Saturday, October 08, 2005

Marc Lynch article about al-Jazeera

Homework time.
It's long but important. (Where have you seen that before?) I have a hard time reading a long piece on the monitor, so I print it out so I can go back and re-read, mark, etc. With small type it comes to four pages with margins stretched and two-column format to save paper.
If you are not open to the notion that al-Jazeera may not be an unmitigated evil, better to skip this one. In Watching al-Jazeera Marc Lynch advances the idea that it is an important contributor to a vigorous public debate in the Arab world and therefore a force for a pluralistic, therefore more open and potentially democratic, society.
Al-Jazeera and its Arab television competitors are building a pluralist political culture in which all public issues are up for debate, and disagreement is not only permissible but expected. Its importance cannot be overstated, particularly since neither Islamist movements nor the existing autocratic Arab regimes--the two most powerful competing forces in the Arab world--offer a route to liberal reforms. And pro-American liberals in the region, however brave and eloquent, are, on their own, weak and marginal. Al-Jazeera offers them what American guns cannot: credibility, legitimacy, influence.

This is not my first encounter with this idea. I first heard it expressed in March when Terry Gross interviewed journalist Hugh Miles, an Arabic-speaking son of a British diplomat who studied at Oxford. When people who speak the language disagree with those who only speak English, my tendency is to listen carefully to what they have to say.

What Lynch says is not altogether rosey. He raises serious questions, for example, about whether a more democratic, populist Arab world is really in the best interests of the US.
Al-Jazeera's politics of pluralism are interwoven with an equally potent politics of Arab identity. Protests in Egypt and Lebanon, elections in Iraq and Palestine, parliamentary disputes in Jordan or Kuwait, arrests of journalists in Tunisia and Algeria: Al-Jazeera covers all of these as part of a single, shared Arab story. This narrative binds Arabs together in an ongoing argument about issues on which all Arabs should have an opinion--though not the same opinion. This politics of identity is a great source of strength for al-Jazeera. But it also poses dangers. A frustrated identity politics can easily give way to demagoguery, to a populism of grievances large and small, to demands for conformity—to what American legal scholar Cass Sunstein calls "enclave deliberation," which squeezes out the voices in the middle.

Whether populist, identity-driven but pluralist politics can be the foundation for liberal reforms is one of the most urgent problems facing the Arab world today. What one enthusiast called "the Democratic Republic of al-Jazeera" does not, in fact, exist. Al-Jazeera cannot create democracy on its own, nor compel Arab leaders to change their ways. Television talk shows cannot substitute for the hard work of political organizing and institution building. Talk can become a mere substitute for action, and can even serve the interests of regimes intent on clinging to power.

The author is bloghost of Abu Aardvark which I have followed for some time. He is one of a very small handful of experts whose opinions on the Middle East strike me as keeping up to date and having intelligent comments to make.

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