When it comes to online freedoms around the world, no region has been the subject of more recent scrutiny than has the Middle East.
As the Internet connects more people to one another, religious tensions have become more sensitive than ever before. In some Muslim-majority countries, conservative governments have seized on online censorship as a way to restrict citizens’ access to global ideas and materials.
But Islam itself is not to blame for this phenomenon. Authors of a recent Freedom House study found that religion and censorship are not so closely linked -- instead, political and developmental differences may be to blame.
All across the Middle East, the Internet in general and the World Wide Web in particular have recently caused massive changes in a few divergent ways.
In 2010 and 2011, it helped young activists spread information and build bridges between networks, eventually spurring the Arab Spring revolutions that overturned oppressive governments in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and Yemen.
In terms of expanding global freedoms, this was a positive outcome -- but it had some detrimental effects. Some governments that were not overthrown, like those of Bahrain and Pakistan, clamped down on Internet freedoms in an effort to prevent further dissent.
Things took a turn for the worse in September, when a YouTube clip produced in the U.S. was dubbed in Arabic and went viral. The video, called "Innocence of Muslims," portrayed Islam's Prophet Muhammad as a buffoon and sexual deviant. Demonstrations erupted in countries as diverse as Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. Dozens died as a result of the protests.
Several Muslim-majority countries banned the film on YouTube, including Egypt, Iran, Libya, and Saudi Arabia. Some governments cited a wish to prevent further violence; others objected to the production’s blasphemous nature.
The episode cast fresh doubts on the potential of the Internet to bridge cultures across borders -- especially in conservative Muslim states in the Middle East.
In an attempt to uncover the various reasons -- and ways -- that countries clamp down on Internet freedoms, the U.S.-based watchdog Freedom House investigated the issue in 47 nations and released a study of its findings this year.
Employing a number of factors ranging from blogger arrests to politically motivated website blockades, the study ranked each country according to its degree of online freedom.
And, as it happens, Islamic countries do not stand out for their degree of censorship.
Iran, the worst country in terms of online freedom, is indeed mostly Muslim. But the second-worst, Cuba, is mostly Christian. And the third-worst, China, has no nominal major religion.
The next two least-free nations are majority-Muslim: Syria and Uzbekistan. But then comes majority-Christian Ethiopia, followed by two countries with Buddhist pluralities: Myanmar and Vietnam.
Looking at the list more broadly, it is admittedly clear that Middle Eastern states tend to be closer to the bottom, whereas Western ones tend to be nearer the top. (The three countries with the most open online policies are Estonia, the U.S., and Germany, in that order.) But it is also clear that the correlation between Islam and increased censorship is tenuous at best.
The Long View
If religious conservatism is not primarily to blame for the proscription of online freedom, what is?
In the Freedom House report, politics and technology emerge as the most identifiable culprits.
Technology works in two ways. It can connect more people and open up the lines of communication, but it can also make it easy for authorities to exert control in sneakier ways. In the past, for instance, an objectionable site may have been simply blocked. Now, government propaganda can masquerade as fact. Users can be surreptitiously tracked as they peruse the Web. Mobile technologies enable security forces to pinpoint activists’ exact locations.
And then there is politics, which has an obvious correlation to censorship. According to Freedom House, countries with the lower freedom ratings were those where “authorities sought to quell public calls for reform.” That certainly happened quite a bit in the Middle East during the past year, but it also occurred in places such as Russia, Myanmar, and China.
Nonetheless, “14 countries registered a positive trajectory,” including Muslim-majority countries such as Libya and Tunisia, where democracy was introduced for the first time in decades.
Success stories aside, the Freedom on the Net 2012 report on worldwide censorship is not favorable overall. Key trends include more bloggers being arrested, more online activists getting physically assaulted, more paid commentators disseminating pro-government propaganda, and higher frequencies of governmental surveillance.
Those who would seek to resist these trends should look not to any particular religion, but to the political realities and technological tools that motivate and enable governmental censorship.