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Life as Politics

Not too long ago Prof. Asef Bayat, presented a lecture at the American University of Cairo on the topic “Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East”, taken from his recently published book of the same name. Prof. Bayat is a professor of sociology and Middle Eastern studies and holds the Chair of Society and Culture of the Modern Middle East at Leiden University, the Netherlands. The summary below presents a very interesting look at how Middle Eastern society is evolving, without direction or organization from the powers-that-be, either from inside or outside the region.

Many theorists around the world wonder when change will finally come to the Middle East. They see the monumental political and economic developments in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, and look with resignation at the Arab world which seems stagnated in autocracy and conservatism. Likewise, Arab activists themselves find the pace of change too slow, working to implement democracy and civil society but are increasingly frustrated by governments more intent on holding on to power. What spells the correct answer?

A closer consideration would note that much change has already transformed the Middle East. Over the past several decades the phenomena of globalization, Islamization, and urbanization have impacted the region, and historically Arabs have been involved in nationalist movements against colonizing influences. Even so, both regional and international scholars have identified three general positions concerning change.

The first is not widely held to popularly in the Middle East, but there are those who state that if change is to come it must originate from outside the region. Since people are not seen as effectual actors, influences must begin abroad; President Bush’s doctrine of regime change is witnessed here. The second position is that one must wait for change to happen. They hope for, think about, and educate for change, but are limited in what they can actually do to bring it about. After all, revolutions cannot be planned, but what should one do while waiting, especially if some potential outcomes of revolution might be worse than the status quo?

The third position is that of the activists who strive to make change. While social and governmental restrictions exist, there has been much progress on the part of some movements like those of women’s rights and labor unions. Still, progress has been slow overall, which has led many social scientists, though not activists, to look elsewhere in the region for examples of change. Prof. Bayat identifies these in what he calls a ‘non-movement’.

While traditional movements tend to be the activities of leisure, however passionate, of those with at least some social standing, and is a result of a planned activity coordinated with others, a non-movement is fragmented, disperse, and chaotic. Instead, it is the collective representation of individual actions on a massive scale. Specifically, Prof. Bayat highlights three: the urban migration into the cities, the activity of women, and youth identity.

The capital cities of the Middle East are a magnet attracting the rural poor in search of some economic benefit. Their arrival, however, causes disruption of property rights and legitimate commerce as shanty towns are erected and sidewalk shops sell knock-off brands and ignore copyright protection. Yet the numbers are so large that governments are impotent to do anything about it other than small scale intervention, and thus these new émigrés settle into the landscape of the city, prompting the question, who really owns it? They are a threat, to be sure, but they also represent a profound change in the makeup of society, but as a non-movement are traditionally overlooked as agents of change.

Women are more commonly seen as agents of change, but they better qualify as a non-movement alongside more traditional avenues of women’s activism. Yet the pattern of their individual actions dictates that diverse outcomes result from their participation in life. On the one hand the increasing use of a hijab or niqab signals a religious protest against a perceived un-Islamic, authoritarian regime. Yet on the other hand women are increasingly participating in life, even in the mundane activities of going to the bank, mechanic, or university. Over time the increased opportunity for reflection on life outside of domestic isolation causes women to ask the questions of necessity and curiosity – why is my inheritance limited, why are child custody laws in favor of men? Be it seen in increasing religiosity or liberation, these actions are planned by no one, yet have dramatically affected the social relations of Middle Eastern society.

Youth activity is similar. Increasing population rates have created a burgeoning youth demographic which is corralled and controlled through education. Wary of the power of unencumbered youth the government has attempted to co-opt their participation in its favor by celebrating their role in the formation of the state, at the same time using all available resources and pressures to keep them in check. Yet the public space provided in the schools and the universities allows for the congregation and self-consciousness of youth, who in different ways express their identity through dress, hairstyle, and hobby. While kept from a politics of protest, they nonetheless express a politics of presence and practice that has left a distinctive mark on the region, yet because it is not a traditional movement in the manner of engagement often seen in youth, it is generally unobserved.

The distinguishing characteristic of these non-movements is that they reflect the ordinary activity of ordinary people leading an ordinary life. There is no leader, no collaboration, and no grand strategy. As such, an authoritarian government has nothing to fight. The vast co-incidence of common activity overwhelms its ability to respond, and positive change develops from the bottom up. Though an activist would be left unsatisfied with the scope of change, social advancement occurs for the poor, liberation for the woman, and identity for the youth. In a region marked by oppressive and restrictive social controls, these developments are not insignificant.

These observations demonstrate the platitude that there is always a way to express a will for change. The subtitle of the book, however, is a bit misleading. The impression is given that the text will describe activity and thought—how is it possible for ordinary people to change their society? Instead the book is written as sociology—how is change occurring as ordinary people live, without acting or thinking? The study is noteworthy, but not proscriptive. There is much to analyze as one views the region from a bird’s-eye view, but little to communicate to the people of the Middle East. In fact when questioned about how an activist might utilize or mobilize a non-movement on behalf of a cause, Prof. Bayat warned this could undo all progress. Activism would bring the non-movement to the attention of the government, and provide a target for repression. By becoming self-conscious the strength is lost.

Unfortunately, this seems to leave the local actor in the dilemma posed above. Should change be initiated from outside, be waited upon inside, or be created by joint action? Each of these positions comes fraught with danger and difficulty, but the study of non-movements offers no solution. If anything it proposes that the option to wait is the only recourse. While surely Prof. Bayat would not endorse this conclusion, it seems the result for the Middle East is that change happens, but it cannot be made to happen. So while a theoretician may be thankful for more data to study in the process of change in the region, the activist is left unsatisfied. Is this not the natural state for an activist, however, facing the question of how to create change from nothing? Life as politics leaves no room for politics, only sociology. Change occurs for the ordinary person, but the ordinary activist longs for a movement, not a non-movement. He or she must look elsewhere for the answers.

To purchase this book from Amazon, click here: Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East

2 replies on “Life as Politics”

This is an interesting summary. I happen to be present in the lecture. I wished the writer of this summary could read the book and then write a summary or review. Because There is much more in the book that was not covered in the lecture. In fact, Professor Bayat does discuss the relationship between activism and non-movements in the last chapter of his book (“No Silence, No Violence: A post-Islamsit trajectory”) when he discusses how non-movements may facilitate the emergence of larger social and political movements and what activists can do in this respect.

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Thanks for the recommendtion, Sam. I thought his lecture was fascinating, it just left a little off at the end. It seems his last chapter didn’t work its way in — too bad, it seems. Small world, isn’t it? Are you a fan of his and just found him mentioned on the blog?

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