النوامس

A comment on the history and contemporary affairs of the Middle East, without the media hype.

A Brief History of Neoliberalism in Egypt

During the last week of January 2011, millions of demonstrators flooded the streets of Egypt’s major cities, demanding “bread, freedom and social justice” (Frerichs, 2015 p.610). President Mubarak’s seemingly unshakeable thirty-year dictatorship collapsed in a mere eighteen days, engulfed by a wave of public fury that shook the Arab world from Tunisia to Bahrain.  “Economic grievances… dominated the agendas” of the protestors, who had experienced decades of declining wages, unemployment and a shrinking social safety net (Bessinger, Jamal & Mazur, 2013 p.4).

tahrir

Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the 2011 revolution

Yet as late as 2010, International Financial Institutions (IFIs) had been lauding Egypt as a shining example of economic success.  Egypt’s economy had been “resilient” to the financial crisis (IMF, 2010 p.3), and the country had retained its position in the World Bank’s ‘Doing Business Top Ten Reformers’ every year since topping the list in 2008 (World Bank, 2008, 2010).  Indeed, Egypt had attracted an alleged US$8 billion in FDI the year before the revolution – 36% of total investment across the African continent – purportedly due to 2004’s neoliberal reforms, which had promoted “good governance practices and stable and stimulating economic policies” (OECD, 2011 p.49, Achcar, 2009).

However, a closer look at Egypt’s economic performance during the 2000s reveals worrying trends.  At the end of 2010 total external debt stood at “about US$35 billion” or 15% of GDP (Hanieh, 2011 p1).  Unpredictable fluctuations in growth rates and food prices revealed an economy vulnerable to external shocks, whilst unemployment remained stubbornly high, particularly among women and graduates (UNDP, 2011 p.4, Ahram Online, 2011).  What’s more, the previous decades had witnessed industrial action on levels unseen since the colonial period, evidence of brimming unrest in the Middle East’s most populous nation (Beinin, 2016 p.7).

This essay will assess the social and economic results of neoliberal reforms by interrogating the World Bank’s assertion that neoliberalism would develop the private sector into “the engine of strong and sustained growth” (Hanieh, 2013 p.49).  It will be argued that the Egyptian Revolution was a symptom of the failure of twenty years of neoliberal reforms to achieve this goal or produce equitable social development in Egypt.  Mass privatisation and the liberalisation of financial markets produced an unstable economy rife with structural inequalities, facilitating the mass transfer of wealth from the Egyptian people to a kleptocratic minority closely tied to the regime.  In addition, labour deregulation and the rollback of social protections had devastating social consequences, leaving millions unemployed in a country where over 30% of people live below the national poverty line (Egypt Today, 2017a).

The final section of this essay will reflect on the Egyptian experience since the so-called ‘Arab Spring,’ to conclude that prospects for the Egyptian people are unlikely to improve in the near future.

Squandered Wealth: Neoliberalism and Egyptian Agriculture

Following the collapse of oil prices in the mid-1980s, Egypt was beset by a “structural fiscal crisis” characterised by “large budget deficits” and “chronic indebtedness” (Soliman, 2011 p.2), with foreign debts reaching one-and-a-half times GDP by 1990 (El-Ghonemy, 2003a p.80).  In response, following abortive attempts at reform in 1987, President Mubarak signed the Economic Reform and Structural Adjustment Programme (ERSAP) with the IMF and World Bank, which aimed to restore Egypt’s credit worthiness by transforming it into “a private sector-dominated market economy pursuing an export-driven strategy.” (Hinnebusch, 2003 p.220).

Wheat Farming And Bakeries As Egyptian Local Wheat Purchases Top 2.25 Million Tons

An Egyptian woman brings in the harvest (Source: Bloomberg)

 

This was to be realised through a series of reforms which aimed to reduce the deficit to “a virtually balanced position by 1996/97” (Korayem, 1997 pp.2-3).  These reforms involved short-term “stabilisation” policies centred on reducing government spending (primarily through cutting subsidies and government investment and restraining wages) and long-term “structural adjustment” policies which involved mass privatisation and the deregulation of labour, trade and finance. (El-Ghonemy, 2003a p.80).  Inspired by the theories of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, these policies embodied neoliberal economics, which had informed the practices of the IFIs since the collapse of the Breton Woods System in 1971 (Lilley, 2006).

Transforming Egypt into an export-driven, market-based economy demanded a fundamental restructuring of Egypt’s agricultural, industrial and financial sectors.  In 1992, Mubarak’s government introduced Agricultural Land Law 96 (Korayem, 1997 p.2) which reneged on many of the commitments of Nasser’s 1952 Land Law that had redistributed land to the fellahin (peasants) on favourable terms (Frerichs, 2016 p.619).  Rent on agricultural land was raised to twenty-two times the land tax and, in 1996/97, terminated existing leases, which had previously been automatically renewed (Korayem, 1997 p.2).  The government also announced projects to reclaim “vast areas­” of desert through irrigation, to increase the availability of Egypt’s limited arable land (Mitchell, 2002 p.273).

As a consequence, wealthier landowners and agrobusinessmen were able to greatly expand their holdings, whilst the smaller landowners who make up the majority of Egypt’s rural population were evicted en masse.  Indeed, an estimated one in ten Egyptians lost their farms under Mubarak’s regime, in a process that Ray Bush has described as “accumulation by dispossession” (Prosterman 2011, Bush, 2011 p.393). Newly landless farmers were either forced into wage-labour on larger farms, which was far less profitable and more precarious, or else drifted toward urban areas seeking work, frequently settling in the ashwaiyat (slums) expanding on the outskirts of Cairo (El-Ghonemy, 2003b p.4).

The economic impact of these reforms was largely unsatisfactory.  As Adams has noted, despite Egypt’s modest area of cultivable land, a combination of fertile soil and millennia of farming experience had already made Egypt’s farms among the most productive in the world (Adams, 2003 p.33).  The Land Law encouraged newly consolidated farms toward export crops, such as strawberries, with USAID granting generous subsidies for the purchase of modern American machinery (Frerichs, 2016 p.619, Mitchell, 2002 p.223).  However, the drive towards mechanisation had unintended consequences.  Industrial agriculture has a low-labour absorption rate, which in a country with a huge population worked to increase unemployment and rural poverty (El-Ghonemy, 2003b p.3).  Equally, as more land was allocated to export crops, Egypt’s food imports actually increased, as landholders diversified their production away from wheat for the domestic market (Frerichs, 2016 p.619).  With subsidised bread forming an essential part of the Egyptian diet, the “breadbasket of the Roman Empire” quickly became the world’s largest importer of wheat (Frerichs, 2016 p.610).

The transition to industrial agriculture also had negative environmental consequences. Plans to reclaim desert land through irrigation, such as the project to create a new valley in the Western Desert, stretched Egypt’s already tiny water resources, achieving only negligible growth rates of just 3.1% between 1995 and 2000 (El-Ghonemy, 2003a p.90).

Neoliberal reforms thus failed to promote effective export-led growth or improve efficiency in Egyptian agriculture.  Despite continuing to employ 28% of Egyptians, the share of GDP comprised by agriculture has fallen consistently, from 30% in 1972 to 14% in 2014 (Zaki, 2017 p101).  Meanwhile, Egypt’s food security has diminished considerably while vast tracts of the rural population have been impoverished.

The Race to the Bottom: Neoliberalism and Industry

Privatisation is a hallmark of neoliberal ideology and the privatisation of Egypt’s expansive public sector was a central tenet of ERSAP.  In 1991, Mubarak announced Law 203, which put 314 publicly-owned companies up for sale.  During the first decade after ERSAP, privatisation proceeded in a “piecemeal” way, with 122 companies being privatised by 2001 (El-Ghonemy, 2003a p.82).  However, the pace was greatly accelerated in 2004 by Prime Minister Nazif Ali’s “government of businessmen,” and between 1998 and 2013 privatisation receipts reached US$15 billion (Hanieh, 2013 p.50).

egypt-lady-working-textiles-industry-economyAn Egyptian textile worker tends a loom (Source: Middle East Monitor)

To attract investment, efforts at “restructuring” were made to tackle the problem of overmanning, which had long been utilised by the state to disguise chronic under-employment (Aglan, 2003 p.168).  The IFIs promoted the deregulation of labour, which entailed driving down wages and rolling back social protections such as minimum wage laws, permanent contracts, paid annual leave and severance pay, in what Raymond Hinnebusch has described as a “race to the bottom” (Hanieh 2013, p.52,54, Hinnebusch, 2003 p.220).  As Adam Hanieh has asserted, “working conditions in the public sector had to be significantly worsened” for the private sector to attract low-pay workers, with privatisation and deregulation representing “two sides of the same process” (Hanieh 2013, p.53).

Deregulating labour was coupled with other measures to create an attractive business environment supposedly conducive to export-driven growth.  Investment laws and restrictions on the repatriation of profits were relaxed to attract FDI, and in 1991 the highest rate of corporate tax was slashed from 78% to 48% and again in 2005 to 20%.  The highest personal income bracket was also lowered from 40% to 20%, putting somebody earning US$550 a month in the same bracket as a billionaire (Hanieh 2013, p.70).

These aggressive neoliberal reforms failed to adequately increase manufacturing output, which has never exceeded 30% of Egypt’s GDP (Zaki, 2017 p.101).   While FDI increased 17-fold between 2003 and 2008, it centred on extractive industries and the burgeoning service industry – particularly tourism, real estate and finance – which accounted for as much as 57% of GDP in 2010 (Zaki, 2017 p.112,101).  Investment in manufacturing was concentrated in “low-value added sectors” with low innovative capacity (Zaki, 2017 p.102).  This meant Egypt was severely deficient in medium- and high-tech industries which accounted for just 26% of manufacturing output, half that of Lebanon and over a third less than Poland (Zaki, 2017 p.103).

These patterns of investment failed to develop consistent, export-led growth for several reasons.  Whilst potentially extremely profitable, extractive industries are capital intensive rather than labour intensive and failed to produce sufficient jobs for Egypt’s population, which reached 90 million by 2015 (Hinnebusch, 2003 p.219, Ahram Online, 2015).  Similarly, both oil and tourism are industries highly vulnerable to external shocks.  This was repeatedly demonstrated by large drops in tourism receipts caused by both internal events, such as the Luxor massacre in 1997 and the revolution of 2011, and external events like 9/11 and the Iraq War (El-Ghonemy, 2003a p.87, Chekir & Diwan, 2013 p.7).

Exports were also perversely affected by import liberalisation.  In Egypt, textiles represented 29% of Egyptian manufacturing employment and exports had grown impressively following trade agreements with the U.S. and the EU in the 1990s (Hanieh, 2013 p.58).  Unlike regional neighbours like Morocco and Tunisia, Egypt also had a thriving domestic market, but following the end of the Multi-Fibre Agreement in 2004 sales plunged as locally-produced products were displaced by cheaper East and South Asian garments (Hanieh, 2013 p.60,58).  The result was massive layoffs – one of the largest textile producers, Shebin El-Kom Textile Company, sacked half its workforce during the later 2000s – and a further severe deterioration of working conditions (Hanieh, 2013 p.60).

This problem was not restricted to textiles.  Many domestically-produced foods and beverages were rapidly displaced by Western-produced foods, which caused dietary changes that adversely affected the health of many poorer Egyptians.  In 2000 imported powdered milk accounted for “nearly half the total milk consumption, despite the availability of domestic milk” (El-Ghonemy 2003c, p.51).

The resounding failure of economic reforms to create competitive, export-orientated growth in Egyptian industry is a damning indictment of the neoliberal experiment in Egypt.  By systematically degrading working conditions and failing to create adequate jobs, neoliberalism increased poverty and immiserated millions of Egyptians, with relatively insignificant macroeconomic results.  However, to understand why Egypt failed to attract the investment required to promote stable growth, it is necessary to examine the nature of the Mubarak regime itself.

Mubarak’s Kleptocracy: The Decline of a Rentier State

As Samer Soliman has noted, since the mid-1970s Egypt’s dictatorship had “depended on a quasi-rentier state that obtained large influxes of money from oil, Suez Canal revenues, and foreign aid” (Soliman, 2011 p.3).  Indeed, despite the failure of President Sadat’s infitah policies to attract investment or reduce government expenditure – culminating in the 1977 “bread intifada” – rentier revenues presented themselves “in such quantities that the period 1974 to 1985 was one of sustained economic growth” (Owen & Sevket, 1998 p.135).

170906180155-egypt-policeman-tahrir-exlarge-169

An Egyptian police officer in Tahrir Square, 2017 (Source: CNN)

However, by the eve of the revolution, the state was living on around half the revenues of when Mubarak came to power (Soliman, 2011 pp.167-168), a combination of declining returns from hydrocarbons and remittances, wasteful untargeted subsidies and rampant corruption (Mills, 2013).  Equally, the tax breaks and exemptions for corporations and investors demanded by the IFIs, combined with capital flight – “a major scourge of Egypt’s economy” – robbed the regime of vital tax revenues (Achcar, 2009).

Rather than transitioning to a “tax-levying” state, the government complied with the neoliberal diktat of slashing expenditure on social development, including infrastructure, education and healthcare, and by “decentralising” authority to government departments (Hanieh, 2013 p.67).  This compelled them to compete over declining central funding by taking “greater responsibility for fiscal matters,” which essentially facilitated “the commodification of public sector activities” (Hanieh, 2013 p.67).  Not only did this increase the financial burden upon Egyptian citizens, disproportionately affecting the poor and encouraging extreme regional disparities, it massively increased corruption at all levels of Egyptian society.

Faced with stagnating wages, government bureaucrats increasingly “turned a blind eye” to kickbacks, bribery and other forms of corruption, which enabled them “to compensate for the shrinkage of their official salaries” (Soliman, 2011 p.165).  Unable to levy taxes in the face of dwindling central funding, local governments were forced to depend on municipal fees and administrative charges that were consolidated into special funds.  In the total absence of public oversight inherent to authoritarian states, these funds were “infested by a particularly high level of corruption” (Soliman, 2011 p.165).

Budgetary pressures also encouraged degrading public services to behave in an increasingly predatory way.  For example, between 1982 and 2000 the share of education in household spending more than tripled, as teachers were compelled to bolster their meagre salaries by charging for private tuition (El-Ghonemy, 2003c p.46).  The rising cost of living consequently destroyed Egyptians propensity to save, reducing funds available for domestic investment (El-Ghonemy, 2003a p.80).

With the decline of the prevailing social contract between state and citizenry, which exchanged political representation for job security and a decent standard of living, Mubarak’s regime was forced to curate a new support base.  In the absence of democratic representation, patronage was used to secure the loyalty of the emergent capitalist class and high-ranking members of the armed forces, leading to the development of an insidious crony capitalism (Soliman, 2011 p.168).  Businessmen with close connections to Mubarak and his son, Gamal, were able to amass vast empires by cheaply purchasing state companies, which benefitted from advantages such as non-tariff measures (Eibl & Malik, 2016 p.12).  This stifled competition and encouraged monopolisation; the steel magnate Ahmed Ezz, former General Secretary of the ruling National Democratic Party, was able to amass a market share seven times that of his strongest competitor, accumulating a purported US$18billion fortune (Eibl & Malik, 2016 p.6, Armbrust, 2011).

The effect of rampant corruption and a lack of institutional oversight was to discourage the long-term investment in productive industries and infrastructure required to develop stable, export-led growth and create decent jobs for the millions of unemployed Egyptians (Zaki, 2017 p.113).  Investors, both foreign and domestic, were drawn to sectors likely to bring immediate returns, be they hydrocarbons, services, or speculative finance, with a preference for cheap, low-skilled workers (Zaki, 2017 p.121).  This caused a premature transition to an economy based on services, “without staying in the… intermediary stage of manufacturing long enough to attain its potentials for fast growth, employment expansion and high productivity per head” (El-Ghonemy, 2003a p.89).

Equally, low-skilled work disproportionately disadvantaged young university graduates, who made up close to “a third of all unemployed females in 2006.” (UNDP, 2009 p.44, Hanieh, 2013 p.72). Inadequate job creation remains a persistent feature of Egypt’s economy, particularly for women, who represent 75% of Egyptians without jobs in 2017 (Egypt Today, 2017b).  As Gilbert Achcar has noted, of the 1.1 million jobs created between 2005 and 2007, around half were in the unproductive and precarious informal sector (Achcar, 2009).

It is therefore apparent that corruption and cronyism, facilitated by neoliberal reforms, fundamentally inhibited economic and social development in Egypt, causing unstable growth, capital flight and mass unemployment.  Thus developed the vicious cycle of deepening inequality and dissatisfaction that provided the background for the 2011 uprisings.

Some Conclusions

As this essay has demonstrated, almost three decades of neoliberal reforms have not succeeded in transforming Egypt into a competitive, export-driven market economy.  Whilst the IFIs cheerfully highlighted high growth rates for much of the 2000s, peaking at over 7% in 2007/08, closer inspection reveals that Egypt’s pattern of growth had been “narrow and inequitable” (Achcar, 2009).  The country has run a persistent trade deficit, and an increased reliance on the sale of government bonds left the Egyptian state with interest repayments at 22% of government expenditure in 2010 — “more than total spending on education, health, and food subsidies combined” (Hanieh, 2013 p.70).  Driven by dogmatic obsession, IFIs have been complicit in the immiseration of the Egyptian people, wilfully underestimating huge rises in poverty and inequality by utilising ineffective metrics and notoriously unreliable government statistics (Van der Weide, Lakner & Ianchovichina, 2018 p.26).

Meanwhile, whilst a tiny elite have grown eye-wateringly wealthy, ordinary Egyptians have paid the price.  Inequality has risen substantially, with rural Upper Egypt experiencing particularly high levels of “both money metric and human poverty” (UNDP, 2009 p.28).  The degradation of public services has meant that in 2017 over 20% of Egyptians remain illiterate, despite abundant evidence that investing in human capital is among the most effective means of fostering technological progress, increasing productivity and creating jobs conducive to stable, equitable growth (Egypt Independent, 2014, UNDP, 2009 p.43).

Despite widespread poverty, military spending has remained high throughout the neoliberal period, accounting for over 10% of government expenditure throughout much of the decade preceding the revolution (World Bank, 2018).  Much of this was subsidised by the U.S. “under rules that required a great deal of the money to be recycled to American corporations,” underscoring the insidious links between authoritarianism and American capital (Armbrust, 2011).  Indeed, as Hanieh argues, widespread resistance to neoliberal reforms was overcome “through the consolidation of dictatorships and authoritarian regimes,” with the Egyptian experience mirrored across the developing world from Chile to South Korea (Hanieh, 2013 p.64).  In Egypt, frustration has frequently boiled over into outright violence and the Sisi regime continues to struggle against an ongoing Islamist insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula (Eltahawy, 2017).

Since the 2011 uprisings, the IFIs have made concerted efforts to improve their image, arguing in their 2018 Egyptian country focus that it is “time to entrench growth and make it more inclusive” (IMF, 2018).  However, as Hassan Sherry has demonstrated, IMF proposals for growth “far remove Egypt from the path of… making social protection available for all” (Hassan, 2017 p.48).  Equally, President Sisi, who overthrew Egypt’s first democratically elected president in 2013, has entrenched rather than relaxed authoritarian control, whilst pursuing further neoliberal reform with a zeal that would have startled even Mubarak (Naguib, 2017).  As Egypt approaches its third decade of neoliberalism, the prospects for inclusive economic growth, democratic reform and an end to military dictatorship look increasingly bleak.

Bibliography

  • Achcar, G. (2009) Egypt’s Recent Growth: An ‘Emerging Success Story’?. Development Viewpoint. (22) Available from: https://tinyurl.com/ydg353rw
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  • El-Ghonemy, M. R. (2003c) The standard of living. In El-Ghonemy, R. M. (ed). Egypt in the Twenty-First Century: Challenges for Development. London: RoutledgeCurzon. pp.41-69.
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  • Frerichs, S. (2016) Egypt’s Neoliberal Reforms and the Moral Economy of Bread: Sadat, Mubarak, Morsi. Review of Radical Political Economies. (48:4) pp.610-632. Available from: https://tinyurl.com/ybfvtkwp
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Cultural Production and Hegemony – The Case of the YPJ

Until late 2014, few in the West were familiar with Kobane, a small city in Northern Syria, which had been under the control of the Kurdish Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (YPG), or ‘People’s Protection Units,’ since 2012.  However, news that the city was besieged by Islamic State (IS) militants in September 2014 catapulted Kobane into the public eye, with the plight of the Kurdish forces receiving unprecedented Western media coverage.  The attention was largely due to the presence of the Yekîneyên Parastina Jin (YPJ) or ‘Women’s Protection Units,’ whose female guerrillas became the poster girls of the fight against IS, under fawning headlines like ‘Meet the Badass Women Fighting the Islamic State.’[1]

Whilst reporting on the YPJ was overwhelmingly positive, introducing many to the longstanding Kurdish independence struggle, some, like Kurdish activist and journalist Dilar Dirik, criticised Western coverage for ‘exoticizing’ the female soldiers and focusing on their appearances at the expense of the radical ideology that drives their movement.[2]  In light of these criticisms, this essay will address whether representations of Kurdish female fighters resist or reinforce existing hegemonies, by analysing the representation of the YPJ in Western print media.

It will be argued that when reporting on Kurdish female fighters, Western media rely on framing mechanisms which aim to defuse the radical challenge posed by the YPJ to hegemonic attitudes toward women and warfare “in such a way as to suit the perceptions of a Western audience.”  However, it will also be suggested that assuming Western media possess sole responsibility for the dissemination of information about the YPJ ignores the group’s agency in the production and distribution of narratives related to their movement.  Instead, Western media can be viewed as a “technology of publicity,” utilised by the YPJ to challenge the hegemony of global capitalism and patriarchy by creating a “transnational public” around the revolution in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan).[3]

Hegemony, War and the Media

Before investigating the relationship between representations of YPJ fighters and existing hegemonies, it is useful to briefly establish the theory of hegemony and its relationship to our understandings of war and conflict.  Arising from the work of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, hegemony refers to the “cultural and ideological means” by which ruling classes maintain their supremacy over subordinate classes.[4]  Gramsci identified the mass media as a crucial component in the “production, reproduction and transformation of hegemony.”[5]  Indeed, Stuart Hall has noted that mass media not only reflects and sustains the status quo but helps “produce consensus” and manufacture “consent,” playing a central role in the establishment of hegemonic attitudes.[6]

Aside from producing and maintaining hegemony, the media also plays a functional role, which James Curran describes as “interpreting and making sense of the world to the mass public.”[7]  The “perpetual connectivity” engendered by recent revolutions in information technology have rendered mass media “the key modulator of insecurity and security today, amplifying our awareness of distant conflicts… yet containing these insecurities in comforting news packages.”[8]

These news packages are constructed through “explanatory frames that cue the reader, listener and viewers to put events, issues and political actors into contextual frames of reference.”[9]  Framing devices are clearly visible in media coverage of war and conflict.  War is invariably construed as a hypermasculine environment, in which “men fight as avatars as a nation’s sanctioned violence” whilst women occupy more passive roles such as caregivers, mourners, or victims of (often sexual) violence.[10]

However, abundant evidence attests to female participation in violent conflicts across the globe.   An estimated 1/3 of Tamil Tigers fighters, for example, were women, whilst women and girls comprised up to 30% of all fighters during Sierra Leone’s decade long civil war. Similarly, women have been strongly represented in armed groups in countries as diverse as Palestine, Ireland and Liberia.[11]

Despite this evidence, Koçer has noted that women continue to be represented in news media primarily as “the victims of war and violent conflict.”[12]  In their research on women in conflict, Moser and Clark have argued that “stereotypical essentialising of women as ‘victims’ and men as ‘perpetrators’… denies each their agency” in their navigation of life in conflict zones.[13]  Not only does this obfuscate the complex, lived reality of women in warzones, it impedes post-conflict reconciliation, where female soldiers often find themselves marginalised by both peace processes and their local communities.[14]

If, as Gans has asserted, Western news media “reflects the white social order,” the presence of female fighters both challenges and confuses hegemonic narratives of male perpetrators and female victims.[15]  Coulter argues that viewing fighting as a fundamentally male preoccupation renders female fighters “unnatural, and for some, incomprehensible.”[16]  To reconcile these apparent contradictions, news media utilise familiar interpretive frames when reporting on female fighters, which defuse the radical challenge posed to hegemonic attitudes towards gender and conflict, maintaining the status quo.  Over the course of this essay, these framing mechanisms will be identified and analysed in relation to media representations of the YPJ.  Before doing so, it is useful to briefly outline the history and ideology of the group.

The YPJ: An Overview

Founded in 2013, the YPJ represent the female armed wing of the Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat (PYD) or Democratic Union Party, who have controlled the three cantons that make up the fledgling Rojava region since the withdrawal of Syrian government forces in 2012.  Like Rojava itself, the YPJ is a polyethnic organisation comprised primarily of Kurds, as well as Arabs, Assyrians, Circassians, Turkmen and foreign volunteers.[17]  With around 15,000 fighters, the group represents around 35% of the total force defending Rojava.[18]

Despite its relatively recent foundation as an autonomous militia, women have played a significant role in the Kurdish national movement for decades.  Although independent, the PYD and its associate militias maintain close ties with the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê‎ (PKK) or Kurdistan Worker’s Party, which has been involved in an armed conflict with the Turkish state since 1984, and is regarded as a terrorist group by NATO, the U.S. and the EU.[19]  As Dirik notes, women have played a central role in the PKK as both fighters and leaders since the outset of the conflict.[20]

Initially a Marxist-Leninist organisation that sought an independent Kurdish state, the PKKs leader Abdullah Öcalan abandoned revolutionary socialism following his capture by Turkey in 1999.[21]  Since his imprisonment, Öcalan has critiqued nationalism as “inherently oppressive and hegemonic,” promoting instead democratic confederalism, an ideology inspired by the works of American anarchist Murray Bookchin, centred on gender equality, ecology and direct democracy.[22]  The PYD have implemented Öcalan’s teachings since gaining control of Rojava, enforcing equal gender representation in all organisations as well as legal reforms including the criminalisation of forced marriages, domestic violence, honour killings, polygamy and child marriage.[23]

Having established the long history of female participation in Kurdish armed insurrections, the following sections will examine the way the YPJ have been represented in English language print media, to reveal the ways framing mechanisms reinforce existing hegemonies.

Images of Kurdish Women

Images play an important role in the construction of meaning in news media.  Ghazi-Walid Falah has noted that images are selected for print by editors “with the aim of supplementing and augmenting the persuasive power of the written text.”[24]  Images draw the reader’s attention, and thus often aim to shock or subvert expectations about a subject.  In Mari Toivanen’s analysis of 56 articles about Kurdish female fighters in nine British national newspapers, for example, photos of women holding Kalashnikovs were “extremely popular,” as they emphasised women’s participation in war as “non-traditional.”[25]

Similarly, Koçer found that images of women with firearms were often accompanied with pictures of them in “feminine settings, such as cleaning armour or plucking eyebrows.”[26]  The juxtaposition of the ‘masculine’ imagery of weapons with ‘feminine’ domesticity emphasises the apparent paradox of female fighters who step out of their ‘traditional’ role into the hypermasculine world of war. This supports Kathleen Newland’s canny observation that “women are at their most newsworthy when they are doing something unladylike.”[27]

Equally, these images undermine typical expectations about women in Middle Eastern societies.  Falah has noted that Western audiences rarely see images of Eastern women “doing anything other than crying passively,” and consequently images depicting them as active political agents “shatter stereotypes about secluded, subordinate Muslim women.”[28]

However, subversive images of Kurdish female fighters were often undermined by the way they were framed in the accompanying text.   Toivanen found that “in order to feminise the stories and emphasise the absurdity of women becoming combatants,” captions frequently included “narratives about their hairstyles or make up.”[29]  A pertinent example in the Daily Mail stated, under a picture of a Kurdish women clutching an assault rifle, that she “starts her morning by drawing on her eyebrows… and painting her nails before grabbing her combat fatigues.”[30]

References to the physical appearance of female combatants appeared consistently across the literature about representations of women fighters.  Leila Khaled was famously glamourized by Western press, after her emergence as a hijacker for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, as “the glamour girl of international terrorism.” Contemporary reports on female Palestinian militants continue to comment on their appearances;[31]  the 2002 cover of Newsweek, for instance, described Palestinian suicide bomber Ayat al-Akhras as “strikingly attractive, with intense hazel eyes.”[32]

Similarly, Coulter has examined the extensive coverage Sierra Leonean Colonel Black Diamond and her female militia received in Western media, where they were portrayed as “sexy ghetto chicks.”[33]  In Europe, Jayne Steele has highlighted the sexualisation of female Provisional IRA militants by the British press.[34]

This emphasis on the physical appearances of female fighters reinforces hegemonic attitudes towards women in war in different ways.  As Steele notes, sexualised images of female fighters connect anxieties about war with cultural anxieties about liberated women who threaten the hegemonic social order.[35]  By presenting them as objects for popular consumption, news media fetishizes their participation in armed conflict, evoking Judeo-Christian anxieties about female sexuality prominent throughout Western literary history.  Equally, as Struckman has argued in her work on female Chechen militants, asserting the feminine characteristics of female soldiers and terrorists emphasises their supposed ‘unnaturalness,’ upholding “their socially defined position as nurturers needing protection.”[36]

Media representations of beautiful Kurdish fighters also evoke Orientalist stereotypes of beguiling Oriental women.  Falah has commented that images of Eastern women are used “almost exclusively to communicate the abnormality of life in Muslim societies marked by violence, religious fanaticism and political turmoil.”[37]  In this sense, Eastern women represent the ‘other’, embodying the sensual chaos of the ‘Orient’ vis-à-vis the supposedly rational, orderly West.  Consequently, framing YPJ fighters by their physical appearance reinforces not only a vision of war as a masculine zone, but also the supremacy of the West over the ‘Orient.’

Thus, it becomes apparent that Western media frequently frame images of YPJ fighters in ways that fetishize, sexualise and orientalise them, ultimately reinforcing hegemonic attitudes towards gender roles, particularly in conflict.  The following section will examine how Western coverage frames YPJ women’s motivations for becoming soldiers.

YPJ Fighters Motivations in Western Coverage

As Struckman has asserted, Western media tends to explain women’s participation in armed conflict “as emotional (feminine) rather than ideological (masculine).”[38]   In her research, for instance, American media described Chechen women who participated in suicide bombings and hostage-taking in Russia as “Black Widows,” implying that revenge for murdered family members was their primary motivation for joining up.[39]  Revenge proved a popular frame for explaining the motivations of female militants across research on the subject.  Nacos found that media frequently blamed women’s recourse to violence on the loss of a family member.  In coverage of Maria Soledad Iparaguirre, a female ETA leader, media “rarely failed to mention” that she became a terrorist after her boyfriend’s assassination by police.[40]  Similarly, in Sierra Leone, Coulter found revenge for experiences of sexual violence to be a popular frame for explaining the participation of female soldiers in the civil war.[41]

Revenge frames were also popular when representing YPJ fighters.  Toivanen found that “sexual violence, including rape and torture, beheadings or experiences of being sex slaves to IS fighters… were given as primary motivations that drove these women to join combat units.”[42]  An article in the London daily Metro, for example, was headlined “Former ISIS sex slave vows to take violent revenge on terror group.”[43]  As Toivanen has noted, framing female combatants’ motivations as primarily driven by revenge enshrines their status as ‘victims.’[44]  Not only does this ignore the complex reasons women decide to take up arms, it assumes women lack ideological motivations by defining their agency as contingent only on their relationship to men.  This frame ultimately reinforces hegemonic understandings of warfare as a masculine zone, into which women venture only under extreme conditions.

The supposed unnaturalness of female fighters is central to another common assumption in Western media coverage; that women must become tougher than men “in order to fit our notion of how real combatants should be.”[45]  A rumour frequently reproduced in Western media asserts that IS fighters are particularly terrified of the YPJ because being killed by a woman robs them of martyrdom.[46]  The YPJ are framed as the binary opposite of IS, with the battle of Kobane being presented as a “clash of civilisations.”[47]

Framing the YPJ as an unnaturally powerful force also reinforces hegemonic attitudes towards Middle Eastern societies.  By presenting YPJ women as uniquely tough, Western media reassert the assumption that Middle Eastern women are generally “unemancipated.”[48]  The YPJ are painted as emblematic of secular Western liberalism, with IS symbolising oppressive Islamic culture.[49]  This binary division evokes longstanding colonial narratives which justify Western intervention in the Middle East through discourses of female liberation.[50]  Not only does this denigrate Muslim men by equating them with the most extreme manifestation of Islamist ideology, it also ‘claims’ YPJ women as representative of Western values.  As Hoffman has noted, this “distorted narrative” assumes that “anyone who is fighting against IS is fighting for the West.”[51]

Similarly, by painting the YPJ as motivated by Western ‘liberal’ values, media organisations systematically ignore the radical, anarchist ideology that drives the Rojava revolution.  In her analysis of British coverage, Toivanen found that “ideologies… did not receive solid coverage in British media.”[52]  Indeed, only the Morning Star, a far-left British daily newspaper, explored the “ideological dimensions of the ‘revolution.’”[53]  By depoliticising Kurdish women’s motivations for joining the YPJ, Western media ignore the radical challenges that the Rojava revolution poses to the hegemonic, patriarchal systems of Western capitalism.

Equally, it enables them to ignore the historic participation of female fighters in the Kurdish movement and present the YPJ as a novelty.  Concomitantly, the media are able to avoid discussing the potentially unsavoury association of the YPJ with the PKK, who remain listed as a terror group by NATO, the EU and the U.S.[54]  Depoliticising coverage of the resistance in Rojava is a final, powerful way that Western media defuse the radical challenge to Western capitalist hegemony posed by the YPJ.  As Dirik has argued, “Western media’s white-washing of the Kurdish women’s resistance sanitises a radical struggle in such a way as to suit the perceptions of a Western audience.”[55]

However, one must avoid mirroring Western media by assuming YPJ women possess no agency in the way they are represented.  The final section of this essay will demonstrate methods by which the YPJ engage with various media to challenge existing hegemonies.

The YPJ and the ‘Mediatization’ of War

Whilst Western media’s role in perpetuating hegemonic attitudes towards Kurdish women is apparent, the YPJ are active participants in the construction of narratives surrounding the Rojava revolution.  Hoskins and O’Loughlin have documented the rise of media as a tool of warfare in the internet age, which they term the “mediatization of war.”[56]  As Yarchi has argued, “the ability to transmit actors” preferred frames to the foreign press is extremely significant, as information obtained through media is likely to dictate how governments and the public perceive events.”[57]

This is crucial for the PYD and its militias, who have struggled to attract international support due to their association with the PKK.  Turkey’s president Erdogan has powerfully lobbied Western nations against arming the YPG, describing them as a terrorist “arm of the PKK.”[58] Indeed, one U.S. general advised the YPG to “change their brand” if they hoped to receive U.S. support.[59]  It is therefore important to consider the role of the YPJ in constructing what Leshu Torchin describes as a “witnessing public” around the Rojava revolution.[60]

As Torchin notes, “real-life events are shaped according to the circuits along which they travel and according to the audiences for whom they are performed.”[61]  Aware of their immense propaganda potential among Western audiences, the YPJ actively courts media attention, regularly sharing photographs, videos and interviews with Western media outlets and with over one hundred and fifty thousand followers via the PYD, YPG and YPJ social media accounts.[62]

As Koçer argues, coverage of YPJ fighters has functioned as a “technology of publicity in constructing a transnational public” around the Rojava revolution, “which was initially dismissed by Western intellectuals [and] politicians.”[63]  A BBC video on the YPJ, for example, has been viewed over 1.6 million times since it was posted in 2014, and a cursory glance at the comments reveals an overwhelmingly positive response.[64]  Similarly, in November 2014, millions attended rallies in over 30 countries in support of the Kobane resistance.[65]

Whilst it is difficult to gauge the direct impact that media coverage of the YPJ has had on their image, a marked rise in international political support for Rojava is indisputable.  Despite potential backlash from Turkey, U.S. Congress approved plans to arm PYD militias in May 2017.[66]  Similarly, PYD leader Salih Muslim accepted an invitation to address the British Parliament in 2015, to discuss the implementation of the party’s ideology in Rojava, reflecting an extraordinary level of interest in an avowedly anti-state, anti-capitalist philosophy.[67]

Thus, by actively engaging with Western media the YPJ have ‘mediatized’ coverage to garner international support for a radical movement that actively challenges the hegemony of global patriarchal capitalism.  As one Kurdish journalist has written, “the woman guerrillas might have become a meme for Western consumption, but the actual masses… understand what is happening on the ground.”[68]

Some Conclusions

Over the course of this essay, it has been demonstrated that cultural production can both reinforce and challenge existing hegemonies.  In contemporary Western societies, the media “has substantive power to define the boundaries of acceptability and deviance,” producing what Gaye Tuchman describes as “social guidelines for gender.”[69]  Journalists and editors consistently frame YPJ women in an Orientalist manner that undermines the ideological legitimacy of the Rojava movement, but equally functions to reaffirm the prevailing gender order within their intended audience; Western consumers.  In selecting these frames, the media produce and circulate meanings about the YPJ within the “circuit of culture,” which conform to the expectations of the patriarchal system of capitalism which facilitates their enterprise.[70]

However, as Torchin notes, in today’s crowded mediascape “we increasingly rely on prostheses – both human and technological – to maintain memory and commitment” to distant conflicts.[71]  The YPJ have successfully ‘mediatized’ their struggle by engaging with mainstream media as a technology of publicity, ensuring the further proliferation of information about their movement among Western audiences.

Equally, increased visibility in mainstream media encourages interested observers to engage directly with material related to the Rojava revolution, whether through blogs and alternative news sites or directly with one another on social media comments sections.  Indeed, Torchin criticises upholding a binary between a “pure activist media” and a “tainted commercial process.”[72] As the case of the YPJ demonstrates, in our contemporary mediascape characterised by a kaleidoscope of different media, the two are often mutually constitutive.  By understanding the mechanics of image production and circulation employed by Western media, the YPJ exploit their meaning-making influence to promote a radical ideology which actively challenges the very hegemonic, capitalist system upon which their enterprise rests.

 

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Other Sources

 

[1] Salih, Mohammad A; ‘Meet the Badass Women Fighting the Islamic State’, Foreign Policy (12/09/14) – https://tinyurl.com/yc5c3jrp [last accessed 22/12/17]

[2] Dirik, Dilar; ‘Western fascination with ‘badass’ Kurdish women’, Al Jazeera (29/10/14) – https://tinyurl.com/owhfmko [last accessed 22/12/17]

[3] Koçer, Suncem; ‘Transnational Media Representations of Women Fighters Against ISIS in Syria’ in Framing Violence: Conflicting Images, Identities and Discourses, ed. Banu Baybars-Hawks, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing (2016) p.165

[4] Strinati, Dominic; An Introduction to Theories of Popular Culture, London: Routledge (1995) p.165

[5] Ibid p.168

[6] Hall, Stuart; ‘The rediscovery of ‘ideology’: the return of the repressed in media studies’ in Culture, Society and the Media, ed. Gurevitch et al, New York: Routledge (1982) p.86

[7] Curran, James; ‘Communication, Power and Social Order’ in Culture, Society and the Media, ed. Gurevitch et al, New York: Routledge (1982) p.227

[8] Hoskins, A & O’Loughlin, B; War and Media – The Emergence of Diffused War, Cambridge: Polity Press (2010) p.2

[9] Nacos, Bridgette L.; ‘The Portrayal of Female Terrorists in Media: Similar Framing Patterns in the News Coverage of Women in Politics and Terrorism’, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, Vol.28, No.5 (2005) p.436

[10] Koçer; ‘Transnational Media Representations of Women Fighters Against ISIS’ p.165

[11] Coulter, Chris; ‘Female Fighters in the Sierra Leone War: Challenging the Assumptions’, Feminist Review, No.88, War (2008) p.55,63

[12] Koçer; ‘Transnational Media Representations of Women Fighters Against ISIS’ p.165

[13] Moser, C.O.N. & Clark, F.C.; ‘Introduction’ in Victims, Perpetrators or Actors?, ed. Moser & Clark, London: Zed Books (2001) p.4

[14] Coulter; ‘Female Fighters in the Sierra Leone War’ p.59

[15] Nacos; ‘The Portrayal of Female Terrorists in Media’ p.437

[16] Coulter; ‘Female Fighters in the Sierra Leone War’ p.62

[17] Dirik, Dilar; ‘The Women’s Revolution in Rojava: Defeating Fascism by Constructing an Alternative Society’ in A Small Key Can Open A Large Door: The Rojava Revolution, ed. Strangers in a Tangled Wilderness, London: Combustion Books (2015) – https://tinyurl.com/y9hdu7k7 [last accessed 24/12/17]

[18] Ibid

[19] BBC; ‘Who are Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rebels?’, BBC (04/11/16) – https://tinyurl.com/y8w89nz5 [last accessed 27/12/17]

[20] Dirik; ‘The Women’s Revolution in Rojava’

[21] Ibid

[22] Ibid

[23] Dirik; ‘The Women’s Revolution in Rojava’

[24] Falah, Ghazi-Walid; ‘The Visual Representation of Muslim/Arab Women in Daily Newspapers in the United States’ in Geographies of Muslim Women: Gender, Religion and Space, ed. Falah & Nagel, NY: The Guilford Press (2005) p.301

[25] Toivanen, Mari; ‘Gender in the Representation of Armed Conflicts’, Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication, Vol.9 (2016) p.406

[26] Koçer; ‘Transnational Media Representations of Women Fighters Against ISIS’ p.167

[27] Braden, Maria; Women, Politicians and the Media, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky (2015) p.4

[28] Falah; ‘The Visual Representation of Muslim/Arab Women’ p.305

[29] Toivanen; ‘Gender in the Representation of Armed Conflicts’, p.406

[30] Brown, Larissa; ‘If we die, we want to look pretty: Defiant Kurdish soldier girls refuse to fight without makeup while gunning down ISIS fighters in Iraq’, Daily Mail, 26/03/16 – https://tinyurl.com/zzhzojr [last accessed 26/12/17]

[31] Nacos; ‘The Portrayal of Female Terrorists in Media’ p.439

[32] Newsweek Staff; ‘How Two Lives Met in Death’, Newsweek (14/04/02) – https://tinyurl.com/yb4ph8eo [last accessed 27/12/17]

[33] Coulter; ‘Female Fighters in the Sierra Leone War’ p.64

[34] Steele, Jayne; ‘Vampira: Representations of the Irish Female Terrorist’, Irish Studies Review, Vol.6, No.3 (1998) pp.273-284

[35] Steele; ‘Vampira’ p.275

[36] Struckman, Sara; ”Black Widows’ in The New York Times: Images of Chechen Women Rebels’ in Muslim Women in War and Crisis, ed. Gaegheh Shirazi, Austin, TX: University of Texas Press

[37] Falah; ‘The Visual Representation of Muslim/Arab Women’ p.306

[38] Struckman; ‘Black Widows’ p.94

[39] Ibid p.92

[40] Nacos; ‘The Portrayal of Female Terrorists in Media’ p.442

[41] Coulter; ‘Female Fighters in the Sierra Leone War’ p.64

[42] Toivanen; ‘Gender in the Representation of Armed Conflicts’ p.307

[43] Parker, Fiona; ‘Former Isis sex slave vows to take violent revenge on terror group’, Metro (21/07/17) – https://tinyurl.com/ybwvsars [last accessed 29/12/17]

[44] Toivanen; ‘Gender in the Representation of Armed Conflicts’ p.307

[45] Coulter; ‘Female Fighters in the Sierra Leone War’ p.63

[46] Dearden, Lizzie; ‘’Isis are afraid of girls’: Kurdish female fighters believe they have an unexpected advantage fighting in Syria’, The Independent (9/12/15) – https://tinyurl.com/yb4g4cvp [last accessed 04/01/18]

[47] Toivanen; ‘Gender in the Representation of Armed Conflicts’ p.308

[48] Toivanen; ‘Gender in the Representation of Armed Conflicts’ p.307

[49] Ibid p.302

[50] Ahmed, Leila; Women, Gender and Islam, London: Yale University Press (1992) pp.144-168

[51] Hoffman, Alvina; ‘Breaking Through Western Media’s Monolithic Image of Kurdish Female Fighters’, Muftah (08/07/15) – https://tinyurl.com/y8z59v2u [last accessed 04/01/18]

[52] Toivanen; ‘Gender in the Representation of Armed Conflicts’ p.307

[53] Ibid

[54] Dirik; ‘Western fascination with badass Kurdish women’

[55] Dirik; ‘The Women’s Revolution in Rojava’

[56] Hoskins, A & O’Loughlin, B; War and Media p.16

[57] Koçer; ‘Transnational Media Representations of Women Fighters Against ISIS’ p.309

[58] Al Jazeera; ‘US begins sending weapons to Kurdish YPG in Syria’, Al Jazeera (31/05/17) – https://tinyurl.com/y9jsvkjy [last accessed 05/01/18]

[59] Reuters Staff; ‘U.S. general told Syria’s YPG: ‘You have got to change your brand’’, Reuters (21/07/17) – https://tinyurl.com/ydgzrygc [last accessed 05/01/18]

[60] Torchin, Leshu; ‘Creating the Witness’, Re.Framing Activism (17/12/12) – https://tinyurl.com/c2obqea [last accessed 05/01/18]

[61] Ibid

[62]@DefenceUnitsYPJ; Twitter followers – https://tinyurl.com/y9b2b4cm [last accessed 05/01/18]

@DefenceUnits; Twitter followers – https://tinyurl.com/y7g5j4qq [last accessed 05/01/18]

@PYD_Rojava; Twitter followers – https://tinyurl.com/y7vxds5j [last accessed 05/01/18]

[63] Koçer; ‘Transnational Media Representations of Women Fighters Against ISIS’ p.165

[64] BBC; ‘Islamic State are afraid to see women with guns’ – BBC News’ [Video], Youtube (05/09/14) – https://tinyurl.com/mhat2tp [last accessed 05/01/18]

[65] Kurdish Question; ‘Millions around the world rallied for Kobane on November 1st’, KurdishQuestion.com (03/11/14) – https://tinyurl.com/y7bvaj8h [last accessed 05/01/18]

[66] Al Jazeera; ‘US begins sending weapons to Kurdish YPG in Syria’

[67] ANF; ‘PYD co-president Muslim to speak at UK Parliament’, ANF News (12/03/15) – https://tinyurl.com/ya7xfs65 [last accessed 05/01/18]

[68] Koçer; ‘Transnational Media Representations of Women Fighters Against ISIS’ pp.169-170

[69] Struckman; ‘Black Widows’ p.95

[70] Koçer; ‘Transnational Media Representations of Women Fighters Against ISIS’ p.167

[71] Torchin; ‘Creating the Witness’

[72] Ibid

Originally submitted January 2018 for the course ‘Mediated Cultures in the Middle East: Politics and Communications’ at SOAS, under the title “Cultural production sometimes resists and at other times reinforces existing hegemonies. Discuss using one or more case studies”.

‘Identity Matters’ – Donald Trump, White Identity and the Media

Introduction

The election of billionaire business tycoon and reality TV star Donald J. Trump as the 45th president of the United States was perhaps the most unlikely political upheaval of 2016.  As a rank outsider with no political experience, Trump’s victory was rendered all the more astonishing by a campaign characterised by shameless populism, vicious attacks on minorities and reporters and a series of scandals that would have typically condemned a regular politician to the depths of political oblivion.  Indeed, on the eve of the election all but one of the ten largest polling organisations, including conservative mouthpiece Fox News, predicted a clean victory for Hilary Clinton.[1]

However, in a year that witnessed the reprise of right wing nationalism across Western Europe and the tumultuous result of the British EU referendum, Trump’s success appears consistent with a pattern of anti-establishment fervour across the developed economies of the capitalist West.  Opposition to an ambiguous ‘metropolitan elite’, hostility to migrants and a rejection of neoliberal free trade policies were persistent features of Western political discourse in 2016, compounded by an ongoing European migrant crisis in Europe, a series of high profile attacks by Islamic militants around the world and continuingly sluggish economic recovery from the 2008 financial crisis.  Equally, alternative media sources, particularly social media, emerged as powerful vehicles for populist rhetoric, representing a serious challenge to the monopoly on information traditionally held by print and television.

This essay will seek to understand Donald Trump’s remarkable victory in the 2016 U.S. presidential election by situating it within wider discourses of globalisation and social change.  It will assert three main, interrelated points. First, that Trump’s campaign exploited a fractured mediascape in which traditional structures of print and television were breaking apart, with a concomitant decline in the capacity of mainstream media to influence public opinion.  Secondly, that Trump’s uniquely modern brand of populism was perfectly suited to harness the emergence of new and social media as important platforms for the conveyance of political messages in the twenty-first century.  Finally, it will be asserted that Trump’s rhetoric appealed deeply to a rising sense of white identity in the United States, which emerged as a direct response to experiences of rapid social change wrought by the complex, disorganised and interrelated processes of globalisation on American society.

This essay will be divided into a number of sections.  Section one will explore the evolution of global media since the 1980s and its intrinsic links to the ascendancy of neoliberal capitalism and technological revolutions in information communications.  It will then closely analyse Trump’s interactions with the traditional media and emergent new and social media, to discern how Trump undermined the conventional

Section two will investigate the impact of globalisation on social change around the world, in order to provide an appropriate political and socioeconomic context for understanding why Trump’s rhetoric resonated with so many American voters.  Specifically, the 2008 global financial crisis and cultural shifts associated with demographic change will emerge as fundamental disjunctures that have facilitated the rise of white identity politics in American political discourse in recent years.

Building on the work of cultural theorists like Stuart Hall and Manuel Castells, the final section will closely investigate the rise of white identity as a salient force in American politics, that cuts across the traditional partisan divide to encompass white voters from a wide range of geographic and socioeconomic backgrounds.  By relating to the emergent field of critical whiteness studies, the rise of white identity will be understood as a reaction to the forces of globalisation as they are experienced by white Americans in the twenty-first century.

Globalisation, media oligopoly and the rise of social media

Arjun Appadurai’s visualisation of the “new global cultural economy” as a “complex, overlapping, disjunctive order” provides a useful way of understanding some of the manifold changes that provided the socioeconomic context for the 2016 American presidential election.  In the era of unprecedented globalisation, the relatively simplistic models for exploring global change that characterised twentieth century academic thought appear wholly inadequate for understanding a world characterised by the rapid and disorganised flow of information, technology, people and ideas and the cataclysmic changes globalisation has wrought on societies. [2]  Over the course of this essay, the interplay between Appadurai’s five “scapes” – technoscapes; finanscapes; ethnoscapes; mediascapes and ideascapes – will emerge as a vital means of understanding social change.[3]

Both Appadurai and Manuel Castells have noted that the interplay between the aforementioned “scapes” facilitated rapid change to the composition of global media, fundamentally altering the complex, interrelated web of media networks and platforms that constitute the global mediascape.[4]  As Barney Warf has attested, since the 1980s the “overlapping and intersecting industries” of telecommunications and the media “have been dramatically transformed by deregulation, technological change and a wave of enormous mergers and acquisitions.”[5]

Contrary to its stated goals of increasing market competitiveness, the sweeping trend of privatisation and outsourcing of public services that has characterised neoliberal economic orthodoxy has resulted in the “growth of oligopoly and restricted competition” across a plethora of industries, of which global media has been one of the most pronounced.[6]  In the United States, by 2007 five of the largest global media conglomerates controlled a staggering 75% of the television audience and 90% of the television news audience.[7]  Attendant to the oligopolisation of global media have been technological innovations in microelectronics that have further hastened time-space compression that has been a hallmark of globalisation and have “annihilated sectoral, geographic, and market boundaries by making it possible for firms in one sector to produce outputs easily used in another.”[8]

Thus, whilst traditional media may appear increasingly diverse since the deregulation of markets and end of national monopolies, given the preponderance of cable networks and immense choice of channels available on cable TV, this expansion has been directed by an increasingly small number of corporate behemoths.  By way of example, following the 1996 Telecommunications Act, U.S. radio giant iHeartMedia (previously Clear Channel Communications) expanded from the previous maximum 12 station limit to encompass 1214 radio stations and 37 television stations by 2003.[9]

The result of this, as Du Boff and Herman have suggested, is that corporate concentration is “steadily suffocating the production and dissemination of diverse views and opinions.”  By this logic, whilst corporate television news networks may superficially cater to certain political orientations; Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, for example, is evidently politically conservative whilst CNN is ostensibly more liberal, both benefit from the preservation of “currently entrenched social systems,” and are thus theoretically less likely to challenge the hegemonic paradigm of neoliberal capitalism.[10]

However, perhaps the most notable feature of Trump’s campaign has been his adamant rejection of traditional political strategy vis-à-vis the media.  Indeed, mainstream media and particularly print and television news emerged as a primary target for Trump’s vitriolic populist rhetoric, in which he often alluded to conspiracies between the media and his political opponents.

At a rally in West Palm Beach in October 2016, for example, Trump asserted that “the most powerful weapon deployed by the Clintons is the corporate media.”[11]  Personal attacks on journalists and publications who covered him negatively became a consistent feature of his campaign; at the same rally he described reporters for the Washington Post and The New York Times as “cogs in a corporate, political machine” dubbing them “sick people.”[12]

Whilst attacking the traditional intermediary between political figures and the people may seem a counterintuitive strategy, Trump’s campaign took advantage of an increasingly fractured media landscape.  As journalist Matthew Ingram has noted, “one of the biggest shifts in the media landscape over the past decade has been the rise of networked platforms, starting with blogs, and eventually evolving to include Facebook and Twitter, as well as Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit” and an array of others.[13]

In an investigation of the relationship between populism and social media, Engesser et al. found that “While the mass media adhere to professional norms and news values, social media serve as direct linkage to the people and allow the populists to circumvent the journalistic gatekeepers.”[14]  Indeed, their research reveals social media has emerged as a vehicle for populism across Europe, with figures like Nigel Farage, former leader of the UK Independence Party, making heavy use of social media to distribute their message.[15]  Consequently, Trump – whose Twitter following dwarfs that of even President Obama – was able to circulate statements of questionable veracity directly to his supporters, which were then picked up and circulated further by the very media outlets that Trump was attacking.[16]

Indeed, Trump exploited both the capitalist logic of competitive markets and codes of journalistic ethics and standards to subjugate the traditional media to his terms.  His fiery “Trumpisms”, no matter how wildly offensive or inaccurate, demanded coverage; failure to do so risked both depriving the public of essential information about the election and losing viewers to other networks that would inevitably pick up the story.[17]  This logic is perhaps best epitomised by the capitulation of News Corp’s Rupert Murdoch.  Despite being a vocal critic of Trump during his early campaign, in April 2016 Murdoch’s New York Post became the first major U.S. publication to endorse Trump.[18]  Critics have argued this U-turn was driven by a dramatic decline in the popularity of Fox News, whose ratings plummeted by 50% between January and late February of 2016.[19]  In swaying Murdoch, Trump had arguably muzzled the world’s most powerful conservative tastemaker.

Donald Trump’s neutering of the once all-powerful oligopolies of television and print media tells us much about the changing landscape of global media in the twenty-first century.  In her research into the attitudes of Greek audiences to television news, Mirca Madianou found that “contextual knowledge and the existence of alternative resources emerged as significant parameters that shape [audience] interpretation and allow for a possible contestation of the dominant discourse.”[20]

I would contend that the rise of the internet and particularly social media, through its ability to bypass traditional barriers to the dissemination of information, represents a powerful alternative resource for American voters to contest the almost universally negative coverage of Trump in television and print news. As media critic Kerwin Swint has asserted, “we are in the midst of a gradual transition to social media dominance of political communication,” a statement that is supported by studies by Gallup surveys that document surging numbers of Americans getting their news online since the start of the twenty-first century.[21]

Equally, a Gallup survey from September 2016 found Americans’ trust in mass media to be at an all-time low.  Whilst just 32% of Americans overall reported trusting mainstream media, this number dropped to 14% amongst Republicans down from 32% the previous year.  To put this in perspective, the overall figure stood at highs of 72% in 1976 and was still at 53% in 2001.[22]

As Madianou’s research found, “disenfranchised informants, regardless of their age or ethnic background, who feel that television news did not reflect their reality” responded by turning off their televisions or seeking alternative forms of news.[23]  The dramatic decline in trust in mass media outlets appears to confirm Madianou’s contestation of the common assumption in media studies that “media play a powerful role in shaping cultures and identities”.[24]  Instead, it appears that relatively homogenous negative coverage of Trump’s campaign across news networks and print media did little to sway Trump supporters, encouraging them to seek alternatives online that better conformed to their ‘reality’.

However, regardless of whether or not Trump’s innovative media strategy provided a unique advantage over his rivals in the Republican primaries or his presidential opponent Hilary Clinton, the fact remains that Trump ran one of the most divisive and offensive political campaigns in American history.  From the outset, Trump took aim at immigrants, describing Mexican migrants as criminals, drug dealers and rapists as well as suggesting a national registry for Muslims and proposing banning immigration from Muslim majority countries.[25]

He also regularly made misogynistic gibes at women and publicly mocked a disabled reporter at a rally in South Carolina in July 2016.[26]  Most notoriously, just one month before the election, recordings were released by the Washington Post in which Trump could be heard boasting about using his celebrity status to sexually assault women, a revelation that was followed by a string of allegations of historic sexual misconduct against women.[27]

Whilst it would be fatuous to assume that all Trump voters are racist misogynists – although his endorsement by members of the Ku Klux Klan demonstrates some undeniably are – the fact remains that, as journalist Amanda Deibart noted in a much circulated article, for many voters Trump’s poisonous rhetoric was not enough to dissuade them from voting for him.[28]  The remainder of this essay will explore this fact by examining wider socioeconomic trends wrought by globalisation across the global North in the twenty-first century and how American experience relates to these trends.  I will then investigate how these trends have contributed to the rise of a salient white identity politics in the United States that played an important role in the election of Donald Trump.

Globalisation and the crisis of Western capitalism

Mirroring the decline in trust in mainstream media amongst American consumers documented in the previous section is a general loss of faith in all institutions, which Gallup research demonstrates fell to a mere 32% in 2016.  Whilst institutions like the military and the church remained relatively high (73% and 41% respectively, particularly low confidence was recorded in the criminal justice system (23% approval), organised labour (23% approval) and Congress, in which only 9% of Americans had confidence in 2016.  However, the most significant loss of faith was reserved for the banking system, approval of which dropped by over a fifth in the decade between 2006 and 2016.[29]

This extreme dissatisfaction with key institutions in the United States was a fundamental feature of the atmosphere of the 2016 election campaign, which was characterised by widespread disillusionment with the political process.  Indeed, both Republican and Democrat presidential candidates were the least popular nominees for decades, with Americans rating “unfavourable” both Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton by 67% and 53% respectively.[30]

This general loss of faith represents a trend discernible across developed economies in recent years.  In 2013, confidence in government institutions in Southern Europe plummeted to between 18% in Portugal to lows of 14% in Greece, the nation perhaps worst affected by the collapse of global markets in the late 2000s.[31]  Less extreme, but still notable, rates of government approval were recorded in Britain (38%) and France (28%), demonstrating a pattern of dissatisfaction across the capitalist West.[32]  Understanding  this pattern provides a vital insight into the political context that incubated the rise of populism across Western Europe and America and requires an examination the global processes that created a crisis of capitalism since the start of the twenty-first century.

The global financial crash of the late 2000s represents an archetypal disjuncture between the various “scapes” which compose Apadurai’s model for understanding globalisation. The Great Recession, the longest and deepest since the global depression of the 1930s, exposed “fundamental weaknesses in the functioning and regulation of the global financial system” and brought to the fore pertinent questions about the failure of neoliberal economists to foresee the coming crash.[33]  The unavoidable scrutiny to which global capitalism was subjected as the crisis unfolded revealed worrying trends, particularly in the developed economies of the global North, the social impact of which have been felt with increasing intensity.

The crash revealed that the growth of the previous decade did not “represent a sustainable expansion of productive capacity” but “an unprecedented increase in household and corporate debt.”[34]  This weak growth was underpinned by a “dramatic collapse of private sector investment,” highlighting the flaw in the prevailing neoliberal logic that the economic self-interest of the private sector guaranteed the security of global markets.[35]

The crisis highlighted the social consequences of the failures of Western capitalism in the global finanscape.  Despite relative growth since the 1990s, Western countries had not seen a commensurate rise in real incomes; in the U.S. household income had barely increased since 1990, despite a 78% rise in GDP during the same period.[36]  In 1996, Castells cannily noted the “considerable empowering of capital vis-à-vis labour”, the fallout of which became obvious during the crisis.[37]  In the global North, the share of labour in overall output had fallen, with high-skilled workers making considerable gains at the expense of low skilled workers, reflecting the reorientation of Western capitalism around information technologies at the expense of manufacturing, as well as the hastening trend toward automation for routine unskilled work. [38]

Indeed, a widely noted 2013 study found that 47% of American workers, 49% of Japanese workers, and 35% of British workers were in jobs at high risk of potential automation, creating profound anxiety and uncertainty around the future of labour in developed nations.[39]  Reflecting these trends, studies have found that ‘non-standard work’ (part-time, temporary and self-employed) “now accounts for around a third of total employment in the OCED, including half the jobs created since the 1990s and 60% since the 2008 crisis.”[40]  In the U.K., “non-standard work including zero-hour contracts accounted for all net jobs growth since 1995.” Concomitantly, across almost all developed countries, the proportion of low-paid workers increased between the late 1990s and late 2000s.[41]  Job insecurity has become a fact of life for many in the world’s wealthiest countries, spurring increasing dissatisfaction with government and its associated institutions.

Perhaps most notably, the 2008 crash laid bare the unprecedented accumulation of capital by those at the very top of the income distribution across the developed economies, a fact that has become a rallying cry for resistance on both sides of the political spectrum.  Extreme levels of inequality now abound in both the U.K. and U.S., where the top tenth of the population own over 70% of the wealth, with almost 15% of all wealth in the U.S. owned by the top 0.1%.[42]  Equally, in the first three years of recovery, a staggering 91% of U.S. income gains went to the top 1%, demonstrating that only a minute proportion of the American population benefitted from the unprecedented injection of taxpayer money into the failing U.S. economy.[43]

This section has demonstrated the crisis of capitalism in the late 2000s to be a culmination of the complex, interrelated processes of globalisation, particularly as they relate to the revolutions in technology and global capitalism since the 1980s.  In doing so, the general atmosphere of rising inequality, economic uncertainty and the insecurity of labour that has prevailed across the capitalist West becomes evident, providing vital context to understanding the success of Donald Trump.  The following section will analyse another key global trend that contributed to the success of populist campaigns like Donald Trump and Brexit in 2016: demographic change.

 

 

Globalisation and demographic change in the capitalist West

One of the most visible and defining features of globalisation in the twenty-first century has been the increased mobility of peoples around the world.  The number of immigrants worldwide has tripled since 1960 and 3.3% of the world’s population now live in countries other than that of their birth, reflecting the changing demands of global markets and facilitated by new technologies that both make migration easier (such as cheap air travel) and long-distance communication possible (such as the internet).[44]

As a recent Pew Research Centre study reveals, a growing share of international migrants now live in higher-income countries.[45]  The vast majority of the world’s international migrants have settled in the United States, where the foreign-born population more than doubled to 42.4 million between 1990 and 2014, representing around 13% of the total U.S. population.  A full 20% of the world’s migrant population now live in the United States.[46]  Europe too has witnessed unprecedented levels of migration; by 2006 42 million people residing in the European Union and associated countries were migrants, representing 8.3% of Western and Central Europe’s total population, with 28 million coming from other parts of Europe (non-EU, EEC etc) and the rest of the world.[47]

Migration into Europe has dramatically increased since the beginning of the migrant crisis in 2014, which has seen millions of new arrivals, driven by war and economic deprivation in their homelands, creating profound anxieties in nation’s still reeling from the effects of the Great Recession.  One notable difference to the demographic makeup of this latest wave of migrants has been that it is largely non-white, non-European and Muslim, with 77% of the over 1 million arriving in the EU via the Mediterranean between 2015 and 2016 coming from either Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan.[48]  Concerns over the rapid rise in (particularly Muslim) migration, compounded by several high-profile attacks by Islamic militants across Western Europe and the United States, have been a defining feature of the political upheavals in developed nations in 2016.

Another important demographic factor to consider is the general ageing of populations across the global North.  This is particularly pronounced in Japan (where over-65s already account for 26.7% of the population) and Western Europe, but is also discernible in the United States.[49] A study by the Population Reference Bureau has found that the proportion of over-65s in America has risen to 13% of the population and is predicted to reach 20% by 2050.[50]

The causes and effects of aging populations in developing countries are complex.  Innovations in medicine and technology have increased life expectancies, meaning people are living longer.  The strains of caring for greater numbers of elderly people are already beginning to be felt in most Western countries, increasing the pressures on welfare state’s and public services already strained by post-2008 austerity.  The capacity for Western nations to care for their elderly populations will become a progressively more urgent issue in coming years.

Another cause of aging populations has been declining fertility rates across Western countries, reflecting changes in social attitudes.  Amongst a number of other factors, falling birth rates reflect what Castells has described as “the crisis of patriarchalism.”[51]  Women, who have entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers since the end of the Second World War, are largely “no longer socially or economically dependent on men” which has “radically altered young people’s lifestyles.”[52]  Increasingly, women choose to have fewer children, later in life.

Equally, reflecting both the liberation of women and creeping secularisation across the West, the twenty-first century is witnessing the decline of the traditional nuclear family of heterosexual married couples with children.  Divorce rates rose steadily in the second half of the twentieth century as laws and attitudes towards divorce slowly liberalised.[53]  This rise has begun to level out with the growing acceptance of alternatives lifestyles such as unmarried cohabitation.[54]  Similarly, the successes of the LGBTQ movement have opened the possibility for wholly new conceptions the family, posing a fundamental challenge to the tradition of heteronormative patriarchy.  As Castells has noted, feminists and homosexuals have emerged as the primary enemies of those seeking to maintain patriarchal hegemony, with debates surrounding abortion and LGBQT rights emerging as symbolic battlegrounds.[55]

In the U.S. and Western Europe, population decline as a result of falling fertility rates has so far been offset by higher rates of increased immigration, who also tend to have higher fertility rates than the native born population.[56]  In Britain, for example, Afghan and Somali immigrants have four times as many children as U.K. born mothers, reflecting differing social and religious attitudes to the family.[57]  This trend has great implications for the demographic makeup of Western nations.  Already in the U.S., over half of children under five are ethnic minorities and whites are expected to cease to be a majority in both Europe and America by 2050, a statistic that was widely circulated during the 2016 U.S. election.[58]

In this section I have addressed some of the demographic changes that have affected Western nations since the 1980s as a result of globalisation.  In the next section, I will explore how the combined processes of technological and economic change and mass immigration have facilitated the rise of white identity politics in the United States, and the impact this had on the U.S. election.

‘Becoming White’: White identity and the 2016 election

The fundamental changes wrought by globalisation that have been discussed above have had unprecedented effects on the formation of identity in the age of the network society.  As Nick Stevenson has noted, “the disintegration of industrial society and the nuclear family and rigid class hierarchies means that we are all released from the structures of industrialised society into the uncertainties of a globalised society.”[59]  Manuel Castells has usefully suggested that the “individualization of identity attached to life in the global networks of power and wealth” can result in a retreat into what he terms “cultural communes” constructed around “specific sets of values… marked by specific codes of self-identification” such as religion, nation and ethnicity.  Cultural communes are defensive identities that provide comforting certainty in a world dominated by rapid change.[60]

I contend that the election of Donald Trump represents reflects the emergence of a cultural commune in American society embodied by a reformulated sense of white identity across a wide spectrum of white American voters.  This identity does not necessarily reflect personal racist attitudes, but an attempt at consolidating the structures of white supremacy that to many appear to be declining in America.  As the previous two sections demonstrated, the processes of globalisation, of which a catastrophic effect was the financial crisis of the late 2000s, have created fundamental anxieties in the United States surrounding the insecurity of work and rising inequality.  These anxieties are particularly pronounced amongst those poorly equipped for the transition from a society centred around industrial labour to one focused around the highly skilled, highly specialised professions upon which the information technology revolution has been based.

Whilst these changes have been felt across ethnic boundaries, white Americans of the middle and working classes – and specifically those without a college degree, now a benchmark of entry into high income professions – have felt the transition with particular acuteness, as they challenge the comfortable advantage that deeply embedded structures of white supremacy in the United States have historically afforded them.  Over the course of the twentieth century, the privileged position held by white male labour has been gradually diminished by the steady disintegration of the structural barriers that prevented equal access to labour markets to women and ethnic minorities.[61]  Attendant to the increasing participation of women and minorities in the economy was the impact of globalisation discussed in the previous two sections, the most important of which was the collapse of manufacturing and the changing ethnic makeup of the nation wrought by mass immigration.

Thus, whilst for less privileged groups in America, the six decades since the end of the Second World War have been a period of relative progress, to many white Americans this period represents a gradual decline from a position of stability and prosperity to uncertainty and competition.  Indeed, white males without a college degree, who fared far better in the economic recovery than other ethnic groups, are the most pessimistic section of American society.  Older whites are particularly gloomy about the future.[62]

It has been commonly asserted since the 2016 election that Hilary Clinton lost because of neglecting the white working classes of the so-called ‘rust belt’; former manufacturing centres and traditional Democratic strongholds.[63]  However, extensive research into voting patterns by Gallup belies a simple economic argument.  Although Trump did perform strongly with white workers in lower income brackets, he also won a majority of whites from all but the highest income brackets of over $100,000 a year.[64]

What Trump’s campaign achieved was to appeal to a wide range of white voters across America, in both rural areas and the sprawling American suburbs.  This pool of voters was distributed across the U.S. meaning that Trump could afford to neglect the urban metropolises where a majority of Americans live, which across all ethnic groups voted overwhelmingly against him.  This tactic enabled him to lose the popular vote by almost three million, but gain an electoral college victory.[65]

To understand how this tactic worked, it is useful to consider contemporary whiteness studies.  As Robin DiAngelo has argued, white Americans, a majority of whom reside in racially segregated areas, are taught from an early age “to view themselves as universal humans who can represent all of human experience.”[66]  As a numerical majority and uniquely privileged group for the vast majority of modern American history, white Americans have seldom had to consider race as a defining feature of life.   White was the standard and consequently antithetical to the conception of race, which is intrinsically a construction of difference and exclusion.[67]

Indeed, DiAngelo asserts that this unfamiliarity with race as a lived experience left most white Americans without the capacity to understand race in any critical or complex way, resulting in a state where situations that force them to consider their own race in relation to other racial groups produces “intolerable” stress, “triggering a range of defensive moves,” a state she terms “white fragility.”[68]  With this in mind, it can be argued that the rapidly and visibly changing ethnic makeup of the United States, combined with an economic atmosphere of increased competition and insecurity, has forced white Americans to confront their own race on an unprecedented scale. Donald Trump was able to exploit the anxieties that this encounter has triggered by curating a comforting cultural commune where the complex forces of globalisation are reduced to a simple binary of ‘us-vs-them’.

In this section I have investigated why so many white Americans were able to look past the flagrant racism and sexism of Trump’s rhetoric by understanding his appeal to a defensive white identity. This identity was formed as a result of economic uncertainty, demographic change and the challenges presented to white Christian hegemony by the rise of identity politics generally in the U.S.  As Castells has noted, reflexive ethnic identities are constructed from existing historical and cultural materials; Trump’s promise to “make America great again” was an unambiguous allusion to a time when white America was economically prosperous vis-à-vis other ethnic groups and numerically dominant.[69]  In the process, Trump successfully mainstreamed white identity politics in American political culture.

Concluding Thoughts

Over the course of this essay I have explored how the complex, interrelated forces of globalisation have led to cataclysmic changes in the composition of global media, as well as the socioeconomic impact of neoliberal capitalism on political culture in Europe and America.  In doing so, I have attempted to demonstrate how these intrinsically linked issues affected the 2016 election and contributed to election of Donald Trump to the most highest seat of American democracy.

To conclude it is useful to consider the Donald Trump phenomenon from a global perspective.  Despite his proclaimed resistance to globalisation, Trump ran a campaign that was inherently modern, depending on the ability to circumvent traditional media channels and contingent on the anxieties of white Americans which were a direct result of the processes of globalisation.

Equally, despite its national specificity, elements of Trump’s message are eerily familiar in populist rhetoric across Europe, where, as was demonstrated throughout this essay, the social changes wrought by globalisation are felt with a similar intensity.  Whether in Britain’s Nigel Farage, Holland’s Geert Wilders, or France’s Marine La Penn, populist demagogues have made powerful inroads in European politics, bearing a similar message of a white identity under attack by the combined forces of global capital and immigration.  The capacity of the West to resist the comforting allure of populism depends on the ability of governments to address unprecedented levels of inequality, and for citizens to adapt to the changing ethnic and cultural compositions of their nations. Indeed, Stuart Hall appears correct in predicting that “the capacity to live with difference” represents the “the coming question of the twenty-first century.[70]

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  • Mcurry, Justin; ‘Japan running low on workers as proportion of over-65s hits record levels’, The Guardian (30/06/16) – http://tinyurl.com/z8yfzov [last accessed 16/01/17]
  • Pilditch, David; ‘Afghan and Somali women in Britain have FOUR times as many kids as UK born mums’, Daily Express (17/08/15) – http://tinyurl.com/omahg6z [last accessed 16/01/17]
  • Pilkington, Ed; ‘Donald Trump: ban all Muslims from entering US’, The Guardian (08/12/15) – http://tinyurl.com/jc3x377 [last accessed 17/01/17]
  • Post Editorial Board; ‘The Post Endorses Donald Trump’, The New York Post (14/05/16) –http://tinyurl.com/hwllxzg [last accessed 17/01/17]
  • Response – Mediterranean (2016) – http://tinyurl.com/h6vnh6j [last accessed 16/01/17]
  • Schreckinger, Ben; ‘Trump crowds reign hate on the press’ Politico (13/10/16) – http://tinyurl.com/hsmem5b [last accessed 17/01/17]
  • Shafer, Jack; ‘How Trump Took Over the Media By Fighting It’, Politicohttp://tinyurl.com/jqnhfwn [last accessed 17/01/17]
  • Stewart, Heather; ‘Temporary and part-time jobs surge promotes inequality, says OCED’, The Guardian (21/05/2015) – http://tinyurl.com/hwlofse [last accessed 15/01/2017]
  • Thompson, Derek; ‘Donald Trump and the Twilight of White America’, The Atlantic (13/05/16) – http://tinyurl.com/zen3wds [last accessed 17/01/17]
  • Tankersly, Jim; ‘How Trump Won: The Revenge of the Working Class White’, The Washington Post (09/11/16) – http://tinyurl.com/hjr54tz [last accessed 18/01/17]
  • UNHCR; ‘Monthly Arrivals by Nationality to Greece, Italy and Spain’; Refugees/Migrants Emergency
  • Yew, Lee Kuan; ‘Warning Bell for Developed Countries: Declining Birth Rates, Forbes (16/10/12) – http://tinyurl.com/huum794 [last accessed 16/01/17]
  • Zong, Ji; ‘Frequently Requested Statistics on Immigration in the United States’, Migration Policy Institute (14/04/16) http://tinyurl.com/mea4x6a [last accessed 17/01/17]

Polls:

  • D’Vera Cohn; It’s official: ‘Minority babies form a majority among the nation’s infants, but only just’, Fact Tank, Pew Research Centre (23/06/2016) – http://tinyurl.com/hqdan5l [last accessed 16/01/17]
  • Morales, Lymari; ‘Cable, Internet News Sources Growing in Popularity’, Gallup (15/12/2008) – http://tinyurl.com/kt4tp7 [last accessed 17/01/17]
  • Swift, Art; ‘Americans Trust in Mass Media Sinks to All Time Low’, Gallup (14/09/16) – http://tinyurl.com/hda5s4u [last accessed 17/01/17]
  • Norman, Jim; ‘American Confidence in Institutions Stays Low’, Gallup (13/06/16) – http://tinyurl.com/hd3afho [last accessed 17/01/17]
  • Manchin, Anna; ‘Trust in Government Sinks to New Low in Southern Europe, Gallup (30/10/13) – http://tinyurl.com/gqxs728 [last accessed 17/01/17]

Videos

  • ‘Donald Trump mocks reporter with disabilities – video’, The Guardian (26/11/15) – http://tinyurl.com/gwlmz5y [last accessed 17/07/27]

 

 

[1]‘Latest Election Polls’, The New York Times (08/11/16) – http://tinyurl.com/gnfacya [last accessed 17/01/17]

[2] Appadurai, Arjun; ‘Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy’, Theory, Culture and Society, Vol.7 (1990) p.296

[3] Ibid

[4] Castells, Manuel; The Rise of the Network Society, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers (1996)

[5][5] Warf, Barney; ‘Oligopolisation of Global Media and Telecommunications and its Implications for Democracy’, Ethics, Place & Environment, Vol.10, No.1 (2007) p.89

[6] Crouch, Colin; ‘The Paradoxes of Privatisation and Public Service Outsourcing’ in Rethinking Capitalism: Economics and Policy for Sustainable and Inclusive Growth, ed. Michael Jacobs et al., (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2016) p.157

[7] Warf; ‘Oligopolisation of Global Media’ p.91

[8] Ibid p.95

[9] Warf; ‘Oligopolisation and Global Media’ p.100

[10] Ibid p.100, p.102

[11] Schreckinger, Ben; ‘Trump crowds reign hate on the press’ Politico (13/10/16) – http://tinyurl.com/hsmem5b [last accessed 17/01/17]

[12] Ibid

[13] Ingram, Matthew; ‘How Donald Took Advantage of a Broken Media Landscape’, Fortune (07/11/16) – http://tinyurl.com/jmef3qk  [last accessed 17/01/17]

[14] Engesser et. al; ‘Populism and Social Media: How Politicians Spread a Fragmented Ideology’, Information, Communication & Society (2016) p.2

[15] Ibid p.12

[16] Ingram; ‘How Donald Took Advantage of a Broken Media Landscape’

[17] Shafer, Jack; ‘How Trump Took Over the Media By Fighting It’, Politicohttp://tinyurl.com/jqnhfwn [last accessed 17/01/17]

[18] Post Editorial Board; ‘The Post Endorses Donald Trump’, The New York Post (14/05/16) –http://tinyurl.com/hwllxzg [last accessed 17/01/17]

[19] Marzilli, Ted; ‘Fox News Hits Three Year Low With Republicans’, YouGov Brand Index (24/02/16) –http://tinyurl.com/j4r2ohg [last accessed 17/01/17]

[20] Madianou, Mirca; Mediating the Nation – News Audiences and the Politics of Identity, London: UCL Press (2005) p.135

[21] Shafer; ‘How Trump Took Over the Media By Fighting It’

Morales, Lymari; ‘Cable, Internet News Sources Growing in Popularity’, Gallup (15/12/2008) – http://tinyurl.com/kt4tp7 [last accessed 17/01/17]

[22] Swift, Art; ‘Americans Trust in Mass Media Sinks to All Time Low’, Gallup (14/09/16) – http://tinyurl.com/hda5s4u [last accessed 17/01/17]

[23] Madianou; Mediating the Nation p.134

[24] Ibid p.2

[25] Pilkington, Ed; ‘Donald Trump: ban all Muslims from entering US’, The Guardian (08/12/15) – http://tinyurl.com/jc3x377 [last accessed 17/01/17]

[26] ‘Donald Trump mocks reporter with disabilities – video’, The Guardian (26/11/15) – http://tinyurl.com/gwlmz5y [last accessed 17/07/27]

[27] Jamieson, Amber, Jeffery, Simon & Puglise, Nicole; ‘A timeline of Donald Trump’s alleged sexual misconduct: who, when and what, The Guardian (27/10/2016) – http://tinyurl.com/jmu65re [last accessed 18/01/17]

[28] Holley, Peter; ‘KKK’s official newspaper supports Donald Trump’, The Washington Post (02/11/16) – http://tinyurl.com/zwvj2xh [last accessed 17/01/17]

Deibart, Amanda; ‘Dear Trump Supporter who says they love me,”, Medium (15/11/16) – http://tinyurl.com/h6nww54 [last accessed 17/01/17]

[29] Norman, Jim; ‘American Confidence in Institutions Stays Low’, Gallup (13/06/16) – http://tinyurl.com/hd3afho [last accessed 17/01/17]

[30] Guskin, Emily; ‘Donald Trump is the most unpopular presidential candidate since the former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, The Washington Post (21/03/16) – http://tinyurl.com/ztq7bl7 [last accessed 17/01/17]

[31] Manchin, Anna; ‘Trust in Government Sinks to New Low in Southern Europe, Gallup (30/10/13) – http://tinyurl.com/gqxs728 [last accessed 17/01/17]

[32] ‘Do we trust our governments? See how your country compares’, The Guardian (2012) – http://tinyurl.com/jspbyy2 [last accessed 17/01/17]

[33] Jacobs, Michael & Mazzucato, Mariana; ‘Rethinking Capitalism: An Introduction’ in Rethinking Capitalism: Economics and Policy for Sustainable and Inclusive Growth, ed. Michael Jacobs et al., (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2016) p.3

[34] Jacobs & Mazzucato; ‘Rethinking Capitalism’ p.3

[35] Ibid

[36] Ibid p.7

[37] Castells; The Rise of the Network Society p.1

[38] Stewart, Heather; ‘Temporary and part-time jobs surge promotes inequality, says OCED’, The Guardian (21/05/2015) – http://tinyurl.com/hwlofse [last accessed 15/01/2017]

[39]‘Automation and Anxiety’, The Economist (25/06/16) – http://tinyurl.com/zq5qk5f [last accessed 13/01/16]

[40] Jacobs & Mazzucato; ‘Rethinking Capitalism’ p.9

[41] Stewart; ‘Temporary and part-time jobs surge promotes inequality, says OCED’

[42] Jacobs & Mazzucato; ‘Rethinking Capitalism’ p.10

[43] Ibid p.9

[44] Li, Danika; ‘Global Migration: Trends and Changes’, Diplomatic Courier (19/07/16) – http://tinyurl.com/ha7yxnt [last accessed 16/01/17]

[45] Conor, Phillip, Cohn, D’vera & Gonzalez-Barrera, Ana; Changing Patterns of Global Migration and Remittances, Pew Research Centre (17/10/13) – http://tinyurl.com/k9fgta9 [last accessed 16/01/17]

[46] Zong, Ji; ‘Frequently Requested Statistics on Immigration in the United States’, Migration Policy Institute (14/04/16) http://tinyurl.com/mea4x6a [last accessed 17/01/17]

[47] Munz, Rainer; Europe: Population Change and its Consequences, Berlin: Berlin Institut (2007) p.2 – http://tinyurl.com/hmzoqko [last accessed 16/01/17]

[48]  UNHCR; ‘Monthly Arrivals by Nationality to Greece, Italy and Spain’; Refugees/Migrants Emergency Response – Mediterranean (2016) – http://tinyurl.com/h6vnh6j [last accessed 16/01/17]

[49] Mcurry, Justin; ‘Japan running low on workers as proportion of over-65s hits record levels’, The Guardian (30/06/16) – http://tinyurl.com/z8yfzov [last accessed 16/01/17]

[50] Jacobson, Linda A. et al.; ‘America’s Aging Population’, Population Bulletin, Vol.66, No.1 (2011) p.2

[51] Castells, Manuel; The Power of Identity, Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers (1997) p.24

[52] Yew, Lee Kuan; ‘Warning Bell for Developed Countries: Declining Birth Rates, Forbes (16/10/12) – http://tinyurl.com/huum794 [last accessed 16/01/17]

[53] Castells; The Power of Identity p.153

[54] Ibid p.155

[55] Ibid p.24

[56] Browne, Anthony; ‘The last days of a white world’, The Guardian (03/09/2000) – http://tinyurl.com/jepugmp [last accessed 16/01/17]

[57] Pilditch, David; ‘Afghan and Somali women in Britain have FOUR times as many kids as UK born mums’, Daily Express (17/08/15) – http://tinyurl.com/omahg6z [last accessed 16/01/17]

[58] D’Vera Cohn; It’s official: ‘Minority babies form a majority among the nation’s infants, but only just’, Fact Tank, Pew Research Centre (23/06/2016) – http://tinyurl.com/hqdan5l [last accessed 16/01/17]

[59] Stevenson, Nick; Cultural Citizenship: Cosmopolitan Questions, Maidenhead: Open University Press (2003) p.30

[60] Castells; The Power of Identity p.65

[61] Thompson, Derek; ‘Donald Trump and the Twilight of White America’, The Atlantic (13/05/16) – http://tinyurl.com/zen3wds [last accessed 17/01/17]

[62] Cassleman, Ben; ‘Why are White People so Pessimistic About the Economy?’, FiveThirtyEight (10/06/16) – http://tinyurl.com/hplfd7l [last accessed 18/01/17]

[63] Tankersly, Jim; ‘How Trump Won: The Revenge of the Working Class White’, The Washington Post (09/11/16) – http://tinyurl.com/hjr54tz [last accessed 18/01/17]

[64] Ehrenfreund, Max & Guo, Jeff; ‘A massive new study debunks a widespread theory for Donald Trump’s success’, The Washington Post (12/08/16) – http://tinyurl.com/gqms4f8 [last accessed 18/01/17]

[65] Ibid

[66] DiAngelo, Robin; ‘White Fragility’, International Journal of Criminal Pedagogy, Vol.3, No.3 (2011) p.59

[67] Ibid

[68] DiAngelo; ‘White Fragility’ p.54

[69] Castells; The Power of Identity p.10

[70] Hall, Stuart; ‘Culture, Community and Nation’, Cultural Studies, Vol.7, No.3 (1993) p.361

 

Originally submitted January 2017 for the course ‘Global Media and Post-National Communication’ at SOAS. 

Occidental College: Islamophobic graffiti reveals ignorance in even the most liberal environments

Nb. this article is a response to an incident that occurred whilst I was attending Occidental College in Los Angeles between August 2014 and May 2015

This week’s post is a little different to what I usually publish, but an issue caught my attention a few days ago that I feel is worthy of a deeper analysis. The Occidental community does a fantastic job of raising awareness about a plethora of important social justice issues and I feel it to be a warm and welcoming environment for the discussion of matters relating to race, gender, identity and religion. For this reason, I was even more shocked to see a flagrantly Islamophobic piece of graffiti daubed on the quad, in full view of anybody leaving the marketplace. The graffiti in question was a not-so-original phrase commonly seen in the comments of YouTube videos or leaving the mouths of ideologues like Bill Maher and Bill O’Reilly; “not all Muslim’s are terrorists, but most terrorists are Muslim.”

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The offending graffiti. It was quickly crossed out by a concerned student

This statement is problematic on a number of levels and reveals that startling levels of ignorance can be fostered in even the most liberal environments. For one, it is a factually incorrect statement. Numerous non-Muslim terrorist groups, some with many thousands of members, are currently active worldwide and Islamist terrorism itself is a relatively new phenomenon, only reaching global prominence in the last few decades. A quick look at the U.S Department of State’s list of designated foreign terrorist organizations, easily available on their website, reveals numerous non-Islamic groups deemed terrorist organizations by the U.S government. 31% of the groups listed are not Islamist groups, and the list is misleading as many of the Islamist groups listed are splinters from other groups or national wings of larger Islamist organizations.

Amongs the 18 non-Islamist terrorist organizations listed, five are secular groups based in Muslim majority countries, such as the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Abu Nidal group. Some organizations on the list are fundamentalist groups from other religions such as the Kahane Chai, an Israeli Jewish extremist organization banned from the Knesset for inciting racial hatred. The majority of others are communist insurgencies like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC), the leftist guerrilla group that has been fighting a civil war in Colombia since the mid-1960s and the New People’s Army (NPA), the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines. However, the state department list has been widely criticized by intellectuals like Noam Chomsky for its arbitrary nature, and a number of prominent terrorist groups, most notably the Lord’s Resistance Army who have terrorized Uganda for over four decades, are absent.

At a talk at Google Cambridge, Chomsky challenged the U.S designation of terrorist organizations, arguing that “the executive branch of the government simply determines you’re a terrorist. I put you on the list. No review. No judicial review. No defense. It’s just an executive act of an authoritarian state.” This is one fundamental flaw with the use of the term terrorist; as the now rather cliche term goes ‘one man’s terrorist is another mans freedom fighter’. To understand the implications of describing a person or a group as terrorists, it is important to understand a little of the history of the term.

The Evolution of the Term*

Terrorism is a politically loaded phrase, useful for inciting emotional responses like fear and patriotism, but rather imprecise as a critical term. The rise of the modern media machine, which often simplifies complex issues under the byword ‘terrorism’ due to the constraints of airtime or print space, has contributed to a general lack of understanding about what terrorism is. Bruce Hoffman, author of Inside Terrorism, argues that “terrorism, in its most widely accepted contemporary usage of the term, is fundamentally and inherently political. It is also ineluctably about power; the pursuit of power, the acquisition of power, and the use of power to achieve political change.” Popular use of the term has changed frequently over the last two centuries, mirroring the constantly evolving political environments in which acts of terror are perpetrated.

The term was originally popularized in the aftermath of the French Revolution, where it was used to describe the regime de la terreur of 1793-94, where massive violence was directed by the state at the French public as a means of gaining and maintaining political control. In light of this it is perhaps slightly ironic that our contemporary use of the term usually refers to revolutionary or non-governmental activity, and state terrorism, when the term is used, is almost always put in inverted commas. Since the French Revolution a number of groups and individuals have contributed to the evolution of our modern understanding of terrorism. Italian revolutionary Carlo Pisacane coined the phrase “propaganda of the deed”, in which he argued that violence was necessary to both draw attention to a cause and to educate and rally the masses behind revolution. This has arguably formed part of the bedrock of our modern conception of terrorism, and his theory has been put into practice by countless groups since his death in 1857.

Between then and now, the popular use of the term terrorism has evolved to reflect the political environment in which it has been used. Up until the First World War it became attributed to revolutionary groups and independence movements; the Irish Republican Brotherhood led coordinated bomb attacks on the London Underground in the late 19th century, and nationalist agitators in the former Hapsburg and Ottoman dominated territories like Armenia, Bosnia and Macedonia frequently employed terror tactics like assassinations and bomb attacks. It was a member of the nationalist group Mlada Bosna, or Young Bosnians, who assassinated the Hapsburg Archduke Franz Ferdinand, sparking the Great War.

By the 1930s the meaning of terrorism changed again, becoming associated less with revolutionary violence directed against state actors and more with the practices of mass repression by totalitarian governments against their own citizens; namely Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. In Italy and Germany their emerged state-sanctioned street gangs who led political brawls and persecuted Jews, communists and other so-called enemies of the state; violence was endorsed by the state and terrorism somewhat regained its original meaning. In contemporary times, authoritarian governments have employed similar tactics; governments across South America have engaged non-state death squads to terrorize their populations into complicity, but these tactics are more commonly referred to as ‘state terror’ rather than terrorism, as the latter is now more commonly associated with non-governmental groups.

Mussd.jpg

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini marching with his ‘blackshirt’ thugs in 1922

In the post-WW2 era terrorism regained its revolutionary connotations; groups battling for independence from imperial domination, in countries as diverse as Kenya, Cyprus and Algeria, employed terror tactics in their struggles, and sympathetic observers coined the term ‘freedom fighters’, deemed a more appropriate appellation for those participating in what were often viewed as morally justified acts of terror.

With the rising tensions between the USSR and the USA during the Cold War era, books like Claire Sterling’s The Terror Network informed a receptive U.S government that seemingly disparate terrorist acts across the world were in fact part of an elaborate Soviet conspiracy to bring down the ‘free world’; in the 1990s, despite the collapse of the USSR, this idea remained prevalent with the emergence of the phrase ‘narco-terrorism’, which asserted that there was a relationship between terrorism and the narcotics trade, largely in Latin America. The term was used by Western government’s to demonize the FARC in Colombia, despite the fact that the government backed paramilitary groups were far more involved in the cocaine trade, and posed a far larger terror threat to civilian populations than the guerrillas.

In the 1980s the CIA covertly funded and armed the group that would become al-Qaeda to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, ironically creating the organization that would orchestrate the most notorious terrorist attack of all time. Over the course of the 1990s, the term terrorism began to be increasingly tied to Islamist movements, spurred by the extreme violence purveyed by groups like the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria. However, it was the events of September 11th 2001, and the ideological crusade initiated by George W. Bush that inextricably tied Islamism with terrorism in the modern understanding of the phrase.

yeee.jpg

Mujaheddin fighters in Afghanistan, 1985. Osama Bin Laden’s Mujaheddin would go on to become al-Qaeda

The Promotion of Irrational Fear

Through a brief overview of the history of terrorism, I have attempted to show the fluidity of its usage and the way political situations have shaped the way it has been deployed at specific historical junctures. If we return to the offensive graffiti which instigated me to write this article, the ridiculousness of the statement becomes apparent. When the writer states “most terrorists are Muslim” it is unclear what they are even referring to: state terrorism? Narco-terrorism? Freedom Fighters? In fact, the lack of clarity in the statement reveals the basic truth behind it; the writer’s own ignorant Islamophobia, no doubt informed by the skewed media presentation of the U.S ‘war on terror’.

piechart2.jpg

Terrorist attacks on U.S. soil by group, From 1980 to 2005, According to FBI Database

In the context of the ‘war on terror’ it has become convenient for politicians to conflate Islam and terrorism, as revolutionary Islamist groups have been one of the primary targets of U.S military campaigns since 9/11. A look at the actual statistics suggests a different reality. According to the FBI database, only 6% of terror attacks in the United States since 1980 have been carried out by Islamic extremists, fewer than the 7% that were committed by Jewish extremists, and the 42% carried out by Latinos. The statistics are similar in Europe; a study by Europol found that only 0.4% of terrorist attacks between 2006 and 2008 in EU countries could be attributed to Islamist groups; the overwhelming majority were perpetrated by separatist groups like the Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA) who seek to establish an independent state in the Basque region of Spain.

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% of terror attacks by group in the European Union between 2006-2008

It is no accident that terrorism and Islam continue to be presented as synonymous in the media. The surge of fanatical patriotism sparked by 9/11 was adeptly harnessed by the Bush administration in the aftermath of the attacks. Major news outlets, eager to cash in on people’s new found fear of all things Islam, went to great lengths to dig up stories about Islamic extremism, often with very limited understandings of either Islam or terrorism. Even respectable publications fell back on the essentialist, racist stereotypes that had penetrated Western understandings of the Muslim world since the 19th century, promoting images of bearded flag-burning fanatics and their silent, veiled wives as the legitimate image of a religion of over a billion people. Texts like Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations have promoted the popular idea that Islam poses some existential threat to the very existence of the ‘free world’, but as the statistics prove American’s are far more likely to be victims of Latino terrorism than Islamic.

With the constant barrage of images of shocking violence occurring around the world, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the simplistic worldview purveyed by the media. However, to halt the cycle of fear and hatred it is crucial that people look beyond the news and investigate the complex reality, and understanding the problematic nature of the term ‘terrorism’ is an important prerequisite. As a blogger on Princeton’s anti-Islamophobia blog Loon Watch points out; “you don’t live in constant fear of radicalized Latinos… even though they commit seven times more acts of terrorism than Muslims in America.” Islamist terrorism is a global problem and people are rightly concerned – however the proximity of the threat to the United States remains exaggerated and is drawing a wedge between an alienated minority and the rest of the American people.

Originally posted at http://www.occidentalweekly.com on April 10th 2015

*The information in this section is largely taken from Bruce Hoffman’s book Inside Terrorism 

References:

Danios; All terrorists are Muslim, apart from the 95% that aren’t – http://www.loonwatch.com/2010/01/terrorism-in-europe/

Danios; Europol Report: All terrorists are Muslim, apart from the 99.6% that aren’t – http://www.loonwatch.com/2010/01/not-all-terrorists-are-muslims/

Hoffman, Bruce; Inside Terrorism, New York: Columbia University Press (2006)

Noam Chomsky lecture at Google Cambridge – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y3PwG4UoJ0Y

U.S Department of State Bureau of Counterterrorism; Foreign Terrorist Organisations – http://www.state.gov/j/ct/rls/other/des/123085.htm

Yemen: The Battle for the Balance of Power

Since September last year, the already fragile balance of power in the Middle East has fractured even further, with catastrophic consequences for the civilian population of the Arab world. Violence and unrest continue in Libya, the disastrous war in Iraq and Syria continues to tear society apart at the seams, and, most recently, a Houthi-led rebellion in Yemen has sent the Saudi-backed president fleeing for the coast. Factor in the recent terror attacks in Tunis, the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January and the horrific attacks on a university in Kenya by al-Shabaab this week, and it perhaps becomes a little easier to forgive President Obama for his premature self-congratulation in a speech regarding counter-terrorism policy on September 10th 2014. He cannot, after all, predict the future.

Whilst informing the American public about his government’s plan to tackle the Islamic State, the President praised U.S counter-terrorism policy in Yemen and Somalia, lauding it as an effective model to transplant to the Levant (despite the fact that Yemen remains the poorest country in the Arab world, and Somalia in the entire world, suggesting pacification, not progress, is the ultimate U.S goal). However, the collapse of the Yemeni government in the face of the rapidly advancing Houthi rebellion reveals how consistently short-sighted U.S foreign policy has been in the Middle East for decades.

Yemen_Houthi_Presi_3169000b.jpg

Houthi rebels defending positions near the Presidential Palace, Sana’a

Obama’s ‘Yemen model’ is dedicated to finding short-term solutions to long-term objectives; rather than addressing the root causes of fundamentalism in Yemen, Obama’s administration has pursued individual targets and groups, using drones and armed proxies as a substitute for boots on the ground. Nearly 54% of Yemen’s population of 25 million lives below the poverty line. Unemployment in January hit a staggering 40%, with youth unemployment as high as 60%. 70% of the population lives in rural areas, relying on agriculture in a country plagued by water shortages; even in Sana’a, the capital, only 40% of houses are connected to the municipal supply. Combined with a government that has failed to live up to the promises made after the Arab Spring to tackle corruption and create a more representative government and it becomes blindly obvious to even the least attentive observer why the country has proved such a hotbed of militant Islamist activity.

However, Obama’s administration continues to pursue the same foreign policy strategies that have repeatedly failed over the years. They have passed up the opportunity to invest in the infrastructure Yemen so desperately needs in favour of drone striking individuals in the middle of the desert, tearing apart families and pushing young men towards the very terror groups they set out to tackle. In many ways, the ‘Yemen model’ is emblematic of American foreign policy since the Second World War; namely pumping financial and military aid to whichever leader proves most amenable to U.S interests, regardless of their human rights record or governing ability. Countries across Latin America, South East Asia and the Middle East are still recovering American meddling to this day.

The effects of Obama’s irresponsible Middle East policy have made themselves clear in recent months; however, as Yemen slides into another civil war this is ceasing to be America’s fight. Instead, Yemen is rapidly becoming a proxy battlefield for a greater regional struggle for hegemony in the Persian Gulf. The Houthis, or Ansar Allah (‘supporters of Allah’), are Shia Muslims of the Zaydi sect, which represents around 20-30% of Yemen’s population, making them a substantial minority. After mistakenly believing that the promises of better representation after the Arab Spring would be realized, the Houthis renewed their armed struggle against Yemen’s new president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, who has had to flee the capital in the face of the advancing Houthi rebels. With their Shia beliefs and hostility to Saudi Arabia, the Houthis have found a natural ally in Iran; prominent Houthi leaders visited Tehran in March, and consequently the International Crisis Group (ICG) have asserted that “Iranian support has become more vocal, promising economic aid that includes expanding ports, building power plants and providing fuel”.

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A Houthi rebel stands guard in Sana’a

In response, an alliance of Sunni Arab states has been rapidly assembled, led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt but also including Turkey, Qatar and the UAE, to combat the perceived threat posed by the expansion of Iranian power. The alliance is novel; Egypt and Saudi Arabia fought a long and bloody proxy war in Yemen in the 1960s, in what became known as ‘Nasser’s Vietnam’. The new coalition underlines how much the political climate of the Middle East has changed since the independence era.

A bombing campaign was initiated by Saudi Arabia last week, and Arab air strikes have fallen consistently since then. Already the civilian cost of the war is being felt; on Monday, a stray Saudi rocket fell on a refugee camp in Hajjah province, killing at least 40 people. Critics have speculated about the actual level of support provided to the Houthis by Iran and have accused the Saudi’s of Netenyahu-style scare mongering in order to whip up support for their proxy war. One Saudi official went as far as to tell reporter Brian Whitaker that “Saudi Arabia needs to have a war with Iran… so it’s better to have the war on Yemeni soil than Saudi soil.”

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Refugees in al-Mazraq camp, that was struck by a Saudi air strike on Monday, killing 40

With the success of the Iranian nuclear deal announced this morning, it seems likely that the Yemen conflict will be just one articulation of the battle for influence in the Middle East. In Iraq and Syria, Iranian backed Shia rebels continue to tackle the Islamic State, and they remain influential in the Palestinian occupied territories. As is already becoming clear, the ultimate victims of this power struggle will not be Saudi or Iranians, but civilians in the Arab countries unfortunate enough to be selected as an appropriate battlefield. The mess created by the conflict has provided ample ground for the reemergence of terrorist groups in Yemen; the Islamic State have claimed responsibility for bomb attacks on mosques in Sana’a that killed at least 137 people in March, and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) seized the opportunity to storm a prison in south-east Yemen, freeing several hundred inmates and a prominent AQAP leader. Al-Jazeera reported this afternoon that AQAP have gone on to seize a major army base in the south of the country, demonstrating that they are still a force to be reckoned with in the Gulf.

The UN high commissioner for human rights has warned that Yemen is a country “on the verge of collapse”, and his warnings seem justified. In short, U.S policy towards Yemen over the last decade has failed miserably. However, the conflict gives Obama an opportunity to begin making amends by working to defuse the situation. Relations with Iran are warming thanks to the nuclear deal, and a diplomatic solution to the conflict could be possible. Whether the President will learn from his and his predecessor’s mistakes will become apparent in the coming months.

Originally posted @ http://www.occidentalweekly.com on April 6th 2015

References:

Agencee France-Presse; Al-Qaida fighters free senior leader in Yemen prison break – http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/02/al-qaida-frees-senior-terrorist-in-yemen-prison-swoop

Al Jazeera; Saudi-led airstrikes drive Houthis from Adenhttp://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/04/yemen-leader-loyalists-drive-houthis-aden-150403132431234.html

Al Monitor; Half of Yemenis live below poverty linehttp://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/security/2014/01/yemen-poverty-conflict-food-insecurity.html#

BBC News Middle East; Yemen crisis: Islamic State claims Sanaa mosque attacks – http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-31989844

Black, Ian; Crisis in Yemen – the Guardian briefing – http://www.theguardian.com/news/2015/apr/01/yemen-collapse-the-guardian-briefing-houthi-saudi-arabia-sanaa

Shaheen, Kareem; Air strike on Yemeni refugee camp by Saudi-led coalition kills at least 40 – http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/30/air-strike-refugee-camp-houthi-controlled-northern-yemen-kills-at-least-21

Taub, Amanda; Obama’s love of the “Yemen model” sums up his disastrously shortsighted foreign policyhttp://www.vox.com/2015/3/30/8309797/obama-yemen-model

Whitaker, Brian; Yemen and Iran – What’s really going on?http://www.al-bab.com/blog/2015/march/yemen-iran.htm#sthash.pxX55Kqy.MesQoV9G.dpbs

Whitehead, Fredericka; Water scarcity in Yemen: the country’s forgotten conflict –  http://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2015/apr/02/water-scarcity-yemen-conflict

Netanyahu: Unscrupulous and divisive campaign sparks further criticism from U.S government

Following a campaign epitomized by divisive rhetoric, political maneuvering and media manipulation that would have felt perfectly at home on the set of House of Cards, Benjamin Netanyahu was comfortably reelected as Israeli Prime Minister last week.

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Netanyahu celebrates the Likud party victory in the Israeli elections last week

Netanyahu’s campaign was fraught with controversy. His recent visit to the U.S, in which he dramatically warned Congress about the genocidal threat posed to Israel by the Iranian nuclear program, was widely criticized as a propaganda stunt to attract conservative voters back home (for a full analysis see my post from a fortnight ago). He courted accusations of racism for his warning to Likud supporters of the threat posed by Arab Israelis voting “in their droves”. Finally, in the closing hours of the election, he definitively disavowed his 2009 Bar-Ilan speech advocating a two-state solution to the Palestinian question, asserting that “anyone who moves to establish a Palestinian state and evacuate territory gives territory away to radical Islamist attacks against Israel.”

Many were quick to condemn Netanyahu’s political opportunism. President Obama, who has been an increasingly vocal critic of the Israeli Prime Minister in recent months, told The New York Times that Netanyahu’s warnings about Arab Israeli voters threatened “to erode the meaning of democracy in the country”, with another reporter likening the comments to an American president “warning the white electorate that black voters were heading to the polls in “large numbers.”

President Obama, in another interview, also questioned Netanyahu’s commitment to peace, warning New York Times reporters that his refusal to consider a two-state solution was making it “hard to find a path where people are seriously believing that negotiations are possible.” His concerns were echoed by British Prime Minister David Cameron during an address to the House of Commons on Monday, who asserted that he would continue to put pressure on Netanyahu to agree to a two-state solution, describing it as the only way to “achieve a lasting peace and to secure Israel’s long-term security and prosperity.” The increasingly regular criticisms levelled at Netanyahu by world leaders begs the question of whether the era of unconditional Western support for Israel may be drawing to a close.

Equally, Netanyahu’s continuingly vocal opposition to the ongoing talks with Iran regarding their nuclear program risks further estranging Israel from her Western allies and fanning the flames of discontent in the Middle East more generally. Reports this week accused Israel of spying on the international negotiations and using the intelligence gathered to persuade Congress to oppose the talks. If true, this represents an unprecedented attempt to interfere in the internal affairs of the United States government, demonstrating an extraordinary lack of respect for President Obama’s authority. In what appears to be a desperate last-ditch attempt to derail the negotiations, Israeli officials travelled to France this week to voice further concerns about the potential deal. Shimon Stein, a former Israeli ambassador to Germany who has been briefed on the talks, described the move as “only natural” for a Prime Minister who has exhausted all other options, describing France as “the weak link in the group”. However, despite persistent Israeli interference, Iranian President Rouhani remained optimistic, asserting that “there is nothing that can’t be resolved.”

In a move that has come to typify Netanyahu’s unscrupulous leadership, the Prime Minister was quick to backtrack on his divisive comments on the eve of the election. Merely a few days had passed since his firm assertion that he would never support an independent Palestine, when he appeared on MSNBC, claiming that he is in fact in favor of “a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution.” He also apologized for his comments about Arabs voting in the election, stating that “it was not his intention” to cause offense and citing his support for humanitarian groups as evidence. However, Many Arab Israeli’s remained unconvinced; Emilie Moatti, a spokesperson for Arab opposition party Joint List, refused to accept Netanyahu’s apology, claiming that “unfortunately Netanyahu and his government’s racism did not begin and end with that incendiary statement,” describing it as an “empty gesture intended to enable his and his government’s continued racist governance.”

Whether genuine or not, Netanyahu’s flip-flop on such an important and controversial issue is bound to have repercussions; those who were lured into voting by the original comment will feel instantly betrayed, while Arab Israelis will be left wondering whether they can truly trust a Prime Minister who will clearly go to extreme lengths to hold on to power. Netanyahu’s willingness to manipulate the media to his own ends, his disturbing tendency to interfere himself in the affairs of other states and his clear disregard for the Arab population that makes up 20% of the Israeli population, all suggest a career politician with little respect for the voting public. Perhaps comparisons to Kevin Spacey’s brilliantly portrayed Frank Underwood are not far off the mark.

Originally posted @ http://www.occidentalweekly.com on March 27th 2015

References:

Associated Press in Paris; Israeli officials head to France in last-minute bid to block nuclear deal – http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/23/israel-france-stop-iran-nuclear-deal

Beaumont, Peter; Netanyahu backtracks on rejecting two states, but damage is already done – http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/20/netanyahu-backtracks-on-rejecting-two-states-but-damage-is-already-done

Borger, Julian; US accuses Israel of spying on nuclear talks with Iran – http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/24/israel-spied-on-us-over-iran-nuclear-talks 

Freedland, Jonathan; Netanyahu sank into the moral gutter – and there will be consequences – http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/mar/20/inyamin-netanyahu-israel-election

Hirschfeld Davis, Julie; Obama Says He Told Netanyahu That Talk Before Election Hurt the Peace Process – http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/22/world/middleeast/obama-says-he-told-netanyahu-that-campaign-talk-hurt-the-peace-process.html

Perraudin, Frances; Lasting peace in Israel requires two-state solution, says Cameron – http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/23/two-state-israel-palestine-peace-binyamin-netanyahu-david-cameron

Ravid, Barak; Netanyahu: If I’m elected, there will be no Palestinian state – http://www.haaretz.com/news/israel-election-2015/1.647212

Cairo: Plans for glitzy new capital conceal deep divisions within Egyptian society

Built as the new capital for the once powerful Muslim empire of the Fatimids, Cairo has provided a potent symbol of Egypt’s rich history for over a millennium. A stone’s throw from the great pyramids and bursting with ancient monuments and historic Islamic architecture, Cairo continues to inspire awe in visitors from around the world. From its imperial origins, Cairo has swelled both geographically and demographically and is now home to up to 20 million people, making it one of the 15 most populated cities in the world. As is common with any mega city, pollution and congestion are major problems, and Cairo’s aging metro system, one of only two on the African continent, has struggled to cope with over 1 billion annual passengers. However, Egyptian’s were left shocked last Friday when President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi revealed his ambitious plan to tackle Cairo’s traffic problem; the construction of a $45 billion new capital to the east of the current capital.

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Cairo citadel, constructed by Saladin in 1183 CE, seen here in the 19th century

Expected to be roughly the same size as Singapore, with a park double the size of New York’s Central Park, a theme park four times the size of Disneyland and an airport larger than London’s Heathrow, the extremely ambitious project is slated to be completed in a mere five to seven years. Ordinary Egyptians were conspicuously absent from the announcement at a conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, where the plans were presented to an audience of potential investors and over 30 foreign emirs, kings and presidents.

The currently unnamed city will be built in partnership with a private developer from the oil-rich United Arab Emirates, led by businessman and property giant Mohammad Alabbar, famous for the construction of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The Egyptian government hopes that the city will house 5 million people in 21 residential districts, and contain 663 hospitals and clinics, 1,250 mosques and churches and 1.1 million homes. If successfully completed, the project will be the largest purpose built capital in history, nearly as large as Islamabad, Brasilia and Canberra combined.

However, critics have questioned the viability of the project, suggesting that it is little more than a propaganda stunt to attract foreign investors and draw attention away from the Sisi regime’s appalling human rights record. Egypt has a history of unsuccessful city building programs, many instigated under the cripplingly corrupt Mubarak regime; 22 ‘new towns’ house little more than a million residents, and ‘New Cairo’, a purpose built suburb on the outskirts of Cairo is still only home to a few hundred thousand after more than a decade. Corruption, a lack of infrastructure and an absence of interest mean that many of these purpose built projects have been left as half built ghost towns in the middle of the desert.

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A woman walks along a deserted New Cairo street. Originally intended to attract several million residents, only a few hundred thousand now call New Cairo home

When asked to comment on the newly unveiled plans, Nezar al-Sayyad, Professor of Architecture, Planning, Urban Design and Urban History at University of California, Berkeley, was unconvinced. “It is laughable” he asserted “to leave a city that is already 20 million and build another city that is meant to be twice its size for only 5 million with money that you don’t have on land that doesn’t even have water and in an area that is very distant from any kind of existing urbanisation.” Consequently, many Cairenes believe that the project is yet another example of the government’s refusal to address the concerns of Egypt’s 82 million citizens. Historian Khaled Fahmy, writing for Cairobserver, a blog about the capital, pointed out that the sum earmarked for the project is enough to build over 30 new metro lines, suggesting that the proposed city demonstrates that the “deeply corrupt elites” who make up the Egyptian government are “willing to turn their back to their own people.”

Since coming to power in a military coup that toppled the democratically elected former president Mohammed Morsi, President Sisi has ruthlessly suppressed dissent and cracked down on basic freedoms, imprisoning journalists, staging show trials and ordering hundreds of executions. The Egyptian police have rounded up and arrested alleged homosexuals and the army has repeatedly opened fire on peaceful protestors, killing hundreds. Despite the oppression, unrest continues to simmer in Egypt; five bombs exploded in Cairo the night before the economic conference where the new capital was announced, and Washington based think tank Tahir Institute estimates that there are now an average of 1.75 explosions in Egypt every day. In light of this evidence, the glitzy new capital city project seems a calculated move, intended to symbolize national renewal after years of social division, economic stagnation and political unrest. President Sisi seeks to quite literally draw a line in the sand between the old Egypt, represented by the haphazard disorder of Cairo, and his vision of a new Egypt clearly inspired by the shimmering postmodern towers of Dubai.

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A scale model of the proposed capital at the economic conference in Sharm el-Sheik

Whether the project will be successful remains to be seen. With a projected population of 40 million by 2050, something must be done to alleviate Cairo’s overpopulation. However, building an entire city, particularly such a colossal undertaking as the one proposed, may not be the best answer. Behind the success of purpose built capitals like Dubai, Islamabad and, perhaps most famously, Washington D.C, lie the ghost towns of Naypyidaw in Myanmar and Ordos in China, and the Egyptian government will have to strive to fend of the corruption that has stalled previous attempts at city building. With most of the new desert towns built in Egypt being marketed towards wealthy elites craving relief from Cairo traffic, there is a risk that the new capital could follow the same example, leaving Cairo’s urban poor, who suffer disproportionately from the city’s problems with little hope for relocation. As the Sisi government continues to refuse the Egyptian people a part in choosing the future of their country, millions of Egyptians are being left wondering, as Fahmy puts it, “what will happen to the rest of us?”

Originally posted @ http://www.occidentalweekly.com

References:

Fahmy, Khaled; Chasing Mirages in the Deserthttp://cairobserver.com/post/113543612414/chasing-mirages-in-the-desert#.VQs0HCgts1I

Ibrahim, Arwa; Doubts raised over achievability of Egypt’s ‘new capital’http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/egypts-new-capital-1280559810

Kingsley, Patrick; A new New Cairo: Egypt plans £30bn purpose-built capital in deserthttp://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/mar/16/new-cairo-egypt-plans-capital-city-desert

MEE Staff; Sisi kicks off Egypt’s economy conference as bombs rock Cairohttp://www.middleeasteye.net/news/high-hopes-egypts-economy-conference-bombs-rock-cairo-1705596510

Shenker, Jack; Desert Stormhttp://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/jun/11/cairo-satellite-towns-future-egypt

Trew, Bel; Sisi Is Persecuting, Prosecuting, and Publicly Shaming Egypt’s Gayshttp://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/12/30/sisi-is-persecuting-prosecuting-and-publicly-shaming-egypt-s-gays.html