15 April, 2007

Muslim Bloggers and Journalists Speak Out

THE VOICE OF A SILENT MAJORITY

Muslim journalists and bloggers across the Arab world are speaking out to promote civil society and women's rights in Islamic societies. But it is a hard struggle at times, with societal pressure and even fines to contend with.

The first so-called "honor killing" that Rana Husseini wrote about was the case of a 16-year-old girl who was killed by one of her brothers after she had been raped by another brother.

"The family blamed her, saying that she had 'seduced' the brother," Husseini recalls. That was in 1994 and Rana was only into her first few weeks of working as a reporter for the daily English-language newspaper The Jordan Times, where she had originally planned to write about "beautiful things" like art, literature and music.

Born in 1967 as the daughter of Palestinians who had moved from Jerusalem to the Jordanian capital Amman a year earlier, Husseini attended Oklahoma City University, where she studied journalism and art. Back in Jordan, the first lesson she had to learn was that "a woman's life is not worth very much," and that the victims of sex crimes were "always punished twice over."

"I found that unbearable," she says today. She became an expert on honor killings and other family crimes, and has been writing about them for the last 13 years. "There are about 25 cases each year," she says, and the police and courts almost always tend to "value the honor of the family more than the life of the victim."

According to Husseini, the authorities are "part of society." Because it is illegal in Jordan to openly criticize the judiciary or attack judges directly, she writes about the cases from the perspective of the battered woman or abused girl. She visits the families, interviews the perpetrators and researches the context of each case. "The families believe that by committing the act they are putting an end to something," she says. "But in reality they are actually beginning a new chapter in the drama."

Society is very slowly beginning to realize that family crimes are not a question of honor, something to be handled within the family and its shadowy confines, but something "that the entire society must address," Husseini says. She believes that it is her duty to make this clear to her readers. "That is why I write, and that's why I am standing here," Husseini said recently at a conference sponsored by the Rand Corporation in Doha.

Freer than most

Rand, a nonprofit research organization headquartered in Santa Monica, California, is a think tank for more than 600 researchers and academics investigating issues that run the gamut from the political to the social to the economic, with topics as diverse as "civil justice," "population and aging," and "terrorism and homeland security." Freedom of the press in Arab countries is one of those issues.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Rand has been seeking partners in the Islamic world as part of an effort to develop a secular and democratic movement to offset religious fundamentalism. It was no accident that the conference took place in Doha, the capital of Qatar, a small and extremely wealthy emirate that sees itself as a force for progress in the Persian Gulf region. Not entirely coincidentally, Doha is also the headquarters of the controversial news channel Al Jazeera.

Although Qatar, independent since 1971, is everything but a model democracy in the Western sense, it is far more progressive than its neighbors. Its constitution, ratified in 2003, guarantees the right to freedom of opinion, freedom of religion and freedom of assembly, an independent judiciary and equality before the law.

There are no parties in Qatar, and instead of a parliament the emirate has an "Advisory Council" consisting of 35 members appointed by the emir. But since the 1999 municipal elections, women have had the right to vote, a privilege their sisters in neighboring Saudi Arabia couldn't even dream about. The wife of the emir does not cover her face and eagerly attends conferences on the subjects of improving education and child-rearing or combating illiteracy.

And yet, despite all the progress and the efforts to achieve greater press freedoms, the representatives of civil, democratic Islam meeting in the Al Maha Room at the Sheraton Doha were a small group -- just two dozen men and women who, like Rana Husseini, want to improve living conditions in their countries through educating the population, criticizing the government and communicating with one another.



Mahmood Al-Yousif, a businessman and blogger from Bahrain, sat next to Husseini. Yousif spends his days running a high-tech equipment business, and his nights writing a critical blog about the government of Bahrain, a small island state in the Persian Gulf.

Yousif recently had to pay the equivalent of €1,000 in fines to avoid being arrested after criticizing what he called the ineptness of Bahrain's new minister of agriculture and communal matters on his blog, Mahmood's Den. "My idea of loyalty and patriotism is being at pains to do good for my country and countrymen, regardless of ethnic or religious background, and do my utmost to try to correct wrongs as I see them and defend those who deserve defending," he writes in one post.

Yousif, born in 1962, attended both Catholic and Protestant schools in Bahrain, then went to university in Scotland and worked as a pilot in Fort Worth, Texas. As far back as 1986, he was already posting news and commentary on bulletin board systems, one precursor of today's Internet.

His career as a blogger "really took off" in 2003, he says. Today his blog receives more than 1.8 million page hits per month and Yousif is one of the best-known bloggers in the Arab world. Because he writes in English, his blog is also widely read outside the Middle East. "The Internet democratizes the world," he says. "It poses the greatest danger to authoritarian and ignorant regimes. And we want to be a part of this development. You mustn't be afraid of us. We are Arabs. We are Muslims, not monsters."

Yousif talks about "organized chaos" in the Arab world, where rulers refuse to accept that "the genie is out of the bottle" and can no longer be forced back in, and that information and knowledge are the keys to power.

A question he recently raised on his blog is why half of Bahrain is off-limits to its inhabitants. "The government had declared the southern part a restricted military zone," he says. Using Google Earth, he discovered that the supposed military facilities that the government doesn't want Bahrainis to see are, in fact, palaces owned by the royal family, which wants to pursue its hobbies in peace. Yussif decided not to keep his discovery to himself.

These bold campaigns have brought Yussif a fan community that grows larger by the day. "I am the voice of a silent majority that is slowly learning to express itself," he says. For secular Muslims like Yousif, "personal freedom" is the most important of all values. Faith and religion, he says, are things "that each person must work out personally with God, without intermediaries telling him what to do."

Yousif's mosque is the World Wide Web, an invention "that will help us rediscover things we have lost" -- freedom, dignity and the hope for a better life this side of paradise.

Tough love

These are concepts that Bushra Jamil had long purged from her vocabulary. Born in 1955 as the daughter of a policeman and part-time actor, Jamil eventually became a biology teacher in Baghdad. Her life changed dramatically after Saddam Hussein assumed power in 1979.

"They forced us to tell the children lies," she recalls. After conforming to the system for more than 10 years, Bushra and her husband Khalil decided to leave Iraq. "It was the only way to save our dignity," she says. They told the Iraqi emigration authorities that they were moving to Libya. Instead, they spent a year in the Sudanese capital Khartoum before receiving their immigration papers for Canada. But in May of 2003 Jamil decided that living in Canada wasn't for her, dusted off her Iraqi passport and made her way back to Baghdad. Her husband and their two grown children stayed behind in Canada.

Life in the Iraqi capital was chaotic for Jamil until she received the startup capital for a radio station from a United Nations fund for women's projects. The station, dubbed al-Mahabba ("Love"), first took to the airwaves on April 1, 2005. After being shut down by a bomb that October, it took the station another six months to resume operations.

Today al-Mahabba is on the air for eight hours each day and employs a staff of 15 people who are happy to work for a pittance. Its target audience consists "mainly, but not only, of women," because women, says Jamil, "bear the burdens of daily life on their shoulders."

They go shopping, despite the mortal dangers of making the trip to the market. They buy medicine on the black market and they collect their dead at the city's morgues. "Death has become part of life," she says. "They don't think about it. They adjust." In a city where social life has all but disappeared, a call to the radio station and a conversation with a radio host is for many people the only intact connection to the outside world. "You cannot imagine the conditions under which we live and work," says Jamil.

Life in Baghdad is especially difficult for widows and orphans, and to gain protection women are increasingly entering into so-called "temporary marriages," lasting just "one hour or more, or as long as the man wants." These temporary marriages are a substitute for prostitution, she says: "For many poor women, it's the only way to feed themselves and their children."

To prevent herself from losing hope that the situation will improve, Jamil always carries a photo of her mother Aziza. The picture, taken in 1948, shows a young women wearing sunglasses and posing self-confidently for the camera. As old and yellowed as it is, the photo shows "that there was once a normal life, and that it will be this way once again."

After attending the Doha conference, Bushra Jamil flew back to Baghdad via Amman. She says that it felt good to meet strangers who work under similar conditions in places where freedom is not something taken for granted. She said the first thing she did after arriving in Baghdad was to turn on her transistor radio, "to see if Radio al-Mahabba was still broadcasting."

By Henryk M. Broder
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Source: Spiegel De.

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