Social Studies March 2006

In Arabic, 'Internet' Means 'Freedom'

A Baghdad scholar is secretly working to expose Arabs to Western books on democracy and liberalism via the Internet.

Odd though it may sound, somewhere in Baghdad a man is working in secrecy to edit new Arabic versions of Liberalism, by the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, and In Defense of Global Capitalism, by the Swedish economist Johan Norberg. He is doing this at some risk of kidnap, beating, and death, because he hopes that a new Arabic-language Web site, called LampofLiberty.orgMisbahAlHurriyya.org in Arabic—can change the world by publishing liberal classics.

Odder still, he may be right.

Interviewed by e-mail, he asks to be known by a pseudonym, H. Ali Kamil. A Shiite from Iraq's south, he is an accomplished scholar, but he asks that no other personal details be revealed. Two of his friends have been killed in the postwar insurgency and chaos, one shot and the other "slaughtered." Others of his acquaintance are in hiding, visiting their families in secret. He has been threatened for working with an international agency.

Now he is collaborating not with foreign agencies but with foreign ideas. He has made Arabic translations of all or parts of more than two dozen articles and nine books and booklets. "None," he says, "were previously translated, to my knowledge, for the simple reason that they are all on liberalism and democracy, which unfortunately have little audience and advocators in the Middle East, where almost all publishing houses and press outlets are governmental—i.e., anti-liberal."

Kamil's work is anonymous out of fear, not modesty. Translating Frederic Bastiat's The Law, he says, took 20 days of intense labor. "I am proud of that, especially when I knew that the book has never been translated before. This is one of the works my heart is aching for not having my name in its front page."

Asked how he began this work, he recounts meeting an American who was lecturing in Baghdad on principles of constitutional government. The message struck home. "Yes, you could say I am libertarian," Kamil says. "I believe in liberty for all, equality and human rights, freedom and democracy, free-market ethics, and I hate extremism in everything. I believe in life more than death as being the way to happiness."

The American was Tom G. Palmer, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington and a man who cares a lot about books. (So much so, that he always walks around with a satchel full of them.) When the Soviet Union fell, he worked on making key liberal texts available in Russian and the languages of the former Soviet Bloc. How can democracy and markets thrive, after all, without the owner's manual?

In 2004, Palmer traveled to Iraq for an education-ministry conference on reforming the schools. Having expunged compulsory Baathist education, the Iraqis were figuring out what came next. "They desperately wanted something different from what they had," Palmer says. Like many Albanians and Romanians he met after the Soviet Union collapsed, Iraqis pulled him aside to tell stories of family members harassed or killed by the fallen regime. The strikingly ubiquitous statues and images of Saddam Hussein testified to how thoroughly the Baathist dictatorship had dominated intellectual life.

Intellectual isolation is a widespread Arab phenomenon, not just an Iraqi one. Some of the statistics are startling. According to the United Nations' 2003 "Arab Human Development Report," five times more books are translated annually into Greek, a language spoken by just 11 million people, than into Arabic. "No more than 10,000 books were translated into Arabic over the entire past millennium," says the U.N., "equivalent to the number translated into Spanish each year." Authors and publishers must cope with the whims of 22 Arab censors. "As a result," writes a contributor to the report, "books do not move easily through their natural markets." Newspapers are a fifth as common as in the non-Arab developed world; computers, a fourth as common. "Most media institutions in Arab countries remain state-owned," the report says.

No wonder the Arab world and Western-style modernity have collided with a shock. They are virtually strangers, 300 years after the Enlightenment and 200 years after the Industrial Revolution. Much as other regions may be cursed with disease or scarcity, in recent decades the Arab world has been singularly cursed with bad ideas. First came Marxism and its offshoots; then the fascistic nationalism of Nasserism and Baathism; now, radical Islamism. Diverse as those ideologies are, they have in common authoritarianism and the suppression of any true private sphere. Instead of withering as they have done in open competition with liberalism, they flourished in the Arab world's relative isolation.

Presented by

Jonathan Rauch is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and National Journal and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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