The Internet in the Arab World: Egypt and Beyond
Author: Rasha A. Abdulla
Publisher: New York: Peter Lang, 2007
Review Published: August 2009
In The Internet in the Arab World: Egypt and Beyond, author Rasha A. Abdulla demonstrates an impressive scholarly range and intellectual versatility. Her approach is at once personal and theoretical, far-reaching but focused. The book is the outcome of her doctoral dissertation, as well as her later research, and reflects the author's fascination with what Hussein Amin describes in the forward as the development of the Internet in the Arab world, especially as manifested in its effect on shaping the Arab mind. The author takes into account a great number of scholarly articles and books, written both in Arabic and in English, by communication and media studies researchers concerned with uncovering social and psychological factors that help explain how a new communication medium is used by its audiences.
Abdulla favors a uses and gratifications theoretical model in her study. Unlike previous media effects theories, this approach "focuses on the receiver of the communication message rather than on the message itself," and reveals "the gratifications sought by the individual user" (91). This model isolates several variables, including "social and psychological factors, media structure, and availability, individual values and beliefs, and more recently, media technology," and shows how these variables interact (92).
The author's special interest in the geopolitical landscape of the world after 9/11 is evident from the beginning chapter, "Media Technologies in Egypt and the Arab World," which asks whether the Internet can help improve the lack of understanding, especially since 9l11, between the Arab World and Western cultures, particularly the US. Abdulla believes that Arabs can use the Internet to teach the world about Arab culture and religions, and is sanguine about the potential of "the network of networks" to facilitate much change in the region, noting that the Arab world has always reacted favorably to the introduction of new mass media technology in the past.
Abdulla acknowledges that some would challenge the view that the Internet can bring sweeping changes to the region. Among the arguments put forth is the idea that, "Arabs have more pressing priorities than the Internet, which stands to benefit only an affluent group of people" (152). Both the author and many world organizations such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) suggest otherwise, and argue "for the Internet as a tool of national development and economic prosperity" (153). In chapter four, "The Internet in the Arab World," Abdulla forcefully makes this argument despite or perhaps because of the "digital divide," which refers to the "differences in [Internet] user numbers and their access to technology" (34). Here Abdulla notes that, "The Arab world is one area that suffers from being on the low end of the digital divide ... less than 2% of the world Internet user population by September 2006 with 21 million" (35).
Chapter two, "Telecommunications and Information Technologies in Egypt and the Arab World," explores the current status and infrastructure of telecommunications and information technologies and their effects on the Arab world in the important decade of the 1990s, when "the use of the Internet as a public network started to gain momentum" (33). Chapter three, "A Brief History of the Internet," traces the history of Internet as far back as the early 1960s, when telecommunications scientists developed an alternative system to "a circuit-switching model whereby a message was transferred across central points to a destination" (26). This new model was designed to account for getting messages across during a nuclear attack, and became the initial idea of the Internet.
Early in the book, Abdulla defines an Arab as "a citizen of a country that belongs to the Arab League of Nations and whose official language is Arabic," (2) and in chapter six, "Islam and the Internet," she makes a more careful distinction between Arabs and Muslims, often used interchangeably in the Western media, noting that the difference is "a question of ethnicity versus religion" (62). Here the author explores how Islam is represented on the Internet, paying particular attention to how the Internet can "impact the religion or vice versa" (141).
Chapter seven, "To freely e- (freely) or not to e-: Arab Governments and the Online Free Flow of Information," examines how various governments of the Arab world, from "relatively liberal" countries like Jordan, Morocco, and, until recently, Egypt, to more strict countries like Syria, the United Arab Emirates, and Tunisia, are dealing with the online free flow of information though such virtual communication channels as email, blogs, and the Web (77). Abdulla demonstrates how the Internet is already facilitating discourse through conversation, discussion, and debate across national boundaries, thus generating a global discursive space for a multiplicity of diverse viewpoints about issues which were previously considered taboo such as religion, women's rights, and Arab governments, among others.
The author spends quite a bit of time on preliminary material before she actually rolls up her sleeves on the theoretical front in chapter eight, "Is the Internet Good for You? Patterns of Internet Use World Wide," and begins to describe the complex effects of the Internet in the region. In the concluding chapters, Abdulla demonstrates in rich, provocative detail why a uses and gratification theoretical model is well-suited to examining the Internet's early stages of development as a medium for mass communication in the Arab world, and then the book really becomes absorbing. The author gives special emphasis to Egypt because of its role historically "as a leader in providing media content in the Arab world, and its potential role as a trend-setting power in providing Internet content as well" (141).
As we learn in chapter eleven, "The Uses and Gratifications of the Internet among Arab Students in Egypt: Discussion," among the many important research findings Abdulla mentions is that "Internet use is motivated by similar reasons across both the Western and the Arab cultures" (144). Cultural differences, observes Abdulla, may account for the sharp divergence in Internet use as a means of social interaction between Arab users and their Western counterparts specifically for "meeting strangers" (144).
Gender was a significant deciding factor in whether Internet use in the Arab world was used for social interaction. "Males spent significantly more time on their overall Internet activities and endeavors than women," the author reports (144). The fact that men were far more likely to use the Internet for social interaction than females, who were more likely to use it for information seeking purposes, is explained in part by culture "since males in the Arab world are always expected to take the initiative in meeting a member of the opposite sex" (144). This finding may have important consequences for the intersection of social networking and the preservation of personal, private identity. In the West, the identity that users project on the Internet might be different than their material identity, especially in online networks such as Facebook. This leads one to wonder whether such an intimate network of strangers will eventually take hold in the region, and, if it does, what potential it will have to create meaningful social and political change. The author's main point, however, is that although social interaction on the Internet is an extremely new concept in the Arab world, platforms such as Arabic chat rooms have the potential to enable new modes of interaction that could foster mutual understanding within the Arab community, and can also be used to project a more accurate image of Arabs to the outside world (151). Discussion forums such as chat rooms, already welcomed by many, could "provide a free space for Arabs, after years of government-owned and controlled media" (151).
The conclusion, "The Potential Effects of the Internet in Egypt and the Arab World: A Futuristic Outlook," takes a broader look at the intersections between technological developments in the region and online publics, in order to reiterate the idea that the Internet has great potential to promote development in the region. The author's choice to provide a number of explanatory notes which enhance the cultural dimensions of her presentation is astute. Further, the author furnishes her English reader with translations of several Arabic words. For example, we learn that one of Egypt's main opposition parties established an online radio station on its Website, El Ghad, Arabic for "tomorrow." And, Fathet Kheir, Arabic for "a good start," "also uses the Web as it main communication channel" (152). These two words could also apply to Abdulla's scholarly presentation, which fulfills her praiseworthy aim of providing much needed information about Internet use by Arab citizens.
Ultimately, Abdulla emphasizes how the Internet is expanding in the twenty-first century, in large part due to inhabitants of the Arab region, who are becoming more active and participatory Internet users. Abdulla's contribution challenges scholars interested in current developments in Middle East media research and in the broader domain of mass communication studies to conceptualize new ways of understanding the uses and effects of the Internet in the region. The Internet in the Arab World: Egypt and Beyond reminds us why it is crucial to address the rapid and provocative developments it outlines in a lively and timely fashion.
Antonio A. Garcia:
Antonio A. Garcia is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Houston-Downtown. His most recent article, "In the Shadow of a Mosque: Mapping The Song of Roland," examines "jihad and crusade" in the medieval poem The Song of Roland, and the tradition of anti-Arabism in French literature from its earliest beginnings. <GarciaAnt@uhd.edu>
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