Communicative practice and transgressive global politics
First Monday

Communicative practice and transgressive global politics by Michael Dartnell


Abstract

Walter Benjamin noted the transformative impact of information technology when he said that "photography greatly extends the sphere of commodity exchange... by flooding the market with countless images of figures, landscapes, and events which had previously been available either not at all or only as pictures for individual customers." Echoing his assessment, multimedia activism has emerged as a practice through which multiple–user communication by non–state actors highlights transgressive values and issues. This paper focuses on Islamic extremist Web activism by discussing a multimedia file, the "d’ua of Sheikh Muhammed Al–Mohaisany." The file is examined to illustrate how the Web and other IT provide once inaccessible information and potentially alter communication by directly addressing targeted publics. Multimedia activism introduces issues of identity, boundaries, and perceptions into global politics and culture through telecommunication practices that were formerly state regulated.

 

Contents

Introduction
Multimedia files
IT practice in global society: Innovation, continuity, and perception
Web multimedia, conflict, and security
Conclusions

 


 

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Introduction

While the World Wide Web and information technologies (IT) have transformed global politics and security over the past decade, the expectations they arouse are not unique to our time. In 1932, Bertolt Brecht argued that radio would improve human communication "if it knew how to receive as well as transmit, how to let the listener speak as well as hear, how to bring him into a relationship instead of isolating him" [1]. Today’s IT appears to create such opportunities for non–state actors and enhance the global profile of once marginal identities, issues, and values. As a result, IT embodies a complex post–Cold War global politics by integrating technologies such as computers and photography in a single platform, introducing values, ideas, and interests to diverse settings, privatizing information about world events for a significant minority of the global population, and introducing a range of non-state actors to global society. In Brecht’s terms, IT foster a range of new human relations.

Since IT facilitates new political relationships and value exchange, the issue is how to qualify the resulting practices. This is particularly relevant because IT does not shake basic realities. This discussion focuses on multimedia files transmitted by e–mail or posted on the Web by examining the case of the du’a (prayer) of Sheikh Mohammed Al–Mohaisany. The use of multimedia occurs in a context characterized by a disjuncture between economy, culture and politics. Global society is not shaped by

"objectively given relations that look the same from every angle of vision, but, rather ... they are deeply perspectival constructs, inflected by the historical, linguistic, and political situatedness of different sorts of actors: nation–states, multinationals, diasporic communities, as well as subnational groupings and movements (whether religious, political, or economic), and even intimate face–to–face groups, such as villages, neighbourhoods, and families." [2]

Political narratives support and encourage communication between elites and followers in different global regions. The Internet has expanded communicative options, but our understanding of meanings and implications needs to keep pace.

One consequence of a worldwide landscape of fluid and irregular economic, political, and cultural relations is that the narratives no longer correspond to states and ideologies (e.g., liberalism, communism, socialism, conservatism). The political implications of landscapes are tensions, opportunities, and blockages that are "a source of new identities as the advance of globalization heightens the sensitivity of people to their relationship with distant events, processes, and structures — to whether they welcome or resist the large extent to which distant developments have become proximate" [3]. In a global society, not only dramatic public events such as 9/11 remind people of the landscape: it is also present in private contact with artifacts such as multimedia files that lubricates the worldwide landscape by connecting the global, local, and private. The Web is a device that facilitates political relations, but does not completely circumvent nor submit to regulation. As James Katz and Ronald Rice suggest, "although the Internet has not led to any political revolutions, it has supported and encouraged them (as have — and do — the phone and fax)" [4].

Through the Internet, media have transformed from a nationally regulated industry into a multi–faceted global phenomenon. Media remain, in Susan Sontag’s words, "essentially contentless" [5]. The many values, identities, and issues of global society provide content. The case discussed here shows how IT support and encourage political relations by propagating issues, values, and identities that have "gone global" since the end of the Cold War.

As Brecht anticipated with radio, IT spreads previously inaccessible information, and significantly transforms political communication by allowing non–state actors to directly address target publics. Since global telecommunication (telegraphy, telephones, radio, television) were closely regulated by states for most of the twentieth century, the transformation has far–reaching impacts for the identities, issues, and values that shape global politics and security. In particular, media activism by non–state actors reshapes perceptions about a global security landscape that was once a monopoly for the coercive state. One aspect of the transformation was seen in the mobilization of global public opinion against U.S. intervention in Iraq. IT is also present in an array of groups that embody the globalizing, localizing, and privatizing trends in global society.

IT contributes to a globalization process that encompasses a range of technological, economic, social, and cultural factors. In this context, "many persons ... live in ... imagined worlds (and not just imagined communities) and thus are able to contest and sometimes even subvert the imagined worlds of the official mind and of the entrepreneurial mentality that surround them" (Appadurai, 2003). While IT does not determine behaviour, communication devices significantly influence a context marked by "a vast decentralization of authority in which global governance becomes less state–centric and more the sum of crazy–quilt patterns between unalike, dispersed, overlapping, and contradictory collectivities seeking to maintain their coherence and advance their goals" [6]. In a setting marked by the fragmentation consequent to the end of the Cold War, support and encouragement by IT–based practices are closely linked to competing values, issues, and identities. The impact of IT on perceptions has received relatively less analysis given the attention to cybersecurity and the latter’s close linkage to property issues [7]. Yet the most far–reaching impact of IT could be support and encouragement of issues, identities, and values. Considered as such, the Web is the field for a vast, ongoing and paradoxical process of boundary redefinition with enormous consequences for global society.

Three distinct applications of information technologies parallel contemporary security trends — military; cybersecurity; and, Web activist. Together, they embody a multi–centric world in which non–state actors are players, but do not dominant. Military applications of information technologies are largely based in states that continue to control coercive force on a planetary scale. Military applications of information technologies are seen in satellite images, the use of cell phones by the U.S. military to contact Iraqi commanders in the 2003 war, air–borne drones, night vision and sensor devices, as well as in other areas. Cybersecurity applications are associated with public anxiety over new technologies even if the impact of threats has not matched projections. Distributed denial of service (D–DOS) attacks are one example of cybersecurity. These sorts of attacks flooded the Web site of the Qatari–based al–Jazeera cable network with about 300 megabits (Mbps) of data per second during the Iraq war. At the time, al–Jazeera coverage of the conflict was highly critical of the U.S. (BBC News, 2003). Finally, Web activist applications feature electronic battles over perceptions, emotions, and intelligibility that transgress state and identity boundaries. By introducing a struggle over perceptions and reshaping the boundaries of identity and politics into global security, Web activism intrudes into an area in which states once had determinant powers of regulation and control.

 

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Multimedia files

Suggestive examples of formats and activism in the past few years point to the post–location, de–territorializing and post–realist impacts of IT–connected politics. An illustration of the links of IT to contemporary global security is al–Qaeda’s Web–based spread of "videos of terrorist attacks, proclamations by al–Qaeda’s leaders and call to Muslims to take action against the West" (Ward, 2002). The Web carries many messages from groups that support al–Qaeda’s use of violence to prevent attacks on Islam. The variety of formats shows how transnational non–state actors can adapt information technologies to their needs. In the past few years, Web sites that support radical groups have been shut down or limited. For example, some groups on the Web site "BURN!" — hosted on a University of California in San Diego (UCSD) server — are on the U.S. State Department list of terrorist organizations (Asarayala, 2002). Pressure on UCSD by the USA PATRIOT Act, which makes it an offence to provide "material support or resources" to foreign terrorist organizations, effectively curtails the overt presence of some extremist Web activists (USA PATRIOT Act, 2001). Islamic extremists have responded to restraints by using transferable files. The files are not as accessible as Web sites. They are e–mailed between recipients or accessed by clicking on icons on Web pages.

A striking example of Islamic extremist multimedia is the ShockWave file found on the Web site of the British firm, CityLink Computers in July 2003. The file is an Arabic–language audio recording of a du’a (prayer) delivered by Sheikh Muhammed Al–Mohaisany at the Masjid Al Haram (Grand Mosque) in Mecca during Ramadan in 2001. The recording is accompanied by English subtitles and a powerful selection of digital photographs. The text says the Saudi Arabian government arrested Al–Mohaisany immediately after he delivered the prayer [8], in which he asks for victory for the "Mujahideen," complains of "the injustice of the spiteful Christians," calls on God to direct "forces against America," charges the U.S. has "killed Your slaves" and "insulted Your religion," and invokes hurricanes as "a constant for them" (Americans). The prayer also asks for release of "our captured brothers" (prisoners in Guantanamo Bay), eradication of those who torture them (U.S. soldiers), saving "al–Aqsa from the cruelty of the Jews," and protection for "the hard–working scholars" (accompanied by a photo of Osama Ibn Laden). Each statement is accompanied by a photograph that underlines its meaning.

The file’s impact is based on a juxtaposition of audio, text, and digital images. The latter include long shots of Mecca, al–Aqsa mosque, Osama Ibn Laden, Chechen fighters, suicide bombers, the Palestinian Intifada, destruction of the World Trade Center, Israeli and American soldiers, burning U.S. flags, and a downed U.S. helicopter. Other images show dead Moslem children in Palestine and Afghanistan, U.S. prisoners in the 2003 Iraq conflict, captured Islamic activists, Camp Delta in Guantanamo Bay, transport of Taliban prisoners in U.S. aircraft, destruction in Jenin, Israeli troops near al–Aqsa mosque, and various political leaders, including Saudi King Fahd, former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf, U.S. President George Bush, British PM Tony Blair, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, and former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

Multimedia Web activism has enormous implications. It enhances an ideological–cultural dimension alongside cybersecurity (or hacking or "Web site defacement") and military applications. The cultural dimension of information technologies has conventionally been ignored or minimized by some as "propaganda." However, the Web has made value exchange and transformation of perceptions a daily experience for a significant and influential global minority. As such, Web activism shapes the world in which we live by blurring conventional distinctions, and altering the boundaries of state, collective, and private identities. The du’a, highlights the innovative dimension of information technologies in terms that recall Benjamin’s suggestion that "mute" photography needs to be supplemented by captions — which is exactly what multimedia files do. Benjamin stated that

"... photographs become the standard evidence for historical occurrences, and acquire a hidden political significance. They demand a specific kind of approach; free–floating contemplation is not appropriate to them. They stir the viewer; he feels challenged by them in a new way. At the same time picture magazines begin to put up signposts for him, right ones or wrong ones, no matters. For the first time, captions have become obligatory. And it is clear that they have an altogether different character than the title of a painting." [9]

In Benjamin’s terms, the use of multimedia influences perceptions and boundaries relative to contemporary global security. Images and text have strong emotional–moral impact.

The du’a of Sheikh Al–Mohaisany shows how the Web propels issues of value exchange and intelligibility into global security. It demonstrates how the Web becomes a vehicle transgressing the boundaries of state–based security and perceptions of safety and justice. Today’s transnational Islamic extremism was preceded by international communism and fascism in the twentieth century. The latter existed in a different context, did not benefit from the extensity, intensity or velocity of modern information technologies, and was not linked to a global society in which various factors (AIDS–SARS–Ebola, migration, stock markets and finance, technological exchange) mitigate the state’s centrality. The du’a appeared in a global context marked by heterogeneous political values, organizations, and expressions that throw the significance, interpretation, and impact of events into conflict and contrast. In this environment, information technologies

"contributes to continuity in the areas of international security and in the world economy by enhancing the capabilities of states while at the same time they seem to be an element for change in these traditional areas by enhancing the capabilities of actors in the multicentric world." [10]

Broadly, globalization created conditions in which issues, values, and identities no longer absolutely depend on hierarchy, territorial continuity, and spatiality and in which new forms of political behaviour have emerged. The du’a draws its power from transmitting photographs, audio text in Arabic, and English subtitles that aim directly at private perceptions of identity and the intelligibility of a transformed world. For English–language viewers, positioning photographs and text or caption [11] has a powerful impact. In the du’a, multimedia practice blurs boundaries and identities in the absence of a prevailing meta–narrative. As such, multimedia moves beyond Benjamin and Sontag’s observation that photography is mute, a contentless image that needs captioning. The recording of Al–Mohaisany’s du’a is a performative form based in an idiosyncratic interpretation of Islam. It transgresses the boundaries and identities of a state–based international system of security.

 

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IT practice in global society: Innovation, continuity, and perception

Before the Internet, the links between information technologies and global power were seen via telegraph, film, radio, videocassettes, and television. Each media had complex impacts. Radio had a role in the rise of Nazism and the Rwandan genocide. Television’s influence is not uniform in all situations and depends on many factors. A major consideration in evaluating TV’s global impact is its linkage to factors, such as "the type of policy in question" [12]. All media are now conditioned by a complex global system in which various new actors are present and broad transformations underway [13]. Today’s IT are unique due to an Internet platform that integrates existing technologies into a single medium in an accessible manner. In this way, the Internet is a key building block for "imagined worlds, that is, the multiple worlds that are constituted by the historically situated imaginations of persons and groups spread around the globe" [14]. Such imagined worlds replace a passive audience recipient with a potentially active–surfing public. To be sure, the transformation is highly relative due to the clear limits to access in many world regions (from next–to–no access in Africa to high levels in North America, Japan, and Western Europe). An idea of these limits can be seen by examining the U.S., a society in which the Internet is widely used, but in which barriers to access and use still persist. In the U.S., Katz and Rice

"identified three key barriers to Internet usage — cost, access, and complexity. Two of these — cost and access — were more strongly felt by non–users, perhaps reflecting their lower incomes (ability to pay for the Internet) and educational achievements (ability to navigate the Internet). Most significantly, both users and non–users were equally concerned about Internet complexity. Without improvements here, frustration levels will remain high, and potential user benefits will in many cases go unrealized." [15]

Outside the U.S., access differentials are even more striking. In 2001, an OECD document noted that:

"In 1997, more than 30 African countries had less than one telephone line per 100 people, according to OECD figures. It is not simply that the ‘haves’ are at an advantage, but that the ‘have–nots’ are at increasing risk of social and economic exclusion. Countries which lack a firm ICT infrastructure become marginalised as electronic commerce grows in importance. They are incapable of sharing in the new route to prosperity which e–commerce affords, and remain dependent on the export of basic commodities, for which the world price is often in decline. Africa’s share of world trade has fallen from about four percent in 1980 to less than two percent today, according to IMF figures." (James, 2001)

As these differentials suggest, contemporary information technologies reflect a situation in which new elites have emerged from the investments, skills, knowledge, and infrastructures clustered around new communications platforms.

Information technologies were key to the processes of identity and state formation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Since the Internet combines an array of separate technological practices (radio, TV, databases, computers, e–mail, chats, photography) and has only recently emerged, its paradoxical impacts on international affairs are still incompletely apprehended. The impacts of information technologies might range from enhanced participation and better government services to information overload and precipitous decision–making. Attitudes toward "truth–values" conveyed by information technologies will likely change as societies grow accustomed to Internet practices. Societies and individuals are in a process of engagement with new information technologies and only beginning to assess impacts and limits. Evaluations of the impact of the Internet gain considerable insight by referring to previous technologies. Photography, for example, is widely used and highly visible on the Web. It is a controversial and ambiguous practice in which media "uses digital imaging techniques in photojournalism ... [but] ... recognizes that electronic retouching of imagery destroys the documentary value of witnessing" [16]. In this case, allegedly authentic and immediate representation of issues, identities, and values on the Web gains by referring to older technological practices.

Text–based information technologies elicit different responses compared to photographic imagery. The difference could stem from a cultural mindset in which written expression of scientific, spiritual, and intellectual knowledge is valued. The mindset devalues images and places words in a privileged relation to truth. The mindset operates when e–mail and Web site information are more readily protected from interference by so–called hackers; photos are seen as inherently unstable indicators of value. In fact, while Web site text defacement and e–mail interference are episodically annoying, its impacts are usually contained and not system threatening. What comes to light is that the impact of the Internet varies from images to text. While

"the popular notion has it that as images became increasingly sophisticated, their power grew ... the opposite may be the case. As images become more complex and multimediated, their truth–value is communicated in configurations that allow us to see less: in some cases it dissipates; in others it is reconfigured; in still others it completely disappears. Proclaimed vehicles by which we bear witness to events of the present and past, images in some cases become deceptively ambivalent, communicating contradictory messages about their ability to replicate slices of reality and their ability to aggressively reconstruct it, often to the point of fabrication." [17]

Ambivalence would need to be resolved if the Internet is to provide immediate and authentic communication that lowers thresholds of conflict, produces more effective economic practices, and leads to greater global cooperation. As it stands, cultural ambivalence toward photographic practice suggests that the Internet has a less than straightforward impact and might well depend on a constellation of factors. At the same time, ambivalence could positively influence statecraft, war, and global security. For example, heated debate over alleged weapons of mass destruction before the 2003 Iraq war did not prevent conflict, but global dissemination of information cast serious doubt on simplistic labels such as "threats" and "enemies" and more closely aligned perceptions with complex realities.

Ambivalence, influence, and truth–value orient analysis of the complex impact of information technologies on global culture and power in various ways. Saskia Sassen argues that "the ascendance of an international human rights regime and of a large variety of nonstate actors in the international arena signals the expansion of an international civil society" [18]. James Rosenau describes "an endless series of distant proximities in which the forces pressing for greater globalization and those inducing greater localization interactively play themselves out" [19]. Arjun Appadurai refers to "the complexity of the current global economy [that] has to do with certain fundamental disjunctures between economy, culture, and politics that we have only begun to theorize" [20]. In these contexts, information technologies are active facilitators of global society, "essential to the projection of influence and the mobilization of public opinion" [21]. The relationship between IT and global society highlights complexity, and has far–reaching theoretical implications.

Research on global politics is dominated by the principle of territoriality in that the basis for political power in the Western model is always characterized as defining a physical space in which control — or a pretence of control — (that is, "sovereignty") is exercised. Political groups, in the Western model, focus on competition for and control of the administration of states. The analysis of global culture and power, as well as much world history since the seventeenth century, is marked by this model, its export to the rest of the world via imperialism, and intended and unintended consequences. In this discussion, globalization is defined as

"a process (or set of processes) which embodies a transformation in the spatial organization of social relations and transaction — assessed in terms of their extensity, intensity, velocity and impact — generating transcontinental or interregional flows and networks of activity, interaction, and the exercise of power." [22]

Information technologies function in a global system in which the conventional territorial practice of politics is challenged. Global society has moved from bipolarity to a system of fragmented multi–centric concentrations in which state power exists alongside non–state actors such as non–governmental organizations, media, multinational corporations, nascent governments such as those in Palestine, northern Iraq and Kosovo as well as failed states such as Pakistan, Somalia, Indonesia and others. The system has profound consequences for nation–states, nationalism, and the global society because its contents tend to transgress and blur those boundaries [23].

Analysis of global power is conventionally based in conceptually clear boundaries for individual and state activities. The boundaries set territories in which values, identities, and issues operate. Group identities derived cohesiveness, organization, and language from their relationship to the state. Individual identity embodies the lived reality of political society and the contents of politics insofar as individuals live, love, work and play in a secure and safe daily understanding of themselves and their environment. Information technologies influence this identity because its contents inform, dis–inform, alarm, soothe, motivate, agitate and impel. Information technologies shape identities that are "a part of syntopia, a together place that allows people to pursue their interests but that is also a continuity of other parts of their lives, including their technology of communication, such as the mobile phone" [24]. As such, Web–based media enable individuals and groups to pursue interests, "live lives," and validate perceptions. The influence even extends further since information technologies do "not impact existing actors and issues but, as an increasing body of knowledge notes, networked interaction itself constitutes actors and issues in global politics" [25]. The effect transgresses the state and identarian bases of the Western model.

While the telegraph, for example, facilitated European imperialism and helped consolidate a model of a global economy, contemporary information technologies are part of a bundle of globalizing practices that also includes military organization and legal codification. These practices are embedded in global civil society along with their contradictory implications (i.e., "underdevelopment" for certain world regions and "advanced" status for others). The specific impact of the Internet is paradoxical at a time when overwhelming economic, technological, and military assets do not lead to conflict resolution and fail to structure perceptions. The Web’s role in this context is support and encouragement. As a site for power, the Web is linked to an ability to be physically present, occupy space, and define place. As an electronic means of communication, the Web is "flat," that is, it does not encompass the depth of human relations, only their breadth. Information technologies thus entail reconsidering notions of power.

 

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Web multimedia, conflict, and security

The global power of non–state actors embodies a complex contemporary world. Non–state actors range from terrorists to movements that focus on human rights, anti–globalization, the environment, AIDS, and other issues. Politics are no longer a state monopoly despite the fact that, paradoxically, states remain the single most important agents of international power. Even conditions for U.S. actions have changed. The U.S. retains enormous capacities for decisive action, but is unable to unilaterally control the course of events in its desired directions. In spite of an enormous technological, economic, and military advance over other players, the U.S. is not clearly a hegemonic power that directs the internal affairs of other states, controls the international pattern of alliances, and dictates international economic arrangements. The limits on the most powerful global actor underline the uneven capacities of all states to act and influence events.

The constraints on states are apparent in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Palestinian–Israeli conflict. In each case, powerful states have displaced and marginalized opponents, but not ended chronic violence nor resolved underlying social grievances. As a result, September 11 can be said to have transformed the international climate by showing the global reach of organized violence by non–state actors. The change influenced conflict, security, and the centrality of the state in world affairs,

"The contours of these ‘new wars’ are distinctive in many respects because the range of social and political groups involved no longer fit the pattern of a classical interstate war; the type of violence deployed by the terrorist aggressors is no longer carried out by the agents of a state (although states, or parts of states, may have a supporting role); violence is dispersed, fragmented and directed against citizens; and political aims are combined with the deliberate commission of atrocities which are a massive violation of human rights." (Held, 2001)

Before September 11, sustained and organized global violence by non–state actors was seen in attacks on the USS Cole and U.S. Embassy in Nairobi. It continued in attacks in Bali, Indonesia and Mombassa in late 2002. Global politics are now marked by apocalyptic visions and language: President Bush’s references to "evildoers" and the "axis of evil"; Israeli discourse on the survival of a Jewish state; Palestinian and Chechen strategies of suicide bombings; and, al–Qaeda’s methodical and murderous campaign. In this setting, states have less control over global communication, which supports and encourages by conveying messages and shaping perceptions. IT translate into power that is relatively less defined by physical location. This means that territorial contiguity might be less able to actually influence the shapes of future human relations. This potential has been hailed as a triumph of value, interests and beliefs over physical location, but IT more likely create a hybrid form of politics in which it is one factor among many influences. The reported links between September 11, Web sites, cell phones, and satellite communication suggest that IT do not promise digitopia. This assessment presumes that human beings take up IT and are bereft of a history touched by hatred, violence, reason, and love. Evidence for this more sober assessment is hate, racism, and misogyny on the Web.

Multimedia file transfers exemplify how unregulated political communication by non–state actors alters the boundaries of political society and identities. Multimedia activism is based in image and text–based representations that transgress identity, space, and the legitimation capacities of states. Multimedia transgresses in a distinct manner by transmitting a dramatic representation of events. The du’a directly addresses viewers’ emotions and morality. Artifacts like the du’a express a sense of grievance and injustice rather than set out a program. This form of Web activism is strongly symbolic, image–driven and identarian rather than ideological. Multimedia artifacts are heavily representational. Their impact is based in an ability to present a coherent vision of reality that blends words and images.

The enhanced importance of issues, identities, and values in Web activism raises the issue of how to characterize the shift. Do today’s information technologies embody a deep (fundamental) or extensive (wide–ranging) transformation? Will the shift produce new elites and new rigidities? An examination of the du’a suggests that multimedia might indeed transform global politics, but in ways and to an extent that is more modest than initially apparent. Multimedia Web activism has an impact, but does not overthrow states or necessarily even re–direct public policies. The change might be tentatively characterized as wide–ranging rather than deep. It is global, but does not aim at conventional political change (i.e., new governments, new policies or new constitutions) to date. Instead of a tool for revolutionary transformation, multimedia Web activism might be a powerful new method for political organizations of all stripes in precise circumstances that favour their messages.

Characterization of this transformation needs to examine multimedia as a representational form, link it to security, and understand it as a messenger that shapes perceptions. As the du’a shows, perceptions are shaped distinctly by different practices. Since Web technology integrates several previous communication practices, it is logical to integrate evaluations of the latter into assessments of the impact of information technologies on global power and culture. One example is Sontag’s insight that photographic images are mute and have "multiple meanings; indeed, to see something in the form of a photograph is to encounter a potential object of fascination" [26]. Another example is Paul Dourish’s argument that computers have a specific impact on humans through design that "favours performance over convenience, and places a premium on the computer’s time rather than people’s time" [27]. Considered together, Sontag and Dourish point to the communicative limits of media and technical limits of devices that contrast the widespread unease over the allegedly limitless possibilities and boundless threats of technological innovations.

 

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Conclusions

The multimedia du’a of Sheikh Mohammed Al–Mohaisany is an example of an application of information technologies that might have complex impacts. To analyze this potential, analysts need to adopt theoretical frameworks for specific information technologies, investigate groups that use specific technological applications, and assess the efficacy of IT use in select cases. Analysts need to "read," describe, and interpret the political content in Web applications as analysts learned to "read" newspapers, "listen" to the radio, and "watch" TV [28]. The substantial complexity of the post–realism is a context in which the supporters of al–Qaeda operate with varying degrees and measures of success. The multimedia activism discussed here embodies a potential transgression, re–articulation, and re–shaping of the boundaries of political issues, values, and identities. The potential is significant in a global society marked by variable layers of authority, action, and power, which Rosenau calls a "bifurcation" between state–centric and multi–centric forms of international action [29].

The above discussion refers to Web activism to show how the Internet platform integrates various technological practices (photography, television, data processing and others). A path for continued analysis is examination of the components of the Internet platform (photography, television, and computers as well as graphic design). Photography is again instructive as a technological application whose practitioners divide between those who argue that photographers should intrude into the world and others who seek to efface their presence from photographs. The debate is based in the Western tradition of representation, a tradition in which self–effacement is linked to the view that images present "authenticity" and "accurate" views of reality.

Self–effacement in magazines such as Paris Match and Life purportedly portrays "daily life" in given periods, presents a record of events, and provides photo–documentation. Such photographs are often seen as images that "mark" particular historical events or periods. Yet, photographic self–effacement raises the issue of objectivity and the status of photographs. Photo–narration has long played a role in conflict and security by fostering support for military campaigns. Examples of this include Roger Fenton and James Robertson’s photographs of the Crimean War, Felice Beato’s images of the 1860 Anglo–French expeditionary force that invaded China, or the American Civil War photographs of Alexander Gardner, James Gibson, George Barnard, Andrew Russell, Timothy O’Sullivan, and Thomas Roche [30]. On the Web, photographs and video clips enter a medium that purportedly presents a range of values, ideas, causes, and situations. For Web photography, the context is a social formation called the information society, which, not surprisingly, is marked by inequities, interests, elites, and values. As such, the Web reproduces existing practices by presenting a "global landscape." The problem, as noted in relation to satellite television is that "while ‘global village’–inspired rhetoric touted the utopian promise of new satellite technology, it was complicit with Western discourses of development that worked to subjugate non–Western and postcolonial cultures and peoples" [31]. Reproducing discourses and practices means that new information technologies provide substantial benefits, but also favour some groups or regions over others in how they operate and in resulting perceptions of the world.

Globalization lead to new transformative combinations by bringing new identities, values, and issues into conflict [32]. Web activism is one way in which they meet, and are debated and contested. While Brecht hoped that media would foster authentic human relations, our politics remain marked by images, copies, representations, and appearances. "Reality" and "image" are not neatly separated. Images can even overtake reality. As the U.S. entered the 2003 Iraqi conflict, obsessive focus on the image of terrorism contaminated defence and foreign policy thought and planning. The results were focus on the "axis of evil," failure to capture al–Qaeda mastermind Bin Laden and Taliban leader Mohammed Omar, continued chaos and insecurity in Afghanistan, and explosive violence in the Middle East. Security challenges cannot be met in purely military terms when conflict is innovative, representational, perceptual, and image–based. Multimedia Web activism shows conflict far from the battlefield, in a media setting in which the U.S. rapidly lost the moral–emotional advantage of 12 September 2001 (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 2002). In this setting, the Web transforms the boundaries of identity and politics since "the instant we develop a new technology of communication — talking drums, papyrus scrolls, books, telegraph, radios, televisions, computers, mobile phones — we at least partially reconstruct the self and its world, creating new opportunities for reflection, perception, and social experience" [33]. The battle over perceptions will be the measure of IT’s impact on global power. The impact will be variously evaluated since it is, in fact, a diverse body of content. End of article

 

About the author

Michael Dartnell is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at York University, Toronto. He is the author of Insurgency online: Web activism and global conflict (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), Action directe: Ultra–left terrorism in France, 1979–1987 (London: Frank Cass, 1995) as well as articles on information technologies and conflict/security, terrorism, political violence, and conflict.
E–mail: dartnell [at] yorku [dot] ca

 

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Mr. Mohammed Zigby, a doctoral candidate in Islamic Studies at McGill University, Montréal, for his assistance in verifying and commenting on the audio of the du’a multimedia file.

 

Notes

1. Brecht, 1977, p. 52.

2. Appadurai, 2003, p. 41.

3. Rosenau, 2003, p. 37.

4. Katz and Rice, 2002, p. 352.

5. Sontag, 2001, p. 149.

6. Rosenau, 2003, p. 272.

7. For perceptions, see, for example, Turkle, 1995.

8. See for this and all other references to du’a in the Appendix.

9. Benjamin, 1977, p. 228.

10. Rosenau and Johnson, 2002, p. 74.

11. See Sontag, 1973, pp. 107–108.

12. Robinson, 2002, p. 126.

13. See el–Nawawy and Iskandar, 2002 and Schechter, 2003.

14. Appadurai, 2003, p. 41.

15. Katz and Rice, 2002, pp. 322–323.

16. Taylor, 1998, p. 64.

17. Zelizer, 1998, p. 215.

18. Sassen, 1998, p. 99.

19. Rosenau, 2003, p. 4.

20. Appadurai, 2003, p. 41.

21. Hampson, 2002, p. 174.

22. Held, et al., 1999, p. 16.

23. See Kearney, 1997.

24. Katz and Rice, 2002, p. 352.

25. Singh, 2002, p. 12.

26. Sontag, 2001, p. 23.

27. Dourish, 2001, p. 2.

28. For the complex impacts of television and globalization, see Parks and Kumar, 2003.

29. Rosenau, 1990, p. 11.

30. Mulligan and Wooters, 2002, pp. 250–271.

31. Parks, 2003, p. 89.

32. See, for example, Yuri the Yaba, 2001.

33. Burnett and Marshall, 2003, p. 61.

 

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Appendix

Translation of the d’ua of Sheikh Muhammed Al–Mohaisany

Oh Allah, to whom belongs All Glory and Grandeur, Oh Allah The Omni–Potent, The Supreme, The Greatest, The Highest We ask you of Your Glory and Power, And victory for the Mujahideen in your cause, Oh Allah remain beside them, and with them, Give them triumph; strengthen them. Oh Allah unite their vision, Focus the aim of their weaponry, And consolidate their word.

And O Allah, fix their hearts, O Allah handle, take care of their enemies, O Allah dissipate their congregation, And shatter their integrity, And weaken their strengths, And throw the fear in their hearts, O Allah, our fates are in your hands, And our affairs all return to You, And our conditions are not obscured from Your knowledge, To You do we raise our misery, And our sorrow, And our complaint, To You, and You alone, do we complain the injustice of the oppressors, And the cruelty of the "faajereen" [literally: perpetrators of debauchery], And the wrath of the betraying criminals,

To You, O Allah, do we complain the injustice of the spiteful Christians, O Allah, the night (the dark reign) of the oppressors has indeed lengthened, O Allah, the night of the oppressors has indeed lengthened, ... O Allah, the night of the oppressors has indeed lengthened, O Allah, the night of the oppressors has indeed lengthened The animosity of the atheists has extended deep

And ... the heads of the criminals Oh Allah, Oh Allah, Send upon them a hand from the truth ... To raise with it our humiliation, And to return to us our dignity, And to destroy our enemy with it, Oh Allah, Oh Allah, take care of the sources of injustice and oppression, Oh Allah, take care of the sources of injustice and oppression, Oh Allah, direct your forces against America, The center of Kufr and Fasaad Oh Allah, direct your forces against America, The center of Kufr and Fasaad Oh Allah, of them our are All–Aware, They spread fasaad in Your lands,

And they killed Your slaves, And they insulted Your religion Oh Allah, of them our are All–Aware, And over them All–Powerful, Oh Allah, direct your forces against them, Oh Allah, direct your forces against them, O Allah send upon them the Storms of ‘Aad, And the Cry of the Thamoud, And the Typhoon of the people of Noah, O Allah send upon them that which descends from the skies, And of that which exudes from the lands, O Allah disintegrate their country, O Allah make them into divided countries and scattered parties, O Allah, Ever–Living and Omni–Potent, Make contain them within a fist’s grip of Your slaves [i.e., under their control], Make contain them within a fist’s grip of Your slaves, O Allah, make hurricanes a constant for them,

O Allah, make hurricanes a constant for them,

O Allah release our captured brothers, O Allah release them, O Allah, strengthen them, O Allah make them steady on their faith, O Allah make possible a means for them, O Allah handle those who torture them,

O Allah handle those who torture them, O Allah handle those who torture them O Allah eradicate them with Your power and Omni–Potence, O Allah, make their plots against us a cause for their destruction, And their slyness, slyness against them, O Lord of the worlds, O Ever–Living, O Omni–Potent, O Most–Mighty and Most–Gracious, Hearer of all prayer, Ever so close, accepting to all prayers, We all pray to You, full aware of Your promise, And of Your acceptance, For You have said, and Your speech is the truth: "Pray to Me, for I accept your prayers", O Allah accept our prayers for us, O Allah accept our prayers for us, O Allah, Everlasting, All–Powerful, The Omni–Potent over all that is in the heavens and the earth,

We ask you to save Al–Aqsa from the cruelty of the Jews, O Allah save Al–Aqsa from the cruelty of the Jews, O Allah free Al–Aqsa from every black–hearted Kafir, O Allah lay our eyes rest on a liberated Aqsa, and on the defeat of the spiteful Jews, O Most–Mighty and Most–Gracious, All creatures are unto You humiliated, meek, ... O Allah, our creator from a single soul, O Allah, Highest in status O Allah, Greatest in Strength We ask You glory for Islam and Muslims, O Allah, Ever–Living, Ever so Powerful, O Allah guard the hard working scholars, O Allah guard the hard working scholars,

And make steadfast those sincere in inviting to Your path, And raise the positions of those who order righteousness, and who forbid evil, And bestow the same mercy upon those Muslims who enjoin them, O Allah, Ever–Living, Ever so Powerful, O Most–Mighty and Most–Gracious, O Allah, he who devoted himself to hurt them, Talking to defame their honor, And tracking their refuge, And for whom You have willed no guidance, O Allah, make misery his destiny, O Allah, make misery his destiny, And disaster in his path, O Allah, convert his health to disease, And his strength into sickness, And his wealth, into poverty, And his power into weakness.


Editorial history

Paper received 10 May 2005; accepted 11 June 2005.


Contents Index

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Communicative practice and transgressive global politics: The d’ua of Sheikh Muhammed Al–Mohaisany by Michael Dartnell
First Monday, volume 10, number 7 (July 2005),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue10_7/dartnell/index.html





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