Berkman Center's Study of the Arab Blogsphere: Map and Terminology

On June 2009 Berkman Center’s Internet & Democracy team published a study that analyzes and maps the dynamics of the Arabic blogsphere. The research included 35,000 active Arabic blogs across 18 countries in the Arab-speaking region and the goal for the study was to:

Produce a baseline assessment of the networked public sphere in the Arab Middle East, and its relationship to a range of emergent issues, including politics, media, religion, culture, and international affairs.

So here’s the map of the study:

As you can see, some of us, Arab-speaking bloggers, are categorized into  “Muslim Brotherhood” bloggers,  “Secular reformist” bloggers,  and “Islam focused” bloggers.  The rest of the categorization is country-based.

First, I am not sure why the word “reformist” is associated with the word “secular”, are seculars inherently reformists? and what are they reforming exactly? that fact that our societies are not secular? and for some reason, that what needs to be reformed in our region? I am not sure why “secular” bloggers can be “reformists” while “Muslim Brotherhood” bloggers or “Islam focused” bloggers cannot. Can’t Islam be reformist?

On this point, Iraqi Blogger Raed Jarrar shares his insight on a panel discussion organized by USIP to discuss the study. I quote below The Internet and Democrasy blog review of Jarrar’s speech:

Raed Jarrar, a prominent Iraqi Blogger who writes for Raed in the Middle, critiqued some of the study’s findings. He maintained that the choice of many Iraqi bloggers to write in English is dictated by the political realities of “foreign occupation” rather than personal preference.  He was additionally critical of the study’s research framework, taking issue with the parlance of labels such as “moderates” and “militants,” “secular reformists” and “Muslim Brotherhood.” Furthermore, he pointed out the “inherent bias” in investigating Arabic blogs’ support of “terrorism” or “extremism,” positing that “resistance” might be a more uniformly understood term for “terrorism” in the Arab world.  He argued that the map would appear very different with re-framed parameters – for example, a different set of political categories could be seen across geographic or religious lines if attentive clusters were bifurcated by demographic understanding. Similarly, new patterns would emerge from categorizing bloggers by their political agenda rather than their religious affiliations.

It’s important to stress here that I haven’t read the whole study yet, and I don’t wish to do so soon. I have only checked the map and read the first few pages of the study, and here I am criticizing not the study as a whole, but simply the map’s terminology and the first section of the study which I will get into shortly.

In the light of Jarrar’s quote, let’s take a look into the map’s terminology closer by setting the Syrian bloggers’ campaign against homosexuality as an example. How would one label it? “Islam focused” or “secular reformist”? and what would you label the counter argument(s) carried on the Syrian blogsphere regarding the campaign? “secular reformist”?

This whole labeling issue is first very simplistic and second it does not really help anyone to understand the Arab blogsphere as it is self-representing itself. Bloggers are not anti- homosexuality merely because they’re Muslims and Islam is certainly not the reason why they’re anti homosexuality. Moreover, if these bloggers were representing themselves as “Muslims against homosexuality”, doesn’t that mean, that they too, are reformists?

Who is a reformist? and who decides so?

Isn’t that the label “reformist” applied to those who are “modern” enough to our liking? that we deny any religious-affiliated blogger the value of reform-ism?

Why oh why, we put Muslim bloggers versus secular ones?

Aren’t Muslim Brotherhood bloggers in Egypt, if they’re ok with this category, reformists? Aren’t Almudawwen, Syrian blogs aggregator, whose administrators and team are religious bloggres, have been carrying many reformist projects for the past two years?

Aren’t most bloggers, committed Muslims, religious, Islamists, secular, atheists, nationalists, Arabists whatever bloggerists, reformists when they talk about sociopolitical and economical changes in their countries?

This study reduces Arab bloggers into mere seculars and Muslims, and this division does not only offend me but it also widens the gap between us bloggers who’re going through some difficult political changes in our region that we’re starting to adopt this foreign reading of us as mere “Muslims” and “seculars”. We are bunch of many things, but these things do not define who we are.

Anyways, the reason I wanted to write this post in the first place is to comment on this line found under the “Key Findings” section which lists several key-points one of them happen to be “terrorism”. It’s worth to note that the word “resistance” appeared only five times in this whole study and it didn’t have a whole section of its own. whereas the word “terrorism” appeared 26 times and it did have a small section of its own at the beginning of the study.

Here’s what it said under the terrorism section:

Terrorism: Terrorism is a bigger issue among Levantine/English Bridge and Syrian bloggers than others, where it is not a major issue. Across the map however, when discussing terrorism, Arab bloggers are overwhelmingly critical of violent extremists. We consider this a positive finding, although qualified because the issue of attitudes toward terrorism hinge on the term’s interpretation across the Arab world. Whatever its presence in other, less ‘public’ online venues, overt support for violent global confrontation with the West appears to be exceedingly rare in blogs. However, it is not unusual to find blogs that criticize terrorists on the one hand, and praise Hamas or Hezbollah for violent ‘resistance’ to Israel on the other. This complex issue merits additional research.

As a blogger who have following the Syrian blogsphere for the past four years,  I do not recall not once a blogger who talked about “terrorism” but in a context of resisting the notion itself. I remember Yaman’s post very well on this regard. Other than Yaman, I don’t know any other Syrian blogger who talked about “terrorism” per se. If there were, I’d like to know them. Don’t most Syrian bloggers talk about resistance instead? don’t we not make fun of the word “terrorism”? isn’t the word “terrorism” a foreign word we don’t even use unless we’re criticizing some news item labeling Syria as an “axis of evil” country when supporting “terrorist Islamic groups”?

Some close friends and dear bloggers criticize me when I use “west/us” or “they/us” dichotomies. That when I speak of the “West” I am treating it as a fixed entity rather than problematising it. Here’s a good chance to explain what I mean by “us/them” and “us/west” entities.

The last line of the paragraph above: “it is not unusual to find blogs that criticize terrorists on the one hand, and praise Hamas or Hezbollah for violent ‘resistance’ to Israel on the other. This complex issue merits additional research is one reason why I believe in the “us/them” dichotomy.

The above issue is “complex” only to those who view Hamas and Hezbolla as “terrorist” groups, and how many Arabs in the region share this view? hence this study is about “us” but it is not addressed to us, nor written in our familiarity or terminology. It is addressed to people who read the region’s “conflict” differently, and by differently, i mean a foreign reading, to the people who are living this very “conflict”.

Arab-Speaking bloggers, in my short experience, talk about the notion of resistance instead, which is a living notion and it is part of their consciousness. It doesn’t matter how they approach it, some might be pro or against Hamas and Hezbolla, some might call them “resistance” some might not, but they’re never to them, as they’re to the west, terrorist groups. Hamas and Hezbolla resistance might be controversial among the Arab blogsphere not as a “terrorist” groups, but precisely as resistance.

Finally, I don’t think this study needs “additional research”, all it needs is people who’re willing to look at things differently, read us carefully, and negate the boring stereotypes concerning our region, culture, and values.

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18 thoughts on “Berkman Center's Study of the Arab Blogsphere: Map and Terminology

  1. Free Man says:

    أول شي نورتي عالم التدوين مرة تانية صديقتي :)

    بالنسبة إلى التقرير، يعجبني في كثير من الأحيان قدرتك على القراءة بين السطور وكان هذا واضحاً من تحليلك للمفاهيم المستخدمة في الدراسة رغم أن المرء يمكن أن يمر عليها مرور الكرام. إلا أني ربما أختلف معك جزئياً في نهاية مقالك حول الحاجة إلى أناس يريدون النظر إلى الأمور بشكل مختلف ويقرؤننا بشكل أكثر دقة، لأنني أرى أننا بحاجة :
    – أولاً إلى “نحن” لنقرأ أنفسنا بشكل جيد وبعيداً عن الأحكام المسبقة.
    – ثانياً إلى “نحن” لأننا الأكثر قدرة على قراءة أنفسنا وتاريخنا واتجاهاتنا ورغباتنا ومصالحنا
    – وإلى حرية في التعبير عن الرأي تمكن الباحث قول مايريد فيما يريد وكيفما يريد.
    – وإلى دعم خاص لإنشاء مؤسسات بحثية “مستقلة” تضع مثل هذه الدراسات بدل أن يستمر “الآخرون” في دراستنا كيفما يشاؤون ثم يعلموننا ويقولون لنا ما نحن عليه فيصدقهم البعض بشكل أعمى ويعاديهم البعض الآخر بشكل أعمى أيضاً وبنفس القدر.

    مع خالص التحية لك، استمري

  2. Amr says:

    Just pointing your attention to the fact that the Secular and Islamist categories are sub-groups inside Egypt, so the Egyptian blogsphere in this map covers all the area from ‘Islam Focus’ in the South East to ‘Secular Reformists’ in the North East.

  3. aadeel says:

    Razan,
    What are the categories you suggest they should have used to bring accurate picture of the geopolitics of the blogshphere and how these categories can be more useful for the west interest and to the locals.

  4. Ece Algan says:

    You are raising some great questions here. You are right about the problems of classification and categorization of bloggers in the Middle East, what their voices are about and the role of Islam in the Berkman Center’s study. Thank you for this blog. I am posting it on both FB and Twitter.

  5. Faisal.K says:

    Doesn’t matter really how someone chooses to categorize middle eastern bloggers, this blog stays in the kick ass catagory for me :D

    can i add it to my blogroll?

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