By Omayma Abdel-Latif
face of Arab governments' ongoing, heavy-handed efforts to control public
debate, the Internet has emerged as a platform for voices—especially those of
Islamists—denied a place in the mainstream, state-owned media. Contrary to the
widespread Western perception that radical websites dominate Islamist
cyberspace, groups embracing a moderate interpretation of the faith
increasingly are launching websites to "break the monopoly of the state
over the articulation of the political and social agenda," as one activist
described it. These sites aim particularly to attract younger Muslims by
addressing their concerns and providing an interpretation of Islam couched in
modern lingo disseminated by modern technology.
"Does Islam only allow force in self-defense or can it also be used to remove oppression?" This is but one of the many questions on matters of politics, religion, love, marriage, and health that the Cairo-based Islamonline website [www.islamonline.net] receives on an hourly basis from Muslims across the globe. Part of a boom of websites offering new perspectives on the Muslim faith, Islamonline was launched in 1999 by a group of Egyptian Islamist intellectuals. In the words of its founders, Islamonline's main objective is "to work for the good of humanity and to support principles of freedom, justice, democracy and human rights." Besides its twenty-four-hour news service, the website provides a wealth of information on issues related to women, fatwas (religious rulings), interviews with Muslim scholars, and reflections on Islamic thought and jurisprudence.
Al Shaab newspaper, the mouthpiece of the Islamist-oriented Labor party (Hizb Al Amal), has also been a key cyber-player. When the Egyptian government banned the paper in 2000 following a heated controversy over a novel published by the Ministry of Culture that Al Shaab deemed offensive to Muslim sensibilities, cyberspace offered a much-needed platform to resume publication. The paper went online, with editor Magdi Hussein publishing remarkably fierce criticism of the Egyptian regime. But the website could not escape the heavy hand of the state. It was censored twice and hacked many times, although the culprits were never identified, and is off-line for the time being.
1995, when the government shut down the headquarters and newspaper of the
One of the most popular websites among young Egyptians is that of Amr Khalid, a young television preacher [www.amrkhalid.net]. Khalid seeks to address the concerns and aspirations of so-called born again or newly-religious Muslims by emphasizing social, ethical and lifestyle issues rather than direct political change or the creation of an Islamic state. The site's goal, according to one of Khalid's close aides, is to reconstruct popular attitudes toward Islam such that they embrace modernity.
reach of Khalid’s website has built him a following
across the Arab world and
question the influence of such websites in
Omayma Abdel-Latif is a staff writer for Al Ahram Weekly in
Arab Reform Bulletin