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NMIT Working Papers present preliminary formulations of new data and thinking from ongoing social science research on the economic, cultural, policy and social implications of new media, communication and information technologies in the contemporary Middle East.

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Creative Destruction: Information Technology and the Political Culture Revolution in the Arab World

Michael C. Hudson, Georgetown University

Revised version of a paper presented to the Conference on Transnationalism, sponsored by the Royal Institute for Inter-Faith Studies. Amman, Jordan, June 19-21, 2001.

This working paper reflects upon the recent and accelerating implantation of new information technologies, notably satellite television and the Internet, in the Arab world. It draws in part on the work of the Arab Information Project in the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University over the past six years. This project is attempting, among other things, to study the political and social processes that facilitate - and inhibit - the spread of these technologies, especially in "information-averse" political environments. On the "output" side, it is seeking to understand the cultural, socioeconomic and political effects of IT in countries of the Arab world and the Middle East. This paper focuses on the latter concern.

Pan-Arab satellite television and the Internet have aroused considerable interest among journalists and social scientists who specialize on the Middle East. Will such information technologies erode the power of the state and the authoritarian character of many regimes? Will it enable the hitherto "voiceless" elements in society to express themselves effectively in public? Will it invigorate civil society? Will it enhance economic growth and facilitate integration into the global economy? And of particular interest for this conference - will it alter existing political identities? I would like to propose that the answer to all these questions is Yes. Even though the evidence so far is scant, I expect that IT is beginning to exert a revolutionary force across the Arab world that will challenge existing patterns of identity and authority and facilitate the redistribution of political power and influence. Driven by globalization and a new generation of elites and leaders, old categories of political identity and affilition are eroding and new ones are emerging. An "old Arabism" giving way to a dramatically different "new Arabism," and numerous other relatively suppressed solidarity groupings are finding a voice, especially on the Internet.

 

Some Propositions

For the sake of discussion, let me list a number of speculative propositions. I hesitate to formalize them as hypotheses but prefer to present them simply as ideas that have emerged in the course of our initial study of information technology (IT) in the Arab world.

  1. IT really is transforming Arab political culture, despite skeptics who point to the limited (elite) access to the Internet and cultural-structural imperviousness to mass-media-shaped public opinion .
  2. Observable political effects aren’t showing up yet; it’s a more long term process.
  3. Nevertheless, satellite television, particularly it leading edge in the Al-Jazeera Satellite Channel, and the Internet are already reconstructing Arab identity, from the simplistic ideological terms of the independence struggles toward a "new Arabism" that is pluralistic, in which new strands of community are being woven with more diverse threads.
  4. The IT revolution is slower to alter existing patterns of authority - and authoritarianism. We don’t see an immediate IT-driven opening to democracy, but the implicit emergence of new electronic voices must contribute to the erosion of state-driven "patriotism."
  5. One way in which IT is affecting the monopolies of power is through its effects on the rulers themselves. Subjectively, they seem to think that IT is a threat, even if there isn’t any objective evidence to that effect. Examples range from the way the rulers criticize Al-Jazeera to the calls of lesser officials for limiting access to the Internet.
  6. IT, and Internet especially, allow for easy establishment and proliferation of electronic "newspapers" that may perform many of the traditional political functions of newspapers in the past. In this region, many political parties were essentially built around newspapers.
  7. IT also permits "other voices" to influence the ruling circles by diffusing their messages globally. An NGO with an Internet site or access to satellite broadcasters gains attention, and influence, in power centers by channeling its content through centers of global power and legitimation. The leverage of a human rights group is the "value added" that its message picks up from being bounced off Washington or Geneva.
  8. Putting this in old-fashioned terms, we might say that the press as the "fourth estate" has gained new power and dynamism through Internet and satellite TV.
  9. Among the various currents in the region, Islamists, and their surrounding ambit of Muslims whose activism is not directed politically, seem to have been far ahead of others in exploiting the possibilities of IT. Why? Maybe because their websites and broadcasts can speak to a well-defined and motivated community of believers, while more abstracted ideological projects (secular socialism and liberalism) make demands on their potential audience that they cannot likewise match in action.
  10. The IT revolution in the Arab world thus far seems definitely to be favoring the expanding public sphere over the state. Who looks at state-run TV? Who looks at state-run websites? Even if e-government begins to make an impact, won't it be mainly as a bureaucratic convenience?

 

The Regional Context

In a region buffeted by major conflicts, socioeconomic pressures and exogenous penetration, regime legitimacy is under constant challenge. Threatened by these conditions, ruling elites have generally engaged in what we might call "defensive authoritarianism" that typically monopolize to rights to speak and what is acceptable public discourse. While the control capabilities of state and regime seem substantial - and they should be, considering the magnitude of investment in the military and security bureaucracies - regimes thus face what international relations theorists would call a "security dilemma." Their very investment in authoritarian control exacerbates "threats" from societal elements denied participation in government. Ruling elites have sought to generate legitimacy by imposing from above "legitimate" templates of identity and authority. As Lisa Wedeen has described for Syria, Gwen Ohkrulik for Saudi Arabia, and Linda Layne for Jordan, they have circumscribed acceptable political discourse into narrow, formulaic ideological categories and discouraged (or even outlawed) discussion "outside the box." Thus, monolithic presentations of state-centered identity and authority have been constructed largely from above, and alternative constructions have generally been construed by the authorities as subversive.

The IT revolution in the Arab world - as new and tentative as it is - presents ruling elites with seductive opportunities as well as subversive challenges. The opportunities reside in the power of IT to enhance governmental effectiveness and efficiency (via e-government) and jump-starting economies in a globalized economy (e-commerce, e-education). Leaders particularly find IT attractive as a new engine for generating employment and alternative sources of wealth for growing populations.

The challenges may be grouped into two: ITs enhancement of participatory and oppositional structures in society (NGOs, associations, parties, movements and the like), and its potential uses in the construction and reconstruction of political identities. As for the former, suffice it to remark that there does not appear to be much evidence at this point of IT contributing organization or new constituencies to political liberalization or democratization in the region. Indeed, with or without IT, the processes of liberalization and democratization in the region have hardly been robust over the past five years, when IT was beginning to gather momentum. This is not to suggest that structural effects will not become significant in the future. It is reasonable to expect that there will be a time lag before IT generates institutions that measurably empower civil society. Certainly there are incipient signs in, for example, the enthusiastic embrace of the Internet by Islamist groups and human rights organizations. There seems little doubt that rulers subjectively are feeling pressures as "other opinions" are voiced over the mass medium of satellite TV in a language - Arabic - accessible to ordinary people as well as to elites wherever the language is spoken, and to an influential international audience as well. As one Al-Jazeera executive observed to us recently, the only government that has not complained about Al-Jazeera’s coverage is Oman.

 

Reimagining Identities in the Arab World

Our main concern here is with the second category of challenges - those involving ITs role in the reconstruction of collective political identities. This too is a phenomenon whose larger effects remain to be seen in the future. Nevertheless, it is not too early to speculate about the direction of things to come. Political scientists working on the Middle East have found the concept of political culture problematic at least in some of its early applications (ranging from Orientalist stereotyping to inadequate typologizing), and yet it seems indispensable (except perhaps to rational choice theorists) for any serious analysis of political legitimacy. Embedded cultural norms relating to authority and identity need to be studied, as do practices of communication; especially with the impact of new information technologies questions need to be asked about the extent to which such norms and practices are being deconstructed, reconstructed, or replaced altogether.

Leaving aside the important subject of authority, even though the contestation across the Arab world today pits Islamic challengers against authoritarian incumbents, let us consider the indisputable fact of "identities in flux." We take as a starting point our rejection of the proposition that identities are not permanently inscribed and "primordial." While some conservative Orientalists and historians may still hold this notion, most social scientists now accept that identity and community are to a significant degree constructed and subject to invention and reimagination. Anthropologists, for one, have shown these everywhere to be multiple and situational. Thus, for example, we must treat with skepticism assertions that sectarian identity in Lebanon is fixed and unmodifiable.

Were we to take a snapshot of the identities "map" of the Middle East today, we could probably agree that the picture would reveal different domains of communal solidarity. We would observe patriotic affiliations by citizens or subjects to their state, and even though most Arab states are problematic we would be remiss not to recognize peoples' identities as Iraqi, Egyptian, or Jordanian, and so forth. If our camera had a fine lens, it would also reveal "sub-national" (below the state level) communities of an ethnic or religious-sectarian character - Berbers, Maronites, Alawites, etc. And we would detect some "sub-national" solidarity groupings like Kurds that are actually transnational, owing to the arbitrary drawing of "lines in the sand" by imperialist powers. Were it equipped with a wide-angle lens, our camera would also capture "supranational" communities defined by "macro" linguistic and cultural-historical markers such as the community of Arabs in the geographically contiguous Arab countries and the significant geographically disconnected diasporas. And the largest community of all would, of course, be the Islamic 'umma and Muslim diasporas throughout the world.

At the risk of pushing our photographic metaphor too far, let us imagine that we have in hand three such snapshots - one from, let us say, 1960, another from 1979, and a third from the 1990s and the present day. If our film could register the intensity of asabiyya at these various levels our snapshot from 1960 might reveal a fairly intense pan-Arab identity, while state-level and sub-national solidarities would appear relatively pale. But by 1979 (the year of Egypt’s separate peace treaty with Israel and the Islamic revolution in Iran), we might discover that pan-Arabism had faded, while state-level identifications were stronger. Also showing greater intensity were some ethnic-sectarian "minority" communities. Jumping ahead another twenty years, most dramatic perhaps would be the renewal - or, better, the reconstruction - of supranational Islamic solidarities. In the aftermath of the horrific attacks of September 11, 2001 in New York and Washington, apparently by Islamist militants, one might expect the salience of transnational "Islamism" to be greatly magnified, both within the Islamic world and outside it. For all concerned, the new information technologies have etched this particular construction of Islam on the global political consciousness—for better or for worse. Will the brutal symbolism of September 11th intensify identification with a militant version of Islam, or will it on the contrary signify the moral bankruptcy of such a construction?

Snapshots in cross-section give a rough idea of changes in the political culture terrain in the Arab world. But to adequately assess what I suspect to be the dynamism and fluidity of identity construction today, under the impact of IT, one needs at least a movie camera, if not an X-ray machine as well.

 

Measuring the IT Impact

Just a few years into the region’s information revolution, the number of participants has reached impressive levels, both on the satellite TV and Internet sides. Granted that reliable and meaningful numbers are hard to come by, conservative estimates of viewership on Al-Jazeera Satellite Channel (ASC) run in the low to mid hundreds of thousands, depending on time of day and the "newsworthiness" of events. An increasing proportion of viewers - perhaps 30 percent - are women. While audience share trails entertainment-oriented satellite channels like LBC and the state-run channels in many Arab countries, there seems little doubt that ASC has a significant if not predominant presence within its targeted audience of educated, professionally oriented individuals in or near the circles of political influence; and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that Al-Jazeera is "must" watching for leaders, high officials, politicians, diplomats, the intelligentsia, business leaders, and "opinion-makers" across the region. It is thought to have a high degree of saturation among Arab communities of the diasposra, especially in the United States and Europe. These numbers may not seem impressive in an Arab world of 250 million or more people; but bear in mind that they describe a news and opinion media platform comparable to the traditional print news media and much more broadly inclusive and a scant half-decade old. Bear in mind also that Al-Jazeera has exerted an imitation effect on other region-wide satellite channels like Abu Dhabi TV and to some extent on local government-operated stations. Of singular importance is the fact that ASC and its imitators are significantly more interactive with their audiences than traditional TV outlets. This is borne out by the volume of response to on-screen polls and by e-mail response to particular programs as well as in Al-Jazeera's stated policy of providing a forum for "the other opinion."

The numbers on the Internet side are equally interesting. First, we note the recent proliferation of Arab portals - according to my collaborator Jon Anderson, more than 50, with most of them operating in Arabic as well as (or instead of) English. The recently launched companion to Al-Jazeera TV, Al-Jazeera.net, receives some 300,000 visits a day, making it one of the Arab world’s busiest websites. And when Al-Jazeera.net invites its "community" to participate in on-line polling on current affairs, sports, Islam, or the like, it will pull in 20,000-35,000 "votes." Again, in terms of our inquiry about community and identity, it is important to underline the interactive behavior of the web audience. Consider too that similar "publicly oriented" websites, such as those established by major print newspapers, not to mention portals catering to a particular ideological tendency or material interest from Islam to youth culture, pop music, fashion, and business are also drawing - and no doubt expanding - publicly active on-line communities.

 

A "Pan-Arab Tent"? New Arabism vs. Old Arabism

"Creative destruction" was a term coined by the economist Joseph Schumpeter to describe the dynamic in which the weaker firms collapsed in favor of the stronger in the cauldron of competition that is capitalism. IT alone is not the destroyer and creator of identity groups, but I submit that it is playing a catalytic if not revolutionary role in the demise of certain old legitimizing formulae and in the consolidation if not the (re)construction of new identity categories. By supplying powerful new platforms and the freedom to use them, the leading edges today of the IT revolution - satellite TV and the Internet - are making it possible for new and old voices to be heard. Identity construction is not a zero-sum game; so the unfettered satellite stations committed to "the other opinion" as well as established opinion and the Internet with its peculiar reach and relative immunity from "editing" by censors are giving voice to a range from supranational and transnational Arab and Muslim communities to subnational and, as Hala Fattah has observed in her study of Iraqi websites, arguably "prenational" communities like the Assyrians.

The complete spectrum and dynamics of identity construction in the Middle East will take much time and effort to map comprehensively. Let us focus here on one important trend: the reconstruction of Arab identity. In doing so, the first thing to be observed is the withering away of what we might call the "old Arabism." The old Arabism, which drew upon historically rooted cultural commonalities, of which language was the most important, was constructed as a liberal program in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by intellectuals, reformers, political activists. Emerging as a political force in the late 1940s and early 1950s, it was reconstructed for mass involvement as a liberationist and socialist populist movement. In its Ba’athist incarnation it projected the image of a homogenous "nation" from the Atlantic to the Gulf, dedicated to liberating the entire Arab homeland, especially Palestine, and establishing a sort of state-dominated socialism. In its Nasserist incarnation, the ideological program was quite similar, but the central institutional vehicle was the regime-dominated single "party" of the Arab Socialist Union. Fueled by an earlier "information revolution" - the cheap transistor radio - the "masses" within the long range of Sawt al-'Arab transmitters were exhorted to become players in the drama of Arab national liberation and rebirth.

But the broadcast revolution lacked the scope and especially the interactivity of today’s more interactive IT revolution. If the masses were players, their role was largely passive and directed from above; they were the chorus, not the stars. The old Arabism withered as its leaders and political structures were eroded by international pressures and domestic failure. Populist but undemocratic, the old Arabism stifled pluralism and diversity in the name of monolithic unity. Remnants of the old Arabism are still represented in the press and on the television screens in certain countries; but the mere click of the dial will call up a multitude of other representations of what one might call "new Arabism" from the Al-Jazeera channel to LBC, MBC, ART, Abu Dhabi TV and from the national broadcasters who increasingly imitate them. Youth culture, music and lifestyle shows and, increasingly, documentaries by Arab producers probe the "other" sides - significantly, within the same public sphere as the representation of authorized opinion and imagery. On the Internet, this is, if anything, more diverse because of that medium's inherently many-to-many structure.

The template for a "new Arabism" is a framework within which the pluralism and diversity in Arab society can find a secure place and a platform for different voices to express different opinions. IT provides a new public space and thus enhances what Habermas, speaking of the European experience, called a public sphere. Journalists and executives at Al-Jazeera insist that they are not promoting an ideological agenda, let alone the monolithic, exclusionist, hierarchical program characteristic of the old Arabism. One sees not a new Arab nationalism but rather a new Arab identity and a loose solidarity in ASC's paradigm of seeking out "the other opinion." Nevertheless, it is hard to escape the impression that the new media are generating a sense of common concerns and common interests in the sheer geographic scope of their respondents. The Arab public space is occupied not by a single issue or a single position but multiple transnational communities - professional, cultural, political - who communicate on the web or by watching, and responding to, satellite TV. The idea running through these various forums is not to create a single unified Arab state; in fact there is no substantive program at all. Having said that, it also must be said that there is one issue - the question of Palestine, and the Arab-Israeli conflict in toto - that has once again become a transnational cause within the Arab world, owing in no small part to Al-Jazeera’s graphic presentation of the present uprising to a huge audience, both fascinated and horrified, from one end of the Arab world to the other, and in the Arab diasporas as well. Arab public and official reaction to the US government’s call for support following the September 11 attacks was deeply qualified by perceptions of the Al-Aqsa intifada—so much so that a very high American Defense Department official expressed frustration that the US "seems to come out on the short end of the PR [public relations] stick."

One might, perhaps at some risk, to draw a comparison with American political identity: although there are exceptions, most Americans do not want or need a monolithic "American nationalism" except in times of war. Iindeed, the term even sounds strange to most Americans, though not, I suspect, to foreigners. American identity - increasingly diverse and constantly being reconstructed - is what some politicians would call "a big tent". The same might be emerging in the Arab world.

None of this denies or comes at the expense of other loyalties and solidarities. State patriotism is not challenged, nor are commitments to the Islamic 'umma or ethnic and sectarian communities. The "new Arabism" is notably pluralistic and egalitarian. Does this, and the public space opened by IT, enhance the prospects for democracy? As noted above, there is not much empirical evidence of such a relationship thus far; but if the values of openness and habit of public debate theoretically facilitate democratic transitions, and if freer access to the public space is characteristic of the new information technologies, then it is reasonable to anticipate the information revolution as having such an effect. The electronic public sphere may be helpful for democratization within the established Arab states, but it surely is not a sufficient condition. Too many have other attachments.

 

The "Other Opinion" on IT in the Arab World

In 1995, when we initiated our Arab Information Project at Georgetown, we shared in the general optimism of many observers about the potentially "transformative" effects of the information revolution. It was not long before more skeptical views began to be heard, and they are still heard. Yet I am not yet ready to give in to the skeptics. Unlike some of the more simplistic modernization theorists of the past, I do not insist that "the new Arabism," political liberalization, religious and ethnic harmony or other good things are inevitable. Multiple elements also are at play, and agency has a role that is unpredictable. And, as already noted, there is at least one powerful and highly monolithic competitor: militant Islamism. Skeptics, moreover, are right to point to a number of inhibiting factors. Most populations have medium to high illiteracy rates, limited education levels, and limited command of English, so far the dominant language of the Internet. Some argue that cultural factors such as a lack of trust and suspicion of disembodied technologies with a strong Western imprint will reduce the impact of IT. Conservative elements demand censorship and limits to access out of morality concerns. Indigenous IT capability is held back by small, segmented markets, hemmed by regulation and financial difficulties. Governments still have the power and inclination to curb IT diffusion even as top leaders extol its virtues. They have the power to restrict and regulate and are often paralyzed by internal infighting, with the Telecoms authority often dragging its feet in order to protect its bureaucratic turf and its revenues. And some governments keen to advance IT are too poor to devote sufficient resources from within or attract them from without to build the necessary infrastructure. The local private sector, where one might hope to find an engine of IT development, is often focused on more immediate concerns; and the contraction of the international IT economy may dry up sources of investment and development for the local IT sector. Finally, the region’s seemingly perpetual conflicts surely inhibit IT development and, as we have recently seen, reinforce monolithic authority and identity constructs.

These claims needs to be examined individually in order to make an assessment of just how debilitating they are and whether there are countervailing positive trends. For example, Jon Anderson has noted that the steady Arabization of the Internet, its increasing heteroglossia and the interests that engages, would seem to address some of the skeptics’ arguments. If certain cultural constructs of "information adversity" remain in play, there seems to be substantial evidence of an enthusiastic cultural embrace of what is, at minimum, the more interesting content that the IT revolution brings to an expanding public sphere. In contrast to the top-down, one-way message-sending of earlier IT tools, the interactivity associated with Internet and satellite TV seem to have engaged key constituencies for change in the educated, middle-class stratum just below the ruling elites. Perhaps as important, these technologies have engaged the younger generation, not only of "would-be" elites but the children of the elites themselves. IT may be reshaping old identities and creating new communities, but this does not guarantee a happy ending in the structural contestation over political legitimacy. With new voices being raised, more participatory government will be desirable for the sake of stability. But that does not mean that it will appear; and indeed, so far the gates of political participation have been opening very slowly indeed.

 


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