Civil Liberties

In Arabic, "Internet" Means "Freedom"

How to bring books to people who don't read


Odd though it may sound, somewhere in Baghdad a man is working in secrecy to edit new Arabic versions of Liberalism, by the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, and In Defense of Global Capitalism, by the Swedish economist Johan Norberg. He is doing this at some risk of kidnap, beating, and death, because he hopes that a new Arabic-language Web site, called in Arabic—can change the world by publishing liberal classics.

Odder still, he may be right.

Interviewed by email, he asks to be known by a pseudonym, H. Ali Kamil. A Shiite from Iraq's south, he is an accomplished scholar, but he asks that no other personal details be revealed. Two of his friends have been killed in the postwar insurgency and chaos, one shot and the other "slaughtered." Others of his acquaintance are in hiding, visiting their families in secret. He has been threatened for working with an international agency.

Now he is collaborating not with foreign agencies but with foreign ideas. He has made Arabic translations of all or parts of more than two dozen articles and nine books and booklets. "None," he says, "were previously translated, to my knowledge, for the simple reason that they are all on liberalism and democracy, which unfortunately have little audience and advocators in the Middle East, where almost all publishing houses and press outlets are governmental—i.e., anti-liberal."

Kamil's work is anonymous out of fear, not modesty. Translating Frederic Bastiat's The Law, he says, took 20 days of intense labor. "I am proud of that, especially when I knew that the book has never been translated before. This is one of the works my heart is aching for not having my name in its front page."

Asked how he began this work, he recounts meeting an American who was lecturing in Baghdad on principles of constitutional government. The message struck home. "Yes, you could say I am libertarian," Kamil says. "I believe in liberty for all, equality and human rights, freedom and democracy, free-market ethics, and I hate extremism in everything. I believe in life more than death as being the way to happiness."

The American was Tom G. Palmer, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington and a man who cares a lot about books. (So much so, that he always walks around with a satchel full of them.) When the Soviet Union fell, he worked on making key liberal texts available in Russian and the languages of the former Soviet Bloc. How can democracy and markets thrive, after all, without the owner's manual?

In 2004, Palmer traveled to Iraq for an education-ministry conference on reforming the schools. Having expunged compulsory Baathist education, the Iraqis were figuring out what came next. "They desperately wanted something different from what they had," Palmer says. Like many Albanians and Romanians he met after the Soviet Union collapsed, Iraqis pulled him aside to tell stories of family members harassed or killed by the fallen regime. The strikingly ubiquitous statues and images of Saddam Hussein testified to how thoroughly the Baathist dictatorship had dominated intellectual life.

Intellectual isolation is a widespread Arab phenomenon, not just an Iraqi one. Some of the statistics are startling. According to the United Nations' 2003 "Arab Human Development Report," five times more books are translated annually into Greek, a language spoken by just 11 million people, than into Arabic. "No more than 10,000 books were translated into Arabic over the entire past millennium," says the U.N., "equivalent to the number translated into Spanish each year." Authors and publishers must cope with the whims of 22 Arab censors. "As a result," writes a contributor to the report, "books do not move easily through their natural markets." Newspapers are a fifth as common as in the non-Arab developed world; computers, a fourth as common. "Most media institutions in Arab countries remain state-owned," the report says.

No wonder the Arab world and Western-style modernity have collided with a shock. They are virtually strangers, 300 years after the Enlightenment and 200 years after the Industrial Revolution. Much as other regions may be cursed with disease or scarcity, in recent decades the Arab world has been singularly cursed with bad ideas. First came Marxism and its offshoots; then the fascistic nationalism of Nasserism and Baathism; now, radical Islamism. Diverse as those ideologies are, they have in common authoritarianism and the suppression of any true private sphere. Instead of withering as they have done in open competition with liberalism, they flourished in the Arab world's relative isolation.

Palmer's first thought was to launch a think tank in Iraq, but that fizzled when the institute's prospective president bailed out at his wife's urging, for fear of his life. Last April, Palmer returned to Iraq to give talks on constitutional and free-market principles. At one such talk he met Kamil. Returning to Washington, Palmer connected with other liberal Arabs and, with their help, began commissioning translations: of Bastiat, Mises, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Voltaire, David Hume, F.A. Hayek, and such influential contemporary writers as Mario Vargas Llosa and Hernando de Soto. Most of this stuff has either been unavailable in Arabic or available spottily, intermittently, and in poor translations.

In January, made its Internet debut. Today it hosts about 40 texts; Palmer aims for more like 400, including a shelf of books. (It currently offers an abridged edition of Hayek's Road to Serfdom and Bastiat's The Law. The Norberg book is coming soon.) Sponsored by the Cato Institute, it joins a small but growing assortment of Arabic-language blogs and Web sites promulgating liberal ideas.

"The Internet is a historical opportunity for Arab liberalism," Pierre Akel, the Lebanese host of one such site,, said in a recent interview with Reason. "In the Arab world, much more than in the West, we can genuinely talk of a blog revolution." The Internet provides Arab liberals with the platform and anonymity that they need; helpfully, Arabic-language blogware, developed by liberal bloggers, recently came online for free downloading. During the recent controversy over a Danish newspaper's publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, an Egyptian blog,, made a splash by pointing out that no one had protested when the same cartoons had previously been published on the front page of an Egyptian newspaper—and by calling, sardonically, for a Muslim boycott of Egypt. (The site boasts a "Buy Danish" sticker.)

Since the 1950s, the U.S. State Department (and the former U.S. Information Agency, now folded into State) has steadily commissioned and published Arabic translations of American books, including a sprinkling of political classics, such as The Federalist Papers. Its translation programs are run by the embassies in Cairo and Jordan. According to Alberto Fernandez, of the State Department's Near Eastern Affairs Bureau, a third program, managed from Washington and still fledgling, seeks to bring translated books to Iraq.

Those print editions, worthy though they are, are subject to the vagaries of commercial book distribution, which is decidedly spotty in the region. The U.N. report notes that in the Arab world—a region of 284 million—a book that sells 5,000 copies qualifies as a best-seller.

The Internet, in contrast, makes possible worldwide, instant distribution, at a nearly negligible cost. relies heavily on volunteers and donated Web services; its budget, says Palmer, is in the five figures. Thanks to e-mail, conferring and passing manuscripts between Washington, Baghdad, and Amman—a logistical nightmare in the days of mail and fax—is a cinch. The site, entirely in Arabic, advertises on the popular Arabic Web sites and The whole enterprise was impossible a decade ago. Firmly establishing liberal ideas took centuries in the West, and may yet take decades in the Arab world.

Authoritarian and sectarian and tribalist notions are easier to explain than liberal ones, and it is inherently harder to build trust in mercurial markets and flowing democratic coalitions than in charismatic leaders, visionary clerics, and esteemed elders. The liberal world's intellectual underpinnings are as difficult to grasp as its cultural reach is difficult to escape. Thus the disjunction within which Baathism, Islamism, and Arab tribalism have festered.

Yet few who are genuinely intellectually curious can read J.S. Mill or Adam Smith and come away entirely unchanged. The suffocating Arab duopoly of state-controlled media and Islamist pulpits is cracking—only a little bit so far, but keep watching. In the Arab world, the Enlightenment is going online.

© Copyright 2006 National Journal

Jonathan Rauch is a senior writer and columnist for National Journal and a frequent contributor to Reason. The article was originally published by National Journal.