Reaching a mullah for a fatwa or Islamic education is now easier thanks to new technologies and Internet – there are a number of official websites of the government religious centers and groups in social media. Sermons of prominent religious clerics such as Eshoni Nuriddinjon and Hoji Mirzo reach far beyond their communities – audios and videos of them are circulated by thousands of virtual followers through cell phones and social media. Tajik Islamic media was in the focus of CAAN’s interview with Benjamin Ale-Ebrahim, a PhD student in cultural anthropology at Indiana University, Bloomington. His research focuses on the use of digital media in Islamic communities in Central Asia and the Middle East. He earned an MA in religious studies from the University of Kansas in 2017.
What is the definition of “Islamic media”?
I define “Islamic media” as media that is produced by Muslims, intended for consumption by other Muslims, that addresses specifically religious subjects. These subjects include ethics, ritual practices, and the role of Islam in politics. Islamic media has historically been produced on a number of different platforms, including printed pamphlets and books, cassette tapes, radio programs, and television shows. My research is concerned with Islamic media published on the newest major platform available – the internet.
It can be difficult to draw precise boundaries around digital Islamic media because religion touches on so many different aspects of life. If we take a very broad definition, every reference to marriage, politics, clothing, and even food can shed light on how the producers of any given media product think about Islam and perform their Muslim identity. In my current research project, I take a narrower view.
I am primarily focused on media produced by religious professionals in Tajikistan like Hoji Mirzo Ibronov, Hoji Akbar Turajonzoda, and Eshoni Nuriddinjon. All three of these well-known mullahs maintain a significant digital media presence and have a large following among the Tajik public. Recordings of their Friday sermons published on YouTube commonly receive tens of thousands of views.
What types of digital media are there in Tajikistan? Websites publishing just text, websites with multimedia materials, blogs, social media, etc.?
I am familiar with several websites run by the government of Tajikistan relating to Islamic affairs. These include www.shuroiulamo.tj (Council of ‘Ulama, Шӯрои уламо), www.mit.tj (Islamic Studies Center, Маркази исломшиносӣ), and www.din.tj (Committee on Religious Affairs, Traditional Regulations, and National Celebrations, Кумитаи оид ба корҳои дин, танзими анъана ва ҷашну маросимҳои миллӣ). These websites provide multimedia materials relating to official regulations concerning religion in Tajikistan, lists of officially sanctioned books on Islamic practice, locations of government-sanctioned mosques, texts of public speeches given by President Rahmon concerning Islamic affairs, and information on how to apply to perform the Hajj pilgrimage, among other materials.
There are also a number of active social media users in Tajikistan on sites like YouTube, Facebook, VKontakte, and Odnoklassniki who post Islamic religious content. Both Hoji Mirzo and Eshoni Nuriddinjon have public VKontakte pages, ostensibly maintained not by themselves but by their followers, in which people upload digital recordings of their sermons. Hoji Mirzo’s page has over 800 followers and Nuriddinjon’s has over 2,500. I have also found several public groups on VKontakte and Facebook relating to general information on Islamic affairs in Tajikistan with names like “Ислам в Таджикистане” (“Islam in Tajikistan” in Russian), “саволу чавоб дар бораи Ислом” (“Questions and answers about Islam” in Tajik), and “Исломшиносӣ” (“Islamic studies” in Tajik). These groups consist of users posting, for example, videos of mullahs discussing controversial ethical issues like adultery, questions to other followers of the group regarding religious practices, and image macros with inspirational quotes from the Qur’an or hadith. These groups have between 1,500 to 15,000 followers each.
Finally, Islamist terrorist organizations like ISIS have produced digital media content in the Tajik language. For example, Nusrat Nazarov was a Tajik citizen and prominent member of ISIS after leaving Tajikistan in 2013. He was reportedly killed in 2015 in fighting near the city of Raqqa. While he was alive, he produced a number of pro-ISIS propaganda videos in the Tajik language, urging Tajiks to join him in Syria and to overthrow the secular government of Tajikistan. This type of digital media represents a very small – but highly visible – proportion of the total amount of digital Islamic media produced for a Tajik audience.
Who are they run by? Are they official or unofficial? Are they being administered from Tajikistan or from outside of the country?
Both the government of Tajikistan and members of the Tajik general public are using the internet to talk about Islam. I would say, however, that the majority of digital Islamic media produced in the Tajik language is unofficial – that is, not produced by the government or government-sponsored mullahs. Most of the digital content I am familiar with is created by individual social media users independent of any institutional affiliation.
It is difficult to determine how many social media users active on the websites I discuss above live in Tajikistan or in other countries because it is fairly simple to lie about one’s location on these sites. According to the latest data I could find from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), just 17.5 percent of the population of Tajikistan were identified as internet users in 2014. While this number has no doubt increased over the past three years, internet penetration in Tajikistan remains at a very low rate. The internet users who are posting on Tajik-language Facebook and VKontakte groups are likely residents of urban centers like Dushanbe and Khujand where internet access is most widespread or Tajik citizens living abroad in Russia.
How more restrictions on the religion in the country affect the work of these media?
With increasing censorship of religion in the Tajik public sphere, it is likely that more Tajiks will be using the internet to seek out unbiased and uncensored information on Islamic religious practices. The internet represents a relatively more free space to discuss issues relating to Islam in Tajikistan than, say, printed newspapers or television produced in the country. This is because internet censorship is very difficult and very expensive to maintain. While the Tajik government has successfully blocked access to YouTube, Facebook, and other social networking sites in the past, these blocks have all been intermittent and temporary. Tech-savvy Tajiks commonly use proxy servers to access internet materials that have been officially banned in the country. Until the Tajik authorities invest in an expensive comprehensive censorship system like China’s Great Firewall, it is unlikely that the government will be successful in permanently and completely blocking access to digital Islamic media that it does not approve of. Even then, as is happening right now in Xinjiang in China, it is possible to find ways to circumvent the most restrictive censorship policies. For the foreseeable future, at least, the internet represents the most unbiased resource available for learning about Islam for the minority of Tajiks who are able to access it.
What do they write about and how do they reach the audience? What language are they writing in?
I have found that the most popular recorded sermons address ethical questions and give Islamic legal advice (насиҳат) on how to handle moral dilemmas. These dilemmas include, for example, how to properly negotiate a divorce (талоқ), how to address adultery (зино) in a marriage, and the permissibility of greeting women in public (салом кардан бо духтар). I think that the reason these sermons are so popular is because they address common moral questions that a pious Muslim would encounter in their everyday life; digital Islamic media addressing political issues or abstract philosophical questions are significantly rarer.
Tajik and Russian are the most commonly used languages in digital Islamic media in Tajikistan, with English and Arabic present to a much lesser extent. Most text posted on the websites and social media pages that I have studied are primarily in Tajik, with comments fairly evenly divided between Tajik and Russian.
To what extent the role of the specific Islamic media is important in rising religiosity among Tajiks? Do these media make people more observant of the religious practices? Do they increase the Islamic knowledge of their audiences? Do they help followers to reach mullahs for religious comments?
I hesitate to say that this type of media makes people more religious. On the contrary, I think the popularity of digital Islamic media in Tajikistan reflects an already high level of religiosity within the country. People tend to produce media that reflects their interests and addresses their concerns. I would argue that digital Islamic media is produced in response to an already-existing desire among some members of the Tajik general public to learn more about Islam and to live a more pious lifestyle.
That being said, I do think that digital Islamic media can work to increase Islamic knowledge in Tajikistan and can help connect the general public with religious leaders. In my research, I have not seen a great deal of discrete interactions taking place between individuals and mullahs on the internet. There are a few question and answer (саволу чавоб) services available, including at the official Council of ‘Ulama website, where individuals can receive an answer to a specific religious question they pose.
However, most comments posted on social media pages or in response to videos of Friday sermons do not elicit a direct response from the mullah himself. What is happening in these sermon videos is not quite so concrete. Viewers of these videos do not ask a single question and receive a simple response. By watching how Hoji Mirzo and Eshoni Nuriddinjon respond to the questions posed by their audiences – and how they explain and think through the details of the questions they receive – the viewers of these videos learn how to think and behave within an Islamic religious framework. The videos of these mullahs are not just giving simple answers to direct legal questions but rather providing knowledge and behavioral frameworks that their viewers can adapt for use in their own daily life. It is in this way, by teaching viewers how to respond to social situations within an Islamic legal framework, that digital Islamic media works to increase Islamic knowledge among the Tajik public.
Do these media play a role in empowering the religious leaders among the population? How?
Yes, I would say so. People like Hoji Mirzo and Eshoni Nuriddinjon already have a significant following in Tajikistan and videos of their sermons commonly receive tens of thousands of views on social media. The affordances of digital media allow religious leaders like these two men to reach quantitatively more people while also allowing for a qualitatively more immersive connection to develop between these mullahs and their followers.
Digital media is also qualitatively different from other media platforms, like printed books or radio, because it often appeals simultaneously to multiple senses (both sight and sound). Internet users can both see and hear Hoji Mirzo speaking to them through their computer screens and are able to easily pause, repeat, or skip through any part of his sermon. Watching a sermon uploaded on YouTube is a much more similar experience to being physically present in the audience when it was originally delivered than reading a written transcript of the sermon or simply hearing it on the radio. I argue that the temporal distance between the mullah and his followers is lessened through the multisensory nature of digital media, allowing the mullah to have a much stronger emotional impact on his followers.
This phenomenon of the intimate connection between religious leaders and followers enabled by the internet forms the basis of my future dissertation project. I am in the very early stages of this project and I hope to conduct ethnographic research within a digital Islamic community to learn more about this topic.