Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Armed with a Mouse, Boycott-Savvy Cyber-Activists Make Their Presence Felt

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Armed with a Mouse, Boycott-Savvy Cyber-Activists Make Their Presence Felt

Article excerpt

In the furor over the insulting images of the Prophet Muhammad originally printed in a Danish newspaper and reproduced by many Western publications, allegedly to demonstrate free expression and a free press, the Western media have been quick to lump together all Islamic and Arabic protests-whether peaceful or violent, thoughtful or mindless-in places around the world where history and circumstances differ wildly. Whether the scene is occupied Afghanistan, France's impoverished immigrant housing projects, or the complex society of Pakistan, to the West it is all "the Islamic world." The most inflammatory placards, the most violent and tragic incidents, are splashed on the front pages and lead the TV news, while more careful, nuanced commentary is buried in the back pages or receives, at most, a sentence at the end of the TV anchor's report.

In such a climate, it is hardly surprising that nonviolent but highly effective Internet activism barely has been mentioned. There in cyberspace, instead of noisy street demonstrations, burning flags, and stones hurled through embassy windows, the weapon of choice is the keyboard, the mouse and the economic boycott for "the Islamic world's" new activists.

The most recent campaign of cyber-activists in Palestine, Egypt and other Arab countries targeted a mysterious anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian video, apparently meant to be a TV commercial, that was widely distributed on the Internet. The Western advertising trade press described it as an example of "viral marketing," where a TV ad too offensive for mainstream release is leaked to the Internet by parties unknown. The manufacturer of the product involved then has the unhappy task of trying to prove he didn't create the video.

In this case, the target was the German auto manufacturer Volkswagen, and the ad, according to one commentator, "was apparently designed to offend as many human beings as possible." The short video shows a Volkswagen Polo pulling up outside a lovely sidewalk café as a young white woman pushing a baby carriage strolls by. Inside the car, there's a closeup of a stereotypical young Arab, wearing a militarystyle khaki jacket with a Palestinian keffiyeh around his neck. Cradling something that could be a bomb, he pushes a mechanism as the view cuts to the exterior. A fireball fills the car, which remains intact despite the explosion, and the "commercial" ends with the declaration that the Volkswagen Polo is "small but tough."

In just a few seconds, the anonymous videomaker branded all Palestinian resistance as terrorism against innocent civilians, and trivialized every aspect of the tragic history of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. It was bad enough when the video appeared on small Web sites and was spread through e-mail, but when the massive Internet portal and search engine ran it under the headline "German Engineering against Arab Technology," the immensely powerful Google organization compounded the offense.

Iman Badawi of Cairo was one of the Internet activists who then swung into action. She and other activists already had created a number of Arabic-language Web sites to gather signatures on petitions protesting Denmark's inflammatory stance. "Of course, the Volkswagen ad was extremely provocative," she explained. "But when Google decided to feature it under such an offensive headline-as if all technology in the Arab world was limited to bomb-making-we sent an e-mail in English to Google's advertising department explaining why we were compelled to protest. I said that as Arabs, we always respected their transparency and inclusive policies promoting a diversity of viewpoints. And although I find the video personally offensive, I would not take action against Google if they had not promoted such an intrinsically offensive headline. The e-mail ended with a request they remove the link within 24 hours. We assured them we would also initiate appropriate protests and boycotts against Volkswagen Polo. …

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