by Huma Ahmad
The era of the technological age is upon us. We communicate in seconds with e-mails and fax's. Information of every type is accessible to anyone with a modem from what was originally intended to be a government network for research projects, now called the Internet. The average person is able to create, advertise and publish easily for an audience of millions on the World Wide Web. Thoughts and ideas are exchanged, discussed and argued across thousands of chat channels, muds and newsgroups for every possible topic ever imagined. Businesses, educators and fortune hunters all stumble over each other to see who can best exploit the new opportunities. The global electronic village is open for business and the garish neon 24 hour sign seems to keep blinking an urgent message: "New Frontier: Danger Ahead."
The philosophy of the Internet comes from its originators; laid back computer programmers, information and technology addicts. They wanted to create something special. Something no one business, government or group could control. A true democracy circumventing normal channels and reaching to the deepest grass roots. A frontier where anyone could go out and make it, where those with common interests could connect with each other and ignore the normal barriers of race, nationality, and tradition. An ideology of community, working together exchanging ideas, and making the world a better place was their vision.
Noble beginnings, and this too was in the minds of the Muslims when we first joined the rush. Many were even part of the original builders, software engineers, and programmers, due to many Muslims themselves being in the Computer Science Information fields. We began mailing lists, newsgroups, chat lines, and web pages about Islam. Here was one place where we could actually get the true message of Islam to the outside world. Through the net, we could influence those who never would have encountered Islam or only received their information from the media, orientalists or anti-Islam propagandists. We could reach others and share and discuss ideas to help bring the Ummah closer. Muslims separated and spread out all over could feel the intimacy of being an e-mail or modem's dial away from each other. It would open new heights in our ability to organize and plan events, to share knowledge, articles, experiences.
What we forgot though, was to read the sign.
Excellent Islamic homepages sprung up, but so too did the Ahmadiyya, Nation of Islam, and every other deviant sect's. To the point where doing a search on Islam, may indeed give you 72 links to different views, along with a host of anti-Islam sites giving blatantly false information and arguments by missionaries.
Newsgroups to discuss Islam are inundated with non-Muslims who's jobs seem to be to attack and divide Muslims at every turn, instead of discussing Islam. Bitter fights among the Muslims involving everything from Aqeedah to prayer to censorship have continued for years. Control of the newsgroup soc.religion.islam is a prime example. At one point, during the election of moderators, accusations of voting fraud and hacking were reported to school and police authorities. The job of co-moderating, effectively controlling all content and discussion in the newsgroup was then given to a non-Muslim regular.
MSA-net and other mailing lists too have had their share of contending with special interests threatening to destroy it. Faced with lawsuits against the university that hosted the listserv, by a Sufi group complaining about the Shurah council banning them due to their violation of the rules, the list was then moved to an all Muslim owned site. Groups, not individuals dominate the e-mail list much of the time. Sufis, Hizb-ut-tahrir, Salafees, Shia, Islamic organizations, etc. all post their own agendas.
Muslim chat rooms and muds such as Isnet are especially the hang outs for high school and college age Muslims. They are places for them to talk to other Muslims like themselves from all over the United States and elsewhere. For many, it may have the benefit of being an alternative to other non-Islamic activities, but it is also highly addictive and highly unregulated. Flirting and private on-line relationships are pervasive. Also, among some of the Internet chat channels such as channel islam is a very anti-Kuffar sentiment, with scripts such as "Muslim pulls out a baseball bat, Muslim smashes Jew over the head, Muslim wipes off the blood." The few who control the islam channel kick and ban arbritrarily whoever disagrees with their opinion or definition of Islam. Where the potential for Dawah is at its greatest, the reputation of being narrow-minded and hypocritical has increased clashes and hacking between even the different Muslim channels, such as islam versus pakistan versus bangladesh.
No scholars or Sheikhs are present on any of these mediums. There are no authorities or any kind of collaborative effort on the part of Muslims. Advice and Fatwas to non-Muslims and Muslims are given out by basically anyone and dangerously lacking in references or scholarly wisdom and knowledge.
Despite everything, there are many positives to Muslims being on the Internet. In fact it has influenced many in good ways, from just increasing their Iman and knowledge to eventually leading people to Shahadah. This new technology has been a breakthrough in communication among Muslims. Conferences and events are well publicized and organizational logistics have been enhanced significantly and economically. Muslim activism is spread on- line. News is obtained directly from Muslim sources and not western media. Even the announcements of Ramadan and Eid are quickly distributed and followed.
Students, sisters, those who live in far flung communities or even places where there are very few Muslims or any who might not otherwise be Islamically active, can get the information they need and try to stay in touch with their Islam. Hundreds of articles and books are available, from the Quran on-line in Indonesian to Ibn Taymeeyah's Essay on the Jinn to How to make Istakhara prayer.
So, while on the surface it may seem like a glittering tool, the reality of today makes one question the direction of Muslims on the net and highlights and points out the cracks in our Ummah dramatically.
Half due to ignorance, half due to avoidance, Islamic organizations and scholars refuse to get involved or try to create a presence or authority on the net. Muslim programmers and computer professionals do not use their knowledge to improve the content or build amazing Islamic programs like they could be. Muslims are not using it to its full Dawah potential and are not looking beyond their egos to work with one another in Shurah to make it a place of not just fun, but of benefit for themselves and others.
Facing all these positives and negatives, Muslims in cyberspace are at a turning point. The net and modern technology have created situations that are unlike any we have had to face in the past. As a microcosm and extension of our Muslim society, understanding and helping solve our problems on the net can be a first step in understanding the Muslims as a whole, our differences and how to resolve them.
If we find unity on the Internet, there is hope for our Ummah yet.