Monday, January 07, 2008

The triumph of folly - the Arab blogging revolution

Something has been bothering me for a while and I know when I get like this I'm about to write a post which a lot might take the wrong way - I hope this doesn't happen. A lot of coverage has focused recently on the blogging sensation sweeping the Arab world and it's largely taken as something positive. I guess there's some truth in that but I suspect it is not at all rosy. Mona al Tahawy had posted an article about some Saudi blogger who was arrested recently. She said:

Why are bloggers so feared by authoritarian regimes in the Arab world? Because they are young and blogging is, at last, a way to express themselves in a world where they are ignored. The majority of the Arab world is under the age of 30 and this majority has few venues to express their views — political or otherwise.

Mona's answer to her own question is unconvincing and I feel reinforces the naive assumption held by many bloggers that the regimes are frightened of them. I don't think this is the case at all regardless of what happened with the case of the Egyptian torture victim. Regimes which have an interest in maintaining US favour might care about their public image when high profile cases surface, but countries such as Iran and Syria couldn't care less about this issue. In both categories the prognosis is not good for bloggers - those in the former countries exist by grace of foreign attention whilst the latter wallow in obscurity or anonymity.

What concerns me is not only the relationship of these regimes with the bloggers but rather with the nature of the bloggers themselves. What are we? Some wish to portray this mass of us coalescing on the internet as a brave new wave of "Youth" raging against the machine of conservatism and creating a new political and social space. Brave vanguards of a new revolution that aims to shake the complacency in much of the Arab world. In almost 18 months of blogging, the picture I have of Arab politicised blogs is actually anything but.

Rather than a grass roots revolution that could change the world, I see a self absorbed and "balkanised" web community unaware of it's ineffectuality. As Adam Curtis once described it, this balkanised community does not do any of it's own research but rather feeds on itself and on existing news sources. Members of the community join the constellation of news sources and bloggers who share their own views and in fact engage very little with those they disagree with. In fact they are so epistemologically different that it is impossible to see where they can start a discussion or engagement. I'm totally guilty of this as anyone else may be and I've seriously started to rethink why I actually blog.

Another problem I see is that whilst the blogging phenomena in the Arab world is picking up pace, the ability for everyone to have a platform to air their ideas does not, I believe, create a culture of open discussion and enlightened thought as we are led to believe by some. Instead we see something akin to "Speakers corner" in London's Hyde Park every Sunday. This is a place where every crackpot who feels so inclined stands up on his pedestal and begins to spew out the most ridiculous rubbish for anyone who will listen. The result, apart from being a noisy mess, is a dumbed down political arena where freedom of speech drowns out intelligent discussion, analysis and understanding. The wave of political and activist bloggers sweeping the Middle East may have a variety of religious, political, and ethnic backgrounds, yet it seems that so many of them share one crucial thing - they are amateurs incapable of identifying or clearly articulating what they want. Some want an Islamic caliphate, some keep talking about democracy like a broken record, some want to be liberal activists "a la 60's American campus style". We wear the online "costume" for our particular "team", championing it's causes and adapting it's style of language and outlook. The wave of political and activist blogging sweeping through the region has nothing to do with an Arab awakening but is the end result of generations of intellectually bankrupt youth who don't know what it means to be an Arab, or a Muslim or an Eastern Christian. We are the post-MTV generation who realise that "American" is a dirty word, yet find ourselves unconsciously identifying with that term and all it entails.

On deeper investigation, it quickly appears that we don't really know what we are talking about, nor, in fact, what we want. The generations of Arabs who first started graduating whilst under colonial occupation were still Arabs and there was genuine activity as ideas of nationalism, modernism and state building came into conflict with the different contexts of Arab identity and the universe that is the Islamic world. Yet rather than provide a path out of occupation and humiliating mandates, these ideas have only embroiled us further into subjugation to the point where I think we have become alienated from ourselves. This new generation is not "Western" enough to get a visa and not "Eastern" enough to feel comfortable as Arabs with it's new found "laissez-faire" morality or individualism. Blogging is the triumph of the amateur and the meaningless - an outlet for a confused generation that's slipped between the cracks of history. I'm an Arab blogger, and I'm a rebel without a clue. Welcome to my revolution.

13 comments:

sasa said...

Sometimes I disagree vehemently with you. And by your intro I was worried this was going to be one of those posts!

But I'm glad I was proved wrong. Sometimes I learn things from you. I like that. This is a very very self-aware post. And I'm sorry to say I have to agree with you.

yaman said...

I think the spread of blogging means something. Whether it has significance as its own category of "Things To Talk About" I am not convinced yet--but it is certainly something which is useful in spreading information and organizing (not that all blogs or many blogs or even any blogs actually do this effectively); but none of these things (organizing, spreading information) started because of blogs. We can romanticize about how blogging symbolizes a democratic revolution, but all this is ridiculous for many of the reasons you listed and others. I don't know if blogging is really an outlet for confusion. But I know it is definitely not the proof that liberals have always been looking for, that the Arab youth or masses actively "yearn" for freedom and democracy (as if this is the central concern in many people's lives), an idea which really is meant only to confirm these liberals' attitude of themselves; this is why you see the plethora of Western-based "Free ____" campaigns (of course, I agree with freeing all of these people); because that is what liberals can agree with and get all charged up about. You can bomb a city to dust, and the one complaint that liberals can make is that it has "made us less secure" or has "made more terrorists." But if you arrest a blogger, suddenly you are the devil incarnate and your plight can be used for the self-aggrandizement of 'activists' across the globe who know nothing about you but your website URL--if that. It's a little too much, this freedom of speech thing, when we think it is fundamental to political action. It's not the freedom to say things which is revolutionary; it's the fact of saying things, especially when you are not 'free', that makes them so. This obsession is what makes international liberal activism a breeding ground for the Cult of the Political Prisoner (TM).

annie said...

Wassim, je ne suis pas Arabe et je ne devrais pas parler. Mais vu de l'extérieur, tu coupes les cheveux en quatre et tu te fustiges inutilement.
Why complicate things and set goals for blogging, Arab blogging or any blogging ?
In countries where there is no freedom of expression, of course bloggers are not going to start cyber revolutions if they know what is good for them.
I would say : do your thing, speak your mind within your limits and don't give a hoot. That will get you some readers or may be not. Ma lesh !

nadia n said...

I agree with you, almost totally, but I think this is just a symptom of the novelty of the medium and it'll wear off in a couple of years.

You lost me a little on the old generation still being Arabs as opposed to the current one. You said yourself that the new generation is Balkanized, and I think that's one of the defining features of the medium of expression, so why would you paint them entirely as anything?

Wassim said...

Sasa,
Thanks! Don't forget, we have to meet up for a coffee sometime.

Yaman,
Darn, you copyrighted the Cult of the Political Prisoner before I did. Great term!

Annie,
Thanks for the advice! :S

Nadia,
The old generation are pre-blogging and pre-Arab independence even, which is why I don't think the "balkanisation" was a reality at the time.

Abu Kareem said...

Wassim,

It is good to hold a mirror up to our collective selves; it may be disconcerting but it is a necessary exercise. Having said that your pronouncements are harsh and overly pessimistic.

I agree with Mona that our oppressive regimes fear bloggers as they fear anyone whose thoughts and expressions they cannot control. But they shouldn'f fear them precisely because of the reasons you gave. Bloggers are by and large harmless amateur ramblings (to borrow a term from Yaman). But so what? blogs are personal expressions much like what happens in real life public discussions. People often expose their biases and their ignorance but occasionally these discussions are fruitful. To the extent that such public expressions of opinions are limited in our region, the web acts a useful outlet for people.

Anyone who thinks that political cyberactivism will work in the Middle East are kidding themselves. Not that it doesn't have the potential, but it is unlikely to be effective until a much larger, and more representative critical mass of the population has unrestricted internet access.

Yes bloggers tend to cluster with other who think as they do thus defeating the whole idea of expanding one's horizon by exposing oneself to a range of ideas and opinions; but this also happens in real life too.

As for the older generation being necessarily more certain of their identity, I am not so sure that it is true but that's the subject of another long discussion.

Wassim said...

Abu Kareem,
I don't disagree with most of what you've said, in fact I've already said it. I'll take a guess that what your point boiled down to was this comment:

but it is unlikely to be effective until a much larger, and more representative critical mass of the population has unrestricted internet access.

does anyone else notice that this critical mass as you call it does not have a clear idea inspiring it, a clear agenda or even any tangible political thought that anyone can articulate? It is a yearning for - what exactly? I doubt many in that critical mass (or bewildered herd) have given any thought to this. So if they succeed what do we have? Where is this going? Perhaps I wasn't clear enough, but my post was to express grave concerns about what would happen if these rebels without a clue succeed. Most revolutions in history had a reason,a purpose or a cause. This Arab blogging revolution, it is a cause for what? Freedom? Liberty? What are these things but the candy floss of political terms. Freedom from what and Liberty from what? Our traditions? Our culture? Our"selves"?

This is not a revolution, it is a stampede and somebody is busy lighting fires.

Lirun said...

ok - i agree with the post in some ways.. but i think what blogging does is create a record of social analysis so that the world can see how we view messages pimped by the media about our regions and cultures..

personally it is very important for me to mix analysis with emotion.. because i think b/logging those sentiments is the essence of the blog..

in addition i do my best to discuss events | news | developments as i witness them first hand.. whether through my eyes | a digital lense | my heart etc.. and i think the beauty of the blog is the link that it provides to micro-activism.. it is so easy to google a petition and donate to a cause moments after you read about it.. you dont have to establish a whole new project.. you can make a difference from the comfort of your chair.. equally you can take it a step further and indulge in various forms of field work..

i think the blogging revolution is the reclamation of media agency.. originality is an issue of its own..

but with respect to the arab sphere in particular - i think u take for granted how much the world is fascinated (a) by the views it reads on the sphere and (b) by the reaction of authorities to the bloggers..

The Syrian Brit said...

Why do we blog?..
If you believe you can change Regimes through blogging, you need to see a psychiatrist, as you must be suffering from delusions of grandeur..
On the other hand, if you are blogging to vent off thoughts, to start debates, to communicate feelings, or just to express yourself, then you are in the right place..
Blogging is like keeping a diary.. Entries don't have to be deep and philosophical and meaningful.. They can be just ramblings.. a meandering thought.. a passing, irrelevant expression..
As for bloggers being 'a new wave of "Youth"..' Well, of course!.. Just look at me and my dear friend Abu Kareem!!..

Abu Kareem said...

SB,

We are young at heart, that's what counts. We are (I hope)not the Old generation that Wassim is alluding to, but the middle generation.

Wassim,
You see, I don't think we know what the majority of Syrians want because no one has asked them and there is no way for them to freely express their thoughts. Bloggers are a small self-selected group and represent only themselves. If we don't seem to know what we want, it doesn't mean that the silent majority doesn't know what it wants.

Wassim said...

SB,
Thanks for your thoughts on this, I'm really happy to have read the comments so far and it's been really interesting how this phenomenon is viewed. Of course yourself and Abu Kareem are at the crest of this Youth Tsunami ;)

Abu Kareem,
I meant the pre-independence generation, which I'm assuming you are not a member of. It's a good point about not having the opinions of most Syrians, but honestly, even if you had it, how reflective would this be of what would be in their own interests? Can we not say that we are in fact a cross section once of that silent majority? If so, what does this tell us about the majority? In this case, your argument would not tell us that the silent majority does know what it wants at all. Would it?

Abu Kareem said...

Now, now Wassim, I know that you are not enamored with the concept of democracy but you seem to think the general populace is incapable of deciding what is in its best interest. So who decides? Don't the likes of Asad,Mubarak and king Abdalla tell their people that "they" know what is in their best interest?

"...at the crest of the youth Tsunami"...lol...I like that.

Lirun said...

blogging makes room for opinions and opinions are the seeds of change.. they are important vehicles for challenging the axiomatic foundations of the public..

i think under-estimating this is a shame..