Voices from the Arab press: The problem isn’t with TikTok

A weekly selection of opinions and analyses from the Arab media around the world.

 It's completely unrealistic to prevent our youth from using TikTok. (photo credit: Solen Feyissa/Unsplash)
It's completely unrealistic to prevent our youth from using TikTok.
(photo credit: Solen Feyissa/Unsplash)

The Problem Isn’t With TikTok

Al-Okaz, Saudi Arabia, December 31

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Whether we like it or not, TikTok is taking over the world. I’ve heard about the rulings of religious leaders who banned the use of the app, but the fact remains that the number of people downloading TikTok is on the rise. In fact, the company marked one billion active subscribers last month, which means that roughly one in every seven people on Earth regularly watches clips on TikTok. Therefore, anyone who calls to ban TikTok is delusional. It’s completely unrealistic to prevent our youth from using it.

These campaigns against TikTok usually revolve around the foolish, secular content that people upload onto the platform. But in my opinion, this criticism is entirely wrong. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with amusing content that is meant to entertain the masses.

The problem is quite contrary: the real danger posed by TikTok is its ability to spread serious content that is divisive or false. Like many other social media platforms, TikTok can be used to proliferate conspiracy theories and fake news. I recently stumbled upon a video depicting a deranged person desecrating religious symbols belonging to a certain group. The goal of the video was clear: to increase religious and sectarian rivalry and spew hatred within society. Therefore, the solution to the TikTok problem isn’t to ban the app, it’s to educate users to consume the content shared on it more critically.

Unfortunately, we have failed as a society at educating younger generations about harmful content and ways to mitigate it. For example, these platforms repeat the never-ending trope that Muslims are victims of the West, that their religion is under fierce war and that their countries are invaded and annihilated. This content is meant to instill a sense of persecution within the younger generations of Arabs, who easily seize on such thoughts, which are then difficult to extract from their consciousness and thinking. Although the facts on the ground are irrefutable, these arguments are widely accepted by many Arab teenagers, who don’t have so-called “intellectual resistance.”

The solution, in my view, isn’t to shut down these platforms, to tarnish their reputation or to dehumanize those who use them. Instead, we must focus our energy on developing and implementing school curricula that promote a critical reading of news, politics and world events. We must also promote the values of coexistence and human openness to different religions and peoples. Perhaps this is the best thing we can offer to younger generations in the new year, instead of exhortations that might make us feel good about ourselves, but achieve nothing in the long run. – Mamdouh Al-Muhaini

 INSPECTING A 'hisbah' center that was used by Islamic State religious police, in Aleppo Governorate, Syria, 2016. (credit: RODI SAID / REUTERS) INSPECTING A 'hisbah' center that was used by Islamic State religious police, in Aleppo Governorate, Syria, 2016. (credit: RODI SAID / REUTERS)
The city of Al-Hawl

Al-Nahar, Lebanon, December 31

Roughly 35 km. east of Al-Hasakah, in the northeastern corner of Syria, lies the Al-Hawl refugee camp. However, the term “camp” doesn’t quite capture what this place – originally opened to house women and children left behind by ISIS fighters – actually is.

There is conflicting information about the number of people who actually live in this compound. The camp’s total population ranges somewhere between 60,000 and 65,000 people, half of whom are Iraqis, including an estimated 28,000 children. On paper, the camp is run by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Al-Hawl is a city in every sense of the word – closer to Fallujah than to Guantanamo. It boasts several markets with merchants and vendors, means of transportation and even “neighborhoods.” But the most important elements of life in the camp are hidden from plain sight: there are underground courts, executions, fines, imprisonments, marriages and power hierarchies.

Those familiar with Al-Hawl admit that ISIS has a network of secret representatives who have taken over the camp to establish nascent cells within it. They communicate with the caliphate from inside the city. They instill terror and fear among the camp’s population, consisting only of women and children, in order to impose the Islamic State’s control over everyday life. ISIS cells inside the camp have also formed a “Hisbah agency,” or Islamic police, mostly made up of foreign women. This group arranges the provision of weapons, supports logistical operations, sets up communications systems and provides transportation to and from the city. While the SDF forces nominally control the camp, the real power belongs to ISIS, which seeks to impose itself on the residents’ daily lives.

To date, the United States has pressured Western governments to take back their citizens and their children who are found in the camp, but most of these countries refuse to do so. This city is not a prison. Yet it falls outside any system of international law or any single country’s established legal system. Indeed, Al-Hawl is a testament to the failure of the international legal system to deal with terrorism. The human beings trapped in the camp have been neither convicted nor freed; they’re stuck somewhere in between.

Coalition forces demonstrated unquenched thirst for bombing and destroying the cities and villages from which these individuals fled, but they seem unenthusiastic about reintegrating them back into society. After this devastation, coalition countries were supposed to exert at least some energy in dealing with the very conditions that allowed terrorism to spread in the first place: things like tyranny, sectarianism and abject poverty. Without addressing these root causes, the fight against terrorism will remain futile forever.

Meanwhile, in the absence of any other role model to follow, the children of Al-Hawl camp will continue to live in misery, exclusion and despair – and will grow up to join the ranks of ISIS and its likes. – Samir Al-Taki 

The US & Mideast: The problem of staying and controversy of leaving

Al-Arabiya, Saudi Arabia, January 1

On the eve of a new year and with the end of the combat operations of the American forces in Iraq, the same perennial question once again comes to the surface: “Is America withdrawing from the Middle East?” Analysts are divided into two camps. The first group believes that the Middle East is no longer important for the future of the United States, which has become preoccupied to the greatest extent with East Asia, especially in terms of confronting Russia and China.

Meanwhile, the second group holds that Washington doesn’t have the luxury of such a withdrawal, because it simply means handing over the Middle East to competing forces, which will, in turn, detract from the global strength and invincibility of America. Dalia Dassa Kaye, a senior fellow at UCLA’s Burkle Center for International Relations, believes that it is necessary to shift US thinking from the concept of withdrawal, which generates more crises, to the concept of cooperation with America’s allies in the region.

It is no secret that the chaotic and confused US withdrawal from Afghanistan last August generated a strong impression that Washington is no longer willing to stay in the Middle East in one way or another. However, the reality on the ground paints another picture, given the challenge posed to Washington by the Iranian regime, in conjunction with the obvious Chinese and Russian ambitions to assume the US’s role in the region. This helps explain why the US still maintains a sprawling network of military bases in the Middle East, in what seems like a paradoxical reality: telling the world it wants to withdraw from the Middle East while maintaining an extensive foothold in the region.

According to an in-depth analysis published by the well-known Foreign Policy magazine, President Joe Biden, since entering the White House, has unequivocally asserted that his focus will be on China and the Indo-Pacific region, with his desire to “rebalance” the US military presence in the Middle East. Washington appears to be at a difficult crossroads. On the one hand, and under pressure from the isolationists, it doesn’t want its soldiers to set foot outside its national soil. On the other hand, however, it appears to be facing a contradictory commitment to defend its allies in the region while preventing the reemergence of terrorist groups like ISIS.

The truth is that the US doesn’t need to mobilize tens of thousands of soldiers to the region. Some at home are suggesting that Washington could negotiate contingency agreements with regional partners so that it could deploy minimal forces and expand its on-the-ground presence only if, and, when necessary. Others argue that the US could move away from operating a set of large bases in the region, and instead adopt a system of distributed bases designed to keep American assets away from potential attacks such as Iranian missiles.

Ben Rhodes, a former deputy national security adviser under president Barack Obama, believes that the world is a difficult and dangerous place at times, so the US must impose itself on other countries to defend its interests. However, the post-9/11 era should be defined not through confrontation with the next enemy who awaits their turn, but rather through the revitalization of democracy as a successful means in human organization.

Perhaps the most important thing is for Washington to replace the “War on Terror” with a better project for generations to come. The time has come for America to advance ideas it supports instead of fighting those that it opposes. – Amil Ameen

The Golan Heights is a guarantee for the Syrian regime 

Al-Rai, Kuwait, December 30

What Israel is doing in the Syrian Golan Heights is part of a normal policy followed since 1967, when the Heights were occupied. The occupation took place in circumstances that are still ambiguous, at a time when Hafez Assad was defense minister.

Today, two years after the Trump administration recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan (a recognition that the current administration has not retracted), the Israeli government started implementing a new plan aimed at increasing the number of settlers in the region.

When one evaluates Syria’s historical stance on the Golan Heights, it becomes clear that the Syrian regime never really cared about reclaiming the land occupied by Israel; it simply cared about using it as a bargaining chip for its own survival. So long as the Syrian regime could speak bombastically about the Palestinian cause and the occupied Golan Heights, attention was diverted away from its own mishaps.

In fact, this confirms the tacit Israeli support for the Assad regime since 2011, when the revolution broke out in Syria. Israel refrained from taking any steps that would threaten the Assad regime. On the contrary, it played a role in supporting Assad and overlooked the Iranian, and then Russian, intervention to save him. All that Israel did was target Iranian assets and weapons shipments at certain locations to warn that there are borders that no one is allowed to cross.

Did the Syrian regime ever try to regain the Golan, or was the Golan always a guarantee of its survival? What did the Syrian regime do for more than half a century when Israel occupied the Golan?

The Golan Heights remained a guarantee for the regime. Three years after Israel occupied the Golan, Hafez Assad took the reins over Syria as president. Assad, the elder, didn’t meet any resistance in the coup he carried out against his opponents. On the contrary, there was even international support for his new regime.

Since Hafez Assad became the absolute ruler of Syria, especially after he became the first Alawite president of the Republic in February 1971, the regime has always bet on the state of “no war and no peace,” symbolized by the situation on the Golan. The Syrian regime found the disengagement agreement with Israel at the beginning of 1974 an alternative to any actual effort to seriously discuss any Israeli withdrawal from the Golan. Indeed, Hafez Assad never wanted to reclaim the Golan, but was rather concerned with using it as a bargaining chip for a permanent cease-fire with Israel.

What Israel is currently doing is paying the price for keeping Bashar Assad in Damascus, which is a stone’s throw away from the Golan. Nothing has changed in the relationship between the Syrian regime and Israel, which still see eye to eye on the issue of the Golan. But the question that will arise sooner or later is: Will Israel’s assurance to Assad suffice in protecting and securing his regime for the rest of his life? – Kheir Allah Kheir Allah 

Translated by Asaf Zilberfarb.