Mideast Digital Détente

Suemedha Sood
November 24, 2007

The goal to eliminate extremism is an ambitious one to say the least. It may even be impossible. But a few students from the Middle East decided that the most difficult goal is the one most worth achieving and launched a web-based enterprise to battle extremism head on.

Esra'a Al Shafei founded Mideast Youth two years ago as an independent network dedicated to eliminating extremism and ignorance from the Middle East and North Africa. The group calls itself a "cyberdemocracy," with Arabs, Iranians, Kurds, Israelis, Egyptians, Moroccans, Tunisians (the list goes on and on) blogging side by side to reach intercultural and interfaith understanding. The website prides itself on keeping speech free and opening up discussion to topics considered taboo, such as gay rights, atheism and sex.

"A few of us realized that we needed a common and independent place where we all share our thoughts without limiting the network to regional ideologies, religions or nationalities," says Shafei. "We celebrate and take pride in our diversity instead of fighting over political or religious dominance." Bloggers therefore welcome disagreement and heated discussion.

But it's not just a forum for discussion, says Persian-American and Bahai Omid Townsend, the legal advisor for Mideast Youth. "We are a medium of change and an outlet for places and people to voice their opinions in areas where they may otherwise not be able to," he says.

The organization places a lot of importance on its ability to remain independent. The staff funds itself on very little money, which comes from staff members themselves, reader donations and online advertisements. In May 2007, Mideast Youth received a $5,000 award from the Atlas Economic Research Foundation for "New Intellectual Entrepreneurship Project." The staff used the prize money to add a gallery, petition system and a video site to its online endeavors. It has also used some of the money to develop a technologically advanced Arab-Japanese social networking site.

"Our goal is to do this without much money, without professional help and training, so that we can show young people all over the world that anyone can do this, even when there is no funding or money," says Shafei.

Since its onset in 2006, Mideast Youth has launched 15 independent blogging projects, including one in Arabic and one in French. Among these are the Middle East Interfaith Blogging Network; the Free Kareem Campaign, which calls for the release of political prisoner and Egyptian blogger Kareem Amer; Migrant Rights; Darfur Awareness; Sexual Terrorism; and Free the New Youth 4, a campaign by Arab and Chinese activists calling for the release of four cyberdissidents in China.

Mideast Youth thrives on the use of new media technologies as instruments for democracy. In addition to the main blog, the website offers podcasts, video casts and a gallery of photography. Townsend says that podcasting and videocasting are really the future of blogging. The site also hosts the Mideast Youth Shop, which sells clothing with slogans such as "This is not my Islam," "This is your patriot act, this is your fucking abuse of power," and "200,000 dead and raped Sudanese matter as much as Iraqis, Palestinians and Afghans."

The site even has its own Internet radio station, which broadcasts everything from Iraqi or Mauritanian hip-hop, to Arabic ambient music.

Townsend says that digital media makes it possible for anyone with a computer to participate in democratic action. "A Bedouin in Iraq can just link up or go to a number of Internet cafes and talk about the most recent events in China, Malaysia or Turkey," he says.

While dialogue is at the center of the group's mission, the staff wants people to understand that Mideast Youth is not all talk with no action. Tunisian blogger Nadia Ayadi says the organization reaches out to local communities to empower them with the tools required to connect people with news, art, activism and photojournalism. Mideast Youth sends financial assistance to independent journalists around the world in need of laptops or cameras. The website also provides free hosting and technical assistance for activists in and outside of the Middle East/North Africa. "We don't want to see a digital gap in the Middle East where only the elites have access to read and publish information," Ayadi says.

The group has also been successful in bringing together people from different sides of political conflicts in the Middle East. "There are a lot of conflicting nations in the region, and we use the site to help put a face to what the media or government refers to as 'enemies,'" says Ayadi. "We think it's powerful to humanize these 'enemies' and make others realize that they are just ordinary people who have common goals and desires."

"After conversations begin online, we hope to have them continued offline," adds Elisheva Cohen, Israeli blogger and director of public relations for Mideast Youth. "Many of our members participate in conferences and panels to discuss the issues we talk about on Mideast Youth."

The spread of information and free exchange of ideas are two important tools in the fight against extremism. Pakistani blogger Umar Farooq gives the current situation in Pakistan as an example.

"An effective communication platform is necessary to be able to say one's words loud enough to be heard all around when the mainstream media has been put in curbs by the government," he says, referring to General Pervez Musharraf shutting down media outlets as part of his declaration of martial law. "Mideast Youth has been a very effective platform for me to be able to voice my concerns and get the audience working on putting up literary protests against government actions in Pakistan."

Unlike many organizations -- and certainly governments -- in search of democracy, Mideast Youth does its best to practice what it preaches. The staff believes one-on-one interactions are as important as state-to-state interactions, and that practicing acceptance and mutual respect on an individual level is key to building a peaceful society. In this way, the organization is able to discuss current affairs, campaign for human rights, and fight totalitarian regimes and ideologies with education and interfaith understanding.

Suemedha Sood is a 2007 fellow in the Academy for Alternative Journalism at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. The former assistant editor at the Center for American Progress, she is a frequent contributer to WireTap and AlterNet.org.





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