Internet Opening Up Space for Religious Debate in Egypt

In today’s Times Michael Slackman highlights how the Internet has led to greater pluralism in political and religious debates in Egypt by profiling Gamal al-Banna, a liberal religious thinker who just happens to be the brother of the decidedly less liberal Muslim Brotherhood founder, Hassan al-Banna. Slackman writes that although Gamal al-Banna been sharing his ideas publicly for years:

…only now, he said, does he have the chance to be heard widely. It is not that a majority agrees with him; it is not that the tide is shifting to a more moderate interpretative view of religion; it is just that the rise of relatively independent media — like privately owned newspapers, satellite television channels and the Internet — has given him access to a broader audience.

Of course, the Internet alone isn’t responsible for the changes that take place in any society. Slackman notes:

Several factors have changed the public debate and erased some of the fear associated with challenging conventional orthodoxy, political analysts, academics and social activists said. These include a disillusionment and growing rejection of the more radical Islamic ideology associated with Al Qaeda, they said. At the same time, President Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world has quieted the accusation that the United States is at war with Islam, making it easier for liberal Muslims to promote more Western secular ideas, Egyptian political analysts said.

Our research into the Arabic blogosphere found that Egypt does indeed have large, relatively open and in many ways oppositional blogosphere. The debates within the Muslim Brotherhood cluster of bloggers, where younger members challenge the old guard on the goals and future direction of the Muslim Brotherhood, are some of the most interesting in the online Middle East, because they show how the Internet has the power to change existing institutions and the way decisions are made in those previously hierarchical, top-down institutions. As we wrote in our paper:

The Muslim Brotherhood that mobilizes mindshare in the networked public sphere is no longer the same Muslim Brotherhood. As we see with advocacy organizations in the United States, or Shi’a religious students in Iran, the move to Internet modes of communication can alter the forms of organization among people committed to similar goals, ideas, and values. The Internet does not just promise (or threaten) to change the balance of power among players on the field, it changes the field and changes the players too.

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