Thursday, May 22, 2008

Internet No Automatic Revolution

From my Postglobal piece

The Current Discussion: Egypt has detained a number of its citizens for using the social networking site Facebook to organize anti-government protests. What online sites are most effective in influencing politics -- and is the impact positive?

In the context of Egypt, the government’s reaction to the use of sites like Facebook to influence politics within the country forms a broader pattern of media control. In essence Facebook, Hi5, and other social networking communities do get the wrath of governments on the basis of alleged erosion of 'social values'. This is a delicate subject for most of the emerging world, but I am not entirely sure that Facebook, per se, is known for being a platform for political dissent. For instance, the entire protest against General Musharraf's handling of Pakistan’s Judiciary, while absolutely high-handed, has not been reflected in places like Facebook. Yet blogs, other internet sites and even email e-blogs have become more effective mainly because they remain more targeted.

As far as the internet media is concerned, it’s becoming more powerful, especially with the ease of net traffic and of course more flexibility in content presentation. However, in a number of cases even the more serious political platforms on the internet have questionable effectiveness as instruments of direct change. Burma, Tibet, Iraq, the Arab World, Israel’s behavior and American insensitivity to world opinion – all have figured in various prestigious platforms. The result has been that while people may end up being better informed, I am not sure they are willing to do much more about it than perhaps an occasional protest email.

Take the example of PostGlobal itself. While there is no doubt this forum has a respected readership, there is perhaps, judging by some reader comments, a tendency to only read the headline and the first paragraph and then leave a comment. (To use my last post as an example, some readers felt I was asking only the Arabs to accept Israel, when I was additionally arguing that Israel has to stop its inhuman treatment of the Arabs and even quoted Amnesty International.) So on balance, the situation is not as simple as saying that if it’s on the Internet, it will influence opinion. It is more likely that it will shape some opinions, but unless the leadership or the audience that needs to act is really going to take serious note of the media on the net, I would argue that it will still be some time before we can say that Internet-based opinions matter. Perhaps this is because of the fractured nature of the Internet, and because I can hardly see General Musharraf, President Bush or Hosni Mubarak waking up each morning and reading the hundreds of blogs out in cyberspace.

Nevertheless, for those who care and do understand the writers’ complete arguments, there is a case that it can provide the basis for interaction and perhaps eventually action.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

An Orphaned Tibet

The Current Discussion: Protests over the Olympic torch relay have led to a crackdown in Tibet. Is Tibetan independence a lost cause? If not, what should its supporters do to win it?

Tibet's plight is not just about the sadness and loss of country that Tibetans feel - it is a constant reminder of the lack of a moral stance that countries have on this issue. World riots over the Olympic torch merely highlight the world's enthusiasm for showing they do not agree with the Chinese government. This is a message that is not getting to the governments, which continue to behave as if there is no problem with Tibet. There is no second thoughts about the fact that Tibet was invaded by the Chinese, albeit decades ago. There seems to be a suggestion that since the takeover of Tibet happened so long ago, it might as well be considered a lost cause.

The upcoming Olympics raise China's profile and hence the urgency to show the world that not all agree with how the Tibetan issue has been handled by the community of governments. While calls for its boycott are equated with the boycott of the Moscow Olympics over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, most athletes and governments don't really want to create a fuss over the continued Chinese occupation of Tibet. However, there are different faces to this protest; perhaps taking part in the Olympics but boycotting the opening ceremony. Imagine the Chinese televising the opening ceremony, with only the Chinese team in attendance?

Realistically, the Tibetan cause is lost in terms of pressure, sympathy or action from any of the governments that can exert even moral pressure on China, not that such moral pressure work on the mind of the Chinese leadership. However, it is obvious that people around the world do care about the Tibetan issue; this is where the current protests come into play to try and raise the interest in this lost cause. Tibet has no strategic value for the Americans, British or the French, and perhaps their need not to offend China far outweighs their moral responsibilities here. In a sense, the current protests around the high-profile Olympics are the last chance for people who support the Tibetan cause to do something about it. If they fail, the issue will recede back to being a footnote in the newspapers and in our minds.

Arabs Must Accept Israel

My PostGlobal piece
The Current Discussion:Israel celebrated its 60th birthday last week. Will it survive to celebrate its 100th?

This may sound shocking coming from a Pakistani living in Dubai, but the reality is that Arabs must learn to accept Israel in their midst. While a great deal is said about Iranian leadership and Hamas wanting the destruction of Israel, if we move beyond the rhetoric, the country is there to stay.

Israel has come so far, irrespective of the controversies that surrounded its creation and its position on the Middle East political map. It will indeed make it to its 100th birthday. What will affect Arab perceptions of Israel is the way the country conducts itself. Yes, there are acts against Israel which are violent, and there are acts by Israel that create the conditions for violence to gain steam. But the issue of forcibly taking Arab lands is real: part of the inherent problem lies in claims that since an Arab farmer does not have proof of land ownership, the State of Israel can then take it.
I am not suggesting that violence on the part of the Arabs is an answer, but there is enough liberal thought on both sides to acknowledge that both have done wrongs and that these need to be stopped and then corrected wherever possible. There is a consensus among most NGOs that Israel's track record on human rights in the Occupied Territories is appalling; its surprising that a people who suffered the Holocaust at the hands of the Nazis could themselves treat people with such indignity in their own lands. This is of course not a reason to wish for an end to Israel, but more an appeal to the voices of reason on both the Arab and the Israeli sides, to bring about tolerance, acceptance and fairness into the equation.

Thus, the question is not whether Israel will make it to its 100th birthday, but in what manner will it conduct itself as it does so? In a 2004 report on Israel, Amnesty International claimed:

"…abuses committed by the Israeli army constituted crimes against humanity and war crimes, including unlawful killings; extensive and wanton destruction of property; obstruction of medical assistance and targeting of medical personnel; torture; and the use of Palestinians as human shields."

People will suggest that I am ignoring Arab violence against Israel. I am not. I am merely asking critics be fair and look ahead and see that it takes two hands to clap. I wish Israel well, as I do all its neighbors.