The expansion of Internet access across the Middle East and North Africa will open communications channels for marginalized social and political groups, including those that criticize the Islamic faith, potentially sparking a culture war across the Muslim world, according to a new report.
In the long-term Internet penetration in the region is likely to lead to a more open society, but experts predict the short-term effects would include backlash from conservative forces who fear an attack on their beliefs. This could give rise to new jihadist groups.
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The Internet has already facilitated interaction between marginalized groups in the region. In 2011, a regional nonprofit group launched the first online forum for LGBT individuals in the Middle East and North Africa. The site was a direct challenge to societies where homosexuality is criminalized, even punished by death in countries including Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Iran.
The report, published in Foreign Affairs earlier this month, predicted the Internet will amplify discussions critical of Islam and lead to an increase in the number of secularists and atheists.
"These alternative identities we talk about—LGBT, religion critical, or otherwise—these counter-normative discourses, are very much marginalized societally. The Internet helps marginalized voices," Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who co-authored the report, told the Washington Free Beacon.
"It doesn't necessarily operate against religious conservatism; in fact, the Islamic State is helped by the Internet. ISIS is counter-normative just in a very different direction. The logic of the Internet is to allow groups in the marginalized society to organize and then, as they gain momentum and gain an audience in the space, to move offline," he added.
Internet access has expanded drastically in the Middle East and Africa over the past seven years. The report, citing numbers from Internet World Stats, noted that Internet penetration rates in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East in 2010 were respectively 10.9 percent and 29.8 percent. In 2016, those numbers had risen to 28 percent and 57 percent, respectively.
This development, occurring in some of the world's most religiously conservative societies, will escalate tensions between moderate reformers and traditional forces, potentially leading to jihadist mobilization similar to the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions, according to the report.
Over the past few years, Islamic extremists in Bangladesh have carried out a series of attacks against atheist bloggers and other advocates of secularism. In April, a 28-year-old atheist law student was hacked to death while walking through the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka. One year earlier, a prominent atheist blogger was fatally attacked by assailants with machetes.
Gartenstein-Ross predicted jihadist violence against critics of the Islamic faith would persist in the short term as the Internet fuels clashes within Muslim societies. He predicted that over time politicians would begin to embrace these marginalized communities because of societal pressure.
"The issue may be forced to some extent when these communities are targeted because those governing either have to come out in favor of the killers or against the killing of people based on identity," he said.