Yesterday, after a lecture on ethnographic fieldwork, a student came up to me to discuss the anthropological concepts of ethnocentrism and relativism, which were first raised in an on-line lecture on the anthropological perspective, and then again yesterday in my discussion of methodology.
“What does an anthropologist do,” the student asked, “when you encounter a society that doesn’t recognize its own problems. For example, what if a society is oppressed, but doesn’t recognize that they are oppressed?”
I wondered if he was speaking of the United States, but it turned out he was thinking of–you guessed it–the Middle East.
If you ask people in the Middle East if they want democracy, they will say yes, he asserted. But if you ask them specific questions about each of the defining principles of democracy, they don’t actually want them.
“For example, if you ask them if they want gender equality, they’ll tell you no,” he said.
“What if instead of asking them whether they want gender equality, you were to ask them what they mean by democracy?” I asked.(And yes, I recognize the problem of his ready characterization of a monolithic “they” but…one thing at a time.)
“It seems to me that any definition of democracy must have gender equality as a fundamental component,” he replied
“Of course it seems that way to you,” I said. “You get to define democracy, and then you get to determine who fits your definition. That is exactly what the lecture refers to as ethnocentrism.”
“al-salaatu khayrun min al-nawm.” (prayer is better than sleep)
Except (perhaps) in the Nile Delta governorate of Beheira, where the muezzin of a mosque is accused of substituting “al-facebook” for al-nawm.
And why not? With 16 million accounts, Egypt is one of the top 20 countries for Facebook use–and number one in the Middle East.
The usual phrase, part of the dawn adhan only, is aimed at encouraging believers to get up and pray. Did the muezzin engage in a little wordplay, aimed at getting people off their early morning Facebook habit?
The Egyptian state religious authority suspended the muezzin in late August, not because the statement isn’t true, but because one is not allowed to introduce variations into the call to prayer.
If the story is true, it may be part of a broader pattern through which people find playful ways to negotiate tensions between conflicting social and cultural expectations where pre-existing religious and new social practices coexist.
The Media Anthropology Network of the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) has issued a call for proposals for the a workshop on conflict and media. The goal is to bring together in Vienna next Fall a group of anthropologists and fellow travelers who are interested in developing sophisticated ways of theorizing media and conflict.
Obviously, the so-called “Facebook revolutions” and “Twitter revolutions” of the Middle East and North Africa should be represented here.
But if you want to participate you’ll have to hurry; the deadline is Sept. 20th–less than a month away!
Call for Abstracts:
Theorising Media and Conflict workshop
Media Anthropology Network
European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA)
Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Vienna, Austria
23-24 October 2015
In a recent survey of the interdisciplinary literature on media and conflict, Schoemaker and Stremlau (2014) found that most existing studies display Western-centric biases, normative assumptions and unsubstantiated claims about the impact of media in conflict situations. With their ethnographic methods and ground-up theorising, anthropologists are therefore well placed to make a strong contribution to the advancement of this area of scholarship. Although a growing number of anthropologists have studied media in conflict and post-conflict contexts – working on diverse topics such as media representations, cyberwar, internet activism, social protest, video-making, or radio dramas – so far they have done so in relative isolation from one another. The result is a fragmentation of the field and a dissipation of efforts.
So writes Amira Mittermeier in the introduction to a special collection of articles in the anthropology journal Ethnos. Drawing on ethnography in Cairo, she explores many different aspects of how deaths are made meaningful by being woven into a narrative of political transformation. She is particularly good at captivating the affective aspects of death as sacrifice. And yet, one of the most profound points comes at the end, when she speaks to a Abdullah, a Muslim Brotherhood organizer who says:
remember it’s easier to die for the revolution than to live for it’. Abdullah’s frustration stemmed from his struggle in trying to find a group of volunteers to continue the revolutionary work of political organizing and attending to the immediate needs of the disempowered and the poor. If everybody could just give two hours every day – live the revolution for two hours every day – things would be drastically different, he said.
“The people demand the old tear gas”
This was a slogan uttered by some of the crowds protesting the Egyptian army’s November 2011 turning on civilian protesters demanding the end of military rule using a new powerful tear gas that could cause unconsciousness and convulsions.
It’s a play on the ubiquitous slogan “The people want the downfall of the regime,” an act of black humor that captures, according to Joseph Massad in an article in Public Culture, “their loss of fear of their new rulers.”
In an article in Public Culture on the continued ramifications of the Arab (and especially Egyptian) uprisings, Massad ties this act of bravado to the advice Niccolo Machiavelli famously gave to the Prince: that ideally a ruler should be both loved or feared “but since it is difficult to accomplish both at the same time . . . it is much safer to be feared than loved.”
But Massad’s argument goes very much beyond repeating again the claim that the transformative element of the revolution was the loss of peoples’ fear in their rulers. The rulers of contemporary nation states seek to be both loved and feared in different degrees by different segments of the people at different times, argues Massad.
Most contemporary states involve institutions of both hegemony–ruling with the consensus of the governed) and coercion (keeping the ruled under control through use of force). They seek, that is, to be both loved and feared.
This is partly the result of policy guided by the regimes that support them, especially the U.S. Regimes that are loved “have legitimacy” in US parlance. As for “liberalization”, Massad wries: