THE NEW ARAB PUBLIC SPHERE – Book Sample
Introduction – THE NEW ARAB PUBLIC SPHERE
When the idea of this book was floated some two years ago, the author initially thought that it would be just another Arab World media survey of recent communications developments in a region extending from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Arabian Gulf in the east.
It is a huge area of land with diverse sub- cultural and ethnic entities; yet, with significant common features of language, religion, and history. For hundreds of years, this area, referred to in this book as the ‘Arab World’, had experienced similar conditions of Arab-Islamic rule, Ot- toman domination, European colonialism, and post-independence development.
As the 21st century dawned on the region, the Arab World, more than ever be- fore, has continued to grapple with inherited, yet more complicated, political and cultural ferment, centering on the evolution of its unique identity in the ages of both modernization and globalization.
At no point in the region’s history had political disintegration and cultural disorientation been as acute as in the first decade of the 21st century when state authoritarianism, religious fundamental- ism, Western imperialism, and socio-economic under-development have con- verged to carry conditions into new appalling frontiers. Sadly enough, national and global power politics rather than public diplomacy and human dialogue, has become the key to defining the region’s destiny.
A prime backlash outcome of those historical tensions and their early 21st century culminations is clearly visible in the region’s hurried search for common solutions to its complex woes in parochial nationalism, Islamic fundamentalism, or pragmatic alignment with Western-style socio-economic modernism.
In the midst of those scenarios, the development of modern communications in- stitutions in the Arab World has also exhibited identical features relating to media role in national liberation, cultural integration, sustainable development, and political democratization.
As in other world regions, mass and Web-based media have increasingly turned into central players in the evolving public sphere, defined here as the virtual incubator of diverse political and social views pertaining to society and the state.
The modern Arab mass-mediated public sphere has traditionally mirrored not only the unidirectional, authoritarian, past-oriented, and exclusivist public discourse in the region, but has also exhibited the complexity of political and cultural norms and values giving rise to such discourse. Arabic, as a language of modern political discourse, has been viewed as ‘inherently pre- disposed’ to delivering rosy images of highly sentimental and detached realities.
In the age of globalization, this emerging Arab public sphere has been hailed as heralding the region’s transition into a more egalitarian phase of development. For the first time in their contemporary history, Arabs have found themselves face to face with a wide range of cross-road challenges arising, among other things, from the information and communications revolution and the expanding American influence around the globe.
Governments no longer have the final say in deciding national agendas as more indigenous and exogenous voices seem to gain more ground in the struggle for the hearts and minds of the region’s population.
In this respect, the author cautions, the evolving public sphere should not be uncritically taken for granted as it could prove to be no more than an arena of ‘creative communications chaos’, to borrow Condoleezza Rice’s reference to the state of political and military confusion in the Middle East. The mass-mediated public sphere could neither be a function of ‘coercive democratization’, nor a product of imported high-tech media structures. It is rather a reflection of the community’s evolution of genuine social visions drawing on a synthesis of the best and the brightest of its cultural heritage and of modern cultural and political practices.
The employment of the notion of the pubic sphere in the Arab political communications context dictates going further beyond traditional descriptions of media landscapes. It rather involves the analysis of moral, cultural, and political foundations that seem to give the evolving Arab public sphere its unique identity.
If one claims that the public sphere is traditionally a product of specific European historical experiences, then its investigation within an Arab World setting would likely be plagued by serious conceptual and methodological tensions.
But since the public sphere in the age of globalization is no longer viewed as a monopoly of a Western invention, but rather as a universal ingredient of national and global democratic politics, its use for understanding the communication-politics nexus in the Arab World seems highly relevant.
In recent years, the issue has come to gain some vogue in the region as some Western, especially American intellectual voices embedded in global politics, have euphemistically described current media and political transitions in the Arab World as bearing seeds of a new public sphere.
This optimistic intellectual tradition obviously seems to run counter to yet another stream of Western thinking that perceives the Arab World as a cultural wasteland, a breeding ground for hate and bigotry, with no relevance for contemporary democratic politics. From an intellectual point of view, both views concur in viewing the Arab Middle East as a source of global evil that could be redressed through democratization.
In addressing this two-fold perspective, this book strongly argues that the Arab World could bring its rich cultural heritage to bear on contemporary political discourse through a process of creative synthesis that neither divorces itself from core Arab-Islamic values and norms, nor disengages from global political and cultural practices.
The key to success in this endeavor is the evolution of a new understanding of both Arab- Islamic morality and global political realities as two mutually-inclusive intellectual domains with promising implications for the region’s development for decades to come.
The challenge facing the author in reconciling moral Arab-Islamic traditions and contemporary social and political imperatives of the public sphere has been the subject of a two-century old debate centering on the notion of Nahda (Renais- sance).
Lewis (2005) notes that in the aftermath of Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt in 1789, a profound sense of puzzlement dominated the intellectual atmosphere in the country over what seemed to be irreconcilable Islamic and Western cultures.
The puzzlement had continued until the answer was found by Sheikh Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, a very remarkable Egyptian scholar who had spent seven years in France as part of a scientific mission dispatched by Muhammad Ali, the Egyptian ruler at the time, to look into French technological and scientific advancements and harness them to Egypt’s benefit.
In his truly fascinating book about post-revolutionary France, al-Tahtawi pointed out that when the French talked about freedom, what they meant was what we Muslims call jus- tice. He was quoted as saying that ‘just as the French, and more generally Westerners, thought of good government and bad government as freedom and slavery, so Muslims conceived of them as justice and injustice’, (Lewis, 2005).
When considering how such bold and far-sighted interpretations of Arab-Islamic morality managed to surface in the region’s public intellectual discussions two centuries ago, our spirits get surely dampened by the failure of current reconciliatory endeavors to deliver bright thinkers of Tahtawi’s caliber at a time when they are most urgently needed.
As much as modern Arab-Islamic reconciliatory traditions were cognizant of significant common grounds shared by both Arab and Western cultural and political orientations, they seemed also conscious of their moral and philosophical disparities.
Conceived and carried out within the ‘dialogue of civilizations’ traditions, Arab World -based efforts to harmonize Arab-Islamic and mainly West- ern worldviews have come some way, especially in the post-September 11 era. The whole issue of the ‘dialogue of civilizations’ has been intrinsically about creating and expanding common grounds; establishing bridges; and yet, recognizing diversity.
Within that same tradition, this work is meant to be an intellectual exercise in cultural and political reconciliation. This synthetic approach suggests neither appeasing the West nor pushing Islamic norms beyond their prescribed limits by suggesting some illusive common grounds on both sides of the divide.
It rather draws more on proven historical evidence that great ideas often derive their viability and sustainability from their dynamic assimilative potential and their built-in propensity to expand their boundaries to accommodate other great ideas and practices with profound moral redeeming values.
This was exactly the essence of sustainability in Islamic civilization in different phases of history when Arabs, as bearers of the Islamic message, found them- selves face to face with foreign civilizations in alien lands (Bliwi, 2005). Islam possesses a limitless assimilative capacity drawing on a comprehensive conception of the Universe as fully harnessed to the benefit of Man within an elaborate system of morality that embraces a great deal of diversity.
It is a central theme of this book that because the two sources of Islamic morality, the Qur’an and the Sunna (Prophet Muhammad’s traditions) flow from a Divine source; the legitimacy of their status as terms of reference could never be questioned. How- ever, our interpretations of those references are always subject to scrutiny since they reflect imperfect human comprehensions of the scriptures as defined by social time and space contexts giving rise to those interpretations.
Hence, religious knowledge, as derived from the Qur’an and the Sunna, within varying historical and cultural contexts, could take multiple forms. It is within this diversity that Arab-Islamic history has seen the evolution of intellectual pluralism as evident in different schools of philosophy, jurisprudence, and politics.
The Arab-Islamic community (Umma) began to dive into the abyss of darkness only when varying understandings of Islamic morality began to take on authoritarian, domineering and exclusivist tones that discounted other views as heresies. Knowledge in Is- lam is an open resource and nobody could claim monopoly of its acquisition and interpretation.
The use of the public sphere as a conceptual framework for addressing Arab media role in the region’s politics as well as in the Arab-Western dialogue is justified on numerous grounds. First, the dramatic development of media in the Arab World in the past two decades has brought about new communications re- alities unprecedented in modern history.
The information revolution seems to have expanded Arabs’ media reach and opened up promising windows of opportunity for the emergence of new local and global players with unorthodox cultural and political views.
The introduction of satellite television and the World Wide Web has enabled broader popular access to information in different areas of relevance for both official institutions and private individuals and groups. Second, political and social transformations sweeping the region have created an unprecedented mobility in Arabian societies as marked by the introduction of broader participatory arrangements and more open social and cultural orientations.
To a large extent, the ongoing political transition has been induced by both global and local players with vested interests in the region both as a home- land (local players) and as a strategic asset (global powers). The process of change has spawned complex tensions between the modern and the traditional; the dominating and the marginalized; and the local and the global.
The implications of how to deal with ‘the other’ in this highly-charged political transition have been quite immense. In one way or another, the interplay of both new communications and democratic developments has served as an impetus for accelerating the emergence of a new public sphere believed to carry both formidable challenges and bright opportunities for the region’s population in the 21st century.
The emerging public sphere, as a prime function of this technological and political confluence, reflects a basic human penchant for social survival (since communication is the building bloc for human communities); and hence, it is not a Western-specific concept despite its historical European inception.
In its basic configuration, the public sphere revolves around the broad communication phenomenon which furnishes the adhesive social foundations for community devel
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