Saturday, February 25, 2006

Armed with a Mouse

Mohammed's report on internet activism originally appeared in the Norwegian weekly Morgenbladet yesterday.

Armed with a Mouse
by Mohammed Omer
reporting from Gaza City, Occupied Palestine

In the furor over the insulting images of the Prophet Mohammed originally printed in a Danish newspaper and reproduced by many Western publications to demonstrate free expression and a free press, the Western media has been quick to lump all Islamic and Arabic protests together—whether peaceful or violent, thoughtful or mindless--in places where history and circumstances are wildly different. Whether the scene is occupied Afghanistan, or the impoverished immigrant housing projects of France, or in the complex society of Pakistan, to the West it is all "the Islamic world." The most inflammatory placards, the most violent and tragic incidents, are splashed on the front pages and lead the TV news while more careful, nuanced commentary is buried in the back pages or gets, at most, a sentence at the end of the TV anchor's report.
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In such a climate, it is hardly surprising that non-violent but highly effective internet activism has barely been mentioned. Instead of noisy street demonstrations, burning flags, and stones hurled through embassy windows, the weapon of choice is the keyboard, the mouse and the economic boycott for these new activists of the Islamic world,.

The most recent campaign of cyber-activists in Palestine, Egypt and other Arab countries, targeted a mysterious anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian video, apparently meant to be a TV commercial, that was widely distributed on the internet. It was, said the Western advertising trade press, an example of "viral marketing," where a TV ad too offensive for mainstream release is leaked to the internet by parties unknown. The manufacturer whose product is involved then has the unhappy task of trying to prove he didn't create the video.

In this case, the target was the German auto manufacturer Volkswagen, and the video, according to one commentator, "was apparently designed to offend as many human beings as possible." The short video shows a Volkwagen Polo pulling up outside a lovely sidewalk café as a young white woman pushing a baby carriage stolls by. Inside the car, there's a closeup of a stereotypical young Arab, wearing a military-style khaki jacket with a Palestinian kuffyiah around his neck. He cradles something that could be a bomb and pushes a mechanism as the view cuts to the exterior. A fireball fills the car, which remains intact despite the explosion, and the "commercial" ends with the declaration that the Volkswagen Polo is "small but tough."

In just a few seconds, the anonymous video-maker branded all Palestinian resistance as terrorism against innocent civilians, and trivialized every aspect of the tragic history of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. It was bad enough when the video appeared on small websites and was spread through email, but when the massive internet portal and search engine Google.com ran it under the headline "German Engineering against Arab Technology," the immensely powerful Google organization was compounding the offense.

Iman Badawi of Cairo was one of the internet activists who then swung into action. She and other activists had already created a number of Arabic-language websites to gather signatures on petitions protesting Denmark's inflammatory stance. "Of course, the Volkswagen ad was extremely provocative," she explained. "But when Google decided to feature it under such an offensive headline—as if all technology in the Arab world was limited to bomb-making—we sent an email in English to Google's advertising department explaining why we were compelled to protest. I said that as Arabs, we always respected their transparency and inclusive policies promoting a diversity of viewpoints. And although I find the video personally offensive, I would not take action against Google if they had not promoted such an intrinsically offensive headline. The email ended with a request they remove the link within 24 hours. We assured them we would also initiate appropriate protests and boycotts against Volkswagen Polo."

In fact, Volkwagen disavowed any part in the creation or release of the video and declared they would take legal action against those responsible. Google, however, chose to stonewall for three weeks. The Google link was still online; the headline was untouched, and Badwi got only a noncommital reply from Google that it would review the situation in terms of its policies.

"Of course," Badwi explained, "we were also working on boycott campaigns against Danish products. I had asked they remove the link in 24 hours. After 24 days, when nothing changed, I wrote and thanked them for not responding. I told them we would now email all our thousands of website visitors about Google's intransigence, and urge them to boycott Google and consider pulling any sponsored links." To demonstrate this was no empty threat, she attached to the message some of the petitions with tens of thousands of signatures of those pledging to boycott Danish products.

This time, Google's advertising department responded immediately with an apology and assured her the ad and headline indeed contravened Google's policies. "We have deleted it completely from our website," they assured her.

For years now, there have been many Arabic-language websites discussing current events and issues, but the effective use of economic boycotts in the Arab world is relatively new. Internet activists launched a boycott threat against "Ezi Mozo," an Egyptian juice manufacturer whose TV ads on many mid-East channels featured closeups of young women dancing, seductively whispering the product's name and making provocative gestures. The internet activists assured the general director of the company that if such blatantly un-Islamic advertising continued, they would add Ezi Mozo to the list of American and Israeli products already being boycotted. They received an immediate apology and the offensive commercials disappeared.

This new activism is a volunteer, slenderly-funded, but extremely effective use of the power of the internet. In Gaza City, Raja'a Assalia, a university student, spends his spare time and cash in a small internet café organizing boycotts. "I work with a number of groups," he said, "and the internet is an excellent way to make people aware of many issues. Of course, there's the ongoing boycott of Israeli products—we've been working on that for years—but we're also targeting certain Arabic products that degrade Arab and Islamic women. For instance there are Arab-language music videos featuring women who are practically naked. Obviously, we should boycott those record companies till they recover their sanity! We should make it clear many of us won't support products that offend basic standards of decency. We don't believe exploiting women is an acceptable sales technique."

Assalia has multiple windows open on his monitor, reading the latest news from boycott organizers in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, and Yemen, to name a few. Assalia confirmed no donor or organized group is funding his work. He is simply one of hundreds of volunteers personally known to him in Palestine and abroad who, for the price of an hour in an internet café, can join the effort. With the advent of free and low-cost blogging software, a few minutes, a few typed words, and a few mouse clicks can launch anyone into the border-less world of internet activism.

read entire article. . .