Linda Herrera, editor (with Rehab Sakr), Wired Citizenship: Youth Learning and Activism in the Middle East. London and New York: Routledge, 2014.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you put together this book?
Linda Herrera (LH): The idea for this book began during the workshop, “Youth and Citizenship in a Digital Era” of the Thirteenth Mediterranean Research Meeting of the Robert Schumann Center for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute. During three days of lively and often impassioned discussions, I knew that we had valuable and unique material from a highly engaged community of scholars that should be shared with a wider audience.
This volume showcases cutting edge research on the region that is being undertaken in large measure by junior and female scholars. Of the thirteen scholars represented in this book, twelve are female. They speak the local languages of the countries under study, including Arabic, Turkish, Persian, French, Pashto, and Greek. Through entering into the life worlds of children and youth, by spending time in their virtual spaces, classrooms, communities, and streets, we show how young people are innovating modes of learning, socializing, and doing politics. We also highlight how the struggles between the powers and counter-powers are becoming more contentious and trickier to maneuver in the digital age.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
LH: The social contract between the state and its citizens has been eroding at a rapid pace for at least two decades. The book examines how in the Arab world, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, and southern Europe, growing numbers of young people aged roughly from twelve to thirty have been articulating a rejection of the status quo. It traces how they try to forge alternative knowledge, economies, political practices, and social spaces, including virtual spaces. Authors engage debates around “cyber optimism,” “cyber skepticism,” network society, and democracy. Their inquiries sit at the crossroads of critical theory of education, sociology of communications, new social movements, and youth studies.
The work is divided into two sections. Section One, “Virtual Learning for Critical Citizenship,” deals with the life worlds of students who have been growing up with new media and communication technologies, yet within authoritarian and crony neoliberal systems. In “Youth and Citizenship in the Digital Age: A View from Egypt,” I take a sociology of generations approach to trace the demographic shift and changing political culture of “wired youth” in the years leading up to Egypt’s January 25 revolution. Picking up where that chapter leaves off, Amro Ali and Dina El-Sharnouby examine the limitations of social media campaigns. Their chapter, “Distorting Digital Citizenship: Khaled Said, Facebook, and Egypt’s Streets,” calls for deeper forms of awareness about class and gender inequalities and for social movements that can be more socially transformative.
Taking student culture as their starting point, Charis Boutieri and Demet Lüküslü, in chapters on Morocco and Turkey respectively, call for a reconsideration of the terms and concepts “activism” and “political participation.” They show students’ growing disenchantment with a formal education system that is in the grip of high-stakes testing and promotes antiquated and unjust modes of knowledge production. Students are finding new ways to express dissent, produce alternative knowledges, and organize creative forms of civil disobedience, whether in virtual spaces, on the streets, or in their campuses. Children are also joining the ranks of citizen dissenters in growing numbers. In her chapter, “Children’s Citizenship: Revolution and the Seeds of an Alternative Future in Egypt,” Chiara Diana looks at changing childhoods in revolutionary and unstable times. She considers how the kinds of critical citizenship practices children learn on the streets and online will likely remain with them as they move through different life stages and continue to be society’s change agents.
[Contributors at the Thirteenth Mediterranean Research Meeting at Montecatini Terme in 2012. From left:
back row: Mira Nabuilsi, Dina El-Sharnouby, Catherine Cornet, Amro Ali, Rehab Sakr, Linda Herrera;
front row: Chiara Diana, Miranda Christou. Image provided by the author.]
In Section Two, “Internet, Geopolitics and Redefining the Political,” authors deal with deterritoriazlized communities and the power struggles taking place online. The chapters on Cyprus and Iran remind us to remain attuned to how communities and states use the Internet for decidedly anti-liberatory and anti-democratic purposes. In “Opening Networks, Sealing Borders: Youth and Racist Discourse on the Internet,” Miranda Christou and Elena Ioannidou demonstrate how a right-wing group in Cyrpus utilizes social media to spread racist ideas and build anti-immigrant networks. Narges Bajoghli, in “Digital Technology as Surveillance: The Green Movement in Iran,” puts a spotlight on state surveillance and the risks citizens face when using digital media for anti-government activities.
Tech savvy citizens, artists, and activists continuously innovate on ways to build movements, organize commerce, and create culture. Mira Nabulsi looks at how Palestinian activists build transnational networks to publicize acts of resistance of political prisoners through Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Taking a rather different spin on network building, Catherine Cornet shows how these very same social media tools allow artists and other producers of cultural content to bypass state institutions to exhibit and sell their art directly to online publics.
Finally, Fauzia Rahman and Rehab Sakr engage in investigative scholarship to excavate the hidden and powerful hands behind certain social media phenomena and their connection to geopolitics. Rahman traces networks between Pakistan, the UK, and the US to tell the story of Malala Yousafzai in her chapter “‘We Are Not All Malala’: Children and Citizenship in the Age of Internet and Drones.” Sakr looks at the highly effective and often stealth ways the Brotherhood asserts itself in social media in the chapter, “The Power of Online Networks: Citizenship among Muslim Brotherhood Cyber Youth.”
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
LH: I hope this book will resonate with students interested in youth and the Arab uprisings, education and citizenship, and changing modalities of activism in an age of uprisings and uncertainty. As a book that looks for points of intersection, I would very much like to see it open conversations and contribute to knowledge building about critical democracy, power, and counter-power in the digital age and the age of uprisings.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
LH: I recently finished a book with Verso entitled Revolution in the Age of Social Media: The Egyptian Popular Insurrection and the Internet. I am also in the final stages of a documentary based on a dialogue between Mohamed ElBaradei and Rajmohan Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and a peace advocate and political figure in his own right. The dialogue that took place in Cairo, deals with the immense challenges of building democratic cultures, institutions, and minds after great moments of collective action. ElBaradei, who is dubbed “Twitter Man” by his opponents, represents in many ways a zeitgeist figure of the digital age and someone who I think is under-appreciated and misunderstood among academics and students of the Arab uprisings. He may not be the man to market himself as the face of a movement or to push for radical politics, but he is someone who has inserted important ideas about change into the public imagination. He is a kind of “meme maker” if you like.
In addition to these projects, I plan to do more systematic research on the linkages between foreign policy, education, and grassroots movements in the digital age.
J: How does this book contribute to or diverge from previous scholarship on virtual youth activism in the Middle East?
LH: Much of the scholarship on virtual youth activism in the Middle East looks rather narrowly at the correlation between digital technology and democracy. It tends to focus on how young people have been using online spaces for political mobilization, building horizontal networks, and engaging in “leaderless” politics. While online communities can surely break down hierarchies, they can also reinforce hierarchies when in the hands of more powerful players. A shortcoming of much of the work on new youth activism is that it is excessively celebratory and not mindful enough of issues of power, geopolitics, and the rapacious effects of capitalism. Much of the scholarship produced after the Arab Uprisings does not pay due regard to how the internet can be a devastating frontier of control and surveillance.
The authors in this volume unpack concepts like “activism,” “agency,” “youth,” “digital democracy,” “development,” “education,” and “politics.” We try to maintain a balance between recognizing the incredible openings made possible by digital technologies, while remaining cognizant of some of the risks and perils of these spaces.
Excerpt from Wired Citizenship: Youth Learning and Activism in the Middle East
From Linda Herrera and Rehab Sakr, “Introduction: Wired and Revolutionary in the Middle East and North Africa”
When news surfaced during Tunisia’s uprising in December 2010 that Facebook served as the headquarters of the revolution…and that the date for Egypt’s 25 January Revolution was set by the Facebook page “We are all Khaled Said”…analysts scrambled to understand what exactly had been emerging online in virtual spaces. It soon transpired that the younger generation had been experiencing novel forms of “wired citizenship” and in the process had been reimagining the very terms of the social contract and rewriting the script of what it means to live in a democratic society.
The societies throughout MENA, southern Europe, and western Asia provide an especially compelling vantage point from which to understand the condition of growing up in the digital age and in virtual spaces. This region constitutes a geopolitical hotspot with no dearth of youth triggered popular mobilizations. From Iran’s Green Movement, which erupted in 2009 in response to a disputed presidential election, to the Arab uprisings, followed by the anti-austerity demonstrations around southern Europe in 2012, and in the following year the Taksim Square protests in Turkey, young citizens have been challenging the state and the status quo on the streets and in virtual spaces.
It is no coincidence that in addition to having high and growing rates of connectivity, this region, where up to seventy percent of the population is under thirty-five, has also been witnessing escalating rates of youth poverty. Decades of structural adjustment, rule by corrupt oligarchies, and neoliberal economic and social policies have hit young citizens hard.…Youth insecurity in the labor market has led the International Labor Organization to characterize this global generation as “a generation at risk” (International Labor Organization, 2013). We argue that the economic situation is much more insidious; it has led to a condition where youth are the new poor.
A major difference between the old disenfranchised and marginalized poor of laborers, peasants, and members of the urban underclasses, and new youthful poor, however, is that youth constitute a highly schooled and tech-savvy cohort. As they work out ways to live outside the system and to construct alternatives, the young devise their own methods and spaces to engage politically. To a greater extent these spaces are online and virtual. The communication tools and virtual platforms on which youth challenge the system and forge alternatives are no “weapons of the weak,” to use James Scott’s term (1985). These are the tools of commerce, the weapons of power, but they are also the weapons of the people. Generational fault lines are widening at ever-larger proportions as youth use connection tools and virtual spaces to pursue their own trajectories of learning, socializing, working, playing, networking, doing politics, and exercising citizenship.
We are aware that youth do not make up a monolithic and homogenous category, and that inequality around connectivity, class, gender, region, religion, and any number of areas of difference persist. We argue, nevertheless, that it is valid to conceptualize youth as a generational cohort who carry features of a “wired generation” (Herrera, Chapter 2). Users of digital media seamlessly move between online and offline spaces. They carry virtual attitudes, values, and behaviors to their peers in schools, on streets, and in popular culture. They transform society and social relations in their wake, even among people who do not participate directly in virtual spaces.
The young citizens who have been coming of age on social media have been the instigators of mass mobilizations and revolutions. This observation may seem unremarkable; after all, “Revolutions are the empire of the young,” as Simon Schama writes in his magisterial work on the French Revolution, Citizens (1989, p. 8). Young and determined citizens who took part in the major revolutions of the last two and a half centuries—from the American, French, Russian, Iranian and Egyptian revolutions—share a common political genealogy. They have sought emancipation from the institutions of the ruling class, and liberation from the ideological frames by which the oligarchies perpetuate their rule and justify taking the lion’s share of wealth and resources.
The jury is still out as to whether recent youth-triggered and partially virtually mobilized uprisings will help the cause of increased democracy, justice, and equity, or whether they might precipitate their further demise. On a global level, the region represents a laboratory for testing the role of wired citizens in reshaping democratic thinking and practice.
[Excerpted from Wired Citizenship: Youth Learning and Activism in the Middle East, edited by Linda Herrera with Rehab Sakr, by permission of the editor. © 2014 Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]