Repackaging Islamism

July 16, 2009 by  


By Rafia Zakaria

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Couched in a corporate structure that relies on savvy marketing, attractive rhetoric and smart, modern packaging, projects like IslamOnline represent the effort to change in appearance and language what remains the same in substance.

The headquarters of IslamOnline.net is palatial building located on the outskirts of Cairo. Away from the dirt and unrelenting traffic of the bustling Egyptian capital, its shiny and brand new campus is located across the street from an equally palatial mosque. If you’ve spent any time in Cairo, the glass ensconced air-conditioned office of this Qatari-funded online empire can be a welcome respite from the desert heat, undoubtedly for both the casual visitor as well as the nearly one hundred Egyptian men and women who work here.

According to its publicity materials, IslamOnline strives for “an Islamic renaissance” and envisions itself as becoming the largest and most “credible reference on Islam and its peoples”. The website hosts a number of features from “news” to “politics in depth” to “family” and “art and culture”. A whole section is devoted to “Euro-Muslims”, even though the website is based in the Middle East; assumedly perhaps because much of traffic for the website comes not from Egypt itself but from Muslims living in Europe.

The technology is slick, the graphics trendy and the young, energetic staff quite committed to the avowed project of rebranding Islam. Words like “moderate” “diverse” and “plural” are recurrent in the vocabulary of the editors, used repeatedly to describe both their mission and their purpose.

These two facets of IslamOnline, its Egyptian staff and Western consumers and the conscious rebranding of Islam are worthy of attention.

Take first the savvy rhetorical repackaging that is insistent on the fact that the “Islam” it is peddling is both “moderate” and “diverse”. When questioned regarding what constitutes “moderate” Islam, however, the editors are resolute in providing synonyms instead of concrete responses. Ignored thus is the idea that diversity, in essence, stands for the representation of a variety of views that include the extremes, while moderation stands for a particular selection which avoids the extremes.

Also ignored is the reality that selecting what is moderate therefore inherently invokes a judgement and an interpretation regarding what is considered to be so. For instance, on the issue of hijab, the editors of IslamOnline state that the moderate position is that all Muslim women are required to wear the hijab; this is also, they insist, the “majority” position but the process of enumerating what a “majority” means, or why conflicting interpretations are ignored is again left unexplained. The same women who denounce the intolerance of Europeans toward women who wear the headscarf are thus unwilling to tolerate that a Muslim woman can refuse to wear one and still practice her faith.

This lack of self-awareness among the editors of IslamOnline and the self-described promoters of the “correct” and “moderate” Islam is disturbing given the stated aims of the organisation. It is difficult indeed to discern whether the editors and staff of this web-based dawa organisation are being deliberately evasive regarding their project of proffering a particular definition of “moderate” Islam or truly ignorant of their own role in advancing a project whose strings are being pulled by their financiers.

The geographical dynamics of both the headquarters of IslamOnline as well as the constituents of its staff add further complications to the question. 180 Egyptians, men and women, some commuting up to two hours each way, brave the heat and dust of Cairo to work in this air-conditioned glass building reeking of Gulf money. Sitting in neat cubicles, they collect news articles and fatwas for Muslims around the world, most notably in the West.

Their writings say little or nothing at all about the rising unemployment in Cairo, the blatant poverty visible on every city street, or the lack of political process in their country. In fact, these proximate realities, experienced undoubtedly by editors and staff, are all not represented in the conversation and largely the content of IslamOnline. In the deliberate divorce of these two realities then, IslamOnline, in the real and not virtual sense, represents outsourcing at its best: the relegation of dawa to Egyptian Muslims propagating an Islam envisioned by their Gulf financiers.

The disjunction is obvious not simply in the economic disparity between the largely Egyptian producers of IslamOnline, its Qatari backers and its largely Western consumers, but also in the avowed rhetoric of diversity versus its project of propagating the “correct” Islam. The Sharia section, which according to their own statistics is the most popular section of the website, is run by a doctoral student from Al-Azhar University. In his words, the process of compiling the “diverse” and “moderate” views espoused by IslamOnline stands for the effort to combine “authentic” opinions on various subjects from all four Sunni mazhabs. Shiite schools of thought fail to make this authenticity cut and hence are not represented.

A similar conclusion could be reached about the propagators of “authentic” Islam of IslamOnline; a document retrieved from IslamOnline reveals that nearly ninety percent of the sheikhs recruited to provide fatwas are Arab sheikhs with little or no representation for Southeast Asians, South Asians and Muslims from other non-Arab ethnicities.

In conclusion then, the Islam of IslamOnline stands for Islam as understood largely by Sunni Arabs. There is indeed nothing wrong with such a project; Sunni Arabs just like Iranian Shiites or South Asian Sufis have the right to propagate and disseminate information about their particular take on the Islamic faith. Indeed, there is something laudable and commendable also about providing Egyptian Muslim youth with a well funded and inviting workplace where they can interact and earn good livelihoods while living their faith.

The pernicious aspects of projects like IslamOnline lie in the unsaid agendas that undergird their stated goals. Calling a website “IslamOnline” instead of “MuslimsOnline” makes a very particular claim about representing a single and correct doctrinal position whose truth is substantiated by a particular interpretation of religious text. Disguising such a claim in the glib rhetoric of “diversity” and “plurality” while simultaneously excluding entire swathes of Muslim practice such as Shiite theology suggests a deceptive condescension toward both Muslims and non-Muslims consumers of the website.

In larger terms, projects like IslamOnline represent a novel new turn taken by the Islamist project that consciously seeks to redefine itself as “moderate”. Couched in a corporate structure that relies on savvy marketing, attractive rhetoric and smart, modern packaging, it represents the effort to change in appearance and language what remains the same in substance. This new and repackaged Islamism thus continues to privilege Sunni and Arab interpretations of Islam as ultimately authentic and correct but under the glib pretence of being committed to both moderation and diversity.

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at rafia.zakaria@gmail.com.

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