Political Islam groups have had a long and complex journey since the inception of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the late twenties until today with the world of social media, modern technologies, and new media platforms. Outside observers and researchers can see that this journey is about the ability of such groups to reinvent themselves and adapt while embracing blatant contradictions.
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It is well-known that these groups reject any new ideas or inventions with a language tainted with religious dogmatism. However, with time, they gradually waive the prohibition and tend towards permissibility, before an all-out acceptance of these ideas and inventions when their benefit to the group becomes greater than the benefit of their prohibition and the need to exert power over societies.
There are too many examples to enumerate of this in virtually every Arab country. These groups’ stance on laws, the economy, and education are mere examples of their changing attitudes, not to mention their stance on radio, television, and satellite broadcasting to mention more modern examples. After the prohibition and rejection of these new developments came the stage of permissibility and then a frenzy to embrace them all. Whereas before, these groups declared constitutions and laws to be antithetical to Islam, they later espoused the “Islamization of laws” and the “legislation of Sharia.” We saw them shift from prohibiting economics to “Islamic economy,” and from rejecting modern education to an intense pursuit and deep focus on controlling the entire educational process, both within the classroom and outside of it.
The position of political Islam groups on new media inventions varies from one country to another. The Muslim Brotherhood have long been involved in the press, first by submitting pieces to newspapers and magazines, and then by establishing newspapers and magazines affiliated with the group and the like. After the prohibition of “live broadcasting,” they went on to create dozens, if not hundreds, of satellite channels. These groups were also very quick to embrace the internet, and we saw websites and online forums spread like wildfire.
These are ideological groups; their followers are committed to the ideology and loyal to the organization. And with the ideology firmly established, it is necessary to break into every product that addresses the public quickly and in an organized manner while benefiting from the experience of mobilization and instigation. This became increasingly clear on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, specifically during the so-called Arab Spring, when the online cells and hashtags of political Islam emerged. Today, there is a new trend that represents an important development in this context, which is new media platforms, podcasts, and individual and institutional publishing in the language of our times, using current inventions and products. Here the goal is to reach the largest number of people regardless of the topic or idea; the main thing is reaching people and ensuring proliferation. As for spreading the ideology and concepts themselves, this comes at a later stage.
A young man, clean-shaven or with a well-groomed beard, wearing Western clothes, and speaking in terms half of which are in English, engages in these products, amasses followers, mobilizes advertisers, and passes the messages he wants under this glittery modern facade, feeling “empowerment” and “power” of some sorts.
This shift of political Islam organizations from the real world to the virtual world is dangerous, as this gives them more strength, reach, and influence. It helps them develop better stealth and camouflage skills, and allows them to ride the waves of global trends. Identifying all of this requires greater monitoring and scientific research because societies receive it as part of a normal, global phenomenon and only the experts are the ones capable of uncovering it.
This modern approach is a treasure trove for political Islam groups, and even more so for violent organizations, such as al-Qaeda and ISIS. Some renowned terrorists have even begun to present themselves to people through these platforms in a sleek, modern way, with a language that forgoes brutality and bloodthirst in favor of civilization and tolerance, as they seek greater reach and influence.
Finally, this modern approach has proven successful in breaking the siege imposed on these groups and given them a greater ability to penetrate state institutions and influence decision-makers. As the Arab poet wrote:
Indeed, snakes, even if they are soft to the touch;
yet upon examining their fangs, the damage is done.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, UAE daily newspaper al-Ittihad.