GURAT, France, Nov. 10 (UPI) -- Editor's note: This eighth installment of the UPI series on the compatibility between Islam and democracy considers the impact of cable television, the Internet and mass education on the Muslim world.
Open societies are emerging in the Islamic world. This is mainly due to cable television, the Internet, and mass education, according to Dartmouth College anthropologist Dale F. Eickelman, who has observed new ways of thinking as a result of these developments.
Eickelman studied the impact of new media as part of a major research project on Islam and democracy conducted by Boston University's Institute on Religion and World Affairs, or IRWA, and sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts. This UPI series is largely based on the IRWA undertaking.
What Eickelman witnessed in Morocco applies to most of the Middle East: "State television and radio have lost the battle for eyes and ears except for the countryside, where there is no alternative. Most of the sets are tuned to al-Jazeera Satellite Television or one of the newer Arab satellite channels."
From Casablanca in Morocco clear through Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, Qatar's al-Jezeera, which has been patterned after CNN, dominates the new public sphere. "For many viewers, its Arabic news broadcasts have become the standard against which other broadcasters are judged," Eickelman writes.
In most Arab countries, reliable surveys of viewing habits are lacking, he allows. But there is one place from which dependable figures have been culled -- Gaza and the West Bank. Its inhabitants have rated al-Jazeera TV as the most reliable source of information (33.7 percent), Eickelman reports. Other satellite channels follow with 26 percent, well ahead of the television stations operated by the Palestinian authority and Israel.
Altogether, Eickelman observed that the new media have had "profound consequences for the political and religious imagination. First, they create and sustain a new public." Combined with modern mass education, they "offer wider, competing repertoires of intellectual techniques and authorities and the erosion of exclusivities that previously defined communities of discourse, extending them also to women and minorities."
Furthermore, "viewers can now watch religious and political authorities and commentators explain their views and answer questions more as equals than as distant orators who cannot directly be challenged," Eickelman writes. "Moreover, it is not just religious specialists who debate religion but other educated persons and public figures."
Thus a development significant for an evaluation of the compatibility of Islam and democracy has occurred: "The distance between authorities and their audiences is diminished, and claims to the mantle of authority become more open." Eickelman's possibly most important conclusion about the impact of the new media on the Arab culture is this: "Satellite television introduces audiences to a new way of thinking, in favoring effective and reasoned presentations."
This often takes hitherto unheard-of forms. When former Algerian Prime Minister Reda Malek was unhappy with a caller's sharp question and asked to "stop the tape," moderator Faisal al-Kassim replied, "I can't. We broadcast live. You are not in Algeria."
Royal corruption in Saudi Arabia is debated on camera, as are religious taboos, such as polygamy. Before millions of viewers in strictly Islamic lands, a secularist and a very conservative woman berate each other, the first calling Koranic doctrine out of date, the latter accusing her of blasphemy.
Add to this the impact of mass education, which according to Eickelman "fosters a sharp break with earlier traditions of authority, with a direct, albeit selective, access to the printed word. ... Mass education enables citizens to talk back to state authority, and this changes how the state can represent itself."
It seems from Eickelman's presentation that mass education and the media help moderate Muslims to bridge the gap between faith and modernity. Moderates, as opposed to radicals, are more likely to acknowledge Islam's borrowings from the West, he explains. Moderates "argue that while Islam's principals are eternal, the way they are implemented can be adjusted to historical context."
As an example, Eickelman tells the story of a religious activist who argued in 1978 that democracy would never take hold in the Muslim world because it was "alien to the 'shura', which was Koranic and Islamic" (the word "shura" means consultation, by which believers are expected to conduct their affairs, according to chapter 42 of the Koran). Twelve years later he asserted that democracy and Islam were compatible.
Eickelman reminded him of his earlier statement. "Now we know better," the sage replied, "Shura is not a major concept in the Koran, and its few usages there are ambiguous. Democracy can be adapted to Islamic ideals."