middle east, muslims, politics

The Meaning of “Mecca_live”

Published by The Islamic Monthly on August 6th, 2015

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia isn’t exactly known for its openness. The powerful Saudi monarchy, which exercise significant regional and global influence, are heads of a state that has yet to address a number of critical human rights problems afflicting its society, and thus drawing criticism the world over. Saudi Arabia has long been a natural point of reference for those concerned with the implementation unreasonably punitive practices in the modern world.

Yet, in an ironic twist, the kingdom was involved a rather unlikely event this July when Snapchat, the popular online video-sharing platform, decided to focus their popular “Live Story” feature on the city of Mecca, Islam’s most important and holiest geographical site. Since its introduction last year, the feature splices together users’ submitted videos of a particular place into a single video comprised of the best footage. The Mecca “Live Story” video showed Muslims of all backgrounds inside Mecca at various stages of their visit, providing a rare glimpse of what actually happens inside the city to non-Muslims, who cannot enter.

The subsequent online response to Snapchat’s decision was significant and overwhelmingly positive. For a brief while, Saudi Arabia’s reputation as a stagnant theocracy was eclipsed by the prevailing sensation that used video and social media to narrate lived Islam into many people’s consciousness. That this act of online openness occurred inside a monarchy known, among other things, for not allowing women to drive, illuminates the dislocations between Saudi Arabia’s image and its actual reality.

Things become a lot clearer when one sees that Snapchat’s decision to feature Mecca was prompted primarily by a huge online campaign that essentially lobbied the social media giant to feature Islam’s holiest city. The campaign took place during Ramadan, when millions of worshippers flock to Mecca to perform Umrah, which is similar to the Hajj pilgrimage, but can be made anytime of the year. 300,000 people tweeted Snapchat with the hashtag “Mecca_live” in an effort to have Mecca featured on “Live Story.” Millions of Muslims and non-Muslims then tweeted their appreciation to Snapchat afterwards, thanking the video platform for essentially live-streaming the joyous atmosphere inside the city.

Ahmed’s Attempt

Like most campaigns and initiatives, the idea to launch something special usually starts within the mind of an individual. This seems especially true for online campaigns involving social media, and the “Mecca_live” sensation is a good example. Enter Ahmed Aljbreen, a young Saudi digital entrepreneur and founder of Smaat Co., one of the country’s largest social media marketing companies. Days into Ramadan 2015, he had a wild thought that, as it turns out, wasn’t all that wild after all.

“The whole thing really began when I though that we need to convey that Islam is a peaceful religion to the younger generation,” Aljbreen says in an interview. “I think that Snapchat is the best medium to reach out to them anywhere in the world.” He says that the onus is now on Muslims, especially the youth who’re familiar with social media, to help reduce the world’s confusions and misconceptions of Islam.

Indeed, the day-to-day news cycle seems filled with reports of groups like ISIS, along with acts of political violence and turmoil involving Muslims—a mainstay of “national security reporting” in the post-9/11 era. Yet the advent of this kind of reporting hasn’t led to a better understanding of Muslims, and certainly not of Islam itself. If anything, many people have come to to link Islam with violence with limited critical inquiry, having been bombarded with reports that directly or indirectly feature Islam as a willing partner of ideological violence. This is despite the fact that Muslims account for only a fraction of terrorism across the world when it comes to the body count.

This gulf in perception is what Aljbreen, a businessman in the world of digital media, is so well placed to address.

After the initial thought, he decided to reach out to his contacts in the region’s social media scene, hoping to get them on board to convince Snapchat to feature Mecca on the 27th day of Ramadan (July 13th, 2015), which many believe to be Lailat al-Qadr, the day when the Prophet Muhammad received his first revelations from God. He expected to get a sizeable reaction, but not a full-blown global response, which was what ensued. Snapchat eventually responded by posting a 6-minute video of spliced videos on July 13th.

“I was surprised about how big the campaign ballooned,” Aljbreen says. “Muslims from Pakistan, Indonesia and everywhere ended up participating.”

Equally surprising to him has been the response by people around the world who saw the “Mecca_live” video. He says that before long, “Mecca_live” was trending at #1 on Twitter, and the total views of the clip have reached over 10 million, “by far.”

“The big lesson here is that we can do it again,” Aljbreen says, “and we are looking to repeat this duing hajj.” Whether he succeeds in creating another global social media phenomenon is debatable, but what Aljbreen helped pull off illuminates a broader picture of what’s happening across the region in terms of how media is being used. The Arab Spring unfolded for many through the lens of outlets like Twitter and Facebook, and a new generation of saavy individuals like Aljbreen is starting to use these tools to change the how their country, religion, and lives are being perceived on a global level.

Changing Imagery

Aljbreen’s parents wasn’t thrilled at all when he decided to leave his job as a communications engineer in order to start his own digital media company, Smaat around five years ago. Social media as a marketing tool was still a somewhat novel idea in Saudi Arabia at the time, and Aljbreen would become one of the first entrepreneurs to test the waters.

“They didn’t support my venture when I first started the business, especially since we were the first company in the regional market to focus on social media marketing campaigns,” he says. “But they changed their minds when they saw my success and at least they get to follow me on social media now to keep an eye on me.”

His company has since done digital marketing for some major regional companies, and the success of “Mecca_live” has significantly reinforced Aljbreen’s belief in social media’s power to change global perceptions. He says that videos like “Mecca_live” are “thousands of times” more powerful and influential in terms of the effect they have on viewers, and that videos produced by major corporate media outlets just don’t come off as persuasive and authentic.

He also notes that Snapchat is probably the best medium when it comes to reaching large numbers of people with a single message. The world has moved from being print-based to being image-based, and is now arguably much more video-based than anything else. The “Mecca_live” video showed Muslims of different backgrounds in ways that humanized them, which is the clip’s implicit purpose. It counters over a decade of imagery associating Muslims with violence and deviance. If fear is the underlying meta-narrative that underpins the post-9/11 era, then the “Mecca_live” video is certainly one of humanization.

One video is certainly not enough to change years entrenched perceptions, but it’s a start. In fact, Aljbreen claims that around 20,000 people have embraced Islam as their religion after seeing the video.

That Saudi Arabia played host in many ways to the “Mecca_live” phenomenon begs the question of whether the state had anything to do with the entire episode. When the question was put to Aljbreen, he replied simply by saying that “It [“Mecca_Live”] was a community-driven initiative.”

Regardless, the power of social media to effect social change in a way that alters global perceptions is certainly a potential that the Saudi Arabian government is aware of. Despite the great opening up that Aljbreen initiated, the irony is that the country within which he lives and where the holy city of Mecca is located in, has some of the more draconian media laws on earth.

Reporters Without Borders ranks Saudi Arabia at 164th out of 180 countries in their 2015 World Press Freedom Index. The country has virtually complete control over the press, though reported news and views can be found online. Still, Internet news-making it is closely monitored by the regime, and Reporters Without Borders lists the Saudi state as an “Enemy of the Internet.”

This is the political backdrop that Aljbreen’s generation is working with, and whether his optimism in terms of using social media to change international attitudes can carry over to effect his own country’s circumstances is at best debatable. Nonetheless, “Mecca_live” is further proof that a new generation of online-saavy Muslims, many who reside within societies with minimal personal freedoms, are beginning to effect global reality by changing global perceptions. In which direction this generational change will develop is really anyone’s guess.

Photo credit: Praying at Arafat by Omar Chatriwala/CC

[http://theislamicmonthly.com/the-meaning-of-mecca_live/]

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middle east, muslims, politics

Canada’s foreign policy: Business before human rights

Published on March 18th, 2014 by Al Jazeera English

The latest arms deal between Canada and Saudi Arabia exposes the ideological hypocrisy that underpins the Canadian Conservative Party’s present foreign and trade policy.

The Ontario-based General Dynamics Land Systems (a subsidiary of the Virginia-based aerospace and defence company, General Dynamics) outbid Germany and France to win a US$10m deal to export military hardware to Saudi Arabia, with a poor human rights record.

edfast

The deal is the largest of its kind in Canadian history, and was announced by Trade Minister Ed Fast this past February. Fast portrayed the deal as a triumph of effective diplomacy that will generate thousands of jobs for Canadians. The agreement is also meant to fulfil Canada’s “Global Markets Action Plan,” which aims to extract commercial and economic benefits from Canada’s international relationships. Concerns with respect to Saudi Arabia’s human rights have largely gone unaddressed by Canadian Tory officials.

Toronto Star editorial from February notes that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government “rarely shrinks from bemoaning the state of the world”. This is especially accurate with regards to the administration’s stances vis-a-vis the Middle East. Yet when it comes to doing business, Prime Minister Harper and Foreign Minister John Baird, among others, have time and time again demonstrated a willingness to suspend their artificial affinity to principle.

Money comes first

As Canadian writer and journalist Derrick O’Keefe notes, for all the Conservatives’ talk about free market ideology, “the Saudi deal confirms that the Conservatives […] do believe in industrial strategy and government intervention in the economy – at least when military hardware and arms, or bitumen, are involved.”

Both the Canadians and the Saudis refuse to reveal the specifics of the deal, but GLDS is famous for manufacturing the LAV III armoured vehicles used by Canada in Afghanistan, as well as the Stryker armoured vehicles used by the United States. US$10m can buy hundreds of such vehicles.

The deal was announced shortly after Postmedia News, a prominent Canadian wire service, reported that the Tories have planned to help the Canadian arms industry through “hard times” by looking for more international buyers of Canadian military equipment.

It’s long been revealed that Saudi Arabia’s forces have previously used military hardware from General Dynamics to crush dissent in the Gulf region. In March 2011, Saudi forces rolled into Bahrain with armoured vehicles made by General Dynamics to help suppress a growing protest movement. Inspired by the “Arab Spring” in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere, the mostly peaceful protests were violently crushed.

The Harper government didn’t say much, and maintained its silence even when it was revealed that a Canadian citizen, Naser al-Raas, was tortured for over 30 days for taking part in the protests. Raas was finally assisted by Canadian consular services and released, but still seeks justice for the inhumane treatment he received.

When FM Baird visited Bahrain around two years later in April 2013, he made sure not to publically denounce what happened in 2011. So for all of the Harper regime’s rhetoric on its clear and principled stance regarding international human rights, the record shows that for Canada, business and money come first.

The exercise of silence

Of course, the Harper administration’s human rights hypocrisy doesn’t start or end with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Similar to Human Rights Watch’s recent (though in keeping with a long and unfortunate tradition) denunciation of Saudi Arabia in its 2014 report, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has reportedEgypt as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists to report from/in.

A military regime, the current Egyptian government has essentially put freedom of the press on trial. The primary manifestation of this chilling development is the arrest and detention of 20 Al Jazeera journalists who have been branded enemies of the Egyptian state. According to state prosecutors, the journalistsattempted “to weaken the state’s status, harming the national interest of the country, disturbing public security, instilling fear among the people, causing damage to the public interest.”

Among the detained and charged is Canadian citizen Mohamed Fahmy, who, along with his colleagues, was captured late last December. Since then, he has suffered through solitary confinement and was only recently dumped into a lower security prison. Of course, Fahmy and his colleagues have pleaded not guilty to the Egyptian state’s charges.

So what does Harper and his party colleagues have to say about all this? On his first trip to Israel, Harper congratulated Egypt’s “return to stability” under the auspices of Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has become de facto ruler of Egypt.

Editorials and op-eds from across the political spectrum in Canada have called for more action on the part of Harper’s government. The Australian government has advocated for the release of its citizen, Peter Greste (though some saynot enough), also an Al Jazeera journalist. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay has called for the “prompt release” of all those captured.

Even President Barack Obama has put out a statementcondemning Egypt’s abysmal devolution into journalist purgatory. And yet, so far, the Harper administration has shown itself capable only of mere platitudes regarding “consular services.”

Lecturing the world

It’s important to note, then, that just like every other governing political party or administration, Harper and his Conservatives operate with an ideological agenda in mind when it comes to foreign policy. This means that their selective condemnation of human rights abuses around the world is done on a strategic basis (or so they seem to think).

Sure, Baird had no problem condemning the blasts that killed four people in Beirut this past January. Harper also had no trouble expressing his disapproval of the bombings in Iraq that killed 37 people last Christmas. All this is well and good, but observers inside and outside of Canada would do well to treat the Harper administration’s self-proclaimed commitment to clear-cut and “principled foreign policy” with a substantial dose of scepticism.

There’s truly no shortage of speechifying by high-level Tory officials when it comes to proclaiming how principled the Conservative administration is with regards to human rights issues. Baird has, by now, lectured the rest of the world on the matter several times.

But his speeches, in front of the United Nations to “defend” the state of Israel, provide the best window for those who care to look, beyond the rhetoric, at Canada’s true stance on human rights.

It’s not a secret that numerous human rights organisations have condemned Israel for its treatment of Palestinians, both inside and outside of Israel. But for reasons of ideology and politics, Harper and his Conservatives, much like those who came before them, don’t really care.

 

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