Voices of the People

The Uncensored Arabic Voice

By Sunny Bleckinger

This Sunday the Melkweg is hosting a bazaar entitled ‘Words are louder than a

bomb’. It’s a series of discussions and performances about freedom and democracy

in the Middle East.

‘It became a taboo here just to talk about political Islam,’ explains Annie van

de Pas, a member of GroenLinks’ foreign department and a coordinator for the

bazaar. ‘We want to break through that by encouraging discussions and ideas. People

seem to think the Middle East is just a static place full of backwards people and

long beards, but that’s a very blind view. Of course no one agrees with the Bush

method, but that doesn’t mean we should not think of alternative ways to promote

freedom in the Middle East.’

Independent writers and journalists, such as Froukje Santing of NRC Handelsblad,

will share regional stories of what they’ve seen. Experts will discuss human

rights, social change, indigenous love songs and the underestimated position of

women in Muslim nations. And, the folks at INFOWARROOM will be on hand to

provide prescient clips from their collection of Arabic news footage. Several

speakers will also illuminate the realities of Arabic youth culture, particularly in

regard to the digital age.

‘I’ve been to Iran twice,’ says Van de Pas, ‘and many people there are meeting

each other through the internet. They will often get together in secret. And many

marriages are a result of the web.’

Robert Wolfering, a researcher for the Leiden-based International Institute for

the Study of Islam in the Modern World, is one of the experts who’ll discuss Arabic

web use. ‘Many people have the idea that the internet is banned there,’ says Wolfering.

‘That is not true, they use it quite regularly: every Arab government has a

website. Another idea that people have is that Islam bans the internet. This is also

not true.’

Currently, about 10% of the Egyptian population uses the net, while around

25% of Morocco is online. This may sound small, but according to Wolfering, it

shows a steady increase. ‘The internet [there] is no longer for the elite. The elite

is just not that large.’ Along with the increase of internet use, blogging is also

on the rise. This is important because blogs provide a direct source for the

voice of the people.

‘The Arab media does not correspond to the Arab people,’ explains

Wolfering. He cites the Danish cartoon controversy as an example. ‘The press,

along with political figures, were angry about that. But most of the people would

rather let it pass.’ Wolfering explains that, in contrast to the Arab press, which

is generally negative, the overall atmosphere attained from the blogs is quite

positive, and refreshing. ‘The blogs give something new to the public discourse

and challenge the authorities and media. And it can’t be stopped or censored. The

use of the internet is exploding in the Middle East.’

For those who don’t read Arabic, there are a number of native blogs in

English. Wolfering mentions http://www.mahmood.tv as one of his favourites. ‘He is a

very funny guy in Bahrain. Very witty.’ He also says that http://muttawa.

blogspot.com provides the voice of an intelligent and funny Saudi Arabian,

though the writer has been living in London for a while. For a list of Arabic blogs

in English see http://www.arabist.net.