'The Voice of a Silent Majority' Muslim Bloggers and Journalists Speak Out

Muslim journalists and bloggers across the Arab world are speaking out to promote civil society and women's rights in Islamic societies. But it is a hard struggle at times, with societal pressure and even fines to contend with.

By Henryk M. Broder

An employee of the news channel Al Jazeera passes by the station's logo in Doha, Qatar. Press freedom is a big issue in many Islamic countries.

An employee of the news channel Al Jazeera passes by the station's logo in Doha, Qatar. Press freedom is a big issue in many Islamic countries.

The first so-called "honor killing" that Rana Husseini wrote about was the case of a 16-year-old girl who was killed by one of her brothers after she had been raped by another brother.

"The family blamed her, saying that she had 'seduced' the brother," Husseini recalls. That was in 1994 and Rana was only into her first few weeks of working as a reporter for the daily English-language newspaper <I>The Jordan Times</I>, where she had originally planned to write about "beautiful things" like art, literature and music.

Born in 1967 as the daughter of Palestinians who had moved from Jerusalem to the Jordanian capital Amman a year earlier, Husseini attended Oklahoma City University, where she studied journalism and art. Back in Jordan, the first lesson she had to learn was that "a woman's life is not worth very much," and that the victims of sex crimes were "always punished twice over."

"I found that unbearable," she says today. She became an expert on honor killings and other family crimes, and has been writing about them for the last 13 years. "There are about 25 cases each year," she says, and the police and courts almost always tend to "value the honor of the family more than the life of the victim."

According to Husseini, the authorities are "part of society." Because it is illegal in Jordan to openly criticize the judiciary or attack judges directly, she writes about the cases from the perspective of the battered woman or abused girl. She visits the families, interviews the perpetrators and researches the context of each case. "The families believe that by committing the act they are putting an end to something," she says. "But in reality they are actually beginning a new chapter in the drama."

Society is very slowly beginning to realize that family crimes are not a question of honor, something to be handled within the family and its shadowy confines, but something "that the entire society must address," Husseini says. She believes that it is her duty to make this clear to her readers. "That is why I write, and that's why I am standing here," Husseini said recently at a conference sponsored by the Rand Corporation in Doha.

Freer than most

Rand, a nonprofit research organization headquartered in Santa Monica, California, is a think tank for more than 600 researchers and academics investigating issues that run the gamut from the political to the social to the economic, with topics as diverse as "civil justice," "population and aging," and "terrorism and homeland security." Freedom of the press in Arab countries is one of those issues.

Al Jazeera is based in the Qatar capital Doha.

Al Jazeera is based in the Qatar capital Doha.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Rand has been seeking partners in the Islamic world as part of an effort to develop a secular and democratic movement to offset religious fundamentalism. It was no accident that the conference took place in Doha, the capital of Qatar, a small and extremely wealthy emirate that sees itself as a force for progress in the Persian Gulf region. Not entirely coincidentally, Doha is also the headquarters of the controversial news channel Al Jazeera.

Although Qatar, independent since 1971, is everything but a model democracy in the Western sense, it is far more progressive than its neighbors. Its constitution, ratified in 2003, guarantees the right to freedom of opinion, freedom of religion and freedom of assembly, an independent judiciary and equality before the law.

There are no parties in Qatar, and instead of a parliament the emirate has an "Advisory Council" consisting of 35 members appointed by the emir. But since the 1999 municipal elections, women have had the right to vote, a privilege their sisters in neighboring Saudi Arabia couldn't even dream about. The wife of the emir does not cover her face and eagerly attends conferences on the subjects of improving education and child-rearing or combating illiteracy.

And yet, despite all the progress and the efforts to achieve greater press freedoms, the representatives of civil, democratic Islam meeting in the Al Maha Room at the Sheraton Doha were a small group -- just two dozen men and women who, like Rana Husseini, want to improve living conditions in their countries through educating the population, criticizing the government and communicating with one another.


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