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Social Media in the Muslim World: The Emerging Public Sphere?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Twitter and other social networking sites did not invent courage-activists have been protesting against unjust policies since the idea of government came into being-but for millions of young Muslims living under the veil of repression, a wall-post compensates for a picket line. But Generation Facebook doesn’t just vent online. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube aren’t just for party pictures or flirting but have become slingshots aimed at regimes throughout the political desert known as the Islamic World. From Neda Agha Soltan’s Iran to the autocratic Hosni Mubarik’s Egypt, a revolution is in the making.  It’s weapon-not burning bras and the guillotine-social media.

Elan Magazine calls itself the guide to global Muslim culture. Last year, Elan discontinued the print version of its publication in favor of strengthening their online community. After all who would read the heavily censored “The Khaleej Times” when you can read Arab housewives rant about their demanding husbands and join in the Divine Ya-Ya Sisterhood? “We do cover some topics that are considered taboo like homosexuality and drinking,” Farrah Hamid (editor-in-chief) says, “but these are things that happen in Muslim cultures as well and we want to talk about it without getting preachy.” For years, every talkshow across the Muslim world addressed the need for a discourse within the community. Protests have been dispersed, political assassinations carried out and books been thrown off the shelves-but how can we possibly stop Facebook from gaining appeal? Pakistan’s ban on Facebook lasted for a matter of weeks. Forget Tehreek-e-Taliban, Facebook got the primetime spot on news channels nation-wide. People found proxy servers (Ultra-Surf Zindabad!). Imagine interrupting “Aunties” in a middle of a conversation. Yes, it was that serious.
Then they are myriad “virtual” worlds you can immerse yourself into to build your tribe. There’s World of Warcraft and Everquest -– two fantasy games that allow you to network and build communities with people from all over the place. Then there is Second Life, which can be fantastical at times, but which can also mirror everyday concerns. No there aren’t any poppy plants in my bathroom. “I met a Muslim woman in a virtual Jewish synagogue,” Rita King says. “She told me that her entire life she’d been curious about what goes on in a prayer service in a synagogue but felt if she went into a physical world synagogue she would be persecuted or make people uncomfortable.” Creation of new public spaces may lead to new cultural experiences. Come to think of it, my religiously illiterate self wouldn’t mind visiting a Hindu Temple and discarding some preconceived notions I have collected through those “Star-plus dramas” and their caked-up gods and goddesses.
This new digital media undermines the theatre of the state with the theatre of the “street” which makes evident the multiple connections of this expanding public sphere. And just like walking down a crowded street in dusty Cairo, you will never know who to believe. But plurality of truth is preferable to the “Best Political Team on Television”. Kind of like a self-regulating mechanism. From plurality to civic pluralism, everyone is Christiane Amanpour. When a young Egyptian, Khaled Said, died from what his family, activists and witnesses say was a savage police beating, many of his peers – the generation of Egyptians who have known no other leader than President Hosni Mubarak – protested and mourned in the way they know best: by going online. Anathema to dictators-twitter and Facebook accounts. However all these tweets did lead to a protest- a protest outside the Interior Ministry in Cairo which was the largest in living memory against police brutality. Generation Facebook’s embrace of the social networking site has made Egypt its number one user in the Arab world and 23rd globally. Egypt has the highest number of blogs in the Arabic-speaking Middle East as well. Al-Ahram Weekly? Anyone?
By eroding social distances and multiplying role models, Muslims are reshaping perspectives, attitudes, strategies and norms, and all it takes is 15 seconds.


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