- Mediated Politics in the Middle East:Introduction
The first element of politics, Antonio Gramsci stressed, is that "there really do exist rulers and ruled, leaders and led." He suggested that it is precisely this social divide, "the first element, the most elementary thing, which is the first to be forgotten."1 Gramsci provides a timely reminder of a fundamental structuring feature of life in the Middle East and a broad conceptual frame for most of the articles included here, which interrogate sociocultural activity within contexts of constraint that toggle between active hegemony and outright repression.
All too often, analysts use a very narrow optic to determine what counts as "political" and what forms constitute "political communication." Unduly focused on elections, campaigning, and strategies of the rulers, such definitions are limiting even for the study of Western practices. Indeed, it could be argued that even a discursive move toward political communication (both a simple rhetorical trope and an organizational practice to designate a subfield) serves by implication to render all content and practices not included within its rubric as nonpolitical. An alternate approach, derived from the writing of Chantal Mouffe, would argue that what differentiates and thus constitutes the social, the political, and the economic is historically and discursively defined and thus not fixed, despite the huge intellectual and material edifices dedicated to assert their separability.2
Using the narrow delimitation of what constitutes political communication and the neglect of the "ruled" and "led" (the social divide) applied to other contexts (the geographical divide) such as the Middle East leads to the erroneous assumption that their politics and political cultures are not very well developed and that there is little that counts as political communication.3 Instead, we start with a more amorphous and malleable notion of political communication, empirically grounded in the practices of everyday life and challenging the easy orthodoxies of separating out the social, political, and economic spheres in the global South.
In the current political climate, it is hard to mention the Middle East without bringing to mind the new orthodoxy of the "clash of civilizations," Samuel P. Huntington's work, which tries to explain much of the world's political turmoil in terms of a clash between the West (secular modernity) and Islam (religious tradition).4 In trying to probe the reasons for the stubbornness of "tradition" and the reasons for the "backwardness of 'Islamic civilization,'" the [End Page 509] Middle East is treated as a coherent, self-sealed, and self-explanatory space, and its singular "culture" (Islam) is named as the main obstacle facing Islamic countries that seek full membership in the exclusive club of "modernity." Bernard Lewis and Huntington and their enthusiastic followers are not alone in this exaggerated assumption of cultural essentialism, which ends up defining societies in terms of some deeply embedded cultural ethos and lining up a rational Occidental culture against a rigid, stagnant Oriental culture and religion.5 The claim of regional or religious "exceptionalism" is only one part of a "global cultural system that itself calls for the essentializing of local truths, which takes place first by Orientalist discourses and second by the 'going native' of the natives themselves," as Ali Hassan Zaidi describes it.6 Such claims of difference work to imply the irrelevance of capitalist modernity just at the moment of its global generalization. This process of nativization, as Arif Dirlik reminds us, "reveals the impossibility of sustaining reified, holistic notions of traditions, which already have been transformed by modernity, and appear most prominently as sites of conflict between different social interests and different visions of the modern."7 All forms of cultures and politics are in reality a multiplicity of distinct and very often contradictory entities. The Middle East is no exception, despite all the claims of "regional exceptionalism."
In reality, Middle Eastern societies have vibrant and complex political cultures and use a variety of media forms to explore, express, and elaborate them. Examples include soap-opera formats that explore gender and family issues of the private sphere for national and transnational television audiences; songwriters and musicians, including rappers and rock bands, whose material and modes of expression challenge...