IFI Press Release on the Influence of Islamic Internet Sites upon Muslim Youth in Germany

Institut für Islamfragen

Rapid Increase in the Presence of Islamic Internet Sites since September 11, 2001

BONN (August 17, 2009) – In regard to the question about the factors for integration and de-integration among Muslim youth in Germany, the varied and constantly growing offerings on Islamic websites should be taken into still more stronger consideration, according to the judgement of the Rev. Canon Albrecht Hauser from the Institute of Islamic Studies of the German Evangelical Alliance. The spectrum of the offerings, which have increased rapidly especially after September 11, ranges from fatwa data banks for use in personal decision-making, multimedia platforms and partner search engines, to missionary da’wa messages and to Islamistic and jihadistic sites, in which a literal interpretation of the Koran is promoted and the basic liberal democratic order is rejected in unmistakeable terms. In this context, according to Rev. Hauser, there often is no clear-cut dividing line between different ideological approaches, a circumstance that is verified also by corresponding links between sites that appear moderately conservative and those that are clearly Islamistic Internet forums.

Conservative Islamic Associations Online: Image Cultivation and Islamic Education

In 2007, Alev Inan, a media pedagogue specializing in migration research, published her study of the websites of Islamic organizations in Germany titled “Islam goes Internet”. In her view of the “Zentralrat der Muslime in Deutschland” (ZMD) (Central Council of Muslims), the Turkish Islamic Community Milli Görüs (IGMG), and the “Islamrat” (Islam Council), she confirms that, in spite of the websites’ suggestion of transparency and open-mindedness, the same ultraconservative content often is conveyed that previously was preached in backyard mosques. On these sites, what dominates are the conflicts between the majority society and the minority in regard to the practice of the Islamic religion, such as those centering on the headscarf question at the time of the study, as well as both the collection of relevant articles and interactive forums. According to Inan, the IGMG, for example, also indirectly conveys the teaching of strict Islamic dress regulations through a one-sided selection of images of girls, the overwhelming majority of which wear headscarves, without providing space optically for alternative styles of dress and patterns of living. Court verdicts in cases of conflict that turn out positive in the Muslim view often are assessed, in the articles on the website of the Islam Council, for example, as necessary conditions for integration. Those verdicts turning out negatively for Muslims are seen as conscious discrimination or as hostile to Islam or foreigners. Along with conveying their conceptions of values and education, the organizations, according to Inan’s study, also use the Internet for cultivating their image and, therewith, their appeal to the non-Muslim public. Thereby, in Inan’s judgement, the positions held by the Islamic Council, in spite of its relatively small membership of ca. 20, 000 Muslims, can appear to uninitiated Internet users as representative, based upon its Internet address www.islam.de, and the Islamic Council can exercize a “great power of definition over religious content”.

Online Fatwas: Internet Offers New Possibilities for Islamic Decision-Making

Recent research on Islam on the Internet emphasizes that younger Muslims in particular search in the Internet for so-called fatwas (legal opinions) that prescribe correct Islamic-legitimated conduct in the most diverse life situations. Instead of asking the local imam in the classic manner, they can research their desired subject in the relevant data banks, or pose a question directly in live chat to one of the more influential sheihks. The range of questions posed is large and extends from ritual regulations to the forms and limits of legitimate relationships to the other sex or to the followers of other religions, and even to the Islamic judgement on body piercing and liposuction. In the counselling section of the most popular Arabic-English language Islamic site, www.islamonline.net, interreligious partnerships, conflicts with parents, sexual abuse, and the addiction to pornography also are discussed. On the one hand, the anonymity of the Internet makes it possible for users to pose questions without obligation and to declare opinions that in the traditional local context of family and mosque could cause unpleasant reactions. On the other hand, users are confronted with an immense abundance of contradictory exegeses and positions. Islamic scholars from traditional institutions for this reason have built up an Internet presence in recent years for pragmatic reasons, that is, among other things, in order to assert their influence via international and non-denominational fatwa councils against the numerous untrained lay experts on the net. This online consultation reveals clearly, according to Hauser’s assessment, how much Muslim youth consider the fatwas from their home countries to be obligatory for life in the diaspora. In addition, in the fatwas that concentrate upon the most exact emulation possible of the role model of Muhammad and his companions, integration is understood less in the sense of reconciliation with Western society and more in the sense of the introduction of Islamic values into that society.

“Jihad for Peace”: Apologetics and Mission as an Answer to September 11, 2001

In this context, the Internet is used also for apologetic and missionary purposes. Especially after September 11, the number of relevant Muslim Internet sites that intend to inform about the “true character” of Islam has increased enormously. The phenomenon described by the British scholar of Islam, Gary Bunt as “Jihad for peace” is defined as the effort to portray, in the name of Islam, the peaceful character of the Islamic religion in reaction to terrorist attacks, and to emphasize the so-called great jihad of the inner endeavor to walk the path of God over against the smaller, violent jihad. Thus,  for example, the Egyptian Sunni scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi, influential among young Muslims in Western countries, condemned the attacks on September 11 as a “dreadful crime” in a declaration on islamonline already on September 12. On the same website, though, there are also legal opinions in which al-Qaradawi defends Palestinian suicide attacks as a supreme form of jihad, and also justifies the killing of those Muslims who consciously and perceptibly have fallen away from the faith. Other sites campaign in a still more aggressive form for Islam. In Germany, Salafite preachers and missionaries dominate the German-language offerings on the Internet. Above all, the German convert and Salafite preacher Pierre Vogel, alias Abu Hamza, sets great stock in the possibilities offered by the Internet. The former professional boxer converted in 2001 to Islam and completed, among other things, a two-year course of language study in Mecca. Since 2006, he has travelled through Germany as a kind of itinerant preacher and has promoted a Salafite Islam that is oriented strictly on the guidelines of the Koran and on the role model of Muhammad and the early Islamic ancestors, and that demands a resolute separation from all un-Islamic influences. He publishes his sermons on the Internet in a video format together with an invitation to Islam (da’wa) and the conversion stories of German converts.

Fluid Transitions between Islamistic and Jihadistic Sites

In its report from 2008, the Federal Agency for the Protection of the Constitution describes the Internet as the „most important communications and propaganda medium for Islamists and Islamistic terrorists”. It enables the “formation of ‘virtual’ networks” and the networking of those of like mind via discussion forums and chat rooms. In this way, contacts can be made anonymously, processes of radicalization either initiated or supported, ideological and military training offered, as well as the ground prepared for recruitment. Recently, videos with threats of terrorist attacks against the German government also were published on jihadist sites through the Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF). Emotion-producing images of Muslim victims from current regions of conflict, as well as tributes to so-called martyrs and their life stories, and theological articles on jihad in the Koran and tradition likewise belong to the repertoire of these websites. While Salafite preachers such as Vogel distance themselves publicly from religiously-legitimated violence, the transitions to jihadist messages that promote violent jihad against the “unbelieving West” can be fluid. Thus, for example, the Göttingen scholar of Islam Henner Kirchner, who at present is writing his doctoral dissertation on Islam on the Internet, assesses the German-language Internet site of the “Hizb ut-Tahrir” (“Party of Liberation”), in spite of its, at first glance, harmless impression and a lack of violent videos and direct calls for jihad, as a kind of “instant water heater” that makes “young people in this way receptive for the ideas of still more radical groups”. Thus, by means of an agitation that frequently is oriented on the wording of the Koran and is strongly anti-Western and anti-Semitic, the ground is prepared for militant groups.

According to Rev. Hauser, the Internet will be of greater and growing significance for Muslim identity in the future, since it enables the virtual networking of the worldwide umma for the first time in history. While, on the one hand, it represents at present the most effective propaganda tool for different Islamic streams that increasingly is being placed in the service of the struggle against the West, it offers, on the other hand, an anonymous and everywhere accessible platform for the exchange of opinions on Islam that diverge from the orthodox standpoint of the Sharia and are oriented on Western declarations of human rights as well as on the individual’s rights of freedom.

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