A group of men were playing the popular Saudi card game ‘Baloot*’ when at the peak of the game one of them asked another, “Where is your son?”
“Surfing the internet,” he answered, nonchalantly.
“How could you leave him alone to surf the internet?” he asked, “Do you have any idea what websites he is browsing?”
“What can I do?” the father helplessly asked, “It is the language of the age.”
Cut to a scene in which the father leans over his son’s shoulder to look at the computer screen with an affectionate paternal smile.
This is one of the television advertisements that were launched by the Saudi intelligence service in the information technology (IT) campaign, which helped pave the way for an ‘open’ conference entitled “Information Technology and National Security”. The conference was held at the King Fahd Cultural Center in Riyadh at the beginning of this month.
The aforementioned advertisement reflects the aspect that the Saudi intelligence service seeks to highlight and make Saudi families aware of, which is the window that the internet offers and through which fundamentalist and Al Qaeda youth are able to communicate away from the eyes of general censorship.
As such, the internet provides the world of Arab security with a new information course after it had previously resorted to more traditional sources and methods to glean information, like paper mail and following people not necessarily in the stereotypical manner depicted through old Egyptian films where a burly detective in a long coat holds the newspaper upside down whilst using it to conceal his face.
Undoubtedly new paths are available for communication and the exchange of information. Perhaps a person in Holland may have had an impact on a resident of the Philippines regarding the method of organizing a demonstration for homosexuals in Manila, for example.
According to the prevalent circulating information; internet technology was first introduced in Saudi Arabia in January 1999, despite the fact that the first application of the World Wide Web technology dates back to 1992 after it was released by the US Department of Defense in 1983.
The internet was well-received in Saudi and everyone was impressed by its capabilities, especially the fact that all the required information could be obtained with the click of a button. Some could not stand to wait for the slow-paced efforts to introduce the internet to Saudi and instead subscribed to the international rates available in Bahrain or the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
It did not take long for the public to catch on to forums and chat rooms, which developed quickly and efficiently. Al Sahat website became the most prominent Arab platform where political and ideological wars were launched between bloggers. The website used to be characterized by a plethora of visitors, some of whom supported the Taliban, then Al Qaeda following the 9/11 attacks, and others who fiercely defended liberalism and enlightenment. The level of debates in the website’s forums was once compelling and used to transcend the sensitivities of politicians and conservatives.
Like any other new experience, it was not without glitches and misunderstandings; however it was within the framework of the novelty of the experience. It’s similar to the way Saudis were initially impressed by the commotion caused by Al Jazeera’s ‘Ittijah el Muakis’ (The Opposite Direction) program when it was first broadcast. Now this fascination has faded, which is precisely the message we seek to deliver to those who are reticent and fearful towards all that is new: leave some breathing space for experimentation and grant others ‘the right to do wrong’.
Life is a mix between right and wrong; however errors can only be recognized through experimentation. In all cases, things have dramatically changed and the Al Sahat website is no longer a platform for all parties but has rather degenerated to become a haven for a particular trend that includes Al Qaeda members, quasi-Al Qaeda members and politicized fundamentalists generally speaking.
However, the forum played a key role in arresting some of Al Qaeda’s media representatives, such as the member who used to blog under the name “Akhu man ta’a Allah” (A Brother to those who obey God) whom the Saudi Interior Ministry revealed had been detained for being an Al Qaeda activist.
A huge variety of websites and forums continued to appear and liberal websites, such as “Nadwat Ilaf”, “Tawa”, “Dar al Nadwa” and “al Sahabaka al Libraleya al Saudiya”. However; equally, there are websites that go against the customary approach for websites, such as Al Sahaf, which adopt a hard-line rhetoric towards what is liberal and enlightened.
On the level of newspapers, those visiting Saudi newspaper websites can now leave comments and express their opinions on the published content, whether positive or negative not to mention exchanges through email and chat rooms.
All these platforms are below the traditional security’s radar despite warnings from security authorities around the world for the need to establish “information security” branches.
To a large extent, Al Qaeda is a by-product of the internet after it made its entire literature and books available online. Suffice it to visit a site such as “Minbar al Tawhid wal Jihad”, which is affiliated to Mohammed al Maqdesi, who is an intellectual symbol of Salafist Jihad, to see the copious amounts of analysis and data that theorizes about Al Qaeda’s work on a religious, historical and political level.
Prior to that, Al Qaeda had directly employed the internet in Saudi Arabia through the presentation of videos that feature the organization’s operations, in addition to data and the final statements made by suicide bombers and the wills they left behind. Examples of these videos are broadcast on websites such as “Voice of Jihad” and “al Batar” bulletin, among others.
The internet represented an effective tool in the hands of Al Qaeda to the extent that it compelled Gilles Kepel, the famous French scholar of the Arab and Islamic world, to say that the internet is the first and fundamental reason that enabled the Al Qaeda organization to execute the 9/11 attacks. He stated this during a lecture he delivered in the American Carnegie Center in autumn 2004, as stated on the Islam Online website.
Does that mean that the internet is evil and the work of the devil that can only cause harm?!
Absolutely not. The internet has become the language of the age and is an essential tool for communication in the world of business. Moreover, the internet has provided a free platform that is far removed from censorship. It’s true what the Italian novelist and philosopher Umberto Eco said during a discussion about the disadvantages of the internet when he said that it granted intellectuals and the ignorant alike the opportunity to write. However, he does not believe this to be enough of a reason to attack the internet and said that democracy does not simply mean equal opportunities, and that it was also about the concept behind “Hyde Park”, which is to grant everyone the opportunity to voice their opinions and that there will be interesting things said inasmuch as there will be the trivial and pointless. Thus, Eco suggested more efficient website filters in the coming years. (Excerpts from his interview with Jumana Haddad “Sohbat Lesus al Nar” p.33)
If it wasn’t for the internet a lot of the interactions that we witness in the world in terms of news and issues would have remained concealed. Had it not been for Bluetooth technology, so much would not have come to light in terms of events and important scenes that were captured by amateurs, such as the London train bombings and those in Madrid, the violations that took place in Abu Ghraib prison, or the practices of the Egyptian police officer, or the sexual harassment of a woman who was in al Nahda tunnel in Riyadh, and many more.
If media is described as the fourth estate, perhaps the internet may be dubbed the fifth estate upon the consideration that it surpasses the famous role of the press by virtue of the fact that any surfer that visits a site and registers as a member becomes a mobile journalist. And even if they do not register, they could simply use the website to post comments, read and browse information online.
The ‘online’ reality has transcended all regulations and controls, even if hundreds of websites are blocked every day by internet censors, such as what the King Abdulaziz City for Science ad Technology does in Riyadh.
Internet has become a reality that we must adapt to, rather than force it to comply with the old standards of newspapers and radio when the world was a simpler place and media management was affordable: One government television station, a unique official radio station and a few newspapers under a watchful eye.
Thus, the Saudi intelligence’s awareness of the importance of the internet and the information age is proof that it apprehends the age in which we live and its variables, in addition to revealing its attempt to play the game by using the same rules.
If that awareness comes in the form of a Baloot session, in accordance with our understanding of the televised advertisement, then that will not suffice because after the game ends the boy will return to the screen again, unmonitored.
This article is entitled “Who will stop the flood” after a famous Saudi proverb that is an acknowledgement of the strength of the gushing river, and the inability of men, rendered weak in its presence, to stop its flow.
In the end, it remains to be said: Whosoever does not listen to people likewise will not be heard. This is a lesson learnt from the internet controversy and this new age.
* ‘Baloot’ is a popular card game in Saudi; ‘Belote’ is the French version of the game.