Sunday, November 23, 2008

Gulf Political Blogs

Early this evening I went to a panel on "Negotiating Community in the Arab Persian Gulf" which featured Fahad Bishara from Duke, Farah al-Nakib of London's School for Oriental and African Studies, UCLA'a Laith Ulaby, Leila De Vriese of Hamline University, and a chair/discussant whose name I did not catch and who is not listed on the program. It provided a lot of food for thought, such as a comment from the chair that the contemporary kalaf system for guest workers might owe something to the organization of the pearling labor force in the 19th and early 20th centuries, a response to Bishara's solid and informative paper.

What I'm actually posting about, though, is De Vries's work on political activist blogging in Gulf countries, particularly Bahrain and Kuwait. She attributed the most efficacy to Bahrain's blogosphere, mentioning in particular the "Brain Farts" feature on the late, great Mahmood's Den. Overall, she credited the Bahraini blogosphere with generating a reconceptualization of Bahraini citizenship as part of an upsurge in grassroots political activism, particularly by Shi'ites. She also credited Kuwaiti blogs with playing a significant role in that country's 2006 Orange Revolution.

It may just be that as a historian I'm sensitized to different elements of phrasing than the political scientists who tend to discuss this issue, but I've been skeptical about attributions of current social and political transformations to the introduction of specific technologies. One way I've tentatively started thinking about these issues is to ask whether and how new technologies create new kinds of opportunities, such as radio providing the chance to reach out to the illiterate without a physical presence, or significant multiply existing ones, such as the replacement of parchment with paper in the 8th or 9th century Middle East making texts far more readily available. When I think of technology impacting the Middle East today, I'm more convinced of social and economic change than I am political, for reasons I mentioned way back here.

In this light, my questions about a transformative effect of blogging technology, as opposed to specific blogs, on Middle Eastern politics should be easy to understand. Wasn't there political activism among Bahraini Shi'ites during the uprising of the 1990's? Hasn't Kuwait generally had a strong democratic tradition, and don't its diwaniyahs also create something like a public sphere?

After a certain point, untangling the degree to which a new technology has actually been critical to a social change can be more trouble than it's worth. When you think of radio in the Middle East, you think of Nasser's "Voice of the Arabs" rallying support for his chosen causes. Yes, this reached the illiterate Saudi oil worker, allowing him to see the conditions in which he worked as part of a broader pan-Arab struggle. At the same time, 75 years earlier, The Indissoluble Bond, a newspaper published by Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad 'Abduh, was read by the literate to the illiterate in coffeehouses, much like in rural Morocco, people who know only Moroccan colloquial Arabic would have to have someone educated in Modern Standard Arabic translate the radio news for them. Technology is not determinative, and the types of change to which it can lead are never something that can be described in absolutes.

After this panel, however, I have moved on a key point based the observation, by whom I don't recall, that blogs have allowed women to participate openly in the same political sphere as men, even in highly segregated societies such as Saudi Arabia. That is certainly true. In societies with high internet penetration, blogs can have a democratizing, community-building function. Although we've seen this in the United States, its occurrence in politically closed societies such as Bahrain is significant because of the nexus of people it can bring together in certain types of interactions. I don't know all the ramifications that the term "public sphere" has in political science, but it sounds like a local one may have emerged in certain Gulf states of a type that would have been unlikely prior to the internet.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)

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