Ummah suffering from information overload and misinformation toxicity

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Iqbal Siddiqui

Muharram 26, 1432 2011-01-01


by Iqbal Siddiqui (Opinion, Crescent International Vol. 39, No. 11, Muharram, 1432)

The New Year is traditionally a time when people reflect on their situations in life, as well as contemplating the possibilities of the year to come. This New Year in the Gregorian calendar coincides (more or less) with a new year, 1432, in the Hijri calendar; Muharram 1 fell on December 7, 2010.

The New Year is traditionally a time when people reflect on their situations in life, as well as contemplating the possibilities of the year to come. This New Year in the Gregorian calendar coincides (more or less) with a new year, 1432, in the Hijri calendar; Muharram 1 fell on December 7, 2010. That got me thinking back to the Hijrah centenary 32 years ago — Muharram 1, 1400ah fell on November 21, 1979ce — which was, perchance, one of the first major Islamic landmarks that I was aware of as a youth. In the mid-1970s, the commemoration of the Hijrah centenary was planned to be a major project for the Muslim Institute in its early years, before the Islamic Revolution in Iran radically changed the political environment of the time and took the full attention of its founder and director, the late Dr. Kalim Siddiqui (1931–1996).

For many in the Islamic movement, reflections on the first three decades of the 15th century AH revolve around the impact of the Islamic Revolution, the inspiration it provided to Islamic activists and movements everywhere, and the reaction it provoked from the hegemonic west. This is a subject I have written about a great deal over the years, not least as editor of Crescent from 1998–2008. Here I want to think about a slightly different aspect of the last 30 years; the changes in the information environment in which Crescent International has operated since it was converted from a local community paper in Toronto to a “newsmagazine of the global Islamic movement” under the editorship of Zafar Bangash and the guidance of Dr. Kalim Siddiqui as a response to the political and historical situation created by the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

Thirty years ago, Crescent was a rare source of an Islamic perspective that was otherwise almost impossible for Muslims to find.

Many people may struggle to remember or imagine it now, in the age of email, YouTube, Wikipedia and the global networking facilitated by Web 2.0, but that was a time when newspapers, magazines, books and personal contact through meetings and lectures were the main ways of disseminating information. Personal computers, the internet and satellite television were stuff of science fiction; international travel and even telephone communication were still expensive and unusual. Audio and video communication was still new and remarkable; the distribution of Imam Khomeini’s speeches in Iran on audio cassettes was a radical new political strategy that was regarded as a crucial factor in the Revolution. Wherever one lived, the world was a bigger, stranger place; news consisted of mainstream newspapers that covered only major stories, and brief news programs on local or national radio and television every evening, rather than the multitude of global or international 24-hour news channels that we now have. As a result, many foreign countries really were little more than names, representing alien places and peoples on which it was difficult to get any information at all.

Indeed, the key difference from that time to this can be understood precisely in terms of information: where now we are bombarded with “news” the whole time, and the problem is identifying the useful and significant from the mass of unwanted and useless “noise” or “stuff” — a situation that has become known as “information overload” — in those days, people who were interested in any topic had to go and find out about it for themselves, going to libraries or organizations, looking for special interest publications, piecing together the big picture from the scraps they could glean from the few sources available to them.

Information professionals have long since recognised this change in their working environment. They used to be experts at finding information for people who needed it but didn't know where to look. Now they have to be experts in filtering the information, providing what is useful and worthwhile for people overwhelmed by a glut of data and unable to navigate their way through it. Information scientists talk of kayaks and canoes — informationists used to put valuable bits and pieces together to craft kayaks that were secure, seaworthy and safe. Now they make canoes — picking a tree from the forest, chopping it down, stripping away all the unnecessary parts, hollowing out the trunk to leave only what is needed for what is often a crude but adequate boat.

Thirty years ago, Crescent was a rare source of an Islamic perspective that was otherwise almost impossible for Muslims to find. To this day, we meet people around the world who remember Crescent in the 1980s and 1990s as a crucial element (often alongside the ideas of Dr. Kalim Siddiqui and the work of the Muslim Institute) shaping their Islamic outlook and identity, whether they were students in Western universities, young people growing up in Muslim communities in Western countries, or journalists and Islamic activists in Muslim countries. But for the Ummah, as for the rest of the world, the information environment has changed. Where once intelligent, educated, politically aware young people yearned for and sought out a global Islamic perspective, to put against an international news discourse dominated by the complacent and comfortable west, now they are bombarded with competing voices claiming to represent “true Islam”, from pacifist and pro-western think-tanks supported by western and Muslim states and promoted as voices of reason and moderation, to the shrill, simplistic, confrontational, often sectarian voices of groups that promise easy answers to the problems facing the Ummah, but have no real understanding of Islam, history, society or the world we live in. And as usual in any shouting match, those with the loudest voices are heard most, particularly if they present only easy slogans and soundbites, while the voices of those who present reasoned, balanced and intellectual arguments are overwhelmed, missed or ignored by all but a discerning few.

For many confronting the hegemonic discourse of the west 20–30 years ago, the internet offered the promise of new and effective ways to spread their ideas, reach new audiences and knit the Ummah together into a global community of politically aware Muslims. And that has been achieved, to a point. But the unfortunate reality is that any such progress has been more than balanced by the exploitation of the internet and associated technologies by the powers that be to spread their own poisonous agendas, and to manipulate the world to their own ends, not least by promoting disorder where pro-western stability is not an option. The result is that Muslims now suffer not only from the systemic problems of information overload, but also from what we may call misinformation toxicity, the effects of which are seriously damaging the Ummah; and, in my judgement, more than reversing any benefits the Islamic movement may have gained from the potential promised by the new media.

What we now have, therefore, is what we may characterise as “information chaos” in place of the west-dominated order that previously prevailed. And while chaos and disorder may offer opportunities for all, including the weak and oppressed, it is always the strong and powerful who are best positioned to exploit those opportunities, assert their positions, defend their interests and emerge the stronger.

This is not a situation that is reversible. The information and communication technologies that have created this situation are here to stay. For the Islamic movement and those within it who are striving to offer voices of intelligent, balanced, principled reason, instead of succumbing to the temptations to join the cacophony in the chaos, the challenge now is to find ways of overcoming these problems and to achieve our objectives despite them. The promise and potential heralded by the Islamic Revolution and the Hijrah centenary over thirty years ago remain undimmed; it is just harder for their champions to effectively articulate them, and harder for others to see them. That is the challenge facing us all for the new year and the decades to come.

Iqbal Siddiqui is a former editor of Crescent International (1998–2008). He now publishes a personal blog, ‘A Sceptical Islamist’:

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