Piece on the Internet

According to a new report from Human Rights Watch, one
million people in the Arab world now have Internet
access.

Words like “Internet”, “the Web”, “Sites”, and “home
pages” have become the new magic incantations.

Most news articles about this medium -as opposed by
the specialized columns now common in newspapers- read
as if authors had no experience with these things.

So first let’s talk about two recent developments of
interest and then chat a bit about the effect of
Internet on the Medium East and its problems.

The Human Rights Watch report focuses on censorship
and regulation in this region.

But the bad news is pretty limited especially compared
to what goes on with the press, radio, and television.

“Censorship, restrictions on access, and high prices
are stunting Internet growth in the Middle East and
North Africa,” Human Rights Watch explains, while
concluding accurately that “efforts to block the flow
of information on-line were doomed to fail.”

Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Bahrain, Iran and the United
Arab Emirates are said to block access to some human
rights and political Web sites.

Many users also fear surveillance by government
authorities. But there are many ways to evade
listening secret police.

While costs of access are restrictive, the spread of
Internet technology is impressive, especially in
Lebanon, Jordan, and among Palestinians.

Speaking of Palestinians, Bir Zeit University’s
Information Technology Unit has an Across Borders
Project that aims to establish Internet centers in
Palestinian refugee camps, train residents, and create
Web sites there.

The first such center has opened at the Ibdaa
Children’s Cultural Center in Dehaishe camp. Services
include a nightly Internet cafe.

For more information we see http://www.birzeit.edu

A palestinian Internet expert wrote for this event,
“Since [Marshal] McLuhan and [Willian] Gibson first
started popularly articulating how globalization could
impact the world, I can’t think of a more significant
project that fully realizes this vision… The project
represents the best of what the Internet can and
should be.

MUCH of the coverage of the Internet has stressed such
real phenomena as sites spreading hatred, insulting
exchanges, and other anti-social behavior. On a
political level, both Hamas and Hizbullah have Web
sites.

Just today, I received an announcement from a site
that purports to explain “the human dimension of
Palestinian history” (certainly a good thing) but
could not refrain from adding that its materials
inculded evidence of “Israeli crimes against
humanity.”

Of course, anything that can be written in ink can be
painted in pixels. Having made these points, however,
my experience has been overwhelming that the Internet
provides a much stronger opportunity for spreading
understanding and peace.

Having dealt -no exaggeration- with about 10,000
people regarding Middle East issues in the last
two-and-a-half years, I’ve had perhaps three directly
insulting experiences (once of them with Arabs,
incidentally).

Indeed, the biggest Arab-run sites have increasingly
posted objective material about Israel. While a few
servers in the Arab world block messages from Israel,
this is quite rare.

People in Arab countries -including those not having
relations with Israel- are willing, ever eager, to
correspong with Israelis on professional matters.

It would be easy to provide a long list of specific
examples.

PEACE, of course, doesn’t mean agreeing on everything,
But it does imply an ability to talk openly and to
have a realistic understanding of the other’s
viewpoints.

We’ve never been afraid to engage in a battle of
ideas, nor did we ever find it necessary to shut our
ears. On the contrary, we were on the receiving end of
boycotts in this regard.

That era is over. Those interested in spreading
propoganda mostly “persuade” those already convinced
of their causes. Some people find such things fun or
satisfying, but they are a profound waste of time.

The Web’s real currency is credibility; its influence
depends on its being accepted as open to the
evidence, fairminded, and seeking accuracy.

One of the most pernicious recent concepts has been
that of “discourse.”

In prinicple, the idea that different societies or
groups have their own internally consistent framework
of discussion or debate is useful. But this approach
has been used to argue that there is no reasonably
objective truth, that all world views are essentially
equal and that every literary or scholarly work is
corroded by bias.

I passionately believe this later idea is wrong. When
you break down hermetically sealed “discourses,” the
view that more accurately explains the world will win
out.

This is a basic idea of democracy. That’s just what
the Internet does, and it has come to the Middle East.

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