An online war for hearts and minds

The battle for Muslim minds is not being fought by radicals in Falluja or in the mosques. It is being fought on the net. And one of Europe's experts on Islam in the West says governments must rethink how they are going to win this war.

This week a British Muslim website discussed how worried they were about how disenchanted young men can turn into "Wahaboys", a term derived from Wahabism, the strict Saudi Arabian interpretation of Islam.

That came days after the killing of controversial Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a suspected Islamist radical.

The events are entirely unrelated - but both point to a continental struggle for the direction of Muslim identity.

And, says Professor Gilles Kepel, the internet is playing an increasingly central part, if not the most important part, in this battle for hearts and minds.

Gilles Kepel is one of Europe's top thinkers on Islam. He was a member of the French commission which recommended banning religious symbols from schools - a decision essentially seen as targeting Islamic headscarves.

This does not mean he sees a "clash of civilisations", far from it. But in his new book, The War for Muslim Minds, he argues that the West is the battlefield where the struggle to modernise and democratise Islamic societies will be fought.

If governments ensure the success of young European Muslims, then they will export their positive experiences eastwards, he argues.

But if governments do not act, then the disenfranchised extremes will confirm the suspicions of those who oppose Western society.

Role of the net

There are hundreds of websites, blogs or e-groups which loosely count as being radical in nature, many aligned to the fundamentalist worldview known as Salafist preaching. There are of course many others propagating more mainstream visions of Islam.

Between them, they compete for young European Muslims looking for signposts to their identity.

"The websites have created a new way to recruit anywhere, anyone of Muslim descent but they also reorganise the frontiers of groups and communities," says Prof Kepel.

"What has been very striking with the rise of Salafists in the West is the way they were linked to websites in the Arabian peninsula from where they were directly receiving their guidance."

In one case highlighted by Prof Kepel, a French Muslim woman sought online theological guidance on taking the Pill and the advice she was given amounted to a rejection of the surrounding world.

"That's very scary because allegiances, attitudes and behaviour are being defined by instructions on the web."

Admittedly, it is difficult to gauge the impact of these websites on behaviour, although Prof Kepel says they played a key part in the campaign against France's headscarf ban.

'The database'

But the bigger picture is their role in the "war on terror". The word al-Qaeda means "the base" - but metaphorically it means something closer to "database" or repository. That simple idea has launched a thousand websites, says Prof Kepel.

"The problem is when you have kids like those in Spain responsible for the train attacks in Madrid; they haven't trained in Afghanistan - but they have learned what they need through the net. It's a web mobilisation to a cause.

"If you are a cybernaut, you now have much more influence over young Muslim minds than a scholar who has spent 40 years studying the traditions.

"With its smart weapons the US can quite easily destroy the 'base' in the caves of Tora Bora - but those bombs do nothing to deal with the 'database' itself," he says.

If this influence is to be combated, then states need to rethink their integration strategies, warns Prof Kepel.

"I think things are changing here and in Holland. There is anxiety that multiculturalism has given leeway to radical groups to build enclosed citadels, totally contrary to what the multiculturalists wanted."

Prof Kepel argues multiculturalism allows "village strongmen" to dominate and reinforces a narrow world view which disenfranchises the young. Trevor Phillips, chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, has publicly declared multiculturalism to be past its sell-by date.

The net and not the mosque is the market where the young are turning to buy into allegiances which can be completely at odds with reality, says the professor.

Social fragmentation

On an internet forum this week, a woman with a depressed boyfriend was advised by one respondent her relationship is forbidden (haram) and will only lead to misery. Another said his wife could help her "revert" to her true Islamic self. Neither addressed the pressing issue.

"Multiculturalism has been a catastrophe. It leads to the balkanisation of society and ultimately to civil war," says Prof Kepel. "It 'clans' people within an identity from which they can't escape. You have to define yourself as gay, Black, Muslim or whatever.

"What I fear is fragmentation of society along these lines. You are born with an identity but what is important is what you become."

The war for Muslim Minds by Gilles Kepel is published by Belknap/Harvard University Press.