Wikipedia International: How Editorial Wars Vary Dramatically By Language

A study has identified the online encyclopedia's most controverial topics by language. Ironically, the study may also offer clues for all about how to resolve conflicts.

Online squabbles
David Larousserie

PARIS — Wikipedia is more than a popular online encyclopedia. It is also a battlefield for intellectuals, as the volunteer editors who create the content correct each other without end until they finally reach a hypothetical consensus.

Yet, according to an international team of researchers from the Universities of Oxford and Budapest, the subjects of these fights vary widely depending on the language. The research, carried out as part of the European project ICTeCollective, quantifies the differences in the nature of controversial subjects, according to both geographical and cultural origins.

People don’t brawl over the same topics on the French Wikipedia as they do on the German, Hebrew or Czech versions. The French squabble mostly about political and ideological subjects, such as Ségolène Royal (the 2007 Socialist Party presidential candidate who lost to Nicolas Sarkozy), socialism or Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Spanish, on the other hand, relish arguments about sport, while Arab speakers quarrel over religion.

Ten different languages were selected for the study, and 57% of the 1,000 “hot” topics identified were related to politics, religion and territory. Music, books and cinema accounted for 11%, while 6% had to do with science and technology. Of the 100 most contentious subjects, the French only share two with the Germans, the English and the Spanish: homeopathy and Jesus. With the Germans only, the French share a vivid passion for psychoanalysis, Osama Bin Laden, Roger Federer and racism. And along with the Spanish, the French get worked up about Augusto Pinochet. As a matter of fact, 81% of the 100 most controversial subjects in French are exclusively “national” and not shared with English, German or Spanish.

Less monolithic

The long article (published on, which will be included in a book about Wikipedia in 2014, swarms with figures and charts. The method established by the research team in 2012 consists of attributing a unique footprint to each version of an article so that they can later analyze, for instance, how many times a specific version came back online. That data would show that an editor has been fighting with another by republishing an older version of the article.

“These specialists offer an operational definition of contentious topics, independently from languages,” explains Alexandre Hocquet from the University of Lorraine who has been involved in some of Wikipedia’s editorial wars. “It is thus possible to compare, which makes our vision of Wikipedia less monolithic.”

Photo: mikeedesign

This method had already enabled researchers to study the dynamic of controversies — in other words, slow consensus, impossible consensus or one with pauses and resumption of hostilities, etc. This time, they looked at Wikipedia articles that had been published before March 2010 in 10 different languages. It represents about five million texts with 27 million contributors.

The editorial wars that are common to different cultures could thus be quantified by their geographical location. “We were surprised to observe that topics such as religion or territories are a source of conflicts,” says Taha Yasseri, one of the authors of the articles. “We thought that more modern subjects such as science would cause more disputes.”

Janos Kertész, another co-author, says the quantitative results can be interesting to study other fields of collaboration and conflicts, which is an important subject in sociology. “We would also like to test the theoretical model of conflict analysis that we created on other cases than that of Wikipedia,” he says. And from a practical point of view, identifying problems and following them in real time can also be useful to Wikipedia administrators to improve the system’s efficiency.

All these studies are already inspiring the authors, giving them new research ideas. They think that bringing in “foreign” editors could help moderate discussions and end debates. Similarly, it would be useful to resort to discussion lists instead of quarreling, deleting new versions and publishing older ones.

Wikipedia is already a model for large-scale collaborative work, but will it also become a place of experimentation on how to resolve conflicts?

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Reading Rumi In Kabul: A Persian Poet's Lesson For Radical Islam

Born some eight centuries ago, the famed poet and philosopher Rumi offered ideas on religion that bear little resemblance to the brand of Islam being imposed right now in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime.

The work of 13th-century poet Rumi still resonsates today

Mihir Chitre

Among the various Afghan cities that the Taliban has invaded and apparently "reclaimed" in recent weeks is Balkh, a town near the country's north-western border. Interestingly, it was there, about 800 years ago, that a man called Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi, was born.

Some see the grotesque exhibitionism of the Taliban advance as a celebration of Islam or a "going back to the roots" campaign. As if followers of Islam were always like this, as if every willing Muslim always propagated austerity and oppressiveness. As if it was always meant to be this way and any shred of liberalism was a digression from the quest of the religion.

In fact, a look at the history of the religion — and of the region — tells a different story, which is why there's no better time than now to rediscover the wisdom of the poet Rumi, but without doing away with its religious context.

In a world where Islam is a popular villain and lots of terrible acts across the world in the name of the religion have fueled this notion among the West and among people from other religions, it's paramount that we understand the difference between religion as a personal or spiritual concept and religion as an institution, a cage, a set of laws created to control us.

Why do you stop praying?

To begin with, and largely due to the film Rockstar, the most famous Rumi quote known to Indians goes like this: "Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there's a field. I'll meet you there."

Rumi's original Persian verse, however, uses the words kufr (meaning infidelity) and Imaan (meaning religion), which was translated as "wrongdoing" and "rightdoing." To me, the original verse surpasses the translation with a vital, often missed, often deliberately forgotten, interpretation, which is to highlight the fact that there is humanity, love and compassion or a certain kind of mystical quality to life beyond the concept of religion and that is the ultimate place, the place where Rumi invites us to meet him.

It would be incorrect now to read this and think of Rumi as irreligious. In fact, he was quite the opposite. But his interpretation of religion was personal, spiritual and not institutional or communal or exhibitionist.

In one of his poems, translated by Coleman Banks as "Love Dogs" in English, a man who has stopped praying to God because he never got a response meets "Khidr," an angel messenger, in his dream:

Why did you stop praising (or praying)?

Because I've never heard anything back.

This longing you express is the return message.

To me, through this poem, it's clear that Rumi advocates for a personal relationship with God. In fact, he goes on to say that being true to God is to long for his validation or nod, that life is longing.

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevl\u00e2na Museum in Konya, Turkey

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevlâna Museum in Konya, Turkey — Photo: Georges Jansoone/Wikimedia

Don't sweep the history of Islam with the broom of radicalism

For those familiar with the European literature of the 20th century, I could say that this echoes the ideas of Samuel Beckett. But remember: Rumi lived 800 years ago, at the heart of what we call the "Muslim world." To equate Islam on the whole with repressiveness and hostility, as many of us do today, might just be a criminal contradiction then.

It's also interesting to note that after the Quran, Rumi's is probably the most widely read work in the Islamic world, which suggests that Rumi's ideas, which may sound too progressive for anyone remotely associated with Islam in today's world, have, in fact, been accepted and cherished by the Islamic world for centuries. Sweeping the whole history of the Islamic world with the broom of radicalism wouldn't then be the fairest assessment of either the religion or of radicalism.

This physical world has no two things alike.
Every comparison is awkwardly rough.
You can put a lion next to a man,
but the placing is hazardous to both.

(From the poem: "An Awkward Comparison")

It's tragic that the Taliban has ravaged the same place with their own power-hungry, totalitarian interpretation of the religion which once produced a mind that embraces it with wide arms of warmth and peace and refuses to be compared with other followers of the same.

How to cure bad habits?

It is vital for us to separate groupism or communalism, which often escalates to barbarism, from the thought it is based on. It is vital then to read and reread that what Rumi sees as religion is the private association with God. It is also vital to mark the emphasis on individuality in Rumi's thought.

All the Western ideas of liberalism are based on the idea of individuality, which in turn is based on post-renaissance European thought. Asian philosophy is contrasted with its Western counterpart in the fact that it is rooted in mysticism as opposed to individuality.

Islam itself has long had a tradition of mysticism that is known as Sufism. Sufism is a sort of an inward dimension of Islam, a practice that encourages a direct, personal connection with the divine, a spiritual proximity to the omniscient that transcends the physical world and temporarily subverts immediate reality.

Sufism is the quest for the truth of love and knowledge, without necessarily always distinguishing between the two. Rumi was known as the Mevlana (Maulana) and his poetic collection Masnavi meaning "the spiritual couplets" is known as the Persian Quran. He was no doubt a mystic, a Sufi, and one who strongly endorsed the personal, for the most intimately individual is the truly spiritual.

Rumi might remain unparalleled in not just the Islamic world but also in the world of philosophy and poetry across the globe. Another thing that he will remain is dead. The Taliban, on the other hand, at least for now, looks rampant and alive.

It is now up to us, the other people who are alive, and the ones who are going to be born — not just Muslims but everyone else as well — to choose which interpretation of Islam we uphold or react to, how we read history, and what we borrow from it.

How to cure bad water? Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits? Send me back to you.

(From the poem: "My Worst Habit")

I think what we, as a world, need now more than ever is to be sent back to Rumi.
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