In a country where people were once tortured or killed for simply saying the wrong thing to the wrong person, people are now surfing the internet, sending e-mail, and running their own political blogs. Iraqis are experiencing the internet – the last place on this earth where we still have real freedom of speech. . . . for now.
You’ll have to wade through the New York Times incessant pessimism and anti-war bias, but it’s good to see Iraqis enjoying some new freedoms.
On a recent rainy afternoon, Ahmad Nader Ali sat in a booth at the ShreifiNet Cafe, sending instant messages to his brother who lives in Finland on one screen window and his fiancÃ©e, Nour, on another. A tiny Web camera sat atop the computer, beaming live images of him to Nour’s home screen across Baghdad.
“Because of the situation, I’m not able to go and see her often,” said Mr. Ali, a confident 20-year-old with slicked-back hair who runs a men’s clothing store. “Everybody does it like this.”
Nearby, partially hidden by wood-paneled booths, were a dozen other young men staring intently at their screens, most chatting simultaneously on three or four different e-mail accounts. All of them were paying 1,500 dinars an hour â€” about a dollar â€” to escape the gray confines of Baghdad’s blasted walls for a while. Two heavyset men sat on a black faux-leather couch by the door, keeping a watchful eye on the street.
Three years ago, the Internet was virtually unknown in Iraq. Today, Baghdad has dozens of Internet cafes like ShreifiNet, which consists of three sparely decorated rooms with a total of 34 computers and a satellite dish on the roof. Most of the cafes also transmit wireless services to home Internet users in the surrounding area for a monthly fee; in parts of central Baghdad there are about 20 overlapping wireless networks.
The universal hunger to get online has made computer and Web services one of the few bright spots in Iraq’s stagnant economy. On Sinaa Street, the two-lane thoroughfare in central Baghdad lined with computer and software stores, business is brisk. Companies that install wireless networks and satellite dishes are also thriving, despite the irritation caused by frequent power failures. So are many Internet cafes.
“I have to work to persuade people to come to my clothes shop,” Mr. Ali said. “But you don’t need to advertise to tempt customers to come in here.”
Few people on earth have more incentive to communicate online (and indoors) than Iraqis, who risk their lives every time they go out for a quart of milk. The Internet can also be a way to get around the rising Islamization of everyday life. Young people caught flirting on the street even in Baghdad are sometimes chastised or even beaten by self-proclaimed Islamists, but no one can stop them on the Web. “If you look at the chat rooms, it is mostly young guys and girls,” Mr. Ali said.
Unfortunately, anywhere there is Islam, there will be human rights abuses and a loss of freedom. Let’s hope, in this case, the Iraqis’ new government will be able to protect them from the radical Islamists.