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Pan-Arab News TV Station al-Mayadeen

The New Regressive Leftist Media

by Christine Crone (Author)
Monographs XIV, 216 Pages

Table Of Content


Acknowledgements

This book is drawn from research funded by the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Copenhagen, as part of its PhD scholarship programme. I am thankful for the opportunity I was given. Likewise, I am thankful to the Danish Institute in Damascus for awarding me travel grants that made my travels to and stays in Beirut possible.

First and foremost, I would like to thank Jakob Skovgaard-Petersen for his role as supervisor, his belief in the project, insightful comments and continued constructive encouragement. I thank Christa Salamandra for her engagement as co-supervisor, for inspiring discussions and for reminding me of the importance of the project when I, at times, started to doubt. Furthermore, I would like to thank Sune Haugbølle, both for sparking in me the idea to write a PhD in the first place, and for supporting me throughout the process when it became a reality.

I am grateful for the time spent at the Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies at the University of Copenhagen. The department has offered academic inducements, professional challenges and personal friendships. I am in debt to many, but would especially like to thank Andreas Bandak, my neighbour opposite, for being such a generous source of inspiration and advices. Thanks to Ehab Galal for always keeping ‘a considerate eye’ on me and to Saer El-Jaichi for productive conversations. I also thank all my PhD colleagues without whom it would not have been as edifying and joyful. A special thanks to Nikolaos Olma for your friendship and for always helping me out when needed the most.

Furthermore, I would like to thank Nina Grønlykke Mollerup, Manni Crone, Sidsel Nelund and Katrine Mørkeberg for reading and commenting on drafts at various stages and for providing moral support and much-appreciated encouragement. Thanks to Sawsan Kassab for precious help with transcriptions of broadcasts and much more – I treasured our meetings during busy work weeks. Also a warm thanks to Ninette Jallov Assentoft and Camilla Maya Dam who at different times joined me in Beirut to take care of my two children, while I was working.

This project would not have been the same without the staff members at al-Mayadeen and others in Beirut who took the time to meet with me. I hope I did justice to their voices, even though our views may differ on some of my arguments.

Finally, thanks to my parents who both in different ways have been – and still are – an invaluable support; and to Rita and Isak, for joining me in Beirut and for reminding me every day that there is more to life than academic endeavours.

Transliteration and Translation

I primarily transliterate Arabic words and titles in accordance with the system adopted by the International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies (INJMES). In the cases of central concepts, I have chosen to use a transliteration of the Arabic word throughout the book to underscore the exact Arabic concept. These words are:

Iltizam [commitment]

Multazim [committed]

Muqawama [resistance] / al-muqawama [the resistance]

Mumana‘a [literally ‘opposition’ or ‘resistance’ but used as a term for Arab regimes rejecting the US hegemony in the region]

Ṣumud [steadfastness]

Taqaddumi [progressive]

Munaḍil(a) [a struggler]

Bilad ash-Sham [literally ‘The land of Damascus’ or ‘the land of the North’, in English ‘the Levant’]

Arabic words which have found their way into the English language will be written in accordance with the conventional English spelling. Likewise, I report the names of people in the conventional way that they are referred to in English (e.g., Gamal Abdel Nasser or Hizbollah), or in the way they present themselves (e.g., on a business card or Facebook page).

The translations of broadcasts and interviews are my own.

Introduction

In the Arab world, 2012 was a time of hope, ambitions, uncertainty, division, violence, disappointment and growing frustration. It was also a time characterised by expectations that politics and everyday life were changing for something fundamentally different than pre-2011 conditions. While in 2011, the public uprisings had seemed to unite Arab populations both nationally and regionally, in 2012 the fragmentation over opposing political interests and alliances divided the Arab world to a disruptive level. It was in this time of ambivalence and conflict, on June 11, 2012, that a new pan-Arab satellite news TV station saw the light.

In 2013, when I started working on this project, I was curious to understand some of the ideological and media developments that had been stirred by the public uprisings that took place across the Arab world in 2011. I was interested to hear the more silent voices, the voices of the parts of the Arab population, which did not represent or identify with either the hope and vision of the young progressive activists initiating the uprisings, or the strategy and ambition of the growing Islamist movements, whether in political life (e.g., the election of Mursi in Egypt), on the battlefield (e.g., the militarisation and Islamisation of the uprising in Syria) or in the media (e.g., Islamic State’s online media campaign). I was – and still am – convinced of the importance of investigating alternative worldviews to the ones that had first caught the attention of Western media and academia alike. When ←1 | 2→the pan-Arab satellite TV station al-Mayadeen was launched, I knew that this could become an outlet for exactly that.

My initial interest in al-Mayadeen was sparked by the station’s pan-Arab rhetoric and heavy use of nostalgic symbols from the heydays of Arab nationalism, which I know so well from my stays in the region since 2001. Thus, while invoking the bygone golden era of Abdel Nasser as a unifying sentiment or shared frame of reference is a well-known phenomenon in the Arab world –– in 2012, at first I thought it most of all seemed like a resurrected dinosaur from the past. Through changing times, Nasser has remained a symbol in the Arab world of “hope, unity, national purpose, social stability, and achievement” (Gordon 2000). He has functioned as an icon in the Arab public memory as well as an important figure in popular culture, used to represent the Arab dream of unity and social justice (Haugbølle 2013a). Yet, I was puzzled by al-Mayadeen’s revival of nostalgic Nasser-sentiments in a time marked by public uprisings and where new heroes had been born. What role was this nostalgic attitude to play in a post-2011 Arab world? Why invoke old ideological slogans, in a time where other voices and agendas were dominating Arab media? Al-Mayadeen was obviously neither propagating the visions of the young activist on the street nor of the Islamists on the political scene or in the battlefield. Rather it was rejecting both, while it seemed to rewind time and undo the uprisings. Thus, I set out to investigate this alternative voice as I believed it represented an important but overlooked ideological current in this crucial time of Arab history.

My intentions with this project have been two-fold. I wanted to investigate both the TV station al-Mayadeen, an important representative of post-2011 Arab mediascapes, and the growing political trend and ideological discourse in Arab ideoscapes, which I call The New Regressive Left – two phenomena that are interlinked and that are feeding into each other. In other words, this is a book about a media that was born out of the political developments triggered by the Arab uprisings, but also a book that investigates the formation of a new ideological discourse, that builds on leftist progressive values and a nostalgic longing for a pre-2011 state of (authoritarian) Arab politics.

I propose that a media outlet can serve as an obvious and informative arena for investigating ideological developments in the contemporary Arab world – not merely as a mediator of already existing ideology, but equally as a producer of ideology. Thus, rather than understanding ideology as a coherent set of thoughts, carefully developed and finalised, I understand ideology as thought practices that are developing, adapting and taking shape – in this case in interaction between leftist ideological heritage, political strategies and agendas, and popular culture in the shape of a TV station. Or, to borrow the words of Lina Khatib, “often there is ←2 | 3→no longer a distinction between the cultural and the political spheres; it is not just that popular culture and politics feed off each other – very often, popular culture is politics” (Khatib 2013, 3). Thus, I understand ideology as existing and developing in our everyday life, in a cultural production, in an aesthetic experience, in an icon – or in a media outlet. As Lisa Wedeen argued in her ground-breaking book Ambiguities of Domination (Wedeen 1999), “politics is not merely about material interests but also about contests over the symbolic world, over the management and appropriation of meanings” (Wedeen 1999, 30). It is this “contest over the symbolic world” unfolding in the media sphere, which I explore, in order to render visible a contemporary political ideological phenomenon, The New Regressive Left.

I draw on a wide variety of selected al-Mayadeen broadcasts, from the station’s first four years on air accompanied by my interviews with central actors at and around al-Mayadeen. I use the empirical material to investigate how ideology was produced at al-Mayadeen through broadcasts, practices and aesthetic experiences – how the re-composition of already existing ideological discourses established a new and significant ideological stream in contemporary Arab political life, what I call, The New Regressive Left. Through an analysis of this material, I trace the contours of four central ideological pillars, namely: the struggle against imperialism, the rejection of Sunni Islamism, the acceptance of authoritarianism, and the challenge of neoliberalism.

I believe this book demonstrates how ideology can be produced and performed in contemporary Arab public life. The image of a politically and philosophically enlightened person, who sits alone in his study formulating new ideologies in the shape of political manifestos and dogmatic theories, seems long outdated, if indeed it ever was a reality. So where and how do new ideological transformations take place? I use the case of al-Mayadeen to illustrate how a TV station is not only a platform for the dissemination of already established political ideologies, or for the promotion of existing worldviews; it can equally be a forum where new ideological trends are brought into existence. Thus, in a mediatised world, a TV station can serve as a forum – or even an agent – for the development of ideological discourses.

I argue that through the composition of hosts, journalists, types of programming and political topics and through the use of images, songs, cultural icons, emotions, symbols, and discourses, ideological concepts can be rearranged and reinterpreted and together engender new ideologies. I engage with these different elements in order to understand the creation of a shared ideological cosmos, through which certain political views come to make sense. It is an exploration of the ideological ambivalence of the station’s self-image as the protector of modernity, political progressiveness and civilised patriotism – and not least culture in general and committed art in particular – while its translation of these values into ←3 | 4→contemporary realpolitik results in the defence of undemocratic and oppressive political systems. More concretely, I investigate how The New Regressive Left was taking form at al-Mayadeen, while reflecting upon how this ideological discourse challenges our conception of progressive and regressive values.

In the following sections, I briefly introduce al-Mayadeen and The New Regressive Left before I move on to outline my theoretical framework and methodological approach.

Al-Mayadeen

The launch of al-Mayadeen in June 2012 was closely linked to the political developments across the Arab world following the 2011 uprisings, and can be seen as a direct reaction to the editorial line that al-Jazeera followed in covering those very events. Al-Mayadeen’s CEO, Ghassan bin Jeddo, had left al-Jaszeera, in April 2011, in frustration over what he saw as a proactive engagement and pro-activist editorial line in connection with the uprisings in Syria. A few months later, at a press conference in Beirut, he was ready to present the future plans of launching al-Mayadeen.

The name, al-Mayadeen – which in Arabic means both squares and battlefields – contains several contextual references: that the station was born at a time where city squares around the region played a central role for popular revolts; that it staged itself as a meeting point for all Arab citizens; and that it aimed at taking an active part in the political and ideological battlefields sweeping the region in those years. Thus, al-Mayadeen’s establishment is closely linked to the political developments in the Arab world post-2011, and its base in Beirut is an indication of its own political ambition and positioning in a regional context where the centre of media production has moved to the Gulf.

In 2012, at first sight al-Mayadeen represented a continuation of the classical muqawama [resistance] discourse, which has traditionally united leftist, Arab nationalists and pro-Hizbollah Islamists. By re-launching Palestine as the Arab focal point, and by using a strong anti-imperialistic rhetoric, al-Mayadeen in several ways was in line with the position of al-Jazeera up until 2011. However, the evident support for the Syrian regime, the outspoken rejection of Sunni Islamism and Salafism, the clear sympathy for Iran, and the prioritisation of Middle Eastern Christians and other religious minorities placed al-Mayadeen in clear opposition to the mainstream pan-Arab news channels based in the Gulf – including, but not limited to, al-Jazeera. Centrally, while al-Jazeera had opted for full support of the public uprisings (though in the context of Qatar’s neighbouring country Bahrain, ←4 | 5→the enthusiasm seemed limited), al-Mayadeen represented a sceptical approach where the uprisings were mainly understood as a Western/Israeli conspiracy aimed at creating chaos in the Arab world.

While working with a politically positioned institution such as al-Mayadeen, I have often – both in Copenhagen, Beirut and beyond – been met by fast categorisations like, Oh isn’t that the Syrian station? Or, I have heard of that station, that’s the Shia… Or, Oh yes, they are funded by Iran, right? In the first years, I most often encountered a perception of al-Mayadeen as a pro-Assad outlet; the Shia-component became more pronounced later on. In contrast, I argue that al-Mayadeen’s ambition transcends the Syrian conflict and should be seen as a comprehensive vision of Middle Eastern and international politics. Likewise, the station has the ambition of – and is successful in – appealing to Arab audiences beyond a particular Shia community. While Iranian funds most probably are crucial to the existence of al-Mayadeen (as I discuss in Chapter 2), the station presents and represents a home-grown pan-Arab public headed by a well-known Arab media figure in the shape of Ghassan bin Jeddo.

Al-Mayadeen offers a distinct worldview in the making – not a coherent or consistent one, but rather a flexible and unbounded perception of the world, which develops over time and adapts to changing political contexts. The station’s ambivalence and ambiguity is ever present. Idealistic, humanistic and democratic values are promoted together with pragmatic, populist and authoritarian principles. Leftist secular ideological heritage constitutes a fundamental frame while Islam and the role of religion in society are topics of essential importance. An ideological mini-cosmos, with its own rules and logics, is created through the combination of different types of programmes; discussions of varying topics and themes; guests and hosts appearing on the shows; and the employments of well-known ideological ideals, cultural productions and nostalgic sentiments. Here, apparent contradictions are bridged – most importantly, secular voices find a much-needed space in the public – while the Sunni-Shia divide forms an important pillar of the station’s foundation.

The New Regressive Left

The Arab uprisings in 2011 took many by surprise – the protesters on the streets, the general international public and Middle Eastern scholars alike. The immediate reaction of many observers was unreserved enthusiasm for the young progressive activists with their democratic outlook, inspiring courage, and peaceful approach. In the media as well as in academic work, a transformed and more “modern” Arab ←5 | 6→world was depicted. Hamid Dabashi even talks about “a new worldliness”, and sees the Arab Spring as the awaited end of post colonialism (Dabashi 2012, 10). After the initial academic discussions on the role of social media in the uprisings died away, the enthusiasm translated, in the academic world, into a number of (important) research projects on activist environments.1 As things developed on the ground – in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, as well as in Syria – the previous fascination over the newly discovered Arab progressiveness was replaced by the well-known preoccupation with Islamism, both among the Western public and in academia.

Less attention, on the other hand, has been paid to what this book sets out to investigate – an underexplored phenomenon in the contemporary Arab world with neither the charm of the activists nor the staged horror of Islamic terror groups. Nevertheless, I argue, it is a phenomenon that has turned out to play an important role in political developments in the region. What at one point seemed a deathblow to authoritarianism in the Arab world might in reality have been the beginning of its – at least temporary – revival. Today, as events initially referred to as the “Arab Spring” seem increasingly remote, undemocratic regimes gain new momentum. Not only does the (relative) stability of pre-2011 provided by the authoritarian regimes attract parts of local populations, but also the international community has become less firm in its rejection of authoritarian regimes, whether new (el-Sisi) or old (al-Assad), as chaos and religiously motivated terrorism seem to make up the most plausible alternative.

I introduce the term The New Regressive Left as a central concept by which I try to capture the essence of this political and ideological trend as it came to take shape at al-Mayadeen. With the word regressive, I want to point at three elements. First, I use the term in order to make a conceptual contrast with the group of activists and revolutionaries that initiated the Arab uprisings and that, in general, is perceived as progressive. Second, by regressive in the meaning “a return to a previous state”, I point to an ideological return to the acceptance of compromising individual democratic rights in order to obtain certain collective political developmental goals.2 Finally, regressive embraces the general tendency to look back in time rather than forward, to glorify the bygone days and to apply them as the standard by which the present is measured and the future envisioned – or, in other words, the predominant role of nostalgia. It is important, though, to underscore that the term regressive obviously – and perhaps in a provocative way – contradicts the self-perception at al-Mayadeen, which – both at an institutional and individual staff member level – is predominated by being taqaddumi [progressive].

By the other half of the term – the Left – I do not imply affiliation with a specific political leftist party; rather, I refer to the Left as both “a political and cultural denomination” (Haugbolle 2013c, 429). On the one hand, this does include ←6 | 7→the employment of several core leftist ideological values such as anti-imperialism, anti-sectarianism and anti-neoliberalism; on the other hand, I equally use the term as a cultural signifier. In the case of al-Mayadeen, the songs, poems, cultural icons, etc. that the station celebrates and applies are often part of a leftist cultural heritage, which al-Mayadeen consciously seeks to be associated with. It is my ambition to present the messiness and ambivalence of the station and, thus, the complexity of performed ideology, while at the same time to demonstrate that these different messages and views together form an ideological stream, namely The New Regressive Left. As I hope will become clear through this book, The New Regressive Left is not a unique post-2011 Arab phenomenon; rather, it is a contemporary global ideological current with strong links to a not so distant past.

Theoretical Frame – My Point of Departure

To engage with ideology and media, as I do in this book, is to engage with an almost mythical topic that carries a heavy heritage from the 1970s structuralist approach where the topic meant searching for media’s replication of existing power structures in society.3 It is equally to engage with a topic that almost has disappeared as the postmodern turn deconstructed any ideas about super structures while the concept of ideology was challenged if not overruled by concepts such as identity and discourse. Nevertheless, I attempt to show one way to how we once again can engage with the concept of ideology in a media context – rejecting the dogmatic approach of the 1970s but still insisting on the importance of the phenomenon.

When I began this project, I aimed to identify and describe how Arab nationalism was taking shape after the Arab uprisings. One of the first sources I discovered was a list of the network’s values published on its website.4 To my immediate satisfaction, Arab unity ranked as the number one value. This official propagation of Arab unity combined with al-Mayadeen’s re-launch of Nasser and its re-evocation of a well-known rhetoric about Palestine being the key issue for the region at first made me think that this might be a neat and coherent case. Nevertheless, while Arab nationalistic values (Arab unity) ranked highest on al-Mayadeen’s official agenda, I quickly realised that it was more complex than that. When I confronted al-Mayadeen staff members with the fact that Arab unity was number one on the station’s official list of values, they were often surprised; they saw the project of Arab unity either as idealistic but too unrealistic or as downright undesirable. Likewise, for many, the second value on the list, Solidarity with the Islamic World, seemed surprising, as they expected a more secular agenda. Official values, I discovered, did not always harmonise with personal or political motivations among the staff.

←7 | 8→

The potential discrepancies between the financers’ agendas, the administrators’ implementations and the interpretation of the staff could not be ignored and led me to theoretical and methodological quandaries: how to examine the ideology of an institution when none of them seemed to be coherent units, but rather to be pointing in several directions? Given this complexity, an approach that focuses on how ideology is performed or lived, rather than how it is officially formulated, offered new possibilities. Thus, I began to examine how ideology emerges, adapts to changing contexts and develops over time – with TV screen as the main arena. The broadcast productions that constitute my core empirical material are of course constructed, composed and edited in order to convey a specific message in a consistent and neat way. Nevertheless, through programme analysis of selected broadcast material combined with fieldwork in Beirut, I attempt to move beyond the immediate surface and into the messiness of performed ideology.

Working with a fluid ideology concept that perceives ideology as a lived practice rather than a theoretical thought, I believe, offers a productive framework for understanding an ideological discourse in the making. Here, I draw on developments within the understanding of the concept of ideology which have evolved in recent decades. However, when applying it to broadcast material or a media outlet, I am treading new paths – not least within my field, Middle Eastern studies – where the study of media often has been of a more descriptive character.

Within political science, the study of ideology has been – and still is – experiencing a revival, or maybe even a rebirth, as the contemporary understanding of ideology is significantly different than in the past. Sociologist Siniša Malešević’s work is an important example of a scholarly attempt to liberate the concept of ideology from its functionalist and structuralist heritage and rather introduce an actor-oriented approach.5 Malešević argues that the emphasis should move from whether particular ideas or values are true to “what they consist of, what kind of feelings and emotions they provoke, what kind of language they use, what they offer to their followers, what kind of action they provoke, and how they operate on normative and operative levels” (Malešević 2002, 107).

Another central scholar for the revival of ideology is the political scientist Michael Freeden. He has, through much of his work, insisted on the continuing relevance of the concept of (political) ideology, which he sees as mapping the political and social world for all of us. Further developing the thoughts of Althusser and others, he argues that we are all ideologists and that “we produce, disseminate and consume ideologies all our lives, whether we are aware of it or not” (Freeden 2003, 1). At the same time, he introduces a new and more flexible understanding of ideology and argues for the notion of ideological “core concepts”, which can be composed and combined in endless and ever-changing ways. He writes:

←8 | 9→

An ideology is like a set of modular units of furniture that can be assembled in many ways (…) Through diverse arrangements of the furniture we can create very different rooms, even by using the same units. That is why identical political concepts can serve as the building blocks of an entire series of disparate ideologies, for the same unit (concept) may have different roles (or meanings) in two separate rooms (or ideologies). (Freeden 2003, 52)

Furthermore, Freeden pushes for a break away from “the ‘great men’ or ‘great books’ approach”, where political thought is celebrated as “the product of elites” and “the construction of holistic and comprehensive systems of thought” (Freeden 2007, 12). Instead, he wants to direct attention towards the “laying bare of the thought-processes and thought-practices that societies exhibit” (Freeden 2007, 14). Together Malešević and Freeden insist on the importance of ideology – as it is part of our social and societal life – while they distance themselves from both the idea of ideology understood as a Marxist-inspired super structure that controls society and from the idea of ideology as different political thought systems that are fixed, fundamentally different and rigidly demarcated from each other. I am taking this approach to ideology as my starting point for investigating ideology in media, while I use Fredeen’s notion of ideological core concepts, throughout the book, as a key to disassembling the material and identifying ideological “building blocks”.

Within Middle Eastern studies, the same development in the understanding of ideology is visible. For many years, the study of ideology in the Arab world has equated the study of intellectual history.6 This has produced an account for the ideological developments of the 20th century as a story about struggles for political influence and public support between two competing and incompatible movements – namely, secular Arab nationalism and religiously based Islamism.7 With this approach, the 1950s and 1960s are described as the heydays of secular Arab nationalism, the military defeat to Israel in 1967 as the turning point, and the 1970s and 1980s as the decades where Islamic revivalist ideologies gained the hegemonic position in both political and public life. In recent years, scholars have tried to break away from the rigid understanding of ideology as whole and comprehensive systems of ideas stated in manifestos or theoretical writings, and most often studied on the basis of intellectual history.8

In his work on liberal ideology in the Arab world, the late Christoph Schumann has pushed for an updated ideology concept as he urges us to “question the alleged unity and consistency of the ideological discourses and to look at the concrete experiences and everyday contexts of political activism and thought rather than taking the pretensions of political ideologues at face value” (Schumann 2008, 415). Resonating this, Sune Haugbølle argues that “we must abandon the idea that ideologies are finite and cohesive, and instead study the processes of boundary making ←9 | 10→between them and the re-reading and re-writing of history that contributes to the formulation of new ideological positions” (Haugbolle 2012). In line with the thoughts of Freeden, both Schumann and Haugbølle call for a new understanding of the concept of ideology in an Arab context, namely adaptable and continually developing in interaction with everyday experiences and political practices.9 This approach to understanding the development of ideology in the Arab world forms the basis of this book.

Working along the same ideas, Michaelle Browers demonstrates in Political Ideology in the Arab World (2009) how Arab nationalists, Islamists, socialists and liberalists have tried to find common ground in their opposition to the then-ruling authoritarian regimes. In this connection, she introduces the term cross-ideological alliance as central for understanding the political and ideological landscape in the Arab world. Using the Kifaya movement in Egypt and the Joint Meeting Parties in Yemen as her case studies, she concludes that – in a pre-uprising Arab world – there were signs of significant (pragmatic) attempts of rapprochement and accommodation between the different ideological movements as well as important limitations to the level of cooperation (Browers 2009). Browers notion of cross-ideological alliance plays a central role for my understanding of the ideological formation taking place at al-Mayadeen and ultimately for the recognition of a phenomenon such as The New Regressive Left.

Browers is not alone in pointing out these emerging cross-ideological alliances which saw the light in the 2000s, especially in Egypt. Dina Shehata and Maha Abdelrahman, for example, have also pointed out how different ideological groups – in spite of the historical hostility – were motivated to meet around a democratic discourse (in opposition to the authoritarian regimes), resistance towards Western military dominance in the region and an anti-Israeli/pro-Palestinian agenda, in fluid and continually negotiated cross-ideological alliances (Shehata 2010; Browers 2009; Abdelrahman 2009). These studies have been important contributions to a more flexible understanding of ideology leaving behind ideas of fixed and clearly opposing ideological groups while investigating complex and ambivalent ideological exchanges and cooperation. I use these studies as sources of inspiration when trying to understand an important ideological development in post-2011 Arab political life.

Christoph Schumann, Sune Haugbølle and Michaelle Browers are all important examples of how Middle Eastern scholars have moved away from merely looking at theoretical manifestos and instead combine different types of material, such as ethnographic fieldwork, biographies, media, cultural productions or cultural icons. These and other studies have been important contributions to an understanding of ideology as transformable, ambiguous and fluid just as they have ←10 | 11→been instructive in how to grasp and study the complexity and ambiguity of lived ideologies. While this scholarly development forms the theoretical basis of this study, it does not provide a specific framework for examining ideology in a media outlet. Rather, their empirical starting point has been different: Schumann works with biographies and the autobiography of politically engaged Arab nationalists (Schumann 2008); Haugbølle engages with political icons, figures and environments (Haugbolle 2013a; 2013b; 2013c; 2016a; 2016b); and Browers’ focus is on political movements and activists (Browers 2009). Nevertheless, I believe they together offer a productive framework for understanding ideology, which I apply throughout the analyses not least Haugbølle’s approach to the study of ideology and Browers concept of cross-ideological alliances.

In the section below, I turn my attention towards more concrete approaches when studying the production of ideology in media – more specifically on a news TV station.

Producing Ideology through Practices and Performances

This book is about ideology and media. But rather than looking for the replication of an existing superstructure or the promotion of a fixed thought system, I investigate the ongoing formation of ideology. If an ideology is more than, and maybe even different from, official manifests – or if it exists without a manifest altogether – one has to look beyond the obvious as became clear above. Haugbølle argues that this has to be done through a combination of ethnography and analysis of mass-mediated texts and images. To understand how ideology is formed, Haugbølle continues, scholars need to investigate “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” (Haugbolle 2012). In this study of al-Mayadeen, I engage with how, through practices and performances, an ideological discourse come into existence as a composition of ideological “core concepts” (Freeden 2003), adapting to political circumstances and where “the symbolic world” (Wedeen 1999) of, for example, images, rhetoric, aesthetics and emotions is the central political battlefield.

In 1979, Tod Gitlin stated that “commercial culture does not manufacture ideology; it relays and reproduces and processes and packages and focuses ideology that is constantly arising both from social elites and from active social groups and movements throughout the society” (Gitlin 1979, 253). I want to challenge this ←11 | 12→statement and argue that mass media and popular culture are doing exactly that, that is, producing ideology, because the way that ideology is mediated and practised is not only a communication strategy but also part of what makes up the ideology itself. Thus, my point of departure is to look at media not only as places for the dissemination of ideology but equally as spaces where ideology comes into existence and is continually developing.

In order to pursue ideology as a lived and performed phenomenon, when engaging with the broadcast and fieldwork material in the following, I investigate how central (ideological) concepts are discussed and perceived, and how this relates to former perceptions within an Arab leftist tradition. I focus on the use of cultural productions, symbols and figures that are part of a shared (leftist) Arab cultural heritage; and I consider the use of rhetoric, emotions and aesthetics as central for the understanding of an ideological current. The theoretical premise for this approach is that all of these elements not only tell us descriptively about the ideology but they are also integrated parts of what makes up the ideology.

In the same vein, Alan Finlayson has underlined that rhetoric should not only be perceived as manifestations of expressions of an ideology but rather as “part of what it is” (Finlayson 2012, 759). Thus, rhetoric is a central element of an ideology itself, and in order to fully understand it, one has to investigate the means by which it is communicated. He argues for the relevance of integrating aspects of the rhetorical tradition into the political theory of ideology and shows how the three classical modes of persuasion within rhetoric, namely Ethos (credibility of the sender), Pathos (appealing to the emotions) and Logos (appealing to the logic) contribute to the composition of ideology. Ethos relates to how an audience is invited to accept an argument because of who is making it or, put differently, because of who is the personification or embodiment of an ideology. Pathos relates to the role of emotions, how the emotional tone distinguishes one ideology from another and how emotional tenor is part of what makes up an ideology. Finally, Logos refers to the strategy of employing realities taken for granted, or of presenting certain pictures of a situation (stressing some parts, while playing down others). Thus, part of an ideology is how it convinces an audience that certain conclusions follow naturally from certain premises.

Finlayson is not the only one pointing out emotions (or Pathos) as a composing element of an ideology. Freeden also argues for the importance of including emotions when understanding an ideology. Freeden writes:

Thus, just as is the case with rhetoric, emotions are also understood as an essential element of an ideology’s core or nature rather than as superficial wrapping.

In his analysis of Fox News’s employment of ideology, Jeffrey Jones also includes the aesthetic element – or what he terms aesthetic acts and aesthetic expressions ( Jones 2012; Jones 2013). Aesthetic expressions are “the stylistics or poetics that dramatize (…) ideological thinking”, and he argues that the network’s morning talk show Fox & Friends “routinely brings ideology to life through its dramatic performances” ( Jones 2013, 188). Thus, not only is a cultural icon of importance through his or her ethos, but a cultural production itself (whether a TV programme or a piece of music or poetry) becomes central for the production of ideology as its aesthetic expression constitutes an integrated element of the ideological current. Sune Haugbølle works along the same line when he argues: “Production [of ideology] takes place on multiple levels of society but involves, crucially, the circulation of discourse, sounds, and images in mass media”, and he continues “people form thought patterns promoted by the enjoyment of the aesthetic and moral qualities of cultural production such as songs. In the process they not only internalise ideologies, but remake – produce – ideologies” (Haugbolle 2015, 181). Again, the qualities of a cultural production – including the aesthetics – are understood as important elements in the production ideology rather than merely as a secondary presentation of already existing ideological theories.

Just as rhetoric, aesthetics and emotions are elements of what constitute an ideology, so is the medium through which it is communicated. The medium of TV suggests certain opportunities and limitations for what can be communicated and how (format, interaction with audience, consumption, etc.). The fact that al-Mayadeen is a news network and not, for example, an entertainment TV channel or a fashion magazine offers the possibility of creating a particular ideological realm. Jeffery Jones argues that the news genre itself is vitally important in making statements into facts; in another context, political (or other types of ) statements would remain merely opinions ( Jones 2012). Thus, there is an important reciprocal relation between the newscasts and the programmes at al-Mayadeen. While the newscasts create a context of a factual and provable reality, the thematic programmes broaden out this political reality through discussions, interpretations and statements on other aspects of society. Together they have the potential to form a whole ideological cosmos.

Dominick LaCapra once stated about media’s role in shaping culture that “media such as television and film are not simply neutral technologies but active forces in shaping and transforming culture; the product they create is distinctive” ←13 | 14→(LaCapra 1988, 384). Applying this on ideology implies that the TV medium and what it offers in terms of possibilities and limitations in regard to format, use of sounds and images, space for rhetoric, dissemination of emotions, etc., is an active force in shaping and transforming ideology. Likewise, Jon Alterman writes about how the TV medium offers strong story lines integrating words and images just as it is “emotional and engaging in a way that few media can be, and despite being heavily edited, television gives the impression of spontaneity and verisimilitude, giving it even greater impact” (Alterman 2011, 111). Thus, the mere fact that al-Mayadeen is a TV media (a medium somewhat representing a bygone time) contributes to the ideology production taking place at the station.

These considerations of what actually contributes to the making of an ideology have methodological implications, as they facilitate the use of rhetoric, emotions and aesthetic expressions communicated in the broadcasts (of a TV medium) as entrance points to the investigation of an ideological current. Thus, for example, al-Mayadeen’s use of artistic expressions and cultural productions when conveying important messages are not merely a way of communication; rather, it is part of what makes up the ideology itself. Likewise, the station’s heavy use of nostalgic sentiments is not only external wrapping, but also a core internal component of The New Regressive Left – and central to the quality of the regressive element of the ideology. In the section below, I zoom in on the notion of nostalgia, as this particular rhetorical, emotional and aesthetic grip plays a central role in the ideology production at al-Mayadeen.

Nostalgia

A central example of an aesthetic expression or a discursive setting at al-Mayadeen is the station’s play with nostalgia. As mentioned earlier, the use of nostalgic sentiments is one of three aspects captured in the phrase regressive in The New Regressive Left. The orientation back in time offers glorified benchmarks upon which to measure contemporary developments. Thus, this structure of feeling towards the past is evoked as a strategy to legitimise or delegitimise the present. As Esra Özyürek writes in her thought-provoking book, Nostalgia for the Modern: State Secularism and Everyday Politics in Turkey (2006), “the representation of the past became an arena for struggle over political legitimacy and domination” (Özyürek 2006, 154). She further argues that nostalgia can function as an arena for conflicting interests and as a strategy in contemporary political battles. She writes: “(…) by creating alternative representations of an already glorified past, they [marginalized groups] can make a claim for themselves in the present” (Özyürek 2006, 154). ←14 | 15→Thus, nostalgia is more than anything about the present, in spite of its immediate concern with the past.

Svetlana Boym argues in her book The Future of Nostalgia (2001) that nostalgia is paradoxical, as it simultaneously unites and divides people. She writes “algia – longing – is what we share, yet nostos – the return home – is what divides us”. She continues, “It is the promise to rebuild the ideal home that lies at the core of many powerful ideologies today” (Boym 2001, xvi). In the context of al-Mayadeen and The New Regressive Left, I show throughout the book – how nostalgia is used as a way to claim knowing, how to rebuild this ideal society or how to bring us back to a modernity of past values.

Svetlana Boym differentiates between restorative nostalgia and reflective nostalgia: she argues that “restorative nostalgia stresses nostos and attempts a transhistorical reconstruction of the lost home. Reflective nostalgia thrives in algia, the longing itself, and delays the homecoming” (Boym 2001, xviii). In Chapter 3, I investigate al-Mayadeen’s celebration of Jamila Bouhired, during which an al-Mayadeen host rhetorically asks why the station has chosen to celebrate this old icon from the past, adding: Is it a reawakening of history in order to get some warmth in this cold Arab time and get into nostalgia? Or is it to shake the dust off the current reality in an attempt to re-comprehend the concepts of today and to correct the path by reconsidering consciousness? In other words, is it reflective or restorative nostalgia? In al-Mayadeen’s productions, I argue, both types of nostalgia are present – sometimes the glory of the past is invoked merely as a pacifying fast fix, at other times the past serves as a guiding point for the reestablishment of a potential future. In both cases, though, it keeps an overall retrospective aesthetic expression.

Returning to Özyürek’s work, she argues that “contemporary Turkish modernists experience the present as a decay of a former modernity” (Özyürek 2006, 11). The political struggle in the 1990s in Turkey, between secularists and Islamists, meant that the two opposing groups “utilized different discourses of modernity in order to prove themselves modern”. For the former group, the longing for Kemalist modernity created a nostalgic take on modernity not unlike what is unfolding at al-Mayadeen. This nostalgic modernity, Özyürek argues, “is a political ideology, as well as a discursive and a sentimental condition” (Özyürek 2006, 19). In the work of Christa Salamandra, this same longing for a past that was more progressive than the present is also important. In her article “Creative compromise: Syrian television makers between Secularism and Islamism”, she introduces the term structural nostalgia in reverse, with reference to Michael Herzfeld’s notion of structural nostalgia10 (Salamandra 2008a, 181, 182; Herzfeld 2005). She uses this term to describe the Syrian drama makers longing for a strong state, for the Ba‘athist socialist project, and not least for the regulation and state support which served as ←15 | 16→protection against the uncertainty of the (Saudi-dominated) market. As is the case in Özyürek’s analyses in a Turkish context, the past comes to represent modernity in the shape of a strong secular state – an idealisation of the past, or rather a sentimental construction of one specific reading of the past. The same longing for the modernity of the past is ever present at al-Mayadeen – the artists were more committed or multazim (see Chapter 5), the religious tolerance higher (see Chapter 6), the resistance against imperialism stronger (see Chapter 3 and 7) and the Islamic thinkers more progressive (see Chapter 6).

The emotion and aesthetics of nostalgia are not, if we follow the thoughts of Finlayson and Freeden, merely a communication tool used to promote an ideology, but a constituting element of the ideology itself. The fact that “history without guilt”11 – as Michael Kammen describes the phenomenon of nostalgia – is consciously integrated in the broadcasting of al-Mayadeen is illustrated by the reflections of a journalist from the station, on the past and the present:

At this specific moment and this watershed or so to say, where everybody is talking about extremism and the takfiri [accusing others of being unbelievers] trend, or whatever. It’s good to talk about this from the current affairs point of view (). But it is also good to let the people remember the times, the good times when we used to have people like Jamila Bouhired, and we used to have people like Gamal Abdel Nasser, we used to have people like many others. I think they are very fundamental in our lives. Those who have paved the way for resistance, for facing oppression, persecution – in a very solid way, standing on a solid basis. It is not a matter related to sectarianism, confessionalism, denomination, or whatever, or any kind of faith or religion, it is related to nationalism. To this ideology, that you know, moved the person, and let the people come together (). This is the most important. It is a humanistic perspective. It is a perspective relating to the values of the people. (Personal interview, Beirut, November 2014)

Thus, in the guiltless past, humanistic values flourished and it is a declared ambition of the station to make people remember these golden times. Throughout the analyses, it will become clear that in The New Regressive Left the past provides the ideals, the inspiration and the models for the future.

Methodological Approach

When I laid out my initial project design in the summer of 2013, my intention was to conduct ethnographic fieldwork at al-Mayadeen, but soon I had to realise that gaining intimate access to this field turned out to be a bigger challenge than I had hoped.12 As a consequence, I adjusted my strategy to focus on the broadcasts and let interviews with people at and around al-Mayadeen complement content ←16 | 17→analysis – though I quickly discovered that this, too, would be challenging. While many staff members at al-Mayadeen were welcoming and polite, they neither had the time nor the interest in meeting with me for an interview. Furthermore, building up trust, in a very competitive type of work environment, in a politicalised workplace, and in a time of general political tensions, was not easy. One of my first scheduled interviews and visits at the station turned out to be an hour and a half–long interrogation of me and my project – followed by a standard-guided tour through the premises before I was politely escorted to the exit. I quickly realised that official facilitation would not take me far and that I would have to work my way in through other contacts in order to conduct relevant interviews. Fortunately, I had collected a few names and telephone numbers of current or previous staff members, which made it possible for me to snowball into a wider set of interlockers.

My general experience was that the higher ranking the person was, the more freely he or she would talk to me. At one point, I was in contact with a young producer who was extremely hospitable when I called him over the phone. I was welcome to meet him anytime at his office, he could help me with anything, provide other contacts, etc. But when, later that same day, I went to meet him at al-Mayadeen, he was reticent; it would be better for me to talk to his boss, he preferred not to say too much, and he never gave me the promised contacts. He had clearly revised his initial openness or even been overruled by someone higher in the system. Likewise, one person who in different ways had tried to avoid talking to me was told by a higher ranking person that not only was it okay for her to meet with me, in fact she was required to do so to avoid leaving a bad impression. I did get an interview with the cagey person – but when I came back a couple of days later for the follow-up meeting she had promised me, her colleagues told me that she was ill and not at work.

Over a period of two years, I travelled to Beirut four times. The first visit was in November 2013 and the last in December 2015. My longest stay was a six-week period in November and December 2014. This is far from the classic anthropological ideal of long-term fieldwork, yet it proved effective when used in interaction with content analysis of broadcast material. In their article “Composing Ethnography”, Tom O’Dell and Robert Willim argue that seeing ethnographic work as an editing process where the researcher is composing ethnography by continually writing and rewriting “a practice that might be referred to as a form of serial ethnography – of immersion and re-immersion in the field” (O’Dell and Willim 2011, 34) has some advantages. I believe the interrupted but continued travels to the field allowed me periods of reflection. Thus, the time spent in respectively Copenhagen following broadcasts and Beirut talking to people at and around the station allowed for a constructive interaction between the two fields where one would stir questions and ←17 | 18→ideas, which I would explore further when returning to the other field. Sometimes the sheer distance from the field provided clarity (whether the field of broadcast material or the ethnographic field in Birut); at other times, it was discussions with colleagues back in Copenhagen or interviewees in Beirut that would sheet new light on things. In addition to the concrete interviews that I conducted, my stays in Beirut added the necessary ethnographic context, which I hope will be reflected throughout the book.

During my research visits in Beirut, I conducted interviews with thirteen central staff members at the station – producers, talk shows hosts, journalists and leaders of different departments. Furthermore, I had informal talks with seven former staff members or others associated with the station as well as with a few journalists from other news media. Some interviewees were fluent in, and comfortable with, English, and thus, doing the interview in English felt most natural for both of us; others preferred Arabic, in which cases the interview was conducted in Arabic. Likewise, some situations lent themselves to recording, whereas in others I decided against introducing a Dictaphone. On the one hand, recording the interviews captured every word and in some cases helped me signal the seriousness and sincerity of my interest to the interviewee; on the other hand, recording created a more formal atmosphere, which in situations where the interviewee was uncomfortable talking to me would have only made the atmosphere tenser. Obtaining the interviews was difficult; therefore, I tried to conduct each interview in the way that made the interviewee feel most comfortable. In the analysis, I have left out the names of my interviewee. This is done in respect of people’s private and professional life but also because I want the interviews to represent different voices within al-Mayadeen’s staff members rather than named individuals.

Obtaining interviews in Beirut offered one type of challenge, while the task of selecting broadcast material constituted another. A logical choice of material when studying a news station is, of course, the newscasts. Yet in order to move beyond a superficial description of what the political agenda of the station appears to be, I believe it is necessary to move deeper and investigate what Lisa Wedeen refers to as the “contests over the symbolic world” (Wedeen, 1999). Newscasts might offer a fast insight into the political stance on specific events, but they are less informative of an overall worldview, the ideological mini-cosmos in which a certain political outlook seems the only logical one. Following that, I sought broadcast material that was products of al-Mayadeen’s own ideological visions rather than required responses to ongoing political developments. Thus, I use cultural or societal programmes and media events as my “kitchen entrance” ( Jespersen et al. 2012) with the purpose of understanding how “structures of feeling” (Williams 1977) make this political position relevant.

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In spite of al-Mayadeen’s relatively recent vintage, it had already generated an enormous amount of material when I had to make my choices of material. And new material was added daily. Thus, it was a challenge for me to delineate a timeframe – every time I decided not to add more material, another episode or programme was broadcast which I felt the urge to include. The material I work with, though, are productions from Mayadeen’s first three years – from its launch in June 2012 to the summer of 2015.13 The relative long time span offers me the possibility to identify developments over time from the birth of a new visionary media groping its way forward to a practicable well-established organisation that has gotten more settled in the Arab mediascape.

Although my initial focus was turned towards detecting elements of Arab nationalism, I quickly came to realise that the material was more complex than that, and that something new was taking shape. Slowly, as I worked my way through hours and hours of watching TV, I began to identify certain recurring topics – which I came to understand as the ideological core concepts – together drawing the contours of an ideological discourse. I believe the selected material represents what is essential to al-Mayadeen, namely: a strong support for al-muqawama (anti-imperialism), the rejection of Sunni Islamism and the promotion of religious pluralism, the acceptance of authoritarian rule, and finally, the challenging of neoliberalism. In other words, the broadcast material captures the ideological core concepts of the station and thus of the ideological current The New Regressive Left.

When selecting the broadcast material for analysis, I sought events or programmes that evoke the essence of al-Mayadeen’s worldview or core concepts, while at the same time also reveal its complexity and ambivalence. Thus, the broadcasts that I analyse provide an insight into an ideology in its making and help us understand the reasoning, deductions, ideals and values which together form this ideological current. Or, in other words, how the past is read and the future perceived. I have prioritised material that allows me to explore the use of icons, nostalgia, cultural figures, images and slogans, intellectuals, songs, global collaborations, historical concepts and cultural (leftist) heritage in the production of ideology.

Consequently, I analyse five case studies, through which the contours of four main ideological core concepts are taking shape, namely: a public celebration of the former Algerian resistance fighter Jamila Bouhired; the cultural talk show Bayt al-Qasid [The Essence]; short political spots produced during the Gaza war in 2014; the Ramadan program Harrir Aqlak [Free Your Mind]; and finally the monthly programme Ma‘an Nastaṭy‘a [Together We Can] (in Spanish: Poder)] that is co-produced with the pan-Latin American TV station TeleSUR. While all four core concepts can be found in all cases (thus illustrating how an ideology ←19 | 20→is woven together), the different cases present different concepts more prominent than others.

For each of the five case studies, selected broadcasts comprise the focal point and, thus, programme content analysis the methodology. In all of them, the spoken word is central but the extra elements television media offers – sound effects, background setting, clothing, use of image, songs, a nervous laugh or a shy glance – are included whenever I considered that they would add a significant dimension to my analysis. While content analysis enables you to understand “what is in the text”, it cannot, as William Lawrence Neuman phrases it, “reveal the intentions of those who created the text or the effects that messages in the text have on those who receive them” (Neuman 2014, 378). The interviews I conducted in Beirut, on the other hand, add to the analysis by exactly providing insight to the intentions of the people behind the “text”. Thus, I use the interviews throughout the book to complement and support my content analysis of the TV broadcasts to get as nuanced and broad an understanding as possible – sometimes by revealing perspectives that broadcasts would never do, sometimes to confirm what a programme might only suggest.

Outline

This book is divided into an introduction, seven chapters and a conclusion. The first two chapters draw the line of respectively the Arab ideoscape and the Arab mediascape, including an introduction to al-Mayadeen. The following five chapters investigate selected broadcast material from al-Mayadeen and constitute five central case studies for the understanding of The New Regressive Left.

In Chapter 1, “Exploring Ideoscapes Surrounding al-Mayadeen”, I introduce Arjun Appadurais’s notion of media- and ideoscape as a frame for the two first chapters. Afterwards, I sketch out the historical context of the Arab Left – from its formative years to the debates following the collapse of the USSR. This is followed by four short sections in which I zoom in on important actors for the development of The New Regressive Left, namely the Syrian Ba‘ath Party, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), Hizbollah and Iran. I end the chapter by investigating the contemporary ideological disagreements dividing the Arab Left, focusing on how the Syrian conflict has deepened already existing divides. This leads me to present a typology for categorising the main currents within the post-2011 Arab Left.

In Chapter 2, “Exploring Mediascapes Surrounding al-Mayadeen”, I provide a historical overview of the introduction of satellite media in the Arab world, ←20 | 21→focusing on the role played by al-Jazeera followed by an outline of the post-2011 Arab mediascapes. Likewise, I discuss how, in recent decades, the transnational pan-Arab public has turned into an important arena for an ongoing battle between religious and secular forces. These different contexts lead to presenting al-Mayadeen, its history, its main staff and programmes, and its position in the contemporary Arab mediascapes. I discuss the issues of economic funds and ownership of al-Mayadeen and end with providing some audience statistics.

In the first case study, “The Creation of an Icon: The Case of Jamila Bouhired”, I use al-Mayadeen’s celebration of Jamila Bouhired, the former Algerian female freedom fighter, to draw the initial contours of the four ideological core concepts as well as to introduce the central role of nostalgic sentiments. I do that by investigating the use of cultural icons in the formation and communication of an ideology. The celebration of Bouhired was a huge public event, in which the young station invested a lot of time and energy. With billboards in the streets of Beirut, intense promotion of the event on the TV screens and regional and international guests flown in for the evening event, a lot was clearly at stake. This was a central move in the station’s strategy for legitimacy. I argue that the set-up of the celebration functioned as an iconisation of Bouhired, and that the reinvention of her as an icon enabled al-Mayadeen to promote its four ideological core concepts. While support for al-muqawama was the focal point of the event, the rejection of Sunni Islamism, the acceptance of authoritarianism and the challenge of neoliberalism were taking form. Furthermore, Bouhired, now an icon of resistance against imperialism, was used to legitimise and strengthen the contemporary militant resistance movement, Hizbollah.

In Chapter 4, “Celebrating the Muqawama through Words, Images and Songs: The Case of Palestine”, I look closer at how al-Mayadeen supports al-muqawama. I do so by examining how the question of Palestine is narrated by al-Mayadeen through its use of music videos, flashes and the launch of Handala cartoon animations. In its approach to Palestine, the station deliberately breaks away from the victimised discourse that has been predominant in the Arab public in recent decades, and instead opts for a more heroic narrative of the Palestinians – and Arab history more broadly. At al-Mayadeen, images, slogans, poems and songs function as aesthetic acts and aesthetic expressions in the dramatisation of a certain ideological discourse: namely, the promotion of the heroic and resisting Arab. Likewise, the broadcasting of Naji al-Ali’s famous drawings of Handala, turned into short animations, is used as an instrument to boost the perception of Palestinians – and to revitalise the time of Handala. I end the chapter by bringing in al-Mayadeen’s one-year marking of the Gaza 2014 war, a campaign called The same confrontation, referring to Israel and Islamic State. I discuss how the reading of contemporary ←21 | 22→conflicts through the lens of a historical well-established enemy establishes a certain ideological logic where supporting al-muqawama is interlinked with rejecting Sunni Islamism.

The third empirical case, “Re-launching Iltizam through Leftist Cultural Figures: The Case of the Cultural Talk Show Bayt al-Qasid”, is an analysis of the weekly cultural talk show, Bayt al-Qasid. In this chapter, I show how the acceptance of authoritarian rule when facing imperialism is legitimised. I investigate how the long-standing virtue of iltizam [commitment] is revived and used as a quality marker when identifying authentic art or artists – and how al-Mayadeen sees itself as offering a media platform for these artists. In Bayt al-Qasid, the host Zahi Wehbe creates an intimate space in which a rhetoric argument for supporting Bashar al-Assad is constructed. Track records of the artists’ progressiveness are established, and discussions of ideological dilemmas and personal grief unfolded before a life-long or sudden support for the al-Assad rule is conveyed. The overall narrative is not a blind glorification of al-Assad but rather an ambivalent and emotional argument for why a committed, progressive – and often leftist – intellectual finds it necessary (or natural) to support him. In addition, the notion of iltizam connects to the supporting of al-muqawama, to the regaining of secular space, and to suggesting an alternative to commercialised celebrity culture.

In Chapter 6, “Walking a Tightrope: The Role of Religion”, I examine the ambivalent role of Islam at al-Mayadeen, and how the station at the same time underplays, criticises and promotes Islam. Equally, I look into how religious minorities and the concept of religious pluralism are used as a benchmark for how civilised a society is, and thus undergird from yet another angle the progressiveness of political systems that confront (militant) Sunni Islamism. My point of departure is the Ramadan programme from 2015, Harrir Aqlak, which stars the Kuwaiti thinker and writer Abdel Aziz al-Qattan, but I also touch on the weekly show about Christians and Christianity in the region, Ajras al-Mashreq [The Bells of the Levant]. The format of the thirty episodes of Harrir Aqlak is simple: al-Qattan, wearing his traditional Gulf costume and placed in different beautiful Lebanese nature settings, lectures for twenty minutes without any interference. Al-Qattan’s positioning as holding both insider knowledge of Gulf and progressive values of the Levant adds legitimacy to his central message, namely the establishment of Saudi Arabian Wahhabism as the ultimate enemy. Furthermore, he expands on the juxtaposing of Sunni Islamism and US/Israeli imperialism (cf. Chapter 4) while the promotion of political stability over political change becomes a reasoning for accepting undemocratic rule.

In Chapter 7, “The Re-launch of Third Worldism: The Voice of the Global South and the Cooperation with TeleSUR”, I investigate the fifth and final case and turn to how al-Mayadeen positions itself in a globalised world. While ←22 | 23→nostalgic pan-Arab sentiments were predominant in the first couple of years, by time al-Mayadeen promotes itself to a growing extent as part of an international anti-imperial movement ranging from Latin America, through Russia to Africa. In this picture, Latin America in general plays a central role as an important location for the resistance against Western imperialism, while the pan-Latin American TV station TeleSUR (based in Venezuela) and Cuban state TV constitute the central axes of an emerging network of Southern TV stations. The monthly programme Ma‘an Nastaṭy‘a, a co-production between al-Mayadeen and TeleSUR, and my interviews with central staff members on issues relating to Latin America form the point of departure of this chapter. I show how a certain narrative about a revolutionary South fighting against an imperialistic West is established, and how the two channels see the West as continuing its old colonial practices, only through new strategies. Likewise, the cooperation with TeleSUR strengthens the leftist discourse of al-Mayadeen, as Latin America is portrayed as a role model for the realisation of contemporary socialism; thus, an outspoken political Left-Right dichotomy finds its way into al-Mayadeen, articulating the challenging of neoliberalism. Through the cooperation with Latin America, al-Mayadeen buys into a contemporary version of Third Worldism while globalising its ideological discourse. In this way, al-Mayadeen’s support of al-muqawama, rejection of Sunni Islamism, acceptance of authoritarianism and challenge of neoliberalism are all elevated from being Arab phenomena to becoming expressions of the struggle of the revolutionary global South.

Notes

1. The first months of 2011 were dominated by discussions over the role of Facebook, Twitter, mobile phones, etc. See, e.g., Rasha Abdulla: “The Revolution Will Be Tweeted” (2011), Jon B. Alterman: “The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted” (2011), Francesca Comunello and Giuseppe Anzera: “Will the Revolution Be Tweeted? A Conceptual Framework for Understanding Social Media and the Arab Spring” (2012). Later followed research on the uprisings focusing on the activist environment, see e.g.: Paul Gerbaudo: Tweets and the Streets: Social Media and Contemporary Activism (2012), Maha Abdelrahman: “In Praise of Organization: Egypt between Activism and Revolution” (2013), and Nina Mollerup and Sherief Gaber: “Making Media Public: On Revolutionary Street Screenings in Egypt” (2015).

2. This stands in opposition to the general trend within the (Arab) Left, which during the past decades has confronted its own undemocratic past and tried to formulate new and more democratic values. See Chapter 1 for further elaboration.

3. See e.g. Toby Miller (ed.): Television Studies (2002), for a review of the study of television.

4. Al-Mayadeen’s values listed on its website are as follows: (1) Arab unity, (2) Solidarity with the Islamic world, (3) Refusal of extremism and terrorism, (4) Culture of tolerance and dialogue, (5) Pluralism, diversity and the right to difference, (6) Citizenship, (7) Equality, (8) Social ←23 | 24→Justice, (9) The right of people to determine their own lives/to self-determination and (10) The right of a people to resist and refuse foreign interference or hegemony (http://www.almayadeen.net/about, accessed 07 January 2020).

5. See e.g. Siniša Malešević: Identity as Ideology: Understanding Ethnicity and Nationalism (2006).

6. Albert Hourani’s Arab Thought in the Liberal Age (1962) is the classic study of Arab intellectual history which has formed the basis for the study of Arab intellectual life for decades. See also Suzanne Kasab: Contemporary Arab Thought: Cultural Critique in Comparative Perspective (Kassab 2010) and Ibrahim Abu-Rabi’: Contemporary Arab Thoughts (Abu-Rabi’ 2003).

7. See, e.g., Adeed Darwisha: Arab Nationalism in the Twentieth Century: From Triumph to Despair (2003), Fouad Ajami: The Arab Predicament (1981) and The Dream Palace of the Arabs (1998), Bassam Tibi: Arab Nationalism: Between Islam and the Nation-State (1997).

8. See e.g.: Sami Zubaida “Islam and Nationalism: Continuities and Contradictions” (2004), James Gelvin: “Modernity and its discontents: on the durability of nationalism in the Arab Middle East” (1999) or James Jankowski and Israel Gershoni (ed.): Rethinking Nationalism in the Arab Middle East (1997).

9. Another important scholar in this connection is Samuli Schielke and his notion of grand schemes, which he introduces in “Second thought about the anthropology of Islam, or how to make sense of grand schemes in everyday life” (Schielke 2016) and expands further on, together with Liza Debevec, in Ordinary Lives and Grand Schemes. An Anthropology of Religion (Schielke and Debevec 2012).

10. By the term “structural nostalgia”, Herzfeld refers to the longing for an age before state intervention became a necessity to sustain decent social lives. For a time in “which the balanced perfection of social relations has not yet suffered the decay that affects everything human” (Herzfeld 2005, 147).

11. Cited by Boym (2001, xiv) from Michael Kammen: Mystic Chords of Memory (1991, p. 688).

12. The problem of gaining access as a researcher to a media outlet has already been dealt with in the literature, as this has been a recurring phenomenon when working with news media let alone Arab media. For a general discussion of this challenge, see: Peterson and Zoellner: “The efficacy of professional experience in the ethnographic investigation” (Paterson and Zoellner 2010), Paterson et al.: Advancing Media Production Research (Paterson et al. 2016) especially Michael B. Munnik’s contribution: “When You Can’t Rely on Public or Private: Using the Ethnographic Self as Resource”, Born: Uncertain Vision (Born 2004). Sherry Ortner likewise deals with the topic in her book Not Hollywood, Independent Film at the Twilight of the American Dream (Ortner 2013). For a discussion of the challenge in an Arab context see: Mohamed Zayani and Sofiane Sahraoui: The Culture of Al Jazeera: Inside an Arab Media Giant (2007).

13. One exception is in the chapter “The Re-launch of Third Worldism: the Voice of the Global South and the Cooperation with TeleSUR”, where I analyse the cooperation with TeleSUR. Here, I have widened the timeframe to include the autumn of 2015 and the winter of 2016, as the programme I focus on only started to be broadcasted in June 2015.

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CHAPTER ONE

Exploring Ideoscapes Surrounding The New Regressive Left

This chapter and the following one, “Exploring Mediascapes Surrounding al-Mayadeen”, together draw the outlines of the contemporary Arab ideo- and mediascapes, which al-Mayadeen is a part of and manoeuvres within. After a brief discussion of Arjun Appadurai’s concept of -scapes, the focus of this chapter is the Arab Left broadly understood. I present a short historical outline of the formation and development of the Arab Left as an overall ideological frame, followed by a discussion of four specific actors, namely the Syrian Ba‘ath Party, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), Hizbollah and Iran. I have chosen these four actors, which I believe together offer central ideological core concepts to al-Mayadeen and The New Regressive Left alike. Thus, the ideological discourse taking form at al-Mayadeen is not coming out of nowhere; rather, it is a re-composition or re-organisation of already existing ideological concepts, as Freeden has drawn our attention to. I conclude the chapter by zooming in on the post-2011 Arab leftist ideoscapes, trying to sketch a typology for the contemporary Arab Left.

The concept of -scapes was originally introduced by Appadurai in Modernity at Large (1996), in order to capture the “the fluid, irregular shapes of these landscapes” in a globalised world (Appadurai 1996, 33). In accordance with Appadurai, mediascapes refer both to “the distribution of the electronic capabilities to produce and disseminate information (newspapers, magazines, television stations, and film-production studios) (…) and to the images of the world created by these ←25 | 26→media” (Appadurai 1996, 35). Ideoscapes, on the other hand, are concatenations of images which are “often directly political and frequently have to do with the ideologies of the states and the counterideologies of the movements explicitly oriented to capturing state power or a piece of it” (Appadurai 1996, 36). Imagined communities today thrive across national borders and are no longer only reflected in national states, as Benedict Anderson1 saw them; consequently, Appadurai talks about imagined worlds, of which mediascapes and ideoscapes form dimensions or building blocks.2

The transnationalisation of media and ideas is a global phenomenon, but in an Arab context, the existence of a shared language and a shared cultural identity has the potential to bind people together across national borders to an extraordinary level and, thus, must be encountered theoretically. While the academic research on Arab media over the past two decades has been dominated by the concept of the public sphere – often with reference to Habermas3 – I opt for Appadurai’s notion of -scapes as it captures the contemporary global flow of culture, media, ideas and money.4 This allows us to move beyond the academic discussions of how to adjust Habermas’ public sphere concept to the present time and space and whether his concept is (or is not) limited by his original democratic, European national state and bourgeois class-bounded context.5 Likewise, the ideological current The New Regressive Left is not coming into existence as an isolated Arab phenomenon; rather, it has links to a global tendency and talks to global ideoscapes, as the chapter, “The Re-launch of Third Worldism: The Voice of the Global South and the Cooperation with TeleSUR”, clearly illustrates. Furthermore, the fluid and complex quality of -scapes captures the fragmented post-2011 Arab media and ideology realm and talks to the ideology concept that I discussed in the “Introduction”. Finally, Appadurai’s notion offers an opportunity to place the ideological and the media realms within the same conceptual frame and, thus, helps to make visible the interconnectedness between the two.

Before continuing, a few words on the notion of the “Arab Left” are necessary, as it is both a vague and broad concept. It is a notion that includes a variety of ideological currents, political movements, and individuals often opposing each other and in internal struggles; just as it covers different national specific circumstances. Additionally, it is a notion that involves not only regional and national Arab contexts; being leftist also means being part of an international ideological movement with additional ideological and political splits and developments. In this book, the Arab Left refers to a broad notion including a variety of different movements such as Arab nationalists, socialists, Nasserists, Ba‘athists and communists that adhere to any leftist ideology, just as both individuals and groups with or without party affiliations are included. Jens Hanssen and Hicham Safieddine argue that

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Ideologically, the term ‘the Arab left’ designates a broad progressive position in Arab politics, both transnational and local, that historically coalesced around secularism, anti-imperialism, class struggle, Arab unity, and the liberation of Palestine. While most self-identified Arab leftists agree with these principles, myriads of differences have persisted regarding the meaning of each of the above progressive principles as well as questions of priority, timing, velocity, tactics, and strategy. (Hanssen and Safieddine 2016)

It is within this multi-faceted context I argue that a concept such as The New Regressive Left makes sense – challenging the progressiveness of parts of this ideological group. In the following, I outline the relevant historical context of the Arab Left for the understanding of The New Regressive Left.

The Formative Years

The birth of the Arab Left has links stretching back to intellectual developments, which took shape during al-Nahda [the renaissance] period in late 19th century and early 20th century (see Chapter 6 for a further introduction to al-Nahda). Over the following decades, these intellectual and theological reformations developed into two main opposing streams, namely, secular nationalism and Islamism, with the former paving the way for the birth of leftist ideology (Hourani 1983). Growing Arab self-awareness and aspiration for greater autonomy during the end of the Ottoman Empire, and direct experience with European imperialism following World War I, made anti-colonial struggles and the concept of Arab nationalism important elements for secular intellectual thinking. The Bolshevik revolution in 1917, furthermore, became a source of inspiration. Thus, from the beginning, an important interconnectedness – though not necessarily friendship – between leftist ideology and Arab nationalist movements was a given.

During the following decade, communist parties were established in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Sudan, Iraq and Palestine (Haugbolle 2016a). In the Arab world, Marxism was from the outset, to a large extent, an intellectual upper-class phenomenon that soon came to struggle with the rigid dogmatism coming out of Moscow, especially after Stalin came to power. The ideological restraints of Marxist-Leninist thinking made it difficult to adapt the ideology to local conditions, such as colonialism, societies dominated by farmers rather than workers, the important role of Islam, etc. Nevertheless, leftist political organisations in general came to play an important role for political developments in the post-World War I Arab world, not least due to their engagement in the struggle against colonialism. An engagement that also meant that French and British mandate powers did their ←27 | 28→best to suppress the rise of these new political groups. Likewise, worker unions came to play an important role in organising the growing local workforces in their struggle for improved rights (Halperin 2005).6

The heyday of the Arab Left as a broad political current is traditionally seen as the period between the end of World War II (with the gain of national independence) and the Arab military defeat to Israel in 1967. In accordance to Hisham Bustani, the discourse of the Arab Left “was formed in the era of Third World national liberation movements in the wake of World War II” (Bustani 2014, 35). During these decades, different combinations of nationalism and socialism played very important roles in political life, as they seized power in several countries: Nasser in Egypt; the Ba‘ath party in Iraq and Syria; Front de Libération Nationale (FNL) and Ben Bella in Algeria; and, later, Qaddafi in Libya. Even though not in power, also in Jordan, Palestine and Yemen leftist ideologies stood strong. Thus, in these important and formative years, secular and leftist ideologies shaped Arab political life and dominated both the ideo- and the mediascape. In spite of this seeming success, the Arab Left has from early on in its development been internally divided and marked by political competition in the struggle for power. Not only does the Left consist of many different fractions and groups, but ruling regimes (often leftists) have in many cases also deliberately played different leftist groups off against each other by co-opting some and eliminating others.7

The achievements of the Left in gaining power were not without problems. The way to power had often been through military coups; and the strategies employed for consolidating power, together with the prioritisation of socio-economic modernisation discourse, meant a disregard towards democratic values.8 This led to an important split, initiated by a group of leftist intellectuals from Palestine, Lebanon and Syria in the early 1960s. They were inspired by the British New Left and motivated by frustration over the authoritarian character of Nasser and the Ba‘ath Party and not least over the USSR-loyal ideological style laid out by Khaled Bakdash, the leader of the Communist Party of Syria and Lebanon (Haugbolle 2016a). These ideological reflections turned out to be a foretaste of what the disappointment in 1967 would bring about at full speed.

The defeat of 1967 and the exposure of the failure of the ruling regimes – not only militarily but also politically more broadly – stimulated different ideological and political developments within the Left. For many intellectuals and politically engaged people, a common denominator was a strong feeling of the importance of breaking with the ruling Arab regimes. For some, this meant a turn to the rising Islamist movements; for others, it meant a radicalisation of their leftist beliefs – a current often referred to as the New Arab Left. For the latter case, the revival of the fight for Palestine was central, and soon the civil war in Lebanon also became ←28 | 29→an important and concrete military scene (Hanssen and Safieddine 2016). In contrast to the ruling regimes’ rhetorical support for Palestine and promotion of leftist values, these new groups took to the streets and fought for their beliefs (Haugbolle 2016a). This included movements such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), and the Organisation for Communist Action in Lebanon. Not everybody abandoned the ruling parties, though; part of the Left felt the threat of the growing influence of Islam, and saw the secular state as the best protection against the Islamisation of society. In this way, important ideological divisions were established – divisions, which are still relevant today.

Even though the often-told story, about 1967 being the turning point leading to both the death of Arab Nationalism along secular ideologies in general and to the rise of Islamism, is certainly in need of some adjustments, important ideological transformations did take place in the following decades. During the 1970s and 1980s, the Islamist revivalism in society at large had profound effects on ideological and political life, which a secular Arab Left had to relate to. In spite of the fact that communist groups reached their peak during the Lebanese Civil War, Palestinian leftist resistance groups experienced an international reach, and Arab nationalism remained “the rules of the game of regional politics” until 1990 (Barnett 1998, 236), the superiority of secular values was no longer taken for granted. On the contrary, Islamist groups succeeded in appealing to the broad public in ways, which the Left never had, while ruling regimes adapted rhetorically to the religious sentiments out of fear of the political Islamist opposition movements. This changing environment challenged the previous legitimacy of the secular leftist ideologies, and (further) alienated the two main opposition streams (leftists and Islamists) from each other. The conflict was further underwritten by an oft-used strategy of ruling powers, playing the two groups off against each other.

The next blow (or release, one might argue) for the Arab Left was the collapse of the USSR. The USSR’s downfall naturally affected leftist individuals and parties around the world, but the traditionally strong connection between the Arab communist parties and Moscow left this part of the Arab Left in a fundamental search for identity. In particular, the Left in the Levant was affected by events, Faleh Jabar argues, as the Magreb had been under the influence of Western European critical Marxist thinking the previous decades to a larger degree ( Jabar 2001). This existential crisis of the international Left was, in an Arab context, further challenged by the defeat of the Lebanese National Movement9 in the Lebanese Civil War (Haugbolle 2016a). On top of that, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 pushed into the ideological discussion over which ideals to prioritise: anti-authoritarian or anti-imperialist.

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Together, these different developments left the remains of the Arab Left in a deep state of self-reflection. Whereas the defeat in 1967 had led to a radicalisation of parts of the Left, the collapse of the USSR initiated discussions over the importance of political democracy, rather than socio-economic transformations ( Jabar 2001). For a number of individuals, this resulted in leaving their party. Some stayed engaged in politics but as independent intellectuals; others withdrew from political life altogether, in favour of a career in the growing industry of civil societies and NGOs. What was central in both cases, though, was a search for liberal and democratic values. Another group similarly left politics, disillusioned, and saw in the cultural and media field a space for promoting their secular and socially progressive beliefs (Sing 2015). This development is important, as it strengthened the secular character of the cultural field at a time where religious values were increasingly finding their way into the field of cultural production, and thus intensified the cultural sphere as a battlefield site between religious and secular values. I return to this conflict in the following chapter, in the section “Religious Broadcasting in a Secular Space?”.

During the 2000s, a new and interesting rapprochement between different oppositional groups – including, but not limited to, leftist and Islamist groups – took place on both an ideological and political level, described by Michaelle Browers as cross-ideological alliances. Leaning on a democratic discourse and motivated by the lack of alternative strategies for challenging the existing powers, these groups joined forces. More or less pragmatic alliances were formed based on a shared resistance against both the ruling authoritarian regimes and Western-Israeli imperialism. On an ideological level, Arab nationalists and leftists more broadly had to acknowledge the importance of Islam as well as the Islamists’ success in gaining borad public support. The Centre for Arab Unity Studies (CAUS)10 is an illustrative example of how leftist intellectuals have adjusted former rigid insistences on secular values and embraced Islam. During the 1990s and 2000s, the centre hosted five big conferences under the title of the National-Islamic Conference, bringing together a wide spectrum of leftists and Islamists from “Hizbullah to the Lebanese Communist Party, from Hamas to the PLO and PFLP, and from the heads of writers’ and lawyers’ syndicates to university professors from various Arab countries” (Browers 2009, 81). The controversial as well as pragmatic nature of this attempted cooperation meant that sensitive issues such as the status of women or religious and ethnic minorities and secularism versus the role of Islam in society were neglected in favour of anti-imperialistic, anti-Zionistic and anti-globalisation discourses, and an agreement over the importance of preserving the umma [nation] (Browers 2009).

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As sketched out above, the Arab Left has from the very beginning been a complex, internally divided and changing body. Developments from 2011 have only underscored already existing disagreements and often created new ones as well. Old discussions over what it essentially means to be a leftist, and how this is translated into political priorities and lived lives, have once again been brought to the surface. At the end of this chapter, I return to investigating the contemporary leftist ideoscapes, but first, I zoom in on the Syrian Ba‘ath party, the SSNP, Hizbollah and lastly Iran. These four actors are of central importance as they together provide the ideological core concepts (to use Freeden’s terminology) of al-Mayadeen – the secular and progressive leftist values, the resistance and anti-imperialistic struggle, and the acceptance of authoritarian principles in the name of preserving the two former. Furthermore, they all in different ways, propagate some kind of socialist inspired alternative to economic liberalism. All four actors – the Ba‘ath party, the SSNP, Hizbollah and Iran – are suppliers of these four ideological pillars, though in different shapes and to different extents. In the following sections, I explore this ideological heritage, before examining the post-2011 Arab Left and sketching out a typology that can help us understand the contemporary leftist ideoscapes.

The Ba‘ath Party

Al-Mayadeen’s promotion of core leftist ideological values is beyond dispute, but it focuses on a certain current within the Arab Left – one that, largely, draws on the heritage of the Syrian Ba‘ath Party. Thus, a brief examination of this heritage seems appropriate. Michel ‘Aflaq, a Greek Orthodox Christian, and Salah al-Din Bitar, a Sunni Muslim, founded the Arab Ba‘ath Party in Syria in 1940. In 1953, it merged with the Arab Socialist Party and adopted the name The Arab Ba‘ath Socialist Party. The Ba‘ath ideology spread to most Arab countries but only in Syria and Iraq did it come to play an important and ruling role in political life. In Syria, the Ba‘ath Party became the second largest party in the election in 1954, and it has been in power since 1963. In Iraq, the Ba‘ath Party was in power from 1968 until the US-led invasion in 2003 and the overthrow of Saddam Hussain. Due to ideological disagreements, the party spilt into two branches – an Iraqi and a Syrian – which stayed in an irreconcilable conflict up until 2003.

Ba‘ath in Arabic means renaissance or resurrection, and the party has from its outset built on a combination of Arab Nationalism, Arab Socialism and the struggle against imperialism as its ideological core, wrapped in romantic and nostalgic language. In accordance with Nikolaos Van Dam, the Ba‘ath “wanted a united secular Arab society with a socialist system, i.e. a society in which all Arabs would ←31 | 32→be equal, irrespective of their religion” (Dam 2011, 17). Though the ideological discourse seemed clear from the outset, the actual policy was challenged – not only by ideological disagreements (cf. the Syrian-Iraqi split) but also by changing political realities and strategies. The progressive ideals of socialism, secularism, Arab nationalism and resistance against imperialism have all remained important rhetorical slogans, but have equally been overrun by political pragmatism.

In spite of socialism being an official component of Ba‘athism, after gaining power in Syria in 1970, Hafez al-Assad introduced the so-called Correctionist Movement, which maintained socialism as a tenet in the rhetoric of the ruling party but in fact actually meant a shift to state capitalism (Perthes 1997). Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, new initiatives further underpinned the move away from socialism and culminated with the investment law of 1991, widening the scoop for private investments (Perthes 1997). When Bashar al-Assad inherited the presidency from his father in 2000, economic liberalisation was on the top of his political agenda and a focal point of his modernisation discourse (Perthes 2004). In spite of the continued steps towards a liberalisation of the Syrian economy, old ideals such as self-sufficiency; staying free from the economic reform programmes of the World Bank and the IMF; and providing the remains of a social state offering hospital service, education programmes and subsidies of basic goods for its citizens have remained part of the Ba‘ath identity.

The secular values of the Ba‘ath ideology did not mean discharging Islam all together; on the contrary, while the idea of Islam as an Arab national religion was dismissed, a narrative of Islam as a fundamental part of Arab national cultural heritage of importance for Muslim as well as Christians was promoted. Like other leftist parties advocating secularism and pan-Arab sentiments, the Ba‘ath Party had a strong appeal among religious minorities as the stressing of Arab rather than Muslim identity was seen as a potential way to achieve higher equality of status. During his years of rule, though, Hafez al-Assad had to realise that Islam was more than merely a cultural shared heritage. It was equally a vital political force, which, by the end of the 1970s, had become the main opposition movement. The strategy employed in order to counteract the challenge was to “blur the borders between state and society so as to transform the conflict from one between an allegedly corrupt and authoritarian clique and Sunni Islam to one between moderate Islam and a destabilising, reactionary and extremist Islam” (Khatib 2011, 232). Thus, the secularism of the 1960s was replaced with a state seeking to take control over Islamic revivalism by boosting and co-opting selected religious groups, and promoting a state-authorised Islamic message. This strategy was only further exploited by Bashar al-Assad during his first decade of rule, confirming the fall of Ba‘athist secularism. In spite of this clear political strategy, secular values and the ←32 | 33→image of Syria as a safe-haven for all religious minorities remain a component of the Syrian state’s self-perception.

A central element of not only Ba‘ath ideology but of Syrian self-perception at large has been the image of Syria as the “beating heart of Arabism” (Hinnebusch and Ehteshami 2002, 142) as well as the bearer of the legacy of Bilad ash-Sham [the Levant]11. The idea of Syria being the guardian of the lost components of Bilad ash-Sham (Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine) has had political consequences for all four countries. Support for the Palestinian struggle against foreign imperialism has throughout the years been central for not only the foreign policy of Syria and what was considered Syrian national interests, but also for Ba‘athist ideology. Likewise, political life in Syria and Lebanon has been closely interconnected throughout the years.

In spite of the continued pan-Arab idealism, the pragmatic political style of the late al-Assad also meant compromising with the Arab nationalistic element of Ba‘athism, for example, when Hafiz al-Assad opted for supporting Iran over Iraq in the first Gulf war and later participated in the US-led invasion of Iraq in the second Gulf war of 1991. The close partnership with Iran has only been further deepened during Bashar al-Assad’s rule, an alliance which has placed Syria firmly within the “axis of resistance” and ensured that the young president inherited from his father the image of being mumana‘a12 [literally “opposition” or “resistance” but used as a term for Arab regimes rejecting US hegemony in the region]. In addition, the war in Syria and the ongoing power struggle in the region have brought the two countries even closer in a close military and political alliance.

Throughout the years, as Christopher Phillips has shown in his study Everyday Arab Identity (2012), the Syrian Ba‘athist state has promoted a pan-Arab identity alongside a Syrian national identity. The two have not been in opposition, but rather mutually reinforcing. Since 2001, the isolation of Syria within the Arab world at large has undermined the pan-Arab rhetoric and made Bashar al-Assad, on the one hand, prioritise a strong Syrian national discourse and, on the other hand, reinvent the old notion of Bilad ash-Sham.

Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP)

The Ba‘ath Party has been the all-dominating official political ideology in Syria for decades, and other leftist parties have either been banned or co-opted into the Progressive National Front (PNF)13 leaving almost no room for alternative leftist ideology or political programme. One party, though, seems to have not only survived as an independent voice but also to be experiencing some kind of ←33 | 34→revival – namely the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP). As some of the ideological concepts of SSNP are reflected in al-Mayadeen’s broadcast – maybe even stirred by it – the following focuses on the SSNP.

The SSNP was founded in 1932 by Antun Sa’adeh, a Lebanese Greek Orthodox, with its main political goal being the reestablishment of Bilad ash-Sham. The party was central in transforming the idea of a Syrian nation into a coherent political ideology, and Sa’adeh is even referred to as “the architect of Syrian nationalism” (Beshara 2011). Whether to categorise the SSNP as a right-wing or a left-wing party is up for discussion. It has from its beginning contained fascist elements, and according to Albert Hourani, the party was “rigidly organised on the lines of the fascist parties common in Europe in the 1930s, with a strict hierarchy and a sole and virtually all-powerful leader” (Hourani 1983, 317). Likewise, its strong focus on Syrian nationalism14 also contains elements of mystical nationalism and other imports from Nazi Germany (e.g., the party’s symbol, a curved swastika called “the red hurricane”) and up until 1945, the party attracted fascists and Nazi sympathisers (Pipes 1988, 304).15

While Sa’adeh was clearly inspired by the fascist movements in Europe, and the name, Syrian Social Nationalist Party, has a close resemblance to the Nazi ideology of National Socialism, one should be careful to equating SSNP with Nazism. First of all, though Social Nationalist and National Socialism might seem closely related in English, this is not the case in Arabic (respectively ijtima’i and ishtiraki). More importantly, as Abdel Beshara underscores, the SSNP did not adopt an idea about a single “Syrian race” – rather, it saw the Syrian superiority as being connected to its multiracial society. Thus, for SSNP, “the Syrian racial mix, while interacting with its natural environment, produced an advanced civilization” (Beshara 2011, 348). While fascist ideology was a source of inspiration for Sa’adeh, the party has, according to John Rolland, since the 1960s moved towards the Left, and during the Lebanese Civil War, several SSNP members joined the Lebanese National Movement (Rolland 2003). Likewise, Daniel Pipes argues that the party has “abandoned fascist doctrines and adopted a more acceptable rhetoric of the Left” (Pipes 1988, 310).

In addition to the aim of re-establishing Bilad ash-Sham and the partially fascist-inspired ideology, an important component of the SSNP cosmos is secularism, with the separation of religion and state a declared goal.16 This has, as was also the case with the Ba‘ath party, attracted religious minorities to the party, especially Christians in Syria and Shi‘ites in Lebanon.17

The SSNP has played a role in both Syrian and Lebanese political life. I In Syria, together with the Syrian Communist Party, it was the main competitor to the Ba‘ath Party during the 1940s and 1950s, just as Adib Shiskakli (who ruled ←34 | 35→Syria 1949–54) was a former member of the SSNP, with continuous relations to the party (Pipes 1988). In 1955, the party was banned in Syria and stayed so until 2005 where it was legalised, and obtained an observer seat at the NPF. In 2007, it participated in the parliamentary election, and in 2014 supported the re-election of Bashar al-Assad as president. Since the outbreak of the war in Syria, SSNP has been gaining political ground by organising militias fighting – rather successfully – on the side of the regime.

In Lebanon, the party has been arguing for subsuming Lebanon into Syria. It participated actively in the Lebanese Civil War on the side of the Palestinians and against Israeli occupation, and has had seats in parliament since after the end of the Civil War. Lebanese members of SSNP seem, equally, to be participating actively in the battleground in Syria, just as the party is experiencing a revival in Lebanon (Choufi 2014). Thus, the ongoing war in Syria has sent the SSNP right back into the arms of the Syrian regime, including fighting alongside the Assad government against what it sees as a sectarian threat against the unity of Syria.18 At the same time, the toning-down of the pan-Arab rhetoric of the Syrian regime, replaced by a renewed promotion of Syria – both as a nation state and as the notion of Bilad ash-Sham – has brought the two parties closer together.

Hizbollah – the Islamism of the Left

The fact that the connection between Hizbollah and al-Mayadeen is strong is obvious in several ways. First and foremost, al-Mayadeen has from day one been uncompromising in its support for Hizbollah (as I elaborate on throughout the book – see especially Chapter 3), second, al-Mayadeen and Hizbollah have organised several events together, and third, there is an overlap between staff members of Hizbollah’s TV station al-Manar and al-Mayadeen. At the same time, Hizbollah represents a source of controversy for the Arab Left. The movement is one of the landmarks that separates the two main camps within the Left, and provokes all the most sensitive points: secularism versus Islamism and resistance versus democracy, etc.

Hizbollah is a product of the Lebanese Civil War and came into existence in order to safeguard Iranian interests. Originally, the movement appealed narrowly to the Shia population in Lebanon, but this changed after the end of the Civil War. As the movement transformed into a national militant resistance movement with a strong anti-Israeli discourse, it developed ambitions in – and had success with – appealing to a broader Lebanese public. When Israel was forced out of the South of Lebanon in 2000, rather than dissolving itself, Hizbollah opted to include the ←35 | 36→Palestinian cause into its struggle. This move, combined with the impressive and concrete result of the movement’s military performance (the end of the Israeli occupation), transformed Hizbollah from a Lebanese to an Arab phenomenon. Thus, in 2000 when Israel withdrew from South of Lebanon, Hizbollah was able to unite most of the Arab world across national borders and sectarian divisions.

In 2006, in connection to the war with Israel, the organisation’s regional popularity peaked to a level where Hassan Nasrallah was one of the three most popular Arab leaders, together with Bashar al-Assad and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (Lob 2014). Similarly, its satellite TV station, al-Manar, reached a broad popularity and was listed as one of the top four news stations in the Middle East in a report from 2006 (Baylouny 2006). In other words, Hizbollah’s military success, public popularity, and its emphasis on national resistance along the tradition of Arab nationalists and other leftist groups opened the doors for a general Arab sympathy and support. This included groups that would not necessarily sympathise with Hizbollah’s religiously founded ideology, but who were, nevertheless, loyal to its role as a resistance movement.

Besides the strong resistance agenda, another element that Hizbollah and the Left potentially can unite around is anti-capitalistic and anti-neoliberalistic ideals. Hizbollah represents the Shia community in Lebanon, which has historically been politically, socially and economically marginalised. This is clearly reflected in the movements TV media, al-Manar, where

This pro-poor and anti-materialistic theme is communicated (…) and appeals to a wide swathe of the public that cannot afford the upper class lifestyle widely promoted in Beirut. That lifestyle is also viewed as promoted by international capitalism and the US, making its rejection one of the main perceived differences marking the boundaries of the other. (Baylouny 2006, 6)

That Hizbollah ideologically draws on the leftist tradition is also a point for As’ad AbuKhalil, who argues that Hizbollah borrows a Leninist global outlook by splitting “the world into two camps, the exploited and the exploiters” (AbuKhalil 1991, 396). The mere difference, in accordance to AbuKhalil, is the replacing of Lenin’s international imperialism with Hizbollah’s rhetoric about international arrogance, in reference to the US.19

However, the previous success of Hizbollah in the role as the great uniter has been challenged over the past decade. Although the war in 2006 on a regional level mostly added to Hizbollah’s heroic status, the destruction and death experienced in Lebanon sparked harsh criticism, also within leftist circles.20 On top of that, the movement’s confrontation with its national political opponents in the streets of Beirut in 2008 damaged its image of representing the whole Arab world. Instead, ←36 | 37→its own political ambitions were exposed, and the sectarian aspect of the conflict alienated parts of the Sunni population across the Arab world. These cracks have only deepened after Hizbollah’s involvement in the Syrian conflict. The move-ment’s decision to not only support Bashar al-Assad rhetorically but also militarily has been the final undermining of its pan-Arab appeal, and firmly placed it within the ongoing political and sectarian power struggle in the region.

Iran and the Export of Authoritarianism

After introducing three central Arab actors that in different ways provide important ideological freight to the contextures of The New Regressive Left, I now turn my attention towards the Iranian state. As I return to in the following chapter, there are several indications that Iran is the main – if not only – financial sponsor of the station. Whether or not this holds true, important overlaps of ideological elements and strategies between Iran and al-Mayadeen are obvious. Below, I briefly introduce post-1979 Iranian international strategies of relevance in the context of al-Mayadeen.

Since the Islamic revolution in 1979, Iran has had a strained relation with most of its Arab neighbours, in that its revolutionary Shia identity has been conceived as a direct threat to power stability, not least by the Sunni monarchies in the Gulf. Nevertheless, Iran has cultivated relations with religious, ideological or political allies in its neighbouring Arab countries of which the sponsoring of Hizbollah in Lebanon and the alliance with (Alawi-ruled) Syria have been central. The Syrian alliance is built on mutual bad relations with the United States (and consequently international isolation), a strong anti-Israeli rhetoric and a tense relation with conservative Sunni nations. Hizbollah plays a central role in this alliance, and is one of Iran’s strongest components in its regional and international political strategy. After the downfall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the political upheaval since 2011, Iran has found new possibilities for promoting its interest in the region while fighting a battle over power and influence with Saudi Arabia – a battle that has developed into one of the most important conflicts in the region, creating divisions along sectarian lines (Sunni-Shi‘ites) and national political interests, just as it is reflected in international alliances (the United States-Russia).

Seen from an international perspective, 1979 challenged Iran’s former positive relations with the West, and led to a new interest in developing relations with the Third World. This Third World strategy continued through the 1980s and 1990s, and during Ahmadinejad’s period as president, Sub-Sahara Africa and Latin ←37 | 38→America became focal points for Iranian foreign diplomacy (Pirsalami 2013). In accordance with Steven Heydemann, Iran’s alliance strategy reflects “a deep pragmatism” and alliances are nurtured across political and ideological differences in order to counterbalance US and Western power in the international system (Heydemann 2010). Iran has, roughly put, aimed at counteracting US hegemony on three different fronts: US unipolarism (e.g., Iran’s alliance with Russia), US neoliberalism (e.g., Iran’s alliances with leftist populist governments in Latin America) and US imperialism (e.g., Iran’s support of the Arab struggle against Israeli occupation). In spite of the immediate ideological difference between the Bolivar Revolution of Venezuela and the Islamic Revolution of Iran, the two nations have found common interests, and throughout the 2000s, Venezuela has been one of the most important allies of Iran.21

Rachel Vanderhill has shown how authoritarian regimes export authoritarianism, using Russia, Venezuela and Iran as her case studies. She points out that all three nations are regional rather than global powers, with ambitions to expand their influence; all three have a desire to challenge the global dominance of the United States, which they view as tied to the spread of democracy; and they are all able to finance these two ambitions through their oil and natural gas wealth (Vanderhill 2012). Thus, Tehran uses the active promotion of authoritarianism abroad as a strategy to counter US influence and secure its own international allies. At the same time, Iran is trying to stage itself as a progressive state internationally, not least in Syria and Lebanon. Through broadcast media, aid programmes and cultural programmes, the Iranian state attempts to present itself as a well-functioning Islamic state, committed to the struggle for Palestine, to the empowerment of women and to democratic values (Khatib 2013).

Media is a central element of Iran’s public diplomacy. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the new regime reformed the existing state broadcast media and created the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). Today, IRBI is not only providing services to a national audience but operates four international news television channels and six satellite television channels for international viewers, and disseminates its programmes in twenty-seven languages (Pahlavi 2012). In accordance with Pierre Pahlavi, since the launch of the news channel al-Alam in 2003, Iran has intensified its use of media as part of its public diplomacy; supporting its foreign policy objectives and promoting an image of being a moderate and modern Islamic country (Pahlavi 2012). Together with al-Kawthar TV22, al-Alam targets an Arab audience, whereas Press TV23 targets an English-speaking audience. Furthermore, Iran has year-long media cooperation with Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela, and has previously had ambitions about opening a pan-Latin American TV station in Bolivia (Karmon 2009).

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In the past four sections, I have sketched out the four central actors of importance for al-Mayadeen’s political positioning: the Syrian Ba‘ath Party, the SSNP, Hizbollah and Iran. These four actors together form an ideological square in which al-Mayadeen finds its ideological inspiration, as well as its boundaries. The four share a strong anti-imperialistic rhetoric with the struggle against Israeli occupation as the pivot point. Second, they unite around a fear for Sunni Islamism and thus promote religious pluralism; whether due to secular values, being representatives of a religious minority or due to religious rivalry. A third and important common value is the resistance against Western-led economic liberalism. The Ba‘ath Party’s socialist heritage, Hizbollah’s traditional representation of an economically marginalised part of Lebanon’s population and Iran’s attempt to counterbalance US hegemony – also in the economic sphere – all meet in an anti-neoliberal rhetoric. Finally, the fourth ideological pillar is a shared acceptance – if not promotion – of authoritarian rule over democratic values.

In the following section, I return to the notion of the Arab Left and investigate internal ideological splits of importance in post-2011 Arab ideoscapes. I argue that the Arab Left today is best understood as being divided into four main camps: the anti-imperialistic, the anti-authoritarian, the radical Left and the compromising Left.

Disagreements and Core Ideological Concepts in the Post-2011 Arab Left

Throughout the years, social justice (and the struggle against capitalism) and national independence (and the struggle against imperialism and foreign intervention) have constituted two ideological core concepts for the Arab Left – though read in different ways depending on time and place. At the same time, the relation to, respectively, the national state and Islam has been of fundamental importance – not to say the root of disagreements and divisions within the Left. Whereas the national state by some has been seen as the safeguard against Islamism, others have rejected it due to its authoritarian character. Likewise, the role of Islam in society has been up for dispute; while some consider secularism (and fighting sectarianism) of fundamental importance, others prioritise cooperation with Islamists movements, due to their popular appeal and an appreciation of religious tradition. Furthermore, a fundamental disagreement over the prioritisation of the individual against the collective, or “the cause”, runs through the ideological discussions.

These well-known ideological disagreements are still haunting the contemporary Arab Left, and the uprisings in 2011 have only deepened the splits. Not least ←39 | 40→the situation in Syria has served as the ultimate divider of an already divided Left. While leftist environments struggling for secular and liberal values were important as the initial push for the uprisings (Massouh 2013), and leftist currents and pan-Arab sentiments at one point in time seemed to be an important ideological trend revitalised by the uprisings (Phillips 2014), reality rather quickly proved more complex. Whether in Egypt, Syria or elsewhere, the Islamisation of the uprisings not only contributed to undermining the previous cross-ideological alliances of the 2000s, but also challenged the Left with ideological dilemmas of realpolitik.

The majority of secular activists in Egypt felt confronted with the schism of how to relate to the election of the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate for presidency and, ultimately, who to stand with in the military coup against the then ruling Egyptian president Muhamed Mursi. Likewise, the leftist groups in Syria quickly found themselves choosing between two evils: a brutal (though secular, and supporter of the muqawama) authoritarian rule, or an Islamist alternative, in which terror networks such as al-Qaida, Jabhat al-Nusra and later ISIS had come to play a key role. The dilemmas were not new but more acute than ever. How to measure leftist ideals against each other? Should leftists side with a secular non-democratic rule that could be perceived as a safeguard against an Islamist takeover? Or should a dictator be fought by all means necessary, even if that meant alliances with Islamist groups? In the Syrian case, the schism was further underlined by the (partly tarnished) image of the Syrian regime as the last bastion fighting for Arab interests and resisting US imperialism – in other words, the last bastion of mumana‘a. What did it mean to be a leftist in a post-2011 Arab world?

The dilemmas cutting through the Arab Left are neither new nor unique. On a global level, the Left has been challenged by the same principle questions over ideological priorities. Alex Callinicos, the editor of the magazine International Socialism, argues that part of the international Left is undergoing a revival of the Cold War phenomenon of “campism”, referring to the phenomenon of supporting states “that, because they resist the US geopolitically, are seen as in some sense progressive” (Callinicos 2014). This trend is globally evident, but in a Middle Eastern context, Callinicos continues, “campism takes the form of support for the alliance orchestrated by the Islamic Republican regime in Iran, including notably the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Hizbollah, the Shiite Islamist movement that dominates Lebanon” (Callinicos 2014). Likewise, Firas Massouh argues that part of the international Left (what he refers to as “the Stalinoid Left”) turns a blind eye to the popular uprisings and “instead see the crisis in Syria in terms of Western/Turkish/Gulf states-backed Sunni Islamist militants” and by doing that “echoes the [Syrian] regime’s narrative to the letter” (Massouh 2013, 57).

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This international campism is also visible within the Arab Left. In accordance with Bassam Haddad, it can be divided into two camps, namely, an anti-authoritarian and an anti-imperialist (Haddad 2012). Where the first gives priority to the fight for democracy and human rights (even if it means foreign intervention), the second holds the struggle against Israel and Western imperialism in general as the fundamental starting point (even if it means accepting authoritarian rule). In other words, the anti-imperialist would consider themselves representatives of ideals such as muqawama and mumana‘a. Likewise, Nicolas Dot-Pouillard outlines two main groups, one that continues “to support the Syrian regime in the name of the struggle against Israel and resistance to imperialism” and one that stands “staunchly with the opposition, in the name of revolution and the defence of democratic rights” (Dot-Pouillard 2012). These factions were, according to Hanssen and Safeddine, founded in connection with the Iraq invasion of Kuwait in 1990, but the conflict in Syria has obviously made the splits more urgent and confrontations inevitable (Hanssen and Safieddine 2016).

In particular, the discussion over the US intervention in Syria caused a strong reaction within both Arab and international leftist circles. The former managing editor of the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar, Khalid Saghieh, expressed his frustration with the international leftist anti-war movement, which he accuses of siding with the Right as well as working for the interests of Bashar al-Assad when it campaigned against foreign intervention in Syria. With reference to the article “Syria is a pseudo-struggle” by the post-Marxist thinker Slavoj Žižek24, Saghieh claimed that the international Left has betrayed the Syrian uprising, and he objected to the logic that “the revolutionary Syrians do not deserve to be redeemed because they have not proven their radical qualifications and secular-democratic orientation, so we should not interfere on their behalf ” (Saghieh 2013).

On the other side, Amal Saad-Ghorayeb argued in an article in al-Akhbar that “supporting Assad’s struggle against this multi-pronged assault is supporting Palestine today because Syria has become the new front line of the war between Empire and those resisting it” (Saad-Ghorayeb 2012). Her contribution demonstrated full-hearted support for al-Assad based on “the big picture” and seen through a “strategic lens”. At the same time, Saad-Ghorayeb regretted the emergence of a “third way camp” which is “comprised of intellectuals and activists from academia, the mainstream media and NGOs” and which “support elements in the home-grown opposition, reject the Syrian National Council (SNC) on account of its US-NATO-Israeli-Arab backing, and reject the Assad leadership on account of its repression of dissent and its alleged worthlessness to the Resistance project” (Saad-Ghorayeb 2012). She sees this approach as lacking an overall strategic ←41 | 42→understanding of the conflict and argues with reference to Lenin that there are only two positions, bourgeois or socialist ideology, and that the “third-wayers” are buying into the liberal democratic popular wave of the imperial powers.

What characterises both stances is the uncompromising attitude, leaving almost no space for any type of “third-wayers”. In spite of this hostile trench warfare, different alternative voices do still exist. Nicolas Dot-Pouillard talks about a group that, from a distance, supports a middle way “between showing solidarity with the protesters’ demand for freedom, and rejecting foreign interference: they advocate some kind of national reconciliation” (Dot-Pouillard 2012). An example of this group is the leftist Syrian intellectual and human rights activist, Haytham Manna, deputy head of the National Coordination Body for Democratic Change (NCC).25 Along the same lines, Sune Haugbølle refers to an alternative ideological grouping as “the New New Left”, in which he places figures such as the Lebanese communist Fawwaz Traboulsi and the late Lebanese revolutionary socialist Bassem Chit (Haugbolle 2016a). Others refer to the same current as “the far Left” and list the Syrian Revolutionary Left (Massouh 2013, 51) and Trotskyist groups such as the Socialist Forum in Lebanon and the Revolutionary Socialists in Egypt (DotPouillard 2012) as examples of this current. This grouping builds on the ideological heritage of the New Arab Left, which came into existence in the 1960s (see above). This includes rejecting the authoritarian style of the local communist parties, critiquing Lenin, USSR and the Arab socialism of Nasser and the Ba‘ath Party while insisting on the importance of both democratic values and revolutionary socialist ideals. As was the case in the 1960s, for this grouping the struggle for radical ideals also includes – as a last option – resorting to force of arms. This is also the case with regards to the Syrian uprising, which they support wholeheartedly, even when it became militarised. Thus, the New New Left insists on exactly that which Saad-Ghorayeb rules out, namely a struggle against both authoritarian rule and imperial interests.

The New New Left, which Haugbølle refers to, took shape in Lebanon during the 2000s when its followers increasingly transformed student activities and intellectual debates into activism, organising protests and demonstrations. As a reaction to former bureaucratic organisation, this movement did not crystallise into a traditional political party but instead worked in networks and relied on activism rather than engaging with the (corrupt) state (Haugbolle 2016a). Similarly, the movement saw a need for a bottom-up renewal of Arab Socialism and a break away from former patterns of thought, as Traboulsi argues:

This also presupposes that there are elements within the Left who are ready to transcend two currents still active in their midst: a leftist current that continues to support despotic regimes on the pretext of giving priority to the ‘national question’ and a leftist ←42 | 43→current that is counting on external intervention for paving the way to democracy. (Traboulsi 2012)

The ideological and political disagreements also cut through the cultural sphere (I discuss this further in Chapter 5). Renowned artists and cultural figures have shocked parts of the public when siding for or against, for example, Hizbollah, Bashar al-Assad or the Egyptian president al-Sisi. A telling example is the Lebanese composer and singer, Ziad Rahbani (son of the famous singer Fairouz), who has a life-long affiliation with the Lebanese Communist Party. Sune Haugbølle explains how Rahbani during the Lebanese civil war became “a cultural legitimation of the Lebanese left” (Haugbolle 2016b, 177) and how he enjoys a special status among young Lebanese leftists even today. Through his music, he challenges the political and cultural establishment and speaks the voice of the ordinary people. For years, his sympathy for Hizbollah has been public knowledge, and to a large degree in sync with his fans. He has sided with the March 8 alliance26 and runs a regular column in al-Akhbar (Hanssen and Safieddine 2016). However, since 2011 his political stance has to a growing degree attracted a lot of criticism. In September 2012, he appeared on al-Mayadeen in a two-part interview with Ghassan bin Jeddo himself.27 The interview got a lot of attention, not only because Rahbani in general has avoided the press for many years, but also because of what was said. Rahbani revealed his personal stance towards the situation in Syria: his concern over the uprising and his support for the Syrian opposition figure Haytham Manna, and thus his reluctance to support wholeheartedly the uprising in Syria.28

The leftist ideoscapes are complex and ambiguous, but as described above, the contexture of certain camps does seem to appear from the ideological messiness. Below, I have sketched out a typology of four different camps in the post-2011 Arab Left of relevance for al-Mayadeen’s first years. The complexity of the Arab Left is an integrated part of the typology: the groups are not homogenous and should not be understood rigidly just as they are continually developing and readjusting.

1. The Anti-imperialists

The anti-imperialist camp is characterised by advocating an anti-imperialist agenda. Whereas Saudi Arabian influence in general, and its promotion of Wahhabism, in particular, are seen as a threat against modernity and progressiveness, Islamist resistance movements fighting against Israel are accepted. While this group has carried on the heritage of “New Left” of the 1960s in the shape of its radical support for resistance and the Palestinian cause, it seems ready to sacrifice the democratic current of the “New Left” and (sometimes with regret) accept ←43 | 44→authoritarianism in the struggle against imperialism. Thus, the collective cause is prioritised over the rights of the individual body. Concepts such as muqawama and mumana‘a are central. This group includes figures such as Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, Abdel Bari Atwan, Bouthana Shaaban and Ibrahim al-Amine, and would typically be supportive of continued al-Assad rule in Syria. The SSNP and the Syrian Ba’ath Party itself would also be placed within this camp.

2. The Anti-authoritarians

In this camp, democratic principles and human rights discourses are strong, and leftist ideology is often overruled by liberal values. In order to pursue its agenda of democratisation, it will often be ready to accept foreign intervention in Arab conflicts. Thus, the individual body is given higher priority than the collective ideas or “the cause”. This group will typically have a critical stance towards Hizbollah and considers the military power of the movement problematic to an extent that is not outweighed by its resistance struggle against Israel. Likewise, this camp represents a clear rejection of al-Assad rule in Syria and argues for foreign intervention in the war. Examples of voices from this group are Khaled Saghieh (after leaving a-Akhbar) and Elias Khury.

3. The Radical Left or The New New Left

This camp tries to insist on advocating a democratic and anti-imperialist agenda at the same time, thus placing the individual body and collective ideas side by side. It refuses foreign intervention but is ready to accept the people’s use of military means in popular uprisings; again, links to the New Left of the 1960s are visible. Furthermore, the ideological heritage from the 1960s is evident in the choice of theoretical inspiration in regards to Marxist readings (Mao, Trotsky). It is activist-driven and relies on popular mobilisation. Important individuals and organisations in this group include Fawwaz Traboulsi, Bassem Chit, the Syrian Revolutionary Left, the Socialist Forum in Lebanon, and the Revolutionary Socialists in Egypt. Though this group rejects foreign intervention in Syria as a mean to remove al-Assad from power, it is not less opposed to his continued rule than the anti-authoritarians.

4. The Compromising Left

This group brings together individuals and groups which, in different ways, have been part of the Arab Left’s move towards having a more democratic and inclusive ←44 | 45→agenda in recent decades. Thus, they advocate a democratic discourse, accept Islamist resistance movements, and acknowledge Islam as both important cultural heritage and an important contemporary public social movement. Today, nevertheless, this group find itself in an ambivalent situation, which is most often solved through ideological compromises. While this camp (in line with the New New Left) rejects foreign intervention, it also rejects the militarisation of the current public uprisings. Likewise, while it is not outspoken supporter of al-Assad, this camp is calling for negotiation with the government in Damascus. Thus, in general, the individual body is placed over collective ideas, but this could be compromised if necessary. An important example of this intellectual trend is the Centre for Arab Unity Studies (CAUS)29 in Beirut. The Centre has for decades worked for incorporating democratic values and for recognition of Islam as an essential component of Arab identity within the Arab nationalistic movement. A message, which, to some extent, is in line with the anti-authoritarian group, though its insistence on the importance of values such as muqawama and mumana‘a makes it reject foreign intervention and support both Hizbollah and al-Assad. Likewise, Haytham Manna and Ziad Rahbani are equally important representatives of this group.

As will become evident throughout the analyses of al-Mayadeen, representatives of both the “Anti-imperialist” camp and the “Compromising Left” are to be found at the station whereas the other two groups (almost) never appear. While the anti-imperialist positions are rather obvious – and typically in line with what one would find in Syrian state TV – the voices of the Compromising Left blur the picture and add to the complexity by giving al-Mayadeen more nuances. I discuss this further throughout the analyses.

Conclusion

Employing Appadurai’s concept of -scapes, I outlined the ideoscapes which al-Mayadeen is situated within. In this context, the historical and contemporary Arab Left – including the Syrian Ba‘ath Party and SSNP – play a central role, just as Hizbollah and Iran do. The Arab Left is an ambiguous and complex notion including many different currents and groups. What unites the Arab Left is the belief in certain core progressive values such as secularism, anti-imperialism, class struggle, Arab unity and the liberation of Palestine. What divides the Arab Left, on the other hand, is how to reach these goals and in which order. Is the struggle against Western imperialism more important than the civil rights of the individual? Are Islamists potential allies, or is the safeguarding of secular values more important?

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Since the formation of the Arab Left in the post-World War I period, leftist ideologies have played an important role in ideological, political and cultural life in the Arab world, though in changing ways and with changing impact. Important political events such as the defeat to Israel in 1967, the death of Nasser in 1970, the Lebanese Civil War, the fall of the USSR, the Iraq invasion of Kuwait, the US-led wars on Iraq in 1991 and 2003, the Israeli war on Lebanon in 2006 and the popular uprisings in 2010–2011 have all been catalysts for ideological transformation, and thus also for ideological splits and disagreements. The establishment of al-Mayadeen, and the production of ideology taking place through its broadcasts, is an example of how new ideological formations take shape in the slipstream of big, important political developments, and this has to be understood within the historical and contemporary surrounding ideoscapes.

Al-Mayadeen and The New Regressive Left are situated in a field of tension between progressive and regressive values, or between progressive ideals and regressive pragmatism. The station draws on different ideological traditions or actors, most importantly, I argue: the Syrian Ba‘ath Party, SSNP, Hizbolah and Iran. The contexture of an emerging ideological coalition between religious and secular groups resembles previous alliances across beliefs – cf. Browers’ concept of “cross-ideological alliances”. This time, though, Sunni Islamism rather than authoritarian regimes constitutes the uniting enemy.

The ideological square created by the four actors includes: (1) a strong anti-imperialist and resistance discourse, insisting on keeping the Palestinian cause high on the agenda; (2) a shared fear for the growing influence of Saudi Arabia and Sunni Islamism on all levels of society (militarily, politically, economically and culturally) and promoting religious tolerance (or even secularism) as a countering guard; (3) a focus on social justice as both a traditional leftist value, a catering for a poor Lebanese Shi’a population and a resistance against the hegemony of US-led economic liberalism; (4) the acceptance of authoritarian rule whether as the preferred political system or the pragmatic approval.

In the following chapter, I look closer at Arab mediascapes focusing on the development of Arab satellite TV, more precisely at al-Jazeera. While the Arab mediascapes are broader and more complex than this, the focus is rooted in the fact that al-Mayadeen’s establishment was tightly connected with exactly al-Jazeera’s editorial line in regards to the Arab uprisings.

Notes

1. Anderson writes: “The convergence of capitalism and print technology on the fatal diversity of human language created the possibility of a new form of imagined community, which in in its basic morphology set the stage for the modern nation” (Anderson 1993, 46).

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2. The three other dimensions are ethnoscapes, technoscapes and financescapes.

3. Jürgen Habermas: The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society (1989, originally published in German in 1962).

4. After al-Jazeera “scooped the world and changed the Middle East” (El-Nawawy and Iskander 2002), Middle Eastern scholars found a renewed interest in studying Arab media – not least from a perspective of a New Arab Public Sphere. An overwhelming fascination of the so-called al-Jazeera phenomenon amongst Western scholars combined with a frustration over the continued survival of the authoritarian regimes in the Arab world led many observers to pin their hopes onto the democratising prospects of Arab satellite TV in general, and al-Jazeera in particular (Hafez 2008, 2; Sakr 2001, 3–8). An example is March Lynch’s important contribution to the discussion of democracy and the new Arab public sphere, The Voice of the New Arab Public (2006). He rejects the idea that al-Jazeera can bring about democracy to the region, but insists that it played a leading role in the creation of a “genuine public sphere” (Lynch 2006, 33, 247). At the same time, he adds that the Arab public is “a weak Public” as it “remains cut off from any viable means of directly influencing policy outcomes” (Lynch 2006, 248).

5. For a critique of Habermas’ concept of being Eurocentric, see: Muhammad Ayish: The New Arab Public Sphere (2012); for a introduction of counter-publics, see: Nancy Fraser: “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy” (Fraser 1990); for a discussion of his concept in a globalised world, see: Nancy Fraser: “Transnationalizing the Public Sphere: on the legitimacy and efficacy of public opinion in a post-Westphalian world” (Fraser 2007).

6. For an investigation of the establishment of the Communist movement as well as the growing influence of the worker unions in Egypt in the years between the First and the Second WW, see Tareq Y. Ismael and Rifācat al-Sacīd: The Communist Movement in Egypt, 1920–1988 (Ismael and Sacīd 1990).

7. In general, communists in Syria, Iraq, Egypt and beyond lived under suppression and prosecution by ruling regimes, whether led by Nasser, al-Assad, or Hussein ( Jabar 2001). In Syria more specifically, the strategy employed by Hafiz al-Assad was, in 1972, to establish the Progressive National Front (PNF) – an institutionalised coalition of the Ba’ath party with a group of tolerated, smaller (leftist) parties. The remaining leftist parties were banned (Perthes 1997). This strategy not only co-opted a potential opposition but, furthermore, divided the Left over the question of whether to cooperate with the state or not – a dilemma which is still haunting the Left today (George 2003).

8. This neglect of democratic values was to a large extent in line with the dogma of the Soviet Union. The USSR not only delivered the ideological goods of the Arab communist parties, but also played an important role as the ally of several Arab countries during the Cold War.

9. The Lebanese National Movement (LNM) was a coalition during the Lebanese Civil War, made up by leftist, Muslim, and Palestinian forces based in West Beirut.

10. The Center was founded in 1975 and is based in Beirut. It brings together academics and intellectuals who share a belief in Arab unity – over the years this is, to a growing extent, understood as a federal construction in line with the EU.

11. Bilad ash-Sham, literally meaning the countries of Damascus, is an old name referring to the geographic area of what today constitutes Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine. See Chapter 6 for a further discussion of how the Bilad ash-Sham (or the Levant) is used at al-Mayadeen as a symbol of a civilised nature that stands in contrast to the uncivilised Gulf.

12. For discussions of the term, see e.g. Fawwaz Traboulsi: “The Crisis of the Politics of Mumana’ah – Statehood & Participation” (Traboulsi 2014).

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13. PNF consists of five parties aside from the Ba’ath Party itself, namely:

The Syrian Communist Party (SCP), both the Khalid Bakdash faction and the Yousef Faisal faction. The two factions came into existence over disagreements over how to relate to Soviet perestroika.

The Arab Socialist Union (ASU), the Syrian branch of Nasser’s party.

The Movement of Socialist Unionists (MSU), a Ba’athist faction that broke away in 1961 due to the breakdown of the union with Egypt.

The Democratic Socialist Unionist Party, a MSU faction that split off in 1974.

Details

Pages
XIV, 216
ISBN (PDF)
9781433170249
ISBN (ePUB)
9781433170256
ISBN (MOBI)
9781433170263
ISBN (Book)
9781433169960
Language
English
Publication date
2021 (January)
Published
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2020. XIV, 216 pp.

Biographical notes

Christine Crone (Author)

Christine Crone received her Ph.D. from University of Copenhagen, Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies. She is currectly Postdoc, University of Copenhagen, Department of Cross-Cultural and Regional Studies.

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Title: Pan-Arab News TV Station al-Mayadeen