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The Influence of Arab Information Channels on Arab Identity

Khaled Hroub

Director
Cambridge Arab Media Project
in association with the Centre of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies
University of Cambridge

Arab Information Channels: The Phenomenon

Over the past decade and a half, Arab audiences have witnessed the mushrooming of trans-border Arabic TV stations. Characterized by the ease with which they are able to reach Arabic-speaking communities regardless of geography and borders, this ‘new media’ has increasingly become a powerful socio-cultural and political institution that influences public attitudes and perceptions. This media has succeeded in appealing not only to those within the Arab region but also to the Arab Diaspora throughout the world, and specifically in Europe. Television sets in Arab households in Manchester, Berlin, Rotterdam, Marseilles and many other European cities are tuned most of the time to Arabic-speaking channels that transmit from their area of origin. Disenfranchised and unemployed Arab youths from Parisian suburbs to Gaza have found satisfying radical material on this media that feeds into their anger. Apart of foreign policy pressures, Arab news channels are perhaps the principal shaper of perceptions and identity(s) within Arabic-speaking communities nowadays (Benhalla, 2005).

The first trans-territorial Arab station, the partially Saudi-owned Middle Broadcasting Centre (MBC), started its transmission from London in 1991. MBC station coverage was kept within a Saudi-sensitive editorial line, offering broad, pan-Arab yet ‘un-challenging’ coverage of news and analysis. The real revolution in the coverage of hot regional issues came with the launch of Al-Jazeera from Qatar in 1996, which daringly raised the ceiling of freedom-of-expression in the Arab context. Numerous Arab trans-border TV stations have since mushroomed in the region, creating a phenomenon that has become a salient feature of the socio-political and cultural landscape of the area.

These channels can be grouped into a number of categories based on different criteria. They could be classified according to content material: news; variety; entertainment or religious channels. Ownership is obviously a criterion too. There are state-owned, semi-state owned and privately owned stations. Also, there are foreign-owned Arabic-speaking TV networks (such as the American Al-Hurra, the Deutsche Welle and the Russian Russia Today, and the soon-to-come Arabic versions of the BBC and France24 channels). Obviously, owners’ agenda and policies are reflected directly or indirectly in the programming and output of these channels. But they can also be classified in terms of coverage and outreach: national and transnational (or local and pan-Arab media) channels, each of which aspires to appeal either to domestic national audiences or beyond. Pan-Arab news channels such as Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya occupy the leading position in outreach and influence. They specifically try to free themselves from local colouring in order to attract broader Arab communities everywhere. Because of the relative freedom they enjoy compared to their national counterparts, they are widely watched and contribute strongly to the shaping of dominant perceptions among Arabs on any given issues. (Lynch, 2006 and Hroub, 2006.)

Apart fromforeign policy pressures, Arab news channels are perhaps the principal shaper of perceptions and identity(s) within Arabicspeaking communities nowadays

But What Is ‘Arab Identity’?

The notion of identity exhibits problematic dimensions when analysed in a specifically Arab context. ‘Who is the Arab’ and ‘what is Arab identity’ are perennial questions that have challenged Arab thinking for a long time. The diversity of Arab identities and sub identities manifests itself at various levels: Muslim identity, pan-Arab identity, national identity, regional identity, religious identity, sectarian identity, ethnic identity and so forth. What connects all these groups of people and makes them feel a part of a bigger whole is what could be called the ‘Arab identity’. It is this sub-conscious loyalty to a set of sentiments, language, past and shared histories, present dreams and aspirations and fragments of commonalities. Presently, and at times historically, it has also been a collective sense of being on the defensive against what is perceived to be an existential (and chiefly Western) military and cultural threat to this fluid notion of an ‘Arab identity’.

Characterised by authoritarian modes of politics and the control of national resources by narrow circles of either ethnic, partisan, ideological, sectarian or tribal elites, the independentArab states have failed to produce coherent national identities,while allowing fragmented if embattled identities to stay alive

The paths by which Arab identities have evolved have by and large been the creation of a multiplicity of pressures and societal, political and cultural processes. A collective ‘Arab identity,’ in the modern sense of the term, emerged acute and challenging in its nature, by the end of the 19th century as a strong response to the ‘Turkification’ policies imposed on the Arabs by the Ottoman Empire. This sense of collective identity was intensified and accelerated by the British and French colonial projects in the Arab region.

Yet, in a post-colonial context, where the challenge of foreign occupation has been removed (apart from Palestine), different forms of sub-identities have started to materialise. Characterised by authoritarian modes of politics and the control of national resources by narrow circles of either ethnic, partisan, ideological, sectarian or tribal elites, the independent Arab states have failed to produce coherent national identities, while allowing fragmented if embattled identities to stay alive.

Trans-national Arab media, in all its guises, parallels both internal and external influences. It has had a great impact on the various evolving Arab identities, in giving differentiated access or weight to this identity or that one, to its portrayal of events and issues.

Creating Primordial and Binary Identities?

The diversity of Arab satellite media noted above makes it difficult to coherently assess the influence(s) of these media on ‘Arab identity(s)’. Various forms of identities and sub-identities emerge and re-emerge according to political context but are always greatly influenced by the current form of media. The underlining argument in grouping the binaries outlined below is that current Arab trans-border broadcasting has facilitated the surfacing of dormant identities, sharpened already existing ones and provided a unique platform without which the present crowded scene of identities and sub-identities would most likely have not shaped out.

However, the reshaping of Arab identities over the past two decades certainly extends beyond the realm of media. Conflicts, wars, political and economic impasses, and state failure to establish national identities grounded in equality, citizenship and rule of law have all alienated, marginalised and dislocated under-privileged groups. These groups have subsequently receded into further sub-identities searching for refuge and stronger identification.

Islamic, Pan-Arab or Regional Identity?

Arab information channels have furthered the never-ending debate in Arab societies over their identity. Since the days of Ottoman rule over the Arab peoples, the question of whether Arabism or Islamism constitutes the defining feature of identity of the people in the region has never been settled. By and large, both constructs have experienced periods of waxing and waning in connection with the dominance of Arab nationalism or political Islam. At the present time, the eminent influence and popularity of religious movements, either political or apolitical, have conjoined with the unprecedented spread of trans-border Arab broadcasting. It is a time of waxing, it seems, of more elements of ‘Islamic identity’.

This intensive outpouring of news and live debate creates a shared feeling of belonging and certainly enhances a pan-Arab identity

A full spectrum of religious channels—Saudi Wahhabi, Salafi, Sunni, Shi’ite, politicised and apoliticised, militant and moderate, local, national and trans-national—are beaming media material in Arabic into any household in Arab countries and beyond. Religious programming and media star preachers are projecting discourses of Islamism that further complicate Arab self-awareness, identity and belonging. With its chief advocacy being ‘the ultimate authority and source of identification is the divine power’, all other forms of earthy belonging and constructs are not only challenged but also ridiculed. While the tension between a secular outlook and a religious one has existed in Arab societies for a long time, it is the scope, the outreach and the intensity of the transmitted material by current TV channels that presently give this tension unprecedented ramifications.

Pan-Arab TV media is more powerful than at any other time in its brief past. Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya and to a lesser extent Abu Dhabi TV are most watched by pan-Arab audiences. The impact of these channels toward forging a collective sense of ‘Arabism’ is immense. These TV stations have raised the level of discussion of many taboo subjects connecting Arabs around common issues. Live broadcasts, especially in times of conflict and war coverage, and also talk shows have made these channels an integral part of present Arab culture. It could be safely said that the level of connectedness among various and dispersed Arab communities has never been as extensive as it is now. Never in any other period of history has the speed, flow and detailed knowledge being communicated between Arab areas and societies been as it has been in this present age of Arab satellite broadcasting. Discussion of various issues can include participants onsite or via satellite links from across various Arab countries. Individual faces and views of Arab intellectuals, politicians, and commentators have become familiar across a wide spectrum of Arab audiences. This intensive outpouring of news and live debate creates a shared feeling of belonging and certainly enhances a pan-Arab identity. (Zayani, 2005.)

Another identity formation that has been influenced by the spread of Arab TVs pertains to what could be called ‘regional Arab identity’ broadcasting focuses on a specific group of Arab countries which have more similarities among themselves than with the rest of the Arab world. Many TV stations in the Gulf (mainly in Dubai, but having varied Gulfan ownership) broadcast material that targets Arab audiences in the Gulf area. The interest, language, taste and commercials focus mainly, if not exclusively, on those audiences. The same could apply to TV stations based in North African Arab countries, where the taste, Arabic dialects and concerns are tailored to this Maghreb region. Mashreq area broadcasting, transmitted from, and directed to, countries such as Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine again uses regional Arabic dialects, and the agenda followed is more regional-focused than a pan-Arab one. In these three distinctive geographical areas, such specific broadcasting creates and encourages a sense of ‘regional identity’ within the Arab world, which operates at a level below a pan-Arab identity.

National Identity versus Sectarian or Ethnic Identity

A seriously disturbing new tension within Arab identity has emerged since the second American invasion of Iraq, in 2003. This American intervention was perceived by many Arabs to favour Iraqi Shi’ites at the expense of Iraqi Sunnis. Subsequent numerous resistance groups as well as many terrorist groups have all been grounded in Sunni communities. Thus, the Shi’ites have been considered by many Sunnis to be collaborators with the foreign occupier. Equally, the Shi’ites have depicted many Sunni’s as supporters of the terrorism that has been targeting Shi’ite civilians which has been largely committed independent of both by Al-Qaeda. Subsequently, the Iraqi national identity, however incoherent it might have been prior to the invasion, has experienced degeneration into the sectarian sub-identities of Shi’ite and Sunni and also into ethnic sub-identities as in the case of the Kurds.

Another form of identity tension that has been exacerbated by the plethora of Arab TV venues is between national and ethnic (non-Arab) identities

One of the tragic results of the situation in Iraq is that Iraqi (and Arab) airwaves are now crowded with information channels (exceeding twenty stations) that reflect the sectarian reality on the ground, and exacerbate it. On these opposing sectarian channels that ostensibly function in the name of the ‘Iraqi nation’, most events are reported and perceived completely differently. What is reported as a ‘resistance’ act on Al-Sharqia or Al-Zawra TV is vehemently condemned on Al-Fayah and Al-Iraqia as a terrorist act. A leading Shi’ite or Sunni imam would be highly praised on one screen, but depicted as an outright traitor on another screen, depending on the sectarian leaning of the station. Mutual vilification on a sectarian basis has never been experienced as publicly as it is expressed on emerging Iraqi TV stations at the present time. Many secular Iraqis are devastated at the deterioration of the Iraqi national identity and the fact that one’s own religious affiliation has become a socio-political and cultural identification of everyone. A ‘benign’ form of sectarianism has always been a feature of Iraqi society, but it had always been outweighed by a higher national identity which superseded any particular interest in religious or sectarian background.

More worrying is the fact that this ‘sectarian war’ taking place on Iraqi airwaves has already spilled over onto neighbouring Arab screens. Iraqi Shi’ites working at reconstruction with the Americans are described as traitors to the Arab cause. Thus, unfortunately, the political stance for or against the occupation has gradually slipped into religious positioning. The situation on the ground, however, is clearly much more complicated than that. But this simplified representation of pro-US Shi’ites versus anti-US Sunnis has been the version promoted by sensationalist and sectarian TV networks in the region.

The political spring from which this media sectarian war, and its subsequent perpetuation of sub-sectarian identities flows, is the Iranian-Saudi rivalry over regional leverage and influence. Both countries play the ‘sectarian card’ in exploiting loyalties in the region, and the media, particularly TV broadcasting, has proven to be one of the most effective weapons in this process.

Another form of identity tension that has been exacerbated by the plethora of Arab TV venues is between national and ethnic (non-Arab) identities. The Kurds in Iraq, the Berber in Algeria and Morocco and the Southerners in Sudan, now all have their own TV stations, located either in those countries or abroad. These stations represent previously unattainable access which these minorities are quick to exploit, which creates further fears within the wider Arab community that this ‘ethnic and linguistic’ revival will be just the beginning of the break up of the country.

Arab Media and Arab Communities in Europe

Global Arab trans-border broadcasting has succeeded in creating rapid and strong connectedness between the Arab Diaspora and their origin countries. This has contributed to an ‘Arab and Muslim’ identity awareness. Yet, along with this strong connectedness and identity awareness, a process of further isolation of these communities within their host societies has occurred. Glued to Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya, Al-Manar, Abu Dhabi, LBC and The Future from the Mashreq and the Algerian, Tunisian and Moroccan channels from the Maghreb, these communities have become more globalised beyond their borders but much more segregated within those borders.

Trans-border Arab TV networks have became the source of information and entertainment for millions of Arabs who live in the West, and have greatly helped them to maintain their Arab and Muslim identity. But these channels equally have hindered the process of integration of Arab and Muslim communities in the West.

In recent years and with the tense atmosphere that has been engulfing the relationship between Arab and Muslim communities in the West and their host societies after 9/11, Arab TV networks have offered a comfortable refuge for the increasingly alienated Arab audiences. Their anxieties, problems and complaints against a sharp perceived rise of hostile sentiment in the West against them have found expression on these TV channels. But this has provided only a temporary and perhaps self-eluding comfort, because mere talking on Arab media about the difficulties of Arab communities living in the West has actually accomplished very little to improve their situation. Instead of facing the coldness of Western media and lobbying them to listen to their demands, they have lingered in the warm confines of Arab TV channels which have offered them a comfortable and familiar, but hardly effective, platform. (Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, vol. 32, nº. 6.)

In parallel with the burgeoning of Arab news stations, there has been a noticeable trans-national process both of globalisation and, ironically, of fragmentation of Arab identities

By way of conclusion, it could be said that the continuous expansion of ‘open skies’ broadcasting and the growth of their trans-border channels have surely encouraged embattled minority groups to disentangle themselves from the perceived tyranny of sweeping or grand identities imposed on them by higher political structures, primarily the state and its ideologies. Thus, in parallel with the burgeoning of Arab news stations, there has been a noticeable trans-national process both of globalisation and ironically of fragmentation of Arab identities, with moderate and radical, ethnic and national, secular and religious, local and pan-Arabs all finding a place for themselves on Arab screens. What would give primacy to a certain cohesive form of identity over these fragmentary others in the near future is a combination of positive political and social developments in the Arab countries along with radical change of Western foreign policies implemented in the region.

References

Benhalla, Fouad. Le Choc de la Communication Globale: Pouvoirs et societes Arabes face au defi, Paris: Publisud, 2005

Hroub, Khaled et al. Arab Media in the Information Age, Abu Dhabi: The Emirates Centre for Strategic Studies and Research, 2006

Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, Volume 32, No. 6, August 2006, special issue dedicated to the theme ‘After September 11 2001: TV News Transnational Audiences’

Lynch, Marc. Voices of the New Arab Public: Iraq, Al-Jazeera, and Middle East Politics Today, New York: Columbia University Press, 2006

Zayani, Mohamed. The Al-Jazeera Phenomenon: Critical Perspectives on New Arab Media, London: Pluto Press, 2005)