The Mash of Civilizations

By Ferguson, Niall | Newsweek, April 18, 2011 | Go to article overview

The Mash of Civilizations


Ferguson, Niall, Newsweek


Byline: Niall Ferguson

Social networks might promote democracy, but they also empower the enemies of freedom.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that information technology--in particular social networking through the Internet--is changing the global balance of power. The "Facebook Generation" has already been credited with the overthrow of the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. For a brief period, the darling of Tahrir Square was the young Google executive Wael Ghonim.

Yet there is another side to the story. It is not only proponents of democracy who know how to exploit the power of online networking. It is also the enemies of freedom.

Ask yourself: just how did the murderous mob in Mazar-e Sharif find out about the burning of a Quran in Florida? Look no further than the Internet and the mobile phone. Since 2001 cell-phone access in Afghanistan has leapt from zero to 30 percent.

Or consider the fact that, before Facebook took down a page called "Third Palestinian Intifada"--which proclaimed that "Judgment Day will be brought upon us only once the Muslims have killed all of the Jews"--it had notched 350,000 "likes."

It seems paradoxical. In Samuel Huntington's version of the post-Cold War world, there was going to be a clash between an Islamic civilization that was stuck in a medieval time warp and a Western civilization that was essentially equivalent to modernity. What we've ended up with is something more like a mashup of civilizations, in which the most militantly antimodern strains of Islam are being channeled by the coolest technology the West has to offer.

Here's a good example. According to the Jihadica website, there is now a special data package produced by the "Mobile Detachment" of the "al-Ansar al-Mujahideen Forum" especially for cell phones. Users can download encryption software, pictures, and 3GP-format video clips with titles like "A Martyr Eulogizing Another Martyr" by the Somalia-based Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen. Also available to users is the electronic magazine al-Sumud ("Resistance") published by the Afghan branch of the Taliban, and edifying documents--available in both MS Word and Adobe formats--like "How to Prepare for Your Afterlife. …

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