The Securitization of Social Media in China

The crackdown on ‘human flesh searches’ and including cybersecurity within the jurisdiction of the recently created National Security Committee, are the most recent episodes in a series that outlines the Communist Party’s concern and intent regarding social media. Xi Jinping’s administration is concerned that social media represents an innovative mechanism for petitioning and collective action that has proven at times capable of achieving concrete results in lieu of a tightly regulated environment for civil society mobilization. The intent is a comprehensive campaign against social media in order to circumscribe its perceived threat to one-party rule.

In an April 13 article originally published in Red Flag Journal, Ren Xianliang, deputy director of the CCP Shaanxi Provincial Propaganda Department and vice-chairman of the All-China Journalists Association, revealed the official position on social media. Ren called for the government to ‘occupy new battlefields in public opinion.’ He noted that since the advent of Sina Weibo and other microblogs as platforms for ‘online political questioning and supervision’ the Party’s task of controlling public discourse and information had become more difficult. He pointed to online agitators that manipulated public opinion, fabricated rumors and attacked the image of the Party and government, calling on the Party and traditional media to combat these threats (Xinhua, April 13).

By the end of April the Party had begun internally circulating the Minutes of the 2013 National Conference of Propaganda Chiefs. The Minutes, better known as Document No. 9, outlined the now well-discussed seven subversive topics including constitutionalism, civil society, and press freedoms. What is less mentioned about Document No. 9, however, is the inclusion of countermeasures: the consolidation and spreading of the Party’s voice; education on socialism with Chinese characteristics; and the strengthening of Party control over media (China Change, May 16). At a later national gathering of propaganda chiefs in August, Xi Jinping, echoing Ren Xiangliang’s rhetoric, ushered in the securitization of social media, calling on the propaganda department to build ‘a strong army’ and to ‘seize the ground of new media’ (South China Morning Post, September 4). Already underway, the crackdown on social media intensified for the remainder of 2013.

Liu Zhengrong, a senior official with the State Internet Information Office, declared ‘human flesh searches’ (renrou suosou), the independent online investigation into the personal details of a suspected wrongdoer, the final social media target of 2013 and called for its abolishment. On December 17 Liu described the ‘human flesh search’ as a network of violence and emphasized that cyberspace would not be a lawless place (Xinhua, December 18). Liu cited the recent suicide of a girl in Guangdong after being wrongly accused through a local ‘flesh search’ as yet another example of the practice’s violent consequences. Conversely, the practice has also been hailed for its ability to empower ordinary citizens to hold the government more accountable.

Proponents of ‘flesh searches’ as a means of public engagement in a system without a functioning rule of law highlight such cases as Yang Dacai and Li Qiming. In October 2010 a black Volkswagen sped along the streets of Baoding, near Hebei University. The car collided with two girls, killing one and severely injuring the other. The driver sped on and only stopped after being surrounded by a crowd, to emerge arrogantly and taunt them with the now famous, “My father is Li Gang!” Soon news of the incident spread online revealing the driver’s identity as Li Qiming, the son of the deputy director of the Baoding City Public Security Bureau. The father was dismissed and the son convicted after viral images of the family’s luxury properties well in excess of their salary were revealed through ‘flesh searches.’ Liu Zhengrong’s sympathy for the girl in Guangdong might have been more believable had his attack on ‘flesh searches’ not followed so closely behind a similar crackdown against ‘online rumors.

The policy on spreading rumors came less than a month after Xi Jinping effectively declared war on independent social media in August. The now infamous policy states that Weibo and other microblog users who are accused of posting ‘rumors’ viewed more than 5,000 times or shared more than 500 times will be held criminally liable and face a maximum sentence of three years in prison. Supported by a judicial interpretation issued by the Supreme People’s Court and Procuratorate the policy expands existing crimes such as creating a disturbance or picking quarrels to apply to online activities (People’s Daily Online, September 9). Hundreds of bloggers and active Internet users were detained or arrested following policy implementation. Yang Zhong was one of the first arrests, a 16 year old from Gansu he had posted challenges online to the official narrative of a local death in custody, but was released following considerable online defense.

Admittedly some individuals have posted knowingly false or poorly fact checked information leading to serious instability. In late February 2010, in the middle of the night, tens of thousands of residents in multiple cities across Shanxi fled their homes in panic. The cause of this sudden movement was a rumor spread through chatrooms and text messages that a destructive earthquake was imminent. Similarly in 2011, rumors that an already accident prone chemical plant in Xiangshui, Jiangsu was about to explode caused a stampede as tens of thousands of residents fled to escape. Four people died in the rush. Recently, Qin Huohuo and Lierchaisi were arrested in August 2013 for, among other things, fabricating a story about a 30 million euro compensation of an Italian citizen who died in the 2011 Wenzhou train crash. The Party cites cases such as these to legitimize tighter restrictions of online content to provide ‘accurate’ information to promote public security.

While some users online have admitted to fabricating their postings, the story of the deadly Wenzhou train crash itself was first broke by a Weibo user because the Propaganda Department had originally directed official media not to report on the incident. Four months after the crash the General Administration of Press and Publications officially banned domestic journalists from reporting on information from Weibo. And it was this type of citizen journalism that Zhu Huaxin, secretary of the People’s Daily Online Public Opinion Monitoring Center, attacked in an article following the announcement of the policy in 2012. His position in the article revealed a fear at the perceived loss of Party power to independent online actors (People’s Daily Online, October 11) but was nothing new. Zhu, writing as far back as 2009, has been steady in his calls for the Propaganda Department to establish its cyber supremacy (China Youth Daily, July 24) in order to constrain sensitive online activity.

In these cases we see Party efforts to not only censor independent accounts and persecute active Internet users, but to maneuver the Party to the forefront of narrative formation, on the one hand, and to frame its varied online crackdowns in paternalistic terms to legitimize censorship in the interests of public security on the other. Such efforts to regain lost control online beyond crackdowns on content have included the rise of government websites promoted as the legitimate forums for previously diffuse online activities. The two most striking examples are the establishment of a corruption monitoring and reporting website by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, with the implicit intent of discouraging independent investigation and reporting on corruption, and an online complaints system set up by the Bureau of Letters and Visits.

Between January and October of 2013 the Bureau of Letters and Visits, the office responsible for accepting complaints at and above the county level, received more than six million petitions, averaging 20,000 per day (Global Times, November 28). Many petitioners, in addition to hand delivering these documents, or staging demonstrations and sit-ins, post their petitions on forums or Weibo. There they are often commented on and reposted. Official objectives stated elsewhere reveal a real concern for the degree of instability produced by unaddressed petitions but also point to an intention with the website to curb the unregulated dissemination of petitions and limit conversation between activists online. Petitions on Weibo can generate national attention and earn the support of accomplished rights lawyers, trends the government no doubt hopes to limit with the promotion of ‘streamlined’ websites.

Lawyers also Tweet

Circumscribing online activity and shaping the content of digital information dissemination has not been confined to policies and announcements targeted at general civil society. Central Party efforts have also included attempts to specifically rein in online information dissemination by lawyers and directives to Chinese courts regarding the influence of online activity.

In 2012 the Supreme Court proposed that lawyers could be disbarred for blogging any trial information without court preapproval (Duihua, September 26). Many courts have started to liveblog proceedings, as a countermeasure to activist lawyers or independent observers. Promoted as an attempt to correct false reporting on high-profile cases such measures are also designed to secure Party domination of sensitive legal narratives. That many of China’s rights lawyers are active on Weibo, constraining their ability to disseminate information about their cases effectively serves to limit access to potential information for online activists.

Courts already have the ability to temporarily detain lawyers administratively through judicial detention but the proposal to disbar them for up to a year for engaging in social media that threatens the interests of the court sent a clear signal. The proposed measure would likely have been exploited as a deterrent in the same way as the yearly lawyers license renewal has been used to harass more activist minded lawyers in recent years.

As it is, the Supreme Court does not have the power to suspend licenses. This authority is vested with the Ministry of Justice but judicial interpretations and general announcements issued by the Supreme Court can carry considerable influence on local level courts.

In August the Central Political and Legislative Commission (CPLC) issued a 15-point announcement aimed at addressing certain failures of the legal system. Provision 8 notes that courts and police are to disregard ‘public-opinion hype’ and ‘petitioning by parties to the case’ (Duihua, October 22). Following the CPLC announcement, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (Xinhua, September 6) and the Supreme People’s Court (China Court Online, November 21) issued their implementation opinions in September and November. All of these documents are concerned with public opinion, which depending on implementation could discourage online activism surrounding sensitive cases.

Such announcements are in direct response to the impact of public opinion, spread easily through social media, on influencing or forcing action in certain cases. When Li Tianyi, the son of well-known PLA singers Li Shuangjianga and Meng Ge, was first accused of leading the gang rape of a woman in a Beijing nightclub in 2013, many Chinese Internet users speculated that because of his status he would be afforded special treatment. After Li Tianyi was eventually sentenced to 10 years in prison, Zhejinag University law professor Lan Rongjie speculated that had the case not involved the scion of high ranking officials and generated such intense online attention, the 17 year old would likely have received a lesser sentence (Guardian, September 26). The court, Lan speculated, was reacting to protect its image, which had been challenged by online activism and thus handed out the maximum sentence. Online activism and public opinion has also had national achievements on court decisions and policy changes.

Sun Zhigang, from Wuhan, had been working in Guangzhou for two years, when on March 17, 2003 the local police detained him for not carrying his local identification, based on an administrative procedure known as Custody and Repatriation. Three days later his parents were informed that he had died in custody. The parents ordered an autopsy, which revealed that the 27 year old had been beaten to death but there was no official investigation. Over the ensuing days, as the family posted information to online forums and gathered public support, the case became a symbol of the highly abusive system. Addressing the mounting public pressure, both on and offline, then Premier Wen Jiabao announced on June 20, 2003 that the system would be abolished. In such cases critical online responses, coupled with public criticism, ongoing legal challenges, and traditional collective action have had a concrete impact on forcing government action.

Conclusion

The series of announcements and regulations regarding online activity and social media in the latter half of 2013 illustrate efforts to circumscribe online civil society in much the same way as the government hopes to forestall threats to Party stability posed by traditional collective action. A National Security Committee was established in November during the Third Plenum (China Brief, November 12) and one of its stated targets unequivocally reveals this securitization of social media. In early January 2014 it was made public that among extremist forces and Western ideological challenges the newly formed security organization would prioritize cybersecurity, including online calls for collective action against the government (South China Morning Post, January 14). This focus conflates security with political stability, moving well beyond promoting ‘accuracy’ for social stability. And with Xi Jinping at the helm of the nebulously powerful National Security Committee, we see the policy consolidation of the previously declared war on social media.

This essay was originally published in a slightly altered version at Jamestown Foundation China Brief (Volume: 14 Issue: 3) on February 7, 2014. It is available here.

Violence: A Discourse Analysis, Part I

Lately I have been rather indolent with this blog. So, as a cheeky means to feign productivity I am going to post a previously composed essay in three parts. It adheres to the general theme of this blog but is certainly more abstract and theoretical than previous posts. The following is part I of  DEFINE AND CONQUER: AN INVESTIGATION INTO FRAMING AS A VIOLENT ACT

Introduction

In framing an individual, institution or incident as X presupposes the existence of an objective meaning and distinct social phenomenon X. Otherwise the agent doing the framing is able to construct any possible meaning for X, thus creating a drastic power disparity between the agent doing the framing and the object of the framing. This power disparity can easily lead to excessive violence because if the X is only given meaning by the agent doing the framing, X can mean anything expedient to the framing agent, allowing for any legitimization of the use of violence against it. In this sense framing can itself be a violent act.

This paper will begin with a brief discussion of the concept of violence, from the traditional conception of physical hurt to the more inclusive forms of structural and symbolic violence. I will briefly address the literature concerning identity and boundary construction because it is important to position the discussion of framing within the constructivist school in order to demonstrate the enduring capability of violence qua framing. Furthermore, I will draw upon discourse theory to synthesis the constructivist approach with particular attention to the power of language. Finally, I will demonstrate how in certain circumstances framing is an act of violence against the object of framing.

Violence: Challenging Physical Hurt

Brass writes, “Inter-personal violence is an aspect of everyday life in virtually all societies… (Brass, 1996: 39).” In order to fully understand this statement we should first examine what conditions qualify  as violence.

The traditional conception of violence has been rightly criticized for being too parochial. This traditional notion of violence was fixated solely on the subjective violence of physical hurt. It was the reigning conception of violence for much of the last century as a convenient and simplifying worldview for policy makers in the age of conventional wars and a world system framed by bi-polarity. It wouldn’t be until scholars such as Galtung, Foucault or Bourdieu began to challenge this narrow view that a broader definition would position itself as a counter discourse for a changing modernity.

It should be understood as a triumvirate of not only physical but also structural and symbolic violence, a interactive spiral of violence as described by Helder Camara. Structural violence pinpoints certain systemic forms of violence such as poverty, exploitation or racism that have been produced by the social, political or economic structure of a given time and place. For most who speak in structural and post-structural terms, the current global economic and political system is inherently responsible for producing severe structural violence.

Symbolic violence is also a manifestation of cultural and social interactions marked by a distinct power asymmetry. This notion of violence goes beyond the obvious case of harassment or incitement. Zizek notes, “there is a more fundamental form of violence still that pertains to language as such, to its imposition of a certain universe of meaning (Zizek, 2008: 1).” Symbolic violence is important to discourse theory and particularly the critical analysis of framing.

The imposition of meaning through framing a discussion of violence is covered by Brass. He notes that what makes the transformation of everyday acts of violence into specialized forms is the process of framing, “developing categories defined as more serious or threatening to civil order and state authority, and fitting particular incidents or events into these categories (Brass, 1996: 39).”  As will be expressed below, this categorization is far more than simple phenomenological interpretation, it can have serious consequences.

It could be argued that immaterial violence, manifest in structural and symbolic forms, is more invasive because it is spread through communicative action and imagination, allowing for the justification of extremes to take hold at the subconscious level before they are brought into the physical realm. It is as Fearon and Laiton have pointed out that, “discursive or cultural systems at best create a disposition for large-scale violence, since they are relatively enduring structures… (Fearon and Laiton, 2000: 863).”

This point about the lasting impact of discourse is quite important. It demonstrates the enduring force of language and framing. This means, if the framing has a violent action potential then the violence is likely to be all the more insidious and enduring. The ‘just war’ discourse is but one example of this process: if belligerence is successfully labeled as morally just then the protraction of extremes is some how justified. Of course not all processes of labeling are violent. Below I will illustrate how and when framing is a violent act.

In order to fully grasp the violent potential of framing we must first turn our attention to the formative process of identities and boundaries. It is the position of this paper that communicative interaction is part of the constructive force of individual and collective identities and boundaries, from which are born perceptions of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ that make violence toward the Other somehow morally palatable.

Brass, Paul R., (1996), “Introduction: Discourses of Ethnicity, Communalism, and Violence” in Paul R. Brass (ed), Riots and Pogroms, New York, New York University Press, pp. 1-55

Zizek, Slavoj. (2008) Violence. London, Profile Books.

Fearon, James D. and David D. Laitin, (2000), “Violence and the Social Construction of Ethnic Identity” International Organization 54, 4, Autumn 2000, pp 845-877.

Perusing Walls in China: Posters and Symbolic Power

This is the third entry in a series on semiotic analysis, Uyghurs, and public space in China. For earlier entries please see, Deconstructing ‘Minzu’, and Museumized Signification, China and Representational Violence. Or visit my index at the top of the page for all previous articles dealing with Symbolic Power, the politics of representation, China, Xinjiang, Uyghurs, and the like. As with other posts on this topic, although the specific point of entry to this conversation deals with the Uyghurs the tactics and artifacts of symbolic violence by the state are the same for other subaltern groups, not only in China but as a transferable model to others such sites. For this reason, an understanding and analysis of a particular phenomena has broader application.

Traveling around Xinjiang one often observes a stark demarcation between Han and minority space and inscription. In Yarkand, for example, Southeast of Kashgar this demarcation is starkly drawn along two streets, with Han exclusively living and working along Xincheng Lu [New City Road] and Uyghurs living along Laocheng Lu [Old City Road]. This is an important observation for two reasons. It relates to the opportunity for Uyghurs to reach out to Han and challenge their signification. Secondly, in predominantly Han neighborhoods there is not the same prevalence of the kind of public inscriptions as in Uyghur neighborhoods.

For example, on every Uyghur house in all the towns and villages in Xinjiang, there is one or a combination of three plaques near the door. These read Wenming Jiating [Civilized Household], Pingan Jiating [Safe Household], and Wuxing [Five Star]. However, I never observed such inscriptions on Han houses. The apparent meaning, a designation of worth conferred by the authority of the state, the state synonymous with a Han majority, coupled with other observations maintains the signification. The following analysis of public inscriptions is based on posters found in what could be considered general public space. While there are kinds of inscriptions that occur only in Uyghur areas, there is another that occurs in public areas with both Han and Uyghur traffic.

General public space in Xinjiang is marked by the ubiquity of banners, slogans and posters, discussed elsewhere. I found, and scholars such as Gardner Bovingdon and Dru Gladney have noted similar restrictions, that Uyghurs in Xinjiang are generally apprehensive to speak about such things but after several conversations on the street a pattern emerged. The majority of Uyghurs I encountered who were willing to discuss them treated them as propaganda. If we apply the same semiotic analysis as in previous posts we will discover another artifact of symbolic power’s domination over Uyghur social space. I observed the following posters in Korla, you can view them in an earlier post.

Jun Ai Min, Min Yong Jun, Junmin Tuanjie Yi Jiaqing [The military loves the people, the people embraces the military, the military and the people united are one family]. In the upper right hand corner, saluting in stoic patriotism, are three Han officers, one from each branch of the military. They are facing toward the red field of the Chinese flag, with its golden stars creased in the wind. In front of the flag are four white doves. At the center of the image, behind the text, are rows of soldiers in camouflage. The bottom of the image shows pictures of the Great Wall and the iconic front of the Forbidden City, Mao’s portrait hangs visibly over the entrance. Compressed at the very bottom left of the image is an old Uyghur man with a white beard and black skull cap. He is handing a red basket of gifts to a phalanx of soldiers.

Jun Min Qing, Jing Min Qing, Chuchu Ningju AiGuo Qing [Civil military sentiment, Civil Police Sentiment, Everywhere a Coherent Patriotic Sentiment]. Sweeping from the lower left corner upward to the top right is a large field of red, the Chinese flag, victoriously splattering the background. At the center of the image are two large white doves. In the top left corner three Uyghurs are facing a Chinese police officer, with two more officers behind him. The Uyghurs’ faces tell of some unknown sorrow or concern as they shake the hand of the Han officer who is smiling confidently. Across the bottom of the poster, two uniformed Han officers are standing, smiling at an old Uyghur man with a small wispy beard and a Hotanese wool hat. The Uyghur man appears sunken and weak while the Han officer is plump and reaching out farther to meet the old man’s slightly withdrawn hands.

Aside from obvious superficial differences, the signification of these two posters is the same. The first observation of note is that the Uyghurs depicted in both images are clearly receiving the support of the Han. The juxtaposition of the elderly, even frail, Uyghur man next to the younger Han officers reinstates the signification we saw above in the museum. The signified is an undeveloped people progressing under the support of the Party. The Uyghur, signifier, here is depicted as weak and in need of assistance. In relationship to the signified concept of provider, given form by the image of the Han officers, the significations are understood in relation to one another. The Uyghur is poor, the Han is strong.

The common image of the doves between the two images plays on the relationship of doves with peace. It encourages a peaceful reliance on the support of the Han. The text itself propels the visual meaning. It speaks of peaceful coexistence under the care of the military, police, and party. The space taken up by the flag in both images and the depiction of the Great Wall and Forbidden City, both powerful nationalistic symbols, further stresses the magnificence of the Party. We see a vibrant symbolic artifact that reinstates the marginalization of Uyghurs, under the Party. The comments below highlight a number of interpretations of these images made after examining photographs taken of the images. It is important to note that the discussion of these images took place outside of China, within the Uyghur diaspora community.

The first and third responses are from Uyghurs who have been living outside of China for four and five years, respectively, and are no longer Chinese citizens. The second response was made by a Uyghur student who has been studying abroad for several years and plans to return to China after completing studies.

Han people are government people but Uyghur people are not government people…. Han people are police but Uyghur people are not police. Han people help Uyghur people. The Government says the Han helps the Uyghur people and also says Chinese government helps Uyghur people. And also, in Chinese news you must say minorities are very happy. Happy! Happy! Happy!

But not every Uyghur knows the real meaning of what the Chinese are doing. This provocation, if many Uyghurs are not so knowledgeable and don’t pay attention to the real meaning, when they see they know it is not reality. One day you are arresting Uyghurs and then you print image to lie. Children maybe don’t realize this.

All the people, for example the young people see this and they will be upset. But little children will see this and they may think something different, so it can change Uyghur’s minds after a long time.

These comments illustrate an immediate perception of domination, one that can be  understood by an application of our analysis. They demonstrate a sentiment that while these posters may be interpreted as false by a number of Uyghurs, they are still capable of affecting others.  Younger residents may be influenced by the messages on the posters. However, according to the three comments, they perceive these posters as empty propaganda that serves to instill a dominant narrative that does not conform to their perceptions of reality, but rather hopes to maintain domination. We begin to understand the power on the walls.

The comments in this section point to a shared perception that the prevalent minority signification of an undeveloped subaltern is as a source of domination. Many appear to equate this representation with either the lack or denial of education. As a few respondents above noted, this signification is perceived as a lie, perpetuated by the regime. But, Camus noted, “you can rebel equally well against a lie as against oppression (Camus, 2008: 13).” Does the rebelling actor target the teller of the lie or the lie itself, i.e. a particular signification or the regime from which it is promulgated? How is the decision to resist either the representation or the regime influenced by perceptions of opportunity? Here is where Judith Butler, and others, offer the valuable concept of resignification, a kind of semiotic resistance. I will touch on this in future posts.

Camus, Albert (1953/2008). The Fastidious Assassins. London: Penguin Books.

Deconstructing ‘Minzu’

In a number of posts to follow I will identify three places where symbolic power operates, that is, how the Chinese State has exerted its monopoly of symbolic power to instill a signification of Uyghurs as an undeveloped singing, dancing subaltern subject. Indeed, this colonialist objectification: the predominant representation of Uyghurs, and other minzu (ethnic groups), as rural and quaint in contrast to the developed majority Han, is an ethnic representation, generally a canvas stretched over all of China’s 55 ethnic minority groups and is a crucial discourse within the reproduction of China’s national mythology (Gladney 1994, 2004). While the group under discussion and the specific symbols of representation are directly related to Uyghurs, the underlying principles are germane to an understanding of Tibetan, Mongolian, or other subalterns. Admittedly, most of what follows has been discussed elsewhere, and in more detail, by a number of China scholars, particularly Dru Gladney, but it deserves reexamination, particular concerning its application to the exigent conditions within the so-called Xinjiang and Tibetan Autonomous Regions because the logic of symbolic power and the methods by which it is wielded by the Chinese state are generally replicated from place to place.

In the first post I will begin with a brief analysis of Chinese cultural capital in the form of controlling the taxonomy of ethnic and national designations and inscribing a national origin myth, based on the superiority of Han domination and Party control. The second post in this series will examine the role of museums in reproducing these significations and draw more heavily on Benedict Anderson and his discussion of an imagined community. The final post in this series will be comprised of a more thorough analysis of the unity posters briefly mentioned in an earlier post, as these public inscriptions and visual elements are clear manifestations of symbolic power in the everyday social space and require a more serious engagement. For a brief social, historical discussion of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Please revisit The Politics of Representing ‘Uyghur,’ a socio-historical sketch

Nationality Designation

In the struggle inherent in the politics of representation, where agents are employed in imposing a vision of the social world, they wield the symbolic and cultural capital acquired in previous struggles, in particular the power they possess over instituted taxonomies (Bourdieu, 1991: 239). The Communist victory over the Guomingdang in October of 1949 ushered in ‘New China’ and guaranteed the monopoly of the Communist Party of China (CCP) over naming their victory and defining the ethnic composition of the new nation.

In the early 1950s the regime invited representatives of its disparate ethnic and national groups to Beijing. Gladney explains, although more than 400 separate groups applied to be recognized as distinct ethnic and national groups, there were only forty-one nationalities listed on the first census of 1953. The 1964 census included fifty-three nationalities, and the 1982 and 1990 censuses finally settled on the current fifty-six nationalities (2004: 9). In a Kafkaesque exertion of the power to define, according to the 1990 census there were still 749,341 ethnically ‘unidentified’ individuals awaiting recognition by the regime (2004: 9). This is arguably not only an example of power constructing its subjects but even leaving them ‘officially’ unconstructed.

This exertion of power over the taxonomy of existing as part of a category, group identity, and the corresponding externalities, both positive and negative, is a powerful example of biopower and sovereignty, most associated with Michel Foucault but extensively dealt with by Giorgo Agamben. For Agamben, understanding the sovereign is understanding the individual or entity with the power to decide the exceptions. In 3/4 of a million people living undefined, outside of legally defined and accepted categories of existence, we are greeted by the Chinese state with a significant case of deciding the state of exception.

The state not only set to the task of defining the nation in terms of ethnic demographics it also began to define the core characteristics of individual ethnic groups. Early propaganda films for example served this purpose as did the erection of many memorials to the ‘peaceful liberation’ of minority lands. An excellent example is Cui Wei, Chen Huaiai, and Liu Baode‘s 1964 film Tianshan de Hong Hua [The Red Flowers of Tianshan]. It is a typical propaganda piece depicting the unity and benefit of ethnic minorities working with the party for mutual development.

In the People’s Square of Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi there is a large obelisk which reads Zhongguo Renmin Jiefangjun Jinjun Xinjiang Jinian [A memorial of the Chinese People's Liberation Army marching into Xinjiang]. Such inscriptions were a vital component in the early representation of minorities within official discourse. The signified is that the people living in the region were in need of liberation. It instills the discourse of the party as peaceful liberator and benefactor. The signifier is the text, memorializing this liberation. One signification, arguably, is that those minorities rely on the Party for their livelihood. But the politics of representation go deeper. In addition, and much as other nations have done in their own nation building ventures, the state museumizes national representations (Anderson, 1983) to further enshrine the official discourse. The following post in this series will deal with this final point in greater detail.

Anderson, Benedict (1983/2006). Imagined Communities, Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Bourdieu, Pierre. (1991). Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Polity Press

Gladney, Dru. (1994). “Representing Nationality in China: Refiguring Majority/ Minority Identities,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 53, No. 1.

Gladney, Dru. (2004). Dislocating China: Reflections on Muslims, Minorities and other Subaltern Subjects. London: C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd.

Visualizing an Imagined Community

Following the three year anniversary of the Urumqi protests and the recent supposed Hotan plane hijacking attempt, which the Uyghur Human Rights Project warns should be viewed with extreme caution, it seems pertinent to introduce a little of the visuals behind China’s rhetoric of ethnic harmony. It is the same rhetoric of ethnic harmony, also called Han Chauvinism (大汉主义), that provides the foundation for constructing not only the imagined community (see Benedict Anderson) of China’s 56 ethnic groups, but is at the core of party discourse on the separatist threat, the terrorists and Dalai clique of Tibetan or Uyghur conflict. The party works hard to indoctrinate the population into believing that China’s ethnic minorities have benefited greatly from the largess, the affirmative action, the development of periphery, and that any grumbling is out of kilter with reality, a slap in the face to the Party and the PLA who freed these backward minority people from the abusive Khans ruling over them, in the case of the Northwest, or the authoritarianism of a few centuries of Dalai Lama exploitation, as the CCP’s official narrative was recently parroted by a French Communist in the online publication Dissident Voice. The problem with the narrative on ethnic unity is that it is rife with chauvinism. In the sense of colonialism introduced my Michael Hechter, it represents a kind of Internal Colonialism. However, this is certainly not a transgression that the UK or the US is free from, but theirs is not the topic of inquiry here today. I merely want to recognize the atrocities committed against the native populations of the United States, and how they have been white washed by mainstream education and media; the myth of the Old West and the founding of America has been carefully crafted discursively to create an alternate history and identity for the native populations of the United States, in much the same way, according to a number of experts, as is taking place in China concerning their more contentious ethnic groups today.

As I mentioned above, the narrative presented by the central government is one of a unified nation, where all 56 ethnic groups are living together in harmony. This is the message one gets from New Year Eve Gala presentations, anniversaries or special celebrations, when the Chinese nation tunes in to CCTV and other channels that simulcast programing featuring the country’s myriad ethnic groups represented in traditional dress, singing, dancing, and entertaining. But what about when, as James Fallows and others have written about, the 56 minorities in traditional dress are actually 56 Han in costume? What about these representations, those performed or inscribed, museumized or broadcast, how are they understood by the represented individuals? What is the logic behind official representations of minority populations? What is the political and social expediency, for the institution monopolizing the symbolic power to give name and reality, and what is the result, for those thus categorized?

The concern rests particularly when the representation creates a distinct hierarchy, whereby the designated group or individual is stripped of the agency to participate in the realm of creating labels and categories, the very labels and categories designed to define and corral them. This is linguistic persecution, what Zizek, and others, calls symbolic violence. But what force allows for the designation to gain resonance with the population? If it does not represent a material phenomenon, which presumably it does not if it needs to be frequently broadcast or imprinted in public-as it is-what allows for it to gain resonance then? It is this very reproduction in public which produces a kind of forced reality, and one that after generations of reproduced symbols begins to form a power of its own, according to Bourdieu.

Deconstructing the narratives, performances, and inscribed images of representation, those that results in symbolic violence, is complicated. It requires a careful reading of the material and symbolic, the social and historical, it is a semiotic and phenomenological process. Below I will not delve into a conversation with the images. I will save that for a future post. Below are a series of posters, pictures taken in several cities in Xinjiang in 2011. They tell a story, an official story, part of the way China chooses to define itself; according to the anthropologist and China expert Dru Gladney, this is “a point that is critical to China’s representation of itself to itself, and to the international sphere (Gladney, 1994: 96).” Therefore, in order to unpack the material ramifications of these representations qua claims of ethnic abuse, human rights violations, and the like or to analyze China’s discussion of its status within broader transnational conflicts qua the ‘war on terror’ or cross border disputes between Tajikistan or Pakistan, or finally in order to simply understand how a regime relies on images to promote a certain narrative, I present the following images for consideration. This post will be followed with a deeper discussion in the future.

“Recognition of Chinese Nationalities”
“All Ethnic Groups Create China”

“Recognition of an Ancestral Homeland”
“Our Common Home”
“China’s long history is a shared history for all the peoples of this ancestral land, living and developing together in one homeland”

“Civil military sentiment, Civil Police Sentiment, Everywhere a Coherent Patriotic Sentiment.”

“The military loves the people. The people embraces the military. The military and the people united are one family.”

Gladney, Dru (1994). “Representing Nationality in China: Refiguring Majority/ Minority Identities,” The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 53, No. 1.

The Politics of Representing ‘Uyghur,’ a socio-historical sketch

This piece was republished by the World Uyghur Congress. It is also available on their website.

At 6pm on Tuesday, the 28th of February violence erupted in the desert town of Kargilik, between Kashgar and Hotan, in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China. Armed with knives or axes (depending on the report), whether desperate or deranged, several men unleashed a short spree of bloodletting. The violence resulted in between 12 and 20 dead. The Washington Post, noting 12 deaths, reported,

Officials and state media said the bloodshed started when assailants attacked civilians with knives on a commercial street in Yecheng city, killing 10 people; police fatally shot two of the attackers, the official accounts said.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei callled the attackers “terrorists” and said they attacked innocent civilians, “cruelly killing several of them in an appalling manner.”

This event is happening only days before the National People’s Congress is set to meet in Beijing, on 5 March. This is important in that the NPC will spend time passing into law the revised Criminal Procedure Law, which stands to potentially legalize a number of draconian policies for dealing with security, and terrorist-framed issues. Senior Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, Nicholas Bequelin, points out that, in particular, Article 73 of the CPL poses considerable concern for human rights activists and members of Uyghur or Tibetan groups who are often framed as violent threats to the state. Understanding the violence in Xinjiang is part of a greater discursive battle, with physical and structural ramifications.

The Uyghur Human Rights Project reports that, “The Uyghur American Association (UAA) calls upon the international community to view official Chinese statements about the reported deaths with extreme caution until independent observers are allowed to investigate the incident.” And within reason.

Edward Wang’s piece in the New York Times points out that, “As with virtually all such events in remote parts of China, there were competing accounts of the violence on Tuesday… A report on a Web site run by the propaganda bureau of Xinjiang said Wednesday that 13 people were killed and many others injured when nine “terrorists” armed with knives stabbed people in a crowd… police shot dead seven attackers and captured the other two… Global Times, an officially approved newspaper, reported that attackers killed at least 10 people… Xinhua, the state news agency, reported that the police shot dead at least two attackers.”

As information about this episode of violence unfolds it is important to keep in mind Wang’s critical remarks, and understand the complexity of the politics of representation. The following examination is meant primarily for those with a limited knowledge of Uyghur history and aims to elucidate some of the situation in Xinjiang and provide a background for understanding the unfolding accounts of violence, and the framing of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Although it is geared more as an introduction to the unfamiliar, it also presents information and ideas that those more accustomed to examining and analyzing the region will no doubt find informative.

Uyghurs, an ethnic Turkic and predominantly Sunni Muslim minority group which are culturally and linguistically distinct from the majority Han, trace their ancestry to the geographic region known today as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). The word Xinjiang in Chinese, (新疆), means new territory or frontier. However, many Uyghurs, both inside the XUAR and abroad, tend to perceive this word as synonymous with colonial power. Perceptions that range from economic or political marginalization to victimization by an organized campaign to stamp out cultural identity and autonomy are best explained through a narrative analysis of the subjective meaning of name of the province for those who are purportedly autonomous within.

When I hear, every time, that word, Xinjiang, it reminds me that, ‘Oh! You have your place named with another language. You have to change that name.’ It makes me think that way. Always makes me feel, always reminds me that my homeland, home place, or home country, is occupied by another power. (A Uyghur student who has been living outside of China for five years, for safety reasons names will not be included.)

We hate that word. We don’t even have the right to say our hometown in our own language. (A Uyghur youth with whom I spoke in Kashgar, 2011)

This word, when I was young, I didn’t have any special feeling. Chinese just call our region as Xinjiang. But how do we call it? But we don’t have any word. When I went to Malaysia [first left China] I learned something about our flag, our country. I know that place is not Xinjiang. Now, when I hear that word I just think ‘new project,’ a new chance for the Chinese to earn money. (A Uyghur who has been living outside of China for two and a half years, and has since renounced Chinese citizenship out of fear of persecution.)

In this brief discussion, it is neither my intention to challenge nor certify the word Xinjiang but for consistency I will refer to the region as such. I do acknowledge the significance it has for many Uyghurs as a symbol of oppression or discrusive target of claim-making within a broader framework of resistance and cultural re-articulation.

The preferred name, once Uyghurs are more free to express discursive resistance outside of China and for those more daring who still reside inside China, is East Turkestan. In China, however, it is illegal to mention East Turkestan, Dong Tujuesitan,and the image of the East Turkestan flag, a crescent moon and star on a blue field, is forbidden from public and private space.In December 1999, for example, two men were arrested and charged with 15 and 13 years in prison for merely hoisting the East Turkestan flag in place of the Chinese Flag at a courthouse in Xinjiang.

The reason for China’s response to the ‘East Turkestan’ frame, from central government perspectives, is clear. It presents an implicit history of an independent Uyghur nation which challenges the official Chinese history. Therefore, the Chinese government routinely conflates all mention of ‘East Turkestan’ with separatism and, particularly after the establishment of the US led War on Terror, with terrorism (Dwyer, 2005). The use and interpretation of the ‘East Turkestan’ frame has become a constituent of domination and resistance, when protests, non-violent or otherwise, flare up in the region the government hastily blames it on the influence of ‘East Turkestan’ terrorist groups or foreign interference, as it does with blaming the Dalai Lama for any contention among Tibetan groups.

Before we can even begin to grasp a more profound understanding of the last few years’ episodes of conflict within the province we must develop an understanding of the significance of the words ‘Xinjiang’ and ‘East Turkestan,’ and the social-historical context from which the phenomenon derives its meaning and force.

In 1759, Qing troops conquered the region in what had been a long history of territorial conflict (Millward, 2007). China has at times admitted this history but used it rhetorically to state, “that the lives and cultures of people from multiple ethnic groups have been so intertwined for thousands of years that no single group can claim exclusive ownership of this region.” Still, the declaration of terra nullius is generally only put forth to counter Uyghur claims to a 4000 year history of multiple independent kingdoms, as noted on the World Uyghur Congress Website. While the predominant Chinese narrative is that Xinjiang has been an integral part of Han Chinese rule for centuries (Beijing, 2003; Shandong, 2010), others have suggested that the region was not incorporated into the empire until 1821 (Gladney, 2004: 215).

Conflict throughout this period was protracted. In 1864, Qing administration was jolted by the Yakub Beg rebellion which resulted in the independent Khanate of Kashgaria (Gladney, 2004). However, Beg’s sudden death in Korla in 1877 effectively brought an end to organized anti-Qing resistance; and, although Xinjiang had been treated more as a colony to this point, it was shortly thereafter officially made a province in 1884 (Millward, 2007). The collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911 sank China into chaos. In Xinjiang, uprisings and brutal crackdowns were prevalent (Gladney, 2004) as the region was split between a series of warlords and the competing geo-political interests of the Soviet Union and emerging rivalry between the Guomingdang (Nationalist) and Communist party of China (Bovingdon, 2010; Millward 2007; Gladney, 2003, 2004).

Millward (2007) provides a vivid account of rapidly shifting power dynamics during this period. On 12 November 1933, the East Turkestan Republic (ETR) was established in Kashgar. Its leaders were predominantly educators and merchants who had been influential reformers in the 1910s and 20s. A year later the ETR would fall to the infamous warlord Sheng Shicai. On 12 November 1944, the second ETR was established in Ghulja. Ahmetjan Qasimi, Mehmet Emin Buğra and Isa Yusuf Alptekin were influential forces in this time, and remain as Uyghur heroes.

The hope of lasting independence went down in flames on 27 August 1949. Although the negotiations for an independent Uyghur nation had essentially already been resolved much earlier, for the CCP had agreed to this in exchange for Uyghur military assistance against the Guomingdang, Ahmetjan Qasimi and a coterie of Xinjiang’s top Uyghurs were invited to Beijing to meet with Mao on the issue of independence. However, somewhere en route their plane mysteriously crashed. Their deaths would be kept secret until several months after the Chinese Army had fully occupied the region. The death of so many well educated and capable leaders resulted in a leadership vacuum for the region’s Uyghurs. This lesson has not been lost and, although it is a strictly taboo subject to discuss in public both the two independent republics and the mysterious plane crash are well known and hushed topics.In her memoir, World Uyghur Congress (WUC) President Rebiya Kadeer notes, “The death of our leading delegation was too severe a setback for compatriots to overcome, and so our momentum toward independence came to a stop (Kadeer, 2009; 11).”

Despite this history of indigenous resistance to perceived foreign—Qing, Russian, CCP—occupation, Chinese sources tend to represent the independent republics as the result of abusive foreign governments (Chen, 2009). Official media sources in China go as far to relate that in the early 20th century and later, ‘a small number of separatists and religious extremists in Xinjiang,’ influenced by overseas extremism and imperialism, ‘politicized the idea of East Turkestan’ and fabricated a history which had not even existed. While Chinese officials and scholars may have referred to Xinjiang as a colony before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, “Chinese historians after 1949 would busy themselves erasing any such reference (Bovingdon, 2010; 39).” The representation of Xinjiang as an ancient and unbroken part of China became the official discourse within China and diverging from this discourse became a crime tantamount to terrorism. However, it has been continually contested by the Uyghur diaspora, and many third party scholars.

Because the Chinese government frequently blames domestic contention on the manipulation of foreign organizations, framed as violent separatist groups with no authority in China, it is important to quickly examine Uyghur deterritorialization.

Yitzhak Shichor (2003, 2009) provides a rich history of Uyghur diffusion. In 1949, Alptekin and Buğra led the first major wave of a Uyghur exodus from Xinjiang to neighboring Kashmir. By 1952, owing to Alptekin’s efforts, pressure from the US and the UNHCR Turkey accepted around 2,000 Uyghur refugees for resettlement in Kayseri. This marked the second phase of Uyghur migration. By a decade later a sizable community had also started to form in Istanbul. The third phase of Uyghur migration can be divided into two separate waves. The first began with post-Mao reforms in the late 1970s, with greater flight from China, mainly to Central Asian countries and Turkey. The second wave was composed of Uyghurs migrating from host countries such as Turkey to a third host country in North America or Western Europe (Shichor, 2003: 285). The global headquarters of the World Uyghur Congress is in Munich. Still, the diaspora is relatively small. The majority of Uyghurs still live in Xinjiang. There a different migration, Han moving from inner China, encouraged by uneven access to opportunities at the expense of Uyghurs, is perceived by Uyghurs as a direct economic and cultural attack.

Due less to migration of Uyghurs out of Xinjiang than to steady Han migration into Xinjiang, from 1947 until the present the demographics of Xinjiang have dramatically shifted. The majority of Uyghurs with whom I have spoken have brought this up as one of the gravest threats to their cultural survival. The Han population in the region has increased at an average rate of 8.1 per cent yearly, from 5 per cent in 1947 to around 40 per cent in 2000 (Millward, 2007: 307). Information for 2010 from the National Bureau of Statistics in China reports the percentage of Han as 40.1 per cent and conflates the remaining 59.9 per cent to an amalgamation of the other ethnic groups. This census representation, I would argue, is done in part to stifle ethnic based mobilization and to legitimize official histories of Chinese presence in the region.

A few years ago, in Korla, I was asked by one Uyghur how many Uyghurs lived in Xinjiang. When I told him that I knew that the given number is usually around 9 million he replied that the number is actually double but that, “the government will never say there is more than 10 million Uyghurs. Because when a nation has more than 10 million,” he choked with emotion, “they have to get their own country.” This sentiment is illustrative of the perceptions of repressive intentions behind various forms of representation, including the census. Representing or misrepresenting population figures is a way to dominate a given group but it can also be transformed into a counter-discourse if the population claims greater numbers than official figures. Uyghur sources report from 15 to 20 million Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Admittedly, the history of this conflict has been represented in opposing narratives by Chinese, Uyghur, and third party historians. This is understandable considering actors in political conflicts often appeal to history to legitimize their cases (Bovingdon, 2010: 23). At times, it becomes difficult to disentangle the opposing representations. It does appear, however, that some accounts (Bovingdon, 2010; Gladney, 2003; 2004; Millward, 2007; Shichor, 2003; 2009) are more resonant with Uyghur narratives. This is important to separate from narratives obedient to Chinese cultural and historical hegemony. Understood from an analysis of the literature and discussion with Uyghurs, official Chinese accounts can be seen as representational repression. It is important to keep in mind as news and representations of the violence in Kargilik unfolds.

We should keep in mind that prematurely conceptualizing cycles of violence in terms of dyadic ethnic clashes distorts the complexity of the phenomenon as to render analysis facile. Conflation of contention to one category whether male/female, rich/poor, or in-group/out-group fails to take into consideration a multiplicity of influences and identities, as noted by Amartya Sen in Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. Similarly, be wary of attempts to present some definitive sketch of ‘Uyghur.’ There is none. On this, it is worth quoting Gaye Christoffersen in length.

“Western and Chinese discourse on ‘the Uyghur’ tends towards making essentializing arguments that assume there is a ‘Universal Uyghur’ with an unchanging essence and fixed properties, whether living in Xinjiang, the Central Asian diaspora, Afghanistan, Turkey, Germany or the United States. Uyghur identity formation, difficult to begin with, is complicated further by outside forces attempting to construct a monolithic identity that would fit their particular vision. It is their essentializing imagery that victimizes Uyghurs by forcing them to assimilate to alien visions. The vast majority of Uyghurs in Xinjiang have no voice in world affairs, instead becoming the object of the politics of representation by outside forces (2002; 3).”

PART ONE IN A PLANNED SERIES ON UYGHURS AND XINJIANG

Kashgar Old City, 2011

This article was republished on the Website for the World Uyghur Congress.

Works Cited:

Bovingdon, Gardner (2010). The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land. New York: Columbia University Press.

Chen, Xi (2007). “Between Defiance and Obedience: Protest Opportunism in China,” in Perry,Elizabeth J. and Goldman, Merle (2007), Grassroots Political Reform in Contemporary China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 253-281.

Christoffersen, Gaye (2002). “Constituting the Uyghur in U.S.-China Relations: The Geopolitics of Identity in the War on Terrorism.” Strategic Insight White Paper: Centor for Contemporary Conflict at the Naval Postgraduate School.

Gladney, Dru. C (2003). “Islam in China: Accommodation or Separatism?” The China Quarterly, No. 174, Religion in China Today.

———- (2004). Dislocating China: Reflections on Muslims, Minorities and other Subaltern Subjects. London: C. Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd.

Kadeer, Rebiya; trans. Alexandra Cavelius (2009). Dragon Fighter: One Woman’s Epic Struggle for Peace with China. USA: Kales Press, Inc.

Millward, James A., (2007). Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang, London:  C. Hurst & Co.

Sen, Amartya (2007). Identity and violence: the illusion of destiny. New York: W W Norton & Co Inc.

Shichor, Yitzhak (2003). “Virtual Transnationalism: Uygur Communities in Europe and the Quest for Eastern Turkestan Independence.” in Allievi, Stefano and Nielsen, Jorgen S. (2003), Muslim Networks and Transnational Communities in and Across Europe.  Leiden: Brill. 281-311

———- (2009). Ethno-Diplomacy: The Uyghur Hitch in Sino-Turkish Relations. Honolulu: The East West Center.

A Feminist (trans)election Barometer

“What are your immediate thoughts on the election?”

“I am really angry! That is all,” Myriam explained through a facebook chat. Myriam is a university graduate in her mid twenties who has studied in Europe and recently returned to Tunisia.

At a small couchsurfing gathering at a friend’s apartment I started speaking with Mouna about her thoughts on the future of Tunisia following the elections. Mouna studied Business in France and currently works with a company that facilitates business opportunities for women entrepreneurs. She hopes to begin her PhD soon. I wanted to know how she perceived the election, through the lens of women’s rights. I began with the same question, “What do you think about the election?”

The overarching emotional value of her response can be paraphrased as distinct apprehension, fear that one dominant force will simply be replaced by another. While she spoke, my thoughts returned to a moment of exchange at the New Arab Debates, held at the Mediterranean Business College on 20 October, three days before the election. It mirrored comments that echoed in multiple languages across Facebook and Twitter leading up to the 23 October election. The sentiment can be summarized as, “We did not oust one regime that controlled what we can do to vote in another that will control what we can do.” There was, and continues to be, a palpable environment of concern over the rights of women in particular. At the same time, individuals in the international media have begun to speak of a women’s victory in the election, see for example University of Washington professor Philip N. Howard’s recent article in Miller-McCune. Howard claims, “[r]egardless of how particular parties fared in the election, it is safe to say that women will help mediate political power in Tunisia.” I argue that positivist and episodic analyses that fail to take into account qualitative and long term indicators may result in a more shallow picture than realized.

“Women’s rights are in danger,” Mouna explained. I pushed her on this issue. The status of gender rights in Tunisia is a common point of praise among scholars and analysts observing Tunisia, and an oft expressed issue of national and legislative pride among the Tunisians with whom I have spoken. An example is the Personal Status code, passed in 1956, which gave women the right to vote, to engage in parliament, and the rights to abortion and divorce.

But in a social space where the overarching narrative is one of gender equality, a legal space where the laws are purportedly clear on the status and rights of women, it is necessary to separate narrative from the material phenomenon encased in the narrative. Why? Because when a narrative becomes enshrined in the conscious perception of ‘reality’ it is easier for that narrative to maintain itself, of its own force, well after it has ceased to signify a material phenomenon. What does this mean? It means that constructing a narrative of a phenomenon, and deconstructing that narrative, are equal components of power and resistance. Unwrapping this narrative, the conscious ‘reality’, the signifer of a social phenomenon, from the signified concept, the material phenomenon is the task of discourse and narrative analysis. While this article is too short to adequately present and analyze the complexity of Tunisian social space it offers a small platform to inaugurate this sort of inquiry into the social and political transformations simply understood as the Tunisian revolution-accepting that a revolution is a bounded episode of change, and that the episode of change in Tunisia is still underway. I argue that the Tunisian revolution is still very much under way. This is perhaps best understood in the continuing dialectic environment. So, approaching the revolution in Tunisian social space with these caveats in mind, I return to Mouna’s concerns on women’s rights.

She agreed that by many accounts women’s rights in Tunisia are more robust than in many of the country’s Arab neighbors, and by some accounts more robust than in a number of ‘developed,’ ‘modern,’ ‘democratic’ countries. Still, according to Al Jazeera, regardless of the law stating all party lists for the constituent assembly must alternate between men and women candidates, the fact remains that of the 828 parties’, 655 independents’, and 34 coalition’s domestic lists, totaling 1,517 lists, the percentage of men vs. women as heads of lists before the election was 93% men and 7% women. However, if we examine the result it paints a somewhat better picture. According to Tunisa-live, forty-nine women received seats in the 217 seat Constituent Assembly giving them 24% representation. This means that women make up a slightly larger percentage of the Constituent Assembly in Tunisia than in the 112th United States Congress, which, according to thisnation.com is 20% women. These are quantitative indicators that often fail to present a deeper, analyzable picture of a regime or social space.

Mouna, and a number of others, have expressed a deep concern, which should not be disregarded as merely overly emotional or uninformed apprehension. It is the continuation of a narrative that has apparently grown traction among much of Tunisia’s (women) elite. I make this clarification due to my own sampling constraints, the women with whom I have spoken, and the majority of women-as writers, referents, or general voices- in this conversation appear to be among the country’s elite. Defining ‘elite’ in the confines of a blog is difficult but I will stick to a narrow definition, that of an educated, identifying as predominantly secular Muslim-or cultural Muslim, and generally from a middle class or above economic group. This understanding of elite applies to both men and women. Mouna continued…

“Maybe…” Maybe the situation is better. Maybe there are reports that discuss marriage and divorce rights and women are granted a purportedly freer status in public space, “but it is not good.”

Tunisia signed the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) on 24 July 1980 and later ratified the Convention on 20 September 1985. It is germane to situate Tunisia within the timeline of other Maghreb countries’ date of ratification. CEDAW entered into force in 1981, thirty days after the twentieth state ratification, under Article 27(1). Libya ratified the treaty in 1989, Morocco in 1993, Algeria in 1996, and Mauritania in 2001. While ratification of international treaties far from guarantees compliance it demonstrates a legal standard the state claims to uphold; however, it also provides an inscribed foundation of rights protection which may be manipulated to artificially proliferate a narrative of the existence of rights in potential that contradicts the actual environment of rights in practice.

The government of Tunisia, at the time of ratification still under Habib Bourguiba, issued two declarations and three reservations regarding Tunisia’s legal responsibilities as a state party to the Convention. The general declaration reads: “The Tunisian Government declares that it shall not take any organizational or legislative decision in conformity with the requirements of this Convention where such a decision would conflict with the provisions of chapter I of the Tunisian Constitution.”

Chapter I of the Tunisian Constitution lays out the general provisions. It begins with, “Tunisia is a free, independent and sovereign state. Its religion is Islam, its language is Arabic and its type of government is the republic (Art. 1).” The first chapter goes on to guarantee a number of rights, including the freedom of expression and the freedom from arbitrary detention and torture. Despite the inscription of these ideals into Tunisian Constitutional law, reports by Human Rights Watch ((Click here to see list)) and other international human rights organizations clearly point to the disconnect between print and practice during the Ben Ali years. This phenomenon is not unique for Tunisia, of course, but it brings me back to the point under discussion: contrast between inscribed, narrative ‘reality’ and material phenomenon.

What has been a vocal point in the lead up to the election has been Article 1 of Chapter 1 of the Constitution. Article 1 presents a legal definition for Tunisian Arab-Muslim Identity. But what does this identity mean? And how will the interpretation or reworking of this chapter, or the meaning it is meant to reflect, affect Tunisia’s responsibilities under CEDAW; more specifically, how will women’s identity and place be affected?

“I have been harassed on the street. Men see me and they say, ‘why are you out in the street like that?” As she spoke she pantomimed eyes going up and down her full figure. This is a concern that has been expressed elsewhere. With the new found freedom and decreasing persecution of religious rights in Tunisia, a number of women have reported increased public harassment for not wearing a veil, or for their dress and presentation-or merely being in public. Reportedly the men who approached these women all identified themselves as supporters of Al Nahda.

Mouna continued, “They point at me and say I should be covered. They make a point to intimidate me. Sure it is okay to go out and work but I should not be dressed like this. A few days ago a professor was teased and shamed by several of her students because she was not wearing a scarf. This kind of thing didn’t used to happen (before the revolution?).” I pressed her on Al Nahda; the party has continually responded to its critics promising that it will continue to uphold the secular identity of Tunisia and will not push for a theocratic state. Recently, according to Reuters, Al Nahda’s leaders continued this promise, stating that they will focus on democratization and a free-market economy, leaving religion out of the constitution. Furthermore, they promise to uphold the status of women and will not promote any constitutional changes that will threaten the ‘modern liberal’ state of women’s rights. For Mouna, and many women, “Maybe they say this but they don’t mean it. I don’t believe it.”

Distrust of politicians was a salient feature leading to the elections, and persisted well after the blue ink had faded from voter’s fingers. Lingering distrust of political figures can be easily understood in a social space coming from decades of political abuse. As is the feature of authoritarian regimes built around the cult of personality of a deified leader figure, Ben Ali and Leila Trabelsi were the symbols of abuse and corruption, symbolized in the omnipresent posters and references to Ben Ali’s 7 November 1987 coup. Ben Ali’s visage presented a constant reminder of where this dominant power emanated. As much as rage over decades of abuse targeted these images with the revolutionary contention that ousted Ben Ali, and continue to deface his symbols, constructing metaphors of power, and resistance, has become a feature in these revolutionary times. In this sense, much of the dialectic of political participation has centered on discussing individual party leaders as much or more than the party platforms themselves. What this also means is that discovering the meaning of disparate parties has in many ways become a matter of discussing perceptions of those parties’ leaders, perceptions that have constructed a narrative reality of what the party represents. So, what the figures leading the party say in public, and what the party claims in its literature, is judged against the collective perception of what the party or individual will actually do. The dominant force of perception in translating political campaigns into ‘real’ planned policy, the disconnect between perception and promise, has continued the atmosphere of distrust of politicians. I don’t mean to reductively imply that all distrust of politicians is merely the result of an unjustified marriage of perceived ‘reality’ with accepted ‘reality,’ but I have noticed a particular discourse among the elite of Tunisia: regardless of what Al Nahda claims to stand for, claims that it will preserve Tunisia’s modern, liberal, secular freedoms, many people simply distrust the veracity of these claims. Hence the debate topic: “In their first free election Tunisians have nothing to fear from Islamists,” at the New Arab Debates (linked above).

Mouna explained, “They (Al Nahda) say ‘of course women can work. But it would be better if they stayed home and took care of the family. It is fine for women to work but they should take care of their home and let their husbands work. It is better for them, less stress, a better life.” She made these comments mockingly paraphrasing her understanding of Al Nahda’s position. But from her concern over the status of women we arrive at an understanding, regardless of whether the threat to women’s rights comes from an Al Nahda legislation or a social value, of perceptions of women’s rights in Tunisia, and how women’s rights fit into the changing political environment. Answering whether she felt that the situation has gotten worse since the revolution, or whether it has been a long time coming, she pointed to a growing trend of decreasing ‘experienced’ rights of women. Mouna’s perceived ‘reality’ offers a marked divergence from the narrative of women’s rights generally invoked when discussing Tunisia. Has it gotten worse?

“Yes. It has gotten worse. It was best during my grandmother’s years or maybe in the 1960s, 1970s. Since then it has been up and down but recently I am very concerned. And now with Al Nahda it could get even worse.” A number of political advertisements, commercials on television or kept to digital circulation, purportedly apolitical but obviously targeted at Al Nahda, have directed an accessible critical appeal on behalf of women, against an Islamic takeover of the political and social space left vacant with the flight of Ben Ali and the RCD. Not necessarily because of a particular enmity toward Islam, tout court, as religious rights must also be given a fair inclusion within any such discourse, but out of a precedent of doctrinal interpretation that favors a patriarchal power structure.

2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Iranian human rights defender Shirin Ebadi, an outspoken critic for women’s rights within Islam who takes the antithetical position of Ayaan Hirsi Ali-who argues that Islam and human rights are inherently at odds-offers some assistance for this discussion. In a recent interview Ebadi gave to the World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates she expresses that women should “not give way to a government that would force you to choose between your rights and Islam…Getting to understand Islam well and encouraging women to learn different interpretations of Islam is important.” As one Tunisian woman told the Guardian in the lead up to the election, it is not only a concern of forcing Islam on the secular. “I am a religious woman. I pray. They want to impose the religion of An Nahda on me? I pray by myself. They are telling me to pray? Why do they impose things on me?”

Ebadi continues, speaking about women, Islam, and the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, stating that women in these countries  have witnessed the predicament of Iranian women and have seen how Islam ‘hijacked the Iranian revolution.’ Essentially Ebadi argues that of course there are serious issues of women’s rights in many countries in the Muslim world but these inequalities do not stem from an enlightened interpretation of Islam; they stem from the patriarchal structures of traditional society, which have masked themselves in Islam and given women, and men, the false choice of voting with X party or government or against Islam. In the Tunisian case, it is part of a crafted narrative that Al Nahda represents Islam and therefore any vote against Al Nahda is a vote against Islam. It is part of the narrative that conflates concern over Al Nahda, a political party, with Islamophobia- an argument with as much reasonable, academic appeal as criticizing human rights reports on Israeli abuses in Palestine with anti-semitism or a critical approach to US Foreign Policy with treason. There are plenty of women, and men, that are fearful that future criticisms of Al Nahda’s policies will be translated by Al Nahda as an attack on Islam. The concern for the women of Tunisia will be how Al Nahda chooses to interpret Islam and how women will factor in this interpretation. And this concern has echoed, in varying degrees of severity, through the conversations I have had and the tweets, blogs, and Facebook conversations I have observed.

While these challenges may emanate most resoundingly from those among the country’s elite (or minority as some might argue considering the high numbers of voter support for Al Nahda who gained 41% of the vote, earning them 90 seats in the 217 seat assembly), any reasonably concerned observer must position these concerns and critical analyses within the universal dialectic on women’s rights and cultural values. The question that is most pressing perhaps as Tunisia heads into a new era of national, ideological, and social introspection is how cultural, religious, and political values will be judged, treated, and implemented. A number of women have expressed to me that the most important change needed in Tunisia, rather than the political or economic change many foreign media and policy perspectives have highlighted, is a change in mentality. As Tunisian artist and theorist Mohamed Ben Soltane notes in an article in Nafas Art Magazine, “We took possession of our country and we must build a model of living together that meets our needs. This is Culture. We must restore our confidence in our creative abilities and assume our responsibilities.”

Changing a nation’s mentality is a more complicated task than queuing to cast a vote for a constituent assembly. It requires creative engagement and a rearticulation of power and place.

I will offer a cursory example.

A few days after I arrived in Tunisia, a friend and former classmate, Yasmin, invited me to attend Amnesty International Tunisia’s new ten point country plan for human rights. Of the issues presented, the death penalty and women’s rights sparked the most animated conversation among the twenty-nine party representatives and five private citizens who responded. A few party representatives went so far as to ask “If there is a ministry of women’s affairs, why isn’t there a ministry of men’s affairs?” Or to state that “We are placing women at the level of God.” But a number of representatives defended women’s rights noting that “Women need a ministry because they are discriminated against.” But what presents a deeper view into the ‘mentality’ of Tunisian social space came after the conference, when Yasmin and two friends of mine, Graham and Brandon, went looking for a cafe to discuss the day’s events.

I suggested a cafe where Graham, Brandon and I had gone several times. They have a good café allongé, espresso served with water. As I was suggesting the cafe Yasmin noted that the majority of Tunisia’s many cafes are for male clientele only. This had not occurred to the three of us. However, after Yasmin’s comments, and looking back, the gender segregation of cafe public space had been glaringly obvious. What does this mean exactly? In part, the cafe represents an open forum, a caffeinated agora, the salon of political engagement, where actors may participate in the dialogic process of negotiating place and meaning. One is left to consider the culturally accepted place of women in the activity of negotiating ‘reality’ in a cultural mentality where custom is to segregate this sort of public participation. Of course there are bars and clubs were this gender segregation does not occur, but these are the venues frequented by the country’s elite, again that word with its complexity of meanings. The point however is learning how to treat the cafe as an analytical model for perceiving social space. There are volumes of potentially analyzable data that can be drawn from the cafe, as a metaphor and material substance, but for our purpose here this simple example will have to suffice.

Returning from the precipice of the metaphysics of the cafe, a subject I will return to in a later post, I offer what appears to be the recurring sentiment of many men in Tunisia. “Women are weak.” I will elaborate. Women and Islam has also been the thrust of a number of conversations I have had with several men, resting in a cafe in Tunis, sitting in a living room, or, most recently, walking through the streets of Gabes. There is a disconnect between the equal status afforded to women in Islam and the practice of implementing this status, as alluded to by Shirin Ebadi above. That patriarchal structures of power manipulate partial interpretations of Islam is an inconceivable fact to a number of these men. For them, Islam is pure, or it is not Islam. One of them, a 21 year old Tunisian who has studied in France for two years, told me that he would not vote Al Nahda. Not because he was worried about Islamists in government-a situation it seems he would prefer- but because he did not trust Al Nahda was a true Isamist party. This is a point for another post. I return to women and the cafe as a social indicator of gender mentalities.

In Gabes, for example, the night of Eid-the Muslim holiday of sacrifice meant to symbolize Abraham’s trial by God- I was walking back to my rented apartment with Sammy, a Tunisian male friend of mine. We passed many open cafes, despite the rest of the town being closed for the holiday, and, since Yasmin’s comments, I have been keen to observe the gender make up of cafes. Sure enough it was a men’s world. Sammy began to complain, noting the high amounts of young Tunisian men who spend all of their time in cafes. The concern of too many men in cafes as an indicator of employment malady was also expressed to me by two women, the executive assistant and chief designer, at a small fashions textile factory in Nabeul during a visit before the election. If too many men in a cafe can be treated as a barometer of an economic phenomenon then it should logically serve, ceteris paribus, as a barometer of a gender phenomenon.

The problem, Sammy said, was that these young men didn’t have anything else to do, jobs are a problem, hobbies other than watching football are a problem, etc. I mentioned that there are no women in the cafes, “Where do women go to socialize?”

“There are separate cafes for married couples and families,” replied Sammy. “Okay, but what about women who are not married?”

“What?” He didn’t understand.

“What do women who are not married do? Say there are three or four friends, all girls, where do they go if they want to hang out and chat?”

He reiterated that there are cafes for married couples, to which I pushed, “So unless a women is married she cannot go out?” This quickly turned into the old standard, ‘it is for their protection; women are weak. Men might say some bad things or make her feel uncomfortable.’

“Shouldn’t the society be more concerned with correcting the bad behavior of the men than in keeping the women locked up?” I asked.

“They are not locked up. Look, Tunisia has about 60% women in universities.” This may be true but where are they after the classes end? Where are women, represented in the public space? How does this public representation filter into private conceptions of value?

Fear of hurting her father’s or brother’s reputation has kept at least one female acquaintance of mine from allowing me to visit her hometown unless I did so without connecting with her. Concern that her behavior will reflect poorly on her family, in this sort of scenario, is that the perception is that she is a commodity of the family and must remain within a conception of purity if she is to be accepted as a bride, etc. etc. It is an old analysis. Hoarded away into homes and families after graduation is no way to bring women, hence women’s rights, into the salience of the public sphere to encourage a robust engagement with understanding and improving women’s rights. The cafe plays a very important social function in society. A drastic gender imbalance in the most prominent public space of the country, the cafe, has a symbolic value which arguably has a psychic affect on how society perceives women.

I offer a quote from a Guardian article by Angelique Chrisafis. She quotes Jamila Brahid, a woman in Kairouan. “The men are all sitting in cafes. The women do all the work, in the fields, as well as the home, earning money, making bread, providing for and taking care of the whole family… At least now we’ve got freedom of speech. Who says poor rural women aren’t interested and won’t vote? We’re mobilized. We’ve been oppressed for too long.” And what with this voice? How will this freedom of speech be factored into the conversation on shaping Tunisia’s future?

Speaking on the gender parity in the constituent assembly, Nejib Chebbi, president and founder of the PDP, discussed in an earlier post, had this to say, according to an article in the Huffington Post, “There is the obligation of getting results… Parity is one thing, but the reality is another.” Bouazza Ben Bouazza and Paul Schemm, the authors of the Huffington Post article, continue, “The new assembly will write the country’s constitution and groups like the Association of Democratic Women worry that their long-held rights may not be explicitly protected in the new document.”

As I mentioned, a number of women, and men, with whom I have spoken highlight the necessity of a change in mentality. Those whose concern over the rights of women, and other human rights in fact, stem from a perception that abuses of women’s rights stem not from political or religious doctrine alone may be less moved when Al Nahda president Rachid Ghannouchi’s daughter Intissar Ghannouchi- who is usually clarified as a student at the School of Oriental And African Studies at the University of London- states that “Al Nahda is clear on women’s issues, respects women’s rights and will not impose theocracy but believes in equality.” For Al Nahda’s critics these announcements are treated as the manifestation of double messages, the duplicity of discourse and feed the distrust of politicians. But if the meaning of a demand to change mentality is to sink in we must realize that what many Tunisians are skeptical of is not only the promises of politicians but the potential of fellow citizens. Of course, much of the anti Al Nahda criticisms have come because of what Al Nahda supporters have done.

Ellen Knickmeyer pointed out in a recent Foreign Policy article, “As elsewhere in the Arab world, the joining of forces to rise against dictators momentarily blurred the lines between secularists and fundamentalists. But months later, in countries where the dictators no longer rule, the distinctions are growing sharper every day.” What she is describing is the difficult task of reaching a consensus in a value-pluralist social space, to which acclaimed sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has noted, “[n]ot every difference has the same value, and some ways of life and forms of togetherness are ethically superior to others; but there is no way of finding out which is which unless each one is given an equal opportunity to argue and prove its case (Bauman 2001: 79).” With this in mind I would elaborate on Knickmeyer’s analysis. Secular and fundamentalist identities came together during the revolution, to reach perhaps what political philosopher John Gray (2000) would call a shabby consensus, and now the commingled identities that have been subjugated under the tyranny of Ben Ali have found freedom to compete for a consensus The question is how will this space be kept free to allow for an equal opportunity where all actors and identities may argue and prove their case.

I am not negating the fact that what has taken place in Tunisia has been positive. Of course the promise to shrug off domination and collectively negotiate a national political and social autonomous identity is a powerful experience. My concern is that, in the state of elation, the domestic and international community does not allow the euphoria, and the existing narrative of rights, to obfuscate a critical phenomenological engagement with the established narrative of women’s rights, the political environment, and the material or experienced phenomenon of women in Tunisia.

Election Day, 23 October, voters leaving a voting station in Bab Souika, Tunis

Bauman, Zygmunt, (2001) Community: Seeking Safety in an Insecure World, Cambridge, UK: Polity

Gray, John, (2000) Two Faces of Liberalism, New York, NY: The New Press

Post Gaddafi Artistic Re-Articulation of Power

Source: Showing It Off: Libya's Artists Display Work After Qaddafi

In late September with Gaddafi removed from power and on the run, with major NTC achievements toward situating a transitional government, the insurgence of democratic participation in Libya was augmented by an outpouring of artistic expression toward re-articulating the previous total domination of social space under Gaddafi’s 42 year regime. Ellen Knickmeyer, former AP bureau chief for West Africa and Washington Post bureau chief for Baghdad and Cairo, writes about the transformation in a Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting article. Discussing the totalizing control of social space through domination of symbolic autonomy under Gaddafi she writes:

For 42 years, Muammar Qaddafi did it all for the aspiring young artists of Libya. Did they want to study literature? Qaddafi’s Green Book had it all. Were they hoping to explore their creative side? Maybe take an art class at school? Great, and for their final exam, they could draw a composition of their choosing, on any one of the glories of Qaddafi’s revolution.

“If we wanted to sing, we had to sing about him,” said Karim Namssi, an unemployed 25 year old in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, who is trying to change all that. “We got used to him being a one-man show.”

Examining this facet of control is relevant to building a more exhaustive picture of domination. Outside of state-centric notions of security, repressive regimes maintain their domination through a combination of coercive physical force, state violence, and a monopoly over myriad forms of capital. It is through this monopoly that they frame and maintain control over the social space. Pierre Bourdieu, French sociologist and philosopher, writes:

The social world is accumulated history, and if it is not to be reduced to a discontinuous series of instantaneous mechanical equilibria between agents who are treated as interchangeable particles, one must reintroduce into it the notion of capital and with it, accumulation and all its effects. Capital is accumulated labor (in its materialized form or its ‘incorporated,’ embodied form) which, when appropriated on a private, i.e., exclusive, basis by agents or groups of agents, enables them to appropriate social energy in the form of reified or living labor.

Bourdieu outlines two forms of capital that are most relevant to Knickmeyer’s article. Domination is a matter of monopolizing cultural and symbolic capital, says Bourdieu (1977, 1991). Cultural capital is understood as the partial or total monopoly of a society’s symbolic resources in religion, education, science, and art, by monopolizing the mechanisms for appropriating these resources (1977: 187). Symbolic capital is the accumulated prestige or honor of a given individual or group (1991: 14), and the recognition they receive from another individual or group (1991: 72).

Exerting a monopoly over cultural capital and the colonization of Libyan life space through Gaddafi’s omnipresent image –as was the case with Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt, indeed all such totalitarian regimes exhibit this feature– and manipulation of public discourse toward deification of Gaddafi, as illustrated above, reified the regime’s, namely Gaddafi’s, monopoly over symbolic capital. This domination is the exertion of symbolic power, that very power that seeks to dominate symbolic: discursive, inscriptive, performative, interactions in social space and thereby assert domination over social space. A monopoly of symbolic power provides the repressive agent with not only its dominant force that presses on the subjugated from above, in the form of coercive physical violence, but also forms the subject (Butler 1997). It is a colonization of the psychic realm of agency and a push toward manipulating the agents relationship to power, Gaddafi, and the social space in which the agent finds him or herself.

With the removal of this suppression on symbolic interactions the individual is freed to renegotiate her relationship to the social space in which she was previously dominated. The outpouring of artistic expression is part of this process of re-articulating power away from the forced reality under Gaddafi toward a more untrammelled notion of agency and autonomy. Knickmeyer continues, quoting Anouar Swed, a Libyan who returned from London to launch a line of fashionable clothing modeled on traditional Libyan dress, “When he [Gaddafi] left, the art came out.’’

Source: Showing It Off: Libya's Artists Display Work After Qaddafi

Since the political revolution there has been an artistic revolution:

The neighborhood children break-dancing, the car radios burbling ballads and blasting rap recorded at people’s homes in just days, the elaborate graffiti splattering almost every patch of whitewashed bare wall in Tripoli, where Qaddafi had banned even spray paint… After a life of forced silence under Qaddafi, Libyans and Libyan artists have a lot to say.

Reaffirming this, in a recent CNN article Catriona Davies explains that before the Libyan revolution there were fewer than ten newspapers in the whole country. Now there are 120 independent newspapers in Benghazi alone.

The eruption of free expression by previously subjugated individuals is not only an indicator of individuals taking advantage of the lifting of total domination under the previous regime, it is also part of the democratization process. Artistic engagement as a referent object should not be overlooked as a constituent process of non-state, non-military, regime change and creation. In Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and elsewhere where popular mobilizations have lead to the removal of dictatorial regime structures the transitional political organizations, and the international community, should ensure that engagement in social space creation and participation is freely open and access to cultural and symbolic capital remains public.

These observations are transferable to all regime spaces and should serve as empirical data that elite manipulation and the appropriation of monopolized capital serves to entrench domination and exploitation.

Source: Written on the Wall

Bourdieu, Pierre (1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice. London: Cambridge University Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1991). Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Polity Press

Bulter, Judith (1997). The Psychic Life of Power. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Image 1, 2 source: Knickmeyer, Ellen (6 October 2011) “Showing It Off: Libya’s Artists Display Work After Qaddafi”

Image 3 source: Gastman, Roger (November 2011) “Written on the Wall”

La fin d’Zenga Zenga

As news of Gaddafi’s death spreads around the world via the mainstream media, twitter, facebook, word of mouth, by photo and by text, jubilation extends into the streets in Tunis.

On the Highway out to Les Berges du Lac II to attend the New Arab Debates organized by the British Counsel, my cab was swarmed by passing cars blinking their head and taillights in unison. The cab driver confirmed the cause of the pulsating beats of headlights and high beams. They were celebrating the confirmation of Gaddafi’s death and the hopeful denouement of the Libyan conflict.

Since arriving in Tunisia, on the streets of the Medina, along rue Habib Bourguiba, on T-shirts, car stickers, and pasted to walls, the NTC, The Libyan Interim National Council, flag has been a ubiquitous site. In fact this symbolic gesture and show of solidarity for Tunisia’s neighbor to the East has far outnumbered visual depictions of Tunisia’s own recent revolution. While “Degage” graffiti, French for “get out” and the chant of Tunisian protesters that echoed like an exorcism toward Ben Ali, can still be seen and elaborate street art is still being put up, the omnipresence of the red, black and green flag of the NTC government throughout the physical space of Tunis has been fascinating. But I don’t want to discount the images of the upcoming election; the political posters and campaign flags have captured the majority of visual space. But second to them has been the red, black, and green.

Furthermore, Gaddafi’s wild threat to hunt the rebels down like rats, alley by alley, or Zenga by Zenga, has been particularly memetic. Throughout souks DVDs and CDs, on T-shirts, and scrawled in cheap graffiti on the walls ‘Zenga Zenga’ has taken on a powerful signification. It  has become a metaphor for tyrannical lunacy, a trope for re-articulating power through humor, that is, what Gaddafi had intended as a threat has been transformed by the targets of that threat, and spread through the channels of resistance, into a liberating symbol.

The overwhelming show of support for the NTC, for the people of Libya, makes sense in light of Tunisia and Libya’s history of emotional, political, economic, and social exchange. Tunisia’s first president Habib Bourguiba and Muammar Gaddafi had even gone so far as to sign an agreement to merge the nations in 1974 but the plan stagnated when Bourguiba postponed the referendum over uncertainty of Gaddafi’s competency as a leader. Had the plan gone through Bourguiba would have served as president of the new country with Gaddafi as the Minister of Defense. After 1974 diplomatic relations between the two countries faced a number of erratic turns. After fighting broke out in Libya tens of thousands of Libyans fled across the border into Tunisia.

Despite the high presence of international humanitarian organizations in Libya, many relocated to Tunisia during the height of the conflict only to return to Libya a few weeks ago, and those already based in Tunisia, including many refugee camps set up by the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, most Libyans seemed to find safety and support simply among their Tunisian neighbors. A Libyan, former oil worker, who fled the fighting, moved into the floor above me just one month before I arrived in Tunis. It has been a commen sentiment among the Tunisians with whom I have spoken, that the revolution that ousted Ben Ali and spread throughout the region has been just that, a regional call for democracy. Many Tunisians have expressed sincere hope that the people of Libya will know the elation of liberation from dictatorship. The ubiquity of the NTC flag has therefore foreshadowed today’s elation at the news of Gaddafi’s death and the likely conclusion of months of violence and years of repression.

On my way back from the debate, mentioned above, my bus passed the Libyan Embassy. It was around nine pm and a chunk of the crowd had already gone home but the street in front of the embassy was still a mass of flag waving, chanting celebrators. As I approached from down the street, the bus had let me out at the British Council, I could already hear the chant of ‘Allah hu Akbar’ or God is Great, and Gaddafi is dead.

I arrived in the mass of people. The chanting of Allah’s name in praise for Gaddafi’s end would be punctuated by cacophonous cheering and imperceptible shouts. The crowds were diverse: men and women, old and young, women in hijab, niqab, and unveiled, old men with beards and taqiyah, the skull cap worn by observant Muslim men, boys in shiny fashionable jackets, some covered their faces with black bandanas and some older men were finely dressed in suits. A number of younger men stood on top of a car, the driver sitting and grinning behind the wheel as his small automobile was rocked back and forth by the undulations of the revelers above. The NTC flag was waved alongside the Tunisian flag, a few excited flag bearers also gripped Al Nadha‘s flag. The revelry overflowed into the smiles and handshakes that greeted us.

“Today is a great day for Libya,” said Alaeddin. The relative of a former opposition parliamentarian, Alaeddin explained that during the days of violence he had fled Tripoli to help protect his family in their hometown in the mountains. His speech was punctuated with exuberant laughter. He was excited when we explained that we were American. He told us that he had celebrated the Forth of July last year at the American Embassy in Tripoli, and that he was fond of Thanksgiving. “Today is a great day for Libya,” he repeated. “You know, Libya has oil but the people are poor. Libya is not a developed country. I came to Tunisia to get a change of perspective. I see this [gesturing at the broad, palm lined streets] and am ashamed. Have you seen Sidi Bou Said [The iconic blue and white coastal city a few miles outside of Tunis]? It is beautiful. We don’t have this kind of place in Libya. But now we can begin to build our country.” He explained that Americans are well liked in Libya but that Gaddafi made it all but impossible for Libyans to interact, or get scholarships abroad. He mentioned several cases of Gaddafi barring Libyan students from accepting the Fulbright scholarship after it had already been awarded by the US. Alaeddin said he will return to Libya in a few days and welcomed us to visit him. He faded back to observe the chanting crowd.

It was a powerful scene and eruption of relief. Here are a few images.

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