Revolutionary Conversations

The Columbia Journalism Review has a fascinating article on the way in which blogging is creating a new spirit of openness in the closed societies of the Middle East. From Saudi Arabia to Egypt, bloggers are having conversations on topics that have normally been taboo and exploring opinions that would normally be stifled by government censors. As the article explains:

In the American blogosphere, opinions and life tales blossom a millionfold every day. But against the background of a largely party-line mainstream local Arab media, and the absence of avenues for national conversation, these Arab bloggers, most of whom are anonymous for their own safety, commit small acts of bravery simply by speaking their minds. It should be said that most of the people maintaining blogs do come out of the highest strata of society, economically and educationally, so their opinions can seem at times to represent no wider a circle than the upper crust of any given country. But, as Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian blogger who was forced into exile in September 2005 for his democracy activism, which included blogging about his eight-month interrogation by Syrian security services, put it: “There is nothing wrong with admitting that we represent a certain elite. It’s not exclusively an economic elite, though economics surely plays a large factor. These are people who are comfortable, who have more time to blog. But in itself this is not the problem. The importance of this technology at this stage is to connect the elites better, to network the elites, to make them able to share more ideas and organize.” The power of the medium, Abdulhamid says, will come when those bloggers find a way to “cross the bridge between the elite and the grass roots” — a process that is already beginning, through a few organized demonstrations coordinated by bloggers, online campaigns, and the posting of information about police brutality or sexual harassment.

The Arab blogosphere is small, but as Internet access becomes pervasive, the censors are going to have a harder time cracking down. The Internet has always been a disruptive technology, and as access to it grows across the Middle East, its effects will magnify. The state-run media only presents one side of the story — bloggers present more. Just as the samizdat movement in the former Soviet Union gave new power to the pro-democracy activists there, blogs are beginning to allow dissidents across the region to communicate and coordinate.

The rise of blogging gives Arab and Middle Eastern bloggers a sense of individuality in a culture in which “leaders” such as Hassan Nasrallah presume to speak for all. The leaders of the Middle East struggle to preserve a sense of unity, actively trying to make it look like the “Arab street” speaks with only one voice. Yet like any culture, there are thousands of diverse viewpoints, but in the Arab world many of these dissenting viewpoints have been suppressed. Blogging allows those suppressed viewpoints to challenge the hegemonic status quo in the region — which is why authorities in the region are scrambling to try to put the lid on bloggers.

It’s a quest that will likely fail — technology moves too fast, and the cultural and political snowball effect has already begun. Just as Charter 77, Solidarity, and samizdat eroded the control of Marxism across the Iron Curtain, bloggers can do the same across the Muslim world. The article’s conclusion is quite right — revolutions are started when young activists have a chance to examine the culture in which they live and wonder why things can’t be better. As that happens in the Middle East, what was once an intractable morass of sectarianism could some day become the vanguard of the next wave of democratic change.

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