Islam on YouTube

Online Debates, Protests, and Extremism

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Ahmed Al-Rawi
  • New York, NY: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , October
     2017.
     121 pages.
     $54.99.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781137398253.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Islam on YouTube: Online Debates, Protests, and Extremism was written by media and communication scholar Ahmed Al-Rawi. Alongside the introduction, the conclusion, and a methodology chapter, the book consists of four case studies addressing events that took place between 2005 and 2012 (some of the results have already been published in earlier articles). Al-Rawi’s aim is to analyze “the online public reactions toward certain controversial issues related to Islam and the West,” including reactions to the Danish Muhammad cartoons in 2005 (chapter 3); the so-called “International Burn the Koran Day” in 2010 (chapter 4); the film Fitna, produced by Dutch politician Geert Wilders in 2008 (chapter 5); and the film Innocence of Muslims, produced by an Egyptian Copt with the user name Sam Bacile (chapter 6). 

According to Al-Rawi, the four cases are linked because they resulted in online, and sometimes offline, protests (5). He chooses to analyze reactions to these events on YouTube (instead of Facebook or Twitter) because “it is the most popular online video platform” (8). The chapter on theory and methodology starts with different online statistics showing internet penetration in Arab countries (7–10). However, most of the data refers to the period between 2011 and 2013. This is particularly problematic with fast-growing social media technologies such as YouTube. In the same chapter Al-Rawi refers to the concepts he uses in his research, among them “online religion,” “virtual ummah,” “online activism,” “online flaming,” “ideological extremism,” “selective exposure,” and “online communities.” Al-Rawi claims to discuss the relevant literature for each notion, thereby emphasizing a strict distinction between online and offline phenomena (10–25). Most important are the remarks about the nature of YouTube commentaries, which are described as “notorious dens of filth, racism, and misogyny” (19). The reason, according to the author, is the anonymity that YouTube offers. He mentions “YouTube drama” and “antagonistic debate between one or more YouTubers,” terms introduced by Jean Burgess and Joshua Green in their 2009 volume YouTube (Polity). He further states that “religion seems to be the most discussed topic” on YouTube, citing debates on evolution, abortion, atheism, Scientology, Mormonism, Christianity, and Islam (which seem to me to be rather local American Christian debates). 

At this point, I became interested in how Al-Rawi would apply these insights to his case studies (which, in fact, he doesn’t). The author introduces the reader to his methodology, which involves a lot of counting (25–32). He and his “second coder,” both Arabic speakers (30), first analyzed seven hundred comments and fifty video clips about the cartoon affair “to find the most appropriate coding measures to be followed” (28). This first step produced six main “audience frames”: (1) pro-Islam, (2) neutral toward Islam, (3) threats and calls for jihad, (4) curses and insults, (5) boycotting Danish products, and (6) anti-Islam (no Arabic terms are given, 29).

The results of the four case studies are expressed in numbers, in each case with an introduction, statement of the quantitative results, and interpretation. To give one example, the findings on the cartoon affair in 2005 are presented as follows: “Out of the 4153 comments analyzed, the study revealed that the majority of comments (n=1657) 39.89% were moderate as they carried positive messages about Islam and its prophet ... while neutral comments constituted 18.42% (N= 765) of the responses” (48). Al-Rawi further visualizes his findings with charts and tables. The video clips were analyzed according to the three audience frames “pro-Islam,” “neutral,” and “anti- Islam” (51). From the interpretation of the results we learn, for example, that most of the “threatening messages [posted] against the artists” came from males and that in terms of geographic location, “the majority of these messages came from Saudi Arabia 36.40%, followed by Egypt 12.62%” (53). Otherwise we are told that “in this context, the sectarian dimension was very evident in the discussion that was generated. This is linked to the concept of selective exposure that is explained above” (55). It was not clear to me who “generated” the discussion or if it was a “discussion” at all. In addition, I obviously missed the point where the “sectarian dimension” became evident (since no evidence is given), and I was also left wondering how this relates to the concept of selective exposure. 

Here, I had expected the author to mention the algorithms “that are entrenched in YouTube’s business models.” Users not only “search” on the basis of free will and interest; what they see on YouTube is more often “the combined work of users and algorithms,” as Sheenagh Pietrobruno shows in her 2016 article “YouTube flow and the transmission of heritage” (Sage Journals). 

I’m not convinced about what we learn when applying quantitative methods of this kind. What I understand is that a book that has “Islam” in its title can, first of all, deal with the political and media practices of an American Evangelical Christian, an Egyptian American Coptic Christian, a Danish newspaper, and a Dutch right-wing film-maker. Secondly, it can deny Muslims any meaningful agency. The question of who Muslims are is not asked and Muslims do not speak (Al-Rawi’s assumptions about Islam might be emphatic, but they are simplistic and, in numerical terms, wrong, cf. 30). Thirdly, the conceded “agency” behind the results consists of reactions. Fourthly, any Arabic terms that are used are illegible, since the book’s font does not support Arabic script. Finally, Al-Rawi’s conception of YouTube as an “online public sphere” and as a “platform for free expression” (2) leads to the conclusion that Muslims have no active part in what is supposed to be a global public sphere. The results of the investigations are not related to the sensitive remarks at the end of the book about media, free speech, and hate speech. The author does not elaborate on these issues through the material he is examining. The challenging debates within the academic fields of media and religion and the anthropology of Islam—to name but two— about the meaning of religion and the normative framework in which the debates take place did also not find their way into the author’s discussion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Bettina Gräf is Lecturer in Islamic Studies at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (LMU).

Date of Review: 
August 22, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ahmed K. Al-Rawi is Assistant Professor at the Department of Communication Studies of Concordia University in Canada and a research fellow at the Media and Communication Department of Erasmus University in the Netherlands.

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