World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies

Barcelona, July 19th – 24th 2010


New Media in the Middle East Revisited: Networked Audiences and Digital Communities (228) - NOT_DEFINED activity_field_Panel

· NOT_DEFINED date: WED 21, 2.30-4.30 pm

· NOT_DEFINED institution: Charles University in Prague (Czech Republic)

· NOT_DEFINED organizer: Vit Sisler

· NOT_DEFINED language: English

· NOT_DEFINED description: This panel aims to bring together the state of the art research dealing with the growing influence of new media in the Middle East. Today we witness an unprecedented proliferation of the internet and satellite television in the Middle East as well as growing interdependency of various media outlets. This process includes media that morph into each other, messages that migrate across boundaries, and social networks that utilize multiple technologies. The unanticipated assemblages formed by these media contribute simultaneously to preserving traditional cultural norms and religious values while asserting cosmopolitan and global identity; appealing to a local audience while addressing transnational communities; and asserting conformity with existing political order while fueling resistance and public discontent. Therefore, this panel aims to transcend the media-centric logic and to analyze the impact of new media in the light of the above-mentioned interdependency and hybridization within broader social, cultural and linguistic context. The four papers presented in this panel deal with networked audiences in the Arab world; reframing of Muslim religious knowledge and authority in the context of the internet; increasing involvement of China in the Arab world through Arab satellite TV channel; and the identity construction in contemporary Iranian video games. On an overarching level, the papers in this panel deal with the production of knowledge and construction of identity in the increasingly networked and interconnected communities facilitated by information and communication technologies in the contemporary Middle East.

Chair: Gary R. Bunt (University of Wales)

Paper presenter: Jon W. Anderson (Catholic University of America), “Networked Audiences: Public Spheres of Networked Communication in the Middle East”
How do networked audiences grow, and what kinds of public spaces do they represent? New media, which increase the number of senders in regimes of networked communications (the any-to-any model), still seem marginal in the public sphere. More than aggregated publics of consumers (the ‘ many’ in one-to-many models), but less than communities, they have been shown empirically to result in distinctive clusterings; but missing in structural models of participation are the actual social dynamics engaged by networked communications, such as highlighted by the so-called ‘ social net’ of Web 2.0 technologies (wikis, blogs, social network sites). Blogging in particular has exploded across the Middle East, providing an opportunity to look beyond old problems of numbers, barriers, and enablement for a thicker description of participation. To recent data about blogging in Egypt and Iran, this paper applies social network theory, particularly the concept of ‘the strength of weak ties’ , and the linguistic concept of ‘ entextualization’ to explore the formation of networked audiences, how they develop as communities of practice, and how they move in from the margins. It aims to answer the question of how new voices are formed under conditions of networked communication, to clarify them as social relationships, as social discourses, and where they become discourses about those relationships.

Paper presenter: Gary R. Bunt (University of Wales), “iMuslims: Surfing Electronic Frontiers”
This paper explores how traditional frontiers of Muslim religious knowledge and authority have been reframed in the context of the internet. A key question within all this is whether we are considering electronic frontiers, frontier-less exchange, and/or a synthesis of these paradigms? The focus of the discussion is on the World Wide Web, and the impact of the reduction in some contexts of the digital divide, the expansion of Web 2.0+ social networking applications, and the issues that these interfaces present to our traditional understanding of frontiers and space. This is particularly relevant in terms of how Muslims outside of Middle East geo-political contexts now connect with diverse platforms and organisations, and interpret religious identities with reference to digital media. The implications and approaches in terms of academic discourse are also introduced, in this growing (and itself frontier-less) area of study, especially the ways in which such sources can be integrated into study. The discussion is based in part on my book iMuslims: Rewiring the House of Islam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press/London: C. Hurst & Co., 2009).

Paper presenter: Ho Wai-Yip (City University of Hong Kong), “Speaking to the Arab Street beyond the Great Fire Wall: China’s Arabic International Channel as a New Silk Road Station”
This paper explores the Chinese Arabic international channel which is officially launched by state-run China Central Television (CCTV) in July 2009. Among various Arabic satellite channels, CCTV’s Arabic distinctively aims at reviving the primordial imagination of Silk Road connection between Arab world and China. This article discusses the role of CCTV as an ideological forerunner in legitimizing China’s increasing involvement and emerging superpower in the Arab world. On one hand, CCTV’ s Arabic defends the official image of China in front of the Arab Street audience by countering the distorted views produced by foreign media. On the other hand, the CCTV’ s Arabic fosters the China-Arab tie by respecting the diversity of civilizations which is the underlying foreign policy of the People’ s Republic of China (PRC) in strengthening the China’ s international influence in the contemporary multi-polar world.

Paper presenter: Vit Sisler (Charles University in Prague), “Digital Heroes: Video Games and Identity Construction in Iran”
This paper analyzes contemporary Iranian video games and explores the ways in which they communicate different concepts of identity. Video games are a popular leisure time activity for Iranian youth and provide them with cultural symbols and rituals, which then become a constituent part of their identities. Most games on the Iranian market are developed in the United States and Europe. Unsurprisingly, the Iranian authorities are concerned about the negative influence of such games on younger generation. Therefore, they established the National Institute of Computer Games in Tehran in 2006 in order to subsidize development of games in Iran, conceived in accordance with Iranian and Islamic values. Consequently, a variety of independent producers have become involved in this emerging industry. Essentially, whereas the Iranian government perceives games as a new semiotic language of the youth and utilizes them to promote Islamic values and foster national pride, many independent producers maneuver within the and around state’ s interests, presenting instead their own, different concepts of identity. Therefore the resulting role models in contemporary Iranian games are achieved through sensitive negotiations between the demands, funding and restrictions of the Islamic state and the visions and engagement of private entrepreneurs.