Work, Family, Love

So much for the internet as a popular platform for terrorists: a Harvard University study, "Mapping the Arabic Blogosphere: Politics, Culture and Dissent" banishes these and other myths. Arabic-language bloggers have other things on their minds. Silke Lode introduces the report

A graphic representation of the Arabic blogosphere: bloggers in the Arabic-speaking world are not apologists for Islamist terrorism say researchers from the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University

​​The new study from Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, part of its "Internet and Democracy Project", cannot refute the fact that Islamist extremists and terrorists use the web as a platform for the dissemination of their radical views and for the organisation of worldwide attacks. With its analysis of over 4,000 Arabic blogs from eighteen countries it does however disprove many widespread prejudices.

First and foremost: the web is not a safe haven for terrorist-sympathisers. Less than one percent of Arabic bloggers advocate terrorism and nearly one in five speak out explicitly against it. Bruce Etling, one of the report's four authors, says that they were surprised themselves that there were no blogs containing extremism or calling for jihad.

More of an online diary

When terrorism is discussed, it is largely criticised, the researchers found; the bloggers are in fact more interested in other subjects. Typically they write about personal issues – work, family, love – corresponding precisely to the concept of the blog as an online diary.

photo: AP
An internet café in Riad, Saudi Arabia: under the absolute monarchy in the Arab peninsula several bloggers have been imprisoned

​​The second-favourite topic is national politics, and here criticism of the bloggers' respective political leaders dominates. Neither wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, nor US foreign policies generally, receive nearly the same attention; this may surprise the US Department of State which financed the study.

The only international subject discussed throughout the Arabic blogosphere, as elsewhere, is the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians and the situation in Gaza.

Internet censorship in Syria

Some Arabic bloggers have been forced to pay dearly for their critical stance however. In Egypt and Saudi-Arabia several bloggers have been imprisoned and, according to Reporters without Borders, in Syria alone five internet-dissidents are in jail.

The organisation, which campaigns worldwide for press freedom, has compiled a blacklist of "internet enemies". Four of the twelve countries it names and shames are part of the Arabic-speaking world. Iran is also on the list.

photo: AP
Egyptian blog-dissident Manal Hassan: like many Arabs she and her husband focus their criticism on their own country's political class

​​It is no wonder that password-protected forums, chatrooms and "social networks" are more popular than openly-accessible blogs. This shadier public domain does not only evade control by regimes however; it has also escaped the gaze of the researchers.

Thus it is unclear how far the blog analysis reflects public opinion. The fact is, however, that it is easier to criticise a regime on the internet than in the other media, often controlled by the state.

Egypt's blogger community, for instance – the largest in the study – includes everyone from secular reform-advocates to the Muslim Brotherhood, who are effectively banned. It is also noticeable that in conservative Saudi-Arabia many women use the internet to exchange opinions.

Saad Ibrahim, an Egyptian democracy and human rights activist, says that in Egypt bloggers are held almost in awe. The fact that the government persecutes, imprisons and even tortures them, simply boosts their public support.

Bloggers in Iraq have very different problems. Raed Jarrar says that the infrastructure is so bad there that many people have no access to the internet at all.

Silke Lode

© Süddeutsche Zeitung / 2009

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Study 'Mapping the Arabic Blogosphere'