Free Speech in the Muslim World: Blogging your way into prison

Excuse me, can I have my laptop back?

It probably was not wise (or productive) for Abdel Kareem Nabil, who goes by the blogger name Karim Amer, to call his alma mater, Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, “the university of terrorism.” But few expected that his blog would land him in an Egyptian jail on charges of “incitement to hate Islam” and “defaming the president of the republic.” His case has sparked international outcry and many say his imprisonment represents an alarming and growing trend in Egypt tostifle bloggers. In response to a growing movement called “Kifayeh” (“Enough” in Arabic), Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has renewed his Draconian emergency laws which have been in place nearly continuously since 1967. Nabil’s arrest is particularly alarming, says Amnesty International, because Egypt’s blogs provide perhaps the only avenue to document human rights abuses in Egypt and to encourage civic dialogue.

But Egypt is not the only Muslim country that has cracked down on bloggers. Many Muslim countries that have relied on control of information to maintain power have struck back at bloggers who have used the relative freedom and availability of net access to challenge the status quo on everything from social mores to political taboos. The discourse may not be a sophisticated critique of government – indeed, the majority of bloggers in the Muslim world post on the same mundane and/or titillating topics as do bloggers in the West – but the emergence of the Internet as a permanent fixture of life combined with relative (but not perfect) anonymity has invited many to push the envelope, with unexpected (or perhaps expected) results.

In Bahrain, the on/off availability of high-resolution Google Maps satellite images is allowing people to peer into the kingdom’s lavish palaces for the first time, heightening resentment among those whose swimming pools (if they have them) are not big enough to be visible from space. “Some of the palaces take up more space than three or four villages nearby,” says Mahmood al-Yousif, one of the the most well-known Bahraini bloggers (at least until his site was also banned). “People knew this already. But they never saw it.” Until recently, Muslim countries with restrictions on information flow were content to implement massive firewalls (provided mainly by Sun and other US companies) to deny access to culturally and politically sensitive web content. But limiting access has only served to increase demand (for political speech as well as adult sites). And with the advent of proxy sites and other means of circumventing blockages, the information is flooding in, creating a genuine sense of unease at the top.

This has led countries such as Iran to treat bloggers as a mortal threat. Iran, a country with a long history of harassing and jailing bloggers, has demanded the registration of all websites and weblogs sourced in the country by the end of February 2007. “The authorities are making it clear that no one is permitted to criticize or even discuss religion, government’s policies, revolution, ayatollahs and social problems,” says Farnaz Seify, a feminist blogger in Tehran. In 2005, Iran set the standard for criminalization of web speech by sentencing blogger Arash Cigarchi to 14 years in prison. Even the elite are not immune – an Islamic scholar in Qom was sentenced to three years for the writings on his blog.

When speaking of bloggers in the Muslim world, one cannot ignore the larger picture. Many in the US government are looking eagerly at the emerging voices in the Muslim world, hoping to see in them the seeds of a reformist transformation. Some policymakers are even trying to throw the weight of the US behind beleaguered bloggers, a move that will surely backfire. While it is necessary and proper for the US to insist on the right of Muslims to freely express themselves, specific advocacy on behalf of individuals may cause more harm than good. First of all, while these bloggers are certainly challenging the limits of expression in their country, they are not necessarily aligning themselves with America or US foreign policy. In fact, many decry the American role in providing their countries with the equipment and logistics needed to suppress their online activities. Second, the alignment of US political might on behalf of these bloggers will transform any politically liberating thinkers from voices of independence to perceived agents of the US, adding insult to injury (though, to be fair, most people in government circles that I have spoken to recognize that in this case, US hands are indeed tied.)

Organizations such as Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, and Human Rights Watch are, however, providing the most meaningful support for these bloggers. These organizations must be supported and strengthened by people of conscience in the West. Muslims, too, need to get involved. As has been shown with Iraq, it is difficult to impose freedom from without. The best chance that Muslim bloggers have of cultivating from within an atmosphere of open inquiry and vigorous political debate is through creating links with supportive Muslims around the world. Insightful and compelling blogs from the Muslim world will lead to an international fan base, and this increased exposure can provide an additional degree of protection. While restrictive governments may indeed feel threatened by political debate, they are also fearful of PR debacles in an increasingly globalized world. So while blogging from parts of the Muslim world may get people into prison, reading their blogs just might help keep them out.

Shahed Amanullah is editor-in-chief of

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