Cyber Islam and Online Fatwas

Islamic associations are increasingly joining others in taking advantage of the opportunities offered by the World Wide Web. In her study "Islam goes Internet. Websites of Islamic Organizations on the World Wide Web," Dr. Alev Inan traces the development of Islamic websites. Götz Nordbruch spoke with her about the study

Praying Muslim on Computer (photo: AP)
Religiously conservative Islamic associations have been able to substantially gain in influence through the Internet of late

​​In your study you show that more and more Islamic associations in Germany today have an Internet presence. This is a major change from the back-courtyard Islam that for a long time dominated the German scene. What's behind this new visibility?

Dr. Alev Inan: The Internet is "hip" and "modern" – and Muslims also see it that way. Religiously conservative Islamic associations have been able to substantially gain in influence through the Internet of late. A website suggests transparency and openness, irrespective of its actual content. But the 'new visibility' on the Internet does not automatically mean that the associations have become more modern in terms of their concerns. Today you can often find the same ultra-conservative content online that used to be preached in back-lot mosques, now packaged neatly for online presentation. The challenge for institutions seeking Islamic dialogue partners is to not be blinded by the packaging. is one such portal, operated by the Central Council of Muslims in Germany (ZMD). To whom are such online offerings addressed: to the members of the associations themselves or to the non-Islamic public?

Inan: The ZMD website is an example of the fact that many of these sites are also directed at the non-Islamic public. An analysis of the website's content showed that the operators are intent on presenting the ZMD as the representative of Islam in Germany. And they were extremely clever in choosing the address When you enter the search term "Islam" in a search engine, the website shows up near the top of the list. The uninitiated would assume that the website of the ZMD, although its membership is estimated at only about 20,000, is representative of all Muslims in Germany. Despite its relatively small size, the association therefore enjoys great power to define religious content compared to rival organizations. This is also one of the aims behind online offerings.

But on the Internet many opinions can now be aired that used to have trouble being heard. Does this also apply to the Islamic association scene in Germany?

Online Magazine (photo: AP)
Users are often unclear on the details of Islamic associations in the Internet: Who is behind the websites? Their operators' legitimacy is often questionable and obscure

​​Inan: The Internet dramatically extends the sphere of influence of the Islamic organizations. An actual example: The city councilor of a medium-sized town in Bavaria invites the various religious groups to take part in an "interreligious dialogue." At the beginning of the large-scale event, one of the hosts matter-of-factly quotes the website of the Islamic Council, assuming that its statements constitute the "official" position of Muslims on the issue being addressed.

After all, he found it all on a well-designed website on the Internet. He had no idea that the Islamic Council is extremely controversial, due for one thing to its connections with the Islamic association Milli Görüs, which has been under the scrutiny of the federal security authorities for years now. One organization – in this case the Islamic Council – thus suddenly took on the status of sole representative of all Muslims merely by virtue of its website. So we should be careful when quickly looking something up about Islam on the Web. On the other hand, this should not lead us to see only dangers lurking on the Internet. Other Islamic websites really do aim to educate and provide information.

There has been much talk recently of "Sheikh Google," in other words, that more and more Muslims are turning to Islamic Web forums when they have questions about religion instead of consulting religious scholars at the mosque. What importance do you think these forums have acquired for the religious orientation of Muslims?

Inan: This question has hardly been researched yet. For example, it is still largely unknown what significance so-called online fatwas have in Muslims' everyday religious lives. In principle, such forums are of course one way to teach Islamic values. But it's important that their operators make sure that the contents are not adverse to an integration of Islam in Germany. They must not be allowed to endanger the peaceful co-existence of Muslims and non-Muslims in this country.

An extreme example of the impact of radical Internet content is the case of the "suitcase bombers." Two young men searched the Internet for a fatwa that would legitimate the murder of civilians. In July 2006, after they found what they were looking for, they deposited two bombs in regional trains on the Dortmund-Koblenz route.

Pop Islam is also rampant on the Internet. What does the cyber community mean for young Muslims?

Inan: It's especially important to keep an eye on content when it comes to offerings for young Muslims. We have to ask ourselves what effect this content might have on young adults. One concern is that a strict interpretation of Islam on these pages could aggravate conflicts with regard to education issues. For example, in terms of the numbers of pupils exempted from participating in swimming or sports lessons or class trips. Muslim girls are particularly affected by rigid interpretations of Islam. Many people therefore fear that conservative organizations might try to discourage them from attaining political maturity and forming their own opinions. When the cyber communities foster attitudes and behaviors that make it difficult for people to lead a self-determined life, then the buzzwords "cyber" and "pop" are not much help. It just makes it more difficult for Muslim youth to cope with the liberal everyday lifestyle in Germany.

The spectrum covered by Islamic websites is nevertheless a broad one. It ranges from the multimedia portal Waymo to Salafist offerings. Is this a sign of a new pluralism within the Islamic community?

Main train station, Cologne (photo: AP)
The case of the “suitcase bombers” has fired an intense debate in Germany regarding the expansion of video surveillance in railway stations and in trains

​​Inan: Despite all reservations, the Internet is of course a wonderful medium. Particularly in the early days, the Web was celebrated as a forum where a variety of views and currents can share space. By now this euphoria has died down somewhat, including where Islam is concerned, because it is easy to get lost in the incredible flood of information available – the event for promoting religious dialogue I mentioned above, where the Islamic Council was presented as the one and only representative of Islam in Germany is but one example of this danger. Critical questioning is required today more than ever, including where Islamic websites are concerned.

Interview: Götz Nordbruch

© 2008

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor

Dr. Alev Inan is a research associate in the Department of General Education at the University of Passau. She is author of the study "Islam goes Internet. Websites of Islamic Organizations on the World Wide Web" (Tectum Verlag Marburg, 2007)

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