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Book review by J. Postill of Eickelman and Anderson, eds., New Media and the Muslim World

May 13, 2008

https://i0.wp.com/www.iupress.indiana.edu/images/books/9780253216052_med.jpgPostill, J. (forthcoming) Review of Dale F. Eickelman and Jon W. Anderson, eds., New Media and the Muslim World: The Emerging Public Sphere, 2nd ed. (Indiana University Press, 2003).

This edited volume is the result of a series of international meetings on civil society and ‘new media’ in the Muslim world that took place in the second half of the 1990s. Most contributors, including the editors, are anthropologists based in the United States. Although the volume’s aims are never spelt out (an issue addressed later in this review), we can surmise from the book’s title and introductory chapter that the main aim is to explore the relation between the proliferation of ‘new media’ and the seeming emergence of a public sphere in the Muslim world. More broadly put, contributors are asking to what extent such media are helping to transform the civic and public lives of Muslims around the globe.

The book is a fascinating exploration that will engage – and sometimes surprise – readers with its varied case studies drawing from an in-depth knowledge of the languages and societies covered. Chapter contributors discuss in rich empirical detail media developments in the Middle East (various media), Lebanon (TV, internet), Egypt (cartoons, pulp fiction),Turkey (TV), Bangladesh (religious texts, pulp fiction), Indonesia (internet), and among Black Muslims in the United States (secular media, religious texts). Uniting all these disparate studies is a concern with how middle-class Muslims around the world are harnessing new media technologies to pursue civic and religious goals that are midway between those of traditional Muslim scholars and clerics and those of the semi-literate or illiterate masses.

Paving the way are Western-educated professionals (especially engineers and scientists) who are challenging the authority of an earlier generation of religious interpreters through new technological and discursive means (chapter 1). It is among these new mediators that the main struggles reported in the book are taking place. For example, Maimuna Huq (chapter 8) discusses the difficulties faced by political Islamists in Bangladesh to overcome the entrenched popular association in that country of Islamists with pro-Pakistan elements during the war of secession. Unable to use overt propaganda, these activists have resorted to spreading the word through romantic novels that make little direct reference to Islam, a strategy riddled with contradictions. By contrast, the obstacles faced by political Islamists in Indonesia are of an entirely different order (Robert Hefner, chapter 9). Taking advantage of the arrival of the internet to urban centres across the Archipelago in 1997-8, the radical movement Laskar Jihad used internet technologies to recruit volunteer fighters to wage holy war against Christians in the Moluccas (Maluku). However, their leaders’ ties to high-ranking army officers made them highly vulnerable to ‘the changing winds of elite politics’ (p. 175). Thus, in the wake of the Bali bombings of 2002, their erstwhile military backers suddenly began to regard them as a liability. As a result, Laskar Jihad collapsed in a matter of days. A different scenario altogether is presented by Gregory Starrett (chapter 6) who in the mid-1990s conducted fieldwork among Black American Muslims attached to a local mosque in the Carolinas. Focusing on their media consumption practices, Starrett shows how mosque leaders seek to transform both Islamic and secular media commodities (e.g. American TV shows) into instructional materials amidst a perceived paucity of media contents deemed relevant to the lives of African American Muslims.

For all its empirical strengths, this book is marred by a number of omissions and weaknesses. First, the rationale, aims and organisation of the volume are never stated. This is compounded by its not being placed in relation to existing scholarship. We are not told, in other words, how the book contributes to previous discussions of media and public life in the Muslim world, or what gaps it seeks to fill. Moreover, whilst most chapters draw their strength from the historical specificity of the materials under discussion, the editors often slide into a vague, ahistorical register of perpetual imminence with usages such as ‘increasingly’, ’emerging’ and ‘prospects’. Ironically, Walter Armbrust’s critique of recent Middle Eastern scholarship (chapter 7) could equally well apply to this volume. Armbrust decries regional scholars’ ceaseless ‘search for signs of imminent change’ that portent either hope or gloom for the region, depending on an individual author’s own inclinations (p.122).

The book is, furthermore, conceptually and theoretically underdeveloped. With one or two exceptions, highly contested notions such as ‘public sphere’, ‘new media’ or ‘information age’ are left undefined and there is a general lack of engagement with social theory –especially media theory. There are even hints in places of an underlying hostility towards theory. For instance, commenting on existing scholarly debates on civil democracy, Augustus Norton (chapter 2) suggests that rather than ‘focusing on competing theoretical perspectives, it is much more relevant…to look at what is actually happening’ (p. 27). But surely the two practices are not mutually exclusive; that is, empirical studies invariably gain from resting on strong theoretical foundations?

Three final issues are worthy of note. First, although the back cover blurb to this second edition promises us ‘new chapters dealing specifically with events following September,11, 2001′ this, in fact, is not the case. Admittedly these events are mentioned in three or four places (see index), but no new chapters are chiefly concerned with post-9/11 developments. Punctual updates notwithstanding, with the bulk of its contents based on early to mid-1990s research, this second edition remains as much a product of the 1990s as its prequel. This is by no means a problem in itself – all books are of necessity artefacts of their own time. It only becomes one when exaggerated claims are made that may mislead potential buyers or readers. Indeed, one of the undoubted strengths of this book is precisely that it arises from long-term research into the politics of public media in Muslim countries well before the events of September 11, 2001, i.e. this is not a hastily assembled, opportunistic reaction to these events. Second, none of the chapters deal with the crucial question of what audiences make of the ‘new media’ genres and contents they discuss, an absence that reflects the relatively scant audience research conducted to date in Muslim-majority states when compared to, say, India or Brazil. Finally, the volume pays little attention to media produced and/or consumed by Muslim immigrants in Western Europe, with the exception of an interesting – albeit brief – section on Kurdish television initiatives in several European capitals in the early to mid-1990s (M. Hakan Yavuz, chapter 10).

Despite these shortcomings, the present volume fills an important gap in the comparative media and political change literature and will be invaluable to scholars and students interested in media-related changes and continuities in the Muslim world, particularly in the 1990s. It will also serve as a counterweight to the heavy concentration of media and public sphere research in Western countries. Used in conjunction with more recent works, the present book provides a rich set of case studies that demonstrates the sheer diversity of Muslim ‘public media’ and their varied entanglements with middle-class and elite projects.

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