Saturday, May 18, 2013

Islam, the internet and privacy-Dissidence and discretion

FOR young people of Muslim heritage, the internet can either be a deadly temptation or a breath of fresh air. At worst, for some frustrated kids with time on their hands, it opens a window into a world of extremism where all moderating influences from real life (parents, teachers, imams) can be cast aside.

For other Muslim kids, however, the web seems to offer an escape of a healthier kind. As a counterpoint to a real-world existence where they are obliged to think, pray and behave by hard-and-fast rules, the net can bring them into a modern or post-modern realm where many different ideas and cultural styles can be questioned, discussed, discarded or combined. That was the experience of Amir Ahmad Nasr, a young writer and entrepreneur of Sudanese origin who was one of the participants in this year’s Oslo Freedom Forum (OFF), an annual human-rights festival that attracts brave and enterprising opponents of despotism from all over the world.  At this year’s forum, the opportunities and perils of the net, and how to keep legitimate private communications safe, were much on people’s minds.

Back to Mr Nasr for a second. His own white-knuckle journey through ideological cyber-space is neatly encapsulated in the title of a book he has just written: "My Isl@m: How Fundamentalism Stole My Mind—and Doubt Freed My Soul.” Not only did his surfings take him on a circuitous mind journey of his own, from conventional Islam to atheism to a sort of freewheeling Sufism. He also used the web to encourage lots of his young compatriots, whether in Sudan or in the diaspora, to explore new ways of thinking about their country, the universe and everything else. This was done through a blog called the “Sudanese Thinker” which he wound down in late 2012, having revealed his real name a year earlier.

As Mr Nasr acknowledges, there are times when he wants his pronouncements to be as public as possible, and other times when he needs to keep his communications private. It is, of course, comparatively safe to be an anonymous “Sudanese thinker” when you live, as he he does, in the Asia-Pacific region, thousands of miles away from the homeland. But he takes web-security advice and assumes that, despite his best efforts, most of his private e-mails are being read. Many of his compatriots back home are less sophisticated, and more vulnerable. A wave of arrests in Khartoum last summer was probably made easier by poor cyber-security.  All the authorities needed to do was get hold of a few e-mail passwords; that would have enabled them to see inside lots of digital inboxes and get an idea of who was promoting subversive ideas.

To protect his compatriots from their own impulsiveness, Mr Nasr strongly hesitates to start an e-conversation on a sensitive religious or political topic with a person living in Sudan, though he will reply if somebody else starts the chat.  One topic that is particularly risky for open-minded young Muslim Sudanese to discuss frankly in their e-conversations is secularism: the idea that the state should be religiously neutral. (Ironically, secularism is entirely consistent with devout adherence to Islam; but for those who believe in explicitly Islamic governance and law, the word is anathema.) Any Khartoum-based believer in secular principles would be well advised to keep his communications as private as possible.

In a previous generation, dissidents testing the limits of thought and speech in authoritarian countries used to beg their friends in freer places for printing presses; then it was laptops; now the mostly badly needed thing may be help with keeping their musings private when they want to.  “Our community of human-rights activists are infants in this field,” says Thor Halvorssen, the founder of the OFF.  "A government can easily shop around for software to snoop on its opponents, but it is harder for those opponents to protect themselves."

Just to prove the point, an Angolan corruption-fighter attending the Oslo forum, Rafael Marques de Morais, had his laptop inspected by Jacob Appelbaum, a fellow participant in the OFF who knows a lot about cyber-security and likes to help dissidents. His diagnosis? The PC had been infected with specially designed malware, resistant to most firewalls, that was taking snapshots of his screen every few seconds. Whether the preferred topic is malpractice in high places or new interpretations of Islam, any blogger subjected to that degree of surveillance would be well advised to mind what he types.

Not that anybody raised in the hazardous world of dissident politics in the Middle East expects to keep communications private. Ahmed Benchemsi, a veteran blogger from Morocco, says he was brought up to assume that all the family's telephone conversations were intercepted, even banal discussions about forthcoming weddings. But there were moments in his journalistic activities when he would have liked a degree of privacy to protect his interlocutors.

In the end, as one participant in the forum quipped, there are times when the ancient search for philosophical truth and the modern concern of cyber-security seem to converge. That remark came from Lobsang Sangay, the prime minister-in-exile of Tibet. When using his PC, he said, he reminds himself of the need to avoid opening strange attachments which may contain deadly viruses or spying software. He does so by recalling one of the fundamental principles of Buddhism: non-attachment.The Economist

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