Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The Double Standard of Free Speech: American attitudes towards Iraqi bloggers

The Iraq war brought about the advent of a totally new phenomenon: ordinary civilians living in the war zone, publishing their views to the world. What is unique about the Iraq conflict is that many Iraqis learn English as a second language in school (much like Americans learn Spanish and Canadians learn French) and thus can communicate in English on a blog.

Iraqi bloggers have shown themselves to be as varied in their opinions as American bloggers. Some, like Omar and Mohammed at Iraq the Model, are very much in favor of the American military actions in Iraq, while others like Riverbend and Raed Jarrar are very much against. Still others, like my friend Najma, and her family, and Rose in Baghdad tend to be more neutral, not being anti-American but not pro-American either.

What really bothers me about some Iraqi blogs is the insensitive attitude and callous remarks I have seen directed towards them and their authors by some Western readers: it is almost as if some people view Iraqi bloggers as some sort of non-human entities with no feelings or emotions of their own. Some Western readers expect Iraqis to be unfailingly grateful for the actions of America in Iraq, and if the Iraqi bloggers criticize America even occasionally, they are pilloried as being "ignorant", "brainwashed", "baathists", "ingrates", "fools", "traitors", and the like. On the other side, you have the anti-war Western readers who go after bloggers who seem too pro-American: some Iraqi bloggers have even been accused of being CIA plants. Then, you have the trolls who hang out in the comments section and try to pick fights with other readers in total ambivalence to their host's (the blogger's) feelings on the matter at hand.

Some of the criticism Iraqi bloggers have received is just mind-boggling. Riverbend has been the recipient of a lot of criticism, and even the subject of parody sites ("Cry me a Riverbend" and "Cry me a Riverbend II"). There have been some posts trying to guess Riverbend's name and background (since she had the foresight to start her blog under a pseudonym). I can only imagine the volume of hate-mail her and Raed Jarrar get. I know my friend Najma has received a lot of hate mail, some of which has been very hurtful towards her.

What I find really annoying is that if someone expresses the exact same opinion here in America as some Iraqi bloggers have, people usually don't react harshly to it. They may disagree, but do not generally throw around the same hateful epithets I have seen directed at some Iraqi bloggers. For example, there is a busy street corner near where I live that has been the site of weekly anti-war protests every Saturday since the Iraq war started, and each week, there is a counter-protest across the street. And yet, you do not see epithets or insults being hurled back and forth across the street.

We do not expect all Americans to have the same opinion about current issues, why should we expect anything different from Iraqis? And, just because a person may not agree with our viewpoint on a particular issue does not make that person an evil monster. As the French philosopher Voltaire once said, "I may disagree with what you say, but I would fight to the death for your right to say it." This philosophy is deeply engrained in the American psyche and in the First Amendment to the US Constitution. People here apply this philosophy in dealings with other Americans - why, then, can people not apply the same philosophy in dealings with Iraqis and other foreigners? If we all agreed with each other all the time, the world would be a very dull and boring place.