Blogging the Lebanon Crisis
(note: this is an abridged version of a report posted on the Intermap blog. A longer version, with many more quotes and examples, can be found there.)
The month of August was rife with commentary across more widespread news outlets about the Lebanon war and its aftermath, and the English-language Arab blogs witnessed a similar focus. Yet the notion of Arab blogs, let alone English-language Arab blogs, raises a very important concern about their impact on the public sphere. Simply put – how influential are blogs (especially English blogs) on the ongoing pan-Arab conversation about the United States and its policies in the Middle East? Do they reveal more fundamental shifts in argument strategies? Or, are they only representative of the dissidents and minorities within Arab countries?
These questions are crucial to understanding the role of blogs within the communication infrastructure of the Middle East – how the inform and are in turn influenced by the hierarchy of media forms that connect the interpersonal to the mass level of communication. This notion of “infrastructure” is drawn from communication scholar Sandra Ball-Rokeach’s theoretical formulation of a media system. This system links more macro-level media outlets with the more immediate forms of local communication that in turn instructs basic beliefs about political culture and other social norms. Blogs, under this view, can be seen as part of the meso-linkages between what is reported at the “mass” level and the opinions expressed at the local or “micro” level. In the United States, blogs have grown into a full-fledged sphere of public deliberation and political commentary. Political blogs have blossomed into parallel feeds of ideologically aligned news and information. They are obvious sites for examining nascent media “frames” about issues, that can feed back into the mainstream media to steer public debate. Does this hold true for Middle East media markets?
The first big question mark attached to blogs in the Arab public sphere deals with basic infrastructure and the role internet technology in everyday life. Compared to the oft- discussed domination of satellite communication, how important are blogs? How many individuals have access to blogs, and actually read and participate in such forums? Various recent studies have concluded that the number of active internet users in the Middle East is relatively small. Small numbers alone, however, does not diminish the importance of blogs and bloggers. The main issue may be one of audience. Who is reading blogs, and what are they taking from blog-driven arguments about the United States? A small segment of Arab populations actively use the internet. An even smaller segment blogs, and a still smaller population reads and blogs in English. (of course, according to this site the Egyptian blogosphere seems split!). Is there a significance to the sliver of English bloggers within the Arab internet world?
Arab media scholar Marc Lynch has rightly identified that there is not so much an Arab blogosphere as there is a collection of localized, regional blog communities. These communities, such as the bloggers associated with the independent political parties in Egypt, reflect less of a nationalist or pan-Arab tone, but more immediate political concerns. The recent imprisonment of Egyptian blogger Alaa highlights their efforts at political debate. But this also raises another question: are they the political movement themselves? Are bloggers just dissidents, or do they reflect a growing plurarlity to the public sphere? The question is important, especially if the goal of this project is to identify how media framing of the United States is developing across various media outlets in the pan-Arab world.
And here I come to my final caveat. The majority of my blog research has focused on English language Arab blogs, with a few selections of translated Arab-language blogs thrown in. I remain somewhat skeptical about the conclusions that can be drawn about pan-Arab argument trends by studying these blogs. English language blogs represent either small communities, or are written in anticipation of English language audience. For The latter point suggests that many English language blogs do not reflect the internal Arab conversation, but a roundabout means of impromptu cultural diplomacy – an emergent forum of international dialogue. One need only look to the “comments” fields of many English-language blogs to realize that Americans comprise a good portion of their readership. For another example, see this post on Beirut Spring illustrating just who is reading his blog.
The explosion of Lebanese blogs during the war, in particular, illustrates this trend. Many of these blogs were attempts at argument aimed not at Lebonese, but at the larger English-language world. Many bloggers believed that the mainstream media in the West did deliver an accurate picture of the war as it was happening on the ground in Lebanon. The blogs were a way to express frustration about the violence and destruction involved in the war.
To be fair, some English-language blogs were aimed at Lebanese during the war, and also at diasporic communities. As one Lebanese blogger, Mazen Kerbaj put it [in English], “we are writing our future’s collective memory.". Blogging was vital to narrating the war; a record for both internal and international audiences.
The Blogs of August
So what did August blogs reveal? The previous reports showed a steady drift towards support of Hezbollah, and a decline in discussion of the Shia-Sunni divide. The Lebanon war had become a truly pan-Arab cause. The United States was, not surprisingly, the most obvious target of condemnation outside of Israel. Yet it was the universal negative view of the United States that seemed most striking. There were few sympathetic views for the U.S. policy – even among outlets that often carried more moderate criticism of the U.S.
The Bahraini blogger Sabbah’s focus was telling. He chose to reprint Nasrallah’s speeches verbatim on his blog, bequeathing yet more legitimacy on the rhetoric of the Hezbollah leader. There seems to be no obvious contestation of Nasrallah’s arguments:
“I assure (you that) whatever the results of the war, Lebanon won’t be American and Lebanon won’t be Israeli and Lebanon won’t be one of the bases for the ‘new Middle East’ which George Bush wants and which Condoleezza Rice wants,”
These quote epitomized the gathering sense of a referendum on the broader U.S. Middle East policies. The Lebanon war was labeled an American war, and characteristic of the motivations and intentions behind the U.S. administration.
Beirut Spring, who typically voices a “moderate” perspective on Middle East affairs, commented on the decision by President Bush to send aid after the end of hostilities in August. This decision was presented by Beirut Spring as a reaction to the announcement by Hezbollah that it would actively engage in repairing the damages caused by the war in southern Lebanon. Beirut Spring’s careful equanimity falls away in his critique:
“You see Mr. Bush, I don’t know how it works in the US, but here in the Middle East, you can’t drop bombs and aid at the same time. We all know that you were shipping high-precision bombs to the Israelis, bombs that could have been used to kill Lebanese children. We all know that America was behind postponing the ceasefire until the “objectives” of the Israelis are met. Honestly Mr. President, no matter how much money you throw at us, you can’t undo the bad press that gave you.”
Moderates, though, don’t face quite the same level of social stigma within the blogosphere. A quick note of Beirut Spring’s logs reveals that his readership is predominately American. It is hard to figure whether he is downplaying or muting his own arguments about the U.S. administration’s role in the war cleanup. At the very least, his post reveals the obvious – the war was not good publicity for the United States.
Salam Alil’s (Asterism) report from the Iraqi blogosphere highlighted some of the reactions of Iraqi bloggers to the Lebanon war. This excerpt, from “Hala,” captures the degree of frustration that emanated throughout man blogs. Alil reprints Hala’s commentary after she returned from Beirut:
“I’ve never ever felt so humiliated in my life as I did seeing Israeli jets flying freely in the skies of Beirut… I loathed our weakness, I loathed being born as an Arab, I loathed living in London I hated myself so much I couldn’t even look in the mirror or watch my shadow as I walk. I felt so small and envied a tiny ant struggling to find its way through the sand.
The US has only one goal, that is to turn the area to a desert and drain it freely; armless, helpless, pacified and who dares to say a word. It is very hard for me to say that our only salvation is to ally with Iran, the only strong country left, enough is enough we are living in an era where you have to be feared not respected.
And a small message to all the hypocrates; you may kill and slaughter trying to establish a so called “The New Middle East”; rememmber you are fighting an ideology not a group of people.
Nasrallah is not a terrorist; he is probably the last dignified man in the area. Right now he is the only man I can take my hat off for.
It should be noted that Hala is an Iraqi expatriate living
in London. Nevertheless, if the diasporic community is any reflection
of pan-Arab opinion leadership, this post would confirm something of a
sea change in media characterization of the United States. In
particular, I am referring to the muting of voices that once mainly
criticized policy efficacy, and the increase of narratives that
encapsulate the United States motives and ambitions as wholly negative.
What we see here is a merging of arguments that once were somewhat
separated: the conspiratorial, anti-American voices and the more
moderate policy critics. The critics, it would seem, have gone towards
the route of wholesale rejection of the United States.
This is not altogether surprising. As the war progressed, support for Hezbollah and condemnation of the United States slowly spread from more typically anti-American outlets into more mainstream and government-sponsored venues. This follows an emergent pattern in the course of controversies within the Arab media. The most prominent case of this would be the Danish cartoon controversy, which had its origins in Islamist media, then grew to capture more mainstream outlets.
There are, of course, many more exemplars of blogging across the Arab media sphere for the month of August. A siginificant portion of these blogs dealt directly with the Lebanon war and its aftermath. Many echoed the sentiments already documented in the previous reports - that the destruction of the war was the result of U.S. planning as much as the Israeli Defense Forces. These themes continued to reverberate as the war dragged on, appearing increasingly as a consensus media frame of the war itself. The U.S. has of course weathered a considerable amount of criticism in the Middle East since the days after 9/11 - yet the increasing trend towards wholesale rejection of U.S. policies signals something different than previous criticism. First, the characterization of the U.S. as wholly repugnant is common across all media outlets. Second, the value rhetoric so central to U.S. public diplomacy rhetoric and to the publicly voiced justifications for U.S. policy in the region are increasingly assailed. The ideographs of democracy, freedom, and liberty have themselves become circumspect in the blogospheres, which in turn have echoed many of the vitriolic news editorials.
Craig Hayden is a researcher affiliated with the Center on Public Diplomacy and the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California.