Virtual Brotherhood

The National's Matt Bradley has a story on the Muslim Brotherhood's Facebook clone:

IkhwanBook joins a veritable suite of Brotherhood-affiliated (“Ikhwan” is Arabic for “Brotherhood”) websites, such as IkhwanWiki, IkhwanWeb, IkhwanGoogle – a “Cusotmized [sic] search engine specialized in searching muslim botherhood’s [sic] websites” – and IkhwanTube. Many of the sites are published in English and each of their functions is tailored to Brotherhood-related content.

The article then wonders why the Ikhwan bothers: IkhwanBook is after all technologically extremely inferior to the real Facebook, and the other sites are not that sophisticated either. And there are plenty of young Brothers on Facebook — anyone who's ever met them can expect to be friended within 24 hours, after all.

Brian Whitaker, noting the story, writes:

The interesting and slightly puzzling question is what the Brotherhood hopes to achieve by this. It's hard to imagine the Ikhwan sites gaining anything like the popularity of those they replicate, and they look like a move towards exclusivity which is generally uncharacteristic of the Brotherhood.

I think both Matt and Brian miss the point slightly. The first reason for having all these sites — and believe me, there are a LOT of Ikhwan sites out there, practically one for every governorate of Egypt plus many more on specific issues before you reach the Facebook and Wikipedia clones — is that there simply is enthusiasm to build them. Beyond the apparent correlation one notices between tech-savvy and religious inclination (just visit any of the computer malls on Midan Sphinx in Cairo), there are a lot of young talented programmers in Egypt who would love to show their enthusiasm for the gamaa by building websites for it. And there are a lot of young people in the Brotherhood, no matter how elderly the leadership is, for whom these websites may be a way of expressing their views as well as gain practice in the art of political and religious rhetoric.

The second reason is that this resonates with the groupthink and in-group mentality that the Muslim Brotherhood cultivates. These sites won't replace Facebook or Wikipedia, they are a virtual gated community (gated, that is, by strong symbolic references and imagery that are likely to alienate those not already versed in the Ikhwan universe) for like-minded people, where they can create a more orderly version of the sites that they copy and where the membership is self-selecting. The Muslim Brothers tend to socialize together, marry within each others' families, work together (or for each other) and a whole lot more. It's a support group as much as a political organization. It makes sense that, online, they will tend towards a closed ecosystem — alongside the open internet, not instead of it.

It's just the way online forums thrive: through community-building. That's true for computer geeks and religious geeks.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.