Technology Planning and Analysis

The politics of technology in the Islamic world

It’s difficult to find something in the Middle East that isn’t affected by Islam, particularly when one begins talking politics. Different countries in the region represent different sorts of Islamic governments, from parliamentary systems (like Jordan) to Islamic Republics (like Iran). Regardless of their general level of liberalism, however, each country is finding it increasingly necessary to consider its official reaction to the rising tide of electronic devices owned by their citizens, and the access that this gives them to the rest of the world. Some have elected to act with legislation limiting the freedom of their citizens to use technology; others have embraced it as a way to become competitive on the world stage.

Regardless, the citizens of politically Islamic states are increasingly avid technology users, especially on the mobile front—an affordable, portable, increasingly powerful way to access the internet and other resources. But again, government is a strong factor in levels of mobile and internet penetration.

As a rule, the constitutional monarchies tend to have the best infrastructure, while crisis states, such as Iraq and Syria, tend to have the lowest rates of reliability, with the average highly Islamic states somewhere in the middle. However, patterns of Islamic technology use across the Arabic-speaking world (and beyond it, in many cases, such as Malaysia and India) are overall on the uptrend.

And Muslim citizens seem willing to participate in the new informational worlds opening up before them, regardless of what their governments think. This regulatory difficulty is something that several rulers of Islamic states see as quite dangerous, some of them having experienced internet-fueled revolutions not too long ago. Many Islamic states, particularly in North Africa, have seen harsh suppression of dissenting ideas—particularly discussions, even in the context of Islam, of alternative political systems.

Others countries, however, are quite the opposite, and see the internet as beneficial—though most seem to agree that it requires regulation. Iran, as always, presents interesting illustrations, even if many are exceptions rather than rules. Despite investing rather proactively in technology infrastructure, they have punished young Iranians for posting a (fairly innocent and a bit entertaining, if not exactly impressive) video of themselves dancing, sentenced bloggers to lashes, and even tried to keep Iran’s internet from getting too fast before the government had time to upgrade its internet regulation software.

In a previous article, I wrote about the growing Middle Eastern video game industry—most of which is mobile-focused. While it is still developing, there is sufficient demand for Arabic mobile games to make it an attractive proposition to several leaders, who have invested a great deal in helping the industry take off. For the Islamic world, whatever backward or Luddite tendencies might be stereotypically attributed to it, this is an excellent omen for the state of the technology market and industry in the region.

However, one of the biggest obstacles to the media industry in the region is the Islamic system of government, which, as a complex institution itself, can make doing business well, complex. Larger game studios, for example, are reluctant to distribute for fear of censorship preventing their games from being sold; smaller game studios must tread carefully to ensure that their games do not offend.

Even programs like WhatsApp, the popular smartphone messaging application that has particularly been a phenomenon in the Middle East, are not exempt: there have, in fact, been serious efforts to ban WhatsApp in Iran and Saudi Arabia, and it’s far from the only seemingly innocent program to have been put on official no-no lists. While Iran is, admittedly, one of the most serious states about enforcing Islamic/anti-Western tenets—also having banned Facebook and Twitter—and Saudi Arabia mostly uses the internet to market itself as the capital of the Islamic world this is somewhat indicative of the general uncertainty that many businesses face in the Middle East. And at the root of much of what I’ve been talking about is the set of Islamic codes known as Sharia.

How is technology influenced by Sharia law?

While outside of the Middle East many think of Sharia as primarily a judicial structure, it is, in fact, deeply embedded in most aspects of a Muslim citizen’s life. The same set of standards that sets the laws also governs everything from diet to etiquette. The public and private spheres of life are not as separate in the Islamic world as they are in many other regions, and this is often a source of confusion for those seeking to understand the interaction of Islamic government and culture in a particular sphere.

Information technology, however, is not an area specifically covered by Sharia law. Existing interpretations of the codes as they relate to technology do not generally treat it as any different from other forms of media. That is to say, publishing or interacting with something that would violate an existing Sharia code, such as blasphemy or pornography remains an offense.

The application of Sharia to media varies in strictness from country to country, though nearly every state participates in media censorship and control. Most Islamic governments have translated their media strategies to the internet—requiring popular bloggers to register, monitoring individuals’ online activities, using blocking software, et cetera, in order to make sure that the more personal nature of technology does not interfere with a consistent application of Sharia. Even the fairly liberal Jordan has countrywide blocks placed on certain sites.

With information technologies progressing at the rate they are, and with the increasing difficulty of dealing with millions of users rather than a handful of media outlets, some Islamic governments, feeling overwhelmed by the lack of truly effective controls on online media, are erring quite far on the side of censorship. Pakistan, for example, blocked YouTube altogether after the video “The Innocence of Muslims”—a highly controversial satire on the origins of Islam—was published in 2012.

To decide upon their policy, Islamic states must find that sensitive middle ground between economic viability, political safety, and religious compliance. All states approach the matter differently, some with greater weight put towards Sharia than others. Researcher Philip N. Howard argues that there are three main divisions among Islamic states’ technology policies: some are wired for public infrastructure and business, but not politics; some countries are wired for personal but not public communication; and some are wired for Islamic, but not Western culture.

Very few—Jordan and Lebanon being two examples—among the Islamic states are fully “wired.” They have, for the most part, elected to pursue liberal policies that largely negate the government’s need to suppress political debate or act as a moral policeman, leaving them free to actively pursue information technology as a vital sector of their economies. Though even these states are not exempt from the occasional flexing of the state’s media control muscle, they set themselves apart as considerably better options than the states in the region with much more draconian systems, and in an area growing as quickly as the Middle East, there may be something to be said for being the best of a bad lot.

It seems then, that even the Islamic countries must, as Thomas Friedman put it, don the “golden straitjacket” of policies and cultural shifts that will allow them to be accepted into the global economy. Many are still balking at the societal cost—which is higher for them than it has been for some, given Islam’s deep-rooted ties to the government and unwillingness to be separated from institutions which many others around the world see as secular.

Given the data, though, it would seem that, as unappealing as the prospect might be, the economies of the Middle East are in a position where they must choose between shifting towards an information economy or maintaining strict religious adherence. Sooner or later, though, given the growing availability of technology to Middle Eastern citizens, that decision will likely be made for them.


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Andrew Braun

Andrew Braun has an eclectic taste in music, a crippling addiction to change, and a time-consuming learning habit. He has held jobs as a writer, a web designer, a farmhand, a handyman, and a teacher, and plans to travel the world, teach, write, and work towards a master’s degree in political science.

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