, by DR. SHAHID JAMAL
It seems that the Internet, the wonderful information technology innovation the West has created and embraced, still poses somewhat of a mystery to the Arab world and a challenge to the Arab governments, with the possible exception of a few countries.
Most Arab governments have been very cautious about approaching the Internet. For one thing, they are aware of the opportunities this medium offers to their countries for a better future and a more prosperous economy and people. On the other hand, they are wary of giving their people full freedom to access all that the Internet can offer. In the meantime, the slight percentage of Arab citizens whose education and socioeconomic status allow them to have access to the Internet have been trying to get the most out of it. Where their governments have imposed strict rules of blockage or censorship, they have attempted, and mostly succeeded, to outsmart these governments and circumvent censorship.
The Internet has the potential to facilitate much change in this part of the world. The fact that this medium is primarily being used by students for information seeking and surveillance is an encouraging thought, since it is an indication that the audiences are aware of the potential of this new medium, particularly in countries where governments have controlled the information and media systems for the longest time.
A study showed that the most salient interest for Arab students on the Internet is knowledge and information seeking. This should encourage Arabs to save no effort to provide Internet access for all, and increase Internet connection in Arab countries. Parental guidance can and probably should be exercised, but only within the confines of the family. Governments, however, should not assume “parental responsibility” over their peoples, adults and children alike.
Jones (1995) spoke of the potential of the Internet to “create new opportunities for participatory democracy.” Indeed, the Arab world has begun to ride on that wave. The past few years have witnessed a revival of NGOs and their role in society. Citizens are encouraged to participate as they actually see their efforts coming to fruition or feel a difference they make in society. Many of these NGOs use their web sites and / or e-mail as the main communication channel.
Major efforts are needed by Arab governments and IT interest groups if Internet use is to spread beyond the highly educated and affluent socioeconomic classes. Some of these efforts have started, exemplified by the free Internet initiative and the creation of technology clubs in Egypt, and numerous Internet cafes in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait and other countries.
There is no doubt that the Internet presents an open window onto the world. What we choose to look at or display is at our own discretion. And what we choose to look at or display, as well as what we choose to do with it, is what determines how it is likely to affect us. Never before has a medium provided such an easy access to information, bringing us a few steps closer to the potential of a true global village. Never before has it been this easy for a person or a people, no matter what their views, nationalities, religions, orientations, or cultures are, to share what they have to offer with each other and with the world.
Arab governments, interest groups, IT professionals, and citizens should seize this opportunity to enable citizens of the Arab world to learn about others, and to let others learn about them.
It would be futile for some of the more conservative Arab governments to waste their time trying to censor the contents of the Internet, or to exercise control over information or discussion boards emanating from or getting through to their countries. Arab officials are smart enough to know that, beyond a few minor nuisances, such techniques would just not work in the face of the advanced technologies that the Internet offers. When satellite broadcasting was introduced to the region, it became apparent how much more difficult it was going to be for Arab governments to censor that new transnational broadcasting technology compared to the traditional media that they owned, controlled, and had no difficulty censoring and shaping as they so pleased.
With the advancement of technology, censorship became much more expensive and much less effective. The Internet is another step further up the anti-censorable media scale. As Alterman (1998) pointed out, if governments wanted to censor the Internet, they would have to play “a game of catch-up” by closely monitoring the vast content of the Internet and blocking access to certain web sites. They would be faced with the uphill challenge of just keeping up with what new content is uploaded on the network everyday. And even then, there are other ways for audiences to gain access to blocked sites, such as receiving the information by e-mail (encrypted if need be) from an account outside the borders of the censoring country, or as many do in the Arab countries that exercise censorship, access the Internet through a foreign ISP.
Alterman suggested that potential censorship efforts by governments would not be effective, because usually those who want to evade the rules are much more technology savvy than those trying to implement them. If individuals want to block some sites from their homes, they should have access to free filtering software that they would then set up on their own computer systems to serve their own personalised needs.
The nature of the Internet as a mass medium is good news for the Arab people. Arabs should seize the opportunities of what the Internet has to offer. It could be their chance to enhance their lives on many fronts, not the least of which is cultivating a more tolerant and more active civic society.
The Internet could be used by Arabs to present a more truthful image of their culture and their religions to the Western world, a task that has become all the more important in light of world developments since the attacks of September 11, 2001. Such content, as well as online exchanges and friendships with people of different origins and cultures could save Arabs a lot of unnecessary stereotyping that they face worldwide.
If Arabs ever complained about the negative portrayals of Arabs and Muslims on Western media, here is a good chance to rectify this image through a medium that readily penetrates the lives of millions of people all around the globe. As Jones (1995) put it, the information superhighway, brought about by the Internet, can do “what cement roads were unable to do, namely, connect us rather than atomise us, put us at the controls of a vehicle and yet not detach us from the rest of the world”. This is true for intercultural communication as much as for communication within the same community or culture.
The Internet is a medium that has the potential to reach millions the world over, and millions in the Arab world have the financial and educational capabilities to use it to their advantage and to the betterment of their societies.
Arabs need to realise the medium’s potentials, and Arab governments need to work on enhancing their IT infrastructure and capabilities, and on introducing Internet and computer education in all grade schools and in colleges and universities. Academic and applied research endeavours in the Arab world are needed every step of the way to guide this process. Only by realising that the opportunities presented by the Internet far exceed any potential threats can Arabs become effective players in the global information system, and therefore use the medium to bridge the digital divide and bring more prosperity to their individual countries and the Arab region. Communication and friendship can go a long way for Arabs to rectify their image in the West, and share their values and their rich cultures with the rest of the world.