A thousand and one e-mails

The Taliban has declared the Internet un-Islamic, but elsewhere in the Muslim world, going online is one way to avoid the censors.

Published October 12, 2001 7:30PM (EDT)

In July 2001, the Taliban banned the use of the Internet by Afghan citizens. "We are not against the use of the Internet, but we are against the broadcast of obscene and immoral material, and material on the Internet that is against Islam," said Taliban foreign minister Maulvi Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil in a statement.

By late August, the Taliban added computer disks to a growing list of official "un-Islamic" products, including nail polish, neckties and wigs made out of human hair. Border officials were to confiscate contraband disks and turn them over to the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. The government also extended the Internet ban to government officials and nongovernmental organizations doing humanitarian relief work in the country, decreeing that throughout Afghanistan there should be just one point of Internet connectivity through the Office of the Supreme Leader, "to be accessed by a trusted man."

Twenty-six million people with one lousy Internet connection?

Such attempts to put chokeholds on the Net usually get Westerners frothing at the mouth about universal rights to freedom of information. But the Internet ban by the Taliban was hardly a great blow to the people of Afghanistan. "You can't use something that you don't have," says Farhad Azad, the publisher of Afghanmagazine.com, an English-language site based in the U.S. read by Afghan expats. His magazine is one of many Afghan sites hosted outside the country that cover Afghanistan.

Azad points out that even before the U.S.-led bombing of the country began, many cities in Afghanistan had electricity only a few hours a day, much less computers or the land lines to get online. Even many relief workers relied on satellite phones for basic phone service while they were based in the country. And the limited number of Afghans who were online before the Net ban mostly used Pakistani phone lines to dial up.

But Afghanistan stands in sharp contrast to many Arab countries in the Middle East, where the Net is a growing source of information for students, as well as for the middle and upper classes, despite the clumsy attempts of autocratic governments to censor it. "A lot of people try to trumpet the fact that the common man doesn't have access to information. But that's not really true anymore," says Kevin Brown, creator of Middle East Internet pages, a Web directory for Arab countries that's been online since 1995. "People know someone who has access to information with the Internet."

While Islamic countries were initially slow to get wired, Brown argues that many attempts to measure the number of Arab Net users have come up with artificially low numbers. A recent study by Ajeeb.com put the number of Arab users of the Internet at just 3.54 million, or less than 2 percent of the entire Arab population.

But in the Middle East, users are much more likely to share a single Internet account than in the United States, and in many countries pay-by-the-minute Internet cafes are the preferred means of access. Using Hotmail for e-mail and a public terminal for surfing the Web makes these users hard to count.

Jahanshah Javid, publisher of Iranian.com, an online magazine based in Berkeley, Calif., says that an Internet account in Iran costs on average 10 to 20 percent of an average person's salary. "So most users are either students -- using free university ISPs -- or upper middle class or higher."

Most estimates of Arab Net users find the largest percentage of users per capita in the United Arab Emirates. On the other end of the spectrum, Iraq may be the most poorly connected, short of Afghanistan. Brown says that his sites have never had a single visitor from Iraq in all their years of existence: "We've never actually heard from an Iraqi person," he says.

Many governments in the Middle East censor the Net, including the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Lebanon and Syria, either by forcing users to go through a kind of national proxy server as a filter or allowing only state-controlled ISPs, although more have permitted privatization in recent years. "Basically, these countries have tried to keep the Internet as much under state control as possible," says Clement Henry, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Countries that censor use the specter of online pornography as an excuse to block other kinds of information that they find threatening. "They mostly claim that their concern is with pornography, and they use this as a cover to control the flow of political or human rights information," says Ricky Goldstein, a research director for Human Rights Watch, who authored a report on the Middle East and the Internet.

But the censors haven't always done such a great job of it. Tech-savvy -- and wealthy -- Internet users find ways of getting around the filters. "The classic example is the UAE," says Brown. "Technically, Playboy.com would be blocked. But the government was so stupid. If you knew of an external proxy that was open, you could just point your browser to sites beyond that proxy and you could get Playboy."

In Saudi Arabia, a country whose government has made no secret about its efforts to control what sites are viewed, some wealthy surfers have been known to dial up through foreign ISPs to access banned sites, despite costly phone charges. Censored or filtered stories also circulate widely via e-mail.

"In the cat-and-mouse game, the users tend to always find new ways to get around this kind of surveillance," says Goldstein. "But this kind of censorship does still have an effect. It slows down the government's loss of control over information in a society, but doesn't stop it."

In states where the government controls the media, the Web provides alternatives, not only in the form of English-language foreign news sources, but from Arabic sources based in other countries. The London-based Arabic daily Alhayat publishes news online for a pan-Arab audience.

In some cases, governments have been more lax about what gets published on the Net compared to in print. For example, Egyptian newspapers like the Middle East Times and the Cairo Times have published online articles censored from their print editions by the Egyptian government, while the government looks the other way. That's because the cost of getting online can essentially do the censoring for them.

"Cost is as big a barrier as any kind of censorship," explains Goldstein. "It remains popular among the well-to-do and the leisure class, but it's more expensive to connect in these countries."

Partially because of cost and access, there's another technology, not the Internet, that's had a bigger role in bringing different views to countries with governments that would suppress them: satellite TV.

"I can't stress highly enough that the most important new telecommunications media for this region has not been the Internet -- it has been satellite TV," says Goldstein. "It's undermined the state-controlled broadcasting in all these countries."

For about $200, a satellite dish has brought French TV to Tunisia and Al-Jazeera, the pan-Arabic station that broadcasts from the tiny country of Qatar to the Arab world. The station that's become well-known in the Western world for airing the statements made by Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida spokesmen post-Sept. 11 is perhaps the best known of the outside sources creating the true information revolution in the Middle East.

"The new satellite channel Al-Jazeera is probably a more important outlet than the Web," says Henry. For all the much ballyhooed democratizing power of the Web, it's the diversity of broadcast sources through satellite TV, as well as radio, that probably affects the most people, as the Arab world searches for news about the new war in Afghanistan.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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Afghanistan Islam Religion Taliban