Juan Cole runs one of the finest and most popular US-based Middle East related blogs. It’s been a beacon of rationality during the Bush years.
My following piece appears on his site today:
During last week’s terror attacks in Mumbai, new technology reacted to the news faster than traditional media services. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and blogs featured (not always accurate) information from the ground and revealed the inadequacies of relying on “official” sources.
For example, as soon as it became clear that the head of the antiterrorist squad in Mumbai, Hemant Karkare, had been killed, Flickr instantly contained a portfolio of images of the official.
The ability to increasingly rely on eyewitness accounts leaves the professional journalist in a bind. For too many years Western news editors only deemed legitimate perspectives that were viewed and heard by fellow Western journalists. It was subconscious racism, protecting their own turf and deliberately ignoring points of view that challenged Washington and London’s foreign policy priorities.
After September 11, 2001, I was constantly frustrated with the lack of indigenous voices in the mainstream media (although I was living in Australia at the time, the situation was little different to the US). Why weren’t we constantly hearing from bloggers in Iraq about the impending war? What about civilians under American bombs in Kabul? Or Pakistanis in Lahore, Quetta or Karachi who resented former President General Pervez Musharraf’s Faustian deal with the Bush administration? Online media presented a unique opportunity to hear alternative voices on matters of of global significance. With notable exceptions, these people remain unheard.
In 2007 I travelled to Iran, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and China to speak to dissidents, bloggers, writers, politicians, men, women, conservatives, liberals and ordinary citizens about how the internet is changing their countries. I wanted to gauge their interests, desires, frustrations and attitudes towards each other and the west.
My new book, The Blogging Revolution, is a chance for these local voices to reveal how the web has democratised their minds – although it also reflects the fact that the vast majority of global netizens prefer online dating and downloading pirated films and music to challenging political orthodoxy.
Furthermore, I wanted to challenge the thesis that the introduction of the web automatically brings Western-style democracy to a society. This is, of course, the kind of thesis that neo-conservative think-tanks publish on a regular basis. Perhaps, instead, individuals in authoritarian societies actually want freedom from us.
Take Saudi Arabia. One of the most fundamentalist nations on earth, fully backed by the West for its abundant oil reserves, the blogging community is small but thriving. The country’s most famous blogger, Fouad Farhan – imprisoned in December 2007 and released without charge in April this year – was a compelling host. He talked passionately about using the web to convince his people that a moderate Islam was the only alternative to the current nepotistic system and al-Qaeda-type extremism.
It was an uphill battle – not least because free media and elections were impossible – but Farhan convinced me that it was a worthwhile struggle. The web was his only way of disseminating information.
Across the Middle East regimes implement various modes of censorship. Iran has the most sophisticated process – ably assisted by Western multinationals – and blocks thousands of websites related to gender, politics, sex, health and popular culture. The Islamic Republic is undoubtedly fearful of modernity and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has increased oppression against women, journalists, unionists, homosexuals and human right activists. Not surprisingly, the mullahs have realised the power of the web to spread the message of Shia Islam and now utilise many bloggers of their own to counter the perceived liberal leanings of reformists.
China, the world’s biggest internet community – with over 250 million users and growing at six million per month – has developed into a heavily filtered but exciting space (though online bullying has now reached epidemic proportions). Despite the vast restrictions, robust discussion about corruption and health issues are everywhere and challenges the Western perception of a largely cowered society.
Blogs can, and should, allow better opportunities for different cultures to interact, debate and disagree online. Sadly, the language barrier is hindering these developments and must be improved before there is any credible talk of a truly global internet.
The online culture, chaotic and disjointed in its aims, is unlike that of any previous social movement. Allowing people to write and speak for themselves without a western filter is one of the triumphs of blogging, though many western journalists feel threatened by its potential. While some want the right to criticise their leaders, others simply want to flirt and listen to hip-hop. That is revolutionary for much of the world.