by: Zayd Ebrahim
Social media is changing the world at a rapid pace. Traditional forms of communication and the spread of information have significantly changed with the rise of social media. As social media continues to evolve, it is becoming tougher to define, but it can be broadly classified as digitally generated content that is created by people, for people. One of the capabilities of social media is the ability to reach any number of audiences, with content that is accessible and open to opinion and criticism. Content generated through social media is usually produced from a number of sources and the instant dissemination of information provides multiple perspectives in a very short time.
Analysts predict that current distrust in the mainstream media is increasing. In addition, citizen journalism, through the spread of new technologies and platforms have made user-generated content more accessible and more instant. The impact of technology on the Muslim world recently confirms this shifting paradigm. Throughout the ages, the Muslim world has been generally distrustful of innovation. This, coupled with an increasing distrust in clerical and hierarchical Islamic perspective, proves that the Muslim world is open to adopt and adapt to new technologies and approaches to communicating.
In the past, knowledge of Islam was confined to institutions geared to provide singular responses through traditional approaches. Fast-forward to post 9/11, Muslims and Islam in general have been vilified through purposeful victimization of Muslims in mainstream media. The spike in media coverage of Islam following 9/11 without doubt has increased awareness of the religion. For many young Muslims across the world, post 9/11, has challenged the identity of Muslims. Muslims are forced to defend their religion and beliefs now more than ever. These difficult times have led young Muslims all over the world to try and find answers, connect with other individuals in similar situations, debate issues, and even subvert commonly held notions of Islam. Networking has been significant for these youth, as many who feel isolated have come to find solace in these virtual communities, as well as a place where they establish their own presence and express themselves. As one young Muslim said, “Young Muslims are ‘resorting to this virtual world because we have no space in the actual world…'”
What was evident during the Arab spring of 2011 was the fact that the ‘digital’ actions of people did inevitably lead to physical action. Especially, in an Arab world where ‘Islamic Scholars’ and leaders have controlled, interpreted and disseminated information for centuries. Moreover, the Arab spring was a clear indication that ordinary people have the power to shape their socio-political future in a way never accomplished before by embracing these new technologies. It was also clear that the ‘digital world’ was inextricably linked to the many streets and squares that staged the uprisings. These newly emerging political and communication struggles in the Arab/Muslim world equally compel us to consider how Islamic discourses are created, shared, exchanged and modified in the age of cyberspace and how Muslim identities are, in turn, reconstructed and reshaped by this phenomenon, leading to the creation of a ‘virtual ummah’ (Islamic community) in the digital age.
Although the outcome of such use of social media for political purposes appears to be relatively new, the seeds of activism have been consistently sown for the past two decades with rising access to the Internet, the end of government control over the mainstream media, and the growing availability of new levels of individual freedom of expression. The strong participation of women as both leaders and demonstrators has challenged old stereotypes of Arab or Muslim women as passive, voiceless victims. Some of the most powerful and lasting images of the revolutions are of women marching; protesting; braving tear gas, tanks, and armed security forces; and shouting slogans. The only thing that is known for certain is that the use of modern technology and new social media has opened the door to new and creative thinking about how to assemble, organize, plan, and strategize activities ranging from political to social change that are immediately conveyed at a global level.
If we look closer to home, throughout Muslim South Africa, the figure of the imam and that of the Mosque governing committee have been important in the formation of religious and political discourse. In many communities, the ‘imam’ has always been the central figure in the Muslim community. However, since the demise of Apartheid and given the changing geographic and demographic realities, a new future is likely to emerge. A future of renewed faith based upon an integrated set of values and ideals. A future determined by the richness of diverse thinking and common action.
So what does this mean for Islam in the future? Firstly, we need to accept that social media, technology and the Internet are changing Islamic societies across the world. Secondly, Muslims all over the world are now exposed to a diversity of theological ideas and opinions unlike ever before. Most importantly, Muslims now have the opportunity to speak their minds, share ideas, collaborate and communicate without restriction.
Given the rise, popularity and unpredictability of new media and technology, if used correctly, the face of Islam will be gradually changed. With new institutions emerging to accommodate social media, new think tanks and online communities constructed, digital Islam will provide a striking alternative to popular interpretations of Islamic texts. Now everything is out there, and there is no moderator. As a result, Muslims are becoming more aware of the diversity within their tradition; they can now shape their opinions in a more informed way, and they can see how much of a spectrum Islam offers.
We can say that media in particular new media can play a very important role to spread Islamic teachings and educating people. Whereas, technology has made it quite easy for the people living in different parts of the world to access Islamic information, teachings, and literature, technology is making a very bright impact in the Islamic world especially by providing ways for teaching, learning and getting education even while sitting at home.
It is clear that a ‘digital vision’ of Islam will include new forms of technology to aide in the spreading of the message. Furthermore, new and social media provides the opportunity to change the mainstream Islamic educational process by offering alternatives by providing information, access to unlimited resources and opportunities for true communication, collaboration and competition. The following components that are proposed below contribute to the ‘vision’:
- developing awareness – recognizing that something is new, wrong or different;
- exploring alternatives–researching for new ideas from other institutions and acknowledging that change is needed;
- making a transition–leaving the old approaches behind (or dramatically changing perspectives);
- achieving integration- finding common solutions; and
- take action-putting new ideas into operation, a renewal of ideas and exploration.
Zayd Ebrahim is Urban Strategist working in local government. His interests include urban innovation, new media, technology and urban policy.