Arabic Wikipedia: “It’s not controversial for us if [Obama]’s a Muslim or not. We don’t really care.”

by 1389 on February 18, 2014

in 1389 (blog admin), Is Obama a Muslim?, language, wikis

This article is about Wikipedia in the Arabic language.

It is not “Muslim Wikipedia” – or at least, it should not be.

Thus, we distinguish between Arabic (the language), Arab (the ethnic group), the Arabian Peninsula (the geographical region), the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (the political entity), and Islam (the totalitarian ideology). A considerable number of Arabs are Christian; these include some Orthodox Christians. Sadly, on account of the blowback from US foreign policy, many Arab Christians have been forced to flee from the Middle East to take refuge wherever they can find it.

Wired Threat Level has the story:

In the Middle East, Arabic Wikipedia Is a Flashpoint — And a Beacon

AMMAN, Jordan – Rami Tarawneh knew something was wrong when security in a Middle Eastern airport made him wait for three hours. The 36-year-old Jordanian traveled throughout the region often, but this was the first time that mukhabarat, secret police, had pulled him aside with a specific demand: Give us the IP address of a particular Arabic Wikipedia user.

“We know who you are,” the police told Tarawneh. As the founder and highest-ranking administrator of Arabic Wikipedia at the time — 2007 — Tarawneh had access to the IP addresses of every site contributor, including those who wrote controversial statements about Middle Eastern governments. “They wanted to know the IP of a certain guy who wrote something about the country’s leader,” Tarawneh says without mentioning which country or airport he was in.

Arabic Wikipedia has evolved enormously since that 2007 incident. Through it all, Tarawneh has been a steady presence, guiding and cheerleading as Arabic Wikipedia has become an important information resource for the region. Far more than a translation of its English counterpart, the site has 690,000 registered users who’ve authored more than 240,000 articles. Many of the articles reflect a Middle Eastern worldview entirely different from the Western one, and their writers navigate acute religious and political sensitivities. Arabic Wikipedia has been blocked twice in Saudi Arabia and three times in Syria, but not in Jordan or Egypt. The Saudis only blocked certain articles, Tarawneh says, like ones about body parts.

Back in 2007, Tarawneh told the police he needed time to find the IP address on his laptop. Released for two days, he went home and phoned the Wikipedian community. They decided to stage a fake dispute on “Al-Midan,” the Arabic version of Wikipedia’s technical discussion forum, Village Pump. When the police summoned Tarawneh a few days later, he told them that in the wake of the dispute, he’d been removed from administrator status. “I gave them my account and password, but everything was blocked,” Tarawneh says. Unable to extract the IP address they’d wanted, the police released him.

Since then, the Arabic Wikipedia community has changed its policies so that nobody has access to all user information. “It’s very dangerous for a single person to have all the rights,” Tarawneh says. “It’s not a matter of ownership. The kind of access you have is very serious. In the Middle East, you could destroy somebody’s life.”

The airport incident didn’t scare Arabic Wikipedians. “We had a boom of articles after that,” Tarawneh says. “It was like a flare. It was ignited.”

Tarawneh was in Germany earning a PhD in mechatronics when he encountered his first Wikipedia page in 2003. He was blown away. Growing up through the ’70s as the son of a Palestinian refugee, Tarawneh had attended UN-sponsored schools in Zarqa, an industrial city 15 miles out of Amman. He’d had no access to libraries. “I would never write more than four or five lines about anything. There were no books.”

The wealth of knowledge available in the English language Wikipedia was overwhelming. But Tarawneh’s appreciation turned to shock as he drilled into articles about the Arab world. “The content was really horrible,” Tarawneh says. “I saw articles saying people are just living in tents and riding camels – you know, the stereotype.”

Angry at this misrepresentation, Tarawneh contacted one of the English Wikipedia contributors, who told him that Wikipedia is a collaborative work. He hadn’t realized that. “If I find something wrong, I should fix it,” Tarawneh says. “Then the Wikimedia people told me, why not start your own language version?”

Thus began Arabic Wikipedia, at first just a group of about five contributors, all Jordanians studying abroad in Germany. They started with the basics, just writing articles on their hometowns and filling in the skeleton of already existing pages. (“There was one for water,” Tarawneh says. “The title was ma, ‘water’ in Arabic, and the content was just ‘H20.’ Can you imagine?”) By 2005, the community had grown to include Wikipedians from Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Egypt.

Like its counterparts in other languages, Arabic Wikipedia adheres to the ideals and practices of the mother site: Volunteer writers and editors try to remain neutral and unbiased, focusing not on advocacy but on an objective presentation of facts.

New Wikipedians are often drawn to the site to register their views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “It’s the hottest issue, even on Wikipedia,” Tarawneh says. But they stay for the frisson of writing for a global audience, moving quickly from Palestine to a variety of topics, from “Cristiano Ronaldo” and “Facebook” to “Saddam Hussein” and “list of Arab tribes.” “Once they’re hooked, they’re hooked,” Tarawneh says.

The contrast between English and Arabic Wikipedia coverage of Israel and Palestine is revealing.

Take the first sentence of Wikipedia’s “Jerusalem” in English, for example: “Jerusalem, located on a plateau in the Judean mountains between the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea, is one of the oldest cities in the world.” In Arabic: “Jerusalem is the largest city in historical Palestine in terms of area and population, as well as religious and economic importance.” (In Hebrew: “Jerusalem is the capital and largest city of the State of Israel, with over 800,000 inhabitants.”)

Both articles then go on to note the city’s importance to all three Abrahamic faiths, as well as its disputed political significance.

Content differences extend beyond Israeli-Palestinian coverage. The “Barack Obama religion conspiracy theories” page, for example, has no Arabic counterpart. “It’s not controversial for us if he’s a Muslim or not,” Tarawneh says. “We don’t really care.”

At the same time, some users – mostly from Saudi Arabia, Tarawneh says – will veer to the extreme. “We’ve got guys posting on a daily basis saying, ‘The Westerners are infidels. This is Arabic Wikipedia, so it should be Muslim Wikipedia. Why do we have Christians with us?’” When this happens, veteran Wikipedians contact these users one-on-one, telling them why their post is inconsistent with the Wikipedia approach and fixing the offending article in the meantime.

“You can’t just say ‘infidels,’ because that’s an Islamic perspective. We’re not writing an Islamic text here,” Tarawneh says. “We’d say ‘non-Muslims’ instead, or whatever – if he’s Hindu, we would say Hindu.”

In the early days of the project, the process of chatting with every problematic user was excruciating, Tarawneh says, but the community couldn’t afford to skip it. With less than 20 volunteers dedicated to Arabic Wikipedia back in 2005, the members were determined to recruit new Wikipedians. “Whenever we had a chance to grab somebody, we just grabbed him,” Tarawneh says. “It was like, I know you are a bad user, but we can fix you. Please just stay, don’t go. We needed a community.”

Tarawneh’s wife chafed at the amount of time he spent on the site, sometimes 32 hours in a row, chatting about objectivity and other policies with one user after another. But she came around once Arabic Wikipedia caught on. “I was explaining to her that it’s not for us,” Tarawneh says. ”It’s for the Arab world, for the Middle East. It’s even more important than me. It’s an idea.”

Tarawneh’s eyes light up as he flicks through the history sections now available on Arabic Wikipedia – the Fatimids, the Abbasids, all the possible caliphates and periods a fourth grader might have to cover in class. “Now I know that a kid in the south of Jordan can access all the content for his syllabus,” Tarawneh says. “Anything he needs, you would find it on Wikipedia.”

The idea of freely available knowledge is at once intoxicating and dangerous. It attracts a dedicated cadre of what Tarawneh calls full-time Wikipedians, those who check in every day and give hours at a time to the site. It also draws resistance from regimes that see information as a threat.

When the site gets blocked, admins have two options: First, wait and see what happens. “It’s not very smart in the Middle East to go head-to-head with a government,” Tarawneh says. “You lose.” Second, ask for help from someone who knows someone behind the scenes. “That’s how they unblocked Wikipedia in Syria – through wasta, connections,” Tarawneh says. “This is the Arab world. It doesn’t work by laws. You just know people.”
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We encourage Arabic-speaking Christians to contribute their perspective to Arabic Wikipedia.

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