Opinion | Columnists

McCarthyism in Gulf social media

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi writes: People should realise the risks of long-term damage that petty accusations may cause, not only to individuals but also to the fabric of society

  • By Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, Special to Gulf News
  • Published: 22:26 April 24, 2011
  • Gulf News

Protesters from Tunisia’s poor rural heartlands chant slogan outside the prime minister’s office
  • Image Credit: AFP
  • The significance of satellite TV and social media network cannot be stressed enough — it literarily inflamed Tunisia (pictured), where an uprising against the government ousted the president. From there, anti-government protests spread in Egypt, Yemen and the rest of the region.

Post-Second World War America was a period of economic growth and prosperity for many citizens but it was also a dark period in which a powerful US Senator by the name of Joseph McCarthy initiated a process of publicly accusing individuals of harbouring communist tendencies without regard for evidence.

McCarthyism, as it became known, involved character assassinations, accusations of treason and a media campaign against thousands of Americans many of whom lost their jobs and saw their careers end. Some even lost their lives. McCarthyism ended with a series of court decisions although many of its repercussions continue to reverberate to this day.

In the Gulf over the past few weeks, social media has been used as a tool to debate the Arab Spring of 2011 as well as to foster the unprecedented political activism that has emerged in what have been largely politics-deprived societies.

Naturally, there were varying opinions from pundits and observers alike. The Gulf youth have, within a period of a few short weeks, been more politicised and polarised than in the past few decades combined. But some online conversations have clearly been progressing towards a worrying direction, labelling those that social networkers disagree with politically as ‘traitors.'

A Facebook group I was added to recently reflected this trend; it included pictures of individuals, some of whom I recognised, others unknown to me, all with the word ‘traitors' under it in Arabic. The administrator of the page goes as far as to ask members to attack those ‘traitors' on their personal Facebook pages ‘under every comment.'

Discrediting others

On Twitter, a common response I receive after posting a news item about Gulf individuals who were called in for questioning or have been dismissed from work for their political activity is the phrase ‘the traitors deserve it.' Comments such as ‘this person's family isn't even pure nationals' are also common.

The Gulf has suffered from a sort of McCarthyism before; takfir or the labelling of the other as infidels and heretics was an easy way of discrediting others. As a result, only voices from extreme elements in society were heard. Labelling those we disagree with as traitors is for me one step below Takfirism. It is the easy way out of holding an intelligent conversation.

There is no single shade that we can use to colour the Gulf. Diversity of opinion is what makes thoughts and ideas in society flourish. It is not possible for us all to share the exact same opinion and, therefore, intelligent and informed debate must take precedence over the primitive act of hurling accusations. These extreme reactions may prove to be a bad omen and even a self-fulfilling prophecy.

They reflect the fact that in the Gulf there is no official channel for debate that is tolerant even when the three ‘untouchables' of God, Country and Leader are off the topic. This also shows that many Gulf citizens are unable to debate topics that are sensitive and polarising without resorting to personalising the matter. When I started writing Op-Eds years ago I would often receive critical e-mails and would reply asking the senders to forward their criticism to the comments page editor for them to be published. Those who take the time to read my Op-Eds and articulate a well-founded reply deserve to be heard just like I was. Ultimately, a culture of disagreement leading to intelligent debate in the Gulf must be nurtured and not discouraged.

Monopoly on wisdom

The accusation of treason is the most serious civil offence a person can be labelled with. It is only for the courts to decide who has committed such a heinous act. This is not a matter to be left for social networking sites and the blogosphere. We may disagree with these individuals; it is our right to do so as it is their right to disagree with us. If we believe that they are wrong it should only be through dialogue that we settle the matter. And if the accusations are indeed serious it should be left to official channels and transparent courts.

The renowned Islamic jurist Imam Al Shafei said more than a thousand years ago: "My opinion is right but it could possibly be wrong. Your opinion is wrong but it could possibly be right." No one has exclusivity over what's right and what isn't, and certainly no one has a monopoly on wisdom.

The petty accusations are distracting us from meeting the real common challenges that Gulf citizens need to be concentrating on today, both external and internal.

It's taking America decades to reform the damage that Senator McCarthy did to the system. Gulf nationals should realise the risks of long-term damage that such accusations may cause, not only to these individuals, their careers and families, but also to the fabric of Gulf society.

Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi is a non-resident fellow at the Dubai School of Government. You can follow him at www.twitter.com/SultanAlQassemi.

Comments (10)

  1. Added 19:09 April 25, 2011

    Social Media removes the common inhibitions that suppress people's normal everyday interactions. It lulls users into a state of false courage so their deepest truths emerge. Unfortunately that secret self is often ignorant, bigoted or terrified of any reflexive questioning. In spite of the hate-mongering and the name-calling I still see this as a positive. For too long we as collective GCC societies have avoided painful truths; let's bring all this confusion out into the open, into the light, and examine it in its most honest form.

    Alanoud AlSharekh, Kuwait, Kuwait

  2. Added 18:44 April 25, 2011

    I believe we are living at a time of dirty warfare. Where people are weaving a seamless blend of fact and fiction in order to hide the truth. It's basically a misperception strategy.

    Raed, Manama , Bahrain

  3. Added 17:41 April 25, 2011

    Important article: well written! respect for diversity of opinion is hard won and easily lost, as we saw in the US in the lead up to the second Iraq war, when anyone who disagreed got shouted down as unpatriotic. Even the great and normally liberal New York Times became cautious and uncritical, to the extent that is admitted these errors years later, in 2010, if I remember rightly.

    Anna Somers Cocks, London, United Kingdom

  4. Added 17:33 April 25, 2011

    A very relevant article. The slickly made movie 'Good Night, and Good Luck' shows how Joseph McCarthy was brought down by two CBS Journalists. The power of the pen (or the keypad to be more relevant) cannot be underestimated. Time to get inspired!

    Amena, RAK, United Arab Emirates

  5. Added 11:50 April 25, 2011

    Very well presented and essential thinking that must be promoted in our gulf states in order to avoid further bisecting to our societies. I hope your writings and similar voices are heared and supported by our educational and media institutions. God bless you.

    Saleh Yaseen, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

  6. Added 11:13 April 25, 2011

    "Ultimately, a culture of disagreement leading to intelligent debate in the Gulf must be nurtured and not discouraged." That statement resounds with this reporter who has recently received a barrage of "hate tweets" in response to an article about Iran's involvement in the Arab Gulf. Like yourself, I appreciate and value responses of readers, regardless of how they received the information I present in my pieces. Unfortunately, most just read the headline and then make assumptions which result in wild accusations, character assassinations and attempts to discredit the writer. Thank you for writing this piece and all of the amazing work you have done to share information with a world hungry for truth.

    Liliane Khalil, Cairo, Egypt

  7. Added 10:47 April 25, 2011

    Excellent Report. Very Mind Boggling! I personally believe that Social Media has been used politically to change our world...still don't know if it was for the best or for the worst! I would have liked to see change in a more subtle natural way rather than abrubptly. things went out of control and flared up into a chaos and mass confusion, distress, and enmosity left and right! Revolutions in the modern times should be done in an intellectual and diplomatic manner, and only if it is in a super unjust dictatorial regime ...not in any gulf country where peace and justice more or less reign...if there are any underground issues ...in a peaceful gulf country...it should have been resolved diplomatically...otherwise..social media inciting uprisals and demonstrations are far more damaging than silence ! Wish i was a politician to put my thoughts in a more proffessional manner!

    Mona Al-Assaad, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

  8. Added 10:33 April 25, 2011

    Sultan as always, Brilliant article and i must say that im impressed with your knowledge about the history in the western world. I salute you my friend, i wish there were more Muslims and human beings like you.

    Rommel, SFO, United States

  9. Added 00:44 April 25, 2011

    An excellent well written constructive article Sultan..thank you for sharing your thoughts with us as while reading it I was rather impressed with the content your presented. Keep up the good work and I look forward to your next article.

    Tarek Khotat, Amman, Jordan

  10. Added 00:10 April 25, 2011

    Obviously, I don't know what is appearing in Arabic. But accepting everything said here as so, isn't this as much a function of the medium? Comments on blogs, social media in the US are only the slightest, tiniest smidgen of a bit more elevated than what you're describing.

    Wendell, Dallas , United States

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