Saturday, January 27, 2007

Middle Eastern Blogs: Something to Say and Somewhere to Say It. (Essay)

Introduction

Much has been said about the spread and conduct of terrorism via the Internet. Terrorist groups have embraced technology and leveraged it to attack enemies and distribute propaganda. The internet and the information age link terrorists like never before, giving them unprecedented access to each other and the terror victim. Groups based in Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran -and with each a diaspora- connect to plot and plan the next attack.

There is another group of Middle Easterners that use this same system to network. This group connects via the internet. They plot and plan. They spread their views throughout the world. Yet, these Middle Easterners contribute to an over all global conversation that in turn contributes to democratization and the mobilization of soft power the likes of which the world has never seen. With the spread of connectivity comes the spread of public diplomacy, as well as a voice to react to the legacy media of the West and the state run media at home. These are Middle Eastern bloggers.

Something to Say and Somewhere to Say it.

What is a blog (weB LOG)? Generally an online journal meets the criteria of blog when it is regularly updated, past posts are archived and posts are dated. Additional criteria may be attribution through linking and Real Simple Syndication (RSS).[1] As this new media evolves what a blog is will certainly change. Blogs are “new.” The Internet as we recognize it is still only in its teens and blogs are slightly younger. Blogs numbered in the twenties before 1999. Now in 2007 if you ask the blog index and search engine Technorati to search for blogs containing the term “middle east” it returns 933,070 results.[2]

Today you can find blogs all over the world touching on as varied subjects as the people who write the blogs, from an 18 year old Chinese girl living in Hamilton, New Zealand introducing herself to the world via MySpace[3] to an American student in Dublin Ireland going on about his pub adventures via Blogger[4] to a mother of three in Mosul Iraq trying to make sense of her chaotic life.[5] Each of these people is an active participant in the new media of blogging. Each contributes to a massive dialog that is largely unfiltered, unedited and patently democratic.

Middle Eastern Blogs

Middle Eastern blogs are just as varied in content as any other part of the world. There are blogs that feature cats,[6] blogs that feature art[7] and certainly blogs that feature political commentary and analysis. One of the most prominent of these is Iraq The Model run by two Iraqi brothers, Omar and Mohammed Fadhil.[8] Iraq The Model’s first post was on Friday, November 14, 2003 which makes it one of the oldest blogs in the Middle East and certainly Iraq. Anton Efendi’s Across the Bay is a Lebanese blog. It is mainly politics and dates back to April, 2004. Its most recent post “Arafat on Steroids: Syrian Style” is a comparison of Syrian leader Bashar Assad to Yassir Arafat.[9] There is also a strong representation in the blogosphere by the Middle Eastern diaspora. IraqPundit: Observations of an Iraqi Exile is also political in nature. The last post,” Al-Jazeera Stumbles Down Haifa Street” is critical of Al Jazeera’s reporting on recent Iraqi army operations in Baghdad.[10] One very interesting blog is by Jordanian Roba Al-Assi, And Far Away.[11] This blog could pass for that of a twenty-something living her life in Manhattan. Here is how Roba describes herself:

Female. Twenty-something. Jordanian of Palestinian origin. Born in Amman. Bred and raised in the compounds of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Moved back to Jordan in 2003 to take up a degree in Fine Arts and Design at Jordan University. Should be graduating soon…

Liberal. Feminist. Overachiever. Messy. Optimistic. Cynical. Slightly cocky. Major listening problems. Rather humorless. Tiny attention span. City person. Generally a very happy individual. Believes self-expression is an essential part of her identity. Complete nerd but partial geek. Looks forward to meeting new people. Obsessive by nature. Places logic above all. Art aficionado. Infatuated with design. Fascinated by the power of brands. Loves minimalism. Finds red irresistible. Fascinated by glue…

Loves shoes. Adores the internet. Admires Andy Warhol, Marcel DuChamp, and Leila Shawa. Willing to live on soda, brownies, and kubeh nayyeh.”

When Western minds conjure an image of a Middle Eastern woman Roba’s description of herself is not what comes to mind. The legacy media’s portrayal of Middle Easterners follows a particular stereotype.[12] The new media blog works to counter preconceived notions. Bloggers and readers are no longer tied to the old media. There is no longer hegemony of information, sources and distribution. Information is now dirty and democratic. In fact blogs, as described in the 2003 debate between intellectuals and bloggers in Iran, are said to be “Vulgar.”[13] Vulgar here describes the unedited and raw nature of the text and the irreverence towards academic cannon and religion. The great unwashed now practice their own system: part netiquette, part mob rule, part capitalism. However it is practiced, it is practiced on a scale that grows exponentially every year, doubling in size every 5 months from 2003.[14]

From social networking to political analysis blogs serve many uses each of which assumes at least one thing, an audience. How many and who is reading. In the run up to the 2004 US Presidential elections a few American blog’s audiences were the US nation and the world. When the Dan Rather CBS news report about President Bush’s National Guard experience turned out to be less than accurate it was a collection of blogs who got credit for doing the legacy media’s job of reporting and fact checking. This use of blogs influenced a US Presidential election. Most of the power of blogs is more subtle, in fact “soft.”

Joseph Nye Jr. describes soft power as “the ability to obtain desired outcomes through attraction rather than coercion…”[15] In the Middle East the emergence of blogs has given a voice to those that did not have one a few years ago. That voice is out there for billions to receive. Practically that voice may not be reaching but a few hundred thousand but given the exponential growth of blogs, the questionable nature of the Middle Eastern media, and the ease of access these blogs are “attracting” attention. During the recent Israel-Lebanon war blogs attracted the attention of the mainstream news.[16] Blogs from both sides of the conflict gave us a raw and unedited view. While a hard power coercive war was being fought in southern Lebanon and within the dangerous radius of Hizb’allah rockets in Israel, a soft power struggle of a more diplomatic and free nature was being waged as well. This soft power struggle tries to analyze and make sense of the war, the politics and the history during the actual fighting rather than the usual post mortem. The Lebanese blog, The Lebanese Blogger (472,000 visitors), has this interesting exchange from Thursday, July 20, 2006[17]:

“…today Sayyid Nasrallah, in his interview on Al-Jazeera, almost answered Al-Mustaqbal by already deciding what the role of the Lebanese government should be: namely to receive all the international mediators, to take notes of their ideas and then to relay those ideas to Hizbullah, for Hizbullah to say, "Yes or No!"

I once wrote a post on this blog that said something along the lines of how in such a tiny place like Lebanon, some people can be so close, yet worlds apart!

And in the comments that followed:

Loli said...

I think it's outrageous that a militia gets to decide for our government and our people. I've been outside Lebanon since 1990, and perhaps I'm missing some crucial piece of information, but I don't undertand why nobody seems to openly oppose Nasrallah. Can someone pls educate me? The answers I've heard so far are to the effect that we want to avoid a civil war. I think letting a militia use arms as it pleases is a much worse enterprise.

nasbined said...

Everybody expects Lebanon to solve all the problems that Israel created in the middle east. Lebanon should not walk a single step alone when it comes to making sacrifices. Nasrallah said in that statement Doha quoted that Hezbollah defends the entire Islamic nation from Israeli aggression in a world that blindly supports Israel. So as long as Israel is at war with Muslims, Hezbollah's response is a natural one.”

This back and forth and countless more like it constitute the information age version of public diplomacy. Public diplomacy is “the influence of public attitudes on the formation and execution of foreign policies…”[18] The Middle Eastern blog dialogue grows everyday and with it the influence.

In the conversation below an Egyptian professor tackles three issues in the Middle East: hate culture, conspiracy theories and western views of the Middle East.[19] First an excerpt from his actual blog:

It is again the same culture that burned the consulates during the famous Danish cartoon protests in Syria, and killed a old nun in Lebanon in protest of the Pope's remarks accusing Islam of violence! These ignorants didn't know that what they really did was to proove his point!”

From the comments:

حفصوتشا ام مصطفيتش said...

what shall we say ?!!?? again its the wahabyah dogma that invaded the pure and simple rules of human living wihtout any consideration to others…

…i dont think that it was muslims who did the 11/9, its way beyond our abilites otherwise we could have done somehting long time ago, and lets say that it was done by arabs, i would assume that they were only puppets in the hands of bin laden whos another puppet in the hands of the states itself.”

The blogger responds:

Nah·det Masr said...

I think as a community we have a problem in the tolerance department… However, I strongly disagree with you regarding the perpetrators of 9/11 since I have seen a TV show on Aljazeera, where Khalid Shaykh Mohamed described the details of their planning of their crime…”

Finally an American comments:

howie said...

For an American...it is "easy" to talk about how people need to self-critic, debate, explore, criticize...but in much of the Arab world, people who write articles like this one and end up like Kareem [in jail] or worse. What were the authors own words about being afraid to speak his opinion in the mosque?
I admire you and the sites I am finding like this one.”

Nah·det Masr responds:

Nah·det Masr said...

Howie, thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. I am sure that all of us humans share the same universal set of values…

Blogging is magical in that you get to express your true beliefs and thoughts under the false sense of security and anonimity. The good surprise is that you find that many people share your thoughts!”

Ten years ago what stars would have had to align for two Egyptians and an average American to be able to discuss openly radical Islam? Now via the internet worlds are close enough and the thought police are far enough to allow this example of public diplomacy.

Conclusion

Months from now there will be thousands of new blogs in the Middle East. Opinions will be launched and government “facts” will be questioned. Causes will be lobbied and authority interrogated. All of these things that are possible in the relative anonymity of cyber space are appreciably more difficult in reality. State run media for some and sectarian death squads for others stand in the way of individual expression. Many of the Iraqi blogs reviewed refer to friends, family and relatives only by initials or by pseudonym. Even with the anonymity of the internet the reality of what is at stake makes prudence first and serves as a reminder how real the freedom deficit is in many parts of the Middle East. The blogs of the Middle East serve to fill some of that deficit. It gives a few, but growing number, a public voice, a vote in the public diplomatic debate.

Blogs are democratic by nature, each its own vote. Like all votes, by itself it is not very weighty but the aggregate of many like minded votes is powerful. Places like itoot.net network and sort thousands of Arab bloggers.[20] Here one vote turns to many one voice joins many and attraction rather than coercion hold sway. The soft power of the Middle Eastern blog is in its infancy. As connectivity grows in that region so will the volume of the blog voice. Internet usage in the Middle East has grown 479% since 2000. Sadly that only represents a 10% penetration compared to 69% in North America and 38% in Europe.[21] Optimistically that leaves room for growth. Realistically these statistics serve to further illustrate the great deficits of the Middle East. If the Middle East continues its current growth in internet usage and leverages it to become more of a participant in the global conversation then that is a true seed of democracy.

Additional Sources Consulted

Lebanese

http://beirutspring.blogspot.com/

http://lebop.blogspot.com/

Iranian

http://fleetingperusal.blogspot.com/

http://zerzaust.blogspot.com/2006/02/vulgarity-debaterevisited.html

Iraqi

http://riverbendblog.blogspot.com/

http://blog.aliraqi.org/

http://iraqiatheist.blogspot.com/

http://iraqilgbtuk.blogspot.com/

Iraqi Diaspora

http://twentyfourstepstoliberty.blogspot.com/

http://eyeraki.blogspot.com/

http://www.iraqigeek.com

http://www.baghdadtreasure.blogspot.com/

Syrian Diaspora

http://amarji.blogspot.com/



[1] Gill, Kathy, E., (2004) How Can We Measure the Influence of the Blogosphere? Pg. 1.

[2] http://www.technorati.com/search/middle+east

[3] http://blog.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=blog.view&friendID=67870277&blogID=216777696&MyToken=ba7bd429-b9d5-435a-9483-0774a58825ca

[4] http://arenablog.blogspot.com/

[5] http://youngmammy.blogspot.com/

[6] http://baghdadgirl.blogspot.com/

[7] http://www.baghdadartist.blogspot.com/

[8] http://iraqthemodel.blogspot.com/

[9] http://beirut2bayside.blogspot.com/

[10] http://iraqpundit.blogspot.com/

[11]Al-Assi, R., http://andfaraway.net/blog/ Retrieved 12/21/06

[12] Shaheen, J.G., Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 482, Changing Patterns of Power in the Middle East. (Nov., 1985), pp. 160-175.

[13] Doostdar, Alireza, AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST, Vol. 106, Issue 4, pp. 651–662

[14] http://technorati.com/weblog/2005/08/34.html

[15] Nye, J., (2007) Understanding International Conflicts, Pearson Longman, 289

[16] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/4775393.stm

[17] http://lebanesebloggers.blogspot.com/2006/07/so-close-worlds-apart.html

[18] http://wiki.uscpublicdiplomacy.org/mediawiki/index.php/DefiningPD

[20] http://itoot.net/

[21] http://www.internetworldstats.com/stats5.htm

3 comments:

Nah·det Masr said...

Hey Benjamin, thanks for sharing this essay. I learned by many new things by reading it. I like the term "Public Diplomacy". I totally agree with you that blogs will accumulated a public movement of like minded people to "softly" create a "national mindset", and also will help create bridges with the outside world.

Benjamin Parrish Cook said...

I am glad you liked it. Please visit often.

B.

Roba said...

Great essay Benjamin. Really interesting read!