Cosmopolitanism and the Muslim Ummah On-line:'YouTubers' responding to the anti-Islam film Fitna, S Mihelj, L van Zoonen, F Vis

Tags: cosmopolitanism, communication, YouTube, poster, universalism, Islam, Wilders, world-wide community, cosmopolitan attitudes, free speech, Cambridge University Press, attachments, Muslims, survey participants, D. Forthcoming, power inequalities, Television & New Media, Citizenship, Social theory, Rhetorical Approach, New Media and Society, Public Scholarship, digital communication, International Journal of Communication, Cosmopolitan Communications, Social Psychology, social background, freedom of speech, YouTube video, religious outlooks, Fitna, normative principle, Geert Wilders, attitudes, Theory, Culture & Society, Religion and Globalization, European Journal of Social Theory, Muslim, Loughborough University
Content: Cosmopolitanism and the Muslim Ummah On-line: `YouTubers' responding to the anti-Islam film Fitna. Sabina Mihelj, Liesbet van Zoonen, Farida Vis Abstract In 2008, a Dutch member of parliament released a short anti-Islamic film entitled Fitna, which stirred a huge public controversy and provoked public condemnations around the world. In response to the film, hundreds of video responses were uploaded on YouTube, mostly with the aim to provide a more positive representation of Islam, and to a lesser extent to express support for the author and his views, or defend his freedom of speech. Drawing on interviews with YouTube posters who engaged in these exchanges, this paper reflects on the capacity of the Internet to sustain cosmopolitan interaction, and examines how cosmopolitan attitudes and practices online differ depending on the participants' cultural and social backgrounds, especially their religious affiliations. Particular attention is paid to how the communicative encounters between these multiple, `rooted' cosmopolitanisms are inflected by global inequalities of power. In addressing these issues, the paper also engages with broader debates about cosmopolitanism, and argues for an understanding of cosmopolitanism as a permanent quest for universalism, which remains anchored in the particular, but involves communication across difference, and requires openness to the possibility that the other is right. Keywords: cosmopolitanism, Islam, Internet, universalism, particularism 1
Introduction In March 2008, the Dutch MP Geert Wilders released a controversial, 17minute long film entitled Fitna, aimed to shed light on the threat allegedly posed to the Netherlands and the West by Muslim immigration and the global growth of Islam. Using shocking images of terrorist attacks, women's oppression, homophobia and antisemitism, interspersed with excerpts from Qur'an, the film presented Islam as an inherently violent and illiberal religion, inimical to Western ways of life. Amidst fears of potential security threats, Dutch broadcasters refused to show the film, and Fitna was finally released on a British video sharing site Liveleak on 27 March 2008. The release provoked several public condemnations of the film, fatwas against Wilders and attempts at censoring the film in some Muslim countries. YouTubers from across the world uploaded video responses to Fitna, mostly to challenge the claims made in the video, provide a more positive representation of Islam, express support for Wilders's views or defend his freedom of speech. Given the global spread of posters reacting to Fitna it is tempting to suggest that their responses are indicative of cosmopolitan attitudes and practices. The rise of the Internet has often been greeted as a revolutionary development that will thoroughly transform political life, foster greater civic engagement, bring down the barriers of national communication and pave the way to a global public sphere. Yet the act of posting a globally accessible YouTube video does not necessarily entail a wish to engage with other YouTubers, let alone those coming from a different cultural or ideological background. Indeed, in a previous study of interactions between YouTubers responding to Fitna we established that communication was largely limited to one-off interventions, and when further interactions occurred, they were mostly hostile and rarely involved dialogue across cultural and ideological divisions (Authors, forthcoming). Still, the lack of dialogic interaction does not necessarily suggest a lack of cosmopolitan attitudes and practices among posters. As established in previous analysis, YouTube responses were often motivated by a wish to speak to strangers, in particular those who may be unfamiliar with one's religious beliefs or political persuasions (Authors, 2010). Why, then, did these cosmopolitan motivations not translate into a fully fledged cosmopolitan communication with distant others? Yes, that is very well framed. 2
Answering this question requires us to move beyond the analysis of media institutions, technologies and texts, and examine how these relate to people's attitudes and communicative practices. In this paper, we seek to do so by means of inquiring into the motives, aims and experiences of the posters reacting to Fitna. Our inquiry is guided by three broad research questions. First, what does this Case Study tell us about the capacity of digital communication to sustain cosmopolitan sensibilities and engender cosmopolitan dialogues with strangers, especially in the context of geopolitical tensions and the growth of Islamophobia in the West? Second, how do cosmopolitan attitudes on-line relate to the participants' cultural and social background, in particular their religious affiliations ? And third, how are the opportunities for cosmopolitan communication affected by power inequalities? Defining Cosmopolitanism: A Quest for Universalism At its root, cosmopolitanism refers to the belief that each individual belongs to the global community of human beings, and owes allegiance to it (Nussbaum 1996: 4). Beyond this basic definition, however, there is little scholarly agreement over what exactly cosmopolitanism is meant to encompass. Broadly speaking, we can identify three categories of approaches to cosmopolitanism, each operating on a different plane: the first category includes understandings that tie cosmopolitanism to distinct realms of human experience and action, ranging from politics and philosophy to everyday life; the second category encompasses conceptions that refer to different dimensions of cosmopolitanism, including in particular cultural and normative ones; and the third category covers those approaches that emphasize the variability of cosmopolitanism across time and context, and its rootedness in particular social, cultural and historical environments. Before we say more about these three categories of approaches, and about how the present study relates to them, we shall first clarify what unites them. Notwithstanding all the diversity, there is a shared thread running through all the realms, dimensions, and contexts of cosmopolitanism, and we would like to argue this common threat is best conceived as a permanent quest for universalism. Whether it is within the realm of politics or philosophy, in relation to cultural identifications or normative principles, or within its multiple, culturally and historically rooted forms, cosmopolitanism always entails an aspiration to transcend the particular and tie it to 3
universal. Let us immediately add that this pursuit of universalism should not be equated with the negation of particularism. This is why we think it appropriate to see cosmopolitanism as a quest for universalism, rather than an accomplished state of universalism (see Chernilo, forthcoming, for a similar understanding of cosmopolitanism as a claim to universalism). This quest is always anchored in the particular ­ in fact, the awareness of its own particularism is crucial to its success ­ but seeks to transcend it by means of critical self-reflection and a dialogic encounter with the other. Understood in this way, cosmopolitanism evidently involves not a negation of the particular, but a constant engagement with it. Most importantly from the point of view of this paper, this engagement needs to encompass both the engagement with one's own particularism, and the engagement with the particularism of the other ­ in short, it requires communication across difference. Yet as Delanty (2009: 252) reminds us, the mere condition of connectivity and accommodation of difference are not enough; cosmopolitanism also requires a `reflective and critical moment' that can potentially lead to the creation of new ways of thinking and acting. For this to occur, cosmopolitan interaction needs to involve not only talking, but also listening to the other, and above all, it needs to involve openness to the possibility that the other is right. Or, as Chernilo (forthcoming) puts it: cosmopolitanism requires the possibility `to listen to the other, and be listened to as the other, in the belief that she may actually be right'. Brilliant author, this guy ;-) A final point that needs to be considered in relation to cosmopolitanism's quest for universalism is its embeddedness in power relations. By being anchored in the particular, cosmopolitanism is inescapable inflected by the unequal distribution of power among individuals and groups. Hence, the individual capacity to communicate across difference needs to be accompanied by `a critical understanding of the ways in which communication within our shared global world is systematically distorted by cultural power' (Stevenson 2003: 346). Or, to put it differently: for communication to be cosmopolitan, participants need to be able to transcend not only difference, but also dominance (cf. Jaggar 1999). This indeed is a good response to the reviewer comments With these considerations in mind, let us now turn to the different realms, dimensions and contexts of cosmopolitanism, and explain how this paper relates to them. 4
Realms. In their overview of existing literature, Vertovec and Cohen (2003: 914) distinguish between six different ways of conceiving cosmopolitanism: (a) as a socio-cultural condition, characterized by social and cultural interpenetration brought about by travel and migration and by the greater availability of worldwide news and cultural artefacts; (a) as a philosophy or world-view that urges us to behave as citizens of the world rather than merely a particular cultural group, (c) as a political project exemplified in transnational civil society movements and in top-down initiatives to establish transnational institutions, (d) as a political project aimed at recognizing people's multiple affiliations and loyalties, (e) as a particular attitude or disposition, normally associated with a willingness to engage with others, and finally (f) as a practical competence or ability to engage with the other. Each of these approaches ties cosmopolitanism to a different realm of human experience and engagement ­ the socio-cultural, the philosophical, the political, the everyday etc. To these we could add several other conceptions of cosmopolitanism, including legal cosmopolitanism (Pogge 1992), aesthetic cosmopolitanism (Regev 2007), the cosmopolitanism of the social sciences (Beck and Szneider 2010, Chernilo 2010), and even a `mediated' cosmopolitanism (Kyriakidou 2009, Robertson 2010) . A key challenge for contemporary studies of cosmopolitanism lies in explicating the relations between these different realms of cosmopolitanism, particularly between the political and socio-cultural manifestations of cosmopolitanism on the one hand, and everyday cosmopolitan attitudes and practices on the other hand. As Victor Roudometof (2009) points out, the creation of transnational connections, spaces and communities does not automatically lead to an increase in levels of cosmopolitanism, but can also prompt a retreat into localism. This paper tackles this issue by focusing on the link between transnationalism and cosmopolitanism within the realm of mediated communication. More specifically, we are interested in the relationships between digital communication ­ and specifically Internet applications such as YouTube ­ and cosmopolitan attitudes. Dimensions. Within each of the realms of cosmopolitanism we have just outlined, we can identify several different dimensions of cosmopolitanism. Within political philosophy, for instance, some authors see cosmopolitanism primarily as a matter of cultural identity or social relations, while others approach cosmopolitanism through a normative lens, as a set of beliefs that relate to issues of justice (e.g. Scheffler 1999). In the first case, cosmopolitanism is defined as a type of belonging 5
to, and responsibility for, humanity as a whole rather than a particular culturally or territorially bounded group. In the second case, it refers to the view that norms of justice should apply equally to the whole human population world-wide, and not only within single societies. These two strands can be identified also in studies of mediated cosmopolitanism. Some writers prefer to approach cosmopolitan communications from the perspective of cultural identity, and for instance examine the presence of cosmopolitan attachments in news reporting (e.g. Urry 2000). Others associate cosmopolitanism primarily with morality and ethics, and argue that the media function as s central site for the construction of a global moral order, for instance by providing audiences worldwide with images of distant suffering, global injustices or environmental deterioration (e.g. Boltanski 1999, Silverstone 2007). Much of the existing Empirical Research on cosmopolitanism in the social sciences puts more emphasis on cultural rather than normative dimensions. In contrast, our analysis considers both dimensions. Yet in line with our understanding of cosmopolitanism outlined earlier, we shall not be content with merely identifying expressions of belonging to a world-wide community, or endorsements of universal norms and values. In addition, we pay particular attention to the willingness and ability of individuals to reflect critically on their own position by drawing on the perspective of the other. Contexts and histories. The initial post-Cold War theorizing often presented cosmopolitanism as a fairly recent phenomenon, rooted in Enlightenment thought but laying dormant and submerged under the weight of national attachments for centuries until its recent revival in the post-Cold War era. While not entirely incorrect, this narrative glosses over the legacies of Enlightenment cosmopolitanism in classical social theory, over-estimates the pervasiveness of nationalism in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century thought, and neglects the existence of cosmopolitan universalism in antiquity and the pre-Enlightenment natural law tradition (Chernilo 2007, Fine 2007). Apart from acknowledging the different historical forms of cosmopolitanism, recent literature also points to the variability of cosmopolitanism across different socio-cultural contexts. As several authors have pointed out, cosmopolitanism is not incompatible with national or local outlooks, but rather constitutes one of the potential, multiple forms of attachments that human beings enact, depending on the particular situation they find themselves in. In line with this, cosmopolitanism can be conceived as a set of attitudes, dispositions and practical skills that are selectively 6
mobilized and appropriated by diverse groups of people in everyday, ordinary situations (Skrbis and Woodward 2007, Nowicka and Rovisco 2009). In other words, while cosmopolitanism is certainly linked to universalism, this does not automatically make it hostile to particularism. Instead, cosmopolitanism can and most often does adopt a form that embraces particular identities and `seeks to suffuse [them] with a sense of moral accountability to other human beings' (Liklanter 2007: 36). If the diverse mutual imbrications of territorial identities ­ ranging from local and national to European and global or cosmopolitan ­ have by now been fairly well established both theoretically and empirically, the relationship between these and religious outlooks has rarely been part of the equation. In mainstream theorizing on cosmopolitanism, religion is typically mentioned in passing, and although its potential to either contribute to or challenge cosmopolitan attachments is acknowledged, it is not particularly clear how the links between religious, national and cosmopolitan outlooks may work in empirical terms. At the same time, sociologists of religion have made substantial progress in tracing the diverse articulations of religious institutions, practices and beliefs with transnational practices and processes of globalization (e.g. Beyer 1994, Beyer and Beaman 2007), but have rarely discussed them from the perspective of cosmopolitanism (for exceptions see Van der Veer 2002, Levitt 2008). The reasons for the lack of engagement with religion and especially Islam in mainstream debates about cosmopolitanism are complex, but certainly include the tendency to think about religion and Islam in particular as incompatible with cosmopolitan sensibilities. According to some authors, cosmopolitanism itself is profoundly Western, rooted in the history of colonialism (van der Veer 2002) and the assumed superiority of the West that occasionally drives citizens to feel morally obliged to sympathise with distant others. While the intertwining of cosmopolitan morality and unequal relationships of power should not be discounted, we should also resist the temptation to brush away cosmopolitanism as an exclusively Western affair. Research into forms of `rooted' or everyday cosmopolitanism among immigrants from different cultural and religious backgrounds has by now made clear that cosmopolitan outlooks are not unique to Westerners, and can easily coexist with a variety of cultural and religious attachments (e.g. Lamont and Aksartova 2002). One of the aims of our study is precisely to advance the understanding of these diverse forms of cosmopolitan attachments, as well as to establish how they are inflected by global inequalities of power between different cultural and religious groups. 7
Mediated Cosmopolitanism Mediated communication is implicated in virtually all the different forms, dimensions and realms of cosmopolitanism discussed do far. Transnational media institutions and flows are among the key preconditions for the emergence of cosmopolitanism as a socio-cultural reality, and provide the necessary infrastructure for the establishment of a transnational public sphere, which is among the central prerequisites for the advancement of cosmopolitan political projects (Bohman 2007). Transnational media connections also allow the world in its otherness to become interweaved into the texture of everyday lives, and can thereby potentially serve as a springboard for identifications with distant strangers (Silverstone 2006, Chouliaraki 2008). In particular digital communication technologies seem to harbour immense potential for cosmopolitan projects. Unlike television, radio or print, Internet applications such as YouTube allow individuals to engage in transnational communicative practices themselves by means of producing self-made, publicly available textual or visual representations. Due to this, YouTube has the capacity to give voice to, and sustain communication between, multiple cosmopolitanisms, engendered from a variety of political, cultural and social standpoints. Yet do YouTubers actually use this transnational platform to communicate with distant strangers, and to reflect critically on their own views by drawing on the perspectives of others? And, more broadly: under what conditions might transnational media infrastructures and flows be able to sustain cosmopolitan communication across difference and dominance ­ which involves listening to the other, and being listened to as the other, in the belief that the other might be right ­ and thereby stimulate the emergence of a truly cosmopolitan, rather than merely transnational, public sphere? Although many authors have pointed to the gap that separates the transnational media order from a cosmopolitan one (e.g. Stevenson 2000, Kцgler 2005), debates on this issue remain largely theoretical. While there is no shortage of data on the progressive transnationalization of media ownership and the growth of transnational media flows, empirical studies that link these developments to individual identifications, dispositions and communicative practices are few and far between. The majority of recent research remains limited to mediated forms of cosmopolitanism found media texts, in particular television and news genres (e.g. 8
Chouliaraki 2008, Cottle 2009), while studies that inquire into cosmopolitan sensibilities among spectators are very rare and limited to the impact of television in a single national context (Kyriakidou 2009, Robertson 2010). The most ambitious attempt to examine the link between media globalization and cosmopolitan attitudes is found in the study by Norris and Inglehart (2009), which spans 90 countries around the world and measures individual cosmopolitanism by using indicators drawn from the World Values Survey, including expressions of belonging to the national community and trust in people from different cultural backgrounds. While this study doubtlessly represents an important intervention into long-standing debates media globalization and cultural imperialism, it does not really tackle the impact of the many-to-many modes of communication enabled by the rise of the Internet, nor does it actually inquire into nature of communicative practices as such. Also neglected in existing research is the relationship between mediated cosmopolitanism and religion, and more broadly between cosmopolitanism and the different socio-cultural contexts within which the communicators are embedded. Research has shown that the Internet serves as a forum for negotiating Muslim identity and projecting diverse, even incompatible visions of the Muslim imagined community (Siapera 2007, el-Nawawy and Khamis 2010, Mosemghvdlishvili and Jansz 2010). Whether and how these various mediated images of Islam articulate with expressions of belonging to a world-wide community, and with a commitment to universal normative principles, is among the central questions addressed in this paper. Finally, inquiring into the plurality of cosmopolitanisms among YouTubers also allows us to examine the relationships between transnational communication, cosmopolitanism and power inequalities. To what extent were YouTube posters responding to Fitna capable of embracing the diverse forms of locally, nationally or religiously embedded cosmopolitans, and engage with them on equal terms? In other words, did YouTube merely give voice to the plurality of cosmopolitanisms, or did it also facilitate listening and being heard `across difference and dominance' (Jaggar 1999: 323)? These are poignant questions, particularly in light of the controversial nature of Fitna and the geopolitical tensions and fears of Islam it embodies. Unlike much of existing research into mediated cosmopolitanism, our case study involves a communicative situation that requires engagement with individuals and groups who are often portrayed as radically different, if not hostile ­ a situation, that is, where feelings of belonging to a world-wide community are put to a test. 9
Methods and Sampling As explained earlier, cosmopolitan attitudes and practices should not be seen as permanent features that `belong' to particular groups or individuals, but as flexible repertoires that are selectively mobilized and appropriated by diverse individuals and groups in particular situations. A similar approach is advocated in discursive psychology, where attitudes are understood not as internal, relatively stable cognitive schemes or states, but as discursively constituted stances in a controversy (Billig 1987). Likewise, identity is not seen as some inner entity or psychological state, but as a way of positioning oneself discursively in a particular communicative context (Edwards and Potter 1992: 126ff). More brilliant authors ;-) In the case of our interviewees, this context encompasses first of all the film Fitna, and the various responses by other YouTubers and other reactions to the film the interviewee may have been exposed to. In this context, presenting oneself as a proud and peace-loving Muslim ­ rather than for instance a woman or a student ­ takes its rhetorical significance from the fact that Fitna depicted Islam as an inherently violent, intolerant, and generally despicable religion, and from the fact that some of the YouTubers agreed with such a depiction. To be sure, individual's socio-cultural background ­ in this case, religious affiliations ­ play a role as well, but it is important to clarify that a Muslim interviewee who presents herself or himself as a Muslim did not do so simply because she or he is Muslim, but because of being prompted by a particular communicative context. To examine the nature of discursively constituted attitudes and identities among YouTubers who responded to Fitna, we designed a semi-structured questionnaire in English containing a set of closed-ended questions about religious preferences and media use patterns, as well as a set of open-ended questions about the interviewees' use of YouTube, the motives that have prompted them to respond to Fitna, and the reactions their response provoked among other YouTubers. We set up a dedicated YouTube channel and sent out personalized invitations to 444 YouTube channels hosting videos tagged `Fitna' or `Wilders'. This sample of channels was identified using a cybermetric search tool developed for this purpose by Mike 1 0
Thelwall of the University of Wolverhampton.1 This tool also enabled us to harvest the Applications Program Interface (API) data including personal information uploaded by the posters (e.g. country, age and gender). Of the 444 channels contacted, about half had been closed, inactive or otherwise inaccessible. 42 of the owners of the remaining 212 channels completed our questionnaire in full, and of these, two had to be excluded since their YouTube videos were not related to Fitna, leaving us with a total of 40 questionnaires to analyze (response rate 19.8%). The comparison between our survey participants and posters in the whole sample ­ in terms of age, gender, geographic distribution, attitudes to Fitna and religious background ­ indicates that our survey covers a fairly representative cross-section of YouTubers responding to Fitna.2 Our analysis involved three layers. First, we analysed the discursive constitution of the self vis-а-vis relevant others and the discursive use of normative criteria, thus examining the existence of cosmopolitanism along both cultural and normative dimensions. In relation to the former, we focused on the choice and use of identity categories (e.g. `people', `Muslims', `Dutch', `Western') and deictic references (e.g. `our', `their', `us'). In relation to the latter, we studied the choice and use of normative criteria, paying particular attention to underlying assumptions about their universal applicability, or lack thereof. In the second step, and drawing on our conception of cosmopolitanism as involving a dialogic, self-reflective interaction with the other, we asked whether the interviewees indicated a willingness to communicate across difference, and listen to the other in the belief that the other might be right. Finally, we looked for significant differences between interviewees that could be linked to their different socio-cultural backgrounds and/or to their disparate positions in hierarchies of power. The presentation of results starts by a brief presentation of the social structure of our participants and the main characteristics of their videos. The rest of the results section is split into two parts: the first part examines the participants' answers from the point of view of the Discursive Construction of the self and the other, while the second part focuses on normative assumptions. Quotes from interviews are
1 Available for public use at http://lexiurl.wlv.ac.uk/searcher/youtube.html, last accessed 26 July 2010.
2
For more details on the structure of the sample and the interview questionnaire see the project
website: http://www.lboro.ac.uk/departments/ss/research/FITNA/index.html.
1 1
accompanied by a reference indicating the number of the survey participant (SP), followed by the number of the survey question (e.g. SP02-29) The YouTubers and their videos The characteristics of our survey participants remind us of the limits of this seemingly global exchange among YouTubers. Our average participant is male (92.5%), relatively young (80% <36 years), sufficiently well-off to afford accessing the Internet mostly from home (87.5%), and relatively well educated (35% students, 55% in occupations that require at least secondary education). Although Fitna managed to spark responses worldwide and at least partly overcame the digital barriers between countries, the digital divides within countries ­ running along gender, age and class lines ­ remain firmly in place. Yet at the same time, the results suggest that Fitna did manage to bridge another of the divides haunting digital culture, namely the divide between the politically engaged and the non-engaged. As many as 42.5% of our interviewees had not voted at the last elections, yet felt motivated to respond to a YouTube video with an unmistakably political message. This result may be related to the particularities of YouTube, especially its audiovisual character and openness to a diverse range of topics and materials ranging from music and entertainment to news and spirituality. Only 17.5% of the interviewees prefer watching exclusively educational, informative or religious YouTube content, while the vast majority is interested also in entertainment, music, films or sport. It was while navigating through this diverse landscape, within which popular cultural and politics blended into one another, that they encountered Fitna, and were drawn into the political debate surrounding it. Cultural Cosmopolitanism. Many of our survey participants gave little indication of perceiving themselves as members of a world-wide community of YouTubers, and often made clear that their video was aimed at a local rather than global audience. The investigation of identity categories and deictic references that they used to position themselves discursively in relation to other human beings is particularly revealing in this respect. Broadly speaking, we can divide survey participants into two groups. The first group includes those who position themselves primarily in relation to politically or ideologically defined groups (e.g. supporters of 1 2
free speech, supporters of Wilders, right-wing groups, left-wing groups etc.) at local or regional level (e.g. Netherlands, the EU, the West etc.). This group encompasses exclusively non-Muslim posters who, for instance, posted a video with the aim to distance themselves from Wilders or to express support for the principle of free speech or for Wilders' views. While some of these posters explicitly presented themselves as members of a nationally or regionally defined group, for instance the Dutch society or the EU citizens, the majority gave no overt indication of geo-cultural belonging, and could in principle be seen as cosmopolitans offering their views to the global community of YouTubers. Yet a closer look at the out-groups they distinguish themselves from, categories they use to describe them, and explanations of motives for posting a video, indicates that their intended audience was often more local or regional in scope. For instance, those supportive of Wilders' opinions often aimed their message at people either in the Netherlands or elsewhere in the West who they believed were in denial about the dangers of Islam, while those critical of Wilders seemed to be satisfied with using the video as a way of communication their disdain for Wilders to other like-minded (mostly Dutch) posters. One of the posters, thus described his video as `humorous' and `a parody on discrimination and such', and explained that he did not want to achieve anything in particular with it (SP3726,27,28). Explicit attempts to address a broader audience, for instance by seeking to explain to the non-Dutch audience that Wilders' views are not representative of Dutch views as a whole, were present as well, but were in the minority. To sum up, posters in this group often left their geo-cultural location rather opaque, and thus seemingly spoke from a de-territorialized position detached from any particular cultural milieu, yet at the same time gave little indication of any explicit wish to communicate with individuals beyond their particular cultural or territorial locale. In contrast, posters belonging to the second group ­ all of them Muslim ­ typically gave a clearer indication both of their own geo-cultural identity, as well as of the audience they were seeking to address. The majority of these posters explicitly presented themselves as Muslim, either by describing their contribution as a distinctly Muslim contribution, aimed at giving voice to the Muslim community, or by talking about Islam as `our' or `my' religion. One poster, for instance, said that he posts videos on YouTube to `dispel myths about Islam and the Muslim community' and `to engage with the online community as a Muslim' (SP8-21), while another explained that `as a Muslim' he felt it was his duty `to do something, if possible, to defend my 1 3
religion and beliefs' (SP12-26). Most of the posters in this group also made it clear that their aim was to speak to non-Muslims around the world, and present them with a different view of Islam from the one present in Fitna. One poster claimed his intent was `to show Americans and Europeans that we are not terrorists, to clear the foggy image the media made of us' (SP6-28), while another explained that his response was aimed particularly `at non-Muslims' and was meant to `to show that Muslims have a sense of humour and that Fitna does not represent an accurate analysis of Islam' (SP14-28). On the whole, Muslim posters were acting out of a sense of belonging to the transnational Muslim community, but also behaved as members of a world-wide community, explicitly reaching out with their videos to non-Muslim addressees. Data on the engagement with other YouTube posters bring us to a similar conclusion. While the majority (92.5%) of our survey participants said it was important for them to know that other YouTubers are watching their video, the proportion of those who actually responded to their videos was significantly lower. Of those who received a comment on their video (72.5%), only 58.6% posted a reply, and even among these, almost half mentioned they replied only to some, or broke-off the exchange after a while. By far the most common reason provided for the lack of interaction was the nature of comments received from other YouTubers. Several posters stated that they did initially respond to hostile and critical comments, using `counter-arguments' and `logical reasoning', but then added that they gradually gave up and ignored or even blocked the poster because their comments were `childish', `irrational' or ` stupid'. For instance, one of our participants stated that he was initially trying to stay `calm, friendly and nice' but then got `pissed off, because some people are just stubborn and cocksure' (SP02-29), while another explained After a while, I got tired of responding to them because they did not make any sense to me they were not rational comments, just emotional ones debunking everything I said without any research or intelligent rationalizing and were really really childish. (SP20-29) It is important to note that the willingness to engage in reasoned exchanges with cultural others and ideological opponents was somewhat more common among Muslims than among non-Muslims: of the 16 participants who declared themselves as Muslim, 12 (75%) responded to comments they received, while of the 13 non-Muslim participants, only 6 (50%) did. Explicit expressions of willingness to engage with 1 4
difference in a calm, reasoned manner were also somewhat more common among Muslims than among non-Muslims. These results help explain the relative lack of dialogic interactions among YouTubers who responded to Fitna, and the almost complete absence of strong links across cultural and ideological divisions. As we show elsewhere (Authors, 2010) communication among posters was largely limited to one-off interventions, i.e. the video responses themselves. The strongest networks of YouTubers subscribing to or befriending each other were established among likeminded posters: supporters of Wilders and/or freedom of speech, supporters of the Dutch mew media lab Mediamatic that launched a video protest against Fitna, and between pro-Islam posters. Part of the reason for this state of affairs lies in the communicative infrastructure provided by YouTube, in particular in the anonymity of contributors and in the fact that decisions over how and whether to moderate the discussion are largely down to YouTubers themselves, who can delete individual comments from their comment boards, block or flag up other posters, or refuse requests for friendship. It is easy to see how such an infrastructure can inhibit dialogical exchanges across cultural and ideological divides, and instead encourage a relentless production of monological, passionate one-off interventions, or a complete closing-off of any communication with ideological or cultural others. Yet our survey indicates that at least some of the YouTubers ­ most often those from Muslim background ­ were actually willing to engage in reasoned exchanges across cultural and ideological differences, but gradually give up on this when their contributions were reciprocated by consistently antagonistic, offensive responses from other posters. The lack of interaction and especially dialogue among YouTubers responding to Fitna thus cannot be explained solely by reference to the restrictions imposed by the communicative infrastructure itself, but has to be seen also as a consequence of unequal distribution of communicative power among posters, exemplified in the somewhat higher openness to engagement with difference among Muslim posters. In short, while YouTube does indeed allow for the globe in its diversity to become entangled with our everyday lives, and thereby helps engender a vague, suffused sense of belonging to a world-wide community, it is not particularly conducive to cosmopolitan communication as defined in this paper, namely communication that involves willingness to suspend and even question one's own judgement, and acknowledge one's embeddedness in power relations. Ironically, our survey indicates 1 5
that it was actually the less privileged group, whose voices were largely absent from mainstream debates in the West, i.e. Muslims (Ruigrok et al. 2008, Knott et al. 2010), that was on average more willing to engage in reasoned exchanges with cultural others and ideological opponents. Normative cosmopolitanism. In mainstream media coverage of Fitna and ensuing events, discussion often revolved around issues of free speech (Ruigrok et al. 2008, Knott et al. 2010), and this normative principle was regularly invoked also by a significant proportion of our survey participants. As one poster explained: [...] I was provoked by the apologetic attitudes by a certain segment of EU citizens, who chose to apologise to all Muslims everywhere for Fitna on behalf of the entire EU. We should never apologise for practising our free speech. Especially not in the face of massive antidemocratic Islamist activity within Europe. I did not particularly like the Danish Muhammad cartoon either (and I happen to have met the cartoonist Kurt Westergaard). But I'll defend his right to make it any day. I will not apologise for it, nor should anyone. [...] My video was a message to European apologists. It's not anti Islam, but anti Islamic extremism. However my video is not aimed at Muslims, but at the people who will bend over backwards not to step on Muslim toes. They are doing a disservice to free speech and democracy in Europe. (SP19-26, 27) From the perspective of this poster, the claims made in Fitna are of marginal importance, and the main focus is on Wilders' right to voice his opinion. The normative basis is the principle of free speech, yet this norm is construed as a specifically European (`we' = EU citizens, `our freedom of speech') and presented as being under threat by `anti-democratic Islamist activity within Europe'. Although the poster argues that his video was not meant to be anti-Islam, the chosen wording does little to contest the perception of democracy and freedom of speech as inherently European rather than universal values. In particular, there is no sense that the collectivity of EU citizens may include Muslims who share adherence to these same values. Another of our survey participants similarly invoked the principle of the freedom of speech, but presented it not as a norm that provokes hostility among all religious people rather than only Muslims. He criticized Wilders for focusing only on Islam, arguing that `all religions that become significant sources of social power' need 1 6
to be ridiculed in order to `open up' (SP38-26). Similarly as with the poster discussed earlier, this YouTuber gave no indication that Muslims and religious people more broadly may be capable of self-ridicule, or be supportive of free speech. Other contributors who invoked the principle of freedom of speech were mostly supportive of Wilders' views on Islam, and decided to post a video on YouTube because of a feeling of marginalisation. In their view, people like themselves and Wilders were being silenced in the mainstream media, and had to stand up to defend their right to free speech. Yet while proceeding from a seemingly universal normative basis of the freedom of speech, these posters did not explicitly present this norm as one that could potentially be shared by Muslims. The investigation of normative principles invoked by Muslim participants reveals that none of them had anything to say against the freedom of speech. Quite to the opposite, some expressly stated that they did not care about what Wilders does, did not mind him thinking Islam was a bad religion, and even explicitly defended Wilders' right to voice his opinion. The main focus of normative judgement among Muslim participants though, was not the question of whether or not Wilders was entitled to express his views, but the ontological status of the claims he made. The prevailing normative basis of Muslim interventions was thus not the freedom of speech, but the principle of objectivity and above all factuality. Virtually all Muslim posters described Fitna as factually inaccurate and manipulative, and presented their video response as an attempt to confront Wilders' claims with facts or unmask the manipulative nature of Fitna. Unlike the defenders of free speech, these posters did not present themselves (as Muslims) as a group that has a privileged insight into the truth of Islam. Rather, their arguments were based on the assumption that this truth is ultimately open to anyone as long as one follows the principle of objectivity and supports arguments with facts. One technique of contesting Wilders' truth claims was to provide a contextualised reading of selected verses from Quran quoted in Fitna, and showing that they actually have a different meaning from the one intended by Wilders. As one poster explained: `I felt that people were being lied to. I had the truth in my hands (the Quran) and the fabrication of it on the screen. I had to do something about it' (SP3926). Another aspect of truth several posters were concerned to show was the marginal position of Muslims who were willing to commit violence in the name of Islam. One YouTuber thus explained that he posted a video response because he wanted `to make 1 7
[...] clear how we feel, think, we are people too ... it is just in every countries there are some rotten fanatics that is giving our religion a bad name and doesn't understand true words of our last prophet' (SP2-26). Another type of response, also rooted in a shared notion of objectivity, involved producing a video about Christianity, using a similar technique to the one employed in Fitna, interspersing quotes from the Bible with images of violence presumably perpetrated in the name of Christianity. The aim, as one poster explained, was not to ridicule Christianity, but rather to lay bare the manipulative effect of Wilders' approach: `I wanted to show that even if one cited verses from the other scriptures without context, they would appear threatening in the same way Wilders' film portrays the Quran' (SP26-26). Some of the Muslim posters also explicitly emphasized that their aim was not to present their own interpretation of Islam as the truth, but rather to offer a different or view, and instigate other YouTubers to be critical and reflexive. As one poster explained: I show to the people the real Islam but I do not ask them to accept everything I say just because I am saying it. I have presented a different side and now my message is for them to go out and seek the truth themselves. They should approach the source i.e. Quran and Hadith to know what Islam is about rather than some video made by a Muslim or non-Muslim. (SP1827) On the whole, Muslim posters did not treat the norm of objectivity or the truth about Islam as something that is the exclusive possession of Muslims, but rather as something that is accessible to everyone. From this point of view, they clearly differed from most of the defenders of free speech, who either explicitly presented freedom of speech as a value that is at odds with Islam, or at least gave no indication that this was a value Muslims could share. In normative terms, Muslim posters were thus on average more cosmopolitan than those non-Muslim posters who invoked the freedom of speech, or supported Wilders himself. Notions of objectivity and bias were invoked also by a substantial number of non-Muslim, mostly Dutch posters, who were critical of Wilders and posted a video primarily to ridicule him. The most often raised objections to Fitna were that it was racist, stigmatizing, manipulative or stupid ­ i.e. not trustworthy ­ yet these Dutch posters did not try to explain why exactly the Dutch MP deserved such an attitude, or provide evidence in support of their claims in the way the majority of Muslim survey 1 8
participants did. This may of course be a consequence of the fact that they responded to a survey designed by UK-based researchers of whom two are also Dutch citizens, and they hence assumed that we needed no further explanation. Yet it is worth pointing out that their videos also contained little explicit engagement with, and contestation of Wilders' truth claims. Instead, these videos were typically ironic in nature and as such had an opaque relationship to truth claims. This indicates that the prime aim of these posters was to perform a particular political identity in front of audiences who were capable of interpreting their ironic comments. The fact that for some YouTubers, their mocking response may have been difficult to understand due to lack of familiarity with the local context, was most likely not an issue they considered when making the video. This suggests that their responses, even if in principle aimed at a global audience, were not really constructed with culturally diverse others in mind. In this sense they differ from most of the responses provided by Muslim YouTubers, whose explicit aim was to communicate their disapproval with Fitna to audiences who may not be familiar with Islam at all, in a manner that befits a truly cosmopolitan communicative engagement. Conclusions First, what does this case study tell us about the capacity of digital communication to sustain cosmopolitan sensibilities and engender cosmopolitan dialogues with strangers, especially in the context of geopolitical tensions and the growth of Islamophobia in the West (RQ1)? Second, how do cosmopolitan attitudes on-line relate to the participants' cultural and social background, in particular their religious affiliations (RQ2)? And third, how are the opportunities for cosmopolitan communication affected by power inequalities (RQ3)? On the whole, our case study confirms the need for a cautious assessment of the potential of the Internet to sustain cosmopolitan sensibilities and engender cosmopolitan dialogues with strangers. On the one hand, YouTube is clearly capable of overcoming the communicative barriers between countries and of giving voice to a plurality of cosmopolitanisms that far exceeds the diversity of voices typically found in traditional, nationally circumscribed media. Yet on the other hand, despite clear evidence of cosmopolitan attitudes and practices among a substantial number of interviewees, these did not manage to give rise to exchanges that could be qualified as 1 9
cosmopolitan. While attempts to communication across difference existed, it either remained unreciprocated, or was not accompanied by a mutual willingness to listen to the other in the belief that the other may be right. The lack of cosmopolitan communication, we argued, is related to the uneven spread of cosmopolitan attitudes and practices among YouTubers. We demonstrated that Muslims who were on average more willing to engage in reasoned exchanges with cultural others and ideological opponents, gave a clearer indication of their own geo-cultural identity (as Muslims) and were thus more reflective about their rootednesss in the particular, and behaved as cosmopolitan communicators, explicitly reaching out to non-Muslim addressees. In contrast, the majority of non-Muslim posters spoke from a seemingly de-territorialized position, yet at the same time gave little indication of any explicit wish to communicate with individuals beyond their particular cultural, territorial of ideological locale. With regard to normative dimensions of cosmopolitanism, we established that Muslims were on average more inclined to invoke and apply universal normative criteria ­ a message of considerable importance given the occasional tendency in popular and scholarly discussions alike to emphasise the relative, culturally circumscribed, and fundamentally `Western' nature of universal ethical and moral norms. Those who approached Fitna primarily from the perspective of freedom of speech were all non-Muslims, and regardless of whether they agreed with Wilders' claims or not, either assumed that freedom of speech was incompatible with Islam, or gave no indication that Muslims may share a commitment to this norm. On the other hand, all Muslim posters judged Fitna primarily from the perspective of its objectivity, assumed that the truth about Islam is in principle transparent to anyone, and posted a YouTube response with the intent to contest Wilders' claims and explain their own view of Islam to non-Muslims with the help of facts and reasoning. In contrast, the majority of non-Muslim posters who judged Fitna to be untrustworthy provided little factual support for their claims, and did not invest much effort into explaining their views to distant others. Finally, we suggested that this uneven distribution of cosmopolitan attitudes and practices ­ and thereby also the lack of cosmopolitan communication ­ can be seen as a result of the unequal global distribution of communicative power between groups. While the majority of Muslim communicators both talked and listened, and were often left unheard, non-Muslim communicators could, by virtue of their 2 0
geopolitical position of power, afford to talk without listening. Although we do not want to suggest that world-wide digital communication is always condemned to such inequalities ­ it is certainly possible to imagine communicative situation that are less riddled with geopolitical tensions than the one we examined here ­ this case study can nevertheless reminds us of the importance of combining the analysis of cosmopolitanism with a consideration of power inequalities. While cosmopolitan sensibilities are indeed diverse and can be rooted in a myriad of territorial and cultural identities and contexts, not all of them have equal capacity to be heard in the global arena. 2 1
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