Wednesday, August 11, 2004


Lawrence Wright of the New Yorker has written an insightful essay entitled The Terror Web on the role of telecommunication and Internet technology in the formation of a virtual ‘ummah’---a Muslim community:
The Internet provides confused young Muslims in Europe with a virtual community. Those who cannot adapt to their new homes discover on the Internet a responsive and compassionate forum. “The Internet stands in for the idea of the ummah, the mythologized Muslim community,” Marc Sageman, the psychiatrist and former C.I.A. officer, said. “The Internet makes this ideal community concrete, because one can interact with it.” He compares this virtual ummah to romantic conceptions of nationhood, which inspire people not only to love their country but to die for it.

“The Internet is the key issue,” Gilles Kepel, a prominent Arabist and a professor at the Institut d’Études Politiques, in Paris, told me recently. “It erases the frontiers between the dar al-Islam and the dar al-Kufr. It allows the propagation of a universal norm, with an Internet Sharia and fatwa system.” Kepel was speaking of the Islamic legal code, which is administered by the clergy. Now one doesn’t have to be in Saudi Arabia or Egypt to live under the rule of Islamic law. “Anyone can seek a ruling from his favorite sheikh in Mecca,” Kepel said. “In the old days, one sought a fatwa from the sheikh who had the best knowledge. Now it is sought from the one with the best Web site.”

To a large extent, Kepel argues, the Internet has replaced the Arabic satellite channels as a conduit of information and communication. “One can say that this war against the West started on television,” he said, “but, for instance, with the decapitation of the poor hostages in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, those images were propagated via Webcams and the Internet. A jihadi subculture has been created that didn’t exist before 9/11.”

Because the Internet is anonymous, Islamist dissidents are less susceptible to government pressure. “There is no signature,” Kepel said. “To some of us who have been trained as classicists, the cyber-world appears very much like the time before Gutenberg. Copyists used to add their own notes into a text, so you never know who was the real author.”

Gabriel Weimann, a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace, has been monitoring terrorist Web sites for seven years. “When we started, there were only twelve sites,” he told me. “Now there are more than four thousand.” Every known terrorist group maintains more than one Web site, and often the sites are in different languages. “You can download music, videos, donate money, receive training,” Weimann said. “It’s a virtual training camp.” There are two online magazines associated with Al Qaeda, Sawt al-Jihad (Voice of Jihad) and Muaskar al-Battar (Camp al-Battar), which feature how-to articles on kidnapping, poisoning, and murdering hostages. Specific targets, such as the Centers for Disease Control, in Atlanta, or FedWire, the money-clearing system operated by the Federal Reserve Board, are openly discussed. “We do see a rising focus on the U.S.,” Weimann told me. “But some of this talk may be fake -- a scare campaign.”
The rise of 21st century jihad is tied into the rise of the Internet. Global Islamofascism is powered by a global Net. The rise of Hitler was largely enabled by the advent of electronic broadcast mass media---radio. Nazism’s top-down dictatorial structure was symbiotic with the top-down communication structure of broadcast media in the 1930s and 40s.

The rise of a global Islamofascist jihad is also symbiotic with contemporary communication media. Today’s media is narrowcast, inexpensive, largely anonymous and global. Islam’s decentralized organizational structure is symbiotic with decentralized media; it thrives on it, and grows.