CHANTAL THOMAS: Thank you, again, for being with us today. I'm Chantal Thomas. I am a faculty member at the law school here. And it's my pleasure to introduce our penultimate session of today and our final panel before the keynote address later today. We are delighted to welcome Professors Bassam Haddad and Rebekah Maggor as our speaker and commentator for this panel, both of whom, I would say, work at the cutting edge of knowledge production and cultural critique in the media, as well as the academy.
Our distinguished speaker, Dr. Bassam Haddad, is Director of the Middle East and Islamic Studies Program and associate professor at the Schaar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. His academic publications include a monograph from Stanford University Press entitled, "Business Networks in Syria, the Political Economy of Authoritarian Resilience," and also forthcoming work and from Stanford UP entitled "Understanding the Syrian Tragedy, Regime Opposition Outsiders." He's also a founder of numerous highly impactful media platforms that include the E-zine, Jadaliyya, which has been an essential clearing house and destination for commentary and analysis about him from the Arab and Muslim worlds across a wide range of domains, from culture to political economy, to law and conflict, to one of my favorites, NEWTON, which is the acronym for New Texts Out Now
Doctor Haddad is also a founding editor of the Arab Studies Journal, a peer-reviewed research publication, executive director of the Arab Studies Institute, executive producer of Status Audio Magazine, and a member of the board of the Arab Council for the Social Sciences. He's a founding editor also of Knowledge Production Project, which is an open-access archive search tool and data visualization program that gives users access to sources of information about the Middle East since 1979. He's co-producer and director several acclaimed film and television series, including, most recently, a documentary titled The Other Threat that explores the historical context and contemporary politics of Arab and Muslim migration to Europe in the age of the war on terror. His presentation today is entitled Knowledge Production on the Arab Uprisings, New Glasses, Old Lenses.
And our commentator will be Rebekah Maggor, who's an artist and scholar focusing on political theater and the theater of protest. She co-edited, co-translated and wrote the introduction to the anthology Tahrir Tales, Plays From the Egyptian Revolution from Seagull Books, which received a Literature in Translation Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. She's been a Fulbright Scholar in the Middle East and North Africa Regional Research Program studying Palestinian theater performance, and has directed workshops and productions of her translations at numerous theaters and universities across the country and internationally. She's received grants and commissions from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Mellon Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute, and the Middle Eastern Theater Project, among many others.
And most recently, she's the director and adaptor of the play Hamlet Wakes Up Late, an English-language translation of the play by Mamdah Adwan that, just yesterday, premiered here at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts. I highly recommend it to you. I got to see it yesterday. And it was amazing. And it'll be performed again tonight and also next week.
It's a production that brings together text, original music, and movement to explore past and present events in Syria, while at the same time, pushing the boundaries of our contemporary political conversation in the US. So I think you'll agree with me that we really have an amazing collection of speakers and commentary. And without further ado, I'll invite Professor Haddad. Thank you.
BASSAM HADDAD: Thank you for inviting me. I would like to thank the organizers, the ones in the forefront and the ones in the back end that make this event possible, and brought together fantastic voices that I really actually ended up learning so much from, and happy that I'm able to participate. I am a little bit seemingly under the weather. And I learned that there is a threshold after which an additional cup of coffee doesn't do anything. So I'm stopping for the day.
My presentation is on the knowledge production on the Arab Uprisings. And it is based on a preface to a critique of literature on the Uprisings. And it is a starting point for something much longer that I'm working on. I will start by sharing that my comments draw on several efforts that I should mention at this point, largely because the topic here is knowledge production on something not only on the thing itself. In other words, it will be sort of an indirect discussion of the Uprisings. And I'll try to read as much as possible so I keep the time under the circumstances.
First, my comments are based on an extensive research on both the Uprisings, in general, and the Syrian Uprising, in particular, since 2010, which I have put to use in prepping and teaching two courses on the Arab Uprisings. Second the overseeing of several weekly media roundups on the region, which we published on Jadaliyya since 2011, surveying most articles of note published in Arabic and English, and providing an adaptation for the most productive among them. The weekly round ups covered all six Uprising cases and beyond.
Third an ongoing project titled "Syria Interactive Timeline," where colleagues and I traced both the minute and major developments in Syria since 2011 along five paths that invariably interact with other cases, economic, military, diplomatic, intervention and civil action. The aim here is not simply to chronicle development, but to gauge the drivers and the events that animated the transformation of the Syrian Uprising, as well as the trajectory of other cases, in general. Finally, much of my commentary is also based on the extensive Knowledge Production Project that the Arabs Studies Institute launched in 2008 with the genesis much earlier in 1995.
This project aims at collecting, organizing, and making available for analysis nearly all knowledge produced on the Middle East in the English language since 1979. To do this, we have built eight databases that include all books in the English language since 1979 produced on the Middle East, all peer-reviewed articles, all disserations, all book reviews and peer-reviewed journals, all translated books-- or almost all of them-- of think tank papers produced by think tanks, as well as a directory of all those who have worked in think tanks, specifically in the United States and the English-speaking world and how they circulate among four organizations, media, academia, government, and think tanks, all websites on the region, even some of those who got started and died off, all films, documentaries, and TV shows that actually address directly or somewhat indirectly the Middle East, or the Arab world, or Islam in the sense. All are all are accessible on a data visualization platform housed on the main website, knowledgeproduction.com. It's easy to find.
Instead of saying more, I'll preview a short draft video, which we are finalizing this week. There are a couple of glitches. One of them is that it should say, knowledge on the Middle East, not in the Middle East. I don't know if you could see this clearly.
This is the platform where you would have five separate platforms within the major platform, where you could do search. Or you could go back and look at any of the databases. But in order to save time, there's a two-minute video that does much of this, which I will show.
- The Knowledge Production Project is a dynamic, open access archive, search tool, and data visualization platform. Almost a decade in the making, this project endeavors to collect, catalog, and make available for analysis the wide-ranging knowledge produced on the Middle East since 1979 in the English language. We have constructed five interactive search and data visualization tools that give users unprecedented access to our vast databases and generate insight into the ways in which information about the Middle East is created and disseminated.
The databases include all peer-reviewed journal articles and reviews produced on the Middle East in English language since 1979, as well as books, dissertations, translated books, think tank papers, documentaries, films, TV shows, and major websites that address the region. The Knowledge Production Project will prove an invaluable resource to scholars, journalists, teachers, students, and the engaged public. The platform can be used to search for sources on specific topics across a range of published material.
Explore the networks of think tanks, government bodies, and the people who staff them.
Seek out websites and blogs publishing on particular issues or countries.
Or analyze publishing and funding patterns in the think tank world.
From simple search tasks to more complex, correlative functions, the Knowledge Production Project's potential to advance careful and inventive research objectives is near limitless. Try it out at knowledgeproduction.com.
BASSAM HADDAD: Thank you very much. I will move forward to address my comments. And actually, I have left some issues on purpose until the potential Q&A, in order for us to address things that usually don't always come up in the Q&A, including the politicization of knowledge on the Middle East, which is one of the reasons we actually embarked on the Knowledge Production Project. I will start by saying a few words about how the Arab Uprisings often are viewed more broadly.
For casual observers, the Uprisings took a sharp turn to mayhem. For cynical observers, the Democratic Uprisings in the Arab world were always an anomaly that was confirmed by consequences. For idealists, the Uprisings were the true expression of the quest for freedom and dignity that must prevail, even in the short-term.
The reality is that the Uprisings are more complex, less conclusive, and finally, of course, not over. A good starting point is to think less of the Arab Uprisings-- or the Arab Spring as it is sometimes called-- as a whole, as the unit of analysis, and consider. So it is better to actually refrain from thinking of it as units of an analysis or as the unit of analysis, and consider, instead, the six individual cases separately as the separate units of analysis.
Despite some commonality, each case involves a different story, history, societies, state structures, and relations, both internal and external. The trajectory of each case reflects the interaction and synergy among these factors in a rapidly-changing region and a shifting global context. Two broader factors impinged on outcomes-- at least two broader factors.
On the one hand, geopolitics penetrated each case in a particular manner that both thwarted expectations and reproduced either the pre-Uprising structures or the conflicts deeply embedded beneath their weight, perhaps, with the relative exception of Tunisia. On the other hand, the Uprisings, ironically, provided an entry point for new totalitarian movements and sentiments-- and old battles, to be sure-- that re-calibrated the preferences and patterns of coalition formation among powerful regional and international actors. We can crudely call this second factor the ISIS effect. But evidently, it's much more profound than that.
The status quo today in each of these cases, with the possible exception of Tunisia, reflects the combination of these two factors in relation to local, regional struggles. Whatever else they reflect, they definitely reflect this combination. I mention these factors mainly because they have contributed immensely to the muddiness of literature on the Uprisings, to which I will move on to discuss at this point, but without mentioning authors and titles. I think, in some way, we are all implicated, not excluding myself. So the title is A Preface to a Critique of Literature on the Uprisings, New Glasses, Old Lenses.
This is made for tall white people. I don't know if you can hear me. Much of the writing on the Arab Uprisings continues to suffer from the new think tank-ish, self-important, semi-casual, sloppy analysis syndromes. It is as if having a platform and the mandate are sufficient to produce sound knowledge. For the most part, the proof is in the pudding.
Follow platforms and individuals across time and space and this becomes clear, zigzagging and pendulum swing judgments and analysis driven more by events and politics than by historical and analytical depth. Worse still, this sloppiness has extended to scholars who frequently opine on social media and electronic publication platforms that seek content quantity over quality in a mutually-beneficial exercise. Rigorous analysis that stands the test of time suffers.
Extending beyond quick platforms, the deluge of books on the Uprisings is staggering and qualitatively inconsistent across publications, with some coming out within the first year of these protracted events. Yet, they do not consciously address their own temporal-- or perhaps, premature-- shortcomings. Other books are published within months of the emergence of a new phenomenon, sometimes within weeks, including the particular example-- within months of the emergence of some phenomenon, including ISIS, and extrapolate from that particular phenomenon to all cases that experienced an Uprising.
Finally, as I shared numerously elsewhere, the continuing trend of erroneously addressing the Uprisings or the odd title Arab Spring as one event lingers, with insufficient attention to the vast variance across cases-- for the most part, the best work on the Uprisings as a whole has not been written yet, and perhaps, for good reason. To make things more complicated for sound knowledge production on the Uprisings, tragically, contentious cases such as Syria have caused seismic schisms that continue to undermine even serious discussion, let alone publications on multiple levels, namely politically, analytically, and socially. I will take them up in reverse order below-- and I will add polemically, as well.
This presentation is intended to serve as a starting point for a more comprehensive, annotated review of literature on the Uprising-- which I have almost finished, but it's not quite ready yet-- with emphasis on the seemingly intractable case of Syria. I'll start with the social. Protracted Uprising cases have entered the social and discursive realm in an unprecedented and largely unproductive manner, even if quite instructive at times.
Family and friends have been broken up, both by diametrically opposed positions or even slight differences, signaling that the stakes are that high. Although, no one is sure what exactly these stakes are. The more you look back, the less sure you become.
The Syrian case has had, in particular, particularly personal dimensions, whereby the locus of contention between opposing observers almost shifted from differing on interpreting the conflict to simply differing with each other, often without keeping pace with developments on the ground. So things develop on the ground and change. And you are still in conflict with this person about things that no longer have a reference in real life.
It is as though the conflict was transformed from the actual battleground to social spaces and media, a phenomenon that requires more attention in due time. And it reflects the growth of what is called new media-- not a bad thing, but it is worth studying. Often, such differences recall earlier frustrations, contradictions, and pent-up resentments that have been severely exacerbated by particular cases, whether Syria, Yemen, or otherwise, or Egypt, of course.
More structurally, we can also observe a return in the social realm to the secular religious debate or tool, as well as odd resort to primordialism regarding the Sunni-Shia divide, even if often based on politics and not an intrinsic commitment to sectarian content. In other words, those who bring these things up, especially the sectarian element, are not necessarily sectarian or believers to begin with. But the politicization of the sectarian dimension has made it such that it can become grounds for contention.
While the former has been influenced by the Egyptian case-- as in, the question of secular religious debate-- while that has been influenced by the Egyptian case, as well as the emergence of the Islamic State, the latter is mostly a continuation of regional political rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The politicization of identities, tribal, ethnic, or otherwise, has also played a role across the region, particularly in Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Yemen.
While one can view some of these developments simply as a function of primordialism or even politics, it is important to recognize the new, often more-independent, and less-oppressive context within which they are emerging. In some-- not all-- cases, it could very well be the beginning of, perhaps, the same long dialogues, debates, or conflicts under less restrained circumstances, which means it could actually become a positive thing, potentially. However, the writing on such issues that I just mentioned has been unnecessarily dominated by a negative view that essentialize and naturalize this politicization, whereby you have nowhere to go analytically or otherwise.
Another issue that receives little or parasitic attention is the impact of the slow collapse of states amid the protracted violence on the fate of those who depend most on public sector employment and/or other forms of protection by the state, including women and other vulnerable communities in particular areas. While this does not apply equally across the board, it is a reminder of one of the seldom-addressed functions or contributions of state public sectors. To elucidate the conservative take away in the form of order at any cost that some people might take from this emphasis on the state sector, whereby it's viewed as a conservative argument, is to miss the point. It is but one reason that helps us simply understand shifting positions and attitudes within protesting polities in relation to the state and its potential collapse, especially as Uprisings turn sour, reviving the less evil argument. It helps us understand why people who detest existing dictatorships might not necessarily fall in the lap of the other side under certain circumstances.
A move to the analytical-- analytic leader seems to be strong and similar divides across microcosms as a result of calamitous escalation, counter revolutions, and/or authoritarian retrenchment, with the potential exception of Tunisia. I hope we can keep saying with the potential exception of Tunisia. In academia and beyond, one sees a rather clear split between those who would like to interpret the Uprisings as a first phase among a few or many to come. While others have, after their brief elation, resorted or restored their default culturalist lenses.
Yet, others were simply exhausted and disappointed, and gave into generic pessimism fueled by an endemic feeling of powerlessness at several levels, personal, political, and/or ideological. You see this everywhere. But you see this, interestingly, mostly in places where uprisings have exhausted and destroyed people, especially in Syria.
You go to Damascus, and Aleppo, Dier ez-Zor, Hasakah, anywhere in Syria, and they don't care what you have to say analytically or politically, for the most part. I mean, they have a position. They can articulated it if need be. But something more visceral is taking over after seven years of destruction at levels that are also beyond physical and concrete.
However, more refined analytical disagreements that did not descend to the level of unproductive or personal contentions have proliferated. These are the most productive and enduring ones that will survive the wave of Facebook, and Twitter activists, and trolls, most of whom will eventually find their way back, either their pre-Uprising political coma or to their parochial echo chambers. This does not mean that well-meaning observers who lies above pettiness and personalisation are immune to producing analytical faux pas.
What continues to be in short supply is a systemic and historically-informed analysis of the factors that brought various societies to a boil, more or less at a particular point in time at a particular moment, and why certain other cases were influenced by this development, and others were less influenced, and why certain cases were influenced, but were able to blockade while others couldn't. The corollary objective is to identify the factors that influenced the trajectories of different cases, of course. The fact that the human cost of the Uprisings, their diversions, and their suppression has been calamitous is all the more reason to take analytical pause in judgment, not to rush to judgment for the sake of an emotional need to actually find a culprit. Sometimes the culprit is not as simple as many of us think.
Finally, there is an increasingly pressing need for the Uprisings to be conceptualized more broadly in historical terms. Again and again, this must be repeated. And I repeat this as somebody who exists in the political science discipline, which I struggle with. Because I am of the opinion that, without local history, political science is almost an abstraction. Did I just say this in public?
AUDIENCE: We won't tell anybody.
BASSAM HADDAD: The gentleman is recording. It's OK. I think everything is going to be OK, actually. Finally an increasingly pressing need for the Uprisings to be conceptualized more broadly in historical terms, lest we peg analysis on empirical developments-- for instance, as this path can take many forms, what is the relationship between the repression, state institutions, development and de-development, societal divisions, class and gender relations, external foreign policies, and mass discontent and mobilization? What kind of historical eras, periods, or junctures might be eclipsed by what sort of new configurations? How best to characterize the Uprisings from a long [INAUDIBLE] vantage point?
Both the aforementioned micro and macro levels of analysis, respectively, should help us understand and account for the variance among the cases in which mass uprisings erupted and between them and the other countries if this categorization is at all relevant. We can't just look at the Uprisings, and study them, and try to opine, analytically, politically, or otherwise without recognizing that it's still a small subset of the larger pool of cases in the Middle East. And this is a critical point, because people speak as if the entire Arab world experienced the same thing. And it actually is not. It's much more specific.
For those taking stock of writing at the academic, journalistic, policy-oriented and even social media levels, it has become clear that the Uprisings, at different times, depending on the case in question-- have been encumbered by politics and polemics. Once more, it is arguable that the better analysis is yet to come, not least because of emerging opportunities for research and local initiatives for data gathering at this time when things are a bit less heated in many places. It is also significant that new balances of power be gotten by ample violence, displacement, and the loss of life and limb are curiously spurring more sobering reflection and reconsideration.
And this is the case on all fronts. If you study Egypt in 2012 and '13-- you practically can not talk to a lot of people about Egypt without having a serious conflict. With Syria, it's much more sensitive and poisonous, exponentially. But even in both of these cases, things are calmer now. You can actually talk to anyone and just differ.
Yemen, who cares about Yemen, right? I mean, how often do you see anybody talk about Yemen in mainstream media in the United States, which is, in my view, a small crime in and of itself? But the same also applies there, except that most people don't even know what the hell's happening in Yemen, even people in academia in Middle East Studies.
They understand that there are Houthis. There's Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was on one side. But then he was on another. But people can't go beyond these basics, even experts, unfortunately. Because Yemen is at backwater
Politically speaking, the state of writing on the Uprisings is becoming increasingly dire. Early on, hopes were built and partially fulfilled, early on in the Uprisings. They were then gradually-- and in some cases, brutally-- shattered, ushering in what I have called the pessimistic turn in 2012 and '13.
Eventually the breaking point that crystallized views were 2013 and 2016. With war dragging in Syria and Yemen were some external protagonists of rebellion-- in one case, curiously, reversed position in the other-- with Libya in tatters, and with a full re-entrenchment of authoritarian rule in Egypt, and much earlier, Bahrain, we began to see the beginning of the end of the first phase of the Uprisings. This might sound arbitrary. But in many cases, one can argue that, today-- at least in 2017-- we are not on the concrete end of something.
But we are certainly not any longer in the situation we were in 2013, or even 2015, and '16. In other words, there is some sort of a phasing that many of us can observe. If not now, I think it will be more clear a bit later.
Whether writers were following or some of the Uprisings-- because this is an issue. How many of us are following all the Uprisings at all times at all levels? Whether writers were following all or some of the Uprisings, and whether they were following closely or sporadically based on news cycles, it was late 2016 that culminated in a new phase of divisions in the Uprising, at least in some places, with the exception of Tunisia. Indeed, the ostensible crushing of the last remaining metropolitan stronghold of the rebels in Aleppo in December 2016 was a critical juncture in the Syrian Uprising, one that many considered to be an ostensible end of the first phase of the conflict there.
Spurious analysis marked by defeatism, blame games, and political jockeying masquerading as moral criticism and righteousness became the order of the day in the last months of 2016. The conceptualizations and convictions that were discussed in previous years became axioms to many. Lesser evil dictatorships versus Islamists unknowns-- this is how people sort of looked at things, rebellious imperialism versus the reactionary resistance, Sunnis versus Shias, and everyone versus terrorism won the highest marks.
The lack of a long view and analysis of slow-moving factors over extended periods of time-- which is decades, not just years-- gave way to instant scholarship that was produced and reproduced based on events and even particular battleground outcomes. Significantly, we all observed how the Uprisings became arenas for settling political scores for inhabitants and observers, regardless of whether or not they involved direct external intervention. This phenomenon should not be dismissed quickly, no matter how ugly, petty and absurd some of these practices were. I know people, including myself at times, who would say, this is just chatter and not important.
It actually reflects unresolved issues and deep-seated convictions from the pre-Uprising period, as well as new contradictions, uncertainties and the re-balancing of power in the regional and global arenas. Even though it is easy to condemn the internecine, spitefulness, and smearing that especially characterized the Syrian debates, this heightened emotional state is a function of the aforementioned unresolved issues, and contradictions, and changes. The final blow that intensified this state of analytical and political environment is empirical, that is the profound notion of powerlessness vis-a-vis the [INAUDIBLE] of despotic orders. However, each case is colored by its own peculiarities.
So a profound sense of disempowerment explains so much of the problematic, poisonous rhetoric. And this disempowerment is different than the disempowerment that existed prior to the Uprising because of the heightened expectations at the moment that the Uprisings took off, that the feeling of this empowerment is actually much more severe considering the unfulfilled expectations, kind of like poverty. If you're an excluded class or group, and then you enjoy the fruits of the welfare state, and those become entitlements, when you lose them, the absolute position on the economic ladder that you end up in, even if it's better than pre-colonial times, it's a different sort of feeling.
People and observers took to the most raw and half-baked forms of opining as the polemics surrounding the crucial case of Syria, for instance, informs us. I'll say a little bit about the polemics. Contentious discussion and writing on the Arab Uprisings abound. But perhaps, most polemical debates are the byproduct of the Syrian case.
One dominant source of polemics is the consistent, if largely superficial, attack on the left proceeding mostly from a liberal camp with ostensible leftist vocabulary. Those attacks imagined the left as both the arbitrators or the arbitrator and decision-maker in conflicts where they somehow betrayed the people-- in this case, the Syrians-- by siding with the dictators, particularly, of course, in Syria. At At the same time, some leftists were also held to account by what can be dubiously labeled leftist hardliners for siding with imperialist efforts and countries, such as the United States.
So the left got beat up from both sides, from the liberal camps-- usually posing as left at the time for actually not being pro-revolution in a Carte Blanche manner-- and then from hardline leftists who recognized the necessity of the revolution just because this revolution happened to be also supported by the actionary states. So basically, nobody won, even on the side of the observers. And even though this is the least of our concerns compared to the deaths and mayhem, it analytically significant.
This discourse of myopia and confusion should not be dismissed nor taken too seriously. It should not be dismissed, because it does raise the issue of ample contradictions within what can be patently considered leftist voices-- plenty of contradictions. On the other hand, in most cases, it should not be taken too seriously, because it emanates less from a genuine concern about leftist politics and much more from a political standpoint that is too often indifferent to such politics.
Though this is a topic worthy of separate treatment, the bottom line is that, for good reason, a superficial understanding of the left dominates the scores of debates. And self-proclamations about who and what is left are unaccountable, especially while conflict is underway. After all, the left is not one political party with a destructive platform.
In all cases, a new dubious taxonomy emerged to depict variants of the left that are hierarchically-categorized based on levels of guilt and complicity, either in the reference to imperialism, rebels, or dictators besides obvious contradictions that any cursory observation can spot, such as support by non-leftists of patent dictatorships, like Syria or of US policies and patronage. This entire exercise is largely ephemeral, as the coming years will reveal. It is odd that otherwise well-regarded writers partook in this amorphous fad of lamenting the left.
I'll go back. I'll skip a lot of the material that I think might come up in the discussion. And I'll go back to what I call square one. Not And this is sort of my conclusion, my way of conclusion. Please ignore this slide. I'm not going to get into it-- maybe in the Q&A.
Not only has this [INAUDIBLE] writing on the Uprisings persisted, but it has also regressed in quality, paralleling the regression of conditions in the Arab world. I was just sharing with Professor Cole how, if you go to the internet, you see thousands-- let's say, hundreds-- of pieces almost every day. What are these people writing about?
I mean, on the one hand, the variety of opinions is crucially important. But when you get into the content of a lot of what is being written, it emanates more from the necessity to write given the industries and institutions within which we are all lodged and others are lodged. But it's really interesting the level of quality that one observes.
Generally speaking, there is talk of corruption, unemployment and other negative indicators often handpicked from something like United Nations Arab Human Development Report, and so on. Almost all ills are pinned squarely on authoritarian rulers as though they exist in a vacuum. This is another dimension of what we see.
One finds very little about the political connections of these rulers with their regional and international supporters and bankrollers. Nor is there much about the institutions that rewarded the adoption of neoliberal-like policies no matter the cost to the larger population. Not only that, in fact, to reconstruct these destroyed countries, we're going back to the same international financial institutions that prescribed policies that had a good deal to do with the emergence of discontent.
In fact, there is little to no consideration that the Arab Uprisings were also a voice of protest for those whose life chances have been devoured by their local elites and the politics the latter pursued as individuals, moguls, groups with external connections, and networks with informal economic leaks between business and state officials, and/or institutions, such as the army in Egypt. It is as though the youth bulge, unemployment, and opposition politics are completely detached from the development policies that autocratic darlings adopted, imposed, and pursued. To be sure, data, such as arms purchases in contrast to spending on development, are thrown around as though they are detached from questions of accountability, if not worse, on the suppliers or seller's side.
Instead of recognizing, at the very least, the complicity involved, when people write in places like foreignpolicy.com and elsewhere, the problem resides in the region, all of it, for the most part. The cursory words homage that are sometimes presented to address measures of complicity of external actors, states, and processes are actually problematic, because they do not figure in the final calculus. So people throw out words about the complicity. But they don't actually get integrated into the edifice of the concrete analytical bodies, or the conclusions, and definitely not the policies. We end up with lip service, liberal critique of elitism at best.
And additionally, as time goes by, the Uprisings are somehow collapsed into a negative monolith, just as they were from the diametrically-opposed euphoric angle early on under the dubious banner of the Arab Spring. Both characterizations are caricatures of reality. We increasingly see little mention of the diversity of cases and peoples, except in passing, as though it is a detail. It turns out that premature perceptions of both success and failure dull analytical vigor, which actually was dulled early on in the euphoric phase in 2011.
Once more, instead of historical depth, analytical end, empirical fads informed by a policy-oriented politics and fortunes came to the fore. Suddenly the depiction of the generic desire for democracy of everyone in the Arab world is substituted by the catch-all Sunni anxiety factor. This trending variable of Sunni anxiety sidesteps or eliminates all other divisions, including those between ruler and ruled, in which the majority of Sunnis in the Arab region were actually primarily suppressed by Sunni elites that belonged to a different class long before conspiracy theories about Shias trying to take over the region.
In fact, we're seeing it play out today, yesterday, and the past few days. I mean, this factor is now being the launching pad for potentially the next war, especially that now ISIS has been sort of degraded, as we say at the CIA. Did I just confuse our institution with the CIA? I just did. Now that ISIS is degraded, what appears to happen or what appears to be the case is a triumphant Iran. And of course, that has to be dealt with by those who oppose Iran.
Moreover, one finds that the countries that are often depicted as causing this anxiety are Shia-majority countries, including Iran and Iraq, where similar claims of Shia anxiety can be made if you look back historically. Also gone is the talk of the delayed stances-- and I am concluding. Also gone is the talk of delayed stances and actual positions of the US and the UK government vis-a-vis the six uprisings.
The time it took for the United States, for instance, to actually join the bandwagon, given that its allies have been under attack by a large public-- in other words, whose side they were on, and when, at what point, latecomers to Tunisia and Egypt's people's side against the people in Bahrain, weary of the Yemeni uprising, and far more interested in profits than people in Libya. Such stances by the United States and other countries reinforce the historical external accountability. Yet both the stances and the accountability are deleted or reduced to details. Now they're invisible.
The case that demonstrates the lack of attention to external, specifically Western factors is Syria, again. Syria's dictatorship was never Europe's or the United States' cup of tea. After initial hesitation very early on, they actually supported the Uprising directly or indirectly.
Curiously, external support to prop up the Syrian regime, whether it is Iran, Russia, or Hezbollah, is not jettisoned. While all these regimes-- not to mention the other dictatorship that Western powers continued support-- deserve more than overthrow for their decades-long crimes. That writing and opining or analysis is increasingly comporting with pre-Uprising foreign policies of Western governments. None of this portends well for the future of democracy or even accountability in the region.
Finally, and in relation to presenting the monolith social blob with the exception of talk of Sunni anxiety, often not a word is uttered about gender, about bodies, and space-- in short, treatments. Even if it is unreasonable to dwell on everything in detail, it is incumbent on analysts at least to address the issue, areas, and leave readers with a need to explore, not an artificial sense of satisfaction that re-catapult us to the culturist, authoritarian boogeyman framework. It is almost like everyone has lost their mind. As the prosecutor in the Egyptian play [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH], The Witness Who Saw Nothing, says after the witness disclosed that he was not paying attention, he says, [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH], or the case is to be reopened, or back to square one. Thank you.
CHANTAL THOMAS: Thank you so much. And now we will hear from Rebekah Maggor.
REBEKAH MAGGOR: Thank you. And thanks to the conference organizers. It was a great pleasure to read your piece, the introduction to your production of knowledge. And I have great admiration for you as an academic who has figured out how to really bridge between or meld together a career as a serious scholar and a public intellectual. And I also have to admit that I have quite a strong dependence on Jadaliyya probably since around 2011. It holds a very special place in my Google taskbar right next to translation dictionaries and a link to The Theater Times.
Jadaliyya, of which Bassam is co-founder and also the main page editor, offers critical analysis that combines local knowledge, and scholarship, and also advocacy. And what Jadaliyya and Bassam's other projects offer-- and I recognize that Jadaliyya has a stronger editorial line, as we were discussing earlier-- are what you were terming sound knowledge. Your public projects aim to offer a rigorous analysis that stand the test of time and to make this knowledge accessible to broad audiences.
In regards to knowledge production on the Arab Uprisings, I am very interested in how you wrote about the difference between sound knowledge and what you called the new think tank-ish, self-important, semi-casual sloppy analysis. I'll say that, for now, we'll just nickname that sloppy analysis for convenience sake. So you break down what sloppy analysis is into basically three categories that are political, temporal, and spatial, the political being the overlapping areas of a return to primordialism and also the interrelated politicization of identities, tribal, ethnic, and otherwise, and temporally, what we might even look at as a kind of attention deficit disorder or exciting events in a vacuum approach to writing, that rather than interpreting the Uprisings in historical terms, or historicizing them, and connecting them to long-term factors, that, as you wrote, brought these societies to a boil, they're seen as a blip or an exception.
And then spatially, this assumption that there's a retrenchment of despotic orders or a return to a status quo, that all the ills, as you write, are pinned on authoritarian rulers as if they exist in a vacuum. And there's very little attention to their political connections. And as you write, who's bankrolling them? And I put this under spatial, because it's a kind of monolithic assumption about the Middle East, that that is, within this area, a kind of status quo.
So what the sloppy analysis leaves out is, as you say, a long delay vantage point, so a systematic and historically-informed analysis that attempts to engage with the factors that brought about the Uprisings. What's also missing is attention to, as you write, the collapse of the state. So sloppy analysis ostensibly ignores the political and economic makeover of the Middle East in the last 40 years. This incredibly important transition from state-led modernization in Egypt, and Syria, and elsewhere in the Arab world, which included some meaningful social and economic democratization to the pro-business authoritarianism that we have seen more recently.
So I would like to, perhaps, talk a little bit more from my perspective. When we think about knowledge production in the Middle East, and the perpetuation, and fact of this sloppy analysis, it's helpful to consider a very broad range of knowledge production. So what we've been discussing at the conference today has been all, primarily-- except for some things mentioned by Zvi earlier of nonfiction-- so basically historical narratives, research coming from the social sciences, but actually fictional constructions, in particular, dramatic constructions, which is my primary area of study, are often left out of these important conversations. And I was very happy to see that in the Knowledge Production platform that you're creating that you're including television shows and films. Because I feel that that is actually a very important area of knowledge production that we sometimes in the academy will leave out of the conversation.
And as someone who usually surrounded by theater scholars and performance studies scholars, I feel that we need to strengthen our ties and our scholarly ties to our colleagues in the Near East Studies Department, in government. We tend to be a little bit cloistered within our own field. So I want to thank the conference organizers for including a scholar of drama and a theater artist amongst you today.
I would venture to say that dramatic constructions, primarily in the form of film and television, and sometimes in the form of theatrical narratives-- which I'll get to in a little later-- are highly influential in the production of knowledge about the Middle East outside the academy, in particular. And I do always wonder, how many Americans inform their understanding of the Middle East primarily through hit television shows like Homeland and The Night Manager or Hollywood films from Indiana Jones to Black Hawk Down? Many of these productions paint exotic and mostly negative stereotypes about Arabs.
And my colleague, Ismail Khalidi, who is a poet and a playwright, likes to joke that every one of his Arab and Arab-American friends who are actors, he's seen them die horrible deaths on-screen playing the role of terrorist number 3 or jihadist number 5. And so the problem with these popular American shows and films is not only the exoticization and the negative stereotyping of Arab peoples. They also fail to integrate what you're calling sound knowledge in the construction of the basic concept and story-lines of these shows.
So the same kind of primordialism that you mentioned dominates many of the popular shows. And of course, I think the easy strawman is always Homeland, which does exactly what you're talking about. It essentializes and naturalizes the politicization of identities, tribal, ethnic, and otherwise. I think many of you will probably remember about two years ago that there was graffiti hacking of Homeland.
Heba Amin, who's an Egyptian visual artist and scholar, was hired to add, quote, "authenticity to the scenes of a Syrian refugee camp" in Homeland. Basically, they wanted her to come in and spray paint graffiti on the walls of the sets in Arabic. And in an early meeting with the production team, she and the other two artists were handed images of, quote, "pro-Assad graffiti," which apparently was what was natural in Syrian refugee camps.
And here's what she wrote about the program. She said, "What's wrong with Homeland's political message? The very first season of Homeland explained to the American public that al-Qaeda is actually an Iranian venture. According to the storyline, they are not only closely tied to Hezbollah, but al-Qaeda even sought revenge against the US on behalf of Iran. This dangerous phantasm has become mainstream knowledge in the US, and has been repeated as fact by many mass media outlets."
And I bet that if we tried to go in and actually see if there were connections between the talking heads on television and the consultants that have been hired for these television productions that we would find some people that were working in both areas. So Heba and these two graffiti artists that were hired by Homeland at authenticity ended up using their artwork to accuse the television show of racism. So as reported by The Guardian in the second episode of the fifth season, the lead character, Carrie Mathison, played by Claire Danes, can be seen striding past the wall dubbed with Arabic script reading, Homeland is racist.
Other slogans painted on the walls of the fictional Syrian refugee camp-- which, by the way, I think was actually filmed in Berlin or outside Berlin-- included-- this is what they were writing in Arabic. Homeland is a joke. And it didn't make us laugh. And they also wrote in Arabic, Black Lives Matter. And the Arabic script was not checked by the producers, the artist said. And the content of what was written on the walls was of no concern, in their eyes, because, quote, "Arabic script is merely a supplementary visual that completes the horror or fantasy of the Middle East, a poster image dehumanizing an entire region to human-less figures in black burqas and moreover, the season, to refugees."
So am I out of time, Mostafa? Kind of-ish? OK, well, I would like to leave television land and really get to a much more, I think, analytically-rigorous area of fictional narrative, which is the area that I work in, which is drama. So in contrast to the sloppy analysis that we see in a show like Homeland, theater from the Arab world offers a very different kind of-- it's actual structural analysis that you're advocating for. It didn't surprise me in the least that you ended your essay with a reference to an Egyptian play.
You mentioned The Witness Who Saw Nothing. And this is a comedy. It was first performed in 1976. Adel Imam, of course, starred in it. And it spoke directly to the sad state of economic and social affairs. And it poked fun at President Sadat.
And so the work of many Arab theater artists offers complex insider perspectives that stand in stark contrast to these hackneyed dichotomies routinely offered through official or mainstream Arab and Western media. And many respected news sources and scholarly accounts were quick to portray the-- by the way, I'm speaking more specifically to the Egyptian case, which is what I've done a lot of research on the drama coming out of Egypt within the last decade or so. So many accounts were quick to portray the Egyptian struggle as a conflict between liberals and conservatives, modern progress and reactionary forces, or moderate and extremist politicians.
And it was against these persistent monochromatic tropes that Arab dramatists opened up a new set of categories. And this is going to sound very similar to the categories you're opening up in your work-- politically, temporally, and spatially. So politically, these dramatic works depict the revolution as a broad-based movement for collective and socioeconomic justice.
Temporally, these works situate the recent Uprisings within a long history of popular unrest. And rather than a spontaneous event triggered by misguided government policies, or even several years of economic hardship, many of the plays coming out of Egypt within the last decade engage the structures of inequality in Egyptian society and expose the revolutionary movement's deep-seeded roots in anti-colonialism and labor activism. Spatially the text problematized the notion of a uniquely Egyptian revolution or even an Arab Spring, and draw unintuitive connections to events happening outside the Middle East without, of course, neglecting the specificity of the Egyptian case.
So to conclude-- and this is something that is deeply what I'm interested in is I'm interested asking that difficult question of, how is it that this production of knowledge that we're looking at in the conference today is not only important for reconsidering policy approaches in the US and also combating the general ignorance of Americans and their thinking about the Middle East? But in fact, the way in which you're re-framing or you're positing to try to shift and transform knowledge production around the Middle East is something that we need in our own construction of our own understanding of our narratives within the US.
So I'm going to skip all of these examples and just say that one of the assumptions that we make in the West is that we are assumed to inhabit a fundamentally different reality, that we have long transcended the kind of pathologies and primordialism that you're referencing. In having fulfilled the promise of liberal democracy and a free-market economy, we've ostensibly reached the end of history. But indeed, I think one of the things to think about is that last year's election has made these entrenched dichotomies more difficult to sustain, and that we no longer seem worlds apart from the challenges that you're bringing up within your scholarship on the Middle East.
And so conversations that used to be about third-world problems are now urgent to all of us. And we can no longer delude ourselves that high unemployment, poverty, police brutality, religious extremism, crumbling schools, poisoned water systems are actually unique to the Middle East. So fortunately for us, our colleagues who are working on the Arab world have been mulling over these challenges in their art and in their scholarship for many years.
And they have decades of experience thinking critically about global capitalism, colonialism, imperialism, the military industrial complex, labor exploitation and all forms of extreme inequalities brought about by global investment and their own homegrown elites. And the artistic conversation, at least from my perspective, has long focused on the political and economic challenges that so many of us in the United States have actually ignored in our society. So my question to you then is, what is the connection between the project that you are launching, that you are furthering, and the way in which we, in fact, need to change our knowledge production in the narrative that we're creating within our own society here in the US?
BASSAM HADDAD: Can you clarify this last point, like, in the question, at least?
REBEKAH MAGGOR: Sure. So in my own work as a translator, and as a theater scholar, and as a theater director, primarily what I focus on is-- there was this point where I realized that within my field, for example, in contemporary American playwriting, we're not actually addressing the deep-seeded structural challenges that have brought us to our current quagmire. So we are we were highly focused on-- and sometimes a rather superficial focus on identity politics, which are disconnected from economic realities. And what I recognized was that, in fact, my colleagues in the Arab world who are playwrights were writing about the issues that we needed to see on our stages in the US.
And so it became a project of saying, this kind of criticism, this kind of framework that we need to-- and I don't mean to be solipsistic about this. But these frameworks that my colleagues were offering in the Arab world in contemporary drama, they were actually addressing the challenges facing us and US society much more provocatively, much more head-on, than we were in our own society. And so, for me, it's not only about, how do we think about knowledge production the Middle East, but how do we also understand how that can reframe and connect to the way that we think about ourselves?
CHANTAL THOMAS: Right. So just riffing on that, the way in which Occupy Wall Street might have been in some ways inspired by or reacting to the Uprisings that had happened earlier that year.
BASSAM HADDAD: Do you want me to--
CHANTAL THOMAS: Please.
BASSAM HADDAD: Oh. Thank you very much, Rebekah, for your comments and for also bringing us into the much more exciting world of drama, and theater, and so on. No, seriously, in my work-- now, for instance, as I shared with you-- a couple of years ago, I taught a course on the-- or year and a half ago-- on the Arab Uprisings. Now I'm teaching a course on text, film, and the Arab Uprisings.
Because one needs to incorporate what actually has motivated so many people, at least in the region itself, participants in the Uprisings. It's not that, in the middle of the Uprisings, they were reading texts. In fact, they were actually watching things. And those are as meaningful, if not more meaningful, in some cases, than anything else.
As to your question, which I think is actually very interesting, in terms of the applicability of everything I'm saying to what we are experiencing here in the United States and the implications for our narratives here-- I mean, the crude answer, which I shouldn't be saying in public, is that this is liberalism. I mean, we have mechanisms that are addressing the surface.
But more seriously-- even though the first comment, when unpacked, can be made more serious-- but more seriously, I think one difference between the region that I'm addressing-- at least, some of the cases I'm addressing-- and this country here in which I live is that, in this country, we have the illusion that we have resolved struggles, whether it's about women's liberation, whether it's about race. I mean, people look at Black Lives Matter movement and they're like, why? What's going on? I mean, everything's been already taken care of.
And we have learning also on the question of women and gender relations that we are very far from where many people thought we are. In the region, there are no illusions that we have resolved these issues. So it's natural to actually bring them up, bringing them again, and bring them up again, for about 30, 40, 50, or 60 years.
And I'll stop here. But that is definitely one reason why there is a resistance here to digging deeper. And the moment you dig deeper, then you are basically either ostracized, or you're dismissed, or you are just, hm, responded to with a hm. But actually, our main discourse in dominant circles and media-- I mean, look at the dominant media. And I'm not talking about the alternative media.
Very little of this actually exists in dominant media. Even like, for instance, MSNBC would toy with bringing new people to actually address matters. And then they get fired. Or they get let go, because they're just digging too deep. And that's hurting ratings. Ratings reflect how many people are actually watching or listening.
So we do have that kind of overarching position that so many of these struggles have been resolved. But I'll stop here. And hopefully, we could talk more about all of this.
CHANTAL THOMAS: Yes. Thank you. That was great, both of you. Mostafa, we're going until when? Can you--
SPEAKER 1: Shortly after 5:00.
CHANTAL THOMAS: Until shortly after 5:00, OK. So we have a 20-ish maybe minutes, or maybe 15-ish minutes for questions. Did you want to--
REBEKAH MAGGOR: I did want to say one thing that I find interesting-- and I don't know if you've if you've thought about this-- is that there is oftentimes-- and there's, obviously, exceptions to this-- quite a difference between the narratives that constructed within film and within theater. And part of the reason for that is that a lot of film outside of major production areas are created for export, so that they can get to a larger audience. And so sometimes, the films are kind of veered towards pleasing what a Western audience, for exampled-- or their expectations.
And so what we see, a lot of times, in the theater is that it's actually much more of an internal dialogue within the society, so that it's Egyptian Theater created for an Egyptian audience. Or it's Syrian theater created for a Syrian audience. And of course, there are many excellent cosmopolitan Arab theater artists who are also creating theater for [INAUDIBLE]. But it's much more common, I would say, within film. And so that's one thing, I think, to kind of keep an eye on when you're looking at films for-- I mean, obviously, you're well-aware of that-- [INAUDIBLE] you're looking at films to put in your syllabi is this-- what conversation is this film or part of?
CHANTAL THOMAS: Thank you so much to our speakers and the audience.
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Bassam Haddad, Chantal Thomas and Rebekah Maggor participated in a panel discussion during the conference, "The Middle East, the Academy, and the Production of Knowledge" on Nov. 12, 2017. The event was organized by the Middle East Working Group (MEWG) of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies.
Since Edward Said's seminal study Orientalism almost forty years ago, scholars have been aware that the Middle East is not just a site for study, but one invested with multiple meanings on the politics and pitfalls of how to study a place, generally. Situated at a crossroads of geographies, religions, and histories, the Middle East is contested terrain in every sense, and on a daily basis.
This conference brought together a group of scholars from within and outside the United States, who looked at this trope across a range of disciplines. Through this gathering of expertise and perspectives, they interrogated some of the ways that knowledge about the Middle East is produced, and shed critical light on that knowledge. What does the Middle East mean in the modern academy? Who produces this knowledge, and toward what ends? Participants looked at these formulations and others over the course of a stimulating - and provocative- day of collective discourse.