As the internet expands across the Muslim-dominated Middle East in the coming years, it could divide the Islamic global community, deepen tensions between reformers and fundamentalists, and lead to an increase in terrorism. That’s the conclusion of a new Foreign Affairs report published this month, which tempers its warnings with some optimism about how internet access could also lead to greater freedoms in the Middle East.
Those freedoms, however, could be exactly the catalyst for a new round of jihadist attacks. Theocratic leaders and terrorists alike want nothing to do with democracy or freedom, and they are expected to fight like hell to keep the internet from secularizing their countries.
In an interview with the Washington Free Beacon, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, the co-author of the report, said that greater internet access would inevitably lead to more criticism of Islam in those countries and a decline in religious fundamentalism.
“These alternative identities we talk about—LGBT, religion critical, or otherwise—these counter-normative discourses, are very much marginalized societally. The Internet helps marginalized voices,” Gartenstein-Ross said.
But he warned that the same phenomenon that worked against Islamic fundamentals could also be used to recruit terrorists.
“It doesn’t necessarily operate against religious conservatism; in fact, the Islamic State is helped by the Internet. ISIS is counter-normative just in a very different direction,” he told the Free Beacon. “The logic of the Internet is to allow groups in the marginalized society to organize and then, as they gain momentum and gain an audience in the space, to move offline.”
While he’s probably right about the two sides of the coin, this can only be a good thing for the Muslim world – and thus, the world in general – in the long run. Muslim conservatives, fine. Muslim radicals, not fine. And right now, you not only have Muslim radicals waging terrorist attacks across the Middle East and Western society, you have them in charge of some of the richest countries on Earth. Take your pick as to which situation is worse; these things feed off of each other, though, so it doesn’t really matter.
Freedom and democracy don’t eliminate terrorism, as radicalized Americans Muslims have demonstrated. But when you’re talking about millions of people who have never been exposed to any other way of thinking, the internet can be a powerful weapon against Islamic fascism.
This is a physical, bombs-dropping kind of war, and it’s also an informational war of ideas. Both are needed if we’re going to eliminate not only ISIS, but every other form of radical Islam on the planet.