boundaries between the categories are floating ones. For example, homepages or forums that give voice to nationalistic feelings often use religious arguments when criticising Muslims and Islam. Nationalistic feelings may also harbour religious and non-religious contents and motives that illustrate that the boundaries between the categories are floating and difficult to uphold. Although most taxonomy suffers from all or several of the problems discussed above, a taxonomy can help us organize and analyse a large group of material. The taxonomy should therefore not be seen as a blueprint of reality, but rather as a tool that helps us to analyse the selected material (in this case the link collection provided by WikiIslam). As already noted, it is impossible to predict the impact of WikiIslam just by viewing its online content, but the list above illustrates that this “community-edited website” provides Internet users with easily accessible anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim information. In December 2006, WikiIslam contained links giving information in English, French, Dutch, German, Arabic, Swedish, Italian, Norwegian, Spanish, Turkish, Indonesian, Portuguese, Polish, Greek, Hebrew, Bengali, Hungarian and Persian. This is an illustration of the fact that all individuals with access to a computer with a modem linked to the Internet and who can read any of the languages used by WikiIslam can easily find anti-Muslim information on the Internet. This information can be used to question Muslims and criticise Islam and Muslims in any local or global context.
For many Muslims, this is a problematic question that is hard to reconcile with western attitudes to the freedom of religion. However, it is essential to stress that Muslims often argue that the individual has been given freedom of choice, and that if he or she decided to abandon Islam, that is a matter of personal choice.
Cont Islam (2007) 1:53–67 Table 1 The complete list of sites offering an alternative view on Islam Perspective Christian/Jewish/ex-Muslim/Arab Christians Secular/atheist/agnostic Assyrian/Armenian/Serbian (genocide) General/nationalistic (pro-Israel/pro-United States, anti-Muslims in Europe/pro-Russian/ pro-Serbian/anti-Muslims in Canada/ anti-terrorism) and satirical/humoristic homepages Hindu/Sikh Zoroastrian Women’s rights/feminists Islamic (search engine covering the four most acknowledged collections of hadiths or translations of the Koran) Pre-Islamic paganism/Neo-pagan Total Source: WikiIslam (December 2006). Language/nationality English, Turkish, Indonesian, Arabic, French, Italian, Dutch, Swedish French, English, Turkish, German, Dutch, Arabic, Italian, Spanish English French, English, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, Polish, German, Norwegian, Swedish, Greek, Hebrew, Danish, Hungarian, Spanish, Bengali, Portuguese English Persian English, Hungarian English
Number 79 54 6 94
18 2 12 2
Is WikiIslam an expression of Islamphobia? According to the UK think-tank, the Runnymede Trust (1997), and the report Islamophobia: A Challenge For Us All, it is essential to make a distinction between so-called open and closed attitudes to Islam and Muslims when discussing Islamophobia.19 A closed attitude in this context is a viewpoint that claims that all Muslims are similar and that they all behave the same way because they are Muslims. Islam and Muslims are thus presented as a static and homogeneous entity that is unaffected by external factors such as the economy, the social context and worldly powers. Islam has an agency of its own, and all Muslims slavishly follow the laws of Islam without any hesitation because they belong to the race called “Homo islamicus.” According to this essentialist view, there is no room for critical reflections that take into consideration the variations and tensions present in Islamic history, as well as among Muslims in contemporary societies all around the world. Following the Runnymede Trust and its definition of Islamophobia, it is possible to argue that a closed attitude is more likely to be an expression of Islamophobia than an open attitude. An open attitude is here constituted by a notion that Islam and Muslims are heterogeneous phenomena and that it is possible to find great variation in how Muslims interpret Islam. The difference between a closed and an open attitude is illustrated in the table below, taken from the report Islamophobia: A Challenge For Us All. The taxonomy provided by the Runnymede Trust is useful in many ways, but it does not solve all the methodological problems that are related to the counting and measuring of Islamophobia in society. For example, in order to decide whether an
Islamophobia: A Challenge For Us All, p. 5, Runnymede Trust (1997).
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incident should be seen as an example of Islamophobia, we have to decide whether we should focus primarily on the motives that have been driving the perpetrators, or whether we should rather listen to the victim and his or her perceptions of the incident. The motive of the perpetrator and the perception of the victim are not automatically the same. However, this methodological problem is not unique to the study of Islamophobia – most studies of discrimination have to tackle this or similar problems. Furthermore, it is also difficult to make a clear separation between socalled ‘hate crimes’ and crimes driven mainly by hatred and fear of Muslims and Islam. Racism and xenophobia are also part and parcel of the discussion of Islamophobia, and it is difficult to isolate the study from other forms of discrimination and xenophobia.20 Regardless of the methodological problems discussed above, it is relevant to ask whether WikiIslam could be described as an expression of closed or open attitudes towards Islam and Muslims. In relation to the criteria set up by the Runnymede Trust (see Table 2), it should be quite easy to label most of the material published on WikiIslam as expressions of Islamophobia. This is especially the case when we remember that the host of the “community-edited website” stresses that “WikiIslam is a community-edited website where opinions critical of Islam are not censored for achieving a ‘neutral point of view’ (NPOV).”21 Nonetheless they argue that the site is not a hate site and that many of the contributors are ex-Muslims who have Muslim families and friends.22 This is not, of course, a guarantee that they are less critical of Islam or objective in their perception of Islam and Muslim cultures.23 It is also difficult to see all the sites linked to WikiIslam as expressions of Islamophobia, for example, the link to the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI). This homepage is rather a portal that contains news from the Middle East and the Arabicspeaking world, and the content covers all kinds of news, as well as theological discussions within the wider Middle East.24 Therefore, in order to call WikiIslam a “purely” Islamophobic site, it would be necessary to scrutinise all web pages linked to this site thoroughly, which I have not done for this article. It is therefore important not to jump to the conclusion that all homepages that are added to the link list of the WikiIslam have an Islamophobic agenda (cf. MEMRI discussed above), although some of them might be labelled that way. This is an illustration of the fact that any
20 The European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC), for example, discusses how to define Islamophobia in its report Muslims in the European Union: Discrimination and Islamophobia, published in 2006. 21 22 23
See http://www.wikiislam.com/index.php/WikiIslam:About. See http://www.wikiislam.com/index.php/FAQ.
Immigrants from Iran after the revolution of 1978/1979 have, for example, articulated some of the most critical discourses on Islam and Muslim cultures. I am not trying to say that their experience of an Islamic government is not genuine, but from an academic point of view it is difficult to make them into spokespersons for all Muslims. Both historical examples and contemporary discussions among Muslim theologians and “ordinary” Muslims illustrate clearly that it is not possible to talk about Islam as a homogenous phenomenon. Interpretations of Islam have always varied depending on social, economic and cultural conditions and power relations, and there is no indication that this will change in the near future.
Cont Islam (2007) 1:53–67 Table 2 Closed and open views of Islam Distinctions 1. Monolithic/ diverse 2. Separate/ interacting Closed views of Islam Islam seen as a single monolithic bloc, static and unresponsive to new realities. Islam seen as separate and other: (a) not having any aims of values in common with other cultures (b) not affected by them (c) not influencing them. Islam seen as inferior to the West: barbaric, irrational, primitive, sexist. Open views of Islam
3. Inferior/ different
4. Enemy/partner Islam seen as violent, aggressive, threatening, supportive of terrorism, engaged in ‘a clash of civilisations.’ 5. Manipulative/ Islam seen as a political ideology, sincere used for political or military advantage. 6. Criticism of Criticisms made by Islam of ‘the West’ West rejected/ rejected out of hand. considered 7. Discrimination Hostility towards Islam used to justify defended/ discriminatory practices towards criticised Muslims and exclusion of Muslims from mainstream society. 8. Islamophobia Anti-Muslim hostility accepted as natural seen as and ‘normal.’ natural/ problematic
Islam seen as diverse and progressive, with international differences, debates and development. Islam seen as independent with other faiths and cultures: (a) having certain shared values and aims (b) affected by them (c) enriching them. Islam seen as distinctively different, but not deficient, and as equally worthy of respect. Islam seen as an actual or potential partner in joint cooperative enterprises and in the solution of shared problems. Islam seen as a genuine religious faith, practised sincerely by its adherents. Criticisms of ‘the West’ and other cultures are considered and debated. Debates and disagreements with Islam do not efforts to combat discrimination and exclusion. Critical views of Islam are themselves subjected to critique, lest they be inaccurate and unfair.
Source: Islamophobia: A Challenge For Us All, p. 5, Runnymede Trust (1997).
information posted on the Internet can easily pop up in new environments and that the content of a specific homepage can be put to a number of different purposes. Thus, when information is made public on the Internet, the “owner” often loses his or her control over the posted data, especially since a homepage, or any information posted on the Internet for that matter, can be linked to an immense number of homepages, forums and portals, including WikiIslam. From this point of view, it becomes much more difficult to argue that all information posted on WikiIslam is Islamophobic by nature. To form this conclusion, it would be necessary to analyse all the information linked to this site in detail and to talk to the people who originally posted the information on the WikiIslam site. In my analysis, this limitation is an important reminder that the study of religion and the Internet must consider both what happens in cyberspace as well as ordinary daily activities in “real” life off screen (cf. Dawson 2004: 394). Combating Islamophobia on the net The Internet hub WikiIslam shows that the new information and communication technologies can be used to publish and spread anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim opinions. And although WikiIslam is an illustrative case study, it is evident that Muslims themselves can also use the Internet to combat opinions and voices that are
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perceived to be Islamophobic. Without judging whether Muslims are right or wrong in their opinions – i.e. whether their perceptions are correct or not – several portals and homepages are created with the aim of helping Muslims and non-Muslims combat all forms of Islamphobia. Leaving aside the fact that the Muslim hubs are partial and pro-Islamic (WikiIslam is, of course, also partial, being strongly antiMuslims and anti-Islam), it is important to document and study how Muslims also use the Internet to improve their situation in Western society.25 The section below and the examples selected should therefore only serve as an illustration of how Muslims are using the new information and communication technologies to combat Islamophobia. Resembling my reservations concerning WikiIslam, the homepages of Islamophobia Watch, CAIR and FAIR, discussed in this section, should not be seen as being representative of all Muslims. Likewise, my analysis does not provide us with any information or data about the popularity of the selected homepages, nor of the purposes for which they are utilised by either Muslims or non-Muslims. Nonetheless, the homepage Islamophobia Watch is a clear example of how Muslims can use the Internet to combat Islamophobic opinions in contemporary debates. The history of the site and its aims are explained on the homepage. Islamophobia Watch was initiated in January 2005 as a non-profitmaking project to document material in the public domain which advocates a fear and hatred of the Muslim peoples of the world and Islam as a religion. Islamophobia Watch has been founded with a determination not to allow the racist ideology of Western Imperialism to gain common currency in its demonisation of Islam.26 Resembling WikiIslam, the homepage of Islamophobia Watch contains information on specific topics that are discussed in relation to Islamphobia and the outburst of anti-Muslim opinions in contemporary society. For example, anti-Muslim opinions related to the veil, the London bombings, leftist groups, liberalists, multiculturalism, secularism, right-wing extremism and so-called women’s issues are discussed in great detail. The homepage also contains specific information about authors and opinionformers such as Daniel Pipes, Tariq Ramadan, Oriana Fallaci and Yusuf al-Qaradawi. While Pipes and Fallaci could best be described as anti-Muslim essentialists, Ramandan and al-Qaradawi are two influential Muslim theologians who are playing prominent roles in contemporary discussions of how to interpret Islam. By entering the homepage of Islamophobia Watch, the Internet surfer is also provided with information about the situation of Muslims in a large number of countries in the European Union, Australia and New Zealand. From the link collection and the frequent references to the report of the Runnymede Trust mentioned earlier, it seems quite clear that Islamophobia Watch is situated in an UK context. My general impression is that Islamophobia Watch mainly monitors discrimination, and the ambition of those who run the homepage is to provide Muslims with data on Islamophobia. A similar monitoring project is also carried out by FAIR (Forum
My analysis and description of both WikiIslam and the other Internet hubs discussed in this section could all be seen as a humble attempt on my part to follow and partly answer Dawson’s call for more research. He writes: “We need to know more about what is on the net, who has put it there, and why” and “A great deal of basic descriptive work must be done” (Dawson 2004, pp. 387–388).
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Against Islamophobia and Racism), another organization based in the UK.27 Among many other things, they provide Internet users with a so-called News Digest that “covers the top issues in the media relating to Islamophobia and racism in the UK.” FAIR has been set up as an independent charitable organisation, its aims being: & & & & & To raise awareness of and challenge Islamophobia through constructive and educational means. To project a more balanced and positive image of Islam, as practiced by the vast majority of British Muslims. To monitor and identify specific incidences of harassment and violence and deal with them by case-specific means. To work towards the elimination of religious discrimination at all levels and to promote equality of opportunity for all. To campaign and lobby to highlight and critique unjust laws affecting the Muslim community in Britain. To monitor the way the regime of antidiscrimination law is working and recommend improvements. To encourage good relationships between people and communities of different religious, racial and ethnic backgrounds.28
Another example of how the Internet can be used to combat anti-Islamic and antiMuslim opinions is illustrated by the Counsel on American–Islamic Relations or CAIR.29 Besides monitoring and gathering information on the public debate over Islam and Muslims in the United States, this organisation also gives Muslims (or nonMuslims for that matter) an opportunity to submit so-called online incident reports covering both the positive and negative experiences of Muslims in American society.30 Furthermore, CAIR teaches Muslim leaders and organisations how to protect themselves and prevent themselves from becoming victims of xenophobia, racism and Islamophobia. In order to empower Muslims, CAIR issues a so-called survival kit for Muslims who have been harassed or assaulted or who suffer from Islamophobia. The homepage also provides practical tips for how to set up lobby work and get Muslims registered for voting so that they can take an active part in society.31 The three examples discussed in this section illustrate clearly that the Internet also can be used to combat Islamophobia and curb anti-Islamic and anti-Muslim opinions in society.
Conclusions In studying and analysing anti-Muslim attitudes on the Internet, it is important to remember that “history has been marked rather by religious tensions and conflicts than inter-religious tolerance and coexistence” (Højsgaard 2006: 173) and that
27 28 29
The aim of CAIR is “to enhance understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding.” See http://www.cair.com/default.asp?Page=About. http://www.cair-net.org/default.asp?Page=civilRightsPositiveIncidentReport. http://www.cair-net.org/default.asp?Page=articleView&id=138&theType=AA.
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tensions and conflicts are not unique to the so-called age of information. This is a reminder of the fact that neither conflicts and tensions nor tolerance and coexistence are automatically linked to or caused by the introduction of a new technology (in this case the Internet). Although most modern media (for example, the VCR, computer games and the Internet) have initially been blamed for and linked to destructive and negative forces in society, it is very difficult to make a causal connection between technology and how society develops. Although I agree with Lorne L. Dawson that the Internet has had a strong effect on the development of society, it is still very difficult to prove that people have adopted certain attitudes, beliefs and behaviours because of a new technology alone (cf. Dawson 2004: 385). In order to understand how societies develop and transform themselves over time, we have to apply a much broader analysis, incorporating the economy, politics, culture, etc., otherwise we run the risk of becoming deterministic in our understanding of how the new information and communication technologies transform society. For example, in periods of social crisis it is easy to blame the technology (or immigrants, for that matter) for all the problems in society. How this “moral panic” functions is clearly illustrated in an excellent article by Lorne L. Dawson and Jenny Hennebry on the so-called “Heaven’s Gate” affair in the United States in 1997. To grasp the fact that 39 members of the religious group Heaven’s Gate had committed collective suicide at Rancho Santa Fe, California, on 26 March 1997, many voices in the United States argued that the members had been lured into this “sect” by browsing the Internet. In the moral panic that followed the suicides, some voices even called for the Internet to be closed down.32 This unimaginable outburst of collective suicides could be explained with reference to the introduction of the Internet and the fact that many of the members of Heaven’s Gate had been working with computers and information and communication technologies. To develop the study of the Internet and avoid deterministic and monocausal explanations as in the case of Heaven’s Gate, new ways, methods and theories for analysing religion in cyberspace must be explored and developed. I have already stressed that I totally agree with researchers such as Lorne L. Dawson and Lori Kendal, who argues that “researchers need to consider participants’ local off-line environments, as well as to explore how participants’ blend their on-line and off-line lives and social contacts.” (Kendall 1999: 60) Researchers of ‘religion online’ and ‘online religion,’ to use Christopher Helland’s categories,33 should therefore refrain from describing online life as a “new and discrete utopian world.” Instead we have to consider that “online life always works in a feedback loop with offline life,” and that it is impossible to study the Internet as a unique technology separated from the rest of the society (Dawson 2004: 394). To develop the study of anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic attitudes posted on the Internet, it is necessary to formulate a number of questions that requires fresh research and more empirical data before they can be answered in a convincing and satisfying way. These questions are: Is there any difference between online and offline arguments that are used in criticising Islam and Muslims? Are the same arguments and examples recycled and reused, independently of local variations?
Dawson and Hennebry (2004). On this new religious movement, see also Chryssides (2005, pp. 353–370). On these two categories, see Helland (2002, 2005).
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Is it possible to locate and isolate arguments that have been taken from WikiIslam and used in offline debates? Who is using WikiIslam to criticise Islam and Muslims? Is the material posted or linked to WikiIslam new, or is it based on translations of printed materials? Does online criticism of Islam and Muslims differ from other forms of disapproval? What is the Islamic or Muslim reaction to WikiIslam? What kind of Muslim reactions does WikiIslam trigger? In order to answer these questions, it is evident that we need more empirical research that includes, among many other things, online and offline surveys, questionnaires and interview studies.
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