Al-Ghazzi Explains How “the Unthinkable” Happened

January 18, 2016

“We need to historicize this phenomenon in order to understand it,” explained Omar Al-Ghazzi, lecturer at the University of Sheffield’s Journalism Department in his lecture "From the Arab Spring to ISIS: On the Mediation of History in Arab Politics" held on January 14. The phenomenon that he was talking about is the events that have come to be known as “the Arab Spring” – events that were, according to Al-Ghazzi, unique in part because of the way they were communicated.

Citing Hannah Arendt, Al-Ghazzi said that the uprisings were communicated throughout the Arab world through “a telos of a modern revolution.” He went on to note that the use of history was also important and “at the heart of how these revolutions were described, and why and how they spread and gained momentum.” For many participants, said Al-Ghazzi, “this was a chance to be a part of history.” He noted that the focus on history had another consequence. “Violence is exacerbated and divisions are deepened when they are anchored in rhetoric about history.”

Al-Ghazzi commented also on “the transnationalism” of the Arab Spring. He showed a short clip from Al Jazeera television to show how it had presented the events that were taking place in different countries as part of a pan-Arab revolution – juxtaposing images from Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria. Print media conveyed the same message with headlines such as “Arabs finally return to history” and “Arabs rise again.” The participants stressed the linkages among themselves by adopting the same slogans such as “The people demand the fall of the regime,” and identical images. As Al-Ghazzi noted, these similarities are especially striking because of the significant differences among the countries.  

Many of the slogans and images that were used by activists and rebels were reiterations of Arab collective memories. “Mobilizing symbols from the past was critical to getting people to the streets today,” said Al-Ghazzi. Some of these slogans and images were being used by the regimes that the activists were opposing, and so had to be reclaimed.

One such example was how flags were used by opposition groups and regimes. Flags became a particularly contentious issue in many countries. In Libya and in Syria, for example, activists adopted the country’s official flag during the era prior to their respective authoritarian regimes. Al-Ghazzi also discussed cases of reinterpreting and reimaging historically anti-colonial symbols in order to use them for activist mobilization during the Arab Spring.

Islamist groups were among the political actors to deploy the strategy of claiming to represent historic ideas. This was an important part of these groups’ message, and of their appeal to some people. Groups like ISIS consider only very early Islamic history as authentic, explained Al-Ghazzi. “They say they are now correcting the course of Islamic history.”

Much of what is happening, said Al-Ghazzi, is not unique to the Arab world. “It’s a very modern understanding of history.” Knowing how the Arab uprisings are communicated is critical to “understanding the attempts to unify people under the banner of revolution and also the deep divisions and conflicts that may emerge” from revolutionary activity. A focus on the mediation of history shows why events such as the Arab Spring can be so difficult,” concluded Al-Ghazzi.

A lecturer in journalism, politics, and public communication at the Department of Journalism Studies, University of Sheffield, Omar Al-Ghazzi made his remarks during a public lecture at the Center for Media, Data and Society at the CEU School of Public Policy on January 14.