This post first appeared on Common Ground News Service.
The way mainstream media has covered major events of the past two decades leaves much to be desired. After the 9/11 attacks, rigid, insular debates and discussions too often replaced free and open discourse, creating an environment ripe for the rise of blogs.
The prominence of a “good” versus “evil”, “us” versus “them” discourse and the “clash of civilisations” theory made famous by political scientist Samuel Huntington, which claimed that Islam and the West were headed for conflict, limited the range of views covered by traditional media. Simultaneously, facing tough financial constraints, media has been increasingly consolidated in the hands of a few.
In response, there has been an unprecedented rise in blogs and social networks on the Internet, corresponding with the emergence of new technologies. This shift gave birth to a new kind of media – “citizen media” – which has created a paradigm shift in the way information is exchanged and opinions are expressed.
Blogs allow an increasing number of Internet users from different geographic and cultural backgrounds to participate in intercultural, transnational understanding – and to discover that we aren’t so different after all.
One surprising example came about in the summer of 2005 in London. A few days after suicide attacks hit the city, Kamal Raza Butt, a 48-year-old Pakistani who had just arrived in London to visit his family, was killed by a group of youngsters who yelled racist insults before they attacked him.
Stereotypes and accusations dominated television, the radio and the press, analysing the motives of the crime and focusing on the “climate of revenge” that was taking over the country. On one side were those who blamed terrorism on the teachings of Islam, and considered the Muslim community widely responsible for the suicide attacks and subsequent climate of fear and mistrust that resulted in Raza’s murder. On the other side were those who blamed Western societies of racism and failure to integrate Muslim minorities.
The polarised debate in mainstream media left little space for the mainstream voices that were desperately looking for common ground between those on both sides.
In this context, blogs provided an unexpected opportunity. More than just information sources; they became platforms for all points of view. By commenting on articles and posts, bloggers discovered commonalities as they connected with each other. They agreed, for instance, that terrorism is in essence counter to all religions’ teachings, including Islam. During the days following the London attacks and Raza’s murder, blogs became a platform for passionate debate, rarely seen in mainstream media.
The brilliant blog “Lenin’s Tomb” constitutes a perfect example. In this left-leaning blog, secular and religious people exchanged their views via online posts and comments. Through blogs and emerging social networks, citizens exchanged their points of view and discussed thorny subjects like Islamophobia. Although exchanges were not always gentle, a dialogue emerged that spontaneously led to some common ground.
The very nature of the blogosphere allowed for Muslims (and non-Muslims for that matter) in Britain and elsewhere to challenge negative accusations, and to put the London attacks and Raza’s murder in their wider context.
For example, bloggers in England and throughout Europe initiated events to discuss issues like racism, integration and religion in person, and bloggers from all over the world joined virtual agoras, or meeting places, to discuss these topics in more depth. The positive work of associations combating racist messages came into the spotlight. Islamophobia Watch, for instance, which was founded early in 2005, rose to prominence soon after the London attacks in part due to its increasing familiarity with Internet users.
In the face of chaos, and maybe because of it, understanding between people with different points of view seemed within reach.
Some will say that hatred, slander and ignorance are prevalent on the internet. However, if extremist voices use this medium, they are no longer alone. People with alternative points of view, many of them wanting to create mutual understanding and respect, now have the right to have their say and be heard.
Blogging and social networks have allowed people with different beliefs, political views and cultures to talk about their lives, joys, sorrows and truths. And for Muslim-Western relations, the Internet constitutes an unmatched, eye-opening outlet for voices from all sides to have their say, mitigating divides and misunderstandings. We now know that at the end of day we are not as different as we first thought.