The role played by hired trolls such as these was to ferret out any expression of opinion that ran contrary to their beliefs and then to come down on the author like a ton of bricks in the form of dozens – if not hundreds – of comments.

Most of the time, these comments took the form of invented accusations and bizarre lies about the private lives of the authors. Sometimes, the author's father was accused of having committed war crimes; sometimes, the author's mother was accused of being a dancer in a house of ill-repute. No lie was too crude or too improbable to be put out there, as long as the reputation of the person who had the brass neck to write a text from an innovative angle was dragged through the mud.

"Curtailing freedom of opinion is commensurate with the curtailing of freedom of thought"

In an article entitled "Islam, Freedom, Creativity – free access to rights, yes, but not a free pass for excess", the Islamic scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi wrote about freedom of speech and criticism: "Islam grants the freedom to speak and to criticise, indeed it has transformed it into something that goes beyond freedom. After all, it has raised speech and criticism – when it is for the good of the umma, for the good of morality – to an obligation."

As already indicated in the title of the article, there is a freedom that leads to excess. Such excess is seen as reprehensible. Criticism is subject to the condition that it must be for the good of the umma (i.e. the community of Muslims). What is the definition of this good? And what exactly constitutes the umma? And why the umma and not the state? They are all nothing but empty catchwords.

Egyptian journalists demonstrate in Cairo (photo: picture-alliance/ZUMAPRESS/A. Sayed)
Clipping the wings of thought, imagination and creativity: "in an age of inefficiency, this societal juggernaut is highly efficient in its muzzling of imagination. In Arab societies, only the banal and the superficial are celebrated and cheered, things that do not seriously deal with big ideas," laments Khamissi

Tens – if not hundreds – of thousands of online comments have been written along the lines of articles such as the one mentioned above. Only today, for example, I came across the following below-the-line comments and questions beneath an article that dared to break new ground. These comments and questions were written by normal people without any links to politics:

Are you an expert in this field?

You are quite obviously an attention-seeker.

Are you being paid by foreign backers?

Do you despise Islam?

You are calling into question the deeply rooted values of society.

What you write is a threat to national security.

Have you any concrete alternatives to offer or are you just criticising for the sake of it?

Have you any practical solutions that can be implemented?

What are your sources?

Are you a racist?

Are you an atheist?

Many use the term "agenda", which has become a real buzzword over the last ten years. It is often used in sentences like: you are following a foreign agenda. Or: What is your agenda?

This is a pre-prepared toolkit of sentences and questions, the purpose of which is to fetter the imagination of anybody who writes and to prevent them from publishing any fresh ideas.

In an age of inefficiency, this societal juggernaut is highly efficient in its muzzling of imagination. It also reminds me of Kant, who said that curtailing freedom of opinion is commensurate with curtailing freedom of thought.

The key to understanding the regrettable situation in which Arab societies find themselves lies in being aware of how everyone in the Arab world keeps colliding with iron boundaries and how their wings of imagination, thought and creativity are clipped.

In Arab societies, only the banal and the superficial are celebrated and cheered, things that do not seriously deal with big ideas. And while texts that spread fake news flourish, the dream of progress dies.

Khaled al-Khamissi

© Qantara.de 2020

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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