Social Media: Can Spark Revolts

Since the term “Twitter revolution” was coined in the summer of 2009 to describe the Iranian Green Movement’s use of the microblogging site, the nomenclature has used in an unforunate manner, applied to any sort of use of such tools during times of protest.

But while Twitter, Facebook, and even Google Docs were used in the recent revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, most experts agree that they are tools, not catalysts for revolution.

Nevertheless, praise has been disproportionately bestowed upon these Silicon Valley giants by mainstream media, with little mention of the potential dangers of using such tools.

To find evidence of such risks, we need only look to Azerbaijan where, just last week, the moderator of a Facebook page calling for protest in the country was arrested, or to Tunisia, where dissidents’ Gmail and Facebook accounts were phished by the government in the midst of the revolt.

Risky business

More recently, Moroccans complained of having their Facebook accounts hacked, possibly by the government, or possibly by pro-monarchy forces.

Though some risks are inherent to the architecture and policies of social media tools–Facebook’s “real name” rule, for example, or the lack of HTTPS across most sites–others are a matter of use, and a lack of forethought to the permanence of online postings.

Imagine for a moment that Egypt’s protesters had not been successful in ousting Mubarak; the myriad photos, videos, and tweets posted by Egyptians, many with identifiable information, would remain online for the security service to pore through.

And with cameras omnipresent during protests, anyone who shows their face is at risk, as protesters learned after Burma’s Saffron revolution: intelligence agents scrutinised citizen videos to track down participants.

But even those individuals who remain largely anonymous online run the risk of being tracked down for their activities. In 2008, a young Moroccan engineer by the name of Fouad Mourtada was arrested for impersonating one of the monarchy’s princes, Moulay Rashid, on Facebook.

Facebook claimed they did not hand over the young man’s information to authorities, which suggests that it was obtained through another method, most likely deep packet inspection, a technique common in China and Iran.

Sketchy friends

One of the most easily-avoided risks is in a practice inherent to the concept of social media: making new friends. In the United States, creditors have taken note of users’ willingness to meet new people online and have utilised sites like Facebook to befriend–and then track down–their clients.

Though many social media users are prone to accepting requests from people they may not know well, activists could be at a higher risk as they attempt to build up their networks for a cause.

Some, like Net Delusion author Evgeny Morozov, suggest that authoritarian regimes have the upper hand: In a chapter of his book entitled “Why the KGB wants you to join Facebook,” Morozov cites the example of a Belarusian activist whose real-life activities (including travel and organisational connections) were easily gleaned by the KGB from his online presence.

Though Belarus–by all accounts an authoritarian regime with a history of spying on its citizens, online and off–may be an extreme example, the lesson is that average users are potentially putting themselves at risk every time they disclose an affiliation, post about a trip, or share a photo album.

But the potential risks of social media hardly outweigh the benefits, and for every phishing attempt or government spying case there is a success story of social media for activism: The Egyptian Facebook page that drew awareness to torture and mobilised thousands; the Syrian students whose cell phone videos of teachers abusing students led to the teachers’ dismissal; every rabble-rousing campaign to free an imprisoned blogger.

Rather than discourage use of social media during times of protest, these cautionary tales should instead invoke greater awarneness and lead to better education on the risks present, and better, safer practices.

Pakistan: Unsafe For Christians

Tahir Iqbal was a Christian convert from Islam. He had suffered from paralysis. The lower part of his body had been paralysed rendering him invalid. He could not walk. He could not even stand. He used a wheel chair. He was an engine mechanic in the Pakistan Air Force. His conversion to Christianity had annoyed Muslims. He lived in the southern part of Lahore close to a mosque. The Muslim cleric in charge of that mosque finally decided to teach him a lesson. He got a case of blasphemy registered against him on 7 December 1990, alleging that “when he recites Azaan (call for prayer) early in the morning in the mosque, Tahir Iqbal feels infuriated and starts abusing Prophet Mohammed at the top of his voice, imparts anti-Islamic education to children who come to him for tuition, has defiled Holy Quran by underlining with green marker, and thus has seriously injured our religious feelings.”

He was arrested by the police on blasphemy charges and that�s all. He was doomed. Despite his physical inability, he was not bailed out. As earlier stated, justice has been subjected to sectarian affiliations. A very crude example may be cited of Tahir Iqbal. The sessions judge who dismissed his bail application on 7 July 1991, passed the following order:

“Learned counsel for the petitioner has conceded before me that the petitioner has converted as Christian. With this admission on the part of petitioner�s counsel there is no need to probe further into the allegations as contained in the FIR [first information report] because learned DDA [the title of the prosecuting attorney] has disclosed that charge has already been framed and the accused is facing trial. Since conversion from Islam to Christianity is in itself a cognizable offence involving serious implication, I do not consider the petitioner entitled to the concession of bail at this stage.”

Though it is needless to comment, it may be mentioned that no law in Pakistan has yet been framed which makes conversion from Islam to Christianity a cognizable offence. The case was fixed for recording of prosecution evidence on 21 July 1992 before the Sessions Court. When I, as the defence lawyer, appeared in the court, I was informed by the State counsel that the accused had died in the jail the previous night. Tahir Iqbal was poisoned to death in jail under a conspiracy about which he had informed all authorities concerned beforehand. He was killed because he had embraced Christianity.

Flee to Asylum

Chand Barkat, 28, a bangle stall holder in Mangle Bazaar, Karachi, was charged with blasphemy by a co-bangle vendor because of professional jealousy. Arif Hussain used to sit beside him for selling bangles in the bazaar. He did not tolerate women going to Chand Barkat, a Christian, for buying bangles. One day Arif warned him to quit that place, as otherwise he would teach him a lesson. Chand Barkat did not leave the place. Arif involved Chand Barkat in a case of blasphemy on 8 October 1991, alleging that he used derogatory language against Prophet Mohammed and his mother. He was charged under section 295-C [of the Pakistan Penal Code]. Chand Barkat was acquitted by the Sessions Court for want of evidence.

Gull Masih of Faisalabad was charged under section 295-C for using sacrilegious language about the Prophet and his wives on 10 December 1991. The complainant, Sajjad Hussain, had a quarrel with him over repair of a street water tap. Out of this quarrel had emanated the blasphemy case. Gull Masih was tried under the blasphemy law and sentenced to death by the Sessions Court, Sargodha, on 2 November 1992. This death sentence created a commotion. Human rights organisations and the Church agitated against the death sentence. We filed a criminal appeal in the High Court against the judgment of the sessions judge. Gull Masih was bailed out neither by the Sessions Court or by the High Court. I moved an application for an early hearing in the High Court but it took two years for the final hearing. The appeal was heard by the Division Bench of the Lahore High Court, which held that it was a case of no evidence, thus set aside the death sentence and acquitted Gull Masih. It became difficult for Gull Masih to come out of jail as religious fundamentalists had warned of dire consequences. He had to be kept under tight security. Later, in order to save his life, arrangements were made for his exit quietly. He is now in Germany on asylum.

Naimat Ahmar 43, a Christian teacher, a poet and writer of Faisalabad, was butchered by Farooq Ahmad, a young member of a militant religious group (ASSP) on the office premises of the District Education Officer in Faisalabad at 10 a.m. while on duty. The religious zealot killed him because the deceased had reportedly used highly insulting remarks against Islam and Prophet Mohammed. No case of blasphemy was registered against the deceased. He was not tried by any court. The young religious extremist, as briefed by his organisation, took the law into his own hands and killed the poet, writer and teacher, leaving behind a widow and four children. The killer was charged with murder. He made a confession. He was garlanded in jail by religious clerics. The statement of the killer was published in the press that by killing a blasphemer he had won heaven.

The trial court sentenced him to 14 years imprisonment. His appeal to set aside the sentence is pending in the High Court, and I am representing the complainant who is the younger brother of the deceased.

Murders of Accused and Judge

A minor, Salamat Masih, 12 years old, along with Manzoor Masih, 37, and Rehamat Masih, 42, of Gujranwala were charged with writing derogatory remarks against Prophet Mohammed on the wall of the mosque of the village where they lived. All the three were in fact illiterate and did not know how to write. The case of the minor became a high-profile case in the world media.

We got the case transferred to Lahore through the High Court because each time we went to the Sessions Court in Gujranwala, religious extremists would gather in front of the courtroom with banners urging immediate execution of the alleged blasphemers. They used to pose threats to the lawyers coming from Lahore, and none of the local lawyers dared to defend the accused. The case was later heard by the sessions judge of Lahore. The court, on our request, provided police guards to escort the accused and their lawyer from his office to court and back to his office. On 5 June 1994 the three accused were brought back by the police guards to my office, and after staying for about half an hour they left for their place of hibernation. They had hardly crossed about 500 yards away from my office when they were attacked by religious militants armed with guns. Manzoor Masih died on the spot while the other two accused and their escort, John Joseph, sustained grievous injuries. The murder of Manzoor Masih increased the sense of insecurity among Christians. There was countrywide agitation by the Christians demanding repeal of the blasphemy law and security to their lives in the country.

The Sessions Court of Lahore convicted the remaining two accused and passed death sentence against them. The death sentence against the minor attracted the attention of human rights activists over the world. The High Court, however, while adjudicating their appeal against conviction, acquitted them, declaring that it was a case of no evidence. They had to flee the country to save their lives. They are now also living in Germany on asylum. One of the senior judges of the Division Bench who acquitted the two Christians was murdered by a religious extremist on that very account.

Bantu Masih, 80, and Mukhtar Masih, 50, were arrested on the allegation of committing blasphemy. Both died under police custody. Bantu Masih was stabbed by a fundamentalist in the presence of policemen. He later succumbed to his injuries whereas Mukhtar Masih was tortured to death at the police station. There are many other cases of like nature against Christians, Muslims and Ahmadis. The plight of Ahmadis is much worse. The record shows that such cases were framed maliciously for settling personal scores or for religious persecution. The Christians are demanding repeal of the amended provisions of the law on blasphemy, but the Muslim fundamentalists are threatening that in case the law is repealed or changed they would overthrow the government. They are also using threatening language against the non-Muslim citizens among whom a sense of insecurity is growing fast.

Women Shared Revolution In Egypt

Among the most prevalent Western stereotypes about Muslim countries are those concerning Muslim women: doe-eyed, veiled, and submissive, exotically silent, gauzy inhabitants of imagined harems, closeted behind rigid gender roles. So where were these women in Tunisia and Egypt?

In both countries, women protesters were nothing like the Western stereotype: they were front and centre, in news clips and on Facebook forums, and even in the leadership. In Egypt’s Tahrir Square, women volunteers, some accompanied by children, worked steadily to support the protests – helping with security, communications, and shelter. Many commentators credited the great numbers of women and children with the remarkable overall peacefulness of the protesters in the face of grave provocations.

Other citizen reporters in Tahrir Square – and virtually anyone with a cell phone could become one – noted that the masses of women involved in the protests were demographically inclusive. Many wore headscarves and other signs of religious conservatism, while others reveled in the freedom to kiss a friend or smoke a cigarette in public.

Supporters, leaders

But women were not serving only as support workers, the habitual role to which they are relegated in protest movements, from those of the 1960s to the recent student riots in the United Kingdom. Egyptian women also organised, strategised, and reported the events. Bloggers such as Leil Zahra Mortada took grave risks to keep the world informed daily of the scene in Tahrir Square and elsewhere.

The role of women in the great upheaval in the Middle East has been woefully under-analysed. Women in Egypt did not just “join” the protests – they were a leading force behind the cultural evolution that made the protests inevitable. And what is true for Egypt is true, to a greater and lesser extent, throughout the Arab world. When women change, everything changes – and women in the Muslim world are changing radically.

The greatest shift is educational. Two generations ago, only a small minority of the daughters of the elite received a university education. Today, women account for more than half of the students at Egyptian universities. They are being trained to use power in ways that their grandmothers could scarcely have imagined: publishing newspapers – as Sanaa el Seif did, in defiance of a government order to cease operating; campaigning for student leadership posts; fundraising for student organisations; and running meetings.

Indeed, a substantial minority of young women in Egypt and other Arab countries have now spent their formative years thinking critically in mixed-gender environments, and even publicly challenging male professors in the classroom. It is far easier to tyrannise a population when half are poorly educated and trained to be submissive. But, as Westerners should know from their own historical experience, once you educate women, democratic agitation is likely to accompany the massive cultural shift that follows.

The nature of social media, too, has helped turn women into protest leaders. Having taught leadership skills to women for more than a decade, I know how difficult it is to get them to stand up and speak out in a hierarchical organisational structure. Likewise, women tend to avoid the figurehead status that traditional protest has in the past imposed on certain activists – almost invariably a hotheaded young man with a megaphone.

Projection of power

In such contexts – with a stage, a spotlight, and a spokesperson – women often shy away from leadership roles. But social media, through the very nature of the technology, have changed what leadership looks and feels like today. Facebook mimics the way many women choose to experience social reality, with connections between people just as important as individual dominance or control, if not more so.

You can be a powerful leader on Facebook just by creating a really big “us”. Or you can stay the same size, conceptually, as everyone else on your page – you don’t have to assert your dominance or authority. The structure of Facebook’s interface creates what brick-and-mortar institutions – despite 30 years of feminist pressure – have failed to provide: a context in which women’s ability to forge a powerful “us” and engage in a leadership of service can advance the cause of freedom and justice worldwide.

Of course, Facebook cannot reduce the risks of protest. But, however violent the immediate future in the Middle East may be, the historical record of what happens when educated women participate in freedom movements suggests that those in the region who would like to maintain iron-fisted rule are finished.

Just when France began its rebellion in 1789, Mary Wollstonecraft, who had been caught up in witnessing it, wrote her manifesto for women’s liberation. After educated women in America helped fight for the abolition of slavery, they put female suffrage on the agenda. After they were told in the 1960s that “the position of women in the movement is prone”, they generated “second wave” feminism – a movement born of women’s new skills and old frustrations.

Time and again, once women have fought the other battles for the freedom of their day, they have moved on to advocate for their own rights. And, since feminism is simply a logical extension of democracy, the Middle East’s despots are facing a situation in which it will be almost impossible to force these awakened women to stop their fight for freedom – their own and that of their communities.