Voices of the New Arab Public is reviewed in the new issue of Perspectives on Politics (vol. 4, no.4, December 2006), the American Political Science Association journal which took over the book review section from the American Political Science Review a few years ago (and therefore a key review for any political scientist). I've posted the full text of the review over on the Voices blog, for those who are interested.
Overall, it is a very positive review, and I'm quite pleased. The reviewer, Mahmud Faksh, gives a fair summary of the book's main arguments about the impact of the new Arab public sphere and its significance for American public diplomacy, although for some reason barely touches at all on the empirical heart of the book (Arab arguments about Iraq). The review concludes that
the study represents a significant contribution to the emerging field of the media and politics and the budding literature on the new electronic media and Arab politics. It is a highly scholarly study, extensively researched, well documented, and lucidly written, combining a wealth of data and keen analysis, which offer an excellent understanding of the nature, evolution, and impact of the Arab media and the rising Arab public sphere.
Aside from the summary and the praise (both of which I appreciate), I would like to take minor issue with the one major critical point raised by Faksh:
The author correctly assumes that this cataclysmic transformation of Arab political culture is “vital to any meaningful pluralist politics” (p. 2). But this raises the question: Is the new open Arab public sphere really paving the road to a liberal, pluralist politics, as the author seems to imply? The answer is simply no. Indeed, as the study shows, the emerging Arab public discourse, open and free though it may be, remains cloistered in an Arab narrative anchored in Arab-Islamic identity and culture, spewing populism, anti-Westernism driven by past and present grievances (colonialism, the plight of the Palestinians under occupation, the suffering of the Iraqi people under the weight of the U.S.-imposed sanctions, the subsequent U.S. occupation, and perceived or real Western double standards), and obscurantist Islamism—all the antithesis of a civic liberal culture that promotes tolerance, trust, compromise, and reason in the marketplace of ideas. It is doubtful that such a populist, identity-based public enclave can provide the foundation for liberal reforms in the Arab world.
While this critique is perfectly justifiable and legitimate, I am dissatisfied with it on two levels.
First, it doesn't get the book's argument quite right. Voices certainly does lay out a strong argument for the potentially positive effects of the new Arab media: shattering state monopolies on information and opinion, challenging taboos and red lines which have shackled Arab political debate, consistently highlighting democratic elections and political reform, and empowering contentious politics from below. The book argues that building a culture of pluralism and public debate is a necessary condition for achieving real democratic reforms.. but not a sufficient one. The book is explicitly ambivalent about the liberalizing effects of the new media, as opposed to its contributions to pluralism and contentious politics. It argues that the new Arab public can not alone produce democracy, is constantly tempted by populist mobilization, and will not necessarily advance liberalism. Ironically, the book actually begins with precisely the question raised by Faksh:
Whether such a populist, identity-driven, enclave public could be the foundation for reform and liberalization - at a time when neither Arab states nor the most powerful popular movements such as Islamism offer such a foundation - represents one of the most urgent problems facing the Arab world today. The centrality of identity politics to the new Arab public, with its avowed goal of giving voice to an oppressed and long-silenced Arab political society, is rife with paradoxes. It is fueled by a determination to bring publicity to the closed, repressive Arab political world, shattering every taboo and crossing every red line with abandon. At the same time, its politics of identity could all too easily slide into a tyranny from below, excommunicating those who disagree and demonizing outsiders to enforce internal unity. (pp.3-4)
Later in the first chapter, I note with concern that "Even if the power of a new international public sphere is growing, it is not at all clear that it is a liberal public sphere... the politics of the new Arab public sphere tend towards populism, the politics of identity, of authenticity, and of resistance." (p.26). And in the conclusion (pp.248-249), I pose "a populist public or a liberal public" as one of the crucial issues which will determine the future of the impact of the new Arab public on the region. In short, while the book may "imply" that the new Arab public is paving the way to liberalism, that simply isn't what the book says.
The second level on which I've been thinking about this review has to do with degrees of certainty. My unease is well captured by this juxtaposition:
Faksh: "Is the new open Arab public sphere really paving the road to a liberal, pluralist politics, as the author seems to imply? The answer is simply no." (p.793)
Voices: "Whether the Arab public sphere develops in a liberal direction or in a populist direction, consumed by questions of identity and authenticity, is one of the most pivotal questions shaping the Arab future." (p.27)
I understand (and to some extent share) the widespread skepticism about the new Arab public's liberalism or about its democratizing potential, and Faksh offers interesting arguments in support of his skepticism (and draws some of his support from my own evidence). But I am troubled by such a direct, confident answer to such complex and unpredictable questions. Voices of the New Arab Public presents the rise of new media and public argument as a powerful set of forces reshaping the deep structure of Arab politics. But such deep structural changes will necessarily have complex, unpredictable implications: they will differentially empower a wide range of actors and movements; they will generate a backlash from those powerful forces threatened by the changes; they will shape the political impact of all kinds of other events and actors (whether events in Iraq and Lebanon, or elections in the region, or al-Qaeda's campaigns). The forces unleashed by the new Arab public have barely begun to be studied by political scientists. Faksh would be better served posing his perspective as a question, a competing hypothesis, than as a confident empirical assertion of fact - as would we all.
I don't want to suggest that the review was either hostile or poorly done. As I said, it was very positive and quite thoughtful, and raised important points, and I'm quite appreciative of getting such a good review in POP so quickly after publication (by academic standards). Nobody should take this blog discussion as an attack on the reviewer: it's more a way of trying to explore some of the issues it raises, respond to some of its critiques, and increase the overall value of the review. Hey, here's a radical thought: Wouldn't it be great if more academic book reviews could be done in a dialogic format, as in the Qahwa Sada forum on Bob Vitalis's America's Kingdom or the Crooked Timber forum on Shari Berman's The Primacy of Politics (PDF version here)? Let reviewers post their review, authors respond, have a week-long dialogue about it, then publish the results? That seems like one area where academic and blogging are a natural match... could this be the future?