Cell Phones Invade the Arab World

Religious scholars are being asked such questions as whether it is permissible to get divorced by sending an SMS.

Is it permissible to use verses from the Koran as ring tones? Is it permissible to summon the faithful to prayer via a cellular phone and is it permissible to get divorced by sending an SMS? Numerous Muslims have asked such questions, seeking religious rulings to guide them in this use of the new device. Religious scholars deliberated, and the upshot has been at least four different rulings.

Regarding the ring tones, there was no debate. Verses from the Koran may be used as may devices that announce prayer times for anywhere in the world. The only hesitation was that if the muezzin's voice is heard, people on the street may get confused and think that then is the time for prayer, when the owner of the phone was just receiving another call from the bourse.

The problem is more complicated when it comes to anything related to divorce. Although divorcing a wife does not require witnesses and the husband may do so by stating the words "I divorce you" three times, in order to protect the woman's rights, a certificate confirming the divorce is needed. Therefore, the former mufti of Egypt, Nasr Wasel Farid, maintains that an SMS may be used as a means of notifying a wife of a divorce, but not as proof thereof, and therefore the SMS message should be accompanied by a written document that cannot be lost.

However, Ahmed Omar Hashem, the president of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, believes that electronic writing can be used to divorce, but cautions against fraudulent actions.

Phones ringing during prayers

These new religious rulings were prompted by the widespread arrival of cell phones in the Arab world, and their use for religious purposes is not uncommon. Many faithful are also asking if it is permissible to turn off a cell phone that rings during prayers and whether recharging a cell phone using an outlet in a mosque is not a desecration of its sanctity.

"The cellular mosque," the successor of the "Internet mosque" is seen as a positive development in the use of the new device. The other, negative, side of the phenomenon is evident in reports of harmful use, especially devices that come with built-in cameras. For example, there was a report that three Saudi Arabian youths were sentenced to two to 12 years in jail and 1,200 lashes (combined) because they filmed the rape of a Saudi woman and relayed the images from the cell phone to the Internet. As a result of this incident, Saudi Arabia at the beginning of this year blocked the import of cell phones with cameras, but this directive is apparently being bypassed by rampant smuggling.

Young people send each other SMS messages and pornographic photos and even more common is the harassment (by phone) of young girls using cell phones and photographing women without their head-coverings at restaurants or women-only parties and then publicizing the photos on the Internet or using them for blackmail.

But here, too, there are some positive stories, such as, for example, Umm Ismail of Gaza, who told a correspondent on the popular Internet site Ilaf that she used a cell phone camera at a neighborhood wedding to photograph potential mates for her son, who has already rejected several suggestions from matchmakers.

Rental services on every corner

The cell-phone industry is one of the fastest-growing electronics industries in the Middle East. According to data from the Center for Commercial Research at the University of Cairo, in 1999 there were only 654,000 devices in Egypt; today there are some 5.7 million and the forecast is that by the end of the year, this number will reach toward seven million. Last year, Egyptians spent some six billion Egyptian pounds (around $1 million) on purchasing and using cell phones, and consequently per capita spending increased by about 15 percent. Those who can't afford to buy a cell phone can rent the use of a cell phone for a per-minute fee from phone owners abounding at every street corner. The cost is half a pound, or around 10 cents, per minute.

The cell phone embarked on its massive trek to the Middle East some six or seven years ago, but the popularity of SMS messages was prompted by two major events: television game shows and the war in Iraq. Programs such as "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" or "Star Academy," which were broadcast on satellite stations, revolutionized the use of cell phones.

Unlike the Internet, which requires expensive equipment, a home, national infrastructure and primarily knowing how to read and write, the cell phone provides an accessible, relatively inexpensive solution to being part of what is happening around you without requiring a high level of literacy.

Millions of telephone calls were made by young people in Arab countries in order to vote for their favorite in the popular singing contests, in addition to messages in which Arabs voiced their support for the Iraqis or made contributions to residents of Iraq, making it clear that the cell phone is not just a means of contacting someone, but also a means of strengthening a virtual community as well as a means of bypassing any type of censorship.

Thus, for example, Saudi television stations issued a call to all "citizens who love their homeland" to send an electronic message from their cell phone to show support for Saudi Arabia's candidate in the "Star Academy" contest. And in Egypt, members of the opposition movement, Kafaya, sent messages to their followers, telling them to come to demonstrations in public squares all over Cairo.

In addition to these, there are of course the "usual" calls between men and women, and between boys and girls, in places where a direct conversation would be deemed a serious violation of morality codes.

In addition to the ease with which these messages are relayed, there is the knowledge that the authorities in most Arab countries are still unable to continuously monitor the calls and stop the offenders.

In Iran, there was an attempt to establish a "telephone police" to whom citizens could complain about offenders, but it turned out that even this "police" could at most record the complaint, but not deal with it adequately. In other Arab countries they did not even pretend to deal with the phenomenon.