The internet is not in itself a revolutionary force, though it certainly has allowed countless new voices to be heard across the world. I like the description by leading Chinese blogger, Isaac Mao, who said in early August: ‘Blogs encourage young people to become more individual’. That is incendiary in many places around the world.
When visiting a country like Iran – a population of 70 million, the majority under 30 years old and millions of web users – it’s immediately clear that solely relying on state-run media isn’t an option (dull, vehemently anti-US and uncritical). I spent time with writers and bloggers, some of whom were moderate Islamists; a term we rarely hear in the West; speak passionately about the ability to engage with issues that traditionalists would rather be ignored (sex before marriage, Israel etc.)
What hinders the demographic potential of the web – and we should never forget that in every place I visited; Iran, Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and China; the concept of political reform is defined differently – is the authoritarian impulse of many regimes. It’s a relatively new phenomenon to have unfiltered speech. Sadly, many Western internet multinationals, such as Yahoo, Google, Cisco and Microsoft, are assisting nations such as China to implement draconian censorship programs.
But I remain relatively hopeful that greater openness is occurring thanks to the web. The only problem for the West, however, is that the Bush administration has left Washington’s reputation in tatters. This is something I celebrate.
Your book is very balanced in political opinion, but you do mention that the West assists the ongoing repression of individuals in some of these countries (like the US in its support of some leaders). Is this to do with economic interests of Western countries (in the interest of their own citizens)? Is there any way things can be done differently?
Governments always act in their self-interest, never any other reason (no matter what the Bush administration has told the world for the last eight years.) Many Western leaders realise that true democracy is a danger to, say, ensuring natural resources or ‘stability.’ For example, if every Middle East country had an open and free election it is likely that Islamists would come to power, vehemently anti-Western.
Iraq is now sold as ‘bringing democracy’ to the heart of Mesopotamia but in fact we’ve recently discovered that leading Western oil companies will be getting a generous cut of the country’s vast oil resources. Was this the real point of the war? It was certainly one of the reasons.
In my book, I examine how the rest views the West and it’s not a pretty picture. Hypocrisy is order of the day. When its comes to the internet, it’s becoming increasingly clear that US foreign policy is an obstacle to a country’s advancement. Many bloggers, even in a place like Saudi Arabia, often admire American society but despise its policies. Democracy is likely to come without the ‘help’ of Washington.
Personally I know that many people of my generation get almost all their information and entertainment from the web as opposed to newspapers and television. Do you think it is going to be up to the youth to enhance the potential of the online medium for democratic change?
Almost always, in the countries that feature in my book, it’s the young who embrace new technology (though, of course, in a place like China the rate of deep poverty makes web access impossible for hundreds of millions of citizens.) It’s important to remember that ‘democratic change’ is occurring across the world but often not in the way the West would like.
Take China. The biggest online population in the world, 250 million and growing, and study after study appears to show a high level of satisfaction with the regime’s authoritarian stance. The vast majority of people apparently support extensive web filtering. Economic freedom has revolutionised the country, while maintaining a lid on political change. Is this the kind of ‘change’ that many of us would like, when human rights abuses are still rampant in the Communist land? No, but lecturing China about its obligations is not the way forward. Engagement is essential and talking to Chinese bloggers about their attitude that Western media hates their country for challenging American hegemony.
What is the greatest challenge for some of these bloggers who have grown up in a community where words like ‘human rights’, ‘free speech’ and ‘democracy’ are quite alien?
Having the guts to be heard and published online, when the risk for doing so is often imprisonment, torture or worse. There are any number of brave souls – often anonymous and unprotected by middle class trappings – who write a blog post simply talking about, say, local corruption. It can be act of incredible discipline. I met a male blogger in Cairo who had been raped in a police station for protesting police torture. The irony wasn’t lost on him.
Of course, we shouldn’t forget that many web users across the world have no interest in politics and want to go online to meet boys and girls, download pirated films or watch softcore pornography. It’s only the select few who dare play the dangerous game of political roulette.
I was fascinated by the culture behind closed doors and on the internet in Iran (such as the party you attended where they drank, and talked about Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits quite obsessively). Do you think some people there just accept this dual existence as a way of life the way that many in the West just accept the decisions of governments and higher powers?
Very much so. In Iran, and also Saudi Arabia, many young people feel compelled to live dual lives, one face for the public and other behind closed days. The disconcerting obsession with Mark Knopfler in Iran meant, I was told, that many saw his music as the sound of freedom. And here we are in the West just playing Dire Straits on easy listening radio stations.
It’s readily understood in many repressive regimes that official rules are just that, and designed to be subverted. Officials know in Iran that most people buy and drink contraband alcohol; some smoke pot, dance to Western music and have sex out of marriage. In fact, at one such party in Tehran – when a number of bloggers introduced me to their social life and forced me to dance to the sounds of Persian techno – I was surprised how similar the goings-on were to Sydney. Women entered in the hijab and soon transformed into voluptuous, mini-skirted wearing vixens. And no, I’m not exaggerating.
You acknowledge that any kind of democratic change in these countries would have to come slowly, unlike the gung-ho invasion of Iraq. This is because of the aforementioned aspect that the citizens in these countries are quite used to living a certain way, even if they do live in fear and frustration. Is this another reason why it is important we understand them as individuals, as people within a society and culture, before we attempt to assist their freedoms?
Democracy can never be imported. Never. In a place such as Cuba, where the web community is tiny, partly due to the absurd US embargo and Castro’s fear of free speech, there appears to be a desire for a modernised socialism. Sure, American hip-hop is massively popular with the young, but getting food on the table is more important than aping unregulated capitalism.
Too many in the mainstream media gauge citizens in the non-Western world as how they can be useful to ‘us.’ They’re not really human beings, rather objects to be pitied or transformed. Our journalists need to do much more listening and less preaching. Freedom for a young woman in Damascus may be having the ability to pray five times a day at her local mosque but still admire Angelina Jolie.
Can you tell us a little about the fascinating contradictions within the Egyptian blogosphere (eg. them being some of the most endangered but also the most willing to talk)?
Egypt, one of the highest recipients of US aid annually, is not the ‘moderate’ nation often imagined in the West. Dictatorial President Hosni Mubarak runs a brutal police state that utilises the most heinous forms of torture. Bloggers and pro-democracy activists have in the last years created an environment where online media has become the place to read about torture, corruption and dissent.
Human Rights Watch researcher Elijah Zarwan said that, ‘the bloggers have succeeded in doing something that years of standing on the street corner and shouting no to torture or no to the interior ministry had never managed to accomplish.’
I was surprised that so many bloggers were willing to be vocal about their grievances, including the banned Muslim Brotherhood, with whom I spent some time in Cairo and found their (public) face to be moderate and approachable. The power of that organisation is feared in the West, and mistakenly so. One of the great ironies of the Bush years, especially in a place like Egypt, has been the legitimisation of the message of Islamism; namely that a strong Islam can stand up to the West’s imperial designs and provide services that a weak US ally cannot.
I found the description of shopping malls in Saudi Arabia and the commercial values of the Chinese very disturbing. Did you find many bloggers speaking out against corporate power? Or the contradictions or conflictions within consumerist values compared to spiritual values?
In a number of countries I visited, an opposition to corporate power, especially emanating from the West, was clear. In China, for example, a distrust of Yahoo! due to its collusion with the authorities over ‘subversive’ online material. A growing nationalism was clear in many places, and a belief that development should happen without the assistance, or more likely meddling, of the Western powers.
The shopping malls in Saudi Arabia were something to behold. Glittering towers of commercial power, the separation of the genders in the country means that men and women are often apart and you see the unusual sight of men working in cosmetic’s shops (women are unable to work in most jobs.)
Of course, these icons of capitalist opulence are unobtainable for most people, forced to shop in less salubrious surroundings.
I was curious to note that many writers, dissidents and bloggers across the globe expressed an element of spirituality, though often not religiosity (something, in a Muslim country, that is usually illegal.) We shouldn’t presume that bloggers are automatically secularists who despise establishment power. Many are, but the loudest, in a place like Iran and Saudi Arabia, are often fundamentalists who fear the rise of a more Western society.
We rarely read about these issues in our myopic media. It’s far easier to simply report about Iran’s clownin President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his rantings.
In Cuba, many expressed frustration that they were missing out on speaking with and learning about the wider world due to the vast majority having no internet access. Since writing the book, has anything changed in the Cuban situation?
Cuba is slowly changing under new President Raul Castro. Fidel still allegedly maintains large control over the running of the state, but Raul is far more pragmatic. Internet access is largely impossible for most citizens, not least due to the cost. After the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a realisation that ideology had to come after putting food on the table. Of course, Fidel never trusted his people enough to allow totally free and fair elections, and Raul is likely to agree.
Cuba will probably follow the China Model, with greater economic empowerment but political repression. Although the country is not the gulag often described by its critics, dissidents are routinely jailed and freedom of the press is a foreign concept.
A number of Havana-based bloggers are starting to generate international attention with their witty and bold statements on the country’s future. They deserve our solidarity.
Is your book being printed elsewhere than Australia at this stage?
There is interest with overseas publishers, so watch this space and I’ll have a US speaking tour later in the year. Otherwise, many leading US bloggers have been attracted to the message of the book and will be covering the issues raised in it. Many are disillusioned with the mainstream’s collusion with the patriotic fervour that appeared after 9/11.
The back of the book contains a fantastic list of not just blogs, but news and information sites from all around the world and of all persuasions. Can you share with us about ten sites regularly visited by you that may give LM readers some interesting insight into individuals and situations in these countries?