Perspectives on Politics, the leading journal in political science, has just published a second review of Voices of the New Arab Public. This is rather unusual, and I'm not at all sure why I had the honor of two reviews of the book in the same journal. This one is by the leading critical media scholar Douglas Kellner of UCLA. Excerpts follow:
Marc Lynch provides a comprehensive overview of the historical rise of new Arab media and public spheres, in which Arabs attempt to break stereotypes and represent themselves, giving voice to views and ideas that are usually absent in both their state-controlled media and Western media. Building on Jürgen Habermas's (1992) The Structural Transformation of the Bourgeois Public Sphere, which traces the rise of the bourgeois public sphere in eighteenth-century Europe, Lynch examines whether Arab countries are developing liberal public spheres of information, debate, and consensus. Using Habermas, Lynch identifies progressive features of the new Arab public spheres, but also indicates limitations.
According to Lynch, the emergence of satellite television channels like al-Jazeera and of the Internet are creating a new Arab public sphere outside of the previous monopoly over the flow of information sought by Arab states. This public sphere recognizes the value of debate and differences, and allows disagreement. It has forced politicians to justify their policies and has created a new level of accountability. Yet such a public sphere 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)
Lynch concludes that there has emerged “A Real Public Sphere” which is “characterized by self-conscious, open, and contentious political argument before a vast but discrete audience” (pp. 247–48). It is not clear if it will become a “liberal public sphere,” full of diverse opinions and tolerant of opposing views, and free of state interference, because “the politics of the Arab public sphere tend toward populism, the politics of identity, of authenticity, and of resistance” (p. 26). While signaling possible limitations, Lynch's conclusion holds open whether the new Arab public sphere will become “a populist public or a liberal public” (p. 248).
The book is timely and has broader implications. The author's “Call for Dialogue” with emergent Arab public spheres (p. 249 ff) is surely relevant to current discussions of “democracy promotion” and U.S. foreign policy. In calling attention to the Bush administration's failed approach to the Arab public sphere—which has involved treating it either as “an enemy to be defeated (in a ‘war of ideas’) or as an object to be manipulated (via public relations)” (p. 250)—Lynch underscores the importance of “real dialogue” aimed at real mutual understanding.
One could argue that the author idealizes a too homogeneous “Arab public sphere” in the same way that Habermas's critics claim that he idealized the “bourgeois public sphere.” Rather, there is arguably a diversity of Arab public spheres, just as there were a “proletarian public sphere” (Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge in their 1993 book Public Sphere and Experience), women's public spheres, and those of diverse groups and movements in the West.
Voices of the New Arab Public does not refer to events after 2005, and since then there has been a dramatic expansion of Islamic media and voices that tend to be underplayed in his narrative. Yet clearly, the rise of Arab news media has created a new situation in which public opinion and political action can be shaped outside of traditional political elites in the Middle East, and there are new possibilities for Arab consciousness and union, as well as diversity and conflict within and new dialogues with the West without. While maintaining an open and critical position, Lynch looks for democratic potential in the new Arab media and public sphere, which he hopes will present a broad range of Arab voices, counter Arab and Islamic extremism, and give Western voices a fair chance to participate in a dialogue.