Reflections on Ideology After the Arab Uprisings

A key conceptual problem for observers of the Arab uprisings–academics and journalists alike–continues to be how to classify and assess the ideological transformations taking place. “The people want the downfall of the regime,” the central slogan of the uprisings, has been interpreted as anything from a return to pan-Arab sentiments to a new Arab liberalism. For some, it signaled the unification of action around a single idea that resisted the atomization of Arab societies under the neoliberal-military-Western nexus of power. Many in the West now regard the revolutionary potential more skeptically, not least due to Islamist parties winning elections. The question is whether the uprisings have produced original ideas that can foment new ideological formations, or if things have merely changed in order to stay the same? In attempting to answer the question, liberal, secular, Islamist, nationalist, along with a whole swarm of other isms (like salafism, neoliberalism and imperialism) are being thrown around rather too easily, as always. Whether we like it or not, ideology is habitually invoked to explain society and politics in the Middle East. Ideologies are both analytical categories that help scholars make sense of political ideas, and social imaginaries that help Arab individuals and societies make sense of the political worlds they occupy. They are constructs, but constructs with a life of their own that we cannot afford to ignore.

Before the uprisings, two narratives about the history of modern Middle East dominated scholarship as well as popular discourse. One claimed that secular Arab ideologies have declined since the 1970s, and the other that Islamic revivalist ideologies have become the new hegemonic force. These broad observations were rarely substantiated by studies of how ideology is produced, or by considerations of how secular and religious ideologies have borrowed from each other throughout the modern period. Furthermore, few scholars of the Middle East sought to bring recent advances in cross-disciplinary ideology theory into communication with textured social, intellectual, and political history. There have been exceptions, particularly in recent years. As Michaelle Browers showed in her groundbreaking 2009 book, Political Ideology in the Arab World, an accommodation has been taking place between liberals, socialists, Islamists and nationalists since the 1980s (albeit an accommodation often based on mutual enemies rather than common political visions). Others have made an effort to move beyond and challenge the dominant focus on intellectual history and political movements. Asaf Bayat’s Life as Politics and Tarik Sabry’s Cultural Encounters in the Arab World are two recent attempts to incorporate everyday life into our thinking about how political ideas are formed, transmitted, and lived in the region. These and other books formed the basis for my own thinking as I worked on ways to reform Middle East ideology studies from a vantage point somewhere between anthropology, media studies, intellectual history, and more traditional political science.

Then the uprisings happened. We witnessed popular mobilization on a whole new level, but phrased in terms that seemed to fall between liberalism, leftism, and Islamism, but perhaps having had nothing to do with ideologies in the first place. Maybe the compulsion to plot the uprisings into existing ideological registers merely displays the poverty of our analytical categories, or a lack of imagination. At the same time, it is equally facile to simply say that ideologies have gone away because of the popular call for a new order. As Michael Freeden has put it, there is no such thing as “post-ideology,” for ideologies are not just visions of alternative worlds, but conceptualizations of the political worlds we already inhabit. In other words, ideologies do not have to be fleshed out in neat programmatic form in order to qualify as ideologies. It also seems blatantly clear that liberalism, leftism, and Islamism—in their different varieties—have not disappeared overnight. Rather, Arab politicians, intellectuals, and activists are adapting to the new political landscapes and producing reflections on the uprisings in conversation with existing ideological traditions.

What is new, compared to the period before 2011, is the sense that something radically transformative is at play in the ideological landscape of the Arab Middle East. Many in our academic community are convinced that the “old” system of labeling fails to capture the new fluidity. A number of open questions are being posed by observers and often by events themselves. To what extent are demonstrators motivated by ideologies? Are the uprisings producing new ideological directions? In which ways are they empowering existing ideologies? Do we need to first ditch the old ideological map before we can invent anew, or do we give up on ideological signifiers altogether like the “post”-theoreticians of post-secularism, post-Islamism, and post-ideology suggest? The aim here is not to give exhaustive answers to any of these questions, but simply to offer some reflections on a possible starting point for a new conceptualization of ideology in the Arab Middle East after 2011.

Towards Cultural Ideology

To be clear, my argument is not that the uprisings were driven by ideology in the sense of elaborate strategies for a political order. My suggestion is that we adopt a more flexible concept of “ideology of everyday life,” along the lines of Bayat and Sabry, and inspired by theorists like de Certeau, Zizek, and others who have followed Althusser’s assertion that ideologies should not be seen as descriptions of the world, but rather embodied and often unconscious practices constitutive of political subjectivity. Doing so makes it possible to see how the lived experience of autocratic regimes produced registers of political language and potentials for mass mobilization. The ideology of everyday life, however, is not a completely separate entity from formalized political ideologies represented by intellectuals and politicians. The key to reforming ideology studies in the Middle East, I believe, lies in a marriage between the traditions of what Michael Herzfeld has called “cultural ideology” and more traditional intellectual history and political science.

Following this cue, and despite the drastic changes in Arab political culture over the last year, I think it makes sense to retain the big families of Arab ideologies: leftism, liberalism, Islamism, and (Arab) nationalism. The challenge is to use the terminology in a careful way that allows for cross-fertilization, fluid boundaries, and historical exchanges between the “families” of ideologies, and that speaks against common misperceptions. To take the most common, Arab leftism cannot just be grouped as secular and therefore opposed to Islamic currents. Nor can we say that liberals hold a monopoly on individual freedom. As a rule of thumb, zero-sum game descriptions of Islamism versus secularism as well as liberalism versus leftism fail to account for the many individuals and groups who borrow from each other, and who converge on particular ideological core beliefs such as social justice, individual freedom, and—of course—the need for political reform. Who can forget the image of a veiled woman in Yemen holding a placard of Che Guevara? Ideology must account for such crossovers. The key challenge is to historicize the overlaps in their different national and transnational contexts so we can begin to gain a proper understanding of the histories of Arab ideologies. Historicization is the best tool against simplistic depictions of “cultural battles” between neatly defined ideological groups.

If popular usage of ideological categories obfuscates reality, ideology theory does not automatically add any more clarity. Schools of thought and social scientific disciplines vary significantly and lead to different results when they are used in the study of ideologies. In a Marxist tradition, ideology is paramount to false consciousness used and abused by powerful actors to disguise the “base”—the real social relations of exploitation. In political science, the stark ideological contests of the twentieth century have created a legacy, where ideologies are often seen much like cultures: bounded human groups characterized by a high degree of homogeneity. This is the tradition that produces zero-sum game descriptions not just of capitalism versus communism, but—more troubling for us—Islamism versus secularism and/or liberalism. Such descriptions collapse categories of power and culture into neat packages that conform to already-taken-for-granted ideas of ideological groups, peoples, nations, and similar large-scale categories. In contrast, the way most anthropologists and social historians today look at ideology is informed by insights of the constructivist and linguistic turns in the social science of the last three decades. Rather than looking for boundedness, social historians see the existence of communities as a result of particular work aiming at producing internal coherence. This work does not just take place in political forums or in lofty political theory, but everywhere in society, and even within individuals. They stress that, like culture(s), ideologies cannot be taken as pre-given but must be critically deconstructed and contextualized when we study them historically. If ideology is a framework for the social imaginary that relates to the ideal organization of politics, then we must study it as we study social imaginaries: through broad, historicizing surveys of the public sphere.

Accepting the fluidity of the ideological landscape means that we must abandon the idea that ideologies are finite and cohesive, and instead study the processes of boundary making between them and the re-reading and re-writing of history that contributes to the formulation of new ideological positions. This can be done most productively through a combination of ethnography and analysis of mass-mediated texts and images. Simply put, if we want to comprehend how ideology is formed, we must look at life-worlds, ontologies, and the public spheres in which they are shaped, examining a variety of public culture that informs public debate, as well as less public formations such as political parties, fan cultures, and media with limited circulation. The wonderful ethnography and documentation produced in the Arab uprisings is a smorgasbord for researchers of ideology.

Ideologies in Their Middle Eastern Place

Another knotty issue in ideology theory is the universal or local nature of ideologies. Many from a liberal school of thought stress that ideologies are, by definition, ideals for a future society which easily transcend cultural and geographic boundaries–and that they derive their power from that translatability. Others would argue that, although ideologies have a common mooring in the modern era, they have found local expressions and adaptations that force us to approach them as distinct ideological traditions. Islamism is an obvious case of a modern ideological family with non-European origins. The important point is that the way Islamism, but also communism and indeed secularism, is lived and experienced varies significantly with its national, regional, and religious context. Translating this insight to secularism, Jakobsen and Pellegrini,Fenella Cannell, and others have suggested that we talk about secular traditions rather than secularism, secularization, or “the secular” in India, Turkey, France, and other places with more or less homogenous histories of secularization and debates about secularism.

If we apply this approach to the Arab countries, it might be possible to identify three interconnected secular traditions in the Levant, the Gulf, and North Africa. Reflections on the need for a secular state first emerged in the late Ottoman period–either in the Young Turk movement, or in the concurrent Arab cultural movement known as the Nahda. In the early twentieth century, a number of ideological currents influenced Arab intelligentsias. Arab nationalist and Islamists both stressed the need for a common cultural community in the Middle East. And Marxist, Ba’thist, and socialist ideologies informed political life in the Arab states that came into being on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire and Western colonialism. Secular ideologies were partly inspired by forms of Western modernism–tiermondism, socialist distribution policies, and state centralisation–but also by ordinary people’s experience of Western colonialism, and by existing forms of social organisation and institutions that predated the European colonial presence. They competed with Islamism and Arab nationalism for influence, and resulted in a plethora of groups and intellectual trends, of which Nasser’s Arab nationalism became the most popular and successful.

Since the high tide of Nasserism, there has, in Browers’ words, been a retreat from secularism both in Arab nationalist and socialist thinking. In the process, many key concepts of the old left such as anti-imperialism and social justice have fertilized Islamist ideologies. Because the decline of leftist parties has coincided with a religious revival in the Middle East, giving strength and support to Islamist groups, ideology in the Middle East is today mainly examined from the vantage point of the Islamic revival, or, alternatively, as a competition between secular and Islamic tendencies. What has been lost in this paradigmatic shift in Middle East studies is the extent to which leftism remains a strong identification that has inspired both Islamists and liberals. If we want to understand how ideology is produced in today’s Middle East and what role it plays for society and politics, Arab leftism must be part of the picture. It has been sorely understudied to date and the Arab uprisings are the perfect occasion for a comprehensive revaluation.

Secular/ization/ism in Middle East Studies

The emphasis on Islamism in our field has also had an effect on the way we discuss Arab secularism. Outside of Middle East studies, secularism has attracted significant attention in anthropology, social theory, and religious studies. Generally speaking, the interest in secularism –dating roughly from the late 1980s–does not come from a deep engagement in secularist traditions, but from the recognition that a new language of politics is needed to understand the role of religious self-expression in the public sphere. Long gone is the time when secularism seemed to have no ideological significance on its own other than the taken-for-granted absence of religion. This need for religion as the lens through which we view the secular is particularly pronounced in works on secularism in the Arab Middle East due to the perceived centrality of Islam in shaping debates about state, society, and subjectivity.

The theorization of secularism can be divided into three currents: state doctrine (secularism), historical process (secularization), and political/ethical ideal (the secular). Even in very careful and considered analyses, there is inevitably a degree of confusion between these three categories, stemming from the popular usage of “secularism” to cover all three. An additional problem with the three categories is that none of them fully capture perhaps the most common-sense understanding of secularism, namely as social identity, that is, secularism as a blueprint for the individual’s life and place in the world. When we hear in the media that so-and-so are “secular” demonstrators, it is often with reference to this understanding of a group of people who not only hold certain views about the prescribed minimal role of religion in public life, but also conduct themselves and appear in a way that is (to a Western eye) non-religious. This is the opposite of what the literature commenting on secularism in Arab countries like Egypt has actually been concerned with, namely, individuals who make choices outside the box of Enlightenment-based liberal secularism and, again, appear “religious.” Their agency is political, not by directly affecting elections and state, but in the way that they enact a new political language based on comportment, behavior, modesty, and piety. This is what Asaf Bayat calls the politics of everyday life, and Saba Mahmood has labeled the politics of piety.

Another important writer on Islamic piety, Charles Hirschkind, has recently turned to the question of secularism in light of the Egyptian uprising. He sees Egypt in 2011 as a “post-secular”, or “asecular” moment (borrowing from Hussein Agrama) in the sense that the demonstrators defied a secular-Islamist distinction which the Mubarak regime had carefully maintained for decades in order to undermine the possibility of a unified opposition. This moment built on an intellectual and political tradition going back to the Kifaya movement and even further back to the 1980s, when a number of thinkers and activists paved the way for inscribing Islam in nationalism and, increasingly, liberalism. Because Islamic identity had become so inscribed and taken for granted as part of the politics of everyday life, and because Islamist slogans by and large were not heard in the uprisings, secularism versus Islamism simply was not an issue, Hirschkind argues. It has, of course, very much become an issue again in the aftermath as established political forces have moved into the political territory cleared by the uprisings. Like in Egypt, there is in Tunisia today a looming fear of a secular-Islamist “battle of cultures,” even though it was not an important factor in the popular push to overthrow the Ben Ali regime. Decades of secularist state rhetoric does not go away overnight. Nor should we be blind to the fact that Islamist actors, some of them distinctly illiberal, see this as their moment to bring their claims to the fore.

Beyond the Islamist-Secular Paradigm

Salafists clamouring for public morality should not blind us to the crucial problem concerning ideology studies of the Middle East, namely that scholars have tended to separate Islamist and secular positions too neatly. In the crudest rendition of this ostensible zero-sum game, a dejected Arab East has today turned its back on its own modern advances during the age of colonialism and post-colonial developmentalism and returned to a pre-modern culturalist mode of Islamic politics (Bernard Lewis). A more nuanced but also flawed strain of analysis places Middle Eastern contentions over Islam in the context of a global struggle where “secularism confronts Islam” in today’s world (Olivier Roy).

Both approaches assume cohesion within each of secularism and Islamism, respectively, that becomes untenable upon closer inspection. Furthermore, the very idea that secularism is a separate ideology often obfuscates, more than it clarifies, social reality. As the 2011 uprisings made visible, an Islamic leaning does not preclude leftist positions and ambitions for democratic change, social justice, and even for secularization. In other words, the degree of individual religiosity does not predetermine political positions. There are many shades of Islamism, and while some display anti-secular stances, others take inspiration from and work with secular leftist groups. The same can be said about many leftist political movements that have abandoned previous laic stances and instead appropriate Islamic rhetoric about cultural authenticity and nationalism. In Lebanon, a note on AUB’s wall that I spotted in 2009 reads: “I am against sectarianism, but I am not secular.” It points to heated debates in Lebanon over how to reform the sectarian system–a reform process promoted both from a pious (e.g., Hizbollah) and proto-secularist (e.g., the Laique Pride movement) viewpoint.

The interventions of Mahmood, Hirschkind, Deeb and others have been crucial for our understanding of Islamism but also of the place and meaning of secularism vis-à-vis Islamism. In reaction to what many see as a secularist bias in ideology studies, their works challenge the common perception that the link between modernity and secularism is somehow obvious. Instead they have declared the pious subject as a neglected and potentially more authentic Middle Eastern modernity. These works have contributed to inscribing Islamism where it belongs: in the realm of modern phenomena. However, their insistence on a reified pious subject is as problematic as the secular bias in understandings of modernity that they challenge. Like others such asGregory Starrett who have recently criticized the “piety” literature, I believe that the usefulness of “the secular” as an analytical antidote to the Islamic revival is suspect, simply because the things we might identify as religious and secular are often entwined, and are essentially aspects of the same experience of modernity. Moreover, in Islamic circles the supposed de-secularization in Arab societies, the withering away of “belief” in secularism, paradoxically tends to dovetail with secularization in the sense of transfer of moral and cultural authority away from religious institutions. Similar trends can be observed in mass media, where the rise of an Islamic web-based umma has undermined traditional ‘ulama.

In these and other ways, the Islamic revival and its grassroots activism is producing a pious modern, but at the same time it is also engendering other social processes, which could be said to be secularizing. Indeed, the extraordinary recent expansion of mass media in the Middle East is a reason for some of the disquiet that may partly account for the new pious subject. Conversely, people who define themselves as secular are concerned about the influence of Islamist media in specific local social domains where they have traditionally held power, like the Arab media industries and the art scene. Their historical experience of having been in charge of the mighty ship of modernization is producing a secular élan–what Esra Özyürek calls a “nostalgia for the modern,” emotionally charged with longing for a period before the Arab left lost its influence. Nostalgia feeds on romantic notions of an earlier, revolutionary phase of leftism that has now been superseded by Islamism, authoritarian regimes, and neoliberal economies. If Arab leftism has been reinvigorated in the uprisings, which I believe it has, it is because leftists sense a possibility of overcoming nostalgia and finally delivering on the promises of ideological and organisational reform.

Islamist groups are tied to the modern history of the left primarily in the way they build on the rhetorical foundations of populism laid by secular Arabism, but with an added element of religiously based cultural identity and symbolism. The Iranian revolution in 1979 marked an important turning point in that respect by providing common ideals of anti-Imperialism and popular revolution. As a result, many of the secular left’s ideological focal points have merged with those of the Islamists, producing, among other things, an “Islamic left” in countries like Egypt and Lebanon, “conversions” of prominent leftists such as Palestinian writer Munir Shafiq to the Islamic cause in the 1980s, a shared human rights agenda since the 1990s, and a comprehensive attempt by leftist intellectuals to analyze what Islamism means for their societies. Similar views on the United States, Israel, and authoritarian Arab regimes have given occasion for common ground between Islamists and secular leftists. Moreover, overlaps between religious and secular ideologies and the social institutions producing them can be traced back to the early twentieth century, which points to a deeper correlation between secular and religious ideologies than what is assumed by classic secularisation theory. If historians pay attention to these deeper correlations, we will have a better chance to understand the transformations and conversations taking place in the ideological landscape after 2011.

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