Historicizing Arab blogs: Reflections on the transmission of ideas and information in Middle Eastern

Historicizing Arab blogs: Reflections on the transmission of ideas and information in Middle Eastern

Cairo coffeehouse.  Courtesy of Flickr user Cathepsut under a Creative Commons license

Cairo coffeehouse. Courtesy of Flickr user Cathepsut under a Creative Commons license

Arab blogs have caught the attention of Middle East watchers.  Much of the attention dedicated to them, however, has dealt with their political importance, whether as a mobilizing tool for activists or as an alternative source of news reporting.  Blogging is also interesting, however, as a new and perhaps significant departure in the history of media in the Middle East.  By this I do not mean “media” in the common late 20th century usage in which it applies primarily to those who work within unidirectional mass media, but rather as a medium of communication.  In particular, I am interested in the way media enables and structures relationships between and among senders and receivers of ideas and information, as well as in the mechanisms of reception of messages and the perceptions of media forms and transmitters which circumscribe their authority.

This article is not designed to answer such questions, but to raise them through a brief survey of the immediate impacts of new media forms as currently understood by historians.  Its approach to the history of technology is that while new media forms can enable certain changes in social practices, both the development of new forms and their utilization and impact are heavily, if not decisively, influenced by cultural, social, economic, and political factors.  The intent is to use this survey to provide a general background giving rise to new comparisons and models which scholars may find useful, both in evaluating blogging in the Middle East as an activity and situating it in its historical context.  It is necessarily preliminary, as many topics within the history of communication in the region require further investigation.

Parchment to print

In her study of blogging in the United States and Western Europe, Jill Walker Rettberg examined blogs in terms of their similarity to other forms of mass media introduced across centuries.  For Rettberg, printed texts represented the first true mass media, and she suggested that blogs represent a similar increase in the ability to make texts available to wide audiences.[1]  In the Arab context, we should note the introduction of paper nearly one thousand years before print, when the Abbasid dynasty sought to provide for the needs of government bureaucracy by supporting a paper industry to replace the expensive parchment and rare papyrus.[2]  Once readily available, paper became the medium for a vibrant book industry allowing for the rapid dissemination of knowledge in a number of fields.[3]

Greater availability of writing materials did not lead quickly to a culture of learning which privileged writing.  Gregor Schoeler has demonstrated the ways in which writing was used to support rather than supplant oral transmission, with shaykhs using notes during lectures to students, who took their own notes as study aids for an oral evaluation process.[4]  Simply studying a book on one’s own was thought to open the door to errors of understanding which a learned shaykh could correct.[5]  Even when the idea of books as fixed texts became dominant in the ninth and tenth centuries, orality and chains of transmission remained important.  Books were usually dictated to scribes who checked their work through oral recitation back to the authority whose work they were transcribing, and guaranteed authenticity of the contents depended on a chain of authorizations leading back to the original author.[6]  Such means of transmitting knowledge continued to have currency in the Arab world deep into the Ottoman period, though there were increasing exceptions, particularly in the rational sciences.[7]  The ruling powers, which before long became culturally alien military elites, supported this work through waqf endowments and appointments to judgeships, as well as more direct forms of patronage.  Both women and men participated in the transmission of knowledge in the premodern Middle East, though women’s participation was often limited by the value placed on gender segregation.[8]  Knowledge was also not limited to the elite, the members of the general public were instructed orally in religious knowledge by ulama.[9]

The first printing presses in the Ottoman capital of Istanbul were opened by Jewish immigrants (1492) and Armenians (1567).[10]  The first printing in Ottoman Turkish was authorized during the reign of Ahmed III by Ibrahim Muteferrika, who in trying to sell the project “cited benefits for the masses needing instruction and for the ruling classes and the benefit of perpetuating books by printing them when manuscripts could be or had been destroyed by war.”[11]  This statement represents a sense on the part of some in the Ottoman elite that mass production leads to permanence.  The resulting firman permitted printing only in practical sciences, and not religious fields.[12]  Printing did not truly catch on, however, until the 19th century, and particularly its last quarter.  One survey shows that, within the Ottoman Empire and across the fields of literature, positive science, religion, and governments, the period from 1820 until 1839 saw the publication of 217 titles, that from 1840 until 1876 had 2468 titles, and the period from 1876 until 1908 gave rise to 9094.[13]  This seems to reflect the situation in the predominantly Arab provinces, as well, for despite some Arabic printing by Syrian Christians and in Muhammad Ali’s Egypt, private printing did not become an important business in Egypt until the 1870’s.[14]

According to Juan Cole, an important precondition for this was a rise in literacy generated by the new Egyptian education programs designed to staff the bureaucracy.[15]  Kemal Karpat takes this analysis further, arguing that education for service in Ottoman bureaucracies, which increased first during the Tanzimat period and again under Abdulhamid II, created a new class of elites imbued with then-current ideas of modernity and characterized by a receptivity to reconfigured geometries of identity supported by new media forms.[16]  In particular, pan-Islamic sentiments spread through newspapers, which as Benedict Anderson pointed out is “a book sold on a colossal scale, but of ephemeral popularity.”[17]  Karpat highlights Basiret as the primary organ of Ottoman pan-Islamism,[18] while Cole notes the importance of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad ‘Abduh’s al-‘Urwa al-Wuthqa and ‘Abd Allah al-Nadim’s Tankit wa Tabkit and al-Ta’if, the latter of which became the chief organ of the ‘Urabi movement.[19] 

Print culture affected the transmission of ideas and knowledge in the Middle East in several ways.  Those unable to access traditional perches of authority could popularize their ideas through print-related entrepreneurship.  Jamal al-Din al-Afghani’s formal theological training was not extensive enough for him to earn any formal credentials, and if he had it might have narrowed rather than expanded his potential audience on account of his Shi‘ism.[20]  Nonetheless, he was able to become the father of the broad movement of Islamic reformism because of print publications.  Such publications were able to reach the illiterate as well as the literate, as the educated read them aloud to an audience in coffeehouses and other venues.[21]  This marked a practice of communication in which oral dissemination served to extend the reach of written texts, with education rather than intellectual trustworthiness as the basis of authority.  The ready availability of printed Qur’ans and commentaries also helped sustain a movement among Sunnis toward greater acceptance of ijtihad, which depended on direct access to those texts.[22]  Furthermore, as Albert Hourani notes, al-Afghani displayed a sense of the umma that would have been difficult to maintain before his era in that, “The centre of attention is no longer Islam as a religion, it is rather Islam as a civilization.”[23]  Cole termed him a “Muslim nationalist” suggesting a receptivity within society to new horizontally circumscribed identities often associated with rituals of print.[24]

In 1871, an Istanbul-based Lebanese journalist named Ahmad Faris ash-Shidyaq wrote of how ulama and poets became increasingly involved in political discussions when exposed to newspapers.  The Young Ottoman intellectual Namik Kemal associated print culture with a simpler writing style that had mass appeal.  Muhammad ‘Abduh compared newspapers to mosque preachers, an indication of the close association of print with oral forms of idea transmission in popular perception in the late 19th century.[25]  Other associates of al-Afghani actively called upon mosque preachers to disseminate news during their sermons.[26]  Some satirical political publications even used Egyptian Colloquial Arabic, making them even more accessible to the less educated public.[27]

Women also benefited from the new media form.  The first publications dedicated to women’s issues appeared during the Tanzimat period (1839-1876).  Under Abdulhamid II, an official women’s press, “promoted a new idealized image of a Muslim mother and wife, who shopped at Muslim stores and raised obedient, pious children.”  This was followed under the Young Turks by a press which “gave vent to more liberal voices, and discussed a much broader range of issues, including sensitive ones like feminism, universal suffrage, and gender discrimination.”[28]  Cole has noted that in Egypt, women such as Malak Hifni Nasif could participate much more easily in debates mediated by print than they could prior to its popularization.[29]  The press was also not limited to politics, for, as Elizabeth B. Frierson notes, “Readers…wrote letters to endorse places of business or to protest high prices, and they fiercely debated moral-freighted products such as the corset.”[30]

Print culture in the Arab world, however, also developed in an environment of increasingly strong governments.  Under Abdulhamid II, the Ottoman Empire practiced rigorous censorship of politically sensitive books and newspapers.[31]  The same was true under colonial powers, whose rule saw the growth of new, linguistically defined forms of nationalism.  The most open periods were during what William Rugh has called the “factional phases,” where different groups competed for power within individual countries, thus diversifying the base of capital needed for printing, as well as preventing a monopoly of coercive potential.  By the late 20th century, all newspapers printed in the Arab world were in a situation where they were expected to support the regime of the country where they were based.[32]  The taboos maintained, however, varied by country.

The mighty electron

This was the environment in which radio first became an important component of the Arab media landscape.  Although radio began in Egypt during the 1920’s, Gamal Abdel Nasser developed it both as a means of nationalization and to broadcast the regime’s perspectives on contemporary issues throughout the Arab world.  Other nationalist regimes, such as Iraq and Syria, soon followed.[33]  More traditionalist regimes, such as Jordan, failed to compete with the nationalist broadcasts.[34]  Marc Lynch characterizes Egypt’s Voice of the Arabs as featuring, “little rational argument, and much invective and fierce rhetoric.”[35]  Research on the reception of these perspectives by listeners, however, remains badly needed.  Listening seems often to have taken place in groups, such as in coffeehouses.[36]  In a striking interview recorded by Madawi al-Rasheed, a former ARAMCO worker from Najd recalls listening to radio broadcasts on significant regional issues with other workers from around the Arab world in 1953.  The worker said that all he wanted to buy for himself with his wages was a radio to listen to those broadcasts.[37]

That worker’s remarks suggest that, while not a “public sphere,” Voice of the Arabs cannot be dismissed as simple propaganda.  People will simply lose interest in media sources without credibility.  Rugh has suggested that people’s low trust in official state media has led to a persistent importance in oral communication among personal networks in the transmission of information.[38]  Nasser had influence because his message resonated with a significant number of Arabs.  At the same time, it both reflected the state’s ability to dominate means of mass communication, while seeking to, and perhaps succeeding in, placing ultimate authority in Nasser as the great leader who embodied the nation.  Rugh traces the state’s ability to control broadcast media to the significant start-up costs and a higher level of state interest in controlling radio and television due to their massive reach.  He also notes that radio expanded under strong governments and thus had no tradition of independence.[39]  This, however, may miss the critical point that it expanded precisely because the governments sought to use its aforementioned reach.  Broadcast media not only existed under state control; it existed because the state desired it.[40]  The tradition of carrying advertising in blocks between programs may reflect an original sensitivity to the fact that state-sponsored radio was a political, rather than commercial venture, and programmers did not want ads to interrupt the content of shows regardless of the loss in their effectiveness.[41]  Charles Hirschkind has located Nasserist programming within a history of agentive listening.[42]  More directly relevant to blogs, however, is the manner in which radio drew listeners into the imagined community of Arabic language and culture and shared projects of advancement for that community under Nasser’s leadership.

A further transformation of the Arab media landscape took place during the 1990’s with the rise of satellite television.  Previous Arab television stations were driven by the same political concerns as radio, and sought to either promote a political agenda or counter one by providing alternative programming.[43]  The new satellite stations, however, although linked to ruling families from the Arabian Peninsula, were driven in whole or part by commercial considerations.[44]  Although difficult to measure, consumer demand played an increased role in determining content, making public opinion important in the competitive satellite TV market.[45]  Lynch has highlighted al-Jazeera in particular as a key component of “a genuine public sphere, characterized by self-conscious, open, and contentious political argument before a vast but discrete audience” which shaped “not only public attitudes but also conceptions of political identity and the strategies of all political actors.”[46]  The unidirectional character of mass media during the 20th century has been somewhat revised by open call-in shows in real time.  Anyone who has frequented coffeehouses in the Arab world can also testify that people often watch in public groups, as well as through home satellite dishes.  At the same time, practical controls limit the ability of any given individual to participate in the discussions and broadcast their voice to the community.


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