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Muslim minorities in Europe and the privatization of Islam

One of the participants of the Cyberspace 2008 Conference was Vit Sisler, an associate professor from Charles University in Prague. His research main topic is questions of contemporary Islamic law, the relation between Islam and digital media and political aspects of computer games.

One of your fields of interest is Islamic law on the internet. How did you become interested in this topic?
Originally I was a lawyer, but during my studies I travelled to the Middle East very often and my interests developed into Arabic studies. And moreover I have been interested in information technologies for a long time. Research of Islamic law on the internet is just a logical result of this. And I had a feeling a new phenomenom was on the rise in which nobody was much

Which phenomenom do you mean?
There is no central authority in Islamic law. It is an open space for many different directions and opinions. You can find loads of legal authorities and all of them publish different adjudicates and then create a prescriptive content. The basis of Islamic law comes from an unchanging system of rules that is – according to Islam – given to humankind  through the Prophet Mohammed, but the actual law is still adapting to new social and economic conditions. This happens via jurisprudence – issuing fatwas (legal opinions of authorities). These fatwas are always answers to a real or hypothetical question.

Does the internet influence the issuing of fatwas?
Yes. The internet has brought about a situation where everyone is able to run his own website that issues fatwas. In the historically classical system the answer was published somewhere in a newspaper after a few months; on the internet you can get the answer in a hour or sometimes immediately. And it is in this particular phenomenon that I became so much interested – especially in its connection with the Muslim minorities of Europe.

What is the difference between Islamic and European countries?
There is an authority accepted by the state in Islamic countries and fatwas issued by this authority are obligatorily valid. There is nothing like this in Europe. Muslim minorities living in legal systems other than Islamic ones are the strongest market for fatwas, and thus for Islamic authorities throughout the world. These Muslim minorities live in a different environment and this different environment brings with it a lot of new questions and problems.

Where does the success of these authorities lie?
Often success lies in personnal charisma, popularity and of course the strength of the fatwas. But it is quite hard to measure the impact of a particular authority. We are easily able to say how and from where a website is visited. But it is more difficult to tell how many people follow the fatwas in their lives. It is problematic to measure the causal influence of the media on human behaviour. Generally speaking, though, we can observe a phenomenon we could describe as a "privatization" of Islam.

What do you mean by "privatization of Islam"?
Young Muslims in particular choose the fatwas and authorities they follow. Thus, every group creates its own concept of Islam and this causes the fragmentation of traditional authorities. Informal groups and individuals colonized cyberspace earlier than official authorities and they gained a big advantage. But the situation is changing now and the official authorities are reconquering the space afforded by the media.

It sounds like a trend characteristic of the development of the internet as a whole.
Of course. It is connected with the expectations we had when the internet first appeared. Specialists predicted a dramatic change in the decision-making processes of society. After a few years we can see that this predicton was flawed.  The internet is not necessarily a democratizing element. This concerns the development of the internet in the Islamic world as well, where we find a stronger correlation between personalities that have authority both in real life and cyberspace. The power structures are transferred to the internet.