‘Iran prepares to occupy Fallujah, the Kurds prepare to occupy Raqqa, and the Arabs prepare to watch part eight of Bab al-Hara…’, so tweeted Faisal al-Qassem this morning (27/05/2016) in response to the two operations currently underway against IS in Iraq and Syria. Qassem’s message encapsulates some of the long-established tropes of Arabist discourse, namely Arab disunity and passivity in the face of external aggression (Bab al-Hara is the famous Syrian TV drama series watched by millions across the Arab world particularly during Ramadan and set during the inter-war period of French colonial rule in Damascus.) However, Qassem’s response to the events unfolding around Fallujah is also indicative of a more recent trend in Arabist discourse, what appears to have been a rapid disintegration of the unifying public subjectivity of the Arabist public sphere and its collapse back into the reality – material and symbolic – of the Arab world’s plurality of social identities and interests. In this process it is clear that the conflicts in Iraq and Syria have played a key role in rendering the particularism of the Arabist public sphere’s universalist claims visible to the naked eye.
Why focus on Faisal al-Qassem? Qassem has been a key figure in al-Jazeera’s output since the mid-1990s and remains one of the foremost public figures in Arab discourse most famous for his al-Jazeera political talk-show The Opposite Direction. In a crude sense, the transformation in the function of Qassem’s discourse in constructing an Arab public subjectivity can be regarded, to some extent, as indicative of an important dimension of an Arabist public sphere. How is this transformation best characterised?
Al-Jazeera really came to prominence in the West because of its reporting on the 2003 Iraq war. In fact, at this time, the organisation became somewhat idolised and feted in some quarters because of what was regarded as its unflinching critical reporting on the Anglo-American invasion and its aftermath. The organisation seemed to capture and transmit an ‘authentic Arab voice’ highly critical of both domestic regimes and Western imperialism. It was a voice supposedly unregulated by the region’s authoritarian states, encouraging rational disputation between Arabs, and was potentially the progenitor of a democratic and unified Arabist political transformation.
This picture of al-Jazeera was sometimes presented entirely uncritically, such as in the acclaimed but deeply flawed documentary Control Room (2004), which, incredibly, made no mention whatsoever of the contentious role Iraq had, and continued to play, in the Arabist public sphere. This controversy, rooted in the perception amongst Iraqi opposition figures that the Arab political and intellectual order had provided the Saddam regime with material and moral support, was clearly visible in the post-2003 context. Iyad Allawi, on becoming Iraqi Prime Minister in June 2004, moved immediately to close down al-Jazeera’s offices in Iraq while his ministers, most notably Defence Minister Hazem Sha’alan frequently made the accusation that al-Jazeera was supporting elements of the Sunni insurgency which were butchering innocent Iraqi Shi’is. Nor does Control Room address the controversy surrounding Mohammed Jassem al-Ali, al-Jazeera’s station manager who resigned in 2003 amid allegations (most notably from Kuwait) that the station had been penetrated by Iraqi intelligence. Such allegations have never been firmly established, but what is known is that al-Jazeera’s coverage of Iraq during the sanctions period was considered extremely beneficial by Saddam’s regime who in turn gave the station special access to regime officials.
All this is to illustrate that Iraq already occupied a contentious position within the Arabist public sphere prior to the 2003 invasion. Iraqi-Shi’a, particularly amongst the Iraqi opposition, perceiving themselves as having been structured by this sphere as the ‘other’ of an authentic Arab identity. The controversial Fouad Ajami wrote bitterly of this Arabist discourse on Iraq. Saddam Hussein, he noted, was ‘Despot in Iraq, and “anti-imperialist fighter” in Gaza and Ramallah”… To hear other Arabs, the Iraqis were not to be trusted with their own destiny, or with their own narration of what their life was like under Tikriti rule.’ Ajami attributes this quality of Arabist discourse to the ‘new politics’ of the region: sectarianism; ‘martyrology’; and anti-Americanism. The Iraqi dictator, he wrote, ‘had welcomed Palestinian and Egyptian intellectuals; he had talked in grandiose terms about a big project and presented Iraq as the would-be Prussia of an Arab world that he would lead on a brand-new mission. There had been money and subsidies for Egyptian writers and Palestinian homicide bombers and Jordanian editors. There had been bravado for those who craved it: he was the “knight of Arabism” holding aloft a banner of resistance when all appeared lost and America had the run of the region.’ Ajami may be persona non grata in Middle Eastern studies, and a sell-out ‘neo-con’ to the Arab nationalists, but his vituperative attack on the sordid accommodations made between Saddam’s tyranny and Arab intellectual life certainly helps to understand the feelings of animosity towards the Arabist public sphere felt by those who rose to power in Iraq post-2003.
This did not mean that the Arabist public sphere could be reduced to a simple sectarian equation. Rather, it was a question of the terms upon which different communities within the Arab world were given a voice and incorporated into the unifying ‘Arab’ subjectivity. It could be said, for example, that Hezbollah was considered ‘Arab’ when its operations and rhetoric were directed against Israel, but became ‘Iranian’ and ‘other’ when it became embroiled in the Syrian conflict. Similarly, in Iraq, Muqtada al-Sadr was lauded as an Arab hero when his resistance targeted American soldiers, but the Sadrist trend quickly became ‘sectarian Iranian proxies’ when his forces made an accommodation with the post-2003 political order and were increasingly drawn into conflict with the Sunni insurgency. In other words, the sect identity of these groups only becomes problematic when it comes into conflict with the political priorities which the hegemonic group conceives as integral to an authentic Arab political identity projected in universal terms. Little of these complicating factors were acknowledged in those quarters in the West where there was a desire to conceive al-Jazeera and the Arabist public sphere in its own terms, i.e. as the authentic voice of a unified, democratic and anti-imperialist Arab struggle. This would have deeply troubling implications for how certain sections of the Western intelligentsia would come to perceive the legitimacy of the post-2003 Iraqi political order (a discussion for another time!)
More nuanced analysis of the Arabist public sphere has been produced in scholarly literature. Marc Lynch, amongst the most prolific investigators in this field, recognised in his 2006 study Voices of the New Arab Public Sphere that the tendency of Arabist discourse towards a search for authenticity carried a fragmentary potential which could polarise the Arab world through its demands for allegiance to a particular set of political priorities. However, Lynch, while certainly more cautious in his approach, remained largely optimistic about the potential of the Arabist public sphere as a universalising and emancipatory space. There is, perhaps, a lack of recognition here of the extent to which the universalising tendency of the public sphere is causally related to its dialectical transformation. Harold Mah explained this critique, writing:
‘‘What many historians currently see as the purpose of the public sphere—to provide a space for the free expression of disagreeing social identities and interests—turns out to be only a preliminary condition, which, according to the logic of the public sphere, is to be surmounted in a series of transformations that fuse persons into a unitary, collective subject, no longer a “public sphere” but now the “public”… The transformation of social groups into persons who fuse into unity is, of course, a phantasy, and one that is always at odds with an empirical reality of conflicting social identities and interests.’
What we have seen in the Arabist public sphere in recent years has echoed this process of unification collapsing back into the reality of competing social interests. Yet in 2006 Lynch wrote optimistically of the potential for the Arabist public sphere as a democratic and emancipatory space. The start of his 2006 study utilises Faisal al-Qassem as an exemplar of the positive aspects of the Arabist public sphere, and is worth quoting here at length before comparing it with Qassem’s recent interventions on the current events in Fallujah:
‘At the end of August 2003, the controversial al-Jazeera talk show host Faisal al-Qassem introduced the topic for the night’s live broadcast of The Opposite Direction: do the Iraqi people have the right to demand an apology from the Arabs for their support for Saddam Hussein over the years? With Abd al-Bari Atwan, editor in chief of the Pan-Arabist newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi, facing off against Entifadh Qanbar, spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress (INC), Qassem framed the show – as he always does – by posing a long series of questions. The first dozen questions offered a strong defense of Arabs against their accusers: “Do Iraqis have the right to demand an apology from the rest of the Arabs? Should the Arabs actually make such an apology, or should the Iraqi people extend their thanks to the Arab regimes who did terrible things to the departed regime? Aren’t they the ones who conspired against [Saddam] and allied with the occupiers against him?… Do they want an apology from the Arab regimes which enforced the embargo? Why don’t we hear the Iraqis demanding an apology from the Americans and British who starved them and blockaded them and enslaved them?… Who is the real traitor to the Iraqi people: the one who minimized Saddam’s crimes or the one who rode American tanks to occupy Iraq? Aren’t those who opposed the invasion of Iraq worthy of praise?
In the popular stereotype of al-Jazeera, Qassem’s questioning would have ended with this defense of the Arabs and attacks on their critics. But it did not. Instead, Qassem pivoted 180 degrees and posed a series of sharp questions to his Arab audience: “But on the other side: why were the Arabs silent politically and in the media for years about the horrors of the Iraqi regime? Aren’t all of those who defended Iraq in the past now free to apologize to the Iraqi people after seeing the mass graves? Doesn’t the revelation of the mass graves give Arab states some moral responsibility for the crimes of the old regime? Why did Arab rulers and information ministers and editors in chief of newspapers and television stars incline toward Saddam and not toward the people? … Why do some use the question of the relations between the Iraqi opposition and the Americans to justify their refusal to condemn the repression faced by the Iraqi people under Saddam? … Was there a single Arab government which issued a statement condemning the massacres of the Iraqi people? Isn’t it the right of the Iraqi people to ask for an explanation for the Arab silence?
Qassem’s framing of the arguments to come is remarkable in part for not being remarkable. Such open arguments over the most sensitive issues, involving strong representatives of both sides of the dispute, represent the hallmark of al-Jazeera’s approach to Arab politics. Where Arab public life had for decades been dominated by the voice of the state, al-Jazeera ushered in a new kind of open, contentious public politics in which a plethora of competing voices clamoured for attention. Rather than imposing a single, overwhelming consensus, the new satellite television stations, along with newspapers, internet sites, and many other sites of public communication, challenged Arabs to argue, to disagree, and to question the status quo. These public arguments, passionate in their invocation of an aggrieved Arab identity, sometimes oppressively conformist and sometimes bitterly divisive, sensationalist but liberating, defined a new kind of Arab public and new kind of Arab politics.’
This passage is worth quoting at length because it touches on so many of the issues discussed thus far surrounding Iraq’s crucial place in Arabist discourse. Qassem’s juxtaposition of questions asks his audience to consider the contradictions in an Arabist discourse whose political priorities and symbologies have come into conflict with the experience and aspirations of many Iraqis. How things have changed… Today Faisal al-Qassem expounds a discourse which has abandoned balance and nuance, instead embracing some of the most divisive and futile tropes of a hegemonic Sunni-Arabism. His message: ‘Iran prepares to occupy Fallujah, the Kurds prepare to occupy Raqqa, and the Arabs prepare to watch part eight of Bab al-Hara…’ reconfigures the diversity of the groups involved in the Fallujah offensive – which alongside Shi’i militias (some of which are Iranian proxies) includes the Iraqi armed forces and federal police force, and, according to al-Mada, four of Fallujah’s main Sunni tribal groups including the Jumailat and Albu Issa tribes, into a unified category labelled ‘Iranian’ i.e. ‘non-Arab’.
Qassem’s tweet is indicative of an Arabist public sphere that seems incapable of coming to terms with the complexity of Iraq, insisting that the post-2003 political order in general, and particularly al-hashd al-shaabi, is a sectarian Iranian phenomenon directed against Arab power. In drawing this clumsy and blunt dichotomy, the Arabist public sphere makes its own Arabism a form of Sunni hegemony incapable of accommodating the heterogeneity of the Arab world in general, and of Iraq in particular. Qassem’s other messages since the Fallujah operation began have followed this dangerous play-book:
‘عندما يقود قاسم سليماني الطائفي معركة تحرير الفلوجة المزعومة، فاعلم انها حرب طائفية ولا علاقة لها بطرد داعش’
‘When Qassem Soleimani leads the alleged battle to liberate Fallujah, it is known that it is a sectarian war that has no relationship to expelling Daesh’.
In another tweet Qassem draws a connection between current events and the US attacks on Fallujah in 2004, suggesting a parallel between the ‘heroic’ resistance to the US occupation, and the resistance by ISIS to efforts by the Iraqi government and militias to retake Fallujah today:
‘لن ينسى آل البيت الأبيض هزيمتهم النكراء على أيدي أهل الفلوجة الأشاوس، لهذا يتحالفون الآن مع آل البيت الإيراني’
‘The White House won’t forget its terrible defeat at the hands of the heroic people of Fallujah, this is why they are now allied with the Iranians’
Qassem has also posted a series of mini polls to his followers which are revealing both in terms of how he frames the questions, and the responses.
Below Qassem asks: ‘Do you think Sunni Muslims in Iraq (a) support Daesh or (b) reject both Daesh and al-hashd al-shaabi?’ 32% responding (a), 68% responding (b). That some Sunnis in Iraq might support, or even participate in, al-hashd al-shaabi (as is in fact the case) appears beyond the realms of possible thought.
Below Qassem asks: ‘Do you think al-hashd al-shaabi in Iraq is (a) a popular mobilisation, or (b) a Shi’i mobilisation?’ 18% of respondents (a) 82% of respondents (b).
And finally, in a disturbing denouement, but surely the inevitable conclusion of Qassem’s discourse, he asks: ‘Who do you support in the ongoing battle in Iraq between al-hashd al-shaabi and the Islamic State? (a) the Islamic State, or (b) al-hashd al-shaabi?’ 65% of respondents support the Islamic state, while 35% support al-hashd al-shaabi.
The point of this post has not been to shine a light on the problematic aspects of al-hashd al-shaabi, of which there are many which deserve close scrutiny in their own right, but to take a look at the response from the Arabist public sphere to events unfolding in Iraq. How representative Faisal al-Qassem and his twitter followers are of that sphere is difficult to judge. But what is absolutely clear is that an Arabist discourse, like that discussed here, which, for whatever reasons, seeks to justify, glorify and ‘support’ organisations such as ISIS which are indisputably genocidal vis-à-vis the Arab world’s minority communities, will make itself a prisoner of its own sectarianism. It will be incapable of projecting a stable and inclusive form of power, and its modes of subjectivity will remain fissiparous and prone to self-destruction.
 Marc Lynch, Voices of the New Arab Pubic: Iraq, al-Jazeera, and Middle East Politics Today, Columbia University Press, New York, 2006. p.18
 Marc Lynch, Voices of the New Arab Pubic: Iraq, al-Jazeera, and Middle East Politics Today, Columbia University Press, New York, 2006. p.16.
 Fouad Ajami, The Foreigners Gift, Free Press, New York, 2006, p.72.
 Fouad Ajami, The Foreigners Gift, Free Press, New York, 2006, p.74.
 Harold Mah, ‘Phantasies of the Public Sphere: Rethinking the Habermas of Historians’, The Journal of Modern History, Vol.72, No.1, 2000, pp.153-182., p.154.