The fourth panel at MEI's 69th Annual Conference featured Ibrahim Al-Assil (Syrian Nonviolence Movement), Fahad Albutairi (Saudi Stand Up Comedian, Telfaz 11), Ahmed Benchemsi (FreeArabs.com, Human Rights Watch), Nadia Oweidat (New America Foundation), and moderator Nadia Bilbassy-Charters (Al-Arabiya TV).
Nadia Bilbassy-Charters: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you all for coming. It’s always an advantage to be the last panel, so we are trying to make it very exciting, not just because we have to Nadias on the panel. I promise you there are other reasons as well. We are going to discuss a really important matter that has been under-reported, not just in Arab media, but also in the Western media. I think we are living in a very sad time in the Middle East where we have stark choices between old authoritarian regimes trying to re-impose themselves in the aftermath of the Arab Spring as the savior of the people who want them to bring security and between dark forces that are represented by ISIS and (inaudible 00:54), others, who are bent on maiming and killing and destruction. To be honest with you, for a long time, just before the Arab Spring even, I always believed that the catalyst for change in the Middle East is going to be women and young people. They are not failing us, and I think we are going to hear now from this amazing panel and their important research about this topic. We are going to talk about how young Arabs in general, men and women, in the Middle East are challenging the status quo.
They want to be a potent force to challenge everything: political, social, even cultural. In the Middle East, as I said, we are going through a really, really rough time, and hopefully through these voices we will see if the message is getting across, if actually people are listening, if they are making a cut, if they are able to persuade people, considering that jihadist movements like ISIS and (inaudible 02:06) and the like are able to get their message across to the young people. So now we are going to hear from the panelists of how we can actually get these voices heard. I’m going to say something that I’ve probably mentioned before, which is if you all remember when the Tunisian revolution started, a young man called Mohammad Barsizi, who burned himself alive, and he started the revolution in Tunisia and it spread to the rest of the Arab world. A senior official said to me once that probably if it wasn’t for the social media that played an important role, maybe it wasn’t the major reason, probably things would have looked completely different in the landscape of the Middle East now. So, the social media through the YouTube and Twitter and Facebook and whatever manages to connect people. People who were isolated and marginalized and separated by all kinds of reasons managed to united, and social media played an important role.
We are also going to talk about the concept of what is it to be a liberal in the Middle East? Nowadays if you travel across the Middle East you see more or less there is a really conservative movement everywhere, socially, and politically. The word secular is a very good word, an Arab word now, if you talk about a civil state or a secular state people kind of frown upon it, so we wanted to hear from the panelists too, how can we make this word as a choice for people. Because a false choice is always going to be between dictatorship and dark forces that are represented by these organizations like the one I mentioned now. So, with this I think we are looking forward to a very exciting discussion.
Let me start very briefly just to introduce the panelists here. I will encourage you to go through your bios; probably I won’t do justice to them of just mentioning a few words about their work. I will start with my other Nadia, Nadia Oweidat who is a scholar. She is also a lecturer at Georgetown University. She did her PhD at Oxford University looking at the Islamist movement. She is also a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, but she did extensive research about young people and how they use social media, so it will be really interesting to hear from Nadia now of what are the trends, who are the users, are they men, are they women, what’s the social group, what’s the age group, etcetera.
We also have Ahmed Benchesmi here. Ahmed is a human rights activists. He is a journalist as well. He won two awards for doing investigative reporting in the Arab world which is really something to be commended for because to investigate something in the Arab world now as a journalist is a tough business. You often pay with your life for it, or you get thrown in jail. So it is something to be proud of. He also works for Human Rights Watch; obviously today he is not representing them. We are going to hear specifically about maybe the concept of what is it to be an Arab liberal.
We also have Fahed Albutairi with us, who is a comedian. He is from Saudi Arabia. The social media is extremely vibrant, and Fahed will elaborate on that in Saudi Arabia. I think the highest number of Twitter users are in Saudi Arabia, and I think the fact that people can express themselves, it gives voice to the voiceless, people can discuss all kinds of issues. But also using comedy in a place where Fahed probably knows very well that there is no movie theaters, for example. There is no vibrant art life there, so to resort to comedy to try to change the status quo, whether socially or politically, is something interesting to listen to. He also has a program and a website that he is going to tell us about.
Last but not least of course, we have Ibrahim Al-Assil. Ibrahim is a Syrian. He is a research fellow at the Middle East Institute, and he promotes something really dear to my heart: the concept of non-violence. It’s an uphill battle, considering that we heard today in the previous panel how the loudest voice is also the voice of the gun, and how these hundreds of militias in Syria are dictating the policy by the sheer presence of being a force on the ground militarily. Saying that, actually, if you look at the statistics, most people who use non-violence as a way to advocate their demands, whether it is political or social or cultural, have a bigger chance of success than those who resort to violence. Although not many people may be away of that, but it will be also interesting to hear from Ibrahim on how you can try even to think of changing the landscape in Syria or promoting non-violence saying that the Syrian revolution started by non-violent movement.
So, with that, I will start with Nadia who has a PowerPoint presentation now. She is going to walk us through that and then we’re going to start the conversation after her presentation.
Nadia Oweidat: Thank you so much, Nadia, and thank you to the Middle East Institute for giving me this opportunity to address the very well-informed audience. The changing terrain of the Arab world. So, the digital revolution changed all of our lives, all over the world, but it really has certain significance in the Arab world, given that it’s the last collective, if you would, that has the least amount of freedom in the world. Freedom House did a study before the Arab Spring that the Arab world is the place that has the least freedoms in the world. So, the digital revolution is really changing the demographics there. So you all know here that the Arab world is the youngest collective of nations that speak one language. Almost half a billion people speak Arabic. Eighty percent of them are under 40, and 50% of them are under 25.
Most of those that are under 25 are literate because usually there is mass education. Although, what’s happening with the Syrian refugees may shift these numbers. But literate, wired, and unemployed. So they have a lot of time on their hands. They have a lot of time on their hands, and the generational gap that exists between our generation, our parents, is so massive. There is always a generational gap, but with this generation, it’s unprecedented because think of what skills could our parents’ generation give us? We need skills with technology, with organization, skills that our parents are completely oblivious to. So there’s not much that we can learn from their generation, even in terms of politics, in terms of connectivity, so we’re on our own, if you would, in the Arab world, that 80% that is under 40. Also in terms of most of these people live in condensed areas, in urban cities, whereas the generation before there was a little bit more spread the population across countryside and cities, but that has changed in the Arab world. And for most people now, what happens, you know the American election is local news. What happens in France. We are so connected.
So, with this connectivity in mind, the media, especially the digital media, plays a huge role. So it used to be when the Internet first started, so the first Internet café in Jordan where I grew up was in 1994. If you look at the first even decade of the Internet, most of the websites were really controlled by Islamist content. So they were very quick to monopolize that, to reign at the beginning. In fact, even in terms of print, like if you think of Al Jihad magazine, so Abdullah Azam who started Al Jihad magazine and (inaudible 11:15) in Afghanistan, it was a very well-oiled machine. He has a lot of money. If you look at Al Jihad magazine, very glossy, very beautiful, inciting young men all over the Arab world to go, essentially, get killed, under the name of jihad. So, there was a lot of dissemination of certain rhetoric that essentially is a death trap. But this is changing, slowly, but definitely surely. This is maybe the greatest change, actually. It used to be that the Internet for example is 100% Islamist, and now this content, compared to secular content, is actually shrinking in terms of we still have a ways to go, but definitely the secular content is on the rise. So, if you look at how are these young people, 80% of them under 40, how are they using the Internet? What is happening in that terrain? We find that they are actually the most engaged in the world in terms of per capita. So, in my country of birth, Jordan, it’s the highest number of Facebook page users per capita in the world. In Egypt, actually collectively, the Arabic speakers post, share, comment more than any other segment on Earth. So you have a very engaged audience, a very connected audience. We talked about Twitter. There were more Tweets in Arabic during the Arab Spring than in any other language. Smartphone penetration is on the rise. So you see the massive opportunity. In two years, one out of two people be connected to Wi-Fi in the Arab world. And that is huge because young people from all over the world are connecting with one another. In the Arab world, they are getting to know one another. So this, in an environment that used to be security-driven, you don’t know who thinks like you, now it’s so easy.
Citizen journalism is a new development also all around the world, but in the Arab world, it really is a beautiful development. So, in Jordan for example, you have a blog called (inaudible 13:36). They are all over, right? We know about the role of blogs in Egypt with the Egyptian revolution, and even before in 2004 with (inaudible 13:46) movement, so citizen journalists started to play a huge role in producing content that is not driven by authoritarian agendas, but rather really to advance liberal values. So Heben, for example, it’s a bunch of 20-year-olds, some of them are 30-something-year-olds, and they not only produce world-class journalism, but they give training courses so that they teach their fellow young men and women how to do storytelling. So they are becoming professional journalists, and they are teaching each other. I cannot stress enough the importance of peer learning in this paradigm. There is a decentralization of authority and this is unleashing a massive amount of creativity, and we have an example here from Fahad in Saudi Arabia. So you have a lot of young people who are starting shows like Jon Stewart but of Saudi, of Egypt, they are the most watched all over the Arab world. Whether it’s in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Iraq.
So these young kids are, I’m sorry to say “kids,” Fahad, young men and women are basically bringing millions of people to watch them and taking away audiences from government controlled media which is very significant. So, the government can no longer shape the message like it used to be. So when I grew up in the Arab world, you only see what the government wants you to see. You have no choice. I honestly discovered that we even have philosophers or liberal thinkers only in the US and Oxford. I was so shocked by the discovery we even have people who think like this that I decided to do my PhD on it. But now, young kids are engaging with the same books I had to try so hard to get because they were banned, inaccessible. Now they are, luckily, pirated all over, and it’s so beautiful to see books that I was only exposed to at Oxford in a PhD program online and on Facebook pages being debated exactly the same way. The great thing about technology is that it is enabling individualism to come through. You cannot have liberal values and democracy if you don’t have individualism. At the end of the day, it’s about your agency and your individualism. Collectives don’t create a person. Look at what Steve Jobs did. So, it’s so important that the individual is shaped. This is happening, actually. Our entire communities are being rewired by this new technology in a very positive way.
Again, I did research on, so what are they watching? What is popular? What is no popular? It’s really shocking and it gives you a reason for optimism when you see what they are watching. Again, as I mentioned, the top ten YouTube channels, the ones that get millions and millions, they would compete even in American markets, are all comedies that are critical of religious, authoritarian, and political dictatorships. So, authoritarianism in all its forms is being mocked, analyzed, ridiculed, that’s great. They are really creating that space of freedom of speech through comedy, mainly, but through all other ways which I will show you also.
Facebook pages, like if you look at the top 150 most-followed Facebook pages, there’s nothing about political Islam, not at all, actually. Number one is National Geographic in Arabic. If I give you an example of (inaudible 17:37). She is an Algerian author. She is an author who is very pro-reform, and she doesn’t live in Algeria as a result right now. She has over 8 million fans. When she posts something, for example, she did a post comparing Anglo-America to the Arab dictators and how she lives and how she gives to her country, it was forwarded something like hundreds of thousands of times. And commented on. So this Algerian author has more than 800 million active followers, compared to the Muslim Brotherhood at the height of their power, they had less than 2 million. That is the biggest political organization wanting to use religion in politics. So it really gives you perspective because the Internet is about “what do you find interesting?” It’s not about what your tribe tells you that you find interesting. So in a way, it’s showing the meritocracy, and it’s showing what people want to look at, what people are interested in seeing more of. So again, there is agency when you go online and you decide how you spend your time. Nobody can force you. It’s not like there is only five channels and this is what you can see. You decide. The sky is the limit in terms of what you want to see.
Again, peer learning. So, most young people would rather spend time with their peers or online rather than be with their families or watch TV. That’s actually a really good thing, I think, given that again, if you look at Arab TV, there’s a lot of violence. So, number one, for example, forum online is called (inaudible 19:28). So it’s called The Civilized Debate. If you go to this forum, it is so liberal and you think, wow, this is taking place in the Arab world? You couldn’t talk like this, you would think, in the Arab world. There are 25,000 people contributing. Very liberal. Number one issue is separation of politics and religion. So there’s a lot of ways in which these young kids are creating content that is beautiful, world-class, civilized, non-violent. So I chose cartoons because you can see the idea in a picture. But really, there are songs, there are short films, there is comedy, there is cartoons, Facebook pages, so many different ways in which they are asserting themselves. They have come from all over the Arab world. Like, for example, this one is from Jordan. This one is from Egypt. It’s a covered woman. This one is also from Egypt. This, I can related to as an Arab woman. Yemen. It’s really amazing the amount of talent Yemen has, actually. Sudan. That’s it. Thank you so much for listening.
Nadia Bilbassy-Charters: Before I just go to Ahmed, very quickly I think we will just follow up with a couple of questions here. This is really fascinating, but how do you make this openness, of all these people connecting all over the Arab world, into a movement? How do you make them mainstream? I know you mentioned that there is followers in the millions, but also equally there is millions more who follows like with due respect the singers like Nancy Ajedum and whatever. My point is how do you translate this to make it a meaningful cultural connection of people can actually effect change, change in ideas, and most of the stuff, when you see things on Facebook, you realize that people actually are insulting each other on secular life. I mean, I’d love to see this website that you just mentioned, which is (inaudible 21:53). I think we are still far away in the Middle East from reaching that stage. Just quickly if you can...
Nadia Oweidat: Such a great question. So we have a major challenge in the Arab world which is, we don’t actually have a lot of freedom of speech still. So if you want to be an extremist, the road is paved to you. It’s paved in gold. You can issue the most horrific, horrendous fatwahs. Nobody will scratch you. But if you write one sentence like what happened to (inaudible 22:22) in Saudi Arabia, you’re not allowed. So those who went up for liberal values like religious freedoms, they really are still persecuted. (inaudible 22:34), the blog I mentioned to you, has been shut down many times. It is the most civilized, incredibly well-written report. So why is something like this being persecuted, whereas the most hateful, violent speech is roaming freely? There really needs to be pressure, and there needs to be an effort to create more Internet freedom.
Number two is even though I agree with you that, so it’s very experiential, democracy. You don’t just wake up one day and decide let’s be democratic. All of my friends here who went to Islamic schools in the Arab world, there was no debate. We couldn’t discuss ideas. We couldn’t even ask questions. You memorized. You write it down, that’s it. You don’t exist. But to have an opinion. So for me, as a researcher, when I see that people are debating, even if they are like, how dare you, there is something. There’s a debate taking place. And yes, maybe it’s starting with a lot of cuss words, but eventually they will learn to be smarter. Because they are learning from each other. You can only stay in this base for so long before you have to go up and up. A lot of times people actually take the debate. You will find one or two very smart kids taking the debate to the next level by saying, don’t insult me. Why don’t you go read (inaudible 23:52) and see what he wrote about killing people? So I think it’s really healthy that we have this debate.
Nadia Bilbassy-Charters: That’s great. Thank you. Ahmed, are you sorting out your PowerPoint?
Ahmed Benchemsi: Thank you very much, Nadia. Your numbers are fascinating. I’m really inspired to hear such numbers because they confirm a lot of ideas that we have. Hello everyone. Thank you very much to the Middle East Institute for having me here today. My name is Ahmed Benchemsi. I am the Advocacy and Communications director for the Middle East and North Africa with Human Rights Watch. However, I will not be talking today here in my Human Rights Watch capacity, so please go easy on the Tweeting. But I would rather reflect on previous findings of my research and journalism. This is nice background image because what I want to talk about is the Arab Spring. So let’s do a little flashback. So the Arab Spring, in 2011, the kind of kids that you see here on the screen, they were everywhere on world news. They were making front page news worldwide. You remember the Facebook activists, the Twitter revolutionaries?
They were darlings of worldwide media. Everyone was talking about them. These were reform-minded, free-spirited, Internet savvy, Arab youth. They triggered everything. It’s because of them that all of this happened. And all of that, if you remember well, in the beginning of the Arab Spring, was without a hint of religious militancy. The Islamic fundamentalists arrived later on. In the beginning, they were all young, liberal, secular activists, and they were taking the stage, I want to say, they were taking the public squares by the tens of thousands everywhere. What happened? Why did they fade to irrelevance? A couple years later, no one is talking about them anymore. It’s like they disappeared. What happened? What happened is realpolitik. What happened is that soon after the revolution dust settled, they were pretty overplayed by any other player out there. Why? Because even though they had the numbers and they were inspiring, they did not have the organizations. They were outplayed by more established, more organized, more prepared actors. They were missing a lot of things that other groups, not talking about the governments, had, which is, well, guns, to start with, and also deep pockets, treasure chests. A lot of money. And maybe more importantly than all these things, they had very, I’m talking about more established groups like Muslim Brotherhood or the resilient governments, they were relying on solid organized and long-lasting networks. Just thing that the Muslim Brotherhood was established in the 1920s, and this was very recent. So at the grassroots level, the Arab military, the royal establishments, and the religious groups were preparing this for decades, so it was just no match between them and these young people that were taking to the streets.
However, now that this is a fact and this is established, however, this should not hide the fact that the Arab Spring, which was by all means the most dramatic paradigm shift in the Arab world for decades, was triggered by these young people, was inspired, was triggered by them, it was spearheaded by them, and they shaped the narrative of these revolts. They went to social media, they circulated the concepts of freedom, dignity, accountability, social justice, and everything changed because of them. Now, couple years later, where are they?
Nobody is talking about these kids any more. Well, first response, and Nadia already started answering this question, they are online. And there is no indication that their power to inspire the Arab people has receded since 2011. In fact, it might even have increased. Egypt is often cited for example as exemplifying the post-revolutionary vanishing of Arab liberals, but when you dig a little bit, when you go online, for example, let’s take Twitter. Go to the ten most-followed Twitter accounts in Egypt. If you take aside media institutions and music celebrities, works everywhere, but if you take those aside, out of the ten most-followed Twitter accounts in Egypt, seven are for liberal commentators, such as the satirist (inaudible 28:46) or (inaudible 28:49) or secular politicians like Mohammad Al-Baradai, (inaudible 28:54). Seven out of ten. And we’re talking tens of millions of people here. Even in Saudi Arabia, which is arguably the most conservative Arab country at face value.
YouTube is absolutely huge and I will tell you more about this later in Saudi Arabia. But if you take again gaming companies and telecom aside, out of the ten most-followed YouTube accounts in Saudi, six out of these ten are satirical shows. Many of them are produced by Fahad here. And if you sum up the number of views that were realized the combination of these six channels, you get to the astounding number of one billion views. One billion. In a country of 30 million people. I want you to pause and reflect a little bit on this number. One billion. Whenever you hear someone talking about the fact that there is some hope in the Arab world because there are some young people doing this and that, the world “some” comes a lot, like there is some sliver of hope. The real talk is about sectarianism and sectarian killings and geostrategy calculations and Iran and Saudi and all that, but there is some sliver of hope. One billion! We are not talking about “some” people. We are talking about, this is a big mischaracterization of the reality. When you look at the society, the young and this new spirit is, I would daresay maybe probably the majority.
Some more numbers. Well, Nadia gave you some numbers about Facebook accounts. Let me talk about Internet penetration. You said that one of out of two Arab citizens will have access to Wi-Fi in less than two years? There are some people who say, well, yes, but all of this on the Internet, so it’s not real life. Well, okay, let’s watch penetration rates then. In the decade between 2002 and 2012, Arabic was the world’s fastest-growing language on the web. The average Internet penetration rate, which is around 40% in the Middle East and North Africa, it hides a lot of disparities. Because there are some countries that are pretty low in the ranking, like 9% penetration rate in Iraq. 16% in Algeria. 20% in Yemen. But in some other countries, like Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco, you have penetration rates of the Internet between 46-56%. In Gulf countries, it’s over 70-75%. Which means that the Internet is increasingly a huge and important part of the reality in the Arab world. It just cannot be dismissed. And guess what? The conversation that is happening out there has a very strong liberal flavor.
So I want to give you some examples to show you what we’re talking about. So, religion for example. We are very busy here in the West trying to understand the culture out there, and it’s about religion, and let’s understand their customs. Maybe all of them are not violent. While we are busy figuring it out, young people out there have absolutely no problem acknowledging that real life and religion conflict in many ways. So you have artists checking on the Internet and doing things like this. This is a Moroccan artist, and he is figuring the cab as a Rubic’s Cube. Which shows that, from within the region, there is an awareness of those issues that is maybe way higher than a lot of people imagine here in the West. Another artist, this one is Moroccan, has done this. In terms of provocation, it’s pretty interesting, I think. It’s not just about religion. Of course they denounce extremists. So there’s this graphic artist in Syria with this image for example. I love it. It pretty much says it all. You don’t need a caption on something. And it’s not just about denouncing extremist groups, it’s also about denouncing the Assad government. They don’t take sides. Basically they are for freedom, so whoever is threatening freedom gets something. Like this is an image of President Assad.
Women’s rights, as well. You have this British-Iranian photographer who photographs herself in very provocative images that make a lot of people think. And these things circulate like wildfire in the Arab world. So you have images like this. Or this. It’s not only about religion and women empowerment. Sometimes it’s about national identity. So you have this Tunisian artist for example who had a very playful, graphic designs around the national bill. This is (inaudible 33:58), one of the national symbols in Tunisia. So he took this bill and he did things like this. This is Captain Mejit, for those of you who grew up in the Arab world. It’s a very famous cartoon. Another famous soccer player. So it’s this way of playing with national symbols, it features a spirit that very little people even imagine seeing from this part of the world. So, he turned the national ten dinars bill to this. Or this. Or this. Another example I want to show you. In Lebanon, something very interesting happened a couple of years ago. There was this incident about this Lebanese athlete, named Jackie Sharmen. She’s a skier. And she was selected as a representative of her country, Lebanon, in the winter Olympics. A couple of weeks, maybe, before the Olympics started, pictures of her were leaked of her posing in suggestive outfits on a calendar or something. So there was an outcry in Lebanon saying “How dare she! She represents Lebanon! She should have some modesty! She should not pose!”
She was not naked. She was wearing underwear. Things like that. In the same week, very interestingly, there was a case of a woman who was beaten very severely by her husband. And some activists were trying to raise the story and speak about conjugal violence and all what the mainstream media in Lebanon were interested about was Jackie Sharmen and whether or not she had the right to pose naked when she represents Lebanon. So this group of activists came up with this very creative ad campaign with this image. Isn’t that fantastic spirit? This happens in Lebanon. Watch what she wore. Look at this. This type of creative and intelligent thinking, it’s all around the Internet in the Arab world. Even further than that, a group built on that campaign, and they started taking pictures of themselves on this team “strip for Jackie.” So you have a couple people posing like Jackie saying I’m not naked, stop looking at my body. I’m a person. I’m an illustrator. Or I’m a product designer. Or, I’m a patriot. I love this one. Or simply, I am free. I could speak about these things for hours. If you want to know more about this, just log on to this website. It’s called FreeArabs.com. You have tens of examples of this online.
But I want to end with just saying that these things, the natural audience for them is growing like wildfire in the Arab world. A lot of people are busy figuring out how to contain Islamic extremism. The solution is much easier than we think. Just pay attention to what’s going on, on the ground. Just pay attention to what the youth are doing on the Internet. You’d be amazed. And numbers-wise, they might be more big and inspiring than the ones you are focusing on. So I will conclude with saying one thing. The natural audience for this is growing increasingly, and it’s huge in the Arab world. Definitely more relevant than “some people offer a sliver of hope.” This is the future. The difference, however, between these groups, and I will end with that, and more organized groups and the groups we pay more attention to usually like extremist groups, etcetera, is that the latter have constituents. They have networks, they have organized grassroots movements. Where these people that I’m talking about, they have an audience. An audience is not a constituency. That’s a major difference. So in order to transform social-cultural influence in to political leverage, liberals in the Arab world, they need to build large-structured, well-endowed, grassroots organizations. This is the only way to out-do conservatives and religious forces who have been fundraising, recruiting, organizing for many decades. This effort has not seriously started yet. However, the socio-cultural stage is being set for it. And this is a crucial condition for change. Thank you very much.
Nadia Bilbassy-Charters: Thank you, Ahmed. Thank you very much. I actually can’t agree more than to say that free thinking is the only way to develop a society and to encourage creative thinking in any society. I hope we’re going to see more of this in the Arab world. We need shocking images in the end because it makes people think and it makes people take action. With that, I’m going to go to Fahad, and he’s going to introduce us to the comedy scene in Saudi Arabia, which I have seen a few of them and I can assure it’s really, really funny and it’s very cleverly done. So, Fahad, please go ahead and share your website and everything that you have done with the audience today.
Fahad Albutairi: Hello. It’s really hard to compete with naked pictures right now, so. I’m going to try to be brief and straight to the point. How the comedy scene started in Saudi Arabia is pretty much due to the rise of stand-up comedy. Of course, that was fueled by the hundreds of thousands of well-educated, well-traveled Saudi youth. Let’s say, the age group under 30 is close to 75% of the population in Saudi Arabia right now. Annually, hundreds of thousands of students are being sent to the United States, Canada, the U.K., and other schools worldwide, reaching as far as Australia and New Zealand. So these guys, they not only get their degrees, they also bring back their experiences with them. And this is pretty much what marked the beginning of the stand-up comedy scene in Saudi Arabia specifically. The majority of comedians that came up lately, oh, wow. I don’t know why I’m so nervous! I’m used to performing in front of thousands of people, but this seems so serious! And I’m in a thole! It’s really hot! But in general, that’s how stand-up comedy got started with a few comedians who brought back their experiences from college. I, for example, went to the University of Texas at Austin. Longhorns! All right.
So, that’s where I started attempting stand-up comedy, pretty much. A couple of failed attempts, but then it became a passion of mine, and I took that experience back with me to Saudi Arabia and more comedians started popping up in Saudi because it became this new popular genre, where the youth can express themselves, can express their opinions freely, and thousands of people attend. So that was a very popular endeavor at that point. Then, these stand-up shows not only turned out to be just for stand-up comedy, they became creative hubs where creative individuals started meeting. That’s where I met director (inaudible 42:10) who ended up becoming the director for the first monologue-based satire show that we have on YouTube, (inaudible 42:17). Currently close to one million subscribers. Our total views from the network that started from the show has over one billion views right now. Three of our channels have exceeded one million subscribers. That’s three out of eleven channels that we produce for. I think when we started doing stuff on YouTube, we never really imagined that we’d be getting these kind of views at all. I met with Adi, and we simply just wanted to talk about a few subjects that I couldn’t cover in stand-up comedy shows, pretty much. And the visual aids, when it comes to filmmaking, help a lot delivering a lot of the messages that we have. We started tackling a little more serious issues, socio-political issues that are interesting, especially to the youth, and we started realizing that not only are we shaping content that represents Saudi youth, but also that represents Saudi Arabia to international audiences as well. So that’s when we started focusing also on the international appeal of some of the shows that we’ve been doing. We shot short-film style episodes, satirical episodes, in Washington, D.C. We shot some in London, and we’re planning on shooting more in other countries. Let me just show you some samples of our work on YouTube. Could you please play the video?
So those are some of the interesting subjects that we tackle in our shows. If you saw the one with Saudis posing as Mexicans, the reason is because that happened post the Boston Marathon events. To face prejudice and try to basically blend in, they acted like they were Mexican. The one before that, Victim of Reputation, that’s the title of it, we shot it in London and basically was talking about the context of Saudis judging each other when traveling. And it’s a very real thing. One of the things that Saudis tell each other about places to make them seem attractive, they usually say, there are absolutely no Saudis there! Because they are afraid of this judgment, basically, that happens. You saw the cover, No Woman No Drive. Because of social media, the social media penetration in Saudi is huge. It has the highest penetration for Twitter in the world. Close to 59% of Internet users have Twitter profiles right now. Instagram is the highest in the region as well right now in 2015. Fifty-two percent Instagram penetration.
As of this year, Snapchat has also become pretty popular. There have been like five or six live stories from Saudi Arabia. Twenty-two percent is the social media penetration for Snapchat in Saudi Arabia, and that’s all in one year. It basically went from zero to 22%. Social media not only had an impact on this whole new media movement on YouTube, Saudi Arabia being at some point the number one source of mobile YouTube views. Currently second only to Morocco because of (inaudible 48:38). Personally, that’s what I think. Since it’s in the top five at least, globally, for YouTube views, it shows you that YouTube pretty much became more of an entertainment outlet, especially in a country where we don’t have cinemas. Let’s say public outings are pretty limited. It’s just that the whole conservative feel and the generation gap just like the guys mentioned that has been put as basically a limiting roof over the majority of youth. They have found their voices and their entertainment online, pretty much. Be it their own voices by Tweeting. Not only that but like with students, they study abroad, they start showing their friends in college some of this stuff that we do on YouTube to show that Saudis can have a sense of humor, so that definitely broke a lot of stereotypes.
Having English subtitles helped reach an American audience and English-speaking audience in general, also in the U.K. So that is probably one of the biggest impacts this has had on our work and on our lives personally. I mean, I got married through social media. I don’t know if you know, but my wife is activist (inaudible 50:11). Most people don’t know who she is, but if you know of a Saudi woman who attempted to drive her car from the UAE to Saudi, that’s her. People to this day still think that I was serious when I said “no woman no drive.” They usually call me out on that double standard. That’s when I start explaining, I’m a comedian, so that’s satirical. You can Google satire. That kinds of thing, the sense of humor, it’s slowly changing with the spread of a lot of these YouTube shows and entertainment content that we’re distributing right now. It’s helping create social impact more than anything else. The Saudi population is not very political, so we didn’t really have a political revolution, we had a social revolution.
A lot of segments of society now have voices, be it people who are very liberal or very conservative or the people who are lost in between, which is the silent majority back in the day, but now, that silent majority has a voice, so I personally think regardless of anyone’s beliefs, having a voice is pretty much a right that everyone should have. So thank you social media for allowing us to do this. It is also interesting to point out that Saudi Arabia is number three globally in Smartphone penetration as well. So that’s pretty interesting. Second only to Korea and the UAE. That’s also another Gulf state that has a very large Smartphone penetration, and we have a lot of fans from there, too, because of that. But this what we’ve been doing so far, and just one thing to close with, an interesting part is that we started getting the attention of traditional media outlets, channels, like Arabia helped produce a segment in our last episode that recently aired and Radio Monte Carlo thought it was a real show and a real segment. We basically created this fake character that got popular on social media, and people couldn’t tell whether it was true or not, so that kind of thing is really exciting for us, that people don’t really know if we’re serious or not. So, that’s pretty much what I have. Thank you.
Nadia Bilbassy-Charters: Thank you, Fahad. Ibrahim, now you have to compete with the naked women pictures and the, “No Woman, No Drive.” So you have to make Mahatma Gandhi sexier than Che Guavera. So the floor is yours. Go ahead.
Ibrahim Al-Assil: Thank you, Nadia. I’m really honored to be on this panel with Nadia, Ahmed, and Fahad. Yesterday I felt I was very famous during the dinner. It was like, “I want to talk to you, Fahad!” He is Fahad. I’m Ibrahim. And I realized I was not famous. He’s the famous one. Also I’m very happy MEI gave me this opportunity today to share with you this story about a non-violence group in the most violent zone in the world. Briefly, the Syrian Non-Violence Movement is a group of activists that started to gather together in 2011.
We all believed in non-violence and peaceful means to bring change both to this society and to the government or to the regime. Conservatives, atheists, Kurds, Arabs, men, women inside Syria and outside Syria. We could do a lot of activities in the first few months of the uprising. And I remember by the end of 2011, Gene Sharpe, the American author, wrote about non-violence like he sent us and he said, “You’re about to achieve the impossible” and we really felt that way. We thought we were very close to achieving the impossible. Things in 2012 started to change dramatically. We started to lose our members. Some of them got killed, some of them got detained, some of them had to move to the humanitarian field because of the need to do that, and some of them also started to believe in armed resistance because of the violence they faced during that year.
At the end of 2011 we could gather many civil non-violent groups, and we organized the biggest civil disobedience dignity strike. It was the biggest during the uprising, and even the biggest during the Syrian history. So we had that, we were very, very excited. As you know, things started to change in 2012. And in the middle of 2012, our winter started, like literally. Very, very cold winter. People started to disbelieve in non-violence. It was very difficult; people started to leave the movement. It was very difficult to tell people to say anything peaceful or non-violent. People get angry, like, what are you talking about? Non-violence? Like don’t you see the regime? Don’t you see what you’re doing? Of course we believed in non-violence. Not because we think the regime is good, but we think this is how we can achieve the change. Otherwise, we won’t be able to achieve it. Even if we change the regime, we won’t be able to get a democratic government. But it’s very difficult, because violence or addressing violence is not only difficult in the Middle East, it’s everywhere. It’s in our genetic memory. We think we can solve problems in violence. So, non-violence, in general, is something still new for humans as a philosophy and as a way to resist and to bring about change.
So, in 2012 when we started to face that challenge, we started to explore different opportunities. What can we do to survive at least until things change in the future? So for example, we started, we said, let’s do a mapping. Let’s tell everyone how many civil groups there are in Syria. Can I have the first picture, please? So we did that map. It’s an interactive map, actually. You click on it, and you get the information about every small circle which is a non-violent or a civil group inside Syria. Radio stations, magazines, local committees, women’s rights, children’s rights, different groups. So we wanted to show everyone, Syrians and non-Syrians, and also to show ourselves to give ourselves hope because we need to motivate ourselves. So we did that map. We mapped about 850 groups inside Syria between the second half of 2012 and the first half of 2013. In the middle of 2013, things started to change again, and people started to look for something different again. They started to realize that even the armed resistance is not going to solve our problem. It’s a very, very big problem.
So they started to listen to us again. And we started also to try to come up with different programs and initiatives. One of them is directed to children. We started to have schools, and so, because there is a whole generation now who were away from schools for years. So to raise them on peace values and other things, and to get them social support and also to train teachers how to deal with children in war zones.
Also, we thought we can play an intellectual role inside Syria. Because things are changing very fast, right? So, even me as a Syrian, I can’t understand what’s going on in Syria. It’s very, very difficult. Uprisings or revolutions are radical change in a short period of time, so it’s always very difficult to understand what’s going on and during uprisings and revolutions it’s very, very difficult. So, we thought probably we need just to ask questions and to encourage people to ask all the questions we need to ask about religion, about society, about our traditions, about our goals, about the meaning of the uprising again. What do we want? What do we really want to achieve? Can I have the second picture, please? So this one is a screen shot from a show we had, an animated one. And in this episode in particular, it started talking about germs. How when we human beings discovered the importance of to be hygiene, we started to live longer. And then we move to ask about intellectual germs. That we don’t really care about. It’s in our literature, it’s in our books, it’s in our traditions. We don’t question it, we don’t talk about it, it’s in our intellectual diet.
So, at the end of this one, we say because of our intellectual diets, that’s what leads people to kill people, and we should ask the questions. We say we don’t have the answers because really we don’t have the answers. What can we do? We don’t really know, but we think Syrians and activists everywhere should start and ask those questions. Also, one of the objectives of that show, that’s why I encourage you to go onto there and to watch it, it has English subtitles, it doesn’t talk about Syria. It talks about ideas. We wanted to produce something that activists somewhere else can use as well. In Turkey, in Iran, in Saudi, in Lebanon, in Morocco. Because we feel, and I think most of the Syrian activists they feel their uprising was abandoned by the activists around the world because it got very complicated, and it’s like, I believe personally there is an uprising and there is a civil war and people they mix between them. And they say that Syrians are killing Syrians; we’re not going to get involved. We wanted to contribute to the whole change taking place in the world. We want to connect and to help other activists to get connected between themselves, between different cultures. We don’t want only to be irons. That’s like, I was talking to Ahmed about all this. We live in the same city. We almost have the same struggle but we don’t know each other. Everyone is busy, but we should connect because otherwise we won’t be able to change. And I’m not only talking about the Middle East. I’m talking about the whole world. Syria is not only Syrian conflict, but it is a regional one and an international one. It shows how everything is really connected. This is part of globalization. So, nobody is safe until everyone is safe. This is not only for one society; this is now for the whole world. So if we don’t work together, if we don’t help each other to solve the problems and to address the problems, we won’t be able to solve them.
Do we have hope? Of course we do. Probably that’s the only thing we have now. We see our role probably after five to ten years, but now we need to start now, because otherwise we won’t be able to achieve that role, when we will able to bridge the society again, different communities inside that society. A few weeks ago a saw a video on YouTube. There was a bomb in Aleppo. A barrel bomb by the regime. The people started to dig to try to find some people there. They were digging, and digging, and digging, and I was like, there is nothing. And then they hear a baby cry, and they keep removing the fragments the rubble and the rocks, and then they get the very beautiful baby, alive, crying, but alive. You can find it on YouTube. And I was like, aren’t we all trying to do that? To find life under the rubble and the rocks. All the activists, that’s what they are trying to do. That’s what we should do. Probably it’s going to take very, very long to find that life, but we believe. We have faith that life is there in our societies. There is a huge potential in the Middle East. So that’s what we are trying to do.
Also we think it’s very important in the next few years that we build a new nucleus of activists, so we focus a lot about internal discussions about how to bring the change. For example, one of our biggest challenges is how we assist change. Especially when you are talking to the silent majority. They are silent. They don’t give you any reaction, even if they are angry, happy, it’s very difficult to know. Are we able to deliver our messages or not? So that’s one of the biggest challenges, for example. We all need to, as activists in the Middle East and everywhere, discuss. Because otherwise, the civil society in the Middle East has a chance, but it’s a very small chance because it’s not the strongest. But in any environment, to survive, if you are not the strongest, you should be the smartest. And if we are not the smartest, we won’t be able to survive. And to be the smartest is to feel those undercurrents in the society. To be very sensitive, to understand what people want even when they are silent. Even when the silent majority is not interacting with us, we need to understand it. And with that, I really believe we can achieve a lot in Syria and everywhere. Thank you.
Nadia Bilbassy-Charters: Thank you Ibrahim. Thank you, guys. I actually have quite a few questions, but unfortunately the time is not working with us. Just a very quick comment before we come to the audience and open up for questions. (inaudible 01:04:49) Arab liberals always being they are very unorganized, they live in ivory towers, they don’t appeal to the masses, isolated and unable to translate their thinking and to win an election. And we have seen that all over the Arab world. So I am glad to know that there is a new wave of Arab activism. It doesn’t have to be, obviously, personally, I would encourage the liberal thinking, but for any society to succeed, it has to be inclusive whether it is Islamist or atheist or liberal or conservative, whatever. The whole idea is to accept the other. The other is very significant in any society and this is the key for us all Arabs how we can go forward. Just before I come to you for questions, Nadia just has a quick comment and then we’ll come to you. Please.
Nadia Oweidat: I want to give a perspective that in the Arab world, we have an educational system that is practically obsolete. It’s useless. It doesn’t teach us any skill that we need, which is why the entire Arab world doesn’t produce even as much as Nokia company in Finland. They produce nothing because we don’t have an education. So actually, these expressions of culture are our best hope. They are the only way, really, the only way in which we are taught pluralism, critical thinking, ability to deal with ambiguity without violence though comedy. And you see in all of them, all over, I see this in Yemen, Sudan, Saudi, everywhere, those young people, they want to be part of humanity. They don’t buy in to this fascist sense of us versus them, which is really all over our educational system. That it really is amazing we don’t have more extremes because we are taught a form of fascism. We are superior; we have a right to have a caliphate and conquer others and have them pay tax (inaudible 1:06:40) in humiliation. There is a sense of superiority that negates the other completely. We are so inflated. That’s our educational system. But that is education that these kids are producing for one another. That is amazing. That is really a miracle in my opinion. Even though we don’t have access to resources or you see a lot of guns that are being funded, a lot of violence that is being funded, it’s really hard for a lot of people to get funded, to get visibility, so they are really scrambling. I see so many young, incredibly talented people looking for any sort of scholarships. Some of them make it, and the ones that make it get millions. But we have to remember that a million trees growing do not make as much sound as one bullet. But they make a forest.
Nadia Bilbassy-Charters: Thank you, Nadia, with that. I’m going to take three questions at once. So I will start one here, and will you please make it short and identify yourself. And it’s a question, not a statement. Go ahead, please.
Ahmed Bedir: Hi, this is Ahmed Bedir. I’m president of United Voices. A running theme in the MEI conference, this one and others I’ve attended, is there’s an undertone of anti-Islamist bias. Not by all the speakers, but by some. And like you just said, we need to be more inclusive. There’s a lot of talk about Islamists, there’s talk about brotherhood, there’s talk of fundamentalists, but they’re not invited to speak for themselves. So any time you have that, it’s good to have engagement in dialogue. The other theme is that somehow the choice in the Middle East is between radical Islamists and authoritarian regimes and dictatorships. That’s not the real battle. The real battle, in my mind, is between democrats and dictatorships. Democrats and dictators. Democracy versus dictatorship. And dictatorship feeds the radicalization. If we want to end the radicalization, we have to stop the dictatorship and give more freedom to the people. It’s a by-product of the dictatorships. When the Arab Spring happened, that was Al-Qaeda’s lowest point. When the revolutions, the Arab Spring, was counter-revolutions in some countries, that was a celebration for groups like ISIS. Finally, when it comes to numbers, we have to compare apples to apples. When we say that for example, we have to, somehow because by some of the presentations we may think that the whole Arab world is a bunch of liberal seculars that when in reality it is the other way around. They are very devout, most of them, they are very stuck to their faith, so the gauge for progress should not be how much secularism there is there. There should be inclusivity. Just to mention, and I’ll end with this, about the numbers you mentioned, you mentioned the woman from Algeria, she has 8 million followers, but you can’t compare a person, a personality, to a party. That’s not comparing apples to apples. If you compare to individuals like Ardogan, for example, who is considered to be an Islamist personality, 8 million followers, Ahmed Shugeti, he’s a personality, he is Islamist in a way, in Saudi Arabia, that’s 12 million followers. (inaudible 01:10:02) is an Islamic singer, 25 million, (inaudible 01:10:06) Islamic preacher, 19 million followers, and of course let’s not forget the most famous Islamist in the world, Barack Obama, with 45 million followers.
Nadia Bilbassy-Charters: Thank you, Ahmed. Okay, we’ll take the lady there, please. Make it short. Thank you for your questions.
Monica McCarr: Hi, my name is Monica McCarr, I’m a graduate student at Georgetown University. My question for all the panelists is how do we engage and mobilize diaspora communities in this. I grew up within a Middle Eastern diaspora community myself, and we were very cut off from any other Middle Easterners or Arabs in general, so how do you remedy that?
Nadia Bilbassy-Charters: Thank you. One more.
Mohammad Al-Shuatir: Mohammad Al-Shuatir, from Yemen. A Fulbright Fellow at the American University. First, thanks for all the media activists in promoting the behavior change and mindset in the Arab countries. My question to Ms. Oweidat. That was optimistic numbers, increasing numbers, following the more liberal activists or wherever. I mean, the question is, ISIS or these violence extremism groups, they are using the same media webs and they still via these methods recruiting many and thousands of youth gathering these movement. Do you think it’s going to be enough or we need actually as you mentioned some examples, we need a very comprehensive, I mean, strategy to defeat these extremism. Do you think it’s going to be enough to defeat these groups or this radicalism, especially they still using universities, they teaching a lot of radicalism extremism folks...
Nadia Bilbassy-Charters: Thank you. Ahmed, do you want to take the first question about why Islamists are not inclusive when they are a central representation of society?
Ahmed Benchemsi: Yes, I am really glad that you brought up that point because it gives me an opportunity to clear a common misunderstanding. When we speak about seculars or liberals, it is not as opposed to Islamists. Absolutely not. That’s not the idea. That’s a misconception, and we need to clear it. All these debates that we’ve been having, this writing, and this art, and these forums, and this conversations, there’s a lot of vigorous debate and obviously there’s a lot of satire, there’s a lot of sarcasm, there’s a lot of conversation and very often controversial conversations going on. But at the end of the day, the core value it is promoting is human rights. This is where I reconcile it with my job and that’s what I do every day; it’s defending human rights. It’s about freedom of speech. It’s about the rule of law. It’s about free expression and free thought for everyone. This, by nature, is inclusive. It is absolutely out of question to say that we want to build an Arab world only for liberals and seculars and exclude everyone else. That’s doesn’t make sense. The basic value that these people, in my opinion, I might be wrong, but that’s what I truly and deeply believe, the basic value that these people defend is human rights and all the freedoms that includes. This is by nature inclusive for everyone.
Nadia Bilbassy-Charters: Thank you. Nadia, for the third question.
Nadia Oweidat: ISIS versus those activists online who want to create a non-violent world in which coercion, violence, and intimidation are not means of exerting influence. So of course ISIS is very active and it is drawing thousands and thousands of people. Honestly, it’s really surprising that they’re not drawing more because there is a lot of support. But it is because we have, all we see on the news when we look at what’s happening in the Arab world, is this terrorism. So you think this is the only thing happening, is this extremism. The whole point of this panel is to say well, maybe not. People we surprised by the Arab Spring; it took people by surprise. We didn’t see this coming. Actually, if you were watching closely, you would have seen it coming. Because before the Internet, the most incredible form of debate was novels, fiction, before satire, and it was the same things. Really asserting the right to have human rights, basically. But, again, can we do something about it? Actually, we really need to something about it, because young kids are affected. Youth are affected by their peers. So if somebody goes, so, 60% of those who go to Syria are Iraqi. They bring somebody else with them. Sixty percent. But this is the same also if you go online and you become, how many lives has Fahad changed? How many people has he inspired? So whether you go the extremist route, or you go the civilized route, you are going to influence others. So we really need to have a lot of, instead, we spend 16 billion dollars a year on covering violent extremism. If only we would spend one billion on actually aiding these creative voices, we wouldn’t have to worry about terrorism. Honestly. I truly believe it. Because with every role model you create, you champion, it’s that many more who want to try this. Who want to tap into their creative agents. With terrorists and creative people have in common is they want to have a voice. They want to make a difference. It’s how you go about it, right?
Nadia Bilbassy-Charters: Fahad, do you want to take the second question about the diaspora and how can (inaudible 01:15:54)?
Fahad Albutairi: Sure. So, what she was trying to address I think is basically the, is basically not being able to engage Middle Easterners as far as I understand. I think with the advent of social media lately there has been way more dialogue happening between Middle Easterners and other people. It’s funny; sometimes it goes the wrong way and you see a lot of Arabic comments on Kim Kardashian’s profile. Sometimes also, it really starts a dialogue between different people. And that’s one of the reasons why, for example, recently, I managed to get together with some international and regional talents for the movie From A to B which is a movie we produced last year with director Ali Mustafa. And the whole team was from maybe 23 different countries. We had people working with us from Turkey, the DoP was from Belgium, the monitor engineers were from Germany, and they all got a lot of the dialogue and a lot of the sense of humor in the movie, and it’s because the movie was mainly bilingual so there was Arabic and English in it. I think not only that but we have started to have fans from the United States and from Europe and the U.K. and other English speakers. And I think it’s slow, but it’s happening, where the dialogue is not bound anymore by physical means. Especially with the advent of social media and large numbers of social media penetration in the Middle East. So I think it’s on the right track. I think it’s going to happen eventually.
Nadia Bilbassy-Charters: Thank you. Three more questions.
Ali Shadnan: Hello. First of all, thank you for gracing us with your presence. My name is Ali Shadnan. I’m a student and editor at Marymount University student newspaper. I want to ask, first of all, I want to point out that in our society, the word “liberal,” there’s a stigma attached to it. It always goes hand-in-hand with blasphemy or madness. So, specifically to Fahad, how do you advocate for social progression and social change without being labeled as an enemy of society? How do you tread carefully and how do you counter attempts to limit your reach and your message? Thank you.
Nadia Bilbassy-Charters: Thank you, Ali. Please?
Pete Burley: Yes. My name is Pete Burley. I am a sophomore history major from Howard University. Shout out to Fahad for choosing UT Austin as his school of choice. That’s my home state. My question is to Nadia. You talked a lot about connectivity and how social media was bringing the Arab youth closer together. I wanted to know to what extent is that translating into affecting relations. So, for example, is it like eroding tensions between Sunni and Shi’ite youth so much that they’ll tell their governments, hey, we no longer want you to oppress the minority in our community, but we are coming closer to them, that you’re kind of cultivating a new identity. So that new identity and essence of belonging is actually causing them to transform society and actually having real-time outcomes going from the media world to the real world.
Nadia Bilbassy-Charters: Thank you. We’re actually going to take the last two questions together, so please go ahead because we are running out of time.
Liam: Hi. My name is Liam. I’m a junior at Johns Hopkins University. My question is mainly for Dr. Oweidat. At the beginning, Dr. Bilbassy...
Nadia Bilbassy-Charters: Well, I’m not a doctor, but thank you anyway.
Liam: Okay. People who use non-violence have a better chance of success than those who use violence in a social movement. Which is great, and I think we’d probably all be encouraged to hear that. And it’s amazing when social media is non-violent. When we have social leaders like everybody on this panel who can act in positive ways for the youth. My question is actually specifically in regards to social efforts in the Israel-Palestine conflict where things get a little different. And on October 22, the New York Times published an article about violence in popular media and youth soundtracks advocating the Palestinian cause and it mentioned specifically a song that I’m probably going to mispronounce, “Etan Etan” or “Stab Stab.” And I was wondering how do we reconcile and redirect a situation where youth and they have a popular youth figure advocating using their social advocacy voice for things that aren’t non-violent. What happens when social media devolves, and if that becomes the direction of youth and political voice, and according to what we’ve heard, that’s a big voice and it’s less effective. What do we do?
Nadia Bilbassy-Charters: Thank you. Please make it short because we have one more question being added and we have less time to answer.
Monica Rogers: Mine’s very short. Monica Rogers. A lot of time working in Iraq the past ten years. But as a Westerner, I have a couple of questions. One, the statistics were amazing. I have only seen in the media the last years that the youth of the world in the Middle East is following extremist messages. So yours was very fabulously optimistic and good to hear. But can you connect for me two things: one, those millions of people in the Arab world who are doing all these very positive things, are they connected in any way, can they connect, to those extremist messages and the extremist messages that are attracting young extremists, and the second thing is what I see so much in the news is the Middle East is just so fragile. Half a dozen countries could be collapsing, including the recent news about Saudi Arabia. So, I love your optimistic picture, but reconcile it for my Western-trained brain on all the negative that I see.
Nadia Bilbassy-Charters: Thank you. One last one.
Alan McCoffski: Thank you. I’ll be quick. My name is Alan McCoffski. I’m with the Center for American Progress. I worked on the Hill for many years during the heyday of Middle East Partnership Initiative, and I think Dr. Oweidat, you said that these U.S. programs or people who work through U.S. programs are almost reflexively discredited. Egypt as a particularly bad example, I mean, an unhappy example, in that regard. I’m just curious, I apologize to have such a Washington-centered question, what do you think the U.S. should do, if anything, to promote democracy or freedom in the region...
Nadia Bilbassy-Charters: Thank you. Thank you so much. We have two minutes to answer all these questions. I’ll start very quickly to address the first question about being liberal, is it like a bad word and how do you work against that in a society like Saudi Arabia?
Fahad Albutairi: One of the things that are very interesting about a young population like the Saudi population, they are young and they are easily excited. So, a lot of time they treat debates and discussions like football games, basically. You’re either with us or against us. So if they are conservative, they probably would label you as liberal. And if they are extremely liberal, more liberal than you are, they probably would label you as conservative. I’ve been attacked by so-called liberals just for growing a beard. I mean, it gets as superficial as that. What we try to do is pretty much try to not think about all these labels and not try to dignify them with any response is pretty much we just ignore them and concentrate on the entertaining aspect of the content that we produce and the content speaks for itself. So the best way to discredit these voices is to completely ignore them. After all, we treat them like noise and it doesn’t last for too long because the silent majority is not silent any more. So you’re bound to have someone respond back to these people, try to label everyone and make them an enemy, so that they can pretty much antagonize and collectively attack them. They used to be successful back in the day but not anymore. People now think for themselves and that is very heartwarming, honestly. I think this change was brought about in the past, I’d say, two or three years. It wasn’t that long ago.
Nadia Bilbassy-Charters: Thank you. Nadia?
Nadia Oweidat: I want to start with the last question, what can the U.S. do if anything. Oh my God, look what U.S. education has produced! The U.S. can make a huge difference. And it has made a huge difference. U.S. programs like Fullbright, like all these students who come from around the world, I mean, the reason why I can give to my original birth as well as to my adopted country is because I have an American education. So, there’s a lot that the U.S. can do. If only we would take a percentage of that 60 billion that we spend on counter-terrorism and put even two billion or even one into supporting creative voices. Into rewarding these cartoonists, scholars, comedians. Put them together. I mean, there is so much that the U.S. can do that doesn’t necessarily have a stigma. People like to say, oh, but if it’s from the U.S., nobody will touch it. Actually, no. Everybody would love to have a scholarship in the U.S. Everybody would like to say, such a university, Harvard, I mean, we have so many, the U.S. is not just the Pentagon. The U.S. is educational systems, think tanks, universities, Silicon Valley, so there’s a lot the U.S. can do. And in terms of online and offline. So, just because it’s happening online does not mean it’s insignificant, so what, you know what? I actually believe that all of this action and debate, I monitor a lot of it. I truly am astounded how it has grown even in the last few years. Just because it’s online does not mean it will not take place offline. So, to give you an example, I started monitoring some online philosophy groups in Jordan.
These young kids who are debating because we never used to have access to our own history, our own thinkers, so this is known because of piracy which has created a whole new class of thinkers and aspiring philosophers. So when I was last in Jordan, so these kids would find each other online and they would meet offline and they started meeting and I went to one in Jordan. You know, it was amazing. I honestly wish I could have had a camera. And then I went to see a talk by Yousef Zedan, he’s one of a great mind in my regard, talking in a place as big as this, what was so amazing is that the average age in the room was maybe 25, and there were as many people outside as there were inside talking about philosophy and government and the relationship between intellectuals and politics and religion. Maybe you think academic, esoteric ideas, and when I was listening to the questions of these twenty-something year olds, again, I really, just because it’s taking place online doesn’t mean it’s not going to ever translate. Which you know, I wrote an article called The Islamic Spring. I truly believe there is an Islamic Spring taking place. Maybe we will have to wait a decade or two before we see it offline, but it’s happening. So how do you explain that a collapse, we have a lot of problems including authoritarianism, unemployment, religious fanaticism, so this is not going to be solved overnight, and we don’t have any resources except the power of persuasion. But again, time is on our side. Like my friend was saying in the last panel, it’s a one-way street to evolution. So, thank you.
Nadia Bilbassy-Charters: Any other questions that we have not answered? Ahmed, do you want to have one last go? No. We are actually completely out of time. So I want to thank Nadia, Ahmed, Fahad, and Ibrahim. Thank you all for coming. I just want to say one last thing that you know being devout and being pious are not mutually exclusive so I hope that everybody in the Middle East will be able to express their ideas and to live in whatever belief that they want but they don’t cancel the other.
Wendy Chamberlin: Well, that was a fabulous panel and I hope we can continue the discussion offline. That concludes our 69th annual conference. I hope you heard some fresh and provocative ideas and some very fresh voices today. And if you enjoyed today’s conference, please go online, become a member, support MEI in everything that we do, most of which is free, and we look forward to seeing you next year at this time. Thank you.
End of discussion
Transcriber: Ruth Frank (505/440-9096)