Hashtag Islam

How Cyber-Islamic Environments Are Transforming Religious Authority

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Gary R. Bunt
Islam Civilization and Muslim Networks
  • Durham, NC: 
    University of North Carolina Press
    , October
     2018.
     232 pages.
     $24.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781469643168.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Nearly twenty years ago, Charles Hirschkind taught us that Muslims were using audiotaped sermons to immerse themselves in portable and constant Islamic messaging. That was not the first time that Muslims used the latest technology in the service of religion—at the turn of the 20th century intellectuals and reformers like Rashid Rida employed print journals such as al-Manar to spread their views—nor would it be the last. Recent decades have witnessed the rise of televised Islamic preaching, and Muslim themes and lessons have even crept into popular television programs and movies.

Despite the impression in the West that Islam is immune, if not hostile, to modernity, these examples illustrate that the religion can embrace modern media, even if that relationship is sometimes vexed and has uneasy implications for traditional doctrine and authority. Gary Bunt’s work, Hashtag Islam: How Cyber-Islamic Environments are Transforming Religious Authority, carries this insight further, exploring how various types of digital media operate within Islam. What Bunt calls “cyber-Islamic environments”—or we might prefer to call Islamic cyber-environments—are reshaping “the forms and styles of Muslim religious discourse” (3), as have previous technologies and media.

Bunt’s book—a mere 150 pages of text—covers a lot of ground quickly. After a brief introduction to theories of media and culture—from Marshall McLuhan to Jean Baudrillard and Michel Foucault—and an overview of Islam and the Internet, he presents an array of Islamic digital projects and governmental reactions to them, including “filtering and censorship” (29). For instance, the third chapter gives us electronic mediations of the Qur’an and digital opportunities for pilgrimage; he also mentions the effects on gender roles and relation of dating sites like Muzmatch. The fourth chapter examines how traditional and non-traditional authorities have exploited the Internet to issue fatwas and to circulate religious interpretations and opinions. Sites such as OnIslam.net, IslamQA.info, and Sistani.org are often mouthpieces for particular perspectives on Islamic law and culture.

Most readers will be aware of the potential for digital platforms and devices in the organization and conduct of violence and “jihad,” which is the subject of the final two chapters of the book. Bunt describes the e-jihad campaigns of the Taliban, al Qaeda, al-Shabaab, and others, noting the presence and power of content including online videos and magazines. The final chapter focuses on the “hashtag warriors” of ISIS, whose use of digital technology has been especially effective and gruesome.

It is true that electronic media plays a prominent and expanding role in contemporary Islam and that, in the process, “traditional understandings of the ways in which Islam and Muslims operate and communicate (both from insider and outsider perspectives) have been challenged in profound and revolutionary ways” (141). Bunt’s book is a good and concise summary of these developments, accessible both to the literate public and to scholars who are making their first inquiries into the topic. While the subject of the book is Islam and digital technologies, Bunt should have reminded us that Islam is not unique in the adoption and consequences of new media—the same problematic implications for authority and doctrine are played out in Christianity, Hinduism, and all religions, as well as in other domains of culture besides religion—and that other media in the past, and presumably media of the future, have similar effects. There is no such thing as “the real Islam,” or any other religion or cultural institution or practice, and authority is constantly shifting and contested, where each transient form of the religion is a product of the media and methods of the moment.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jack David Eller is Associate Professor of Anthropology (retired) at the Community College of Denver.

Date of Review: 
January 17, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gary R. Bunt is Professor of Islamic studies at University of Wales, Trinity Saint David.

Comments

Matthew Kuiper

Thanks for this helpful review! I wonder how this work builds or coordinates with Bunt's earlier publications (a number of which I have read). Does it simply summarize his earlier work for a general audience, or is there something new here? -Matthew Kuiper, Missouri State University

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