Some researchers have tagged the 21st century the century of “cyberspace”. Cyberspace has become an integral part of people’s daily life. People spend a large portion of their time using the internet for entertainment, businesses, social relationships, and political activities.
According to Office of Islamic Studieson Cyberspace some researchers have tagged the 21st century the century of “cyberspace”. Cyberspace has become an integral part of people’s daily life. People spend a large portion of their time using the internet for entertainment, businesses, social relationships, and political activities.
Dr. Sahar Khamis is one of the top researchers in the field of Islamic studies on cyberspace. Some of her research titles in the field of Islamic studies on cyberspace are as follows:
- (BOOK) Islam dot com: Contemporary Islamic discourses in p.
- Beyond Egypt’s “Facebook revolution” and Syria’s “YouTube Uprising”: Comparing political contexts, actors and communication strategies.
- Collective identity in the virtual Islamic public sphere: Contemporary discourses in two Islamic websites.
- Facebooking the Egyptian elections: Framing the 2012 presidential race.
- The Internet and New Communication Dynamics among Diasporic Muslims: Opportunities, Challenges, and Paradoxes.
- The “Virtual Umma”: Collective Identities in Cyberspace.
- American‐Muslims’ E‐Jihad: Trumping Islamophobia in the Trump Era.
- Modern Muslims’ Online Struggle: Countering Islamophobia One Tweet at a Time.
Thus, Mahmoud Rafian a researcher at the Office of Islamic Studies on Cyberspace recently had an exclusive interview with Dr. Sahar Khamis. What follows is the interview.
First, please tell us a brief personal and academic biography of yourself?
Thank you for the opportunity to do this interview.
I’m Sahar Khamis, an associate professor of communication at the affiliate professor of women’s studies in the department of communication at the University of Maryland College Park and my area of expertise is Arab and Muslim media so a lot of my research has focused on the media in the Arab world and in the Muslim world with a special focus on cyberspace and the communications between Muslims and other Muslims as well as Muslims and non-Muslims in cyberspace. My first book was called Islam.com, contemporary Islamic discourses in cyberspace and in this book myself and my coworkers try to understand and to analyze the dynamics of the relationships between the Muslims and other Muslims as well as Muslims and non-Muslims in cyberspace and we talked about how these changes I’ve been very clear and very important in many different ways in recent years.
How do you envision the future of cyberspace? What are the major probable harms and threats of cyberspace development?
Some people describe cyberspace and internet as the double edge. so when we talk about envisioning the future of cyberspace how can we envision it definitely we are becoming much more dependent on social media and much more dependent on new media and technology is more than ever before and this kind of dependency of course like everything else can have its pros and cons, it’s good sides and bad sides and definitely, it’s becoming much easier for us to have a lot of information at our fingertips we can get lots of fast information it can spread very quickly very easily among many different groups of people worldwide. That is definitely an advantage but also this advantage could be the accuracy of this information. It may not be necessarily always accurate or truthful or correct and therefore we can talk about a double edge sword effective for social media and for cyberspace in general. Because yes you can get fast information it can spread widely to large groups of people internationally and globally all over the world which is a good thing. But also at the same time you can have this information and you can have misinformation which is of course a problem.
Another problem also is the authoritarianism of some regimes which tried to control cyberspace for their own interest. So we see also the tug of war the push and pull mechanism between regimes and that opponents when for example you have different governments all over the world trying to control cyber space for their own best interest to try to make sure they have a good image in the eyes of the rest of the world.
And therefore they try to actually curb or to limit the freedom of the press and freedom of information including unfortunately even freedom on a cyberspace, by shutting down websites blocking some of them, going after that opponents online, chasing after them, sabotaging and blocking their websites and we call this the age of digital authoritarianism.
So the regimes are becoming more digitally authoritarian, so the authoritarian both online as well as offline, and I would say that some of these negative phenomena actually got much worse during the covert 19 pandemic crisis because a lot of these teams started to try to control information flow and to try to control the media and to try to control the internet and online websites for their own best interest as the talk about for example we’re going to create certain apps, certain applications in order to protect our citizens and make sure we have some kind of contact tracing, to trace where they are, and who did they communicate with, what did they come in contact with, in order to protect them. But the reality is this kind of protection also carries with it a lot of restrictions, invasion of privacy, threats the personal security sometimes if the opponents of the regime. So there is a lot of really backslash, a lot of negative consequences when it comes to freedom of expression, freedom of the press and also freedom on the internet or online freedom in the context of the Covid-19 crisis for sure.
I think that this kind of push and pull mechanism between regimes and opponents is going to continue as a going to pretty much shape the future of cyberspace, not just in the Middle East but I would also say around the world of course with different forms and with different degrees.
What is the impact of these developments on the dimensions of governance and community management?
In many cases now we have what is called the citizen journalism pattern. A lot of people now ordinary citizens becoming more like producers, not just consumers but also producers of knowledge and news and information.
Of course this whole phenomenon of citizen journalism also has its pros and cons. yes you can see for example people who are tweeting and blogging, posting stuff on social media, on Facebook and on different websites.
They can expose the dictatorship of the regimes in power. They can expose their authoritarianism. They can expose violations of human rights and the human rights violations in different parts of the world.
For example, a country like Syria where you have a huge humanitarian crisis and then you get some of the citizen journalists are you know they’re smuggling videos out of the country and without these images would have no idea what is happening inside the country like Syria, because the country does not allow any foreign or international correspondents.
This is just one example among many. At the same time like we said before, everything is a double edged sword effect because not just like you have the good side, you also have the best side. In one of the best sides besides what you mentioned before in terms of in for over this information and misinformation when you talk about citizen journalism you cannot also always trust the quality and the credibility and the accuracy and the trustworthiness of news and information.
In other words, you can get a lot of fake news, you can get a lot of distorted news which is not really accurate which is not to be truthful which is not really precise because of course at the end of the day, the citizen and journalist they’re just ordinary citizens, they’re not necessarily professionals and they don’t have the professional skills in order to be able to give you accurate and trustworthy news and information so that is definitely a problem when it comes to this new dynamics of sharing information in cyberspace.
Also, we talked about digital authoritarianism or how the regimes really tried to control a cyber space and to limit the freedoms on as social media and in cyberspace at the same time I think that this kind of phenomenon is going to continue and moving into the future, creating this you know push and pull dynamic as we mentioned this kind of tug of war this kind of you know dynamic of the regime’s always trying to crackdown on opposition go after the activists go after the opponents online and off line of course while at the same time these activists and this opponents they’re also trying from their own side to make sure that the expand the margins of freedom and to make sure that they have loud voices and to be able to express their views.
Of course many case in many cases there’s also a high price to pay like we see for example some of the digital media activists those who are very visible and very active on social media some of them can actually lose the freedoms or lose their lives or they can actually end up behind bars they could get arrested or in some severe cases they can get killed or they can exercise their opposition and they’re reporting from the diaspora it’ll be in self-exile outside the countries because they’re afraid of some form of regime a punishment. So the picture really in the Middle East is a difficult one it’s not an easy one it’s not a pleasant one but my prediction is these kinds of push and pull mechanism and this type of tug of war is most likely to continue into the future and of course the shape and the form of all of these phenomena and dynamics varies. It varies from one country to another.
What is your opinion about international cyberspace laws? How can the arbitrary actions of the United States in removing some platforms and web sites such as Press TV or imposing sanctions on many companies such as Huawei China, etc. be sued in international forums?
In terms of laws and regulations relating you know the internet or cyberspace we can see that up till this moment as we speak that is really very little regulation of the internet. It remains this big monster which is completely out of control. It is very hard for us to really say that there are clear guidelines. Until this moment there is still a shortage in a putting into place a good laws and effective laws and guidelines which regulate cyberspace and the question is what is when you talk about the term quote and quote regulation it’s always a very tricky and very difficult term, because it is not a secret that many governments and regimes around the world might very well abuse this term quote and quote regulation.
They can abuse this process or this phenomenon of regulation, in order to crack down on their own opponents to go after them online to block the websites, sabotage and to hack and to ban and even in some cases arrest some of these activists and some of these regime opponents and therefore that’s why some people are very skeptical they’re very much uncomfortable about this whole process or this whole phenomenon of regulation because they believe it can be a slippery slope it can end up with some form of even more tighter controlled by authoritarian regimes and more crack down and more curbing and limiting of freedoms the online and offline so that’s why it’s a very tricky issue and up to this moment in time there are no clear laws and clear guidelines and I believe that this is an important point.
Many governments around the world specially now in the age of Covid-19 with the spread of misinformation and the spread of disinformation act but we don’t believe for example that that is Covid-19 people who don’t believe that the vaccine is good for them and people who believe that for example the elections or were stolen in the United States. All of these are just simply lies they’re not true. But at the same time some people just believe them and they start to spread these negative ideas and these lies and stereotypes on social media and unfortunately there will always be someone out there who is going to believe them. so that’s why it’s very important and very necessity really to try to come up with some kind of codes I would see some kind of professional codes the try to set some boundaries or some guidelines for cyber space so that it becomes a less dangerous please it’s not a secret that people you know all the time we are sharing a lot of information for example on social media and in cyberspace you can share your personal data your personal information your you know account number in the bank your you know your card number your credit card for example all of that stuff can very easily get stolen it’s an invasion of privacy people can even steal your identity it is identity theft there are threats to national security at the national level and individual security and safety and visibility and also you know privacy on social media and online all of that stuff can really be very dangerous and can cause a lot of harm and can cause a lot of damage to individuals and I would also say to communities and countries and nations as well. So it is really a set of very serious and very important and difficult challenges and I’m afraid up to this moment that the picture remains to be as somehow a you know vague and ambiguous and undecided that when it comes to the form and the shape but that the regulation the guidelines I should take.
What solutions do you offer for the sovereignty of independent countries to maintain their existence in the age of cyberspace?
The question of sovereignty of different countries how can countries protected on sovereignty their own independence their own identity in the age of cyberspace, definitely the dependency on the internet all the time and people becoming much more dependent on the internet for almost every aspect of their own lives, you know that is definitely a phenomena and a process that I expect to continue to grow in the future as you move forward.
At the same time when you talk about country to country between different nations or different nation states or countries there’s also a point about cyber wars so in the past we used to talk about you know like military engagements military wars nowadays we can speak about cyber warfare.
In this cyber warfare whoever has more a technological capitals will have more technological abilities and capabilities. When I see the capabilities I don’t just mean the hardware, for example having computers and having iPads and having all of that stuff. I also mean the infrastructure like having high-speed internet 247 and I also mean very important point which is the human capital and by the human capital I mean the humans themselves the people the human beings themselves they have to also be prepared.
They have to have digital literacy skills in order to be able to navigate this new and this very challenging and difficult realities in our age of cyberspace.
So definitely there’s what we called the digital divide the digital divide being the gap between the technological haves and have nots. Those who have a good access to technology and those who don’t those who have high speed internet 24.7 and those who don’t those who have digital literacy skills and those who don’t so these differences are not just between 1 country and another they’re definitely between countries but they’re also definitely between individuals and between communities and between people.
It’s not just a matter of developed countries versus less developed countries it’s also a matter of individuals and communities and families at you know really trying to understand the fact that there is a difference between those who have the technological means and those who don’t. The digital divide exists between countries but it also exists inside the same country if you think about for example the rich and the poor and the rural areas and urban areas when you think about the people who are educated those who are less educated when you think about the older generations and you think about the younger generations right to think about for example males and females the gender digital gap all of that stuff is very real and all of these differences exist as I said not just between one country and another but also even inside the same country would find these types of digital divides.
This phenomenon or this process would also most likely continue into the future as we move into the future we’re going to see a continuation of this process of digital divide globally and internationally but I also think that the use of the Asians are becoming more and more technologically savvy the more capable of using the internet and social media and in some cases the even show their own parents and children or grandparents how to use social media.
But in terms of you know diplomatic relations with terms of relationships between countries and nations I think that the warfare the wharf is going to be the new name of the game as they say. It’s not going to be a in many cases you’ll be using troops or military power but it’s going to be pretty much using the power of cyberspace and the power of the digital arena and the power of social media and new media to try to go after the regime’s opponents and at the same time go after other nation states at in a type of the escalating warfare. That would be another very important feature as for the internet moving forward.
What is your assessment of the role of the Internet and cyberspace in process of Islamophobia policies in the West?
In terms of the process of Islamophobia at the impact of the internet and cyberspace on Islamophobia, I have written on this particular topic and I’d be happy to share some of my articles around this particular topic with you.
I think that definitely there is a big danger because the Islamophobes those who really have an irrational and exaggerated and unjustified fear of Islam and Muslims, they unfortunately use the internet and cyberspace all the time to try to spread false information to spread disinformation and misinformation, rumors and you know a lot of falsehoods about Islam and Muslims.
I would say that there’s really a lot of money like hundreds of millions of dollars really that are spent every year on the so called quote unquote Islamophobia industry.
This is a very well-funded industry. People are paid unfortunately they paid very handsomely in order to do this job of tarnishing the image of Islam and Muslims online. and it’s a very systematic effort and of course the internet with its own potential to help you spread information and news to a very large number of people around the world, at the same time on a very short time became a very a useful tool or mechanism or platform for the Islamophobes to use it in order to spread their fear that an irrational fear of Islam and Muslims.
This is the dark side of the story. But the good side of the story is that there’s also now a new generation of young Muslims who very keen to use social media and new media in their own best interests and in the interest of their own religion and their own identity. So they’re starting countering Islamophobia campaigns online campaigns which are very systematic which are very polished. They are very advanced and the purpose of these campaigns is ready to try to fight the negative stereotypes and the negative misrepresentations about Islam and Muslims in the media.
So they start to use different social media platforms like for example Twitter, blogs, Facebook and other social media platforms in order to correct the negative image about Islam and Muslims and to correct some of the stereotypes negative ideas and negative misrepresentations about Islam and Muslims, using the very same tools, the tools of social media and new media.
And I would say that there’s a number of definitely a very successful campaigns countering Islamophobia campaigns which have been done in cyberspace. I would just like to see more of that. I definitely think there is a need for more than that and more effort needs to be spent in terms of trying to respond to some of the negative stereotypes and distorted images and accusations are very unfair and very unfortunate against Islam and Muslims.
So I think there are some good steps have been taken in the right direction in terms of countries Islamophobia worldwide using also the internet, but I think there’s always room for doing more work and becoming more visible in terms of raising the voices and speaking up and also whenever you actually see something which is wrong like bad presentation, bad example bad media coverage please make sure to talk about it and to bring attention to it.
This is very important and we should use the internet also as Muslims to try to raise our voices make sure that we are heard make sure to be spread the rights awareness and the right idea about our religion while at the same time fighting all forms of the negative stereotyping and Islamophobia and I think the internet can definitely help with that.
In this age of cyberspace, how much the parental influence on children has changed? How do you assess the future in this regard?
It’s not a secret that of course young people, children and you know adolescence teenagers they are the ones who use the internet the most. this is not a secret in many cases they are the ones who spend many hours on the internet and in so many ways it is now said that the internet in some cases is even playing the role of the parent or the pleasing to be more accurate replacing the role of the mother and the father in terms of socializing at the children and the young people and really trying to give them guidance.
Of course this is very dangerous because in some cases they can get some kind of education and good programs on the internet but in many other cases they can get also a lot of content which can be very dangerous and very harmful. They can get into trouble in some cases you can get to open the files those will go after you know young children do human trafficking, they can go after kids they can exploit them there is child pornography, violence that is gangs.
It’s a dangerous world out there and to leave the kids just completely unmonitored and unsupervised hour after hour after hour because their parents are busy and now social media and new media is playing the role of the educators and playing the role of the teacher and playing the role of the parent and playing the role of the baby sitter.
That is a very dangerous phenomenon so the parents have to be very careful. they have to be very alert they have to pay attention to their own children and make sure that the monitoring and keeping an eye on the children make sure that the children are watched, make sure that you know what kind of content your children are watching the same applies for teen agers, for adolescent, for young adults.
We cannot just leave them for hours on the internet unmonitored. It raises all sorts of moral ethical and even in some cases security threats as well.
There are now some new programs and softwares that you can use a parental control in order to try to really a kind of filter the kind of content that your own son or daughter it might be exposed to. So I think that these kinds of programs are very important. It’s very important for parents to educate themselves and to know where to find these programs and how to use them in the most effective way in order to protect their own children.
Of course, it’s always helpful to spend more time with our own children, go outdoors and go to picnics to parks traveled together to go to nice places, enjoy nature, go to exhibitions, museums libraries, parks.
It’s not just leaving them all the time with the internet to fill the gap and to fill their time while at the same time unfortunately, filling their heads with all wrong ideas or dangerous ideas in many cases as well.
Thank you for sharing your ideas.
Thank you and I hope this is helpful. Wa al-Salamu Alaykum