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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 November, 2004, 13:33 GMT
An online war for hearts and minds
By Dominic Casciani
Community affairs, BBC News

Hundreds of websites advocate radical forms of Islam
The battle for Muslim minds is not being fought by radicals in Falluja or in the mosques. It is being fought on the net. And one of Europe's experts on Islam in the West says governments must rethink how they are going to win this war.

This week a British Muslim website discussed how worried they were about how disenchanted young men can turn into "Wahaboys", a term derived from Wahabism, the strict Saudi Arabian interpretation of Islam.

That came days after the killing of controversial Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a suspected Islamist radical.

The events are entirely unrelated - but both point to a continental struggle for the direction of Muslim identity.

And, says Professor Gilles Kepel, the internet is playing an increasingly central part, if not the most important part, in this battle for hearts and minds.

Dutch views on Van Gogh's death

Gilles Kepel is one of Europe's top thinkers on Islam. He was a member of the French commission which recommended banning religious symbols from schools - a decision essentially seen as targeting Islamic headscarves.

This does not mean he sees a "clash of civilisations", far from it. But in his new book, The War for Muslim Minds, he argues that the West is the battlefield where the struggle to modernise and democratise Islamic societies will be fought.

If governments ensure the success of young European Muslims, then they will export their positive experiences eastwards, he argues.

But if governments do not act, then the disenfranchised extremes will confirm the suspicions of those who oppose Western society.

Role of the net

There are hundreds of websites, blogs or e-groups which loosely count as being radical in nature, many aligned to the fundamentalist worldview known as Salafist preaching. There are of course many others propagating more mainstream visions of Islam.

Between them, they compete for young European Muslims looking for signposts to their identity.

If you are a cybernaut, you now have much more influence over young Muslim minds than a scholar who has spent 40 years studying the traditions
Gilles Kepel
"The websites have created a new way to recruit anywhere, anyone of Muslim descent but they also reorganise the frontiers of groups and communities," says Prof Kepel.

"What has been very striking with the rise of Salafists in the West is the way they were linked to websites in the Arabian peninsula from where they were directly receiving their guidance."

In one case highlighted by Prof Kepel, a French Muslim woman sought online theological guidance on taking the Pill and the advice she was given amounted to a rejection of the surrounding world.

"That's very scary because allegiances, attitudes and behaviour are being defined by instructions on the web."

Admittedly, it is difficult to gauge the impact of these websites on behaviour, although Prof Kepel says they played a key part in the campaign against France's headscarf ban.

'The database'

But the bigger picture is their role in the "war on terror". The word al-Qaeda means "the base" - but metaphorically it means something closer to "database" or repository. That simple idea has launched a thousand websites, says Prof Kepel.

"The problem is when you have kids like those in Spain responsible for the train attacks in Madrid; they haven't trained in Afghanistan - but they have learned what they need through the net. It's a web mobilisation to a cause.

"If you are a cybernaut, you now have much more influence over young Muslim minds than a scholar who has spent 40 years studying the traditions.

"With its smart weapons the US can quite easily destroy the 'base' in the caves of Tora Bora - but those bombs do nothing to deal with the 'database' itself," he says.

Two chatroom icons
Identity battle: Icons for men and women in one chatroom
If this influence is to be combated, then states need to rethink their integration strategies, warns Prof Kepel.

"I think things are changing here and in Holland. There is anxiety that multiculturalism has given leeway to radical groups to build enclosed citadels, totally contrary to what the multiculturalists wanted."

Prof Kepel argues multiculturalism allows "village strongmen" to dominate and reinforces a narrow world view which disenfranchises the young. Trevor Phillips, chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, has publicly declared multiculturalism to be past its sell-by date.

The net and not the mosque is the market where the young are turning to buy into allegiances which can be completely at odds with reality, says the professor.

Social fragmentation

On an internet forum this week, a woman with a depressed boyfriend was advised by one respondent her relationship is forbidden (haram) and will only lead to misery. Another said his wife could help her "revert" to her true Islamic self. Neither addressed the pressing issue.

"Multiculturalism has been a catastrophe. It leads to the balkanisation of society and ultimately to civil war," says Prof Kepel. "It 'clans' people within an identity from which they can't escape. You have to define yourself as gay, Black, Muslim or whatever.

"What I fear is fragmentation of society along these lines. You are born with an identity but what is important is what you become."

The war for Muslim Minds by Gilles Kepel is published by Belknap/Harvard University Press.

Add your comments to this story using the form below:

I think that all these 'experts' and 'top thinkers' have it totally wrong. Muslims do not see themselves as a commodity to be manipulated with headscarf bans and other measures to bring them into line. All these measures will backfire and you will see increasing radicalism. Plus these measures and discussions are all rather patronising, as it is up to the community to discuss issues to do with itself. These present discussions stem from the premise that there is something bad about the Muslim community which needs changing, whereas Muslims would argue that what is wrong is not the community itself, but attitudes towards the community from non-Muslims. Every action and discussion which makes the community a focus strengthens that conviction within the community.
Bilal Patel, London, UK

I've often used the internet to find answers to questions related to faith and practice. Gilles Kepel's comment "If you are a cybernaut, you now have much more influence over young Muslim minds than a scholar who has spent 40 years studying the traditions" does ring true for me. The people that have made the greatest impressions on my faith have been people who are living examples of Islam, not techies with fancy web sites. The fact is that a web site is pointing one in right direction is just a very useful tool. The future lies in a combination of making traditional Islam (as opposed to the extreme variety that is constantly highlighted by the media) available to the next gereration not only through making use of the latest technology but also by living the message of Islam. Which as the prophet (may God bless him and grant him peace) said "your faith is not complete until you love for your brother what you love for youself"
Ahmed Azam, Saudi Arabia

I agree with Gilles Kepel's comments. We are all human beings, and the differences in cultures should be celebrated not fragmented. Of course many immigrants integrate within British society, and become part of it whilst still holding onto their personal views. However, unfortunately it is the minority who do not integrate, who go to their own school etc, that tar the majority and so all are viewed with suspicion. Government or council intervention is not necessary, if people just listened and made more of an attempt to understand each, they would realise that they are all very much alike. We all shouldnt be so serious all the time.
Bill, England

It's the same in Europe or abroad. A group of non-Muslim intellectuals trying to impose a form of Islam upon Muslims. It will not work. European Muslims need their own time to adjust and formulate their identity. Just as the Muslim world needs time to formulate its own political systems. Islam is not in the web or in the mosque - it is in the heart.
Atif, UK

It is not only Muslim minds that the internet targets. The net has become an avenue for getting anything . It is sad that an avenue like the net with potentials for changing the world is now the weapon of balkanisation and destruction of Values that bind. It is sad that the net has been taken over by bigots and men and women of hate rather than those who use it- the Net- for Positive development and betterment of the World.
Femi Adedina, Nigeria

Just because Gilles Kepel has studied Islam it really doesn't mean his opinion has merit. Young Muslims are an incrediblely diverse community and to say that they influenced by this or that website is like saying all young Britons are influenced by an obscure website on extreme right wing policies.
Josh, uk

Many of Professor Kepel's comments are spot on! As a Muslim responsible for moderating a website forum, I can relate with a lot of what he has said. However, another main issue is the lack of Muslim scholars who actually understand "the West", the real issues facing people in the west, speak a "western" language fluently and are able to guide others based on sound Islamic scholarship. The absence of this has led to many disaffected Muslim youth turning to anyone that seems eloquent and is able to quote a few verses from the Qur'an no matter how extreme their views might be. Once this problem is dealt with, religious extremism will have no place and it will become isolated!
Jubril Alao, London, UK

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