Wikipedia's Arabic-language version skews the Middle East

If we are counting on the "brand name" of Wikipedia to help break down barriers and stereotypes, the site has a lot of work to do.

By DAVID SHAMAH
November 25, 2008 10:53
wikipedia logo 88

wikipedia 224.88. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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I almost hate to do this - after my last round with Wikipedia, they're going to think I'm picking on them. Last June, I wrote about accusations that pro-Israel organizations were somehow trying to manipulate the on-line encyclopedia's entries to make Israel "look good"; the truth, it seemed to me, was that much of the information on Wikipedia regarding Israel is skewed, with terms and descriptions weighted against Israel taken as "fact" and legions of pages containing built-in prejudices that virtually no one questions. Unfortunately, that goes double for Wikipedia's Arabic-language version. What an opportunity to break down stereotypes and promote understanding between strangers, even enemies - and they're blowing it! If we are counting on the "brand name" of Wikipedia to help break down barriers and stereotypes, the site has a lot of work to do, it seems. Wikipedia, with its more than 10 million articles (there are only 500,000 in the Encyclopedia Britannica), is quickly becoming the de facto place to look for information, almost anywhere there is an Internet; increasingly, the Wikipedia entry comes up first when you Google for information about almost anything these days. How does Wikipedia make sure it stays more or less accurate? Through "peer-editing"; it is assumed that when inaccurate information is listed in an article, someone will come in and correct it, or at least present an opposing point of view (http://tinyurl.com/fccjr). According to the site, thousands of articles have been amended or rewritten since Wikipedia came into being in 2001, thus proving the validity of the system. But what happens when you have a society that has a very definite set of "everybody knows" beliefs - where inaccuracies and outright lies plague Wikipedia articles, but no one does anything about it, because everyone believes them? If somebody writes that the earth is flat in an article, and all the peers believe that the earth is flat, then readers who are counting on the information in Wikipedia are going to read that the earth is flat, and that's all they're going to hear. So the system isn't foolproof. Unfortunately, this "what if" scenario is not theoretical; it actually happens on pages I checked out in the Arabic-language version of Wikipedia (http://ar.wikipedia.org/wiki). Many Westerners get nervous when they see Arabic writing, like there must be some terrorist-oriented message embedded in the text. But thanks to the miracle of Google Translations (http://translate.google.com/translate-t#), Arabic and dozens of other languages no longer need be a mystery. While clearly not professional translations, Google returns a satisfactory rendering of a page that (usually) gives you a pretty clear picture of what the site in question is trying to say. I don't read or speak Arabic, but thanks to Google Translations, I'm able to get a much better insight into the point of view of Arabic speakers on-line. My method: Type in a search term at the translation site, then copy the resulting Arabic characters and do a Google search for them, then click on the "translate this page" link on results. Using this method to Google for "hot-button" items like Israel, Jew, Zionism, etc., returns results like you would unfortunately expect, in many cases. Which is what led me to Wikipedia. Interestingly, in Arabic-language Google searches, Wikipedia entries were usually at the top of the list, too. That's good, I thought; wouldn't Arabic-language Wikipedia pages be translations of English-language pages on the same subject? Not that I'm such a fan of Wikipedia's point of view on Israel and Jewish-oriented issues, but it's a lot more palatable than what many of the "native" Arabic sites present. But it turns out that Arabic Wikipedia (AW) is not necessarily a translation of English-language Wikipedia (EW). While, as I mentioned, the Google Translation rendering of these pages is clearly not totally accurate, the discrepancies between AW and EW were so great that you quickly realize that the two versions have very little to do with each other, at least on the hot-button issues. I think that is a major problem. Wikipedia is such an authority today that if a Wikipedia page says, for example, that the Haganah's fighting against Arab villages in Palestine before the establishment of Israel is a "genocide," akin to the Holocaust or genocide in Rwanda, how can we be surprised when kids in Ramallah, Jenin or Gaza rally behind suicide bombers who wantonly kill Israeli women and children? Wouldn't we have been happy if Polish Jews had conducted an "intifada" against the Nazis? (Note that there is a separate AW page titled "Gaza Holocaust," referring to a battle in Gaza last March, in which Hamas said 116 Gaza residents were killed). You won't find a hint on AW of what was well-documented by the Haganah during the War of Independence: how residents of these Arab villages actively took part in the war, giving themselves the status of combatants, or how the vast majority ran away when told to do so by the Arab armies invading the newly established State of Israel, the better to clear out and give the Arab Legion a clear field to perpetrate a genocide of their own, against the Jews. Of course, one man's terrorist attack is another's "freedom fight," but you have to really be out there in anti-Israel land to claim that the Haganah conducted a near-genocide against anyone, especially given the well-known historical facts. Among the historic genocides listed on the AW page are the Cambodian genocide, the Rwanda genocide, "French massacres in Algeria from 1830 to 1962," the "Armenian genocide" and others. The next paragraph on this page reads: "Human history has witnessed several cases of mass murder, but the debate is the use of the term genocide by around the intent to destroy [sic], in whole or in part, because this group is the core purpose of genocide, but difficult to demonstrate." Listed here is "Mongol invasion of Baghdad," "Annihilation of Native Americans (Indians)" and "Massacres against the Palestinians by gangs Haganah Jewish [sic] at the beginning of the Zionist occupation of Palestine." Politics plays heavily on anything having to do with Jerusalem, and the AW page on the city makes for interesting reading. Prominent on the AW page, for example, are references to "the Judaization of Jerusalem." The introductory line says: "Jerusalem is the largest city of historic Palestine under Israeli control today"; the city's status "as the capital of a Palestinian state within a Palestinian declaration of independence" is the second sentence. Security Council Resolutions 476 and 478 are the context for the mention of the city as Israel's capital (the resolutions condemned Israel's unification of the city). Interestingly, the history of Jerusalem on the AW and EW pages are quite different, with Canaanites and Egyptians stressed far more strongly on the AW page (the "debate" link on this page makes clear why). As far as the entry for Jews goes, the article seemed pretty balanced, except for a comparison of Purim to Halloween (wearing costumes and getting drunk), and of Hanukka to Christmas (gift giving) - false stereotypes Western Jews worked hard to debunk. That, and a discussion as to how the Jews and the Children of Israel are not the same entity (not very clear, but it appears to be not very complimentary). Plus, a reference to "Aerosmith: Crazy," which I always thought was a song by that rock group, but turns out to be, when you click on the link, a discussion of a heavy Koranic concept! The entry on Israel recited the country's familiar history, but key elements ("In 1947, the world witnessed the partition of Palestine, which gave the Jews living in Palestine 55% of the land, when they accounted for 30% of the population") are just plain wrong. Besides issues that concern us, Wikipedia gives us an insight into how Arabs see their own history. There is no reference to a century of French genocide in Algeria in EW, but there is a page dedicated to the Sétif massacre, in which French troops shot and killed Algerian rioters (as few as 1,100, or as many as 45,000, depending on who you believe). Most interesting was the AW entry on the Armenian genocide, compared to the EW entry. On the AW page, it appears as if the Armenians were in league with the Russians to fight the Ottoman Turks, and the Armenians died in the general starvation of World War I, like everyone else (i.e. there was no "genocide," and even if there was, the Armenians had it coming because they acted like "a fifth column" in Turkey, armed by the Russians). The EW page on this subject has the more familiar version of an organized extermination of the Armenians. The disparity between the two versions is really wide, which means that one of the Wikipedias isn't getting the story right. I could go on, but you get the idea. Like a Tower of Babel, Wikipedia aims to build a body of knowledge that all humanity can benefit from. But if we're not speaking the same language - figuratively and intellectually, not just literally - what chance do we have of making that happen? And should Wikipedia be lending its authoritative name to the process? http://digital.newzgeek.com

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