Opening Closed Regimes: Civil Society, Information Infrastructure, and Political Islam
31 Pages Posted: 19 Jul 2010 Last revised: 13 Jul 2014
Date Written: July 2010
As Converse once said of public opinion research, “a sample design which extracts unrelated individuals from the whole and assigns the opinion of each an equal weight is a travesty on any 'realistic' understanding of what the concept of public opinion means” (Converse 1987, S14). Today, any realistic understanding of public opinion formation in Muslim media systems must come from a critical awareness of the limits to survey data, but also an appreciation that digital information technologies are providing new opportunity structures for inclusion in the process of public opinion formation and measurement.
Ruling elites often try to co-opt civil society groups, and in times of political or military crises they can attempt to control the national information infrastructure. But a defining feature of civil society is independence from the authority of the state, even in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. And in important ways, digital communication networks are also independent of any particular state authority. What has been the impact of digital media on political communication in Muslim media systems? How have tools such as mobile phones and the internet affected the process of forming political identity, particularly for the young? When do such tools change the opportunity for civic action, and when do they simply empower ruling elites to be more effective censors? In this chapter, we analyze the best available micro level data on technology use and changing patterns of political identity and macro level data on networks of civil society actors.
Saudi Arabia and Egypt are two strong authoritarian regimes, the first an Islamist monarchy, the latter staunchly secular. Indonesia is an emerging democracy. Pakistan, with a mixed authoritarian and democratic history, is a fragile state. Despite important differences in political culture, technology diffusion is causing new patterns of political communication in all four regimes, with consequences for political participation and collective action. These four cases may be the best instances of governance archetypes in political Islam: Egypt is the biggest secular authoritarian regime, Saudi Arabia is the biggest Islamist constitutional monarchy, Indonesia is the biggest Muslim democracy, and Pakistan is the largest of fragile states. Yet all four are also interesting candidates for comparison: they have among the highest diffusion rates of digital media in the developing world; they are all countries in which digital media has been a means of building a transnational, Muslim political identity; they are all countries in which the protection of religious and cultural norms has been used to justify levels of censorship and surveillance not tolerated in other parts of the world. We identify the ways in which authoritarian regimes do make effective use of information infrastructure as a means of social control. But we also demonstrate the ways in which civil society groups effectively use information infrastructure to strengthen their own organizational capacity and preserve independence from the state.
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