Jadaliyya co-founder on telling alternative stories about the Arab world, understanding the life cycles of revolution, and confronting “the weight of ancient problems.”
In the fall of 2010, I was crossing a crowded hotel lobby at the Middle East Studies Association convention in San Diego when a friend introduced me to the writer, editor, and scholar Bassam Haddad. “Bassam is starting a website,” she said. “You should know each other.” He slipped me a business card with the word Jadaliyya (Arabic for “dialectic”) on it. “There isn’t much online yet,” Haddad explained. “We just launched.”
A few weeks later, Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, setting off a mind-bending chain of uprisings from Libya to Yemen. In the four years since, dictators have fallen, elections have been held, constitutions drafted, political parties established and banned, and presidents elected and jailed, as millions have protested and millions more have become refugees of civil conflicts. Meanwhile, Jadaliyya—which Haddad co-founded and co-edits with several other writers—has emerged as one of the most widely read sources of commentary on the politics, literature, history, and culture of the Middle East. More specialized than a mainstream periodical but more nimbly attuned than an academic journal to the evolving microclimates of expertise on the Middle East, Jadaliyya now reaches nearly two million readers each week, and is run by a growing network of volunteers around the world. Together they commission and publish a couple hundred articles every month—opinion and analysis, poetry, criticism, news roundups, book reviews, conference reports—in four languages: English, Arabic, Turkish, and French.
In the context of contemporary debates over the irrelevance of the academy, the corporatization of higher education, the end of scholarly publishing, and the disruption of old media by new media, Jadaliyya seems to be portentous of something. Is this the perfect marriage of informed scholarship and public engagement, or is it just a larger bubble of academics speaking to each other and few others? In our many conversations, Haddad has appeared allergic to both the trivialization of the region’s complexities by the mainstream media and the obscurantism of much academic writing. “We are trying to publish the most interesting work,” he told me over coffee in Beirut a couple years ago, adding, “but we don’t need every last footnote.”
Haddad grew up between Lebanon and Dubai before moving with his family to the United States as an adolescent. His scholarship deals principally with the question of how Syria’s regime has ensured its “authoritarian resilience” through ties to the business community. He also serves as executive director of the Arab Studies Institute, a nonprofit research center that functions as the umbrella organization for Jadaliyya and a number of other knowledge production initiatives. Since the Arab uprisings began, Haddad has been much in demand as a media commentator, and has come under significant fire from both the regime and opposition supporters for attempting to articulate a “third way” out of the crises.
I caught up with him via Skype during one of his recent trips to Cairo, and our conversation covered freedom of expression and civil liberties in the Middle East, representations of the Arab world in Western academia and media, and his own coming of age as a multidimensional scholar.
—Elias Muhanna for Guernica
Guernica: You grew up in Lebanon during the tumultuous 1970s. What do you remember of that time?
Bassam Haddad (BH): Before the civil war broke out in 1975, everything seemed dreamy, almost in black and white, as though it was a film. As I remember it, people were happy. I was not fully aware of the conflict initially. During the war, my family moved to Dubai for some six years, where I went to Lebanese schools and lived in a comfortable bubble.
We returned to Lebanon in 1980-81, but the war dragged on. It was ugly. We lived right on the green line between what was called “East” and “West” Beirut. I recall my parents not being fond of either party to the conflict, but when the bombs fell around where we lived, it was visceral. We did not cheer for those launching them from the “other” side. By 1982, the civil war was more like a regional war with an international flavor, and it took place in a tiny country riddled with contradictions and way too many political orientations, allegiances, sects, and ideologies. The final straw was the devastating Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which resulted in more than seventeen thousand deaths in a very short time period. Within a year or so, my family emigrated to the United States, and has been living in Washington D.C. for more than thirty years now.
Guernica: You were fifteen when you came to the United States. Looking back, can you trace the significance of that juncture on your way of thinking?
BH: I mostly came to appreciate how privileged some people are as opposed to others, and in turn how privileged some countries are as opposed to others. That feeling never left me. As a college student at George Mason University, I became more politically aware and joined groups that were politically active on campus. The first intifada in Palestine against the Israeli occupation in 1987 was seminal in pushing me toward some form of activism. The next major juncture was the invasion of Iraq. This politicized so many of us and clarified where we fit in and where we did not within the American polity. It was an uphill battle to affirm oneself, at that time.
Guernica: You have had a multidimensional career path: documentarian, magazine editor, activist, scholar. I even remember you once saying how you put yourself through grad school by DJing. What ties all of this together?
BH: The one constant was exposure to the world at an early age, through various lenses. I felt there is a lot I can do with this privilege in a way that does not include wasting time, and wasting resources. But whether through art or scholarship, I wanted to have an impact on the public realm. To affect how people talk about the things that I cared about, including the Middle East, but also questions of social justice that are not generic and involve what I witnessed here, growing up in the United States. I have tried to do this through academia, through writing and speaking, through film and music, social media, and most recently, through publishing pedagogical materials for the classroom.
Guernica: While working in academia, what pushed you to pursue more alternative mediums as well?
BH: I was always struck by the disconnect between the great minds around me at the university level and what was going on within the minds of students. I felt that academics were often out of touch with the next generation. I also felt that many of the students around me, from all kinds of backgrounds, were out of touch with the world or not interested in the mechanisms and systems that have a great impact on their lives. I thought, “Academia needs framework that is not only grounded in yesterday, but in today’s world and the preferences and habits of today’s peoples.” It was important for me to produce good content, but it was also important to present it in attractive and compelling ways, especially in the United States, where comfort is the opportunity cost for many.
So I tried to follow a model that provided a balance between scholarship and other activities that sometimes have more of a direct impact on the world. Though my first scholarly book on the political economy of Syria [Business Networks: The Political Economy of Authoritarian Resilience] has had considerable success, it is arguable that other forms of knowledge production that I have been involved with have had more of an impact on public discourse.
Guernica: Perhaps the best known of these other projects is Jadaliyya, which describes itself as an independent e-zine on the Middle East. How is it different from other sources of commentary?
BH: The recurring answer we share—and anything I say reflects a collective effort, the work of dozens—relates to the breadth, depth, and consistency of content. This is our comparative edge. We actually cover the entire region, including the marginalized areas, and we encourage rigorous and meaningful analysis and interpretation, whether it comes in the form of social science writing, literary reportage, or fiction. By building separate country and topical pages with mostly autonomous teams, we address both global observers and those who are most comfortable or most interested in local knowledge. We publish in four languages, and because of long-established networks from the early 1990s, we have audiences and contributors around the world.
Besides the content, it is an organizational matter, and it is a dialectical issue. It starts with knowing yourself as an organization. We are a solidarity-based, not market-based, organization that is primarily run by volunteers. So right off the bat, if folks feel like they don’t matter, or even like they’re not part owners of the project, it is not going to work. The Arab Studies Institute has survived for twenty-two years now on this basis, though clearly not without faults or contradictions or, at times, hypocrisy.
Organizations live because they continuously renew and reinvent themselves. You renew yourself by being open to other ideas, sometimes better ideas than your own. You renew yourself when the content of ideas is more important than their source. You can have a newcomer who has the capacity to revolutionize an age-old mechanism but his or her status as a newbie can be a constraint. You have to crush that constraint, even if selectively. You renew yourself when you let in new blood constantly, and you renew yourself when you do not allow leadership, seniority, or formal positions to get in the way of autonomy, and the autonomy of others to innovate.
But here is where the dialectic comes in: you have to go back and forth diligently and in a clever manner between affirming structure and rules and affirming agency and autonomy. The skill that is required here is art, not science.
Guernica: It seems much of your work stems from a dissatisfaction with the way the Middle East is portrayed in the West, in the media, and elsewhere.
BH: It is the idea that you know what is going on in your region, you know what is going on in certain aspects of life that you’re familiar with, and then in various official discourses, government and otherwise, you hear a totally different narrative that is not just different but quite problematic, and quite prejudicial at times. But it is a narrative that is very consequential in terms of policy. What I have been trying to do is counter that hegemony not by fighting with it, but by creating an alternative reference point for what is rigorous, what is sound, what is just, what is the truth. With Jadaliyya, we do not pretend to capture the truth, but we try to provide an alternative, and thus create a shift.
Guernica: Can you articulate what this dominant Western narrative is, perhaps with regards to the “Arab Spring”?
BH: I would like to stick to the notion of Western views in the plural, as they are multiple, varied, and internally conflictual. In thinking about the Arab uprisings, success in the region was viewed as shocking. Success of a democratic, mass-based movement is something we are not used to. But failures—which supposedly the uprisings headed into, when after a few months they were no longer euphoric—are familiar. In representing the reasons for this turn, the “pessimist turn,” explanations are reduced to culture. Liberal discourse turns to theologocentricism when trying to explain and understand events—that is, [liberals] attribute the causes of what they observe to religion, as opposed to politics, economics, regional and international relations. Thus they eliminate the influence of all other non-cultural, non-religious factors on behavior.
Guernica: Presenting alternative narratives for the West is one thing, but how much of an impact can an outlet like Jadaliyya have on the flow of ideas in the countries you’re writing about?
BH: We have to be modest and realistic: the total number of people who read publications like Jadaliyya, which is not exactly like an accessible mainstream newspaper, is limited. However, we do believe we are offering a platform that influences opinion and knowledge-moulders throughout the United States, Europe, and the Middle East who themselves look to Jadaliyya as a source of reliable and timely knowledge. Two years ago, we used to reach fifty thousand readers a week. Now we are at 1.8 million a week, and we are read in more than 210 countries. Our Arabic readership quadrupled in one year. But we do not want to pretend to be something we are not. We are neither a news outlet nor a grassroots publication, even if the grassroots dimension of readership in the region is increasingly tuning in.
Guernica: Given your involvement with writers in the region, to what extent has a sense of freedom, of opening up, been sustained since the so-called Arab Spring?
BH: Clearly there have been some openings—and this started with the invasion of Iraq, something I witnessed firsthand eight years before the uprising. There is something deeply refreshing about being able to express one’s views freely without fear of reprimand or worse. Various conventions and norms are being challenged more routinely and more deeply and more naturally. Issues that were once taboo are now on the table: gender, sexuality, homosexuality, the importance of voice, of certain kinds of expression, social justice, economic policy, corruption. The discussion has been changing—not just on the streets, so to speak, but also through art and cultural production. In Tunisia, for example, you’re seeing musicians coming together and having a voice that they did not have before. This is all very promising.
But the gains from an atmosphere of free expression are nearly always exaggerated, absent structural change that empowers individuals and groups. Lebanon is the best example. You can say almost whatever you want on almost any topic. But it is largely inconsequential when it comes to the quality of people’s lives. It is not without its merits, but to divide and separate things such as free speech from other realms like economics, politics, and rights is the best way to reproduce existing power relations.
Freedom of expression is a decent start, but is always selective, as it is in the United States too, and it reflects enduring red lines. Look at Egypt. Everyone has the freedom to say horrible things about the Muslim Brotherhood as an institution or as individuals, even demonize them and apply the mindless US “War on Terror” discourse to describe them, and it’s all right. But if you say one word about Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi or try to demonstrate, as the liberal activist Alaa Abd El-Fattah tried to do, you get thrown in jail.
When such freedoms supposedly undergo change, but with no corresponding change in the power structure and the social structure, the outlook will remain bleak. It’s a new and improved version of what used to be called political liberalization, except that was almost completely cosmetic. Today, there is room to use openings in unprecedented ways, but it’s not automatic. Sustained work, organizing, and strategic mass mobilization are necessary.
Guernica: Amid the bleakness that has beset many post-Arab Spring countries, is the energy of the Arab uprisings at risk of disappearing completely?
BH: Despite all the regression we see around us from Libya to Egypt to Syria, in terms of counterrevolution, internal repression, and external intervention, the uprisings were a necessary condition for progress within and across countries of the region. It is undeniable that the power, space, opportunity, and network capacities to subvert have expanded. The Arab uprisings demonstrate that there is a new force to reckon with now, one that used to be considered a cliché, and that’s “people power.” But again, that is another tool. It could be put to use in various ways. The technologies of power can employ such tools in ways that reproduce the status quo.
The other big obstacle, some say the biggest, is the continuing support of repressive and reactionary regimes by the United States and other European countries, primarily for the purpose of maintaining control over the biggest energy resource worldwide.
The problem is that some struggles have gone so far astray that the notion of revolution is now but a faint memory, something beautiful to reminisce about, but nothing likely to happen in the short run. Syria is a great example. Whatever the outcome there in the medium run, it will be only another phase of what seems to be a much more fundamental struggle. What I just said about external intervention, especially the US invasion of Iraq, whose effects are now increasingly defining the struggle in Syria, will make this process much more complicated, because there’ll always be someone worse than your immediate enemy.
Guernica: How do you weigh the utility of technology in this environment?
BH: There is no doubt technology and social media played a very important role as a vehicle, but not an impulse, behind the Arab uprisings. It is overstated if you include it in the causes of the uprisings, but if you talk about technology as a vehicle that helped move things faster and catalyze them, that is something I can support. But its effects are unreliable, and routinely exaggerated by those who know more about technology than they do about the region. The same thing happened in discussing the uprisings as the “revolution of the youth.” Or the “revolution of the educated middle class.” All of these outside perspectives are not helpful, but emanate from fertile ground. They will linger for a while, but they will end in some analytical dustbin where they have outlived their purpose in mainstream news. The entire phenomenon of the uprisings themselves will, I think, eventually end up where Iraq ended up in mainstream media in the United States. Nowhere.
Guernica: You have said freedom of expression is crucial, but only a tool to address the social, political, and economic problems awakened in this time of flux. What strategies do you think are most effective in tackling these larger issues?
BH: Against a stacked local, regional, and international deck, we really need innovation and strategy as much as we need commitment and will. The latter will no longer suffice on their own like they once did. But innovation and strategizing require a peace of mind that is not afforded to the would-be conduits—be they activists, journalists, artists, scholars, legal advocates—because the weight of ancient problems is debilitating. From the lack of opportunity and employment to the lack of freedom to organize and mobilize—these ills pose serious constraints on collective action, requiring even more innovation and strategizing.
Sometimes, in response to such constraints, the smarter thing is to go small, not big, and build relations with other small outfits or groups until such time that collective action is possible. And we are seeing this happen. There are efforts to reform the security sector. Initiatives in the realm of human rights—not just basic rights, but understanding the structural reasons why rights are not being preserved or protected. And groups working to create alternative media that move away from the dominant narrative. It depends on the locale, really. There is no blueprint, but the one thing you don’t want to stop is acting against whatever disempowers you and disempowers whole groups of people.
Guernica: I want to talk more about representations of the Middle East in Western media. After September 11th and again during the Second Gulf War there was a significant outcry from the community of Middle East academics about representations of the Islamic world in the mainstream media. At that time you made a documentary called About Baghdad, referring to both a spatial “about Baghdad” and a discursive “about Baghdad.” I’m curious to hear about this experience.
BH: Going to Iraq when everyone was leaving Iraq was kind of lunatic, but anyone who knows the history of occupation, resistance, and violence knows that it usually takes a while for an indigenous resistance movement to organize itself and for violence to become ubiquitous. We went directly after the invasion and were fortunate enough to capture that unique moment when folks were ready and thirsty to speak out, but had not yet fallen into the mundane and templated mode of “speaking to the media.” Our aim was to tell a different story from the one we routinely hear in the media, both Arab and American. We wanted to hear the narrative from the mouths of ordinary Iraqis. The film followed my close friend and soul mate Sinan Antoon as he went back to his own country after a dozen years of separation, and this helped make the film an organic venture of sorts.
What we saw and heard was neither Bush or Saddam. These were the wrong questions. The dilemma for Iraqis was layered, and riddled with contingencies: getting rid of Saddam was good, but not when his former supporters, the Americans, did it. Still, many were willing to give the “occupation” a chance, and some spoke of a time limit for the U.S. to prove they were there as a positive force. Yet others only saw the U.S. as occupiers, and did not hold out any hope for a better tomorrow, even without their oppressor. As one pedestrian put it as he walked by us, in a scene that appears at the end of the film, “The student is replaced by the master.” Being in Iraq and making the film at that moment was surreal, and invaluable. Most rewarding about the film are the testimonies we have heard and continue to hear about its impact on American audiences.
Guernica: In terms of representation, is the situation any different today than it was back then? Or do you feel stories are still being significantly narrowed and distorted?
BH: The larger picture has not shifted much. Theologocentricism, as I mentioned, and other lenses that look at the region as if it is monolith, as if it is ossified, frozen in time, as if distinctions do not matter within or between countries—all these modes of interpretation persist. We addressed these modes in our second documentary on terrorism, What is Said About…Arabs and Terrorism. People in the region were not distinguished from the “parties” that, for instance, committed atrocities like 11 September 2001, like the London attacks, Spain, Bali, etc. They were all lumped into what is called “the swamp”—the region of the Middle East, a jumble that brings together Afghanistan and Pakistan along with the Arab world.
Those ideas have not changed drastically within the mainstream, but we have seen some change. Based on documented material like Pew surveys and polls, we have seen a more critical stance adopted by the average American consumer of mainstream news. The critical stance is actually, interestingly, not based on knowledge of the region, which would have made people skeptical about problematic policies. Rather, it is a critical stance toward American institutions selling something that might be problematic for its people. For example, the Iraq war was sold on false grounds. We temporarily have a more skeptical stance toward the United States’ foreign policy, like the discussion about striking Iran, or, during fall of 2013, the question of striking Syria. The American people have been more cautious. It is not because of love of the Syrians or Iranians. It is primarily because those things were not viewed as the right things for the United States at a time like this. It’s just like with the invasion of Iraq and the common critique from the liberals: the invasion was a bad idea because “we,” the United States, were not sufficiently prepared for the post-invasion period, not because it was morally wrong and based on fraudulent evidence.
Today, and again based on polls and surveys that have become public knowledge, much of the American public feels that the United States is militarily overstretched, that we have economic problems at home, that we do not want to create more enemies, and so on. This increasingly critical public is ultimately a good thing. But it does not possess more knowledge of the causes of the region’s problems, which include past and present U.S. policy. The continuing support of Arab dictatorships like Saudi Arabia until this very day, even after the Arab uprisings, is fraudulent. But it is practically a non-issue in public discourse. The irony is lost on most of the public here: when dictators that the U.S. supported for years fall, the U.S. administration says it supports the transition to democracy. But until they fall, it is OK to continue to support them, which is exactly what the United States is continuing to do. Sure, it is a matter of “realpolitik” for the US government, but the public is paying the price, a democratic public in a democratic polity, no less. It is absurd. Kind of like Egypt and the support for al-Sisi today. Soon it will backfire. In both cases, the complacent mainstream media played and continues to play a significant role.
This is one of the reasons why we as an epistemic community—a community that produces knowledge—do what we do: we create organizations and projects that try to present alternatives to the mainstream. An alternative that can offer something, rather than just debunk claims—that can offer knowledge, and ways to find out and learn more about the region, and the way the United States relates to it.
Guernica: You mentioned epistemic communities, which brings up this enormously ambitious project you’re working on, the Knowledge Production Project. What is driving this effort?
BH: The Knowledge Production Project (KPP) is an organic outgrowth of what we have been doing at the Arab Studies Institute since 1992; that is, producing knowledge on the region that is analytically rigorous, stands the test of time, and is independent from various power centers and policy circles. KPP is simply the actual realization of the evidentiary base that everyone refers to in the abstract. It aims at gathering, organizing, and analyzing nearly all knowledge produced on the Middle East in the English language since 1979 in at least six databases, which include all books produced at all levels in the English language, all peer-reviewed articles, all films/documentaries/TV shows, all translated books [into English], and all knowledge-producing websites. We are also starting to mine doctoral dissertations. And then finally, we are mining all think-tank reports and papers produced on the region, including the relations and job history of think-tank personnel and how they circulate within the realms of academia, media, government, and the think-tank world.
In addition to making this data visually accessible and stimulating, the project is also looking at patterns and trends to see if there might be connections between research agenda choice, power, and funding. For instance, you could look at how, in one particular year, all disciplines—from political science to sociology, anthropology, and history—dealt with a particular issue. And how differently they approached an issue, and what percentage of publications were devoted to that one issue in a particular year, reflecting not just “intellectual” but political interest. You therefore get to actually see how knowledge production is politicized, not just that it is politicized. You could look at the instances across databases in which the word “Islam” is associated with a word like “violence”, or “terrorism,” or see what disciplines, publishing houses, peer-reviewed journals, and think tanks are more or less nuanced, or close or far from policy circles on given issues.
These kinds of insights will allow us to not just produce knowledge but also scrutinize the process of knowledge production. In the end, what one can gain is something very simple, but fundamental, and that is this: what is out there in terms of knowledge on the Middle East does not represent a natural distribution of what needs to be known. The process is politicized. Surely that is something we all know, but now we’re presenting evidence for the kinds of claims made not just by Edward Said but by people before and after him.
[This interview was originally published on Guernica: A Magazine of Art & Politics.]