|Democracy is possible, Arab bloggers assure us every day
|The Arab world is known as a home to some of the least democratic political structures existing around the globe. Basic human rights are barely met even in some of the apparently liberal countries in the region, such as Bahrain or the United Arab Emirates. |
But with the introduction of the Internet in the intellectually sheltered countries of the Arab world, blogging is now challenging Arab rulers. Most Middle East blogs, or online journals, are dedicated to politics because the Internet has allowed bloggers, who are effectively citizen journalists, to discuss taboos in their societies and reveal or criticize state information.
There never was a public forum in the Arab world that specifically served to help average citizens practice and bolster their right to freedom of expression. This is why blogging has become an essential communication strategy for many frustrated Arabs who use blogging as a tool to promote democratization. Many have been encouraged to join, and as a result the number of blogs initiated every day is multiplying dramatically. It is particularly attractive to Arab youth, who use blogging to agitate for a better future.
The reason why the Internet is so threatening to Arab governments is that it revolutionized the means of communication, making it virtually impossible to moderate or control. Through up-to-date blogging that is often critical of said governments, bloggers point out what is illegitimate in Arab states. It is a highly influential medium, as it welcomes and encourages rebellious movements to blossom within Arab countries. In "Deregulation Reconsidered: Protecting Internet Speech in the United States, Germany, and Japan," Jae-Young Kim makes a powerful statement applicable to the situation in Arab societies: "The purpose of expression of opinion has been recognized as the conveyance of an intellectual effect on one's surroundings and the contribution to the formation of public opinion."
Arab regimes have always constructed public opinion with ease due to absolute control over media outlets. Kim's argument shows that freedom of expression can be used to transcend that, and thus the formation of public opinion will not be as systematic. Blogging invites the sociological aspects of public opinion, through public discourse and open forums. In other words, many citizens are now able to publicly criticize their governments, something that never existed in the Arab world without dire consequences. That is not to say, however, that the consequences do not exist. They do. Blogging in the Arab world comes with big risks, which many young individuals understand and accept.
In the book "Future Active," Graham Meikle analyzes online activism, noting its growing popularity particularly in countries with strict media laws. In this fascinating account, he tries to answer an overriding question: Can the Internet revitalize democracy and serve as a prominent weapon for social change? If we apply such concepts to the Arab world, the answer would be yes. The Internet is powerful enough to change, promote or enforce laws in our strict and sheltered cultures if it creates overwhelming public pressure and concern. Cyber-activism has also increased the amount of political activism. Thanks to the Internet, people became more aware of social dilemmas, as well as human rights violations that are noticeably ignored by state-owned media outlets.
Many oppressed Arabs and Muslims would agree that blogging provides a gateway to freedom of expression, and thus the freedom to blog should be maintained for the sake of democracy. However, Arab officials insist on threatening and punishing those who blog, mainly because it threatens their positions and empowers opposition movements.
Blogging in the Arab world is being primarily used to overcome corrupt political practices and introduce social and moral ideals to promote freedom of speech and the free flow of information. It is important to note that despite the lack of press freedom and sufficient access to mass media, Arab bloggers still manage to gain massive worldwide publicity. Ammar Abdulhamid, a prominent Syrian blogger and liberal activist, states on his blog: "The Internet and blogging in particular is destined to play an important role in the social and political transformations currently taking place in the region. The democratic forces are bound to continue using it for intercommunicating and for organization."
Even while the Arab world experiences unprecedented economic transformation, Arab leaders are not in favor of democratization, and thus the region does not progress socially and politically. The serious and unjustifiable consequences bloggers face within the region serve as testament to the fact that Arab leaders are not open to democracy.
The key to communication on the Internet is words. The written word is the backbone of any industrialized modern society. Organic solidarity cannot exist without it. Without the use of the written word, we would have what sociologist Emile Durkheim referred to as "anomie," a normless state of disconnection to society. It is very important for Arabs to take advantage of modern technology to further promote human rights and democracy within the region. With consistency, public involvement and nonviolent yet forceful activism, democratization is possible. Blogging gives many Arabs and Muslims much-needed hope.
Esraa al-Shafei, a blogger from Bahrain, is the co-founder of mideastyouth.com and the Middle East Interfaith Blogger Network. She also runs FreeKareem.org aimed to free a jailed friend and fellow blogger, Abdulkareem Suleiman. This commentary was first published at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.
The Daily Star