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Traditional authorities break away

Dennis Yücel, 22 june 2020

//Translated from the Tagesspiegel article: "Neue Medien verändern die islamisch geprägte Welt."//

Songs of joy in Tunis. Tunisian women celebrate the seventh anniversary of the evacuation forced by protests on January 14, 2018 ... PHOTO: CHEDLY BEN IBRAHIM / PICTURE ALLIANCE

"Traditional authorities break away"

New media are changing the Islamic world. In an international research project, the digital transformation in Islamic societies and one's own practice are examined.

The so-called Arab Spring, which began in Tunisia in December 2010 and quickly spread to Libya, Egypt and Syria, is often referred to as the first digital revolution.

"The role of social media in the rebellion is sometimes overestimated," says Konrad Hirschler. "However, platforms like Twitter and Facebook have contributed to the movement spreading so much, in Syria especially far away from big cities."

Hirschler is Professor of Islamic Studies at the Free University. Now he is participating in a Europe-wide research project that is researching the effects of digital transformation on Islamic societies.

“We are investigating how Islamic practices are changing through technological change,” he says. "But also how research on Islamic societies is changing through digital methods."

Mediating Islam in the Digital Age

In addition to the Free University, numerous other research institutions from Germany, Spain, France, Bosnia, the Netherlands and Belgium are involved in the “Mediating Islam in the Digital Age” (MIDA) project funded by the European Union. 15 young scientists are working on their doctorate as part of the project. In addition to their academic qualifications, they receive training and internships in non-university institutions such as libraries, publishers or media houses. Project partners include the Pompidou Center in Paris and the Al Jazeera television station from Qatar.

Mahdieh Tavakol is one of the young researchers involved in the project. In her doctoral project, the Iranian science historian traces the history of the manuscript collection of the theologian and polymath Bahauddin Amili (1547 - 1621). For centuries, the collection has been in the central library at the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad, Iran, a central pilgrimage site administered by an influential religious foundation.

Exploring Bahauddin Amili's manuscript collection

A few years ago the manuscripts were digitized.

"The aim of my research is to trace the collection's path from its creation to digitization," says Mahdieh Tavakol. "On the basis of this story, I would like to examine the effects digitization has on scientific practice and institutional authority."

The social changes caused by the digital transformation were similar all over the world, says Konrad Hirschler. A central issue is that previous social authorities are increasingly losing power due to digital media. This applies to journalism as well as to religious leaders and universities - and is particularly evident when dealing with manuscripts.

“Just a few years ago, researching it was extremely time-consuming and expensive,” says Konrad Hirschler. "You needed good contacts to the libraries and appropriate funding to cover travel and accommodation costs."

Manuscript research has gotten much easier

Manuscript research has therefore long been a privilege of established scientists. In the meantime, however, when digital copies are often freely available on the Internet, master’s students are often already grappling with what were once rare manuscripts in their research.

"So digitization is also cutting my own professorial authority," says Konrad Hirschler with a laugh. "Today I am no longer the guardian of access to such hard-to-access writings."

The erosion of traditional authority structures, however, is a double-edged sword. While it opens up space for democratization on the one hand, it can also pave the way for conspiracy theories, hatred and agitation on the other.

"Today digital media offer a huge resonance space even for the crudest theories," says Konrad Hirschler. “Fascists and Islamists alike are radicalizing themselves on the Internet today.” It is extremely important that science is also more involved in digital space - that is also one of MIDA's goals.

The young scientists who are being trained as part of the project not only want to research the digital discourse in the Islamic world, but also want to help shape it.

“We don't want to write research papers so that they gather dust in libraries,” says Mahdieh Tavakol. "We want to consciously enter into an exchange with the public."

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