Islam and the Internet in South Asia
Post 9/11, global media coverage of Islam appears disproportionately focused on the “war on terror,” jihad, and related themes. For example, a recent New York Times article describes how al-Qaeda leader al-Zarqawi used the internet “as a powerful tool of the global jihad”. Similarly, a Frontline article analyses the online global jihadist project of the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, an extremist organization based in Pakistan. Such initiatives, however, are by no means representative of the diverse ways in which Muslims in South Asia and elsewhere use the internet to express their various identities: religious, national, regional, professional, and so on.
South Asia is home to the world’s second, third, and fourth largest Muslim populations, in Pakistan (161 million), India (nearly 147 million), and Bangladesh (over 122 million). Patterns of internet usage in South Asia reflect longer as well as more recent histories. Western technology was initially experienced by Indians as an instrument of colonial domination in the eighteenth century. Between 1820-1840, Indians adopted the printing press with enthusiasm, resulting in an outpouring of material in English and Indian languages. After 1835, as a result of colonial policies, Indians could benefit from an education in Western technology in English. English-educated and privileged caste groups were best placed to exploit the new opportunities. For Muslim elites, British colonialism represented the loss of Muslim power in India, as reflected in the conservative reaction of the “ulama” regarding educational and theological matters. In contrast, the influential reformer Saiyid Ahmad Khan advocated a transformation of Islam, including an emphasis on science, toward a new Islamic modernity.
The Reach of the Internet is Limited but Growing
In postcolonial India, the groups that have benefited from educational and professional opportunities in technology are primarily middle and upper class, upper caste, English-speaking urban elites. Following liberalisation in 1991, the internet is central to plans of national development. But as of March 2004, India had only 4.55 million internet subscribers. Pakistan, too, has emphasized the development of its telecommunication sector, but the reach of the internet is limited. A 2000 report estimated 400,000 subscribers for 2003, while another source, updated as of May 2006, numbers internet users at around 1.7 million. For Bangladesh, one source specifies a user population of about 3 million as of 2005.
A recent report notes significant growth in computer and internet use in India, from 6 percent in 2002 to 21 percent in 2005. For Pakistan, the increase is smaller.
Although internet use in South Asia will steadily rise, it is likely to be marked by the “digital divide.” With English being the privileged language of internet development, English-speaking educated elites are most likely to benefit from increased access. Indian internet users are a combination of new and old elites, located in India and in the diaspora. Muslims, subject to higher rates of illiteracy and unemployment than Hindus, are underrepresented in this population. Internet development in Pakistan is also oriented towards national elites and the diaspora, as indicated by websites such as that of the Jamā‘at-i Islāmī Pakistan. Pakistani organisations, including the government and opposition parties such as the Pakistan People’s Party and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, see the internet as a vital public space and have marked it “as an area of expansion”. Indian Muslim organisations, such as the All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat and the All India Muslim Personal Law Board, have discovered the medium only recently but do have a presence online now.
Digital Reactions to anti-Muslim violence
Two websites reveal some of the complexities of South Asian Muslims’ use of the internet. The first is that of the Indian Muslim Council – USA (http://www.imc-usa.org), a US-based organisation founded in response to the 2002 anti-Muslim violence in the Indian state of Gujarat. In the “who we are”-section, the site affirms a commitment to “safeguarding the common values that bind the world’s two largest secular democracies (India and USA)”. Identitarian anxieties about Muslimness, Indianness, and Americanness are conspicuously absent on the site. The coexistence and overlapping of non-exclusive identities derives, arguably, from a combination of the open-ended and democratic structure of the website format and the organisation’s approach to predicating identity on shared positive values rather than on narrow interpretations of what it means to be Indian, American, and Muslim.
“Netizens” and “Muslim Blogers”
The second site is KeralaMuslim.NET (http://www.keralamuslim.net), an online webzine whose mandate is educating the Muslim community of Kerala, a southern Indian state, “on issues relating to Islam and Muslims in an academic, social and political environment”. Site postings have to be consistent with “basic Islamic teachings” and “in a true Islamic spirit and manner” (ibid.). The site’s overall political orientation is difficult to ascertain. Its stated ethos to promote discussion in consonance with Islamic teachings and in an Islamic spirit may be interpreted variously as an embodiment of conservatism, civility, or both, suggesting that the category of “Islamic” can take on a range of meanings online. Interestingly, the identity of site users and managers is defined by technological activity in addition to religious affiliation: it is a project of “netizens” and “Muslim bloggers”.
These websites reflect the fact that while the internet, “has been appropriated by social practice, in all its diversity,” this appropriation “does have specific effects on social practice itself”, as Manuel Castells puts it in his book “The Internet Galaxy”. South Asian Muslims’ use of the internet cannot solely be attributed to religious, national, or regional motivations. But such affiliations do play some role in the way technology is used, and technological use, in turn, has some impact on the reshaping of identities. If cyberspace is an arena where social relations and identities are expressed and negotiated, cyberspace itself is a part of these dynamic processes of contestation and representation. Internet usage by South Asian Muslim groups and individuals also supports the assertion that a structure like the internet, which can reach educated elite Muslim populations with ease, regularity, and speed, will exceed traditional Muslim communication networks in power and influence.
Internet development in South Asia will have to tackle illiteracy, lack of education, and poor infrastructure. It will be subject to contestations of political and religious authority. But as South Asians begin to use the internet in expanding numbers, it can become a vital tool for expressing the rich culture, modernities, and political possibilities embodied by the peoples of the region.
Bayly, C. A: Empire and Information: Intelligence Gathering and Social Communication in India, 1780-1870, New York 1996.
Bunt, Gary R: Virtually Islamic: Computer-Mediated Communication and Cyber
Castells, Manuel: The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business and Society, Oxford 2001.
Chopra, Rohit: Neoliberalism as Doxa: Bourdieu’s Theory of the State and the
Contemporary Indian Discourse on Globalization and Liberalization. In: Cultural Studies, vol. 17, no. 3/4 (2003) (pages 419-444)
Atul Kohli: India’s Democracy: An Analysis of Changing State-Society Relations, Princeton 1988.
Hasan, Mushirul: Islam in the Subcontinent: Muslims in a Plural Society, New Delhi 2002.
Kenneth Keniston and Deepak Kumar, eds.: IT Experience in India: Bridging the Digital Divide, New Delhi 2004.