Sunday, March 12, 2006

In Arabic, Internet Means Freedom

Odd though it may sound, somewhere in Baghdad a man is working in secrecy to edit new Arabic versions of Liberalism, by the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, and In Defense of Global Capitalism, by the Swedish economist Johan Norberg.

He is doing this at some risk of kidnap, beating, and death, because he hopes that a new Arabic-language Web site called LampofLiberty.orgMisbahAlHurriyya.org in Arabic—can change the world by publishing liberal classics.

Odder still, he may be right.

Kamil's work is anonymous out of fear, not modesty. Translating Frederic Bastiat's The Law, he says, took 20 days of intense labor. "I am proud of that, especially when I knew that the book has never been translated before. This is one of the works my heart is aching for not having my name in its front page."

Intellectual isolation is a widespread Arab phenomenon, not just an Iraqi one. Some of the statistics are startling.

According to the United Nations' "Arab Human Development Report," five times more books are translated annually into Greek, a language spoken by just 11 million people, than into Arabic.

"No more than 10,000 books were translated into Arabic over the entire past millennium," says the U.N., "equivalent to the number translated into Spanish each year."

Authors and publishers must cope with the whims of 22 Arab censors. As a result books do not move easily through their natural markets. Newspapers are a fifth as common as in the non-Arab developed world; computers, a fourth as common. Most media institutions in Arab countries remain state-owned.

No wonder the Arab world and Western-style modernity have collided with a shock. They are virtually strangers, 300 years after the Enlightenment and 200 years after the Industrial Revolution.

Much as other regions may be cursed with disease or scarcity, in recent decades the Arab world has been singularly cursed with bad ideas and bad government.

In January, MisbahAlHurriyya.org made its debut. Today it hosts about 40 texts; aiming for more than 400. Sponsored by the Cato Institute, it joins a small but growing assortment of Arabic-language blogs and Web sites promulgating liberal ideas.

"The Internet is a historical opportunity for Arab liberalism," Pierre Akel, the Lebanese host of one such site, metransparent.com, said in a recent interview.

In the Arab world, much more than in the West, one can genuinely talk of a blog revolution.

The Internet provides Arab liberals with the platform and anonymity that they need; helpfully, Arabic-language blogware, developed by liberal bloggers, recently came online for free downloading.

During the recent controversy over a Danish newspaper's publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, an Egyptian blog, EgyptianSandMonkey.blogspot.com, made a splash by pointing out that no one had protested when the same cartoons had previously been published on the front page of an Egyptian newspaper—and by calling, sardonically, for a Muslim boycott of Egypt. (check out the"Buy Danish" stickers!)

Here's the hook, the Internet makes possible worldwide, instant distribution, at a nearly negligible cost. MisbahAlHurriyya.org relies heavily on volunteers and donated Web services; its budget is in the five figures.

The site, entirely in Arabic, advertises on the popular Arabic Web sites Albawaba.com and Aljazeera.net. The whole enterprise was impossible a decade ago.

Firmly establishing liberal ideas took centuries in the West and may yet take decades in the Arab world. The suffocating Arab duopoly of state-controlled media and Islamist pulpits is cracking—only a little bit so far, but keep watching.

In the Arab world, the Enlightenment is going online.

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