Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
October 21, 2003
WAR: Not Free
This Reuters report on a UN study has some fairly damning conclusions about freedom of speech and thought in the Arab world, despite some fairly flimsy attempts by both Reuters and the UN to blame this on the US:
The U.S.-led war on terror has radicalized more Arabs angry both with the West and their autocratic rulers who are bent on curbing their political rights, a U.N.-commissioned study released Monday showed. . . . Arab disenchantment was deepened by autocratic rulers who were given a "spurious justification for curbing freedoms on the pretext of fighting terrorism" by Washington's war on terror.
Of course, it's "Washington's war." No mention of terror's war on the rest of the world. I don't doubt that repressive Arab regimes that have lined up on our side (like Egypt or some of the small Gulf states) have used the war on terror as yet another justification for the same old repression, but this is really a footnote to the real story:
Arab countries lagged other regions in dissemination of knowledge. Readership of books was relatively limited, education dictated submission rather than critical thought, the Arabic language was in crisis. . . . The report said even a best selling novel sold on average only 5,000 copies compared to hundreds of thousands elsewhere. . . The number of books published in the Arab world did not exceed 1.1 percent of world production though Arabs constitute 5 percent of the world population.
It cited official educational curricula in Arab countries that " bred submission, obedience, subordination and compliance rather than free critical thinking."
* * *
The U.N. also touched on the state of Arab universities, decrying lack of autonomy and the direct control of governments that ran them on political whims. . . . No more than 10,000 books were translated into Arabic over the entire millennium, equivalent to the number translated every year into Spanish.
Research and Development in the Arab world did not exceed 0.2 percent of Gross National Product (GNP). . . The number of telephone lines in Arab countries was barely one fifth of that in developed countries.
Access to digital media was also among the lowest in the world. There are 18 computers per 1,000 people compared to a global average of 78. Only 1.6 percent of over 270 million Arabs have internet access, one of the lowest ratios in the world, the report said.
It's no wonder that paranoia, delusional ideas and ridiculous propaganda can be so easily disseminated in countries that lack even the most rudimentary forms and traditions of free expression. More's the point: remember this the next time someone tries to complain about U.S. 'cultural imperialism' in the region. Arab culture is choking to death as it is, at the hands of its own leaders. Freedom can only be an improvement.