Islam and Technology: Evolution and Revolution

By Ramachandran, Aarti | Journal of International Affairs, Fall-Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Islam and Technology: Evolution and Revolution


Ramachandran, Aarti, Journal of International Affairs


The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam

Philip N. Howard

(New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 304 pages.

In the heady days of the Arab Spring, as news came across the wire that longtime Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was about to step down, the Twitter universe abounded with jokes about the dictator and his relationship with technology: "He's trying to Google Map Saudi Arabia but forgot he shut down the internet."

Ever since the so-called "Green Movement" in Iran in 2009, an uprising that involved social media, the public has been deluged with stories about Facebook, Google and Twitter sparking and sustaining democratic revolutions. Major news networks and prominent newspapers were quick to call recent events in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya the Twitter or Facebook revolutions.

Inevitably, there has been some backlash. With a longer view of history in mind, Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman wondered how "the French managed to storm the Bastille without the help of Twitter." (1) Rachman is on the right track. No matter how useful or popular they are, tools like Facebook and Twitter cannot advance democracy in a vacuum. Technology indisputably played a role in the Arab Spring, but we need to go beyond a reductionist approach to this phenomenon that leads to shallow, empirically thin conclusions.

Philip N. Howard, an associate professor at the University of Washington's Department of Communication, succeeds in doing so with his new book, The Digital Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Information Technology and Political Islam, a painstaking analysis of how Muslims in seventy-five countries used information and communication technologies (ICTs) over a period of fifteen years, from 1994 to 2010. The book assesses the extent to which ICTs contributed to democratic entrenchment or transition during that time period.

Most of the book is dedicated to a cross-national, comparative analysis of ICT diffusion in Muslim countries, which are grouped into the following four categories: entrenched democracies, transition states, autocracies and crisis states. Howard argues that such a method is far more useful than single-country case studies or a case-by-case quantitative approach.

Howard's purpose is to dispel Western misconceptions about how Muslims use the Internet. As a case in point, he argues that the online presence of Islamic fundamentalism is much less prevalent than civic Islam, contrary to Western belief. Muslims use the Internet to chat, flirt, shop, watch movies and engage in political and religious debates, just like non-Muslims. Since in some authoritarian regimes the Internet is one of the few accessible forums where people can engage in political and religious discourse, it is unsurprising that ICTs became so popular.

Howard's examination is unique, comprehensive and illuminating. He looks at ICT diffusion not just from the viewpoint of the user, but also from that of the provider--in this case, the governments of predominantly Muslim countries. How much do governments earn from ICT diffusion (through remittances, for example)? …

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