Issue No. 2
Spring 1999
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Transnational Media and Social Change in the Arab World

by Jon B. Alterman

[Editorís note: This article is an excerpt from a policy paper entitled "New Media New Politics? From Satellite Television to the Internet in the Arab World" published by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1998. If you would like to order a copy of the publication, see]

Rise of Regional Debate and Regional Identity

The rise of regional information organs has reinvigorated a sense of common destiny among many in the Arab world. To a great extent, regional print media and television broadcasts have combined to create a regional media market—known to marketers as the "pan-Arab market"—which is becoming increasingly influential.

The regional media market is notable for several reasons. First, it is, in fact, a market. Relying on supply and demand, programming does not simply meet the needs of government broadcasters, but rather actively seeks viewers who enjoy a variety of news and entertainment options. The consequence is an enormous empowerment of the viewership and a dramatic improvement in viewer satisfaction with programming.

Second, regional markets are, indeed, regional. To a great degree, identical programming can be seen throughout the Arab Middle East. Although market-driven programmers direct their broadcasts primarily to groups with high value to advertisers—in the Arab world, generally wealthy Gulf Arabs—the programming itself reaches and influences many throughout the region who may not fit the targeted socioeconomic profile of each station.

Finally, regional broadcasting has created regional news organizations—both in terms of news coverage and delivery—that far surpass what had previously existed. Many of these news organizations are headquartered outside the region, giving them a degree of independence unprecedented in many countries. The consequence is the emergence of a press corps that both remains independent of the agendas of an individual country and seeks an audience that transcends national borders.

The potential results of the regional media market described above are not hard to imagine. In his insightful book Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson makes a persuasive case that two factors controlled the development of national consciousness in state after state in Reformation Europe: commerce and linguistic unity. As printers sought to expand their markets beyond small numbers of Latin-literate elites, they increased their printing in vernacular languages (Luther's Theses drove much of the vernacular printing in Germany for decades). In so doing, they created communities of essentially monolingual people who spoke and wrote in similar languages, but whose communications were largely unintelligible to those from outside the region.(1) These communities drew together to form modern nation-states like France, Germany, and Italy.

The advent of print in the Middle East occurred after colonial powers had begun to lay down borders. Napoleon brought movable Arabic type to the region as part of his colonial project in Egypt at the dawn of the nineteenth century, and mass printing remained mainly the province of central governments—ones constructed along the lines of Western states—for most of the next hundred years. As a consequence, Arabic printing tended to reinforce barriers between Arabic speakers rather than to suppress them. Over the years, strong state institutions arose that tended to reinforce the separation between the nascent states of the region. One of those institutions was the state censor, which helped to promote the development of a national identity in much the same way that linguistic unity in Europe led to the perception of national identity.

Transnational media, however, alter this equation fundamentally. What is most apparent about the new technologies is that they facilitate the transmission of information independent of distance. Whereas national differences could be maintained in the twentieth century because geography and governmental efforts combined to create distinct markets for information, new technologies make it cheaper, faster, and easier for information to transcend those obstacles to create something much more closely resembling a single market. In that market, the imperative is to create products that enlarge and unite the market rather than those that fracture it. The consequence has been a generally heightened interest in international affairs, which often takes the complexion of "Arab-world- versus-the-rest" rather than investigating conflict between Arab states.(2) In addition, a regional dialogue among intellectuals has begun to emerge, especially on stations like al-Jazeera and in the pages of al-Hayat. To an important degree, this dialogue has expanded the bounds of debate in the Arab world, as it represents the injection of both new views and the back-and-forth of discussion into areas where such things had been relatively rare. This dialogue has also had the effect, however, of solidifying an "Arab consensus," which can become its own form of restraint. That is to say, as discussion is taken more seriously, serious dissent from widely held opinions becomes more precarious. Whereas many regimes protected the roles of "loyal oppositionists" in the past, the regional Arab marketplace may not be so kind to them in the future.

An additional and unexpected consequence of the new transnational media is the extent to which they introduce Arabic speakers to forms of Arabic speech to which they had not previously been exposed. Like many classical languages, a relatively wide gulf exists between formal, written Arabic and its vernacular, spoken form. Whereas formal Arabic is fairly uniform from place to place, spoken Arabic varies greatly, even within a single country. Some dialects are widely understood across the Arab world. More than half a century of Egyptian movies, radio broadcasts, and television serials (combined with a steady flow of Egyptian schoolteachers throughout the region) has ensured that Egyptian colloquial Arabic is the most widely understood in the Arab world. Other dialects, like Moroccan, are difficult even for native Arabic speakers from other countries to decipher. Satellite television has served as an important medium for introducing Arabs to unfamiliar dialects and breaking down some of the verbal barriers that divide the region. This process is still in a very early stage and homogenization of the language is still a long way off, but it is an important example of ways in which ties between Arabs have been strengthened by the new technology and barriers have been broken down.

The question (unanswered as of yet) is whether the growing sense of regional integration will be generally a force for dissension or one for accord. On the one hand, the new media are acting in many ways to integrate the Arab world with the West--not only by bringing the Western style of press inquiry to the region, with its concomitant effects on politics, but also in extending the reach of Western consumer culture and the icons of Western culture more broadly. One might reasonably expect that the diminution of differences between Arab and Western culture would promote mutual understanding, or at least expand the common ground on which Arabs and Westerners can interact. One could also envision, however, a situation in which the establishment of a "pan-Arab" culture unites Arabs at the expense of Arab-Western relations, strengthening already extant sentiments that the Arabs have suffered at Western hands, and increasing tensions between the two. Under a "Clash of Civilizations" scenario (3), Western technology and political structures would coalesce around anti-Western themes, at the same time embracing the Western media but rejecting the Western message.

The "regionalization" of news has had an especially important influence on Arab public opinion toward the Arab-Israeli conflict. On the one hand, Arab television has blasted away the isolation experienced by Israeli politicians and policymakers. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu appeared on an Orbit call-in show in 1996, for example, and a growing number of historical documentaries appearing on Arab television include interviews with relevant Israeli figures. No longer content to provide a one-sided perspective on either history or the recent past, Arab producers are finding that including Israeli views increases a show's credibility and viewer interest. Israel is no longer ignored or denied in the Arab media, but increasingly is presented as an important regional actor.

At the same time, transnational Arab media (particularly the satellite television stations) are projecting negative images of Israel to the region. Using a network of television reporters in Israel and the Palestinian autonomous areas, Arab stations regularly include in their evening broadcasts reports on Israeli settlement construction, home demolition, and open conflict with Palestinian Arabs. At the same time, the Arab media (print, television, and internet) closely monitor the statements of the Israeli government and often evince a rather sophisticated understanding of Israeli internal politics and Israeli governmental policy. Although there is no systematic evidence that the new media have contributed to a hardening of positions against Israel in the last few years, in conversations with a wide variety of Arab viewers the conclusion seems clear: the Arab media do appear to have an influence on public opinion, and when there is little good news to report on the Arab-Israeli front, that influence is anti-Israeli.

An interesting (but currently unanswerable) question is whether the Arab media could be helpful in ameliorating Arab-Israeli tensions if the climate were improving. On the one hand, the rise of communal feeling, which the regional media could be expected to promote, would advance Arab interests at the expense of non-Arab neighbors. On the other hand, confidence-building gestures could be communicated directly to the Arab public unmediated by Arab governments. On balance, it does not appear that there is anything inherent in the media to promote either rapprochement or conflict, either with Israel or with the West.

Rise of a Chaotic Information Regime

It has become a truism of Western writing about the Arab world to talk about the fatalism, lack of independent thinking, and subjection to authority that prevail in the region. Whether the supposed "failure" of Arab societies is attributed to characteristics of Islam, "hydraulic societies," or "Asiatic modes of production," there is a tendency for Europeans and Americans to see intellectual life in the Arab world as a dismal affair, at least for the last half-millenium.

Although this image is simplistic and exaggerated, there is a kernel of truth to it. Whereas Western societies have for centuries delegated a large degree of moral autonomy to the individual, such a phenomenon has not become widespread in the Arab world. That is to say, although it is normal (if inquisitive) to say to someone in the West, "What do you believe about God?" the normal question in the Arab world would be "What is your religion?" on the assumption that someone would adhere to orthodox religious beliefs even if one's observance diverged from orthodox practice.(4) There have certainly been innovative and free-thinking Arabs, as well as Westerners who submit blindly to authority, but it is probably accurate to say that individual reasoning (even in the absence of much knowledge) is a more highly prized characteristic in Europe and America than in the Arab world.

Changes underway suggest that this difference is likely to decrease over time. On the one hand, sharp advances in education and literacy are empowering individuals in a new way. As one scholar has suggested, what is new "is the unprecedented access that ordinary people now have to sources of information and knowledge about religion and other aspects of their society. Quite simply, in country after country, government officials, traditional religious scholars, and officially sanctioned preachers are finding it very hard to monopolize the tools of literate culture."(5)

As the foregoing passage suggests, literacy's increased empowerment of the individual extends beyond the religious realm to affect social and political thinking as well. Current censorship battles, whether they involve the literary analysis of religious texts by the Egyptian scholar Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, or the call for a widespread reinterpretation of Islamic law by the Syrian Muhammad Shahrur, are more a sign of boundaries being tested than they are of a new repression in the region.

Increased literacy is not the only engine in this process. In many ways, international travel on the elite level has played just as important a role. It is no accident that much of the new and independent thinking in the regional news media has been led by Arabs who have studied and lived overseas and who, in some cases, still do so. As will be discussed below, technological advances reintegrate individuals (and their thoughts and words) from the Arab diaspora into the Arab world. Undeniably, in country after country, the domestic media have absorbed more and more of the "internationalist" mode—they have become more challenging and more exciting, and, in all but a few countries, they have abandoned the practice of simply parroting a government "line" handed down from above. A close observer of Persian Gulf politics wrote in 1997:

"It seems to me that it is now much easier for more people in the Gulf to be exposed to views and interpretations of politics that are counter to those of their governments. These governments have never had a monopoly on "truth" for their societies, but now their challengers have broader audiences to which to appeal in writing, and more ways to get the written word into their hands and homes. Tolerance might not result, but this certainly "pluralizes" the market of ideas."(6)

As a consequence of this emerging marketplace of ideas, the currency of an idea increasingly depends not so much on its sponsor as it does on the public's receptivity to it. Whereas public acclaim is not always a good indicator of an idea's worth, the emergence of a marketplace of ideas does serve to undermine unworthy ideas before they become longstanding policy.(7)

In addition, the rapid expansion of information available to Arabs will put an increased premium on their ability to sort through that information and separate the important and meaningful from the scurrilous or irrelevant. As two veteran political scientists explained in a recent journal article, "A plentitude of information leads to a poverty of attention.... The low cost of transmitting data means that the ability to transmit it is much less important than it used to be, but the ability to filter information is more so. Political struggles focus less on control over the ability to transmit information than over the creation and destruction of credibility."(8) Credibility is the product of an active evaluative process by recipients of information. The ability to assess the credibility of information depends partly on experience and partly on trust, and it is a skill that can be learned and improved. In an Arab world awash in information of all kinds, individuals are called on to evaluate data countless times in a single day. Not all credibility assessments focus on political information; in the intermediate term, the bulk of them will probably involve commerce, as consumers evaluate the various brand-name products seeking to establish themselves in the Arab market.(9) The likely effect on politics is clear, however. With the rapid growth in the amount of information that reaches them, Arabs will have to evaluate political data and reports with a more critical eye than they have done to date, and governments will have to put forward information in a competitive marketplace of ideas in which those ideas will increasingly stand or fall based on their acceptability to the public rather than on governments' ability to compel their acceptance. continued

Next page: Public Opinion and Arab Identity

Copyright 1999 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo