TCS Daily


Wired Islam

By Jay Currie - November 3, 2004 12:00 AM

The battle for a civil society in Iraq waxes and wanes. The Palestinians, after four years of banging their collective head against a now literal wall, are beginning to rethink the intifada strategy. However, the bigger question of integrating the Islamic world with the modern seems to be getting short shrift.

The near enemy, Islamo-fascist terrorism, takes up most of the political and media attention; however, the distant potential threat is more likely to create the rightly feared, asymmetrical, war of civilizations.

What, or who, is that distant threat? It is a set of numbers. One in particular: in many Muslim nations half of the population is 15 or under. Strategically, beating one generation of jihadis is vital but does not address how to avoid the next.

Many Muslims, despite the regimes they are saddled with, are modernizing. They are doing it on their own in direct contrast to the command and control, "from the top", petro dollar fueled, mega-project, modernizations of the Shah of Iran or the Saudis. Private cell phones, satellite TV and computers directly threaten theocrats and despots by increasing the power of the population without the direct sanction of the state or the clergy.

The explosion of the internet in the Middle East was outlined by Cisco CEO John Chambers in a speech at the Jordan ICT Forum 2004 held in September 2004, According to Arab News, Chambers said that "between 2000 and 2004, there was a 219 percent increase in Internet usage in the Middle East. Specifically in Jordan 273 percent, Qatar 320 percent, Bahrain 389 percent, Egypt 500 percent and Saudi Arabia 650 percent."

The tools of modernity carry their own agenda. At every turn the net offers connectedness and transparency -- exactly the opposite values from those embraced by top down tyrants and mullahs interposing themselves between their people and God.

Arguably the Reformation and the Enlightenment in the West would never have happened without the invention of the printing press. That technology made information, if not free, then available without the intermediation of the Catholic Church. By dispersing the control of information, the printing press carried a significant agenda. It said to the Church, and to the monarchs who claimed to rule by divine right, "There are limits to your rule."

To take another example, one of the key tactics of anti-communist activists in the West pushing for the destabilization of the then Russian satellite states was to offer universities and public libraries photocopiers. Lots of photocopiers. So many photocopiers that it became impossible for the state to monitor their use. Suddenly the underground press in Poland, Hungary and various other central European nations, which had been relying on clandestine mimeo machines, was able to publish as quickly as the state controlled newspapers. Once again, the capacity of the state to control and regulate information was compromised and then destroyed.

Satellite dishes, DVDs, computers, cell phones, cheap video recorders and the internet all compromise Middle Eastern regimes' and theocrats' capacity to control what their people think and what their people want. Most importantly, digital technology speaks most persuasively to youth. Music downloads - legal or otherwise - fan sites, games, blogs, chat rooms, IM are modernity's lures.

Can this process be hastened? One step would be to set up channels to distribute the hundreds of thousands of used but still functioning 486's and P1s sitting in American and European basements throughout the Muslim world. Flood the zone. (Being careful to conduct distribution through market channels. Free is not as good as cheap because cheap allows indigenous middle men and merchants to make a bit of money and sets a value on the equipment.)

Offering subsidies or direct cash grants for some form of internet access to the more rural parts of the Middle East would also help. Satellite would be ideal because it would eliminate the state's capacity to filter the 'net.

In a battle with the madrasas with their fundamentalist Wahabbist outlook one of the strongest weapons the West has is the openness digital technology offers. Not to mention the sheer wealth of information and entertainment that is on the net for free.

Ideally, the help and support of moderate Muslims should be solicited for this sort of program. There are, after all, along with the jihadi sites, literally tens of thousand of sites devoted to Muslim culture, art, religious practice and non-terrorist politics.

It will not be easy. The West's potential to overwhelm radical Islam is recognized by the Islamists themselves. According to Dr. Muzaffar Iqbal, President of the Centre for Islam and Science, Sherwood Park, Canada and quoted in the Media Monitors Network:

"Even dedicated Muslim intellectuals have failed to grasp the impact of this global effort aimed at destroying their faith, way of life, ethical and moral values. There is not a single Muslim institution dedicated to fighting this terrible onslaught that is rapidly eroding values in the Muslim world. While the great satan is working around the clock, the believers are mostly asleep.

"What we urgently need to recognize is the fact that young Muslims are not immune to this terrible onslaught, and that modern secular education, internet, television and encroachment of Western modes of behavior and thinking have so transformed the mental and emotional fabric of our youth that they have very little desire for traditional religious teaching. In order to provide an adequate response to the Western war of ideas, a new approach is needed. Nothing can be taken for granted. The destruction of the moral and ethical system of Islam will inevitably lead to a total destruction of Islamic civilization. Signs of decay are already apparent all over the Muslim world, and unless systematic, organized and well-planned efforts are made to counter the poisonous infiltration, it may soon be too late."

He gets it. Or at least part of it -- the objective is not to destroy Islamic civilization, rather it is to open that civilization to the modern world.

Bringing the Middle East and the rest of the Islamic world into the 21st rather than the 13th century begins by reaching kids -- millions of often very poor kids. Handing out candy is great on the spot public relations; long term it is not going to cut it. Cyber cafes and very cheap computers might.

Jay Currie is a Galiano writer whose writing and blog is at www.reviewing.blogspot.com.


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