Power dynamics, Religious Structures, and Ethical Considerations

Our readings this week had me thinking less about my current project for this course, but instead focusing on my future research project (that I hope to be starting this summer) that will be focusing on social network analysis of scholars and institutions in the Muslim world, from modern times to all the way back hundreds of years if possible.

The point of this is to focus on the power relations of religious discourse, as Castells project is to focus on the power relations between corporate entities, political forces, and of course the counter-power he mentions in the later parts of his article.  Many of his issues seem to be obvious to us, for we are at large a part of a well educated group that has its lifted our blinders to the façade of media.  Statements like this (although perhaps in 2006 when he was writing things were a bit different) should be relatively straightforward to a generally liberal Jon Stewart loving audience:

“Yet, the main issue is not the shaping of the minds by explicit messages in the media, but the absence of a given content in the media.  What does not exist in the media does not exist in the public mind, even if it could have a fragmented presence in individual minds.” (241)

He uses points like this to go into a more nuanced argument, bring in the broad stroking of our brush against all political entities for being two-faced, hypocritical, and in bed with the corporations they claim to be defending us from:

“generalized mudslinging, citizens end up putting all politicians in the same bag, as they distrust electoral promises, parties, and political leaders. (244)

When it comes to religious discourse however, these points create a much different rift in society, that until now has not produced a fruitful or at the very least easily visible counter-power to the current Islamic-powers at be in the world of Islamic knowledge.  People can easily disengage entirely form the religious world if they choose.  American Muslims can cease to identify as Muslims (sort-of) and ignore the religious powers.  They don’t have to matter if an individual doesn’t want them to matter.

This creates a different kind of fragmentation in the Muslim community, one in which large portions choose to just disengage.  The reason for this is that the current “mainstream” or normative power structures in the Muslim world do what Castells remarks about Fox News or El Mundo, they simply do not provide certain information.  And if the alternative scholarship, opinions, or peoples who oppose the mainstream practice poke their heads up in the global discourse, they can easily attack them.

“If credibility, trust, and character become critical issues in deciding the political outcome, the destruction of credibility and character assassination become the most potent political weapons.” (243)

Perhaps waiting for the counter-power to rise up in the Muslim community is a fruitless endeavor.  There are progressives in the Muslim community, and there are hard line conservatives who take the prescriptive brand of Islam to the umpteenth degree.  The hardliners have found their outlet and power in often violent ways (not always, but these fundamentalist movements around the world are of course the most visible).  The progressives on the other hand, have had much less success in creating an alternative counter-power.  But perhaps the medium is the key.

“True, the medium, even a medium as revolutionary as this one, does not determine the content and effect of its messages. But it makes possible the unlimited diversity and the largely autonomous origin of most of the communication flows that construct, and reconstruct every second the global and local production of meaning in the public mind.” (248)

I’m not sure I like how Castells glosses over the medium’s influence on effecting the message, but he seems to be somewhat positive in the new medias potential.

As for my future social network analysis project, I have a lot of considerations to keep in mind.  I need to be careful of falling into similar (albeit on a much smaller scale) ethical issues that google does as mentioned in Siva Vaidhyantathan’s article.  I will be collecting data, sometimes covering sensitive information on supposedly public platforms like twitter and the such, but many of the contemporary participants in the religious discourse may not be fully aware of how their tweets, posts, and so on will be analyzed by someone like me.  Taking part in a project like this, something I believe is actually important and is fuelled by the activist mentality in me, and the place (and stakes and investment) I have in a certain community, I really need to figure out how I can avoid becoming like a corporate entity.  I need to keep treating real people like people and not just “nodes” in a network.

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Power dynamics, Religious Structures, and Ethical Considerations