August 23rd, 2004
By Nir Boms/Erick Stakelbeck
While the war on terror has left scores of Islamist terrorists worldwide on the run, there is still one place where they – or at least, their message – can find safe refuge: the Internet.
In the past two weeks alone, a beheading, a graphic terrorist training video and several chilling threats against the West have all been posted on Islamist Web sites. In addition, the FBI announced on Aug. 9 that it was investigating Mazen Mokhtar, an Egyptian-born American citizen, for allegedly operating a radical site that solicited funds and recruited fighters for the Taliban and other jihadist groups.
These incidents follow a longstanding pattern of Islamist Web site activity that only became more pronounced following September 11 and, in particular, the coalition invasion of Iraq.
But amid all of the extremist rhetoric, the Web also plays host to a number of moderate voices, which, although much less publicized, are no less important in the battle for the hearts and minds of Muslims across the globe.
Much like their militant counterparts, democracy activists in the Middle East increasingly are turning to the Web as a new and vital battleground in the war of ideas. And with good reason: More Middle Easterners are able to use the Internet now than ever before.
Over the past four years, the amount of Internet users in Iran has increased by an astounding 1,620 percent. In Saudi Arabia during that same period, the growth has been 650 percent, while Syria has seen an increase of 630 percent. And the numbers in post-Saddam Iraq – when they are released – will likely present the most radical one-year increase in Internet use ever experienced by one country.
But despite this explosion in Internet usage, many Middle Eastern countries – Iran and Syria chief among them – continue to impose severe restrictions on Web access to ensure that users will not be exposed to “improper” information.
“There are things on the Internet that people have access to that are as offensive as ‘The Satanic Verses,’ and it is updated every day,” Iran’s deputy foreign minister, M. Javad Zarif, explained recently, referring to the 1989 novel that prompted the Iranian government to call for the killing of author Salman Rushdie. “We believe a certain level of decency must be provided.”
Tehran’s Istafhan University recently released a list of more than 400 Web sites that are banned in Iran. According to the list, between 60 percent to 65 percent are opposition-related sites, 25 percent to 30 percent are pornographic or “immoral” sites and 10 percent to 15 percent are “anti-Islamic.”
In 2003, Iranian journalist Sina Motallebi, who runs a popular blog, Rooznegar.com, was jailed, reportedly for posting the text of interviews he conducted with foreign journalists on his Web site and for defending a cartoon that angered Iran’s mullahs.
The arrest of Mr. Motallebi – who, after being released on bail, was able to escape to Europe with his family – highlighted the growing Internet revolution taking place in Iran. Shortly after Mr. Motallebi was imprisoned, scores of Web sites, blogs and online petitions were set up by outraged Iranians demanding his release.
Given that more than half of Iran’s 65 million citizens are under the age of 25 and increasingly Web savvy, online democracy and human-rights activism only figures to increase in the coming years, presenting yet another obstacle for the mullahs in their attempts to hang on to power.
A similar situation exists in Syria, where Abdel Rahman Shagouri holds the “honor” of being the first cyber dissident ever jailed. Last month, Mr. Shagouri, who was arrested in 2003 near Damascus for sending an e-mail newsletter from a banned Web site, was sentenced to two years in prison. In the past year, Syria has arrested at least five other cyber dissidents as well.
The Syrian government’s increased policing of the Web is a tribute to the country’s Internet activists, who, by merely using a keyboard, have become full-fledged “opposition leaders” in the eyes of Syrian authorities.
Despite the repressive measures taken by Syria and other Middle Eastern regimes (Saudi Arabia, it should be mentioned, has banned a total of 400,000 Web sites since 1999), the Internet remains an increasingly important vehicle for voices of dissent and opposition throughout the region.
Where else can one find Israelis and Arabs participating in lively debates – via chat rooms and e-mail – at a time when it is nearly impossible for them to have face-to-face contact, telephone conversations or postal correspondence?
While unfettered Internet access is a given for most of the West, for many in the Middle East, logging on each day represents a revolutionary act. And for many of the new Internet users, this act represents a new hope that their newfound virtual freedom may one day become a non-virtual reality.
Nir Boms is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense for the Defense of Democracies and the Council for Democracy and Tolerance. Erick Stakelbeck is senior writer at the Investigative Project, a Washington-based counterterrorism research institute.