By Oussama Raqui
By Oussama Raqui
Rabat – When Tim Berner Lee invented the World Wide Web, his invention not only brought him success but also changed people’s way of life. Because factories, organizations and institutions rely on the Internet to function and coordinate, one cannot talk about an economic revolution without the use of the Internet. This relationship necessitates Arab developing countries use of the Internet to develop economically. However, the use of the Internet by such a large number of people has brought both positive and negative effects to the sociopolitical scene in the Arab World, because of the way people use Internet technology and the characteristics of Arab societies.
The way of life in the Middle East and North Africa, differs from the rest of the world. Cultural norms of most countries are shaped by Islamic tradition. The way men and woman interact with each other is regulated according to specific principles. In addition, the relationship between family members is of great importance in these societies, especially that between parents and children. Political life in the Arab world is currently undergoing vast changes but in past has been characterized by tyranny in certain governments.
The influence of western societies on Arab societies led to the emergence of the Internet in the life of Arabs, but it has since been adopted used for purposes specific to Arab societies. As Deborah L. Weeler points out, ‘‘the latest estimates suggest that internet use in the Middle East and North Africa is growing at a rate higher than any other place in the world. Between the years 2000-2005 internet access rates grew at a measure of around 411,% (compounded growth).’’(p5). This expanded access to the Internet has changed the behaviors and values of many people, thus bringing drastic change to the Arab societies in gender relations, familial structure, and political advocacy.
Although most countries in the Middle East and North Africa are conservative the Internet is introducing more liberal cultural norms. “Given strict social sanctions against crossing gender boundaries outside of marriage and the family, the Internet is widening the interactions and experiences of men and women in the Middle East and North Africa.” (Weeler.p12). A recent study of the impact of the Internet in Saudi Arabia shows that “new forms of private communication, like electronic mail and chat, but also online public areas…for the first time enable communication between males and females in this gender-segregated society.”(Yasslem al-saggaf qtd in.Weeler). Through social networks or chat rooms, members of opposite sexes can share their views and opinions without knowing each other face-to-face. In many societies, couples meet thanks to social networks and get married.
Rebellion against societal norms has historically characterized the period of adolescence. A girl and a boy can easily build a relationship through chatting online. In this respect, excessive use of the Internet influences relationships among teenagers. “One such factor might be developmental changes in adolescence, which could cause teenagers to withdraw from social contact and to use the internet as an escape.”(Robert_Kraut et al.1028). Considering this online interaction can be easily transferred to the offline world has changed the manner in which teenagers interact, and will most likely affect the structure of more conservative societies.
According to the Islamic tradition, children must look after their parents, especially when they grow old. This helps to create integration among family members of different ages. But if the children spend too much time on the Internet, their parents will be left behind, unable to participate in modern society and modern forms of entertainment. “Use of internet, like watching T.V, may present a privatization of entertainment, which could lead to social withdrawal and to declines in psychological well being” (Roubert Kraut et al.1029). Meena Kumari Rajani and M.S.Chandio suggest a solution to empower the elderly and encourage independence: “Through the internet they (elderly people) can get information related to their health and religion, and communicate with their friends and do online shopping and consult with doctors without being dependent on their children.” (160). However the elderly are technologically illiterate and need training, which is particularly difficult if they are uneducated, because foreign languages are necessary to manipulate computers. The use of the Internet may hinder this type of relationship within the family.
Through chat rooms, instant messaging and social networks people succeed in building online communities. Weeler says, “The Internet café users in Jordan and Egypt celebrate the tool’s ability to give them new opportunities to develop their knowledge and opinions of politics and social issues, especially on those topics which might be taboo in face to face interactions,” illustrating that Internet users can act more freely through the Internet without societal boundaries. Individuals with different backgrounds have become able to express their opinions without chains; “this ability to share and develop opinions, to extend social networks, and to grow in one’s political consciousness, and commitment to engage in world and Arab affairs represents one of the most powerful political effects of the web”(Weeler,14). Social networks have given space for people to discuss political issues more freely.
Internet technology enables its users to learn about different cultures and to create new social interactions on online communities. Individuals from vast geographical locations can learn about other cultures thanks to websites, something that was almost impossible before the emergence of the Internet, when the only means to be informed about other civilizations was to read lengthy books or to actually travel the world.
Most Arab governments have accepted the principles of human rights, including the right of freedom of speech. But there still has been censorship, even leading to imprisoning, killing, or exiling those who oppose the mainstream of political affairs, which has happened in Syria, Yemen and some other Arab societies. However, “the global pressure to join the knowledge economy means that states in the region can no longer afford to keep their politics digitally muzzled and blind folded”(Weeler.17). Citizens in oppressive countries are relying on computer-mediated communication, because it provides security for them to express their opinions. As it is stated in Peter Steiner’s famous New Yorker drawing, “on the Internet, nobody knows you are a dog.” (see Wilson and Peterson p458).
For example, Facebook, Twitter and other social networks played an important role in the recent uprisings in the Arab World. Tunisia was the first country to use the Internet technology among Arab societies. When the uprising started in Tunisia, the tyrannical government of Ben Ali prevented people from expressing their views publicly and violently suppressed protests. The only means to communicate and organize was the social networks.
Malcolm Gladwell disagrees, starting his article “Social media can’t provide what social change has always required.” He explains an important event that happened on February 1.1960, a civil rights war that started when four collage students from North Carolina were maltreated at a lunch counter by a waitress because of their black color. Gladwell argues that this kind of activism that happened without Facebook or Twitter is different and cannot be replaced with social networking. Some of his arguments are as follows:
Social media are not about this kind of hierarchical organization. Facebook and the like are tools for building networks, which are the opposite, in structure and character of hierarchies. Unlike hierarchies, with their rules and procedures, networks aren’t controlled by a single central authority. Decisions are made through consensus, and the ties that bind people to the group are loose.
On the other hand, one could argue that social networks are an important step toward hierarchical organization, especially in oppressive countries where people’s gathering is controlled by the state. People interested in affecting change meet on social media, discuss their strategies and goals, then they go to the streets. Both the Tunisian and Egyptian governments made bans on the access to the Internet during the Arab Spring showing just how critical social networks were in organizing the demonstrations, that eventually led to the decline of both governments. Though the ties that bind people online may be loose, the real ties are built when people meet in the street, and because of those, bit by bit, people start to trust the online interactions. “It is hard to sustain freedoms to be creative and entrepreneurial digitally speaking, while at the same time, keeping these same concepts and roles from being used to re-engineer political and social life, from the family, to the community, to the state” (Weeler,17).
The Internet changed both the social and political aspects in the Arab world. Because of it, interaction between males and females will be different as the two sexes are communicating with each other much more than before. Family loyalty and support is decreasing because of the excessive use of the Internet. However, Arab governments no longer solely control the political changes in their societies. “Whether Arab societies like it or not, increasing levels of education…,and the rise of new communications media are turning the Arab street into a public sphere in which greater numbers of people, not just a political and economic elite, will have a say in governance and public issues”(Dale Eickelman.qtd.in Weeler). People have become aware of the importance of the Internet to make a change in their lives and their societies.
Gladwell, Malcolm. Social Media Can’t Provide What Social Change Has Always Required.2010
Meena Kumari Rajani & M.S.Chandio. Use of the Internet AND it’s Effect on Our Society. NCET 2004
Kraut R, Patterson M, Lundmark V, Keislar S, Mukopadhyay T and Sherilis W. Internet
Paradox. A Social Technology That Reduces Social Involvement and Psychological Well Being? APA, 1998.
Wheeler, Deborah. Empowering Publics: Information Technology and Democratization
In The Arab Warld—Lessons from Internet Cafés and Beyond.Oxford Internet Institute, 2006.
Wilson Samual M, Peterson Leughton C. The Anthropology of Online Communities. Annu.Rev 2002.
Edited by Rebecca Sawatzki
© Morocco World News. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, rewritten or redistributed without permission