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South Africa’s Muslim Media: Between Conservative Space and Cyberspace.

In Review on October 19, 2010 at 11:22 am

Published in Al Qalam

To what extent have South Africa’s Muslim media shaped the way South African Muslims express their religious and national identities? How has the Muslim community approached the new and unchartered frontiers of cyberspace? Where is all this taking us a community?

These were some of the questions that Professor Muhammad Haron, associate Professor of religious studies at the University of Botswana, and attendees at a seminar held by the University of Johannesburg’s department for the Study of Islam, engaged in.

The history of Muslim media in post Apartheid South Africa is reflective of our young democracy. Within a short period, a number of community newspapers, magazines, newsletters, radio stations and even a television station sprung up and have established themselves, each scrambling for their piece of the Muslim demographic pie, and each, in some way, serving the need s and interests of the community it works within.

Muslims find their identities confirmed and authenticated through the media they are loyal to. Muslim media have also contributed to an Islam with a uniquely South African flavour, the “pamphlet industry”, for example, is a exceptional example of a very South African way of dealing with differences of opinion or promoting different ideas in the intra-religious sphere.

The newest challenge facing the Muslim media is cyberspace. They way in which Muslims experience the internet and the way it lends to the construction of identity, remains to be quantified and qualified, but  its impact is imagined to be immense, especially with the rise of social media, where participants are able to interact and engage with Muslims from diverse backgrounds and with different opinions. Cyberspace has also allowed for a “virtual ummah”, where Muslims feel connected to their brethren around the world, and express more consciousness about global issues facing Muslims, in their day-to-day lives.

The internet has allowed for the continuation, and in some ways, advancement of the “gender Jihad”. It is a new tool for Muslim women to carve out spaces for themselves and to express an egalitarian Islam in a free an unrestricted way.  Gender remains a point of contention in the South African Muslim media, with the degree’s to which women’s participation is allowed and encouraged constantly in flux, and is a micro-reflection of the macro-issue of women’s involvement in public life.

Another significant result of the spread of cyberspace is the shifting of religious authority. Muslims have access to a dearth of information that was hitherto reserved for the scholarly elite at their fingertips, as well access to scholarly opinions from other parts of the world.  However, the ways in which religious organizations have themselves embraced the virtual world, is interesting, and is reflective of power-politics. These new developments are not without their contradictions however, with some media-producing agents who are vehement in their onslaught against Modernity, Western Ideals and Western innovations readily taking on the medium of the internet quite willingly. This shift is also reflected in another point of disputation in Muslim media, i.e. the status of art and visual representation. The use of images and music remains taboo in some circles– yet with the launch of dedicated Islamic television channels, willingness has been observed amongst some sectors of the public, to move away from such “official” positions.

Concerns were also raised about the spread of a “fast-food” Islam, with various Q & A programs churning out a fatwa a minute, whether and in what way Muslim media has contributed to inter-racial relationships amongst Muslims, and how Muslim media has promoted contribution to the wider South African society.

The larger question remains, of where South African Muslim media is headed – and where it is taking the community with it. South Africa’s exceptional media freedoms have allowed for much inter-religious pluralism at the community level and each faction have been entitled to their “space”. The challenge remains, to use these freedoms in a civil and tolerant way, without the violent eruptions, condemnations and vilifications which sometimes characterize the Muslim media.

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