Postscript to The Hope Crusades: Culturalism and Reform in the Arab World
Since the paper was published in 2012, there have been cycles of hope and counter-hope in the Arab states. While the hope crusades that were the focus on the original article were geared toward promoting and legitimating the policies of neoliberalism, the Arab Spring created other cultures of hope in the Arab world: it brought with it a different rhetoric of hope, life, optimism, and awakening, one that is against the neoliberal order and its subsequent inequality. It was hope from below, from people feeling they can overthrow dictators and live in dignity, after the fall of the Tunisian leader. It was hope for real change, change that was to bring a better future, a future built on social justice and equality, and a democracy connected to dignity and redistribution of wealth.
The Arab Spring took the world by surprise, because the prevailing culturalist frame through which the region has been portrayed led to the assumption that political agency was sharply limited by continuing dominance of traditional backward authoritarian culture. In such a frame, it was virtually impossible to imagine that a people who were seen as resistant to change, inactive and passive could have the capacity to rise up in mass, collective revolt. As the events of the Arab Spring imposed themselves on the world, the culturalist frame halted for a time. The Arab streets appeared vibrant, revolutionary, a place of idea exchange, of making culture, and Arab people seemed to be taking decisions in their own hands, living the present now analyzed through the past, as making history after being seen as outside of history. The Arab Spring highlighted the central importance not of culture but of political economy for the region. The uprisings were, at their heart, a collective response to the objective conditions of political and economic exclusion and marginalization that the Hope Crusades had tried to represent and legitimate in culturalist terms. There was genuine hope, love, and a culture of life during the first phase of the Arab Spring.
Ironically, those who had called for change, for a culture of life, stood unable and not knowing what to do at first. Since the revolt was against an order that they benefited from, it was predictable for them to be part of the counter-revolution. This can be clearly seen by the quote from Fadi Ghandour, the head of the Arab Business Council, even at the beginning of the revolt:
We are worried…We are worried…We are scared…Instead of being at the forefront of change, at the forefront of development in the Arab world; at the forefront of making a statement of how we want our communities and societies to live, we are stepping back and worrying that this attack on government institutions in the Arab world is touching us, is affecting us…….We are hiding because we are viewed negatively. Instead of hiding, we need to step forward and show our faces and say we are different. (Fadi Ghandour, MBC interview, May 15, 2011)
The events also showed how disconnected the business community were from the people. Even at a time when culturalist framings had so clearly failed, neoliberal elites were still using it to explain why some countries wouldn’t be affected by the Arab Spring uprisings. For example, as Mohammad el Jaafar, a member of the Kuwait chapter of Young Arab Leaders, explained:
Dubai will be immune from this wind of change in the Arab world for the simple reason that they have developed the process to build the human capital to weather the storm or not to be included in it…If you look at their civic education and you see how citizens in Dubai behave you can see how Dubai citizens behave differently from other citizens in the Arab world, in Yemen for example. And they are immune not because of oil but because of the culture of tolerance and the vision they have. (Muhammad Jaafar, WEF 2011)
The Arab Spring unfolded in different countries in different ways, but it was a process shaped by counter revolutionary forces. The subsequent violence from Bahrain to Yemen to Syria brought back culturalism as a way to discuss the region: sectarianism—seen as part of the culture, not as a political project—was now said to lead to the incompatibility of the Arabs with democracy. The conclusion for some was that it was better to live in dictatorship then end up in civil war. Thus, the retreat of the revolutionary wave came to be seen in a culturalist way and not as a consequence of the work of the counter-revolution.
The Arab Spring also redrew alliances in the region. The Syrians and Hezbollah, who had been seen as part of the axis of evil, had previously been accused of not loving life.
But the revolt in Syria and the subsequent involvement of Hezbollah as part of the counter-revolution in the country shifted this discourse. Suddenly, those who had been resisting the campaign of hope, criticizing it, now used it for their own ends and joined forces for the neoliberal order. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is a good case in point. The revolution in Syria was described since day one as an attack on life and hope. Assad’s regime dubbed the people taking to the streets as terrorists, even before the rise of ISIS. Assad’s wife spoke of needing to protect the “culture of life in Syria.” Syria’s First Lady further said,“[t]he takfiris – Wahhabi terrorists – export darkness and the Syrians restore the light and illumination, the takfiris target education, schools and universities; however, you export the culture of life, renewal and birth,” as she addressed a group of Syrian Mothers during her visit to a Damascus-based Obstetrics Hospital. Nasrallah himself also spoke of the culture of life and the culture of death: of pre-emptive wars of the takfiris who are against the logic of life, are spreading a culture of violence and fear, and despair.
On Hope as Resistance Still
The reinauguration of culturalist frames to analyze the Arab world after the counter-revolution stems from the fact of not seeing the events that unfolded in 2010 as a long process. A process that has just begun, that is changing the old order of things and it is an open process that is connected to changes at a global scale. Saatchi and Saatchi, creator of the “I Love Life” Campaign, is unable anymore to convince people here, there, or anywhere that neoliberalism will bring prosperity and peace to the world, that those who are against it, hate life, and those who resist it live a culture of despair.
Mayssoun Sukarieh is a Lecturer of Middle Eastern Studies at King’s College London. Her first book, Youth Rising? The Politics of Youth in the Global Economy (co-authored with Stuart Tannock) was published earlier this year by Routledge’s Critical Youth Studies series. In 2015 she was also appointed as a Fellow of the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung.