Adel Iskandar and Bassam Haddad, editors, Mediating the Arab Uprisings. Washington, DC: Tadween Publishing, 2013.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Adel Iskandar and Bassam Haddad (AI & BH): The idea for this book grew out of the splendid contributions to Jadaliyya from a number of authors who offered interventions on the role of media in the uprisings. With a dearth of critical examinations about the media and the representation of these movements, it became increasingly urgent to challenge some of the prevalent assertions circulating widely.
Unlike our authors, our work as editors was considerably straightforward. We identified essays that demystified the media and raised more questions than they answered. In the end, the impetus was the hope of introducing nuance into an often oversimplified discussion of a cataclysmic period in regional history.
With the media being a central component into the way in which the uprisings are conceptualized, represented, and historicized, it is vital that journalistic standards and free media principles are problematized to evaluate the performance of the press. Additionally, our intention was to challenge the narrow definitions of uprising and media by exploring the fault-lines.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?
AI & BH: Mediating the Arab Uprisings speaks to several varied issues. From journalistic coverage and conflict/war reporting across the region to the representation of specific discourses on competing networks, the book is an extensive contestation of different levels of mediation.
At this point, there is a dearth in the literature on the media and the uprisings, so the volume is one of the earliest to engage with this topic from multiple facets. We were also keen on expanding the discussion beyond the characteristic obsession with Al-Jazeera`s prominent role and social media`s triggering effect. By addressing the challenges faced by journalists reporting from the frontlines, we address perspectivist challenges, especially in relation to regional and global power centers. And when it comes to youth activism and the social media, we were adamant about ensuring that the most prominent platforms are addressed as tools for mobilization, such as in Linda Herrera`s essay on the "We Are All Khaled Said" Facebook page, or the analysis of myth-creation in Amro Ali`s essay on the symbolic construction of the young man behind the inspiration. Additionally, in contexts of dramatic turbulence, such as the first year of the Egyptian revolution, the book includes a detailed near-daily review of the domestic media coverage.
We also wanted to discuss the increasingly pressing perspectives of gender and Islamophobia in the context of the uprisings, which have yet to be tackled succinctly. In Mediating the Arab Uprisings, the essays challenged the temporal and geographic fault-lines of media and the uprisings by expanding the treatment to include such topics as Iranian women ninjas in the western press, the New York Times` problematic presentation of Palestine, and Gulf bloggers.
J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your or other research and writing?
AI & BH: Most research and writing on media and the Arab world has not contemplated the possibilities and expressions of popular uprisings, so this volume is actually broaching this topic for the first time. But rather than look at the uprisings in isolation from one another or from the political, social, and cultural milieus predating the protests, the book attempts to place this period within a longer lineage of media practices on the region.
Since little has been published to date on these topics thus far, the book is treading into new territory. Nevertheless, it is an unabashedly critical examination of media during this formative period in the region`s contemporary history.
In terms of the composition of the manuscript, each of the authors delivered a contribution unique in its prose, style, and disciplinary inclination. Some authors wrote meditative, reflective pieces, such as those eulogizing the late Anthony Shadid. Others are analytical critical examinations of coverage. A few essays are narrations of events, and several are commentaries.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
AI & BH: This book is geared towards scholars, educators, and students of the Middle East, as well as journalists, media practitioners, or anyone with an interest in the representation of the region. The wide implications, both regional and international, of the Arab uprisings should be a source of curiosity for inquisitive non-specialized readers as well. We think the volume would make a refreshing and timely addition to upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses on the Middle East, as well as international communication and media studies classes.
As far as impact, we would like to see this volume contribute to the growing literature on media in and on the Arab world. Most importantly, the essays in this book are a corrective to the narrow scope and problematic treatment that dominate the public discourse about the region and the laissez-faire attitude towards poor journalism on the uprisings.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
AI & BH: All of our authors in this volume are extremely active scholars, each with several ongoing projects. Their intellectual credentials and vibrant careers are a testament to the imaginative work they continue to produce, both for Jadaliyya and beyond. As far as our work as editors, in addition to co-editing the Media page, Adel Iskandar has a forthcoming book entitled Egypt in Flux: Essays on an Unfinished Revolution (American University in Cairo Press, 2013), and several others in the works, including Before the Explosion: Media on the Eve of the Arab Uprisings and Discourses of Discord: Culture and US Public Diplomacy. Bassam Haddad just had a special symposium he co-edited with Jillian Schwedler published in the American Political Science Association’s journal Political Science and Politics. The symposium is entitled "Teaching About the Middle East Since the Uprising" (April 2013). He is currently working on his second book manuscript on Syria`s social and political transformation.
J: What methodologies did you use in your research toward this book?
AI & BH: Each of the authors in the book brought her or his own theoretical and methodological approaches to bear in each contribution. So while there is no overarching methodology that runs through the manuscript, there are nevertheless thematics that permeate all the essays. These include the intent to undermine and deconstruct the oversimplified assumptions about the "nature" of revolution. They also include the recalibration of the lens used to assess the uprisings by drawing attention to the multiple loci of power, both regionally and globally. Perhaps most importantly, all the essays challenge the unipolarity of media studies on the Middle East, thereby insisting that all future research on communication and the uprisings be unabashedly interdisciplinary, theoretically expansive, and unrestrained in its criticism.
J: What was the best part of working on this book?
AI & BH: Not only was the subject matter and compiling it a truly enthralling experience, it`s also a real breakthrough for Jadaliyya and Tadween. As the first book to emerge from contributions to Jadaliyya, it is a testament to the vitality of the work published on the site and the contribution it offers scholarship on the region. As the inaugural book from Tadween, Mediating the Arab Uprisings was a very exciting endeavor for all those involved. The tireless work of Tom Sullivan, Nehad Khader, and Kaylan Geiger was truly something to behold. The Tadween Team has accomplished so much in such a short period of time and we look forward to reading more from them. We are proud that this is the first volume that Tadween has produced.
Excerpt from Mediating the Arab Uprisings
From the Introduction:
For months, I continued to follow Tha’er Sukhny online, his discourse becoming more and more incisive and reactionary. With each month, his followers grew, but so did his adversaries in an online war with Al-Assad supporters and regime ambivalents. Until one day, in response to an article I had posted on my Facebook wall about the Bahraini protest movement, Tha’er Sukhny responded with a message that was an open call for ethnocide against all Shiites everywhere as retribution for Al-Assad’s crimes and Iranian complicity. Arguably an undiplomatic utterance, but such is the thorny, turbulent, cacophonous, reality-interrogating milieu of contemporary activism in the Arab blogosphere, too often simplified once they make their way through the machinery of media production.
This is but a glimpse into the unadulterated stories often varnished by the media in their adamant efforts to present the revolutions through the prism of binaries: antagonist/protagonist, friend/adversary, peaceful/violent, protester/terrorist, regime/people, sectarian/inclusive, etc. In some cases, missing the nuance can be a fatal error; in other cases it is itself a crime. In many instances where these protest movements were described as completely peaceful, they were not. In many instances when abhorrent crimes were attributed solely to the regimes, they were not. These are all significant dilemmas for coverage that is driven by black-and-white dichotomies. Acknowledging nuance may hurt one party or another’s moral high-ground, but it does not diminish the righteousness of their demands for dignity, freedom, justice, and change. In all, these uprisings have upended the media. At once catching them off guard, confusing them, exposing their ignorance, complicating their formats, and in some instances rendering them completely irrelevant.
At a time of overwhelming enthusiasm for social media as tools for political action, expression, mobilization, and identity construction, sound analyses and critical discussions about the manner in which these popular uprisings originated, developed, and materialized are often lost in the fine print. The international media’s heavy reliance on social activists on Facebook and Twitter poses significant advantages to relaying messages at a time when global correspondency is increasingly underfunded and documentation and reporting is more frequently conducted by members of the public. It also poses overwhelming challenges to the ability of journalists to corroborate information and events on the ground. Not to mention, there exists the concern that these online spaces are prone to becoming echo chambers divorced from what happens on the ground in each respective locale. In such instances, especially when protest groups are actively embellishing their narratives for collective mobilization and inspiration (which is by no means unnatural given the hefty regime propaganda machinery they face), the international media’s reliance on these online spaces often has contrary-to-intended effects by disconnecting journalists from unfettered access to action on the ground. Alternatively, the Arab uprisings have been extremely costly for the journalistic corps, as scores have been killed, and many more injured, not to mention the lasting psychological effects of having witnessed the horror of death and destruction. In the end, observers of the explosion of public discontent across the Arab world in 2011 and 2012 have been treated to an increasingly problematic and convoluted media picture.
From a Western media perspective, coverage of the uprisings has metamorphosed and evolved in intriguing ways. What began as initial alarm at these acts of protestation in the region and the knee-jerk paranoia and condemnation (which leveled accusations of extremism against many dissident movements) eventually turned into favorable cheerleading. In the end, the conduct of Western media is a crescendo of divergent confusion vis-à-vis the particularities in each country’s patterns of public action. Admittedly, the Western media were forced by the uprisings to forgo their reliance on typical motifs because what was happening on the ground was more nuanced than any of the prototypes often depicted and also in response to a strategic shift in Western governments’ tackling of the uprisings.
At first taken by surprise and forced into a state of reactionary caution, Western media quickly adapted their depiction of the uprisings from concern to advocacy for the demands of the dissident movements. The pro-activist representational frames they employed were a unique and welcomed departure from the Orientalist tropes that manufacture Arab dissent as an act of unruly barbaric irrationality. However, they are often prefaced with the latent fear that these revolutionary movements will produce unfavorable “results for Western governments and their interests in the region. For this reason, the international media still have the archetypal repertoires of Arabo- and Islamophobic categories on standby like “first-aid kits” to remedy the anomalously-positive coverage, particularly when these revolutions go awry and no longer seem so fairytale-like. And when it happens, as it has in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya with the rise of Islamist political forces to the forefront, the media can easily revert to tried and tested modalities.
Just as the international media struggle to cover the uprisings, the media landscape in the Arab world has also been shaken to the core, forcing state institutions to respond to the most challenging transformations in the configuration of political power in recent memory. Transnational satellite television networks are all too often commemorated for either leading or undermining these uprisings (such as Al-Jazeera’s enthusiastic support for the Tunisian, Egyptian, Libyan, and Syrian protest movements but questionable neglect of Bahrain). Nevertheless, the clear dichotomies between regime vs. opposition are becoming increasingly obsolete as novel forms of camouflaged authoritarianism become more resilient and adaptable. In some instances, this manifests in the form of a rise in militarized propaganda anchored in nationalist and sectarian politics. In many instances, state broadcasters, having lost any modicum of credibility, have either attempted to reinvent themselves, such as Tunisian central television which now serves as an oppositional voice to the government, or repackaged the same product, as in the case of Egyptian state television, which simply switched loyalties from Mubarak’s regime to that of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), and later to the newly-elected Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi. Even satellite networks like Al-Jazeera (particularly the Arabic network), often seen as independent, freewheeling, and firewalled from their funding streams, have started looking more like foreign policy arms for their respective governments.
[Excerpted from Mediating the Arab Uprisings, edited by Adel Iskandar and Bassam Haddad, by permission of the editors. © 2013 Tadween Publishing. For more information, or to purchase the book, click here.]