Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2011

Songs of the Revolution: A Bahrain Website Mixes Music and Activism

You might want to start brushing up on your Iranian rap. Or Palestinian trance. Jordanian Punk will be important too. And don't forget Bahraini R&B. This is the music of the new revolution sweeping the Middle East. In Tahrir Square Egyptians rocked to a catchy number by rocker Mohammad Munir, who asked, "How can I love you [Egypt] if you don't give that love back?" If you want to know what the anthem of change in Yemen will be, check out mideastunes.com, where the region's revolutionary playlist is ready for download. This is no sugarcoated pop site. The music is about social change, human rights and freedom of expression, and it's manned (rather, womanned) by Esra'a Al Shafei, 24, a Bahraini activist whose social consciousness was raised not by western rock, but by the passioned rhymes of Kurdish Hip-Hop. "My inspiration comes from music," says Shafei, who cut her activist teeth campaigning for the rights of Kurds at the age of 18. "Sure, people like Gandhi give me hope, but what makes me want to go out and make change is people's stories, and that comes through their music."

But Mideasttunes is only a small part of Shafei's campaign for change. She also founded mideastyouth.com, a multi-media web platform that uses tweets, blogs, stories, links, videos and discussion forums to promote tolerance, human rights, freedom of speech and democracy not just in her native Bahrain, but around the Middle East. The site focuses on campaigns for the rights of migrant workers, persecuted religious groups, Kurds, and other minority issues. "These are issues that are not limited to one country, they affect all of us in the Middle East," she says, in rapid-fire English. "I wanted to use the pan-Arab movement to build relations between activists throughout the region."

It's working. The site has become the go-to place for young Arab activists. It's where people get ideas, and learn about new issues. And, most important, it's where they go for support. As a Bahraini, Shafei has to be cautious about pushing for change in her own country. At least two protesters were killed in an uprising that brought thousands to the capital's central square on Sunday and Tuesday. She has a family to protect, and, as she points out, "If something happens to me, what happens to my work?" Instead she helps activists in other countries, who in turn help her. It's like an online activism co-op. As an example, she is helping activists push for Kurdish rights in Syria, something she couldn't do if she were actually in Syria. "It's a way for us to help each other out," she says. "I tell people to practice caution if you live in those [repressive] countries, and focus on social rights activism elsewhere. It's a way to come together over the things we have in common — a desire for rights and freedoms."

Mideastyouth is about forging connections. It's also about producing content that raises awareness. The site produces cartoons and comics for distribution. A cartoon about the abuse of domestic workers, for example, or an engaging ad for Kurdish rights. The messages are clear, the production values high and the medium engaging. The result, she hopes, is getting people to think, and act. One promotional spot, a jazzy ad done in the style of a tourism commercial about the persecution of the Baha'i' minority in Egypt got thousands of hits within the first few days. "People were talking about it because Muslims were doing it. Even the Baha'is were surprised," says Shafei, explaining that it was the first time a Muslim organization had been formed to fight specifically for Baha'i rights. To her, generating buzz is almost as important as getting the message across. "This is what we do to get traditional media to talk about these issues," she says. "And that is how you get the attention we really want." Of course the Internet is huge in the Middle East, she says. But your average Saudi isn't going to Google human rights. "We can't wait for them to come to us. So we create new ways to find them." Once they connect, "we can find more people wanting to work with the cause."

Shafei focuses on minority rights, she says, "because we cannot have human rights for ourselves if the minorities in our countries don't either." Many rights-based organizations in the Middle East have traditionally been self-centered — for example, women supporting women. That kind of silo mentality is ultimately destructive, says Shafei. It keeps organizations isolated, and it also enables authoritarian regimes to play one group against another. "As a Bahraini woman, yes, I would like my rights," she says. "But in comparison to religious minorities or migrant workers, I have a lot more rights. I'm Muslim, Arab, a member of the mainstream that has more freedom of speech and a more comfortable life. We can't progress as a society if we leave the most vulnerable behind."

The hard work of overthrowing dictators, of course, is better left to locals. "There are plenty of groups working on regime change, so we focus on the people who don't have a voice." That doesn't mean that she turns her back on calls for change — she pumps up the volume. She just launched crowdvoice.org, a user-powered service that tracks voices of protest from around the world through crowdsourcing. "People can use it to collect or view collections of videos, photos, news stories, blogs, tweets and other media sources on current events," she says. "It's used to amplify voices of dissent."

Shafei makes it very clear that her push for democracy and human rights has nothing to do with an American agenda for the Middle East. If anything, she says, the U.S. has demonstrated that its principal value in the region, at least, is self-interest. "The United States continues to support repressive and anti-democratic regimes. The U.S. Government was aware of the injustices in Egypt, but continued supporting Mubarak because of self-interest. No one can argue that Saudi Arabia is the home of human rights or democracy, yet America continues to support the regime."

The credibility of the U.S. among the young in the Middle East, Shafei says, "is in negative numbers." She says that neither she, nor other members of the Arab youth movement, are against Americans. When you see Arabs burning the flag, "It's not Anti-American, it's anti-American foreign policy hypocrisy."