The advancement of communication and information technologies, especially the Internet and social media, has become one of the most crucial factors in informing the recent dynamics and manifestations of Muslim politics all over the world. Competition over religious symbols and interpretations as well as institutions that control them, which constitutes the main feature of Muslim politics, has often taken place via the Internet and social media and closely tied to the ways in which information, ideas and discourses are shared, communicated, and produced. The growth of new modes of interactive communication has allowed Muslims to increasingly participate in global Islamic discourses. Although the digital media does not necessarily call the so-called public sphere into being, it contributes significantly to reshaping a sense and structure of public that is already available. An embryo of “public Islam” emerges and poses a challenge to the secularist definition of the boundaries and content of the public sphere. It provides spaces for encounters on different levels and informs individual and collective strategies of cultural dialogue.
In fact, the transparency engendered by the digital media increases the scope, intensity, and forms of involvement in a multiplicity of overlapping public spheres. New religious actors who bear no religious authority in a traditional sense have emerged. They may not be as literate as those of the past, but they are certainly more able to manipulate symbols and rituals and to represent the mass society of today. Utilizing the interactive digital media they create a synthesis through a sort of cultural hybrid practices, in such a way that they package Islam and offer it for mass consumption. A new sense of piety has developed among Indonesian Muslims and this has reduced religious beliefs, symbols, and values into free-floating signifiers to be consumed like anything else. As such, it takes them from their original contexts and throws them into a cultural marketplace where they can be embraced in a shallow fashion but not necessarily put into practice. New communication technology accelerates this process through the production and appropriation of “religious” goods.
Now a variety of “Islamic products”, including Qur’anic CDs, soap opera DVDs, inspirational plaques and bumper stickers, calligraphic watchers, three-dimensional models of devotional practices, posters and jigsaw puzzles depicting the mosques in Mecca and Medina, greeting cards, board games, and computer software, including Qur’an and hadith database, and computerized aids to Qur’anic recital and Arabic learning, are available in the marketplace, side-by-side with various more conventional ones, such as trendy, colourful jilbab, Muslim T-shirts, perfumed oils, and veiled Barbie dolls. Paradoxically, rising curve of expanded digital media does not necessary give rise to a civil pluralism that accepts and legitimates diversities. In some cases the digital media helps militant Islamic groups carry out violent mobilization for the interest of their own. The eruption of Islamic militancy tide in the post-Suharto Indonesia, for instance, confirms such an ambivalent role of the digital media. Shortly after the fall of the regime in May 1998 a number of militant Muslim groups with names like Laskar Pembela Islam (the Defenders of Islam’s Force), Laskar Jihad (Holy War’s Force) and Laskar Mujahidin Indonesia (Indonesian Holy Warriors’ Force) came to the forefront to demand the comprehensive application of the shari‘a (Islamic law). Both implicitly and explicitly they questioned the format of modern nation-state and expressed their concern with the establishment of an Islamic state.
Youth have often been the main actors behind these maneuvers as they are impatient to bring about social change and frequently the first to take up innovations. This is the case not only in Indonesia; in the democracy movements of the so-called Arab spring young people were at the forefront of the action. In fact, youth are the main consumers of conservative Islamist discourse spread through a variety of communication channels, including print media and the internet. Islamist ideology in turn shapes youth’s narrative of confrontation with the Other: the West is perceived to be the main enemy of Islam, seeking to undermine it and subjugate the umma (the entire Muslim community) in diverse ways, not only through warfare but also through a war of ideas (ghazw al-fikr) and cultural, economic, social and political invasion.