Voices of the New Arab Public
Voices of the New Arab Public. Iraq, al-Jazeera, and Middle
East Politics Today. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.
293 pages. Hard Cover. ISBN 0-231-13448-7.
by Carola Richter
With Voices of
the New Arab Public, Marc Lynch has published a scholarly
book that reads in parts like a thriller. Lynch traces the emergence
of a new Arab public sphere starting in the early 1990s until
the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq in 2004, analyzing the
evolution of Arab debate on political developments related to
the Iraqi crisis.
His main thesis is
that national Arab public spheres could never really develop
as they are at the mercy of the politics of the carrot and the
stick practiced by the ruling elites of authoritarian states.
The emergence of new media targeting the Pan-Arab market changes
the rules of the game, creating a transnational sphere that,
according to Lynch’s argument, provided the breeding ground
for a new Arab public sphere. The actors of this public sphere
do not shy away from addressing taboo topics head-on and encourage
audiences to turn into publics. Therefore, this new Arab public
holds transformative potential for Arab national systems.
This thesis is not
new. Since the emergence of new media in the Arab region, political
and communication scientists began to speculate about political,
cultural or social transformations that can be triggered by
or at least be transmitted by the media.
thesis is novel in that it is underpinned with impressive empirical
data. Between January 1999 and June 2004, Lynch analysed 976
of Al Jazeera’s talk shows and a number of op-eds of leading
Pan-Arab newspapers. In his book, he quotes some of these shows
and op-eds at length, using them as an empirical basis for his
Lynch is one of the
rare academics who successfully bridges communication and political
science, even if a communication scientist would have welcomed
more information and reflection on his methodology. The immense
amount of data as well as the criteria for analysing those shows
and op-eds are nowhere clearly defined. A critical reader could
argue that his data is strategically chosen to support a prefabricated
analysis. However, this point of critique is marginal in light
of the overall scope of material examined in the book.
In the second chapter,
Lynch attempts to frame the definition of an Arab public sphere.
In this theoretical exercise, his pragmatism stands out positively
from many other authors who evaluate democratization processes
in Arab countries by using quite idealistic definitions of a
public sphere. A gradually emerging public sphere in authoritarian
systems cannot be understood as the Habermasian ideal of an
area of negotiation between the state and civil society –
if only because non-state actors have to be able to voice their
arguments freely in public in order to break the political and
discursive monopoly of authoritarian governments. Lynch affirms
that one has to look at the actual public discourses to get
an accurate picture of the political potential of an Arab civil
society. In terms of its political influence, the effects of
such a public sphere (which is still in its infancy) may be
very limited, but at least it is a promising start.
In chapters three
to six, Lynch gives a chronological overview of the emergence
of an Arab public sphere within the context of regional and
international political developments. After pleasantly short
introductions to the political developments of the respective
period, he provides empirical data to show how Arab media discourse
dealt with these developments. Finally he analyses the impact
of those debates on political transformation in the region.
The “old” Arab public sphere began to vanish in
the middle of the 1990s when “private deliberations of
elites and carefully modulated editorial debates in the elite
press” took place. The new era of a “new”
Arab public sphere started with Al Jazeera and its open, public
and at times emotional discussions.
Using his data as evidence, Lynch explicitly and insistently
belies the picture of Al Jazeera as a fundamentalist channel
and the picture of an Arab public sphere as unconditionally
anti-American and ignorant. Arab debates might be extremely
self-referential and centered on Arab or Muslim problems, but,
Lynch argues, these self-centered disputes hold enormous transformative
potential for home grown democratic reforms. With this argument
he breaks fresh ground in prevailing debates among US officials.
In his view, the US’s diplomatic approach towards the
Arab World is disastrous and needs to be changed to encourage
reform. Lynch’s point may be rather banal, but is nevertheless
worth making, especially as Al Jazeera tends to be dismissed
or demonised rather than understood as the core of a new Arab
public sphere that must to be listened to and engaged with.
In the last chapters,
Lynch comments on several clichés and debates that frequently
come up with regards to the Arab media – in this reviewer’s
opinion an unnecessary attempt to defend the Arab media’s
performance. Nonetheless, he has produced must-read work for
anyone interested in political communication, civil society,
democratization or transformation processes in Arab societies.