By Miriyam Aouragh The Internet is a key feature in the changing character of Arab politics. This topic has seen an explosive spur since the ongoing December/January Revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt. But the political utilisation was most apparent since the outbreak of the Palestinian Al Aqsa’ Intifada [uprising] late 2000. The Palestinian Intifada fused with the birth of the internet.
Aouragh disseminates two main tensions when studying internet usage amongst Palestinians: mobility vs. immobility and space vs. place. Employing the strategy of a grounded anthropologist, the author enriches online internet/media studies with offline methodology, and vise versa. While filling this gap –roughly speaking, that between qualitative empirical anthropology and quantitative journalistic studies – she sets out to expose the deeper/invisible structures underlying virtual reality.
Aouragh argues that the internet reinforced state-oppression and mainstream media hegemony, yet also enabled new-fangled transnational alliances and political imaginations. She starts from the idea that Palestinian communities exhibit new modes of interactions and, most significantly, have in due course constructed a parallel Palestine, one ‘online’. This Palestine Online is presented as a virtual platform gathering Palestinians of different diasporic localities formerly separated by boundaries and travel restrictions. To demonstrate the offline dynamics Aouragh describes grassroots initiatives such as Across Borders Project which was able to bridge territorial separations; reconnecting many Palestinians for the first time since 1948 and on a scale previously unseen. Palestinian websites became ‘mediating spaces’ through which the Palestinian nation is globally imagined and reshaped. Furthermore, the Arabization of the interface and the mushrooming internet cafes have made the internet a community and non-elite technology. These developments in due course contributed to the ‘rehumanization’ of Palestinians in the global public sphere.
Palestine Online is also reflexive and allows the reader to revisit the evolution of the internet, the analyses are set in a vital historical period when a wave of uprisings erupting in the region and Palestine itself. The transformation of the Palestinian political landscape—the uprising, the collapse of Fatah, the election victory of Hamas, the war on Lebanon and Gaza—and novel internet project thus coincided. Palestine Online explores these shifting contexts and offers a view into the fascinating narratives about the, often unanticipated, impact of the internet offline. The book’s empirical base demonstrates the paradoxes of the implications of internet in everyday life previously lacking in much of the research about the internet. The book locates the internet at the complex intersection between capitalism, technological development, politics of representation, and modes of surveillance and governmentality.
Palestine Online therefore goes beyond dystopian-utopian dichotomy of the internet and frames it as a ‘blessing and a curse’. Aouragh refutes dominant discourses about ICT4D promises and the later ‘Social Media Revolution’ paradigms, which she identifies as being largerly about depoliticizing Western media projections of highly complex and challenging neoliberal contexts. Engaging with classic concepts of Benedict Anderson and Jurgen Habermas, and renewed analyses of Castells and Wellman, Aouragh evokes a critical examination of contemporary novel and critical theory about internet.
Moreover, Palestine Online is about the construction of Palestinian identity through the prism of the internet, enriched by participatory observations and indepth interviews during long term multi-sited fieldwork in Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine between 2001-2006. This has helped to understand how the internet effects the practices of everyday life; in other words how existing power relations, gender differences, and diaspora (il)legality evolve online. But also how to assess internet as technology embedded in real life materiality; in other words how agency sets out through virtual reality.
Finally, inspired by Gramsci’s notion of the organic intellectual Aouragh writes from a ‘situated knowledge’, and takes the reader out of her academic comfort zones. Aouragh writes about users and producers of the internet as active subjects: they are neither passive victims nor essentialized ‘radicals’; not objects but have a voice and space for their narratives about the first stage of palestinian cyberspace. Palestine Online show that Palestinians are not only ‘marginalised’ but also act upon their own, technologically-frenzied agency. And it shows that the internet is their tool, in search of liberation, rather than an escapist space redefined as liberation.
Miriyam Aouragh is a VU alumni. She studied Sociale Wetenschappen from 1994 – 1999 and graduated with a specialization in what whas then called Etnische Studies en Minderheidsvraagstukken. She currently studies the everyday political implications of Web 2.0 for Palestinian and Lebanese activist groups, the role of the Internet during the ongoing Arab revolutions at the Oxford Internet Institute as an NWO Rubicon Cpostdoc, and she teaches Cyber Politics of the Middle East at Oxford University’s Middle East Centre.