IN the 1990s, followers of the Prophet are building a "virtual Muslim community" in cyberspace.
Across North America, thousands of well-educated, computer-literate Muslims are going on-line, looking for news and support, political activism, and discussion of their faith. Their Internet community, which did not exist five years ago, is currently made up largely of Muslim college students, who are developing a kind of political debate unprecedented in the Islamic world.
This next generation of educated American Muslims is becoming familiar with each other in a way not possible even a decade ago. Young Muslims are testing their political ideas about Islam and the West at a speed and across distances not possible before.
Muslim cyberspace discussions may be as popular as boxer Mike Tyson's new interest in Islam - or as esoteric as student polemics contrasting the Koran and Einstein's Theory of Relativity. On any given day, one may find an exegesis on fundamentalism and modernity or on the compatibility of Islam and democracy.
The Muslim Students Association (MSA), which has subscribers on nearly every campus in the United States and Canada, generated about 150 pages of discussion a day on Islamic issues during a several-week period last year. Such openness would not be tolerated in most Islamic countries, where free exchange is conducted by a scholarly elite.
"In the Islamic states it is mainly closet liberals and dissidents who live in cyberspace," says political scientist Joseph Roberts, who runs an Islamic political "newsgroup," or electronic bulletin board, out of the University of Utah.
Students are currently the Muslim pioneers on the information superhighway, but that is changing. Some 120 Web sites have now been formed. This month a first-of-its-kind Web site for Muslim professionals goes on-line on the Internet's World Wide Web. Founded and financed by two staff members of the World Bank in Washington, Kemal Ahmed and Adnan Hassan, the Web site will be friendly, educational, and open to the public, a kind of virtual Rotary Club with a Muslim twist.
But for now, the biggest Muslim "users group" is run by the MSA, which was started by a Cornell University student in 1990.
NON-MUSLIMS may not join the main MSA discussion, which can be highly political and religious. But a separate users group exists for the general public. Both groups have postings about meetings, fund-raising, and the needs of mosques in far-flung places, and they offer news of interest that is not published in the mainstream press.
MSA dialogues shared with the Monitor show a microcosm of tensions faced by young and questioning Muslim minds. Currently, MSA is dominated by what one user called a "loud group" that slams secular Western approaches to society and family, advocates traditional Islam, and finds in Islam a political model to promote the faith's quest for an eventual Islamic homeland somewhere on the globe.
These netters tend to be orthodox and do not respond well to new ideas about Islam.
Yet there is also a sizeable "quiet group" on MSA that seems more favorably inclined toward Western culture and democracy.
Few of the MSA netters mentioned black Muslim issues, and few women participated. Women have an exclusive "sister's net," and they are not banned from MSA. But attitudes among traditional male students are such that women are often "flamed and hounded off the net," as one source put it. Two Muslim women contacted on the public Muslim group denied this was the case.
The new Web site for Muslim professionals starting this month is named "DERVISH," after the universal ideals advocated by the Sufi Muslim tradition. It will be an electronic clearinghouse for Muslim information, a forum for global intellectual debate on issues such as women's rights, and a support group.
Anti-Muslim reaction after the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995 caused Messrs. Ahmed and Hassan to create DERVISH. "We had been immersed in our professional and everyday lives," Ahmed says. "But we couldn't believe the attitudes that surrounded us after the bombing."
They want professional and social exchange both to help Muslims and to allow fair-minded members of the public to see who Muslims are.
"We are people who go to baseball games and concerts, and then we go to the mosque," Ahmed says.