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Fatema Mernissi

Is the Internet Setting Free the Simorgh?
Cyber-Islam as a fabulous mirror
by Fatema Mernissi

Paragraphs from the article "Der Sagenvogel und das Internet" in the book "Was Kommt.Was Geht.Was bleibt." Markus Schächter, Editor. Herder Verlag, 2001, p.303-307

The Simorgh is the fabulous bird described in the "Concert of the Bird", one of the most spellbouding Sufi poem written by Faridu din Attar in twelth century Iranian city Nishapur. The birds gathered by thousands when they heard about the magnificent beauty of a fabulous bird called Simorgh. They travelled for days and nights to reach the Simorgh and many died in the difficult trip leading them nearer to perfection. Only thirtysix survived and they arrived finally and asked the permission to see the Simorgh. They found him indeed magnificent, but what they saw was in fact a reflection of themselves. When they asked the Simorgh to unveil the secret of what they were experiencing, he told them that "Si" and "morg" are two persians which mean the first the figure 36 and the last " bird" and that it is their reflection, as a group of birds bound by a common desire to travel towards perfection, which creates the radiance they saw. Any group of creatures who gather together to pursue a higher goal could enjoy the dazzling effect which comes from mirroring each others' beauty.

The internet seems to give that century-old longing among Moslems of modest background to draw of themselves a flattering images which reflects not so much what they own, as much as what they aspire to be. I have the impression, from my modest investigation, started in 1996, on the sudden and unexpected bloom of civil society in some of the most marginalized regions of southern Morocco, that civic initiative performances are due to their giving the excluded the right to believe in and project a positive image of himself. The internet gives the peasants of the High Atlas village of Ait-Iktel, who sell their carpets on the internet (, and the nomads of drought-threathened villages of Zagora and Figuig province at the edge of the Sahara desert, the magic power, for the first time in modern history, to engineer their own image on-line, and not only for their restricted local consumption, but for the universe at large.


If you read 39-years old Ahmed Zainabi's monthly progress reports on the Association for the Development of the Dra vallee (ADEDRA) he created in 1996, with other intellectuals born like him in the Zagora province, you feel like calling your travel agent and taking a plane not to miss the environmental feast. He and the association members do not confuse the desert with nothiness and have training programs which teach the local population in general and the tourist guides in particular, who were kept uninformed by state-tourism, the exceptional wealth of the region in terms of plants and animal life: "Our study identified 74 superior species of vegetals. As for animal-life, the study established 8 species of mammifères, 11 kind of oiseaux nicheurs, 8 kinds of reptiles." The report ends up by alerting the citizens to the fact that among the species classified as rare, some are particulary threahned and need special protection strategies, such as le "le chat ganté, le ratel, le fouette-queue et le cobra." As a sociologist interviewing the Zagora province tourist guides who benefited from the ADEDRA environment training programs, what struck me was their pride in sharing their new vision of the desert as a wonderful paradise of wild-life. Uplifting the self confidence of the rural population by allowing them to manufacture new identities for themselves, was the missing ingredient which explained the failure of bureaucrat-led development programs, be they promoted by the local state, or the international agencies such as the World bank. Civic initiative which facilitates the access to both self-enhancing information on one's local wealth as well as to the internet, seems to give rural youth, from tourist guides to simple sook craftsman, a cosmic dimension only popular sufism gave their ancestors decades before.


Popular Sufism like the sayings of Mukhtar Soussi, a seventeenth-century scholar who studied and taught in Southern Morocco, stresses in his "Muhadarate" (Conferences) that the value of a human person can not be reduced or gauged by monney of literacy and is intrinsicly embodied in universal qualities such as reason, aspirations or skill excellency, in whatever modest field it can be. The three following sayings are still heard often in that part of Morocco:
"A reasonable person is never poor." (La faqra li-'aqil.)
"The value of a person is determined by what he aspires to." (Qadru al ma'i ma yuhimuhu.)
"The value of a person is determined by what he excells in." (Qimatu al mar'i ma yahsunuhu.)


It is the capacity of the civic initiatives to recapture and revive mystical beliefs of the Sufi that the human person is capable of everything including to rise to God's level of excellency which explains the boom of NGOs which has reached the staggering number of 30.000 most of them created in the late 1990s? More systematic research and carefully designed field work in many parts of the Moslem world is needed before answereing such a question.

© Fatema Merissi
If you are interested in publishing the article, partly or completely, please, contact the literary agent Edite Kroll.

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