Numerous imperial dynasties have bequeathed Lahore surprising diversity leaving the city particularly adept at embracing cultural change. This February, while visiting my dynamic and resilient city, I came across many uplifting examples of Pakistanis in positive revolt.
I met a student who’d worked with a team to (legally) decorate Lahore’s Gulberg Market with unifying and peaceful graffiti messages of hope. I visited a favourite old haunt that had been transformed into the eponymous grottoes of social engagement, internet cafes. I observed an unprecedented and explosive arts scene. Shows like Coke Studio are providing not just a platform for musicians but are reviving timeless classics in a fusion with mainstream Pakistani pop culture. And I came across individuals who question the state’s balance of power through design, satire and wit, such as Jahanzeb Haque’s comic strips which charmingly yet sharply poke fun at Pakistan ka Haal (The Condition of Pakistan).
These burgeoning pockets of resistance are gaining in strength, momentum and numbers not only in Pakistan but across South Asia and the Middle East. As old libraries across Cairo, Sana’a, Damascus and Beirut are being emptied of books, replaced with glowing screens and minted as internet cafes, the role of social media as a common denominator in aiding and abetting social progress is undeniable.
Recently I was one of 59 speakers at ‘the shortest Islamic conference’ in the world: Islam in the Age of New Media. All of us journalists, activists, academics, scholars and authors —despite our different curriculum vitas —came together to speak on our most apparent commonality: an active participation and engagement with Islam through the portal of new media.
And, as host and curator of the event Amir Ahmad told me, many of the speakers hold an optimistic view of the future of Islam in the age of the digital revolution.
The proliferation and increased profitability of communication technologies and smart phones coupled with the “loss of hegemonic control that Islamic institutions and religious establishments have traditionally held…will have a big impact as Muslims discover and rediscover better interpretations of Islam,” he said.
Certainly, new media has given Islamic discourse a fast, flexible new positioning. This shift to an alternate sphere has borne many alternative voices and authorities. Dialogue and debate no longer rests solely in the scholarly hands of antiquated institutions. There are many new interpreters in Islam.
As I noted in my sixty-seconds, the first golden ages of Islam are enshrined in the history of distant lands like Damascus, Cordoba, Agra and Istanbul. These golden ages have been replaced with a more permanent and durable Golden Age of Islam (2.0). New media chronicles innovation in the Muslim world. It archives the insights and tells the story of some of our best writers, thinkers, and activists. So, for every zone of crisis in the Islamic world, there is a promising center of innovation and new media is becoming that meeting place, an intersection where new ideas are born by the hour and disseminated by the minute.
I don’t wish to dabble in the complex and nuanced discussion of the implications of the viral revolution for the religion of Islam. But as speaker and muslimmatters.org public relations consultant Lesa Galloway told me: “democratization of Muslim voices is absolutely the most over-arching truism”. Thus, the social, cultural and political potential of millions of plugged-in Muslims creating and shaping their own narratives is both titillating and promising.
As millions of Muslims leave a binary trail of their 1’s and 0’s, writer and speaker Reza Aslan’s words seem to get it right. Indeed, the “battle for the hearts and minds of Muslims will take place not in the streets of Baghdad or in the mountains of Afghanistan but in the suburbs of Paris, the slums of East London and the cosmopolitan cities of Berlin and New York”.
And it may very well be the case that “in the end the most effective weapon countering the appeal of groups such as Al Qaeda may be the words we use”