[Foundation-l] Wikimania and the Muhammad pix

Ben Yates ben.louis.yates at gmail.com
Thu Feb 21 18:19:58 UTC 2008

Nada -- if you're still reading this thread, there are a couple of
questions I'd like to ask:


I don't have a strong opinion either way about the pictures
themselves, and I really understand why they shock muslims.  But more
to the point, I think everyone sees that this story has "legs", both
in the middle east and in the west.

In the middle east, a lot of people would be interested (if that's the
right word) to know that wikipedia has published not only these
pictures of muhammad but also the danish cartoons.  The story's
obviously more sensational if it's given the false spin that wikipedia
is deliberately *trying* to anger muslims, but it's a compelling story
to middle easterners even if that spin isn't there (I think).

In the west, the story of the *reaction* to the pictures is
compelling.  Incredibly compelling -- seriously.  The alexandria angle
occurred to me as soon as I heard about the petition against the
pictures -- I could have written a "wikimania in egypt, free speech
vs. religion" blog post and it would have gotten a gazillion page

This is the type of story that goes right to the top of digg and
reddit, and then hits the new york times and CNN -- and that's without
any protests in egypt.  Hell, it's already gone to the top of reddit
(the guardian article) without anyone even realizing that wikimania's
in egypt at all.  The only reason I didn't write it was that I wasn't
sure it would be a good thing for ... well, for anyone, really (except
me) if the story actually took off.  (Because if the story takes off
in the west, it'll probably take off in the middle east, and vice

At this point I'm not sure the story is containable, though -- you
can't count on everyone to keep quiet about it.  If you do that, then
all the reasonable people will keep their mouths shut and the people
who eventually break the story -- the people who set the initial tone
and are responsible for framing the issue -- are the unreasonable or
excitable ones, or the ones who understand the situation less well.

Seriously -- I won't blog about this if people ask me not to, but in
my professional opinion (or whatever), there is basically no chance
that this won't be a big news story, one way or another, even if I
never mention it.

Case in point: when Fox News covered the "Muslims Protest Wikipedia
Images of Muhammad" story --
http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,328966,00.html -- guess which
image they led with.  Yes: the picture of muhammad.  That's not
responsible journalism; unlike wikipedia, they really *were* trying to
inflame muslims, or at least taking glee in not caring whether they
inflamed them.

The *only* reason the fox reporter didn't mention the
alexandria/wikimania issue -- which opens a whole huge can of worms
from a journalistic perspective -- is because he didn't know about it.
 Fox trims its news staff to the bone; they do very little original
research and mostly just duplicate pre-existing reports with their own
spin.  If he had read the lists, like a couple other reporters do,
then fox news would have been the outlet to break this story.
(Needless to say, that would have been terrible.)

I know basically nothing about egypt, but I really think you ought to
plan for this story getting big instead of counting on it not getting
big, and maybe taking some steps to make sure that the story is framed
the right way -- i.e. *not* as a "free speech vs. religion" story in
the west, and not as a "the arrogant west disrespects us one more
time" story in egypt; both of those framings are totally false and
misleading.  But you're the one who lives in egypt, and you're the one
who knows what the best steps to take might be.  (Someone suggested
that we start an information resource, which seems like a great idea.
It's the one thing wikipedians are better at than anyone else.)

In a nutshell: there's a very easy and convienient framework of
religion vs. free speech and islam vs. the west that not only masks
the actual complexities inside the west and inside islam but also
serves the interests of extremists on both sides.  This way of looking
at the world is very common pretty much everywhere and it's very
important that this story *not* be seen this way.  Indeed, I thought
that part of the point of holding wikimania in egypt was to spread
knowledge and undercut this way of thinking.


Okay.  So I came across this article -- "Egypt Bans Four Foreign
Newspapers Over Republication of Anti-Prophet Cartoon" --

The quote that struck me was this one:

* * *
The re-emergence of the cartoon issue also prompted thousands of
students to demonstrate in the southern conservative university of
Assiut against the insults to Islam's most revered figure.

"Anything but our prophet," students led by their dean and professors
chanted while marching around campus. "Jews, Jews, watch out, the army
of Muhammed will return," they also said.
* * *

It's a little difficult for me to express my emotions reading that.
First: although the newspaper doesn't provide much context, it seems
to indicate that these students think the printings of the cartoons
are somehow organized by, or connected with, a group of jews.  As a
westerner, I can recognize this attitude as astonishing and baffling.

For example, because there are very few jews remaining in western
europe.  And because none of the influential politicians or
entertainers in denmark are jewish.  And because none of the
cartoonists are jewish, and none of the newspaper editors.  Jews, in
fact, seem to have nothing whatsoever to do with this.

Because the cartoons are not connected with judaism in any
conventional way, the fact that the students are bringing up jews
seems to indicate one of several things:

1. The students think jews control the european media.

2. The students think that any perceived insults to their religion
must originate with jews.

3. The students identify anything negative with jews, or are using the
word "jews" as a general purpose pejorative (in the same way that some
french youth use the the word feuj, an inverted form of the french
word for jew, to mean "broken" or "bad" and some american youth use
"gay" to mean "weak" or "corny".)

I'm not religious, but I'm jewish by ethnicity, so reading that made
me feel (apart from wanting to cry, or scream in frustration, or crawl
into a hole somewhere) deeply disillusioned with any egyption

As I said, the newspaper didn't provide much context, so I'm hoping
you can clarify what that protest means in terms of the more general
social climate in egypt.  How different are attitudes in Alexandria
from attitudes in Assiut?  This wikimania was presented as a
cross-cultural sharing of ideas, but if the gulf is this vast, will
wikimania just be held in a foreigner-friendly government-supported
bubble?  It's all very well to have a conference at the library of
alexandria, but I was under the impression that the venue had some
purpose other than symbolism and enjoying the beach.

Ben Yates
Wikipedia blog - http://wikip.blogspot.com

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