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New Manuscripts from/about the Middle East: Exploring Digital, Media, and Cultural Changes

Panel XIII-10, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
This interdisciplinary panel brings together three new books by scholars from different fields (anthropology, media studies, and global communication) that explore the impact of digital, media, and cultural changes on the Middle East. The panel addresses the productive tensions and uneven developments engendered by the adoption of digital technologies in the production, distribution and consumption of media content. It also investigates their overall impact in the realm of politics and economy in the region. The first paper examines how the digital turn has reconfigured the region. It takes an inward-looking and outward-looking perspective to unravel the complexities of the digital Middle East. With case studies and grounded theory, it reflects on the extent to which the digital Middle East is integrated into global digital cultures and how it has maintained specific distinctive markers. The second paper focuses on the intersection of television drama and politics in the Middle East, demonstrating how fictional television and streaming content provide a crucial space for regional social and political debate. It draws on several examples from Afghanistan to Turkey and the Arab world to explore how television drama has shaped the political and social landscape of the region. The third paper examines Turkey’s ever-expanding state-sponsored global communication apparatus, its goals and outcomes. Through content analysis and interviews, it maps the connections between the structures, ideas, and strategies, and demonstrates how the ruling AKP instrumentalizes the language of postcolonial and anti-imperialist critique to achieve its own geopolitical economic objectives. By bringing together these three new manuscripts, the panel aims to offer a fresh perspective on the culture of the Middle East and its media production, distribution, and consumption. It explores the interplay between processes of social change and technological transformations, focusing on particular disjunctions and disruptions that animate the region’s complex reality. In conclusion, this panel will provide an opportunity for scholars to delve deeper into the complex dynamics of the Middle East, its adaptation to the digital era and an ever-changing global communication landscape.
  • Dr. Christa Salamandra -- Presenter
  • Mr. Hatim El-Hibri -- Discussant
  • Dr. Joe Khalil -- Presenter
  • Bilge Yesil -- Organizer, Presenter
  • Bilge Yesil
    Since the 2010s, the ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) has vastly expanded its global communication apparatus to promote Turkey as a rising great power and at the same time fend off criticism coming from international media and policy circles. As a result of these intersecting motivations, it launched regional television channels in Arabic and Kurdish; set up new print, broadcast, and digital communication ventures in English; and enlisted partisan media conglomerates, think tanks and NGOs to “tell Turkey’s story” to foreign audiences. This ever-expanding global communication apparatus comprises both state-run and pro-government commercial outlets which all seek to frame Turkey as a global power that can challenge Western hegemony in international affairs and achieve pan-Islamic unity and justice for Muslims. Although they differ in their political economic structures, content and style, they all deploy a counter-hegemonic discourse that criticizes “the West” for its past and present exploitation of predominantly Muslim countries in the Global South and for the racist and Islamophobic attitudes that plague Europe and North America. While such counter-hegemonic communication may seem appealing (especially to audiences in/of the Global South), this paper argues that the AKP-sponsored outlets are, in fact, designed to advance the party’s geopolitical economic agenda and accrue power to Erdogan’s personalized regime. It demonstrates that the AKP, via these communication outlets, seeks to assemble Muslim publics and challenge Western monopoly (real or perceived) over knowledge and representations by instrumentalizing subalternity and postcolonial critique. To make this case, this paper uses discourse-historical analyses of media and communication texts (English-language news coverage, documentaries, historical television dramas, and social media campaigns) and interviews with audiences and industry professionals. It provides a critical analysis of the AKP’s global communication activities in relation to Turkey’s ambivalent relationship with “the West” and Western modernity, as well as its position among Muslim communities around the world. The paper also sheds light on why the AKP government views international media as facilitators of Western imperialism, what it does to reverse Western hegemony in news and popular culture, and how it seeks to project Turkey as a great power that is technologically on par with—and civilizationally superior to—the West.
  • Dr. Christa Salamandra
    Co-Authors: Nour Halabi
    The mass uprisings of 2011 and their aftermath have sparked a burgeoning academic interest in the politics of Middle Eastern media that privileged news and social media. Yet as the contributions to Middle Eastern Drama: Politics, Aesthetics, Practices demonstrate, scripted television programs remain a key site of sociopolitical commentary. Over the past decade, TV dramas have attracted widespread audiences and critical attention, sparking lively debate that would be unlikely to occur otherwise. This role is ever more vital, as the authoritarian entrenchments following the protest movements have intensified constraints on journalistic and academic freedom in Egypt, Iran, Syria, and Turkey, countries with flourishing drama industries. New media technologies, and the practices that have emerged through them, have intensified rather than nullified television serials’ reach and relevance. The Internet offers a virtual, year-round simulation of the Ramadan broadcast season, as digital technologies enable binge-watching on global streaming services and video-sharing sites. On Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok, fan cultures respond to and shape drama content, sometimes from sites of diaspora. Dramas enjoy protean, interactive afterlives in memes, mash-ups, spoofs, critiques, and homages. In this presentation, we realign scholarly interest with lived media realities in the Middle East. Drawing on a variety of disciplines—anthropology, communication, folklore, and law, we highlight case studies from the region’s leading drama industries. All attend to the complex nexus of relations linking censorship regimes, producers, production, broadcasting, and reception. The dramas analyzed encompass a range of generic forms, including docudrama, history, comedy, crime, and social realism. Thus, we reveal TV drama as a vehicle for creators, audiences, and academics alike to identify, reflect upon, and debate the most pressing issues facing their societies, including persistent authoritarianism, religious extremism, legal reform, gender relations, and socioeconomic inequality. We also discuss how Middle Eastern creators respond to and transform the formal innovations and thematic concerns of global drama.
  • Dr. Joe Khalil
    Co-Authors: Mohamed Zayani
    Over the last decade, the Middle East has been amid unprecedented changes, with the Arab Uprisings, its subsequent turbulent developments, ongoing conflicts, and intense sectarian animosity being stark reminders of the region’s reality. In addition to these, other forces are at work; a globally integrated youth culture, increasing economic development, and thriving media production and consumption markets are facilitating the gradual advent of the digital era in the region. This paper maps out various changes, developments, and trends in how the Middle East adapts to the digital turn. It delves into the intricacies of the region’s digital turn—a stage informally linked with the convergence of media, telecommunications, and computers that has been accelerated over the last decade. It examines how information technologies affect the region and how the digital turn has reconfigured the Middle East. It also examines the implications of society, at the intersection of tradition and modernity, navigating these changes and whether information technologies promote inclusive practices and carve new spaces while engendering new forms of exclusion. The paper takes an inward-looking and outward-looking perspective to unravel the complexities of the digital Middle East. The inward-looking perspective revisits and reconsiders the question of “change” and “stasis” in the region, redirecting the focus from the affordances of new technologies to the productive tensions, shifting dynamics, and uneven developments engendered by the adoption of information technologies. On the other hand, the outward-looking perspective brings to light the global south dimensions of the digital turn by placing it in the broader context of the global information revolution. Supported by a rich collection of original case studies and data figures, the paper draws on infrastructure studies, communication studies, and sociologies of the Middle East to provide an analytical account of regional digital practices. It explores the interplay between processes of social change and technological transformations, particularly the intersections, interrelations, and overlaps between information technologies and various societal practices and dynamics. With illustrative case studies and grounded theory, the paper reflects on the extent to which the digital Middle East is integrated into global digital cultures and how it has maintained specific distinctive markers. It underscores the need to investigate the digital Middle East with an eye on particular transformations, transitions, disjunctions, and disruptions that animate a far more complex reality than previously considered.