COVID-19: What is the significance for Muslims?
In the early 1440s, a Strasbourg gem merchant went bust in what looked like a certain victory: selling metal mirrors which were supposed to catch the holy light for pilgrims. He desperately needed a better idea. The idea came, as he put it, “like a ray of light”. What if he combined a wine press, detachable letters and oil paint in a single process? The merchant’s name was Johannes Guttenberg. He was the inventor of a printing press.
The new invention spread throughout Europe very quickly and soon books were being printed in their millions. This was what is now known as the last information revolution.
The result was unprecedented advancement of European societies, the Renaissance. The Christian West, so far dragging behind the Muslim East economically and culturally, leapt forward and eventually subjugated the East as well as the rest of the world.
With the invention of the Internet we are experiencing the next information revolution. The scale of social, economic and cultural consequences will be no less significant. We will see a whole new world born before our eyes.
COVID-19, which locked the planet’s population inside their homes, gave it a powerful push. According to Akamai, a firm that tracks web activity, global Internet traffic has already increased by more than 50%. And if experts are correct, the lockdowns will continue for weeks, maybe months. Perhaps the main consequence of the epidemic, therefore, will be the completion of the information revolution, the final reshaping of the virtual world.
But who will be the winners?
Surely, not Europe. Europe does not have its own Internet companies. Facebook, Amazon, Google are all based in the US.
In theory, there is nothing wrong when online trade replaces traditional retail. This is, after all, the natural change of economic formations: technologically advanced companies squeeze out old, dated forms of business. This has happened before. A new economy will be built, new workplaces will be created and new companies will pay tax to support local communities, schools and hospitals. There is no need to worry.
Europeans, however, do worry and worry a lot. And the reason is simple: the old economy, old workplaces and old taxes will be lost in Europe while the new economy, new workplaces and new taxes will be created in the US.
However, the main drama is unfolding not in Europe but in the Muslim world. For Muslims, this is not just about money. It is about identity and everything that follows.
It is hard not to notice the creeping westernisation of the Muslims. The essence of this westernisation is that Muslims are allowed to keep the outward attributes of Islam as long as they drop the substance.
In a world where the virtual reality has outgrown the real world, maintaining cultural identity is only possible when one has a virtual reality that is an extension of your world and not someone else’s. It is no surprise, then, that Russians and Chinese are working hard to have a virtual world of their own. And so should Muslims.
The Internet, if used correctly, can produce a kind of Muslim Renaissance similar in effect to the flowering of Islamic science, culture and economy during the Abbassid period. If not, the Muslim world will eventually be submerged both economically and culturally under the all-permeating Western influence.
Muslims need a virtual reality where tech companies do not spy on them, sell their data or misrepresent their lives. A virtual world that is not an instrument of westernisation. A world that is theirs in substance, not in form.
The bitter irony, however, is that many good Muslims do not understand this. Isolated in their homes they are unwillingly and unknowingly supporting tech companies that will eventually become their greatest and the most dangerous enemy.
And this is the real significance of COVID-19.