Mass Media, Freethinking and Civic position: From the Middle East to the European Continent
Enesh K Akhmatshina* and Sergey B Nikonov
Saint-Petersburg State University, 7/9
Universitetskaya Naberezhnaya, Saint-
- *Corresponding Author:
- Enesh K Akhmatshina
Saint-Petersburg State University
7/9 Universitetskaya Naberezhnaya
Received date: October 04, 2016; Accepted date: November 09, 2016; Published date: November 19, 2016
Citation: Akhmatshina EK, Nikonov
SB. Mass Media, Freethinking and Civic
position: From the Middle East to the
European Continent. Global Media Journal.
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Contemporary media technologies and quality access to the Internet in the countries of Middle East and North Africa provide regional mass media the possibility to relatively freely express their views, share them with like-minded people, and form groups of followers. The number of so-called Arab atheists among active social network users, as shown by recent studies, has increased. Atheism, along with Islamic feminism, sublimated into various forms of protest media content, is perceived among traditionally religious Arab society as a challenge to the principles and traditions of the Middle Eastern society. The Muslim religious leaders, scholars and thinkers decry the manifestation of this kind of freethinking and see it as a threat to national security in the countries of the Middle East and North Africa. Migration processes taking place in contemporary Europe are making their ambiguous contribution to the further evolution of the moral and ethical codes of the Muslim society.
Atheism; Islamic feminism; Freethinking; Arab media; Middle East.
With the development of contemporary Islamic philosophical
schools, since the end of World War II , the unceasing attempts
of modernization, reassessment and updates of the Islamic
philosophical thought reflected different vectors of the evolution
of the Arab society, continuing to be the subject of discussion
among both the representatives of the Muslim religious leaders,
secular-minded intelligentsia, researchers, thinkers, and a wide
audience of ordinary people. Historically, the dichotomy of
"power and Sharia", opposed to the dichotomy of "religious
text and the human mind", presented before on the pages of
manuscripts of the Middle Ages  and then in print media at
the turn of XIX-XX centuries, finds its new evocation in the media
scene of the XXI century.
Given the geography of the contemporary Muslim world, the
influence of Western and Asian cultures on the perception of
religion outside of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as
economic and political factors of activity of certain radical Islamist
movements in various countries of the world, it is impossible
not to note the increased number of Muslims, regardless of
their ethnic and socio-economic affiliation, sharing the idea of
the secular political structure of the state and aspiring to a new
rethinking of Islamic discourse . Not the last role in this area is
played by migration processes in the European continent. From
the perspective of Islamic criminal law, the rejection of Islam,
i.e., "apostasy", is punishable by the death penalty . Radical
currents in Islam equate secularism to atheism.
The research methodology is defined by a system-oriented
approach to the role of religion and character, i.e. person
professing Islam in contemporary media. In the framework of
a systemic approach we used structural-functional method,
method of comparative analysis, and content analysis. Problemconceptual
analysis was conducted relative to a particular
historical period identified by us as a certain migration processes
after "the Arab revolutions". The present study uses general
scientific methods such as description and explanation. A logical
method is used as part of the system analysis method. Systemoriented
analysis reveals the development laws of social systems
such as the Muslim community of both Arab and European
Explicitly, the phenomenon of expanding the ideas of atheism
in the Arab virtual space is represented as a derivation, if not a
side effect, the concepts of secularism, modernization of Islamic
philosophy, "Euro-Islam" and other similar mainstreams, actively
exaggerated in social networks, forums, international conferences,
etc. From an anthropocentric perspective, according to the
conviction of some contemporary philosophers and thinkers,
atheism along with skepticism and freethinking have always
symbolized protection of personal self-actualization, a protest
against spiritual authoritarianism and mental ossification . No
less important are the mechanisms of cognitive, motivational and
cultural transformations in the course of the atheism emergence
in individuals and, by contrast, their needs in the religion and
Implicit factors in the expansion of atheistic sentiments in the
Arab society at the present stage of its development are dictated
by social, cultural and value transformations in the Arab world
due to the wide access to media technology with the powerful
mobilizing potential, which was manifested during the revolutions
of the "Arab spring" and followed by the change of governments
in some countries of the Middle East and North Africa. They are
caused also by the rising terrorist activities of various extremist
organizations, which led to a humanitarian catastrophe in the
region, as well as the migration crisis in Europe.
The dominant factors in the expansion of atheism and apostasy in
the Muslim society include the following:
- Violence practiced by some extremist organizations is pushing
some faithful Muslims to certain doubt concerning the correctness
of Islamic principles. In particular, the office of the mufti in Egypt
reports that the actions of the terrorist "takfiri" organizations
conniving at the expansion of violence, the distortion of Islamic
norms and bloodshed in the name of Islam, lead to a perverted
understanding of theology that in turn strengthens the negative
image of religion, scaring away the youth from Islam and leading
- "Political Islam", penetrating both into private and public life
and creating thereby a negative attitude toward religion;
- Understanding that strict observance of the rules and dogmas
of Islam for a person professing a different religion, for example,
is not mandatory, and the choice whether or not to practice any
religion must be developed over time and within the meaning;
- Strengthening gender issues and the need for educational
- Immigration crisis in European countries.
According to the portal of the Egyptian edition of the Daily News
, the office of the mufti of Egypt divides "atheists" into three
groups: a) those who do not reject Islam as a religion, however, do
not support the politicization of Islam and call for a secular state;
b) those who reject Islam as a religion in general; and c) those
who turn from Islam to another religion. Due to strict censorship
by the state and religious institutions, it is rather difficult to
determine the exact number of atheists in the Arab countries.
Nevertheless, a number of mass media in Saudi Arabia have
published the result of investigation of the WIN/Gallup
International research institute, which states that 5% of the
population in Saudi Arabia are atheists (the total population of
the Kingdom is 29 million people) (Global Index of Religiosity and
Atheism.WIN/Gallop International, 2012) . In turn, the BBC
Department on mass media monitoring conducted independent
content-study of the Arab social networks, searching for the
term "atheism" in Arabic and English languages . Thus, it was
revealed that hundreds of Facebook sites and Twitter accounts,
belonging to the atheists from the Arab world, attract thousands
of followers. These are the following sites: "Tunisian atheists"
having more than 10,000 subscribers, "Sudanese atheists" with
over 3,000 subscribers, "Syrian atheists’ network" with more
than 4,000 followers, and the Twitter account "Arab Atheist"
with more than 8,000 subscribers. The study also indicates that
there are hundreds of thousands of accounts of Arab atheists
in the various social networks, calling for "the eradication of
religious superstitious beliefs by means of reason". Some of
them contain anti-Islamic comments and images of torn pages
of the Koran, while others criticize the Islamic dogma, which
"encourages violence against other religions". YouTube portal
contains TV channels of Arab atheists, attracting an audience
of many thousands of subscribers and publishing videos, which
criticize Islam (for example, "The Prejudices of Religion,". In
the Internet, among Arab young people is very popular "al-'aqal
al-ḥur" ("open mind") TV channel. Channel creators call their
project one of the "atheistic mass media in the Internet, which
aims at providing news free from state and religious censorship
for the peoples of the Middle East and the rest of the world" .
Obviously Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube sites, blogs and groups
in social networks are the main discussion platforms for Arab
atheists, providing users the ability to anonymously access and
use their accounts .
Satellite and information technologies provide an opportunity
to Arab atheists to generate and model media content relatively
freely. For example, note the online resources of two famous
personalities - vivid supporters of the Islamic freethinking, such
as Islam Beheri  and Sayed Al-Qemany . The question
arises whether freethinking person or an atheist citizen can feel
safe in the Arab world? In all parts of the Arab world, citizens
can be sentenced to death or imprisonment because of their
religious dissent or rejection of faith. The Human Right Watch
international organization regularly commits violations of human
rights in Saudi Arabia and describes the acts of state as part of the
government's campaign aimed "to combat atheism and any form
of opposition" .
The problem of atheism has caused a wide debate on Arabic TV.
For the first time, some Arab TV broadcastings started to invite
atheists to take part in the face-to-face discussions with Muslims.
While the TV presenters ask invitees the reason for their rejection
of religion, Muslim theologians attribute the causes of atheism
with personal problems or the awkward age. The expected
reaction on the part of national authorities to such challenges,
by analogy with the mechanisms of repressions after the events
of the "Arab spring" , is expressed in greater control over
the functioning of mass media in the region, the introduction of destructive elements into online communities, enhancement of
public activities of authoritative religious institutions on various
media platforms. Egyptian mass media periodically describe such
efforts of the state and religious organizations in their struggle
against the trends of freethinking as "a war against atheism". The
office of the mufti of Egypt reports that the web sites of social
networking give to misguided youth a great space that serves
a safe platform to express their views and opinions about the
rejection of religion .
In January 2015, the Egyptian Ministry of Youth Affairs with the
assistance of the largest Islamic theological Al-Azhar University
announced the launch of an initiative to combat "extremism and
atheism." Sheikh Ahmed Turki, one of the initiators of the project,
reported in a press statement that the initiative was aimed at
“the correction of youth through scientific arguments in response
to the atheist threat." Turki also added: "Atheism is a matter of
national security... If atheists abnegate faith they will abnegate
the rest ".
The problem of studying the origin of atheism is important
primarily for the countries of today’s Europe, where in recent
years there has been "inflow" of residents professing Islam.
According to mass media reports, men are the first, who arrive
to European continent. We make the assumption that one of the
reasons of moving to Europe is to achieve the social well-being
of their families, who must arrive following the men. Indeed,
woman, who lives in the region, where there is a war, is motivated
primarily on saving the lives of her children, and this is a strong
argument which is not denied by the European community.
At the same time, the Europeans show the rise of their interest in
Islam, though not as to the religion which should be confessed,
but as a socio-political phenomenon. Muslim women, having
arrived in Europe, are in a completely different position than
European women, since they still give priority to Islamic religious
worldview. Men, certainly not all, though a significant proportion,
when arriving in European countries, face the problem consisting
in fact that the "enlightened" European society does not perceive
the need to observe some Islamic rules, which are incorporated
in the minds of the Muslim men since their childhood. This raises
questions in believing Muslims concerning the strict observance
of Islamic traditions in the countries, where such traditions are
considered to be a private matter. As known, any questions
give rise to answers. The answers are seen in the behavior of
Europeans, not professing Islam, or professing Islam, but not
ministering the duties of strict observance of Muslim rituals
with due respect and reverence. Unlike the Arab mass media,
which were noted above, mass media of secular states face a
dilemma, whether to continue their work in usual manner, or
take into account the religious factor. Not taking into account
the religious factor may lead to the consequences like those
that happened in Paris, where a caricature of the Prophet
Mohammad was published on the cover of a magazine. And to
the extent that the religious factor should be considered, the
question arises which one should be taken into consideration.
Before the Islamic world has not entered into the contact with
"Christian" world, predominantly due to the actions of the latter,
the Oriental woman seemed to the Europeans as shut-in and
oppressed woman, entirely dependent on her husband. But
since the emergence in Europe of women professing Islam, it
turned out that among them there are completely independent
personalities, having their independent point of view and certain
goals. And these goals are not necessarily the goals of being
subservient to somebody and especially to their husbands.
The question of the woman’s status in Islam is neither new
nor conclusively resolved. We can say that the image of
Muslim woman in mass media is more like stereotypical rather
than objective. And this stereotypical view is rooted in the
consciousness of Europeans. In this regard, we believe that
concluding that freethinking will develop at a rapid pace owing to
the contact of cultures, is premature. However, the mass media
expand on issues, which are undesirable from the viewpoint of
traditional Islam, as they can cast discredit on existing dogmas
and moral values of the Islamic world. According to some
Islamic scholars, growing feminism is one of the manifestations
of freethinking, which threats to traditional Islam. Suffice it to
recall a historical fact, when mass protests of women in Iraq in
2003 prevented the enactment of Sharia law by the Government
Council. In 2011, the Egyptian Institute for Islamic Studies held in
Madrid a conference on the future of Islamic feminism in Europe.
The meeting discussed the ideological foundations of Muslim
feminism, the problems associated with its expansion in Europe,
the organization of women's movements and the role of men in
feminism. Islamic feminists believe that the low social status of
women in Islamic countries results from misogynistic distortions
of the Koran teachings. They strive for closer cooperation with
Western feminists, but at the same time specify that non-Muslim
feminist women should rethink their anti-Islamic stereotypes.
The desire to protect the equality and/or superiority of Muslim
women, using the power of Islam, gave rise to the phenomenon
called Islamic feminism. Islamic feminism is one of the challenges
of freethinking. This term came into use in the 1990-ies. According
to research of Iranian scientists and writers Afsaneh Najmabadi
and Ziba Mir-Hosseini, this term was used for the first time in
the women's magazine "Zanan", established by Tehran society
"Shahla" in 1992, as well as in 1996 in the book "Feminism and
Islam" edited by Mai Yamani from Saudi Arabia. Turkish scholars
and writers Yesim Arat and Feride Adjar recorded first use of
the term "feminism" in the book “Modern Mahram" (published
in 1991 in Turkish and in 1996 in English) . According to
Polenina S.V., this line of thinking comprising of all the speeches
and practices, which are feminist in nature, within the paradigm
of Islamic thought, becomes an object of discussion in Russia.
These disputes, initiated by the contemporary educated and
fairly wealthy young Muslim women, who began to appear in
the public arena in connection with the practice of wearing a
headscarf, eventually became widespread .
Any kind of freethinking in Islam may become the reason for the
statements that are communicated to the society which is yet
not ready for such statements. Scientists such as an American
scholar of Islam at Virginia State University Amina Wadood, form
a different category, known under the name of Muslim feminism.
Stating that they seek to establish equality between men and
women, they adhere to the idea that Islam should be interpreted
all over again. Feminists of this category claim that Islam was
generated by a social formation of dominated patriarchal
structure, in which there was exploitation of women. While some
feminists of the West are directly in conflict with religion and
consider it the source and bearer of a patriarchal order in terms
of its essence and role in the historical process, others tend to
avoid criticizing religion itself, though criticize its interpretation
and individual institutions emerged over time. Getting inspiration
from them the Muslim feminists, carefully avoiding criticism of
Islam in its essence and the fact that the Prophet was a man,
yet cannot refrain from criticism of historical interpretations.
They criticize and even can reject the reliability of religion not
from viewpoint of traditional authority but in accordance with
the criteria of reason of the words of Prophet Muhammad, i.e.
The danger of freethinking formation in Islam, such as atheism
or Islamic feminism, lies in the fact that if the adherents of
traditional Islam will perceive such freethinking as a threat, this
may cause in return the emergence of radical Islam, focused to
fight such freedom.
As noted by Savelieva E.A., "the phenomenon of Islamic radicalism
can be considered from two points of view. On the one hand, the
struggle for the purity in Islam and the creation of the state after
the image and likeness of the Caliphate can be perceived as a
struggle for the revival of Islam, which involves the revival and
assertion of Islamic values in the context of globalization. On the
other hand, defending political and economic interests transforms
religion into a fighting tool" . Thus, radical Islam gives rise to
"political Islam" that in fact is also a kind of freethinking.
Gender inequality is feeding the flame to the ideas of freethinking
among women in the countries of both North Africa and the
Middle East, and the immigrant population in European states.
The prospect of strengthening the civil rights of women causes
much controversy within the conservative Muslim society, which
is also influenced by traditional cultural and religious values as
well as historical and socio-political features of the development
of Islamic civilization.
The researchers note that strategies of educational models are
the engine of social and ethical transformations in a Muslim
environment . We can confidently say that it is unfinished
education reforms in the Middle East and North Africa regions,
as well as the lack of the coordinated policy of EU countries
in education of immigrants, that are indirect factors in the
emergence of dissent and freethinking among the adherents of
the Muslim culture.
Explicitly and implicitly, the rights of women in getting education
and employment are enshrined in the constitutions of almost
all Arab countries . Also noteworthy is the fact that during
the last two decades of the XX century, the countries of the
Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Persian Gulf,
among which the most conservative is the Kingdom of Saudi
Arabia, ratified, despite some reservations, the international
conventions on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women . Meanwhile, in the region there are numerous
instances of violations of constitutional rights and international
agreements, manifested in domestic violence against women and
children, as well as early marriages, discrimination in education
and employment, and inability to participate effectively in
political and economic life of society . A few examples
of women’s appointments to executive positions in various
political, diplomatic, humanitarian and other spheres, as well as
permission for women to participate in elections (particularly in
Kuwait) cannot testify a fundamental change in identity politics
of the concerned region. The problem of unification of the
judicial system based on Sharia law, allowing judges to interpret
ambiguously religious canonical texts as a universal source of
legal norms, still remains acute for the conservative Arab states
Noted issues and disagreements in the identity politics of the
concerned region affect the mode of operation and dynamics
of the discourse of mass communications. Using actively the
advances in information technology, Arab mass media are
probing new possibilities to form an objective and equitable
dialogue between the authorities and society that is in rhyme
to liberal policy towards media activities, initiated by the "Arab
spring". In this process not the last role is played by the activity of
regional and international humanitarian and non-governmental
organizations . Intelligent thinker and activist women get an
additional opportunity to mainstream gender-sensitive issues in
the Arab media discourse .
The whole history of the formation of the women's press and
journalism since the days of the first Arab women's magazine "Al-
Fatat" is awashed with women's striving for self-development,
self-esteem, status and desire to be a worthy companion of man
in terms of the culture, traditions and beliefs that are dominant
in certain ethnic and religious societies of divers Arabic-speaking
world . In our days, in the age of powerful media technology,
this trend is reflected in other scales and other realities, namely
the social networking, where there are many sites of public
organizations protecting the women’s and children’s rights, and
various feminist online communities. On satellite pan-Arab and
regional TV there are regular broadcast programs and reports
highlighting the outrageous facts of discrimination and violence
in relation to women. Leading talk-shows presenters, in turn,
conduct open discussions with experts and clergymen, victims
and their relatives with the aim to draw public attention to
the need of improving identity politics of certain countries in
the region. Various videos featuring Muslim women regularly
appear on YouTube. These women openly declare their rights,
demonstrating high-quality possession of the legal and economic
aspects of the constitutional guarantees, as well as emphasizing
their equal partnership in marriage, objectively and fairly
appealing to the Holy Scriptures - the Quran and Hadith.
Among the main challenges facing the mass media in the
implementation of the women’s rights in the studied region, we
highlight the following:
- Rejection from negative use of the woman’s image (as
a portrait of sexual harassment, low intelligence, and
subordinate social status)
- Increasing self-actualization of women, improving the
image of educated and employed woman through media
technology and social advertising along with the cultural
and religious identity.
- Educational activity aimed at consistent separation
of religious and ethical principles from the secular
components of education.
- Enhancing the training potential of the Arabic-language
mass media through quality update of media content.
- Structural changes in recruitment policy of mass media,
creation of up-to-date personnel with a large presence of
creative and talented women in the field of mass media
- mobilization in the mass media scene of Arab women's
community without regard to religious, ethnic, and social
criteria in the fight against discrimination of women in
both education and employment.
- Tracking and publication by mass media of the progress
in implementation of government initiatives and
international agreements of the Arab countries in the field
of protection of the women’s and children’s rights.
Of course, above listed tasks cannot be implemented without
coordination with the state structures and governmental
institutions on the one hand, and the cooperation and
constructive transformation towards an inclusive approach to
women's education and employment on the initiative of religious
and theological institutions, on the other hand.
This, in turn, may mean that the state is implementing an
information strategy, called Noopolitics. Scientists S. Nikonov
, N. Labush , and A. Baychik  note that many reports of
journalists are aimed at protecting the national interests of their
countries, while these tasks will allow, in case of their successful
implementation, to reap political dividends.
For example, within the Muslim Diasporas and immigrant
communities in Europe, where according to E. ,
multiculturalism is evolving, we may witness the transition from
"Islamic feminism", atheism, and freethinking to mainstreaming
of the "civil liberties of Muslim women".
The opposition of the traditional concept of Islam to atheism
along with the trend to a new interpretation of Islamic principles,
highlighted by the contemporary mass media, has a potentially
unpredictable consequences in terms of several significant
aspects: from the viewpoint of national security in both the region
and the European continent, from the viewpoint of retardation
the democratic mechanisms initiated and declared by the "Arab
spring", and from the viewpoint of preserving ethnic and cultural
Surely, the traditional Muslim society is experiencing evolutionary
processes. The global media market and accepted conventional
attitudes actively penetrate into all spheres of both Muslim
society in general and every individual. Democratic values, the
expression of freethinking, and secularization of social institutions
are attractive and understandable for a large part of the today’s
generation of Muslims. In these processes mass media fulfill
two important functions: function of a mediator and function of
initiator for further change. Migration crisis in Europe may inspire
both the processes of atheistic remission and new extremist
trends among the immigrants. A crucial role in relieving the latter
plays the education policy in the countries of the Middle East and
the integration and education policies for migrants newly arrived
on the continent. Otherwise, the opposition between religion
and atheism can be heated artificially and used by external and/
or internal forces to further ideological disunity in the whole
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