A gateway to freedom of which we can do more

Daily News Egypt
6 Min Read

More and more young Arabs in the Middle East and North Africa are turning to cyber activism to fight for human rights and intellectual freedom in the region. The Web, the Internet, cyber space, whatever you want to call it, is a hugely powerful tool for the powerless and voiceless in our societies. Thus, while at first blogging was our Internet gateway to freedom of expression, increasingly, as we realized that a significant number of people started to rely on blogs for their news and political interaction, we understood that further steps could be taken to make the most out of this medium. Why the Internet? The most important reason is interaction. It is the perfect tool for Arabs across the region to network with each other and to help each other when needed. Before blogging, many of us had no connection to diverse minorities within Arab countries, such as the Kurdish and Jewish communities. Arabs in the Gulf region hardly had any contact with fellow Arabs in North Africa. We are quickly learning how to break these limits and boundaries through new and interactive technologies. Many of us choose to do this through cyber activism, which has proven to have significant social impacts. Through campaigns such as Free Kareem – aimed to free the 22-year-old Egyptian blogger Kareem Amer – and pan-Arab networks such as Inter-Iman (inter-iman.com) – the Arabic version of the Middle East Interfaith Network – and Dis Moi (dis-moi.org) – a French website promoting tolerance and constructive dialogue amongst a diverse group of young Arabs – blogging is being taken to a new level. This new generation of group blogs and cyber campaigns is powerful enough to change public discourse in our societies. Many of these young writers are beginning to discuss taboos, something we were never given a chance to do in public, and are learning how to increase awareness through successful public relations and creative means of communication. Cyber campaigns are also bringing attention to issues that are rarely discussed in our mainstream media outlets, such as forced prostitution or migrant rights. Moreover, cyber activists are trying to break stereotypes by making important statements through their campaigns. Tired of the false claim that Muslims are intolerant and unable to accept criticism, a group of young activists, including myself, led the Free Kareem campaign to underscore that although Kareem criticized our faith, we will fight for his right to express such opinions. We believe that this approach will have a positive impact on Muslims in the region. Furthering this argument, more websites were created in order to fight for the rights of religious minorities within our societies, including Arab Jews, Kurdish Christians, and others. The Internet is not an end in itself. Realizing this, many young Arabs across the region are thinking of ways for us to apply our thoughts and ideas by trying to establish local connections and bigger organizations. For example, the Middle East Interfaith Blogger Network, as stated in its manifesto, was established mainly to promote grassroots interfaith activism within our local communities. In this spirit we are attending relevant regional events and doing our best to publicly celebrate our diversity rather than fight for political or religious dominance. For those of us fighting for human rights and freedom, the Internet is strengthening our communication strategies and enabling us to pursue our hopes and dreams. While our work is not entirely beyond the reach of the censors, it is still powerful enough to inspire and contribute to positive change in the region. We can now make contacts, discuss things on a cross-cultural basis and rally for justice as a group of young men and women who previously had little to no connection. We are thus now more influential and have the tools required for us to pressure human rights violators to correct their grave errors, such as Egypt’s mistake of imprisoning Kareem merely because of what he said. Thanks to these tools, tools that more people are gaining access to in our region, we have no reason to give up. Esraa Al-Shafei, a blogger from Bahrain, is the co-founder of www.mideastyouth.org and the Middle East Interfaith Blogger Network (www.mefaith.org). She is also the Director of the Free Kareem Coalition (www.freekareem.org). This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter publishing views of Middle Eastern and Islamic issues.

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