June 26, 2006

FOSS in Islamic countries

Author: Katim S. Touray

The promise of free and open source software (FOSS) in Islamic countries rests on issues such as helping build capacity. FOSS also provides greater flexibility, especially in terms of customization for local needs. In addition, FOSS can reduce the cost of deploying information and communications technologies (ICT) by permitting unlimited and free distribution of software, thus making it more affordable than comparable proprietary products. FOSS's security benefits take on added importance in the wake of recent reports that computers with Windows XP have been sending information, daily and without the knowledge of their owners, to Microsoft. Finally, FOSS will free Islamic countries from boycotts ad sanctions imposed by other countries and owners of proprietary software.

Islamic countries represent fertile ground for the growth of ICT in general and FOSS in particular. According to some estimates, Islam is the fastest growing monotheistic religion in the world, and estimates of the global population of Muslims range from 900 million to 1.3 billion, according to Wikipedia. According to the CIA, Muslims account for around 20% of the total population of the world. But the importance of Islam and Muslims depends on more than their numbers would suggest, especially when many people stereotype Muslims as terrorists or rich Arabs.

Despite the variety of Muslim beliefs and sects around the world, many countries identify strongly enough with Islam to join the Organization of Islamic Conferences (OIC). The 56 OIC member countries (many of whom have significant non-Muslim populations) are diverse, and vary from Bangladesh and Malaysia in Asia, to Saudi Arabia in the Middle East, Suriname in South America, and Nigeria, Senegal, and Uganda in Africa.

The OIC and its various organs, such as its Standing Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation (COMSTECH), and the Islamic Academy of Science (IAS), among other activities, promote ICT development in its member countries. Toward this end, the IAS issued in 2000 the Tunis Declaration, which expressed concerns about IT development in OIC members, and made proposals to address these concerns. Among these proposals were the revamping of national IT policies, promotion of optimal use of computers at educational institutions, increasing resources for developing an adequate human resource base, promotion of the development of IT industry in OIC countries, and introduction of IT into national infrastructures, including e-government. Other OIC meetings and summits following the Tunis Declaration have also called for greater attention and effort in developing ICT in OIC countries.

FOSS in OIC countries

Given the potential and actual benefits of FOSS in Islamic countries, it is not surprising that many OIC countries have jumped on the global FOSS bandwagon, and in the process, are benefiting immensely. In Asia, for example, in OIC countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, government agencies, the private sector, non-governmental organizations, and individuals are increasingly adopting FOSS. Examples of organizations promoting FOSS in Malaysia include PIKOM and the Malaysian Open Source Group. In addition, government agencies such as the Malaysian Administrative Modernization and Management Planning Unit (MAMPU), and MIMOS Berhad, all promote FOSS in Malaysia.

The Middle East is another region where FOSS is gaining impressive ground. From Saudi Arabia to Iran, many organizations, government agencies, and people are pushing for more use of FOSS. The Iran FOSS community is centered on linuxiran.org, a Web site that lists several FOSS projects, such as FarsiKDE, and a Farsi translation of the Free Software Foundation Web site. There also is a Farsi live CD based on Knoppix, one of the most popular live CDs, and Debian-derived.

FOSS use is also on the increase in many OIC countries in Africa. Nigeria and Uganda, for example, have active FOSS user groups and various projects promoting FOSS use. A Nigerian company, Leapsoft, has released Wazobia Linux, a distribution localized in Nigeria's three main languages, while Uganda has a Linux localization project and hosts the East African Center for Open Source Software (EACOSS), the first specialized FOSS training center in the region.

The way forward

The foregoing paints an exciting picture of a vibrant and lively FOSS movement in OIC countries. There is no doubt that FOSS will continue to make gains in these countries, even though there are many problems, such as inadequate capacity and infrastructure, as both I, in an earlier article, and Jon "maddog" Hall of Linux International have pointed out. Despite these problems, FOSS will continue to grow in OIC countries and benefit them for a long time to come.

The OIC countries and other stakeholders should adopt a number of strategies for promoting the use of FOSS in member countries.

First, OIC countries must develop FOSS policies that will stimulate not only use of FOSS, but also help increase capacity to develop FOSS applications. Given the immense benefits that FOSS provides, especially to OIC countries, it is unfortunate that few if any of them have an official FOSS policy.

Networking is another important strategy in promoting FOSS in OIC countries. The numerous FOSS users in OIC countries should share experiences and knowledge about FOSS in particular and IT in general. The Malaysian government's experience of migrating to Linux, and the FarsiKDE experience, are good examples of what can be shared between OIC countries.

In the same vein, there should be greater cooperation and collaboration between FOSS organizations and user groups in OIC countries. Conferences such as the upcoming conference in Malaysia on ICT and the Muslim World can help strengthen networking, and facilitate the sharing of experience between OIC countries.

OIC countries must also invest in FOSS capacity-building and advocacy programs. The ultimate goal would be for OIC countries to be sources of FOSS programs and packages, and not just end users. Toward this end, FOSS program development camps and workshops should be organized regularly, along the lines of Africa Source and Asia Source. FOSS should also be introduced in IT training programs and institutions to increase the number of people in OIC countries who can use FOSS applications such as OpenOffice.org and Linux, and who can develop FOSS packages.

FOSS enthusiasts and advocates in OIC countries also need more resources to increase advocacy for and awareness of FOSS and its benefits. In this regard, the media (both traditional and new) should be leveraged to increase awareness about FOSS. Other programs, such as exhibitions, displays, and install fests, can also be effective advocacy tools. Recently, a student group at the International Islamic University of Malaysia organized a FOSS carnival, FOSSCAR 2006, to promote and build capacity in FOSS.

Finally, the OIC should provide institutional support for the promotion of FOSS in its member countries. Such support can start in a variety of ways, such as supporting FOSS groups in OIC countries, and under the auspices of existing OIC organs and agencies. Ultimately, there should be a specialized OIC agency, or a unit of one of its agencies, to promote FOSS in member countries. Such an entity would provide much-needed leadership and coordination of efforts and resources for the promotion of FOSS in OIC countries, and help members not only benefit from FOSS, but also become valued citizens of the global FOSS community.

Katim S. Touray is a consultant based in The Gambia, West Africa.


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