The growth of Internet usage in the Middle East and North Africa is among the world’s
fastest: between 2000 and 2007 usage increased almost 500 percent, more than twice
the rate of increase in the rest of the world. Just as elsewhere, this has led to Middle
Eastern cyber-optimism - among the users of digital tools and Internet watchers alike.
It is a widely-held hope that the coming of Web 2.0 can move closed societies toward
democratic values and governance.
The basic assumption is simple: The Web provides
an infrastructure for expressing dissident points of view, breaking gate-keeper
monopolies on the public voice, thereby lowering barriers to political mobilization.
It makes group and individual action “cheaper, faster and leaner”. As a result, the
Internet has acquired a cult status, also among policy making institutions in the West
that are preoccupied with promoting democracy and human rights. In Europe, it is the
Dutch and Danish governments that are at the forefront of supporting digital activism.
Conferences, seminars and workshops are organized where “digital heroes from the
Middle East” play a prominent role.
Among the digital tools, blogging takes a prominent place. It is supposed to play an
important role in building a more democratic public sphere in authoritarian states. In
iMuslims, Gary R. Bunt, gives a comprehensive inventory of what he, somewhat
cumbersomely, labels as the “cyber-Islamic environment” (CIE). The chapter on the
“Islamic blogosphere” - a slight misnomer when discussing secular blogs in Iran or Syria
- is a useful addition to what we already know about this particular form of digital
activism in the Muslim world. Several countries are surveyed: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain,
Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and the
Occupied Territories, Turkey, Iran, and more briefly Egypt and several countries in the
Bunt is well-informed, also in his (short) treatise on blogging in Syria and more elaborate
on Iran. The Syrians presented themselves at a relatively early stage while the Iranians
are clearly front-runners with an estimated 700,000 Persian blogs in cyberspace in early
2007, of which about 40,000 to 110,000 are active. It is only at the very end of the
book that the author grapples with the impact of the Internet, including the
blogosphere. He rightly warns against overhyping the effect of online services under the
banner of Web 2.0. Much remains in the eyes of the beholder.
With this conclusion, Bunt clearly keeps away from the grandiose promise of
technological determinism - the idealistic belief in the Internet’s transformative power -
that has blinded so many analysts and policymakers. As, Evgeny Morozow, one of the
most perceptive analysts in the field has remarked, “While the new digital public
spheres may be getting more democratic (at least quantitatively), they are also heavily
polluted by government operators, making them indistinguishable from the old, tightly
controlled analogue public spheres (…). Digital natives are as likely to be digital captives
as digital renegades.” Until further research shows different, more rosy results, the
conclusion must remain a sober one: people have access to lots of information but very
little power to act on it. That is as true in Syria as it is in Iran. Logistics – “cheaper, faster
and leaner” – are not the only determinant of civic engagement.
By Paul Aarts, Lecturer International Relations at the University of Amsterdam
The article cited (Texting Toward Utopia) can be accessed through http://bostonreview.net/R34.2/ morozov.php
Nishant Shah @Republica 2010
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