„Hashtag Islam“ by Gary R. Bunt: a Book Review

Hashtag Islam: How Cyber-Islamic Environments Are Transforming Religious Authority, by Gary R. Bunt, North Carolina University Press, Chapell Hill, 2018, Paperback, 232 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1469643168, $24.95.

Been a while since I promised myself a review of one of my good academic reads recently – the “Hashtag Islam” of Gary R. Bunt. Going under such a seductively catchy kind of a title, the book comes as a natural elaboration and continuation within the author’s sequence of monographs exploring similar themes: among them I can only mention significant ones, such as “Islam in the Digital Age: E-Jihad, Online Fatwas and Cyber Islamic Environments” (2003) and “iMuslims: Rewiring the House of Islam (2009)”.

The book went out in 2018, which makes it still hot to have (although not quite sizzling) on the market plate. It is divided into six main chapters, preceded by the usual acknowledgements, note on transliteration (surprisingly reader-friendly one, for all of us who have collided with a traditional German Orientalist take on the topic, would know what I mean), and the introduction. General methodological remarks and considerations framing the scope of the research, have been outlined in Chapter 1 (“Perspectives on Muslim Digital Worlds”). Social media contribution to shaping Muslim identities has been sketched in Chapter 2 (“Changing Digital Spaces: Islam, Technology, and Social media”). Various dimensions of the slide and dice of Muslim lives in the digital spheres appear in Chapter 3 (“Status Update: Islamic Dimensions of Faith in the Cyberspace”). More tension starts building up with Chapter 4, my favorite one: “Fatwa Machine: Command and Control in Muslim Digital Worlds”, followed by 5 (“Smartphone Jihad: Hashtags in Conflict Zones”, and finally culminating in Chapter 6 – “E-Jihad and Gen-ISIS“, seemingly dedicated to the virtual means of propaganda employed by the ISIS and other technologically savvy jihadist protagonists.

The conclusion of the book is followed by notes (I have always preferred footnotes to endnotes, makes it so much more easy to read, but here endnotes were the choice to go), a very handy glossary of key terms needed for readers who are not deeply steeped into the language of the subject matter, and an index. 13 illustrations, mainly represented by screenshots of relevant contents online, are used as visual aids throughout the book.

Methodologically, the book emerges as a multi- and interdisciplinary scholarly endeavor, and borrows instrumentarium from the field of social sciences, anthropology, sociology and philosophy. Peeking out through its windows to inform and back up its overall approach and frame, we see figures such as John Dewey, or the often referenced Marshall McLuhan with the notion of a global village. Jean Baudrillard is being taken as a supporting hand in the analysis of the boundaries between reality and representation, while an ubiquitous Michel Foucault is providing the means of looking at online Muslim communities through the prism of the relation between knowledge construction, power and social control. Roland Barthes makes an influential appearance as well, through his analysis of the ways images and signs convey specific meanings within societies. Jürgen Habermas is naturally involved through the notion of a “public sphere”, identities are looked through the approach of Anthony Giddens, while Manuel Castells is the one providing the overall approach toward network society. As a work solidly grounded into the digital field work, it makes use of the already undertaken research on the impact of new media and the potential of technologies to transform ways Muslims look at and experience their religion. 

The purpose of the book, as stated by the author, is clear. It explores the ways in which, through the influence of the Internet, a significant shift has occurred in Muslim religious discourses that affects  issues of faith and authority. It illustrates how fulfillment of various religious agendas has been aided by digital developments. Hence, an overview of the processes within the so-called cyber-Islamic environments (CIEs) is necessary. The ways in which various organizations and individuals have been operating within them, has sometimes brought about reshaping of understandings of religious authority and the dissemination of Islamic knowledge. The dynamics within this changing sphere of activity are discussed  (pp. 3-4).

The book is the most comprehensive overview I’ve come across, of the multiple ways in which the Internet as both media and a tool, represents a radical game changer within the global umma. Personal blogs, Muslim dating sites, streaming video channels, huge portals of influential theologians, religious mobile apps and digitally printed media, government and individual players’ web footprint, represent a vast pool of resources used to analyze the impact on construction of religious authority within Islam today. Digitally enabled traditional sheikhs, state sponsored muftis, bearded jihadists, but also self-sustained influencers, ironical Muslim youth and Muslim women, are the heroes that make it to the stage here. The book, being a part of a continual and years’ long  research of the field, is using and building upon contents appearing in previous books of Gary R. Bunt, and covers material online in the 2009-17 period. From a stylistic point of view, “Hashtag Islam” is a fascinatingly easy flowing text to read. In case you’d expect a reiteration of the already proverbial “Postmodernism Generator” , I need to disappoint you. Raw material is very well digested, summarized and analyzed, which in the ocean of digitally generated input informed by complex historically developed views of religion, is in itself a challenge. This makes the book a reading pleasure for both the scholar of the field accustomed to reading al-Ghazali’s Arabic original of the Ihya’ ‘ulum al-din, and the curious non-specialist who accidentally happened to have the “Dabiq” ISIS magazine open in his browser.  

As for the potential shortcomings of a book of such a scope, I can note here ones more related to my own interest and academic taste, rather than true omissions in achieving the goal, approach taken or resources used. Out of personal academic preferences probably, I’d like to see a more detailed elaboration of methodology and a tighter bond of it with the subsequently analytically processed contents. Notions of a “public sphere” are naturally being brought forth in the context of online Muslim communities, as one cannot but refer to them in a volatile environment opening space for voices of varying scale and depth with possibilities for renegotiation of the boundaries of the religious. Maybe a more elaborate approach to the term and its capacity for undergoing legitimate expansion is due. This might be needed in order to explore its potential to fit religiously charged discourses, from contents perspective, beyond the formal borrowing and radical redefinition at the same time, of a paradigm which, as the author notes, finds its roots within a exclusive post-Kantian, post-Enlightenment European setting being outlined by secular voices such as the ones of Habermas. Along the same lines, seems like a notion of linkages to Shmuel Eisenstadt’s concept of “multiple modernities” would be good to appear in a clearer way, being often packed with the notion of a “religious public sphere”.

On the other hand, and related to my remarks above, I find the usage of the term “cyber-Islamic Environment” (CIE), well justified. Regardless of its inherent fluidity, it allows for not bearing the risks associated with the notions of “public sphere” in the religious domain. It also takes a step back towards a safer terminological domain, and – last but not least, blame me for my subjectivity twist here – pays due homage to the father of cyberpunk William Gibson and his now turned classic “Neuromancer”.

In addition, I would be curious to observe a deeper elaboration of ways authority and belonging are constructed historically in the “Middle Period”, if I have to use the somehow gross Hodgsonian periodization term. This brings us to the topic of continuity, on one hand, and definition (in an Aristotelian sense of “setting-the-boundaries-of”) of belonging to the umma, on the other, as clumsy, just as essentialist, these formulations might seem given the scope and approach of the book. If we [rightly] point out to the ways that modern technology influences religious authority and facilitates the permanent renegotiation of the religious framework, to what extent and how, one one hand, these renegotiations would rationally and speculatively sustain a continuity claim with the historical authorities down to Muhammad himself; and then, respectively, beyond the pejoratively labelled takfiri claims, thrown at each other as a part and parcel of legitimate religious discourse for centuries, when a certain Muslim would be generally considered as stepping over and beyond the boundaries of the acceptable. In simple words, what is “Muslim”, and can renegotiations of authority and identity be carried ad infinitum. Logically, and formally, the answer would be a natural “no” in every given case (otherwise a “Muslim” would be same as a “non-Muslim”), but where does the cutting line pass through, looms an intricate question here.

Similarly, Muslim authorities could be subject to constant fluctuations, and claims over legitimacy might be amplified merely by the pure utilization of web based tools. But it is precisely claims over its [religious] “Muslim” character that pose even more poignantly the question what “Muslim” per se is within the tohu wa-boho of the digital world. That is question which the book does not aim necessarily to resolve or provide easy answer to, as the definition of “Islamic” is presented by means of self-representation (“any view that describes itself as belonging to Islam”, p. 7). 

Inspite of that, I see the book as an excellent starting point (“springboard”, in the author’s words) for diving into the discussion of the broadly defined “essentialist vs. the postmodernist” camps in religious (and more specifically, Islamic) studies today. And even if you are not that much interested in this specific discussion, you can always find a bell that rings with your interest in the religious usage of digital technology.