Dueling for Da'wa: State vs. Society on the Saudi Internet

Article excerpt

This article examines Saudi Arabia's introduction of the Internet, and the manner in which the Kingdom has sought to balance the communications, business, and economic advantages of the Information Revolution with the country's conservative form of Islam. The article also examines the use of the Internet by the Saudi opposition abroad and the government's efforts to filter these sites and other sites the government deems objectionable. Thus the government seeks to use the Internet for modernization and business uses, but to prevent globalization from affecting the traditional mores of the Kingdom. Despite efforts at centralization and control, the nature of the Internet has meant that control is not absolute.

Since its founding in 1902, the modern Saudi state has struggled to centralize and bring its traditional, tribal, and decentralized society under its cultural, ideological, and religious hegemony. Over the years, various social groups have challenged the state's centralizing policies. For example, The military-tribal group known as the Ikhwan had to be confronted and was suppressed in 1930, and a radical Islamic trend raised its head in the late 1970s and mid-1990s. Both tried to confront the Saudi Royal Family's monopoly on government and Islam. The Al Sa'ud have been largely successful in this centralizing process. Yet, in the past few years, a new challenge has arisen in the form of the Internet, and it is a decentralizating juggernaut. The Saudis, however, seem well-prepared for this latest test.

On the face of it, the Internet offers wondrous possibilities for business, education, culture, and the general increase of the flow of information across boundaries. But benefiting from the Internet seems to require the openness of society. For the New York Times' Tom Friedman, author of the best-selling The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization, those countries that are not open enough to allow the free flow of information will be left behind, in a process that he calls "creative destruction." Friedman is a globalization guru, and the book is not without its critics, but few argue with his contention that societies that buck the globalization trend will be unable to participate in the economic benefits of this mega-force. Friedman admits, however, that globalization and the Internet are also "producing a powerful backlash from those brutalized or left behind by the system."'

Moreover, the Internet, according to Friedman, is homogenizing, and this means, to a large degree, Americanizing. Such cultural domination is opposed by many societies, who fear that their own culture and its values will be swallowed up by the American colossus. Finally, the Internet can be challenging to the policy of governments as they try to control the free flow of information they oppose. The 1997 Nobel Prize for Peace was granted to Jody Williams, an American woman who has campaigned to ban landmines. The Big Five powers opposed the treaty to ban landmines, but she persisted in her fight. Her secret weapon, she was asked? "E-mail."'2

The Internet, therefore, is both a blessing and a curse. It is natural to want to reap the touted benefits of a globalized world, but if a society is not enamored of a system seemingly run under an American hegemony, or if a government has political, social, or religious objections to the free flow of information, then globalization and its vehicle, the Internet, pose serious problems.'

SAUDI ARABIA AND THE INTERNET THE DEBATE

It is a truism that Saudi Arabia is a very conservative society. Unlike any other state in the region, its founding raison d'etre is Islam. Its founders sought to project an image of selfless devotion to the establishmnent of a purely Islamic state in the land of Islam's birth, the land of Mecca and Medina. Saudi Arabia considers Islam to be its constitution and to be run entirely according to Islamic law, the shari'a, as determined by the men of religion, the Vama'. …

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