Abdel Kareem Nabil Suleiman is an Egyptian blogger who dared to speak out against his authoritarian government. For his sins, he has just been sentenced to four years imprisonment for ‘inciting hatred of Islam’ and insulting President Hosni Mubarak on his blog. Suleiman, 22, was expelled from Cairo’s Al-Azhar University last year for strongly criticising the institution’s strict curriculum and religious extremism.
Suleiman’s case has recently been highlighted by the Washington Post:
Egyptian authorities have made a mistake in prosecuting Suleiman. It is Egypt that will be hurt if he is convicted and sent to prison. That’s why sincere friends of Egypt call on the Government to drop the charges against him. It is the right thing to do, and it is the best thing for Egypt’s standing in the modern world.
The case has gained attention in newspapers the world over and from human rights organisations such as Amnesty International. Informal networks of bloggers have spread the word. Last Thursday, bloggers and human rights activists around the globe gathered to call on Egyptian authorities to respect freedom of speech. We echo this call.
Suleiman has criticised Egyptian authorities as failing to protect the rights of religious minorities and women. He has expressed his views about religious extremism in very strong terms. He is the first Egyptian blogger to be prosecuted for the content of his remarks. Remarkably, the legal complaint originated with the university that had expelled him; once, it was a great centre of learning in the Arab world, but it has been reduced to informing on students for their dissent from orthodoxy.
Bloggers have rallied around Suleiman’s cause, even though his family disowned him days before the trial, citing his alleged contempt for the Islamic religion.
The case has promoted the plight of Arab bloggers like never before. In nations where freedom of speech is a rare commodity, online media has given previously unheard voices the ability to express dissent, solidarity, anger, love and pain without government constraint. Syrian blogger Ammar Abdulhamid explains:
Blogging, therefore, is fast becoming a serious threat to traditional authority in the region, be it political or religious.
How so? How could a part-time and haphazard activity like blogging undermine any of the region’s staunchly dictatorial regimes? And how could such isolated figures as the bloggers come to pose such a threat?
The answer depends in no small part on the oft-neglected fact that politics is frequently perception-driven rather than reality-driven. If this is so in the free world, it is even more the case in our decaying world, still living on the toxic fumes of an ancient glory, still shackled by an overbearing past, still intellectually and even spiritually malnourished more than a century after the advent of modernity into its dark and sinewy alleys.
One of the strengths of the blogging movement is the inability to classify its roots or ambitions. Whereas many disparate voices have emerged from Iraq, for example some were initially pro-war and pro-US, though these days the vast majority simply despair at American incompetence and brutality other Arabs have created a movement focused on any number of issues rarely articulated on Al-Jazeera or Al-Arabia.
Egyptian-born social commentator Mona Eltahaway told last week’s ABC Radio National’s Media Report that blogging and new media are engaging young people (and women especially) in ways that were impossible only a few years ago:
And even when we saw the entrance of satellite channels like Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabia which has been celebrated for breaking a lot of the taboos and a lot of the censorship that had strangled the region for a long time, these satellite channels are still very dominated by very old voices. The Middle East is a very young region and you do not hear that young voice reflected even in these new satellite channels.
So you find the young and women are turning to blogs and other sorts of Internet sites because they can start them up themselves and they don’t find anyone else either listening to them or encouraging them to join the debate. So they’ve created their own debate; they’ve created their own community and they’re using these new modes of technology to bypass all these old modes that have never paid any attention to them.
There is, of course, a wider context for encouraging new voices in the Arab world. A survey released last week in New York found that the ‘war on terror’ has radicalised Muslims to unprecedented levels of anti-American hatred. Although a majority of Muslims polled in 10 Muslim countries supported the Western democratic model, the failure of Western commentators to understand the nuances of the religion was cited as a major source of friction. ‘ Few Western commentators can see how women could embrace the veil, Sharia and equal rights at the same time,’ the UK Times wrote.
Of course, it doesn’t help that the majority of Western commentators since 9/11 have barely left their cosy, inner-city homes and failed to venture to the Muslim world itself. When was the last time Janet Albrechtsen travelled further than her annual holiday to Bali? Yet she is put forward as some kind of freedom fighter for Muslim women’s rights. Having spoken to many Muslim women about this, I have yet to meet one who appreciates Janet’s brave, office-bound campaigning.
Memo to Janet: reading Irshad Manji and Ayaan Hirsi Ali isn’t necessarily the best introduction to the Muslim faith. It would be like reading the rantings of Zionist pioneer Ze’ev Jabotinsky and believing he represented the Jewish faith.
In such a political environment, hearing Arab voices in the blogosphere challenging Western ignorance can only be a good thing (for instance, a fine site on the Iranian scene is the ‘Persian Impediment’). When a US strike against Iran appears imminent (see Seymour Hersh’s latest piece in the New Yorker), the need for rational voices has never been more important.
The blogosphere may not be the cure-all to appease Western militarism, but listen hard enough and you’ll hear countless voices of reason pleading to stop the beating drums of war.
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