The Internet in the Arab World: Egypt and Beyond
Author: Rasha A. Abdulla
Publisher: New York: Peter Lang, 2007
Review Published: August 2009
Drawing upon the author's research amongst her students at the American University of Cairo, as well as a wealth of English language sources, The Internet in the Arab World: Egypt and Beyond shows how the Internet has developed in the region, and how it has affected prevailing ways of thinking about Arab culture and its relationship to the rest of the world.
The book begins by focusing on the development of media technologies in the region. Egyptian leaders such as Hosni Mubarak have been extremely supportive in the creation of new satellite channels and studios such as the Media Production Center, located just outside Cairo, considered by many commentators to be the Arab equivalent of Hollywood. At the same time, new communication technologies have helped create a rapid expansion of satellite television, as well as the development of Internet use. Whether such developments work in practice, however, is another matter. Recent research has shown that the majority of Internet users in the Arab region are young people in the 18-25 age-group, the majority of whom prefer English-language to Arabic sites. Currently, there is a pronounced shortage of Arabic-language sites, which might attract users from different socio-economic groups. There is also the problem of accessibility: most people are still unable to obtain access to the Internet. A 2005 survey reported that users represent only about 7% of the total Arab population (35).
Countries like Egypt have addressed this issue by creating cyber-cafes in less affluent areas, offering Internet-able computers, fax machines, copiers, and software libraries. There are now more than 1000 outlets, incorporating "21st Century Kids Clubs" that encourage Egyptian children to interact with friends in other countries. Egypt has also tried to develop e-commerce and e-government, although their efforts have been hampered by the lack of a coherent banking card culture. In the field of tourism, sites such as Tourism.Net offer information about Egypt in four different languages, while Eternal Egypt provides three-dimensional reconstructions of famous sites such as Tutankhamun's Tomb.
Abdulla analyzes the relationship between Islam and the Internet, focusing in particular on how it has benefited Muslims in all parts of the globe. Not only has it brought them closer together, but it permits people from different cultures to communicate in Arabic. However, the author adds an important caveat: anyone seeking further information about Islam -- in Arabic, English, or any other language -- should check the validity of the information online: "If something does not make sense, check other sources ... let your common sense and your mind be the judge, and follow your heart" (75).
However, it seems that several Arab governments have ignored this advice. Abdulla shows how many of them have restricted the flow of information in the belief that it might be "inappropriate" for their people. Perhaps some kind of comparative survey might have substantiated her argument here. Instead, we are left with questions like how does censorship in the Arab world compare with other areas of the globe? And what (if any) factors limit freedom of expression in Europe, or the Far East, for instance? By doing this, she might have challenged Western perceptions of the Arab/ Islamic world as restrictive. As it stands, her research tends to reinforce this image.
Abdulla's ethnographic research on patterns of Internet use draws upon the uses and gratifications theory most clearly articulated by Elihu Katz and David Foulkes in 1962: "This is the approach that asks the question, not 'what do the media to do people?' but 'What do people do with the media?'" (93). This methodology has been employed successfully in other research projects, including Filiz Cele's 1999 work on Internet use in Turkish universities, which showed that students found it beneficial to their "cultural development" by enabling them to communicate with friends in other parts of the globe, and creatively engage with websites -- both in English and Turkish -- that exposed therm to "people, ideas and stories from faraway places they had never seen, and teachers had the chance to become a key part of their response to these situations" (Cele 14). Abdulla's research, conducted among 502 (mostly upper middle-class) students found that the majority used the Internet for information seeking (144). Unlike their Western counterparts, they did not favor social interaction (through chat-rooms) which "might be due to the more conservative nature of the Arab culture" (144). Abdulla also found that the students' cultural development was enhanced as they interacted with English-language websites. At the same time, however, they neglected the Arabic language while they were online.
Two fascinating questions remain largely unexplored. I'd have been interested to know whether religion influenced the ways in which Abdulla's focus group used the Internet: did the students spend any time accessing Islamic websites, or discussing issues online with friends from other areas? This has a significant bearing on their understanding of "Arab culture" (if such monolithic term actually exists) and whether the Internet poses a threat to its future. I'd also liked to have seen more analysis of the language question, and whether it dictates patterns of Internet censorship in any part of the Arab region. In the Turkish Republic, for instance, several conservative commentators view the Internet as a possible threat to national unity, as users of all ages (but particularly the young) communicate online in English, or restrict their focus of attention to English language sites. They forget the importance of their native language as a means of uniting the Turkish people. This has provoked a knee-jerk reaction from local ISPs, which have blocked access to sites such as YouTube in an attempt to increase traffic to Turkish language sites. One wonders whether similar practices exist in other parts of the Middle East region.
This phenomenon draws attention to a conflict which Abdulla believes is characteristic of the Arab world: whereas governments "are wary of giving young people full freedom to access all that the Internet can offer," individual users desire any means to "gain access to more information or carry their own voices to each other" (149-50). The author suggests that "Arab society at large has to be educated about the new culture of the Internet, so that it would not be feared as some Western device that is out to spread immoral values" (150). Point taken, but I also believe that greater research needs to be done into the ways the Internet is used by different socio-economic groups in the region. This might help to challenge Abdulla's orientalist conclusion that the Arab world needs to "catch up" with the West so that it can "bring more prosperity to their individual countries" (156). Hopefully, The Internet and the Arab World will provide the stimulus for more in-depth studies of the Arab media and the ways in which people consume it.
Cele, Filiz, "A Survey of Present and Potential Uses of Internet Resources in Turkish Universities for ELT Purposes," Unpublished M.A. thesis, Bilkent University (Ankara), Institute of Economics and Social Sciences, 1999.
Laurence Raw teaches cultural and communication studies in the Department of English, Baskent University, Ankara, Turkey. His recent publications include a co-edited collection Adapting America/America Adapted (Edwin Mellen Press, 2010), plus articles on the development of cultural studies in Turkey which have appeared in the Review of Pedagogy, Education and Cultural Studies (Taylor and Francis). <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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