Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Month: March 2010 (page 1 of 3)

Discovering New Places

Authenticity keeps coming up in conversations. First it was the white people and dreadlocks conversation, followed by one about manufactured authenticity via cappuccino. In that same post, David says, “I find that for most tourists nothing is more important than seeking out the “authentic” of where they are.”

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to discover a new place. More to the point, I’ve been wondering where the quest for authenticity begins, and in what contexts we apply it. When I travel to Providence, Rhode Island, about 45 minutes away, do I seek authenticity in my experience? Unlikely, unless the authenticity that I seek comes in a bowl of clam chowder or a Newport Storm. Even when I travel across the country–my country–“authenticity” is rarely part of the equation. When we travel to foreign countries, however, many of us seem intent on experiencing life “like the locals,” yet we find utterly bizarre ways of doing so: we look for things “off the beaten [tourist] track,” which often means consulting a guidebook, rather than asking a local. And as I can attest to firsthand, asking a local stranger often results in a rather skewed answer as well; for example, I’m not going to give up my favorite local bar to a Texan tourist, only to find it crop up in a guidebook. Asking a local in Morocco often means being directed to a place owned by his relative, from which he can nab a commission.

I’d imagine that if other people are like me, what they’re seeking is actual, everyday life. For many people, though, I think the assumption is that, in developing countries in particular, that “actual, everyday life” has to come with a strikingly different appearance than what they’re used to; when in fact, it’s often right in front of their eyes.

I read tourists’ impressions of Morocco from time to time and am always amused by descriptions of the “real” Morocco; judging by these, Morocco is poor, it is rural, it is Berber. Of course, all of these things are true, but they are by no means the only truth. I remember a few years ago I got involved in a comment war with an American Muslimah in Rabat, who took issue with my description of reality in Meknes; she couldn’t possibly believe that I hung around with young people in bars, or that we occasionally went nightclubbing in Marrakesh. To her, those were things that tourists do, not things that Moroccans do. For better or worse (and I’m neither condoning nor admonishing), she’s wrong: In today’s urban Morocco, those activities are no longer restricted to foreigners. Young women are increasingly showing up in bars and smoking in public. The lines are blurring.

The other American’s experiences were equally “authentic”; a married Muslim, she lived with her husband’s family and prayed at the mosque. Like me, she was learning Arabic, and like me, she struggled to fit in sometimes. We were both foreigners attempting to live “normal” lives in foreign countries, surrounded by locals and not expats. And yet we couldn’t have been more different.

That said, I don’t think there’s much use in arguing over whose experience was more authentic, more real. I live in Boston; to me the “real Boston” is my neighborhood, my neighbors, my local watering hole and the sushi place on the corner. To others it might be Faneuil Hall, Fenway Park, and the Public Garden. If you visited my city and saw only one set of those things by chance, I wouldn’t say that your experience was more authentic than any other. That said, as a traveler, I am still keen to stay with local friends (a feat greatly helped by being part of the Global Voices community), eat at highly-recommended restaurants (be they Italian food in Italy or Italian food in San Francisco), and see a mix of “the sights” and local oddities.

To me, authenticity is best found by following your own path.

Why the UK Home Office’s “Pro-Islamic” Blog Study is Wrong

Update: Al Jazeera published a modified version of this post, complete with interviews with As’ad Abukhalil, Rime Allaf, and Edip Yuksel.

CONTEST is the United Kingdom’s counter-terrorism strategy, with a stated aim to “reduce the risk to the UK and its interests from international terrorism.” The UK’s Research, Information and Communications Unit (RICU) is set up to commission communications research to support the CONTEST strategy.

According to a recent Guardian piece, the RICU commissioned a study to estimate and track the scale and influence of Islamic bloggers in Britain. Like the Berkman Center’s mapping of the Arabic-language blogosphere, the study used link analysis as a method to determine popularity of certain blogs.

Unlike the Berkman Center’s study, however, which focused on the wider Arabic-language blogosphere and encompassed over 35,000 blogs (6,000 of which were then mapped, and 4,000 of which were hand-coded by Arabic-speaking researchers), the RICU study looked at around 140 blogs identified (by researchers, using keywords) as “pro-Islamic,” gathered from the blog directories BlogCatalog, Blogorama, (the now defunct) BritBlog, eTalkingHead, and Technorati, and found via keyword searches on Google Blog Search.

The researchers then identified the top 20 blogs for deeper analysis, resulting in the following table:

Number 3 immediately caught my eye of course; the Angry Arab News Service is a blog written by As’ad Abukhalil, a Lebanese-American professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus and visiting professor at UC, Berkeley, who on Facebook currently describes his own religion as “Banana Cream Pies” (note to those who don’t follow the Angry Arab: a) you should and b) a quick read will show you that he’s an atheist secularist with a wicked sense of humor.)

I read the whole paper, looking for an explanation–There wasn’t one. The study’s stated purpose made things no clearer:

The purpose of this study has been to measure the size of the community of Islamic (pro-leaning) bloggers who post, in English, on topics pertaining to politics in and about the UK. Second, to gain an indicative understanding of the level of social networking amongst that community and to provide some form of hierarchical structure to it.

The study relied on link analysis, so it makes sense that Angry Arab would turn up in the initial results; he is a prolific blogger, who links often to news stories–both those with which he agrees and those which he does not. But no amount of “deeper analysis” would find him to be a “pro-Islamic leaning blogger,” as the study indicates.

The first blog on the list is that of Ali Eteraz, a Pakistani lawyer and novelist, whose book made it to Oprah’s gilded list. His writing contributions online range as far as Jewcy and the Huffington Post. I don’t actually know if Eteraz is a practicing Muslim; that would require digging beyond his web site, for sure. His “Islamic leanings” seem to be derived from his background and a deep interest in politics of so-called Islamic countries, which he writes about frequently. Based solely on his web site, is he “pro-Islamic?” As much as I am.

It’s clear to me that researcher David Stevens, of Nottingham University, who carried out the research, didn’t bother to read Angry Arab’s blog at all. His reliance on link analysis and keywords (often used by bloggers to self-define) isn’t enough; blogosphere research requires a human touch. Stevens’ research, judging by his staff profile on Nottingham’s web site, has nothing to do with Internet and society. His main area of research is contemporary Anglo-American (normative) political philosophy. I’m not sure what the UK’s Home Office was thinking commissioning blogosphere research from a philosopher with limited knowledge of blogging.

In fact, I’m not sure what the Home Office was thinking at all; if CONTEST is a counter-terrorism strategy and RICU an agency to support counter-terrorism research, then why a blog study analyzing “Islamic” or “pro-Islamic” blogs? The study appears to be making the case that being “Islamic” (or Muslim) is a short hop away from being a terrorist (or for that matter, an Islamist).

If this study is taken at face value for its link analysis, it’s perfectly sound: yes, these bloggers link to “Islamic” web sites. Any deeper look, however, shows a shallow and quite frankly, racist study that attempts to draw lines between bloggers who are Muslim or Arab, with a strong interest in politics and who are prolific writers, with terrorism.

If this is what’s shaping the UK’s anti-terrorism policy, we have two reasons to be afraid: For our Muslim friends, whose very mention of their religion can apparently deem them worth tracking, and for the fear of actual terrorist activity online, which lies far beyond any place this study could reach.

*The Guardian’s Brian Whitaker also tore the study apart, but I personally don’t feel that he went far enough in his criticisms.

Let Me Google That For You

In the past week, I’ve encountered far too much lazy journalism when it comes to Internet filtering; young journos calling to ask for the basics of filtering (and I’m far too polite to send them here), mostly, and now, crap like this.

In the first few paragraphs, the author of the article states quite clearly that the administrator of the removed Facebook group took it down himself. Two paragraphs later, they offer a quote from Reporters Without Borders stating that Facebook’s strategy in removing the page was wrong. What? This article should have been about the UAE’s censorship of the page. I shouldn’t be surprised, however, considering JPost (and the UK’s Telegraph) based its article on one by The Media Line, the “Mideast news source” that once fabricated an entire interview with me because I didn’t respond to their request for one quickly enough (I’m not kidding: they actually “quoted” me based on something I’d written elsewhere).

Apparently my complaints about lazy journalism have reached a fever pitch this week, judging by the responses from friends and colleagues I’ve griped to. One, in response to a snarky comment I wrote in an email (“I’ve seen the future of journalism, and it scares me”), even sent a poem along:

ah, yes, welcome to the
remedial education
known as press calls
my utter lack of sympathy for the death of newspapers, blah blah blah blah
cry me a river, stupid and lazy reporters!

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