World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies

Barcelona, July 19th - 24th 2010


The Circulation of Culture: State Projects, Civic Initiatives and Media Representations (076) - NOT_DEFINED activity_field_Panel

· NOT_DEFINED institution: Georgetown University (USA)

· NOT_DEFINED organizer: Fida Adely

· NOT_DEFINED language: English

· NOT_DEFINED description: This panel addresses how institutions define ‘culture’ in a variety of projects. Drawing on interviews, ethnographic and archival research, and media analysis we examine culture as integral to the technocratic projects of institutions, such as states, militaries, political parties, international donors, the media, and local civil society organizations. Our papers analyze how these institutions deploy culture as a subject around which to change, train, educate, and influence collective social norms as well as individuals’ actions and beliefs. Our papers span across the region in Lebanon, Iran and Jordan, among Muslim immigrants in Germany and at US policy in the Middle East, as well as at the various powers that influence the propagation of certain cultural ideas, norms, values, and tastes.

Chair: Fida Adely, Georgetown University

Paper presenter: Rochelle Davis, Georgetown University, “Iraqi Culture and the US Military”

Paper presenter: Petra Kuppinger, Monmouth College, “The Use of the Concept of ''Culture'' in German Public Debates and Media about Islam”

Paper presenter: Lucia Volk, San Francisco State University, “Images of Lebanon: USAID and Iran''s ICORL and the Strategic Use of Symbols”

Paper presenter: Fida Adely, Georgetown University, “No Eating with Your Hands, No Kisses at the Grave: Reforming Culture and Kin Associations in Jordan”

The first paper examines the US military’s conception of culture in the training it provides servicemen and women in Iraq. What the military and analysts have chosen to use as the frameworks for understanding culture is the national character studies that typified cultural anthropology of the 1940s and 1950s, long abandoned by the discipline because they did not adequately address cultural change and history. However, these frameworks have been embraced by the US military and political analysts because they are simple and allow them to interpret Iraqi behavior not as products of current contexts or of historical situations, but to the inherent characteristics of a national group. This paper is based on 100 interviews with US servicemen and women and Iraqis, and a large collection of cultural training material produced by the US military and its contractors. The author argues that the US military is defining Iraqi culture in ways that are not even useful for itself, nor do they reflect the reality of the diversity of Iraq, or the way we as humans live, transfer, and transform culture. The paper describes some of the consequences of this type of cultural knowledge on the interactions between US soldiers and marines and Iraqis, and their perspectives on each other's cultures.

Drawing on over two years of ethnographic fieldwork in the southern German city of Stuttgart and a detailed analysis of popular media and larger public debates, the second paper examines debates Muslims and Islam and analyzes the way notions of ‘culture’ and ‘Muslim culture’ are employed in such contexts. The author argues that the concept of culture as used to describe Muslim contexts is a rather rigid one that views ‘Muslim culture,’ as a stagnant and oppressive entity that does not much change over time and space. ‘German’ or ‘European’ cultures in contrast are depicted as flexible and constantly changing. Taking the examples of debates about mosque construction, and the Islamic instruction for children in mosque, the author illustrates how such public debates employ notions of a stagnant and oppressive Muslim culture to oppose larger processes of the localization of Muslims and their communities. This is ironic as many mosques have in recent years been spaces were vibrant debates about what it means to be a European Muslim have unfolded, and that increasing numbers of younger women have used the knowledge acquired in mosques to make interesting claims and assertion of women’s rights in Islam. The author maintains that by pointing to the supposed inflexible nature of Islam and Muslim cultures, German dominant society and media are indirectly hindering the very dynamics of debate and change that are underway in many local mosques and Muslim communities.

The third paper argues that just as Lebanese politicians create arsenals of images and symbols in public space that aim to show and legitimate their rule, so do foreign organizations use public space to deploy ''texts'' that aim to show their own agendas and achievements in the aftermath of recent wars and destruction. The author compares the strategies used by the USAID and by Iran's ICORL, the ''Iranian Contributory Organization for Reconstructing Lebanon, to win the hearts and minds of Lebanese through billboards that aggressively documented their contributions to Lebanon's reconstruction. The paper discusses the images used in the various public displays, the messages that were contained in slogans, as well as the choice of location for the billboards and the larger context of roadside displays during and after war. With this study, the author draws attention to modern states' civilizing projects after periods of war and violence. In Jordan, amidst economic crisis and fears over youth and marriage, kin or family associations have taken it upon themselves to publically call for a ‘revolution’ in customs and traditions that they argue retard progress and lead to economic hardship. At the same time these groups hearken back to a time of greater cultural authenticity that will redeem Jordanian society and lead to development.

Drawing on analysis of the public proclamations of these civic groups, related conference proceedings, as well as the media coverage and recent on- line debates about the legitimacy and/or efficacy of such efforts the fourth paper will examine the role of kin-based non-governmental organizations in delineating what are appropriate and ‘civilized’ customs and traditions. The paper also examines shifts in the discourse about the need for cultural renewal and change by tracing its terms over time. As these kin-associations become more NGO-ized, along with Jordanian society more broadly, their conceptualization of culture and what can be done about ‘bad’ culture has also shifted in significant ways that will be taken up by this paper as well. Together, our panel addresses the issue of culture as political power, knowledge concept, emancipatory project, and military strategy in a variety of institutional contexts. Each of these presentations examines the cultural projects of powerful institutions with critical implication for the uses and abuses of culture and cultural knowledge.