4 and ½ reasons why listicles are cancerous

 
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By Ray O’Reilly

Though they may go viral, like viruses (or even journalistic cancer), listicles are bound to kill off their host eventually.

Monday 2 March 2015

You’ve had a brainwave on the way to work: people don’t know enough about the merits of different stud types used in upholstering or the tantalising ways to spice up your relationship with your cat, or the tasty ways to dress a pavlova… Now what?

Social media wisdom says you should write down these fabulous ideas but not in a traditionally formulated article or in a format that requires concentration or the ability to retain a series of consecutive ideas, but rather in elaborated bullets commonly known as a ‘listicle’. And make sure you include a really long sentence as an introduction to show just how annoying properly formulated language can be before you launch your list of points that everyone can follow without straining much of anything.

Once you have your ideas, you need to decide how to list them, as a series of numbers usually needs explaining. And wikiHow helps here by telling us how to do this. Note: It is important when putting your listicle together to avoid original research, and to be sure to pepper your piece with unsubstantiated information ‘harvested’ from other online resources.

The “world’s most popular how-to website” offers three main ways to construct your listicle. You can rank the list, for example from worst to best, or deadliest, or most interesting, or least creepy, etc.. Alternatively, you can centre it around a theme, such as visiting relatives who live overseas. FInally, there are random lists, but this can apparently leave the reader irritated by the lack of conclusions.

How can you fail to become a successful listicler (yes, I made that up) with such advice?

“It’s so easy you wonder why everyone doesn’t do it until you realise that now it’s all they do: Come up with an idea… that won’t actually tax you at all as a writer/thinker; pen some short blurbs peppered with limp barbs… hit publish; watch the page views spike…” wrote one blogger mockingly.

3, 2, 1, listicle

This piece has surely already failed to keep most people’s attention with its six-paragraph preamble, so the only thing to do is to launch the listicle… and confound the doubters.

1 What listicism says about you: A listicle says “I’m really so clever at making banal things sound interesting… check this out!”, while serious writing calls for statements more like “I’m really so clever at making complicated things sound simple… and simple things sound complicated!” No wait, that got really confusing! See what happens when you try to ‘listicise’ (I made that up too) without a Listicular Handling Certificate.

2 Career-maker, heart-breaker: If you’re looking to build a career selling cigarettes to teenagers in Bangladesh, becoming a listicle guru is a good training ground. The trick is to make even sickening things seem alluring, things that would ordinarily have you struck off from a profession or worshipped by gorilla graffiti artists.

3 Dead-ends and citizen journalism: Everyone is a journalist nowadays… and thanks to the declining standards and pay scales to match, and the ever-flowing graduates from ‘communications’ schools worldwide, we have an eternal source of grateful interns to keep churning out content befitting the billions of communications experts hooked up to social media like drug-fucked monkeys in a lab. (I thought about ‘drug-addled’ but where’s the zing in that?).

4 Viruses and flesh-eating bacteria: One can only imagine that like viruses or flesh-eating bacteria, eventually listicles are bound to kill off their host and with it all hope of keeping up to snuff on the ten best uses for pretzels, or the 14 worst ways you can scrub shit off your trainers, or the four worst songs to follow the third song on a ‘best of’ album with 12 songs in total… I think you get!

Just cancer: It’s important in serious journalism to tie back somehow to your catchy title.

Our wikiHow friends offer a note of caution about listicles:

“The advice to write everything in bullet points so that the lazy online reader can spot the information without having to move any eye muscles works for many short blogs but it also fails to draw in serious readership and ultimately lacks journalistic integrity if it’s the only form of writing you rely upon. Think more highly of your readers and add listicles infrequently as a way to give them a breather from your juicier and more original writing.”

Expect an in-depth analysis on Chronikler of how listicles have lowered average IQs by X% and the most unlikely ways to grow mushrooms in a dorm room in full detail.

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Freedom of repression in Egypt

 
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By Khaled Diab

The Republic of Tahrir revolutionaries dreamt of an Egypt of freedom, but the only thing that seems free these days is the value of human dignity.

Saturday 10 January 2015

In December 2011, the glimmer of hope that would spark revolution across the Arab world was ignited in Tunisia with its jasmine-scented revolution. While Tunisians have managed to take advantage of the intervening four years to set in motion a process of rapid democratisation – including two sets of free elections (2011 and 2014), the drafting of a non-partisan constitution, not to mention the democratic and peacefaul transfer of power – other countries in the region have not been so fortunate.

The Tunisian path of consensus politics, which helped the country navigate some of the greatest hazards and perils of revolution in a largely peaceful manner, has been absent from Egypt, where each change in leadership came with a “winner takes all” confrontational and combative attitude.

As we approach the fourth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, the high hopes of “bread, freedom and social justice” seem as far away as ever – some fear that they have moved impossibly out of reach.

In addition to the nose-diving economy, which has been kept afloat since 2011 through the largesse of the Gulf allies of the moment, this regression has been felt acutely and painfully in the area of freedom of expression, particularly the media.

While the revolutionaries of the Republic of Tahrir had dreamt briefly of an Egypt that would be a beacon of freedom, the only thing that seems free these days is the value of human dignity. The counterrevolution – which actually began with the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, when the regime amputated its head to keep its body intact – seems to be reaching an end goal of sorts, through a process of heavy-handed crackdowns and co-options.

In terms of repression, 2014 was a particularly harsh year, in which Egypt found itself in the uncoveted top 10 jailers of journalists. “Egypt more than doubled its number of journalists behind bars to at least 12, including three journalists from the international network Al Jazeera,” said the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent NGO based in New York which has been dubbed “journalism’s Red Cross”.

Like Al Jazeera’s Baher Mohamed, Mohamed Fahmy and Peter Greste, many of the imprisoned journalists listed by CPJ are accused of having links or sympathies with the previous regime of Mohamed Morsi. These include members of the highly influential citizenship journalism site Rassd News Network (RNN), which is affiliated with or at least sympathetic to the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

RNN’s Mahmoud Abdel Nabi has been in jail the longest of the dozen reporters behind bars. He was arrested, in July 2013, while covering clashes between pro-military and pro-Morsi protesters in Sidi Beshr, Alexandria. He is accused of inciting violence and the possession of weapons.

The other RNN staff members in jail are Samhi Mustafa and Abdullah al-Fakharany,  who were indicted in February, along with dozens of others, for allegedly “forming an operations room to direct the Muslim Brotherhood to defy the government”.

Even for journalists without any alleged political allegiances, simply doing their jobs during the dispersal of the al-Raba’a and al-Nahda protest camps – which Human Rights Watch calculates led to the death of at least a thousand, including four journalists – could easily land them in jail.

This is exactly what happened to the freelance photojournalist Mahmoud Abou Zeid, a contributor to the UK-based citizen journalism site and photo agency Demotix, who was arrested in August 2013 while covering the dispersal, though the French photographer and Newsweek journalist he was with were later released.

Some reporters have fallen foul of the regressive and controversial anti-protest law passed in 2013. These include Ahmed Gamal, a photojournalist with the online news network Yaqeen, who was arrested on 28 December 2013 while covering student protests at al-Azhar University in Nasr City, Cairo. Ahmed Fouad of the local news website for Alexandria, Karmoz, who was arrested in January 2014 during pro-Muslim Brotherhood protests in Sidi Beshr.

Despite such incidents, the anti-protest law is intended primarily for protesters and dissidents, both of the Islamist and secular variety. In fact, some are convinced that this law criminalising dissent is part of a “targeted mission to eliminate the prominent revolutionary figures”. This political purge has targeted such leading revolutionary figures as the sibling duo, Alaa Abdel-Fattah, who is accused of not being a “true” revolutionary and of seeking the country’s “destruction”, and Mona Seif, who went on a hunger strike for 76 days to protest her brother’s incarceration.

The al-Sisi regime has also had reformists and human rights defenders in its crosshairs. These include Yara Sallam, a transitional justice officer at the independent Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), who was sentenced to three years at the end of October for allegedly participating in a political march. In December, this was reduced to two years.

EIPR and other NGOs in Egypt are threatened with closure due to the government’s insistence to apply the letter of a controversial 2002 law and even more regressive draft legislation.

But coercion is not the only tool the regime wields. It has also blended this with the co-option of high-profile voices. A number of prominent private television channels and TV personalities have weighed in behind Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s leadership.

This was on clear display during last summer’s war in Gaza. For example, the regime’s leading cheerleader, Tawfik Okasha, ridiculed Gazans for not being “men” because “if they were men they would revolt against Hamas,” he blasted.

Beyond the media, some lawyers have taken it as their personal mission to shut down free speech. A recent example was the law suit brought against the famous pro-revolutionary Egyptian actor Khaled Abol-Naga which accused him of “high treason” for daring to criticise President al-Sisi. The case has triggered a wave of anger and protest amongst artists.

Although “Sisimania” has cooled down considerably since the former general became president, there are still many patriotic readers who take any sleight to the leader personally, as reflected in the mirthless reactions of readers to the cartoons and caricatures of Mohamed Anwar.

To add insult to injury, the regime has co-opted the revolution itself and has appointed itself as its sole guardian and guarantor, as reflected in the presidential decree al-Sisi intends to issue which “criminalises insulting the 25 January and 30 June uprisings”.

The regime is also positioning itself as the self-appointed defender of public morality, as highlighted in the recent spate of arrests of alleged homosexuals, in spite of the fact that homosexuality is not actually illegal, as well as the arrest of people suspected of being atheists, despite their being no law in Egypt outlawing atheism, and the recent closure of what the media dubbed the “atheists’ café”.

Amid this onslaught on the media and the freedom of activists and citizens to express their political thoughts, it is easy to feel despair for Egypt’s future and its people’s aspirations for freedom, dignity and equality.

However, it is important to contextualise matters. Despite the devolution, Egypt at its worst is still freer and its people more openly defiant than just about everywhere in the Gulf at their best. For instance, Qatar’s domestic media does not enjoy freedom nor does it agitate for it, exercising a great deal of self-censorship.

Contrast that to Egypt where, despite all the crackdowns, arrests and intimidations, there are still independent voices who refuse to be cowed, coerced or co-opted. This is embodied in Egypt’s dynamic citizen journalism scene and its independent publications, such as Mada Masr.

Even private TV does not always sing from the government’s hymn sheet. A recent example of this was an ONtv programme exposing the ill-gotten gains of the mysterious billionaire Hussein Salem, who was recently acquitted of corruption charges alongside his patron, Hosni Mubarak.

Many activists and human rights defenders are still striving to fight the corner of freedom. The award-winning Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) has not taken the regime’s recent infringements lying down. It has issued numerous scathing reports on the subject, including one entitled “Has journalism become a crime in Egypt?”

Understandably, the ranks of the defiant are shrinking in Egypt, as many once-critical voices are silenced and an increasing number of journalists and activists take flight mostly out of despair, but also out of fear.

But this situation is not inevitable nor necessarily indefinite. Just as a generation of young idealists defied all odds and expectations to bring the regime to its knees, the spirit they set free may be suppressed for a time but it cannot be extinguished.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Al Jazeera on 28 December 2014.

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The social media’s Islamic state of terror

 
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By Christian Nielsen

ISIS has skillfully manipulated social media as a powerful propaganda tool.  Should the online community self-censor to deprive it of free publicity?

Prompted by social media, outraged Arabs and Muslims burned the ISIS flag.

Prompted by social media, outraged Arabs and Muslims burned the ISIS flag.

Tuesday 30 September 2014/Update Tuesday 18 November 2014

Quality media outlets – with their hierarchy of editors and codes of conduct – have the ability to hold or indeed withhold stories, in what they may consider the public good. Whether for ethical, legal or other reasons, though reasonably rare, there are historical precedents of newspapers and television stations, for example, choosing not to provide much-coveted coverage of terrorism events like a hijacked plane.

But the internet has proven a disruptive force – both in the positive and negative sense. Disruptive in that it gave a voice and opportunity to mostly young people in the Middle East to finally speak out against corrupt, incompetent or incorrigible rulers during the Arab Spring. But today it is also giving a loud voice – and gory platform – to a fanatical few who are intent on shocking and cajoling the right-minded world into a war which it sees no immediately viable way of avoiding. They say you should not shoot the messenger, but if social media is not part of the cause it should be part of the way out of this morass.

Is self-censorship an option?

This is a naive question, perhaps even an abhorrent one, for journalists to be asking, but it’s out there now, so let’s look at it more closely.

Of course, it is technically possible to censor social media from the top down, as amply shown by authoritarian states. This is an altogether different and unwelcome scenario. Here, I am speaking more of social media developing its own set of ethics or code of conduct beyond the people’s court of opinion after the offensive material has already been put out there.

Internet’s not insignificant influence

Already by 2008, just decades after it entered our lives, the internet had taken over traditional newspapers as a prime source of news, Pew Research reported, and for young people, it rivalled television as the main source of national and international news.

Back then a lot of the content still came from traditional sources, “usually those working in struggling newspaper companies and media outlets”, according to Global Issues in a debate broadly covering the changing media influence on society and democracy. But the online world is moving fast, with the growth of citizen journalism and blogs generating original content, and the ascent of video news and sharing sites.

Today, it is social media that seems to provide the Islamic State (IS or ISIS) and its ilk with an ideal forum for broadcasting their vitriol through cruel acts of violence, including horrific executions in the heart of war-torn Syria and Iraq, as well as further afield, such as the beheading of a French mountaineer in Algeria by IS-linked fanatics. It is a frightening frenzy of copycat behaviour fanned by a medium that has no genuine filter befitting the gravity of the acts.

The ability to easily film and almost instantaneously upload footage of these crimes brings into question the role of today’s one-to-very-many media as a possible conduit for a whole new level of terrorism. The more intense the reaction, it seems, the greater the appeal of the medium and the greater the likelihood of repeat offenses by all manner of offshoots, affiliates and IS acolytes.

How much can we blame the media for this new wave of glorified “me-too” terrorism? Can and should video-streaming sites refuse to allow – or be more stringent in their rejection of – violent content of this nature? How much should the holders and managers of these platforms be held responsible for this shocking content in much the same way as Julian Assange’s Wikileaks is being scrutinised for providing a forum for state “secrets” to be disseminated?

Some tough questions, but ones that most definitely need posing. Where is the debate on the role of new media as a seed for the decline in responsible reporting. As a supporter of the liberal press and freedom of speech, this is a hard thing to even write about, let alone contemplate. But maybe the new media have a responsibility like the old media once displayed, refusing to show the graphic, the abhorrent; reducing terrorists’ ability to promulgate their propaganda with impunity, and stopping the marketing machine that is IS from recruiting disenfranchised youth from East and West to its distorted call for a Caliphate.

I once described terror (in my now rather quaint book Tourism and the Media) in terms of its communication goals; and overlaid the way it works on people – remember terror is by definition to instil fear not necessarily to wreak carnage – and their perceptions in terms of basic communication (‘Terrorism represented as basic communication’ p157).

In the book, I touched on the early writing of PA Karber who in his unpublished paper ‘Terrorism as social protest’, introduced the communication dimension in how we conceptualise terrorism, “as a symbolic act”. In other words, the message (terrorist act filmed) being sent by the communicator/sender and received by the audience (the terrorist’s true target) whose feedback (recipient’s reaction) is communicated back to the sender.

The reactions in the case of IS are expressed in different ways, including, it now seems, the greater resolve of governments, both in the region and beyond, to stop them, in the knowledge that public support for aggressive measures is broadly accepted. The general public also “reacts” in concrete ways which “express” the fear now successfully instilled by, for example, changing their travel plans. Authorities in the West also react in terms of altering their perception of a region or people of Muslim faith or “men of Middle-eastern appearance doing nefarious things”. This kind of profiling has dangerous and far-reaching consequences on tolerance in multi-ethnic cultures like Canada, the USA, Australia and many parts of Europe. Examples of racial profiling are already coming out in Australia where the Guardian has reported a storm brewing over sensationalist journalism, press freedom and media hysteria about terrorism.

It will be telling proof to see the impact on travel to Muslim-majority countries by Westerners from the nations who have been loudest and most actively opposed to IS. The terrorist act succeeds if just one person changes their plans to visit Algiers, Petra, Casablanca or largely peaceful nations in the wider region, if people start making decisions based on fear. And with potentially millions seeing these horrible acts, or even reading about them in follow-up coverage, the probability that many more people will give in to the fear grows.

Perhaps the solution is to take out the middle men, remove the ability of these vile characters to get their message out so easily and effectively. It’s a thought. But is it a step too far? Does it take us back decades, or centuries… back to treating the press as a war propaganda machine? It amounts to censorship, one way or the other.

It would also mean articles like this are doing nothing more than adding to the “noise” of material keeping these fanatics’ dreams alive. On the flipside, if no-one reported the events, the support for action against this threat would be so much harder to muster.

Former US President George W Bush’s head-long and ham-fisted “War on Terror” in mostly Iraq and Afghanistan has brought only more trouble to a troubled region. And the loose application of the truth about weapons of mass destruction used as justification to enter this “war” doesn’t help the case for going back into the fray. Which is why the graphic nature of the crimes today (for that is what we are really talking about… Vile crimes committed by a cast of Sunni zealots, killers and misfits, to borrow from a recent story in The Economist) has worked as a wake-up call to the United States and its band of unlikely allies to go back and fix what was broken during the decade-long folly that was the War on Terror.

Now we’re terrified

Now that we really do have terror and the perpetrators are using the most powerful weapon they have at their disposal – mass, cheap, easy communications – to make us afraid. I think for the sake of clarity, it is worth recounting what terrorism is. It has no doubt existed in one form or another for millennia, but in its modern form, we need to go back more than a century.

Anarchist terrorism captured headlines and media attention back in the late 19th and early 20th century. But for modern scholars, it reached the zeitgeist in the 1960s and 70s, and first peaked (in news terms at least) in the 1980s thanks to events such as the downing of a Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, and tensions in Israel, Northern Ireland, northern Spain, Central America and more.

Since the War on Terror commenced in the early 2000s it’s impossible to say what an act of terror really constitutes, and whether a death is a consequence of that when all parties would claim to be acting out of righteousness. But to continue on that train of thought would take us into a deep, dark recess of rhetoric and semantics on the distinction between terrorist and freedom fighter; one in which the Northern Irish have for years been digging their way out of. But with the statesman-like send-off that Ian Paisley recently received on the news of his death, it appears history is rewriting certain chapters for all of those engaged in the war/terrorism in and around Northern Ireland.

So back to our (mis)understanding of terrorism. The US government once defined it as “… premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents… intended to influence an audience.” While perhaps ignoring state terrorism in this equation it is a compact and functional definition.

And IS and its acolyte’s violent acts on civilians, journalists and aid workers would appear to fit this description, and its use of the media to “influence an audience” works here as well. RAND, a research think tank that keeps records of terrorism trends, has expressed that terrorism should be identified by the nature of the act and not by the identity of its perpetrators or the nature of their causes. But as I mention in my book, RAND’s description could be taken too literally by the world’s mass media which keep coming back to the horrors of the act, the visible carnage, and the loss of life which unfortunately seems to boost ratings. The focus here is more on the act than the nature or reasons behind the act.

Hostage-taking, beheadings, bombing, hijackings, assassinations… Audiences risk becoming addicted to the outrage, at the expense of better analysis and understanding of the causes; a trend which is likely only to aggravate the situation. What audiences must understand is that a terrorist act is intended to cause mayhem, confusion, outrage and terror, to rock the status quo.

The mass media, especially social media, needs to take a good look in the mirror and ask how much exposure they want to give these people. How much graphic detail is needed to maintain support for a just ‘War for Humanity’, if such a thing could ever exist, not another improvised ‘War on Terror’? Is the information really in the readers/viewers’ best interest, or the media channel’s?

Let’s stick to the tenets of good journalism, avoid sensationalising or fuelling the terrorists by over-publicising their horrible acts. Let’s try to sensibly limit the “feedback” they are craving.

UPDATE:

New figures published this week indicate that terrorism fatalities have increased almost fivefold since 9/11, and this is despite the US-led ‘war on terror’. The Global Terrorism Index reported some 18,000 deaths last year, a hike of nearly 60% over the previous year. According to the report, four groups were responsible for the majority of deaths; namely Islamic State (Isis) in Iraq and Syria; Boko Haram in Nigeria; the Taliban in Afghanistan; and al-Qaida in various parts of the world.

“The terrorism index raises questions about the effectiveness of a western counter-terrorism strategy since 9/11 that has seen US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen and the use of proxy forces around the world,” writes The Guardian. The report’s release coincides with the latest Isis video showing the beheading of the American Peter Kassig, an aid worker who was posted in Syria.

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The Arab world’s rebels without a god

 
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By Khaled Diab

In Egypt and other Arab countries, the atheism taboo has been broken. Atheists are rebelling against the status quo and demanding to be seen and heard.

Atheists are carving out a space in the Arab world's narrowly defined religious landscape. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Atheists are carving out a space in the Arab world’s narrowly defined religious landscape. Photo: ©Khaled Diab

Wednesday 26 March 2014

Sometimes a film can change your life. This is exactly what happened to Alber Saber, but not in the way people usually mean. Little did the young activist suspect that the fevered imaginings and rantings of a religious bigot on the other side of the world would spark furious chaos right outside his front door. The “film” – or, more accurately, trailer – in question was Innocence of Muslims, the low-budget YouTube sensation that caused global controversy in 2012 for its crass and offensive depiction of Muhammad.

On 12 September 2012, a mob of angry neighbours gathered outside the apartment building where Saber lived with his family, angered by rumours that the boy next door had posted the controversial video on his Facebook page.

In fact, Saber had not posted the video. So why did the angry mob target him? Perhaps because Saber comes from a Coptic family – like the maker of Innocence of Muslims – and, unlike him, is an atheist.

Distressed and concerned, Saber’s mother phoned the police, expecting them to turn up and protect her son and the rest of the family. Instead, the police returned the next day to arrest the outspoken blogger and activist who was actively expressing his atheistic convictions on social media. Saber was insulted during his interrogation and a junior officer incited fellow prisoners against him, provoking one of them to cut him with a razor on his throat.

In December 2012, Saber was sentenced to three years for “insulting” and “disdaining” religion by “creating webpages, including Crazy Dictator and Egyptian Atheists”. “This made me feel that anyone who thinks differently to the religion or ideology of the state is a criminal,” he asserts. “But I will not give up my right to think.”

During his appeal, the young activist fled the country. “I really miss my life in Egypt because I am now living in Switzerland far away from my family, friends and country,” he told me from his exile, “even if my country does not respect my rights and has caused me a lot of trouble.”

Saber admits that despite the dangers he faced in Egypt, he did not want to flee. “If it were up to me I would stay and defend myself even if I were to be executed,” he said in an interview at the time.

The sensationalist corners of the media had a field day during Saber’s ordeal, depicting him as the atheistic equivalent of the Islamophobic, Quran-burning American pastor, Terry Jones. “A segment of the media inserted untruths about my case. They alleged that I burnt or tore up the Quran,” he recounts. “Many people still believe this, even though my case revolved around the articles and videos I made about my personal beliefs.”

And it is not just Saber. Ever since the revolution took off in 2011, Egyptian non-believers have felt emboldened and empowered, emerging from the shadows to carve out a space for themselves on social media.

This has had a ripple effect on the mainstream media.

For example, the widely watched 90 Minute talk show recently hosted a young atheist and social media activist, Ismail Mohamed, in an episode titled ‘Penetrating the secret world of atheists in Egypt’. While the programme brought the subject of atheism to a public platform, it was a missed opportunity to promote a mature public debate on non-belief. Despite the presenter’s assertions that she wished to give Mohamed a podium to express his views, she displayed blatant hostility towards the subject. Her guests included a psychiatrist who suggested that atheism was caused – as is similarly suggested about homosexuality in the Arab world – by psychological, financial and family problems and so atheists deserved patience and pity.

The inconvenient truth is that atheism is not a psychological disorder. “I did not become an atheist,” counters Milad Suleiman, a young atheist blogger from Imbaba, a poor Cairo suburb that was gripped by an Islamist insurgency in the 1990s. “Atheism is a state of thought. It has no specific starting point.”

Paradoxically, many atheists arrive at their convictions as the product of an attempt to deepen their faith, understand their religion better or silence doubts plaguing their consciences. “When I started university in the 1980s, I realised that I was very knowledgeable about lots of things, except my own religion. So I decided that I was going to delve deep into it and be as expert as possible,” Ayman Abdel-Fattah, a socially minded businessman and affably outspoken atheist in his late 40s, told me in a noisy watering hole in the upscale Cairo neighbourhood of Zamalek. But  instead of reaffirming his faith, this exercise, Abdel-Fattah admits, “gave me the shock of my life” because he found that the founding fathers and mothers of Islam were very human, for the most part cynically political, motivated by self-interest and riven by infighting, jealousy and overriding ambition.

Others begin their journey as deeply conservative believers. “I was a very religious person when I was a teenager. I used to teach kids in church and remote villages about Christianity and Jesus,” recalls Mena Bassily, a young Egyptian computer scientist now living in New Zealand. Unsatisfied with the clergy’s textbook responses to his growing doubts, Bassily embarked on a journey of spiritual self-discovery that eventually led him to jettison his faith.

Before the revolution, Abdel-Fattah says, Egyptians preferred to adopt a deathly silence on the subject. “There was not a single attempt for any serious academic study or genuine analysis of the social repercussions of the trend, despite the fact that it was easily observable through the blogosphere and social media at large,” he points out.

So what prompted the media to wake up to this phenomenon? “[Everything] changed after it became apparent [that] the Islamists were going to take over,” Abdel-Fattah explains. “[The media] concluded there was one, and only one, reason for this ‘atheism tsunami.’ It was the Islamists’ rule.”

The expression “atheism tsunami,” evoking images of a Biblical god flooding the world with atheists rather than the more conventional water, fire or brimstone, was memorably used by Amr Adeeb, the loud-mouthed host of the popular talk show al-Qahira al-Youm (Cairo Today). The ‘experts’ on Adeeb’s show concluded that young people were turning to atheism as a reaction to the reactionary brand of Islam that had taken hold in Egypt.

“Following the coup, a lot of people reacted against religion as a rejection of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood,” observes Amira Mohsen, a British-Egyptian journalist and media analyst.  In addition, the military regime has manipulated the widespread fear that Egypt could become the next Saudi Arabia to demonise the Muslim Brotherhood and justify its persecution of the movement.

Blaming radical Islamists appeals both to atheists and religious moderates. For atheists, it supports the hope that society will, one day, throw off the shackles of conservative religion and choose secularism instead.

For religious moderates, placing blame elsewhere sustains their belief that it is not religion which is the problem but the way it is abused by extremists.

But while disgust at the surge of Islamic extremism may have prompted a number of Egyptians to abandon their faith, far greater influences appear to be intellectual conviction, more openness sparked by the 2011 revolution, and a gradual discarding of old, tired philosophies that tried to create homogeneity by ignoring the country’s diversity.

“Egyptian society has always been diverse and varied in terms of beliefs, opinions and cultures,” notes Alber Saber, the exiled blogger. “This has made many tolerant of those with differing outlooks.”

Beyond Egypt’s mainstream media, a profound public debate on belief has begun. This can be observed particularly in social media, which has seen a profusion of blogs, citizen journalism and films tackling this complex topic.  

In the progressive ranks of the Egyptian media, there have also been efforts to portray atheists sympathetically. For instance, the online al-Badil (Alternative), which describes itself as “the voice of the weak”, produced a video documentary in which a number of atheists were given the space and freedom to elaborate on their beliefs, lives, concerns and worries.

Atheists hope that the revolution of consciousness which has overtaken Egyptian society will expand to include them. “I don’t think I will witness any earth-shattering changes for atheists’ rights or recognition in my lifetime,” concludes Ayman Abdel-Fattah, “but I’m also certain that the momentum has reached an irreversible point.”

Tunisia: the atheist spring?

Tunisia, the unexpected epicentre of the revolutionary wave that washed across the Arab world is once again providing lessons to the rest of the region in what freedom truly means.

The only difference is that this time around, instead of being the first to rise against a despotic regime, Tunisians were the first to pass a new constitution. This is a document that, despite being drafted in compromise with the moderate Islamist al-Nahda party, guarantees “freedom of belief and conscience” and, most notably, contains no references to Sharia.

Calling the constitution entirely secular may, however, be a bit of a stretch. Islam is still defined as the religion of the state and it is clearly stated that the president must be a Muslim. Also potentially problematic is the state’s dual duty to “protect the sacred” and to “prohibit charges of apostasy”. This could one day potentially be used to curb freedom of belief, a right that includes that of questioning the sacred and being an “apostate”.

It is in fact no coincidence that, although Tunisia tolerates non-believers more than most other places in the Arab world, atheism is still a taboo. This limitation is especially noticeable in the media, segments of which deliberately spread lies about what atheists are and what they believe. One example is that of the male student OM, whose name was concealed for undisclosed reasons. In an interview with Tunisialive, he complained about a journalist who interviewed him about his beliefs and afterwards wrote that “atheists worship stones and the sun, and that they drink urine and blood”.

Until recently most Tunisian atheists kept their convictions behind closed doors, but since the post-revolutionary rise of Islamist parties, more and more are starting to become vocal. At the same time, there seems to be a growing acceptance of atheistic beliefs.

“There are a number of associations that have made the defence of atheists’ rights their main battles,” says OM. “I am hopeful that we will reach a stage when atheism is tolerated.”

Unholy in the Holy Land

The Dome of the Rock. The Holy Sepulchre. The Western Wall. As the cradle of the Abrahamic faiths, the Holy Land is better known for belief than non-belief, yet atheists walk amongst the faithful.

However, when it comes to Palestinian non-believers, life can be lonely and finding like-minded people difficult. “I don’t know many non-believers,” George, a Palestinian atheist from Jerusalem who works in IT, told me.

Whether this is a sign that Palestinian atheists are few and far between or that they keep a low profile is unclear. “The Palestinian media doesn’t deal with the issue,” George explains.

Atheism wasn’t always confined to the sidelines as it is today. In 1948, after the loss of Palestine doubts about the importance of religion were widespread. For the first decades of the Palestinian struggle against Israel, communists played a prominent role in Palestinian politics and society. Although Palestinian and Arab communists were ambiguous about their convictions regarding the existence of God, they were openly sceptical or hostile towards organised religion.

For instance, the writings of both Mahmoud Darwish and Ghassan Kanafani deal with shaken faith. “God does not come to the poor,” Darwish declares in one of his poems, while a character in one of Kanafani’s stories declaims: “May the curse of the God who does not exist anywhere pour down on you.”

Non-belief in the cradle of Islam

As a strict Wahhabi theocracy, Saudi Arabia does not tolerate the presence of other religions or other branches of Islam in the public space. Conversion and atheism are both considered “apostasy” and according to the Kingdom’s law are punishable by death.

Unsurprisingly, citizens and foreigners living in Saudi are very careful when expressing their views about religion. But there are a growing number of exceptions who are challenging these restrictions.

One example is Saudi poet Hamza Kashgari who, in early 2012, posted three tweets on an imaginary encounter with Muhammad during the festival of the prophet’s birthday (mawlid) in which he declared “I shall not bow to you” and “I have loved aspects of you, hated others”. After more than a year and a half in prison for his “blasphemous” outburst, Kashgari was finally released in October 2013.

This is part of a broader backlash against Saudi’s Wahhabi establishment which has included a civil disobedience campaign by women wishing to drive. Even the fearsome Mutaween, the once untouchable religious police, is coming in for increasingly harsh criticism and opposition, including lawsuits and protest actions, especially after its agents drove two young brothers who were playing music off a bridge to their deaths in a high-speed car chase.

Despite the risks involved, an anonymous and secretive atheistic underground movement, albeit a small one, has emerged in Saudi. In order to discuss and share ideas this group of dissident atheists mostly gathers in online forums and chats, but in rare occasions it also manages to meet face to face. “We non-believers have meetings and groups in a lot of Saudi cities,” one atheist told Your Middle East in 2013. “If you go into them, then you will be shocked by the numbers and elements of society.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This feature first appeared in the March 2014 edition of The Outpost.

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Revolution@1: The Egyptian revolution as a historical event

 
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By Osama Diab

In the social media age, revolutions will no longer be followed by the constructing of a national identity based on just one “universal” truth.

Wednesday 25 January 2012

Recognising the importance of producing a grassroots, street-level media by the people and for the people, a group called Kazeboon (Liars) was founded following the outbreak of the Egyptian revolution to record the human rights violations committed by the security forces. They use simple citizen journalism tools, such as camera phones, and equipped with a projector, they roam the streets of the nation to screen the films they make in order to, in their own words, “keep the balance of truth”.

As a counter move, a group called Sadiqoon (Honest) was founded to project a positive image of the military police and try to prove by film that violence was carried out by protesters.

These two rival projects reflect divisive sentiments and narratives that are common in Egypt and are splitting the population. But which of these narratives, and many more, will actually make it into the history books remains the interesting question.

Michel Foucault, the French philosopher and sociologist, argues that the winners in any social or political struggle use their newly acquired political power to suppress the defeated’s alternative account of events. But do governments still have the luxury to suppress opposing narratives in the age of social media?

The historiographical approach to documenting major social and political transformations and the introduction of a new order differ quite considerably from one time to another, and from place to place. Pierre Nora, the French historian, explains that one approach is constructing a unified standard version of “what happened” in order to promote a unified national identity and social cohesion where the nation usually end up having a standard language, national holidays, etc. This approach was mainly predominant in the UK and France. However, in the United States, a large country with various traditions, the approach to writing history allows for more diversity and a wide range of narratives to emerge.

The construction of a unified national identity which Nora refers to requires the existence of a centralised media apparatus, usually government-owned, which sends a standard message to all the citizens of a nation. However, this is a fading phenomenon all over the world due to globalisation and the emergence of decentralised media. This means that it is getting increasingly hard for any government to have total control over the means of producing media and culture.

In the United States, some of the history and even the visual culture that emerged from the Civil War, was written by the defeated (the Southerners). Popular Hollywood box office hits, such as Cold Mountain and Gone with the Wind all tell the story of the civil war from a Southern perspective. In addition, even though the USA didn’t ‘win’ the Vietnam war, most films about Vietnam are American.

The openness and freedom of the American media, along with its diverse tradition, is probably what allows it more than other nations to present different and sometimes conflicting narratives and accounts without awakening the fear that this might affect national identity or social cohesion.

The Egyptian revolution is one of the first major political and historical transformations to be driven by online activism, but most importantly, this online activism still cast its shadow on how people want their revolution to be remembered, and there seems to be no consensus on the matter.

The so-called Arab Spring in general and the Egyptian revolution in particular are perfect examples of when diverse interpretations become inevitable in the age of digital media and open access to information. Arab countries are a good example because they have always been under authoritarian rule, with the media, culture and history traditionally under tight government control. Even though the new media and the information era have been covered quite intensively as the driving force behind the Arab revolutions, little has been said about the way it might affect how these revolutions, important historical events in their own right, might be remembered by future generations.

Even governmental attempts to document and archive the revolution are very wary of the sensitivity surrounding official accounts of what happened. The National Archive of Egypt appointed the head of the history department at the American Univeristy in Cairo, Khaled Fahmy, to take charge of its project to document and archive the revolution.

Fahmy is well aware of the challenge he faces. He pointed out in an interview with The Guardian newspaper that Egyptians are highly sensitive about official attempts to write history and create state-sponsored narratives about historical events. “When Hosni Mubarak was vice-president in the 1970s he was himself on a government committee tasked with writing – or rather rewriting – the history of the 1952 revolution to suit the political purposes of the elite at that time,” said Fahmy.

Fahmy, therefore, is attempting to only collect as much primary data as possible without trying to impose a certain narrative and leave it to the people, especially future generations, to construct their own narratives about the revolution and its period. Fahmy also makes it clear that, since the revolution was leaderless and decentralised, this should also be our approach to writing its history and accessing it. There are also a few other organised non-governmental attempts to document and archive the revolution by the Bibliotheca Alexandria, American University in Cairo students and alumni, and others.

The fact that the revolution was leaderless makes it a politically sensitive topic. Many factions seem to be fighting to claim ownership of the revolution and attempt to emphasise and stretch their role in it.

A power struggle has emerged in post-revolutionary Egypt to try and fill this power vacuum. Claiming ownership of the revolution and fighting the old regime is central to this power struggle. This dispute is expected to cast its shadow over the writing of the revolution’s history and help further diversify the narratives and interpretations of the events which are taking place.

The media play an important role in constructing national identity to the extent that some argue that nationalism as we know it did not exist before the invention of the printing press, which enabled the emergence of the first mass media. Benedict Anderson in his book Imagined Communities argues that the emergence of print led to the emergence of nationalism because it helped members of a nation ‘imagine’ and identify with a wider community with which they shared no direct contact.

Referred to sometimes as history’s first Facebook revolution, tthe role of social media continues even after the revolution and is causing fragmentation in society, as well as difficulties for the new political leadership to construct a new and unified national identity. More importantly, it is causing a diversity of historical narratives to emerge, not just about the recent revolution but also abut older historical events in which certain narratives were suppressed and swept under the carpet.

However, over time, it might be proven that nationalism and social cohesion are not necessarily linked to having only one version of the ‘truth’ while suppressing all the other versions. Future generations are likely to grow up surrounded by a whole range of historical and political narratives thanks to the decentralisation of media production. On the bright side, this phenomenon might promote tolerance and enhance people’s ability to coexist and accept difference.

This article is part of a special Chronikler series to mark the first anniversary of the Egyptian revolution.

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