Hardline Islamist parties do not balk at eliminating other groups in the name of religion in their bid to obtain power. In this sense, political Islam is similar to the Christian right or radical ultra-Orthodox Jewish groups.
Because the beliefs held by members of these groups are usually drawn from conceptions of their religion and the world, relationships with technology are typically controversial. Every innovation is potentially heretical and, of course, heresies are forbidden. However, if it can be demonstrated that a technological advance can be used to expand these groups’ political influence, what is forbidden quickly becomes permissible.
Media, by virtue of its function as a public instrument, also exists within this framework, especially in light of the technological developments in recent decades.
It was the Islamists who were the greatest enemies of satellite television when it was first introduced in the 1990s. They banned watching satellite channels and accused its propagators of apostasy, but the situation is very different today. Islamists have changed their tune, from demanding satellite dishes be smashed to owning television channels and networks of their own, broadcasting their unfiltered ideas, inciting violence against their enemies, and causing bloodshed.
We saw the same thing happen as the Internet began to spread. Islamists originally opposed this phenomenon and vehemently warned that the Internet was a means to commit indecencies and encourage that which was forbidden. Yet they eventually came to coexist with the Internet and utilize it for their own ends. The Islamists excelled at propagating hatred and promoting their extremist ideas through online forums in the early 2000s.
It was unsurprising that Islamist groups took advantage of the emergence of broadband, mobile Internet access and social networking sites, especially after websites like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube proved to be good forums for influencing Internet users during the Arab Spring revolutions in 2011.
When considering the Arab Spring, we must remember that the January 25 revolution in Egypt was not an Islamist one, nor did the Muslim Brotherhood lead the movement or underlie its success. We must also remember how quickly commentators and political activists began talking about the Brotherhood’s ability to harness power, and how another revolution took place to end the rule of President Mohamed Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood less than a year into his presidency.
In fact, the Brotherhood hijacked the revolution via electronic platforms. One website called “We are all Khaled Said,” which was created by Wael Ghonim and credited with playing a pivotal role in sparking the revolution, has faded in popularity to the advantage of pro-Brotherhood pages and websites. The Brotherhood’s high Internet activity was also easily observed during its rule. There was a particular focus on English communications through the Ikhwanweb site in England and the Twitter account under the same name, which has more than 114,000 followers.
It should also be noted that the Muslim Brotherhood has established platforms to integrate its Arabic Ikhwan Online site with IkhwanTube and IkhwanWiki, the latter of which promotes the official history of the group, while the page IkhwanoPhobia’s slogan in English is “Why do they hate us?” They have another website, Ikhwanbook, which is an attempt to create a social networking site just for Brotherhood supporters.
Of course, the Brotherhood’s online activities did not subside once it was removed from power. We only need note the extremely large number of users who made the Raba’a symbol their profile pictures on Facebook or Twitter. This was a clear example of how political Islam uses the Internet to promote its ends.
On the other hand, it can be said with certainty that social networking is a double-edged sword, for these websites can be used as a means to dismantle the types of religious discourse that exploit Islam for narrow aims. This is true to some extent, but the battle—and this word is an accurate description—is, of course, unbalanced.
While Islamist groups are well known for their organizational skills, Arab liberals are known for being just the opposite, and these liberals constitute the main opposition to the Islamists. Tech-savvy Islamists are highly motivated by the claims that exploiting social media in the service of political Islam can be qualified as jihad, and this type of incentive is difficult for any secular group to match.
Brian Jenkins, a consultant for the Rand Corporation, a non-profit think-tank associated with the US Army, told the US Congress Homeland Security Committee in 2011: “While almost all terrorist organizations have websites, Al-Qaeda is the first to fully exploit the Internet. This reflects Al-Qaeda’s unique characteristics. It regards itself as a global movement and therefore depends on a global communications network to reach its perceived constituents. It sees its mission as not simply creating terror among its foes but awakening the Muslim community. Its leaders view communications as 90 percent of the struggle.”
Indeed, it is surreal that the enemies of progress, like these terrorist groups, are those who benefit the most from modern technology. We need to admit this reality, understand its dimensions and face it properly so that we don’t allow what veteran journalist Othman Al-Omeir warned of: “progress advancing backwardness.”
The counterpoint to this article can be read here.