Bombs don’t discriminate between combatants and children. This sad fact became an inconvenient one last summer for Israel, which had maintained that its bombing of Lebanon was solely an attack on Hezbollah, the Shiite militia that had kidnapped two Israeli soldiers and menaced the Jewish state’s northern border. To an anxious Lebanese population who’d seen most of their country’s south reduced to a parking lot, Israel’s persistent message — We are doing this for your own good — rang increasingly hollow.
By the beginning of August, the French and American ambassadors to the United Nations had finally hammered out a cease-fire resolution. But as the Security Council prepared to vote, the Lebanese government and the Arab League declared that the agreement was too favorable to Israel. A tense and edgy delegation arrived in New York on August 8 to plead the Arab case.
Dan Gillerman, the Israeli ambassador to the UN, didn’t have to do much at those deliberations — simply listen to the complaints, appear to be the least obstructionist in the room, and restate his country’s position, as absurd as it may have sounded by that point, that Israel’s bombs were in fact helping the Lebanese people to free themselves from the “cancer” of Hezbollah that had metastasized in their midst. In this last task, he had an unusual ally: “I believe that one courageous Lebanese youngster was speaking for many when he wrote in his Internet blog, and I quote, ‘It is not only Israeli soldiers that the Hezbollah has taken hostage. It is us, the people of Lebanon.’”
This “Lebanese youngster” was, of course, a blogger, and maybe the first to have his words bounce off the solemn walls of the United Nations. And though he probably would not have appreciated being deployed as a weapon in Israel’s public-relations war, the presence of his independent voice, a counterintuitive opinion not filtered through any official source, said a lot about the power of Middle Eastern Web logs to expose a hidden trove of multiple perspectives in a world that the West often imagines as having only one perspective — that of the “Arab Street,” a place of conformity, of mass acquiescence to singular passions, be they blind support for a dictator or seething hatred of Israel.
Last summer was, in fact, a watershed moment for the Middle Eastern blogosphere. The conflict between Israel and Hezbollah not only brought attention to the many different Arab conversations that had taken place on homemade Web sites in the past two or three years, but also launched thousands more of them. And they were more than just a handful of aberrant voices. They reflected a new culture of openness, dialogue, and questioning. And unlike the neoconservative notion that these ideals can be dropped on a foreign population like so many bomblets, the push for change here is coming from within. Whether it is a Jordanian student discussing the taboo subject of the monarchy’s viability or a Saudi woman writing about her sexual experiences or an Egyptian commenting with sadness at an Israeli blogger’s description of a suicide bombing, each of these unprecedented acts is one small move toward opening up these societies.
The Arab blogosphere has been growing for a few years now, though not at a particularly quick pace. Only 10 percent of the Arab world has Internet access, yet that is a five-fold increase from 2000. Of course, not all Arab blogs are about liberalizing Arab society. Some use the technology as another front in the jihad against the West being waged by groups like Al Qaeda. One, Irhabi 007, who was recently profiled in The Atlantic Monthly, created Web sites to disseminate videos of beheadings and insurgent attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq. Most analysts and bloggers put the number of Arab bloggers at fewer than 25,000. Of those, a majority blog in Arabic. And though there are surely interesting discussions happening on those sites, Arab bloggers themselves say that a particularly interesting alternative space is being formed on the sites composed in English. Now aggregated on blogging portals like iToot.net and enhanced by the YouTube-like Web site Ikbis, it is in this community of people who are self-consciously half-turned toward the West that one can feel the breathing becoming easier.
Those bloggers are people like Roba Al-Assi, a twenty-one-year-old design student in Amman, Jordan, who recently wrote about her opposition to the death penalty for Saddam Hussein:
ldquo;It is the premeditated and cold-blooded killing of a human being by the state in the name of justice (I know he killed thousands, but it is in my moral fabric to be better than others. Throw him in jail for the rest of his life, that’s a lot worse than death).rdquo;