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Will bloggers liberate the Middle East?

Oct 7, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 04 • By EVE TUSHNET
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IRANIAN WOMEN can't dance in public, convert from Islam, travel without their husbands' permission, or wear makeup. But they can blog--that is, create weblogs, online journals of news, opinion, or whatever random thoughts tickle the blogger's fancy. And Iran's blogs are the leading edge of an inspiring trend in the Islamic world. They might even be able to lend a hand (indirectly) in the war effort.

According to the tech-and-culture magazine Shift, there are now more than 1,200 blogs in Persian. Iranian women are especially enthusiastic bloggers. Shift reports that one woman, going by the pseudonym "Lady Sun," sparked a debate about sex roles in Iran based on her discussion of a man who groped her while she was entering a taxi. One man used her "comments" feature to ask what she thought of hijab, the form of veiling required by Iranian law. Women readers described their frustration with men, and their sense of oppression; perhaps more surprisingly, one male reader confessed that he had not realized that the law requiring hijab "has had a negative impact on society."

One Iranian woman blogger told the BBC, "Women in Iran cannot speak out frankly because of our Eastern culture, and there are some taboos just for women, such as talking about sex or the right to choose your partner." But she, like Lady Sun, has heard from men who say her blog helped change their view of women in Iran.

Iran is one of the most blog-heavy Islamic countries, partly because Iran is leaping onto the Internet. (Government figures predict the wired population will grow from 400,000 to 15 million in the next three or four years, according to the BBC.) New sites like Blogger and Movable Type make blogging so easy that creating a website takes only minutes--even for people who think HTML is jabberwocky.

Blogging isn't coming to the poorest nations anytime soon. Afghanistan, for example, is one of the least wired societies on the planet. But there are bloggers almost everywhere else. (I even found one posting from Baghdad.) There are plenty of bloggers in Malaysia and the Philippines (where teen girls will post about their classroom crushes, and then note their fear of the Muslim terrorist group Abu Sayyaf). Fewer bloggers post from Central Asian republics like Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, but they are out there; the only Islamic countries where I found no bloggers were poverty-stricken Afghanistan and sternly repressive Saudi Arabia. Eatonweb, a site that lists blogs from around the world, managed to find one blog each from Pakistan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Western Sahara. There are many more sites that Eatonweb hasn't yet ferreted out (the "UAE Forever" site lists scores of blogs), and the numbers are only going to grow. As a popular Internet saying goes, "The Internet treats censorship like damage, and routes around it." What's more, the two-way form of communication that blogging facilitates lends the medium an air of cosmopolitanism, as Syrians link to Americans who link to Malaysians. One site, Blogiran, is run jointly by several expats and a woman currently living in Iran.

When bloggers in Islamic states look at America, what do they see? Although some resent the global reach of American culture, far more (especially women) embrace aspects of our popular culture. Many bloggers expressed sympathy for Americans after 9/11. Bloggers in Islamic nations who are interested in politics will easily get the sense that Americans are not a political monolith, since political-commentary blogs tend to include lots of links to sites from opposing viewpoints.

But what I didn't find on these blogs was intense practical and theoretical discussion of freedom, virtue, or war. Consider how much our country has benefited from the Federalist Papers, for example, and the importance of an articulated understanding of political life becomes obvious.

Sites about Islam provide serious theoretical discussion of the teachings of Muhammad and their impact on political life. Blogs ranging from the you-go-girl coziness of Muslimah Ya-Ya (slogan: "the Muslim Ya-Ya Sisterhood") to the Enlightenment rationalism of MuslimPundit (slogan: "Going after starry pan-Islamic futurists with a rubber glove and a sharp stick") either provide or link to a wealth of in-depth religious and political commentary. These sites offer Islamic alternatives to the rage of bin Laden and the repression of the Saudi monarchs.

Such alternatives are crucially important, but they need to be matched with sites that do for political philosophy what the Islamic blogs do for religion. The middle class, the people who are reading and starting blogs, are essential to liberal reform. Because we are fighting not an army but an ideology--not one specific state or an open alliance, but a covert network and a tyrannical tendency--the United States has been talking in terms of "regime change" across an entire region. And as G.K. Chesterton put it, "You can never have a revolution in order to establish a democracy. You must have a democracy in order to have a revolution." Before a "regime change" (whether from without or, much better, from within) can succeed, there must be a core of people who have some of the habits of freedom, including experience with free expression, and at least a mild sympathy for America. Otherwise, "regime change" just replaces one master with another. Persuasion and cultural interpenetration--through foreign trade, through entrepreneurial-assistance groups, and definitely through the Internet--are a major part of the long-term struggle.

Ordinary American citizens are doing interesting things online to encourage the attitudes that promote liberal reform, and we could be doing even more. One possibility is simply to create websites where people can talk about their own understandings of, and appreciation for, liberal democracy. These sites should not be government-run: Government sites are likely to be stilted or propagandistic. Even more important, blogging's great strength is its grass-roots origin; it's about people creating something that they own and control. What better way to promote a desire for free expression and self-ownership than to do it ourselves?

Why not start a site where immigrants talk about what America means to them? Sites could also be dedicated to immigrants from specific countries--country-specific sites get lots of links, since people are naturally interested in what pertains to them most directly. Many bloggers are excited to find other bloggers in or from their own nation. Country-specific news and opinion sites, from a reformist perspective sympathetic to America, are also needed. Although there are some fun sites of this type by and for American immigrant communities (like Iran Today), there aren't many aimed at people still within Islamic nations.

Bloggers in Islamic countries are slowly building communities and changing people's minds about what is possible. That may not be as dramatic as an exploding cave, but it's equally necessary for long-term liberalization in the Middle East.

Eve Tushnet is a freelance journalist in Washington, D.C., and writes a weblog at www.eve-tushnet.blogspot.com.