Author: Rizwan Mawani
Part of a larger series examining the engagement of Muslim communities and the Internet, this paper explores the interaction of the Ismaili community with the medium from 1993 to 2000. Many early studies of electronic groups concentrated on communities that were linked online through interests, professions or other shared activities, but did not necessarily have a parallel structure or a sense of sympathetic organisation offline. The almost wholesale exception to this was the range of wired religious communities, who found a natural space online, with the Ismailis included, but have only recently begun to be studied in any systematic way. In the period in question, 1993 to 2000, we have seen significant shifts in how Ismailis have perceived themselves, partially due to the influence and impact of the geography-contracting Internet, but also to political currents such as the devolution of the Soviet Union and the mass migration and re-settlement of Afghan Ismailis to Pakistan as well as to Europe and North America. These changes have significantly impacted the sense of identity amongst Ismailis of Indian descent, many of whom until recently constructed themselves as the majority cultural grouping within the community. Since then, Tajik, Iranian and Afghan Ismaili communities have attempted to integrate themselves within the localised practice of the faith but negotiating at the same time their own interpretations and manifestations of the Ismaili tariqa of Islam. Online participation by individual Ismailis on the Internet was through newsgroups, primarily those dealing with Islam and Sufism, in the absence of Ismaili-specific fora, in addition to spaces dedicated to professional and personal interests. In early 1994, the beginning of organised attempts by some community members led to the development of mailing lists and eventually websites containing content of specialist interest to the community. In 1996, His Highness the Aga Khan, the present spiritual leader of the community, began to publicly address the role of the Internet as a force of positive change and noted its importance as a modern tool. Soon after the first speech, many of the institutions of the Ismaili community began to emerge online. This marked the first authorised institutional presence on the Net of the Ismaili community and were seen by the community as a progressive and welcomed move. There are now about 10 sites representing the various institutions of the Ismaili community in addition to the 30 active sites run by individuals and groups covering all aspects of the community. By paralleling its off- and on-line realities, this paper shows how identity formation, construction and negotiation have, to a large extent, been influenced and catalysed by community members’ use and engagement with the medium.