[This post is part of an ongoing Profile of a Contemporary Conduit series on Jadaliyya that seeks to highlight distinct voices primarily in and from the Middle East and North Africa.]
Jadaliyya: What do you think are the most gratifying aspects of Tweeting and Twitter?
Nora Abdulkarim: Twitter provides the chance to see different worldviews and their effect on people’s interpretations of the same news and topics. I find this fascinating and immensely useful in strengthening my own perspective. It has also been a great way to participate in open discussions and interact with individuals that I would otherwise not have the chance to. This exposure to a variety of opinions and critiques allows one to learn from others, re-evaluate their own positions, and crystallize their understanding of how their arguments sound to others.
J: What are some of the political/social/cultural limits you’ve encountered using the platform?
NA: As your followers’ count grows, there is always the temptation to write what you know the majority would like to hear. But, authenticity is important. Repetitive, careful tweeting is uncreative and terribly predictable. There are plenty of "polite commentators" saying what others want or expect. Why be one of them?
J: In your experience and use of Twitter, do you feel it helps mobilize or disorganize? Focus or crowd? Is it manageable or noisy? Can it help persuade and mobilize or does it turn everyone into a voyeur and spectator?
NA: Twitter is all these things and more. I think it’s that flexibility that has kept me interested in it. I find it far better than all other social media. Each Twitter account can be used in any manner the user wishes and there is always the choice to alternate between roles: either writing numerous replies in personal and light conversations, tweeting continuously on events (like a protest) as they happen, or getting on a soapbox and writing a string of numbered tweets outlining your opinion on a current issue. That’s the beauty of Twitter; you will only be as rigidly boxed into a ‘pattern of use’ as you allow yourself to be.
J: In what ways has Twitter helped you as a source of information? How do you sift through that information and determine its credibility?
NA: I tend to sift through information on Twitter by first mentally categorizing who produces it. It’s important to remember whom you are reading before you take in what they are saying, since essentially the who and what are inseparable. Also, Twitter was designed such that your timeline is filled with opinions you agree with, assuming that’s why you followed their authors, along with a sidebar that’s constantly encouraging you to follow more like-minded people. It is easy to remain in a reinforced frame around the same information. I find it prudent to actively seek out those I differ from, follow them, and favorite some of their thought provoking tweets to think about further. As for credibility, Twitter, by its nature, is fast-paced, and encourages impassioned reactionary stances. But passion without knowledge is worthless. Luckily, I was advised early on to balance intake of immediate information with independent, regular reading and analysis. Tweets are 140 characters; they are only snippets of the big picture. If information presented to you feels flat, it probably is; don’t take it at face value, go read up on it. This prevents getting caught up in “groupthink” and strikes a balance between information of the moment and its roots in the past. Credibility is in holistic opinions, in voices grounded in context.
J: Some of your Tweets deal with recent, controversial “savage” ads by a pro-Israel group in New York City, and others deal with the portrayal of Muslims during the “Innocence of Muslims” controversy. Do you see a connection between pro-Israel advocacy and way Muslims are depicted in mainstream American media?
NA: Such reductionism benefits many political actors: pro-Israel advocacy groups, the military-industrial complex, Arab dictators, and so on. Realistically, these actors will continue to operate based on their interests. The narrative surrounding Muslims, and Arabs more generally, in the media can also be traced to the absentminded or intended acceptance it receives from some journalists, academics, and readers. Their willingness to take on this imposed framework is in part due to lazy intellect, fueled by moral panics that resulted from the War on Terror, as it is easier to generalize the negative acts of a few than to look for the positive acts of the rest. It is also due to the seemingly total inability to analyze those violent few, as there is a strong reluctance to understand violence in the political realm, as evidenced by their forever-repeated, falsely-phrased question: “why do ‘they’ hate ‘us?’”
This is the “Modern” man’s empty reaction to political violence. Not all violence, of course, as violence toward “progress” is warmly welcomed, believed to be both legitimate and understandable, as argued by the Bush Administration during the “liberation” of Iraq. Other political violence, however, is currently deemed “religious extremism,” its religiosity is in focus to frame the violence as beyond rational comprehension, and its extremity emphasized as though it were beyond the acts of the rest of humanity, part of an exclusive “culture of Terror.” As Mahmood Mamdani, a professor of Anthropology and Government at Columbia University, observed, “faced with political violence that arises in a modern context but will not fit the story of progress, theory has tended to take refuge in theology and culture.”
In the modern political discourse, used by the media and various political actors, there is an underlying idealistic image of humanity (defined as those who adhere to so-called Western values) as “Progressive” and “Civilized.” This leaves no room for contextualizing political violence as within humanity. This has lead to shallow rhetoric that simply deems events and peoples as “barbaric,” i.e. unexplainable as part of Modernity, and “savage,” i.e. beyond “civilized” humanity. But it makes little sense to accept such a discourse that excludes individuals, however violent they may be, and comfortably equate “Terror” (implied in the pro-Israel ads’ phrase “defeat Jihad”) with these “Others.” This rhetorical trickery fails to recognize violence as a product of the Modern project; a sign of weakness from both the non-state actors, who found all other alternatives to violence as futile, and weakness from the state itself, that was either unable (or unwilling) to provide those political alternatives.
It is the stark “good” and “evil” or “Western freedoms” and “Eastern enemies” dichotomy in the prevalent rhetoric that has become a sort of secular takfir. As Shiraz Doss, a professor of Political Theory at St. Francis Xavier University, argued, “this is indeed the paradoxical nature of morality properly understood: when it strays outside its legitimate sphere it inevitably becomes tyrannical and dangerous because its only concern is the integrity of its own self, not the shared community, not the common world.” It is this introduction of “evil” into the political realm that has meant the undermining of the law as a “moral necessity” to deal with “terrorists/jihadis.” But, there is no political fabric connecting citizen to government other than law, and once this is shattered, when “good/bad” is replaced with “good/evil,” individuals become actors beyond citizenry and are susceptible to treatment that citizens do not have to experience. Thus, this demonization is indeed a “secular takfir”, physically embodied in Guantanamo Bay, for example, as its location is excluded from the “civilized” West, beneath humanity, and beyond the Geneva Conventions.
Thus, in a more realistic framework that did away with shallow dichotomies and false portrayals of peoples and events, the “enlightened” would appear rather similar to those violent few from the “backwards” Third World. This does not justify violence, by any actor, but it does invite explanations for it as something other than simply acts of “savages” that “hate” Western values.
J: You have discussed in depth the actions of several Saudi dissidents, including Manal Al-Sharif and Mohammed Al Qahtani; what do you consider the most viable means forward for political dissent in Saudi Arabia regarding women`s rights and civil rights more generally?
NA: I think the most viable means forward in political dissent in Saudi Arabia is first to look to its past. There is a common joke in Saudi that it has the most polarized society, despite a governmental ban on political parties. I’d like to explain this by drawing attention to a superb article that is both insightful and concise, written by Sultan al-Amer, a Saudi intellectual. Al-Amer explains the rise of political factions in Saudi Arabia, the first large-scale Saudi political movement being the ‘Sahwa’, or ‘Islamic Awakening’, of the 1980s to mid-1990s. Its sole focus was on preserving Arab and Islamic identity and interests of the region, ignoring political rights, and directly opposing and actively suppressing individual freedoms. As an opposite to this, the Saudi Liberal movement emerged that was preoccupied with individual freedoms. Both movements lack what the current political dissent in Saudi Arabia must include: a focus on political rights and democracy. As al-Amer puts it, “it is for this reason that I reject the liberal narrative. Not because I am against individual rights, but because I refuse the dismissal of political rights and identity. This is the same reason why I previously rejected the ‘Sahwa’ narrative as well, not because I was against Arabism or Islam, rather, I cannot accept the sidelining of political and individual rights”. And, in my opinion, the cause of Saudi women’s rights will only be successful when it is no longer treated as separate from that same movement for political and individual rights in Saudi Arabia.
Political dissent in Saudi Arabia is fractured today by some liberals who insist on labeling the religious conservatives and much of what is considered to be Saudi/Arab culture as “backwards”, echoing the Orientalist narrative of many Western scholars. I’ve called it “self-Orientalism:” when the liberals decided to idolize the West and internalize Orientalist rhetoric, all while fetishizing a fictitious image that only existed in their imaginations of a homogeneous and superior “Western culture.” They are typically fearful of political rights and display passive acceptance of the status quo of a non-democratic government as a protective shield against a possible democratically induced “conservative take over.” Likewise, some conservatives will typically cloak political motives in religious rhetoric, demonizing liberal’s desires for freedom as a sign of cultural decay and atheism. The existence of these factions is not in itself the problem; the issue is when either side will accept, and at times applause, the government for oppressing the other. This can be seen when a cleric is illegally arrested, and some liberals assure themselves “he’s a terrorist.” And when a liberal is illegally detained, some conservatives will argue, “he was a religious and cultural threat anyway.” Neither necessarily hold these opinions, though some may, but these factions rationalize in this manner in order to ignore the objectionable arrest and violation of rights itself. They judge their interest to be only in the immediate political point won, rather than in the long-term interest of preserving political and individual rights. This is foolish since the government has shown that time and time again: just as it giveth, it taketh away – regardless of political faction.
Thus, the way forward for political dissent in Saudi Arabia is that, unlike some liberals, it ought not be timid in the face of conservatives’ political rights, nor ought it shun liberal sentiments for individual’s freedoms, as some conservatives have. Such rights-based discourse is making its way to the general public through intellectuals’ written words and activists’ actions in protests or court trials. It is sometimes opposed by the more polarized on either side of the spectrum, but it will be supported more generally, I believe, largely as a natural consequence of witnessing the Arab Spring and the resulting democracies. There’s another joke in Saudi that despite the absence of democracy, Saudis watch political debates and elections in other countries so closely, you’d think it were their own. Obviously, they wish it were.
[Nora Abdulkarim blogs at Ana3rabeya and tweets at @Ana3rabeya]