By Rauf Arif
The 2011 political uprisings in the Middle East, frequently referred to as the “Arab Spring,” that had shaken several countries in the Muslim World, are being referred to as iconic collective memory of our recent past as these historical events created unstoppable ripples in the stagnant political culture of the Arab region. As commonly believed, these political uprisings started from Tunisia in late 2010, when a Tunisian street vendor, Mohammad Bouazizi, doused himself with gasoline and self-immolated in protest against poor economic conditions and police brutality (Arif 2014; Harb 2011; Mir 2011). This incident paved the way for online and offline political protests in 18 Arab countries in North Africa and the Middle East (Ghannam 2011), and points toward a new era of social movements and protests in the digital age. While looking back at what happened six years ago in the Muslim majority countries’ landscape, through this short essay, I would like to highlight an important theoretical paradigm of “collective memory,” which majority of mass media scholars failed to recognize while trying to make sense of the unprecedented collective action in the Arab region.
This essay argues that the term “Arab Spring” is unnecessarily limiting in scope because of its tendency to interpret the political insurrections that have taken place in many Muslim majority countries in the context of the Arabic-speaking Middle East. In fact, the political struggle of 2010/11 in Muslim majority countries was the part of a much bigger phenomenon than the “Arab Spring.” Social media archives such as YouTube offer us a wonderful opportunity to revisit and reevaluate memories of political activism in the Middle East and North African region. If we carefully analyze still and moving images of political protests coming out of the Arab region, it would be hard to ignore stark similarities of some of the iconic images (Perlmutter 1998) to the political uprisings erupting in the non-Arabic region as well.
In other words, looking carefully at the events that unfolded during and after the Arab Spring, it can be argued that political uprisings in the Muslim World were not country-, culture-, or region-specific; rather they were part of a larger global phenomenon of social movements that continued to spring up around the world at that time (Arif 2014). Political unrests were occurring in both Muslim and non-Muslim countries, but were mostly overlooked to be discussed as a global phenomenon because of overuse of the term “Arab Spring” both by academics and political analysts. Examples are the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States, the protests against bus-fare increases in Brazil, and the resistance movement against construction of a park in Turkey (Montague 2013; Wigmore-Shepherd 2013; Zakaria 2013). The techniques and themes used on social media platforms during these movements in the recent past are reminiscent of those observed during the political uprisings in Tunisia (2010/11) and Egypt (2011).
For example, let’s focus on one particular common theme that kept on reemerging in both Western and non-Western collective actions. During the political unrests of 2011 in several of the Muslim majority countries, we witnessed some of the widely circulated and viewed videos and images on social media, in general, and on YouTube, in particular, showed the protesters holding and/or wearing “V” masks to associate their social movements with the famous movie V for Vendetta (See figure 1).
Figure 1: A Protester wearing V Mask during the Tunisian Uprisings (YouTube Video Link)
This “2005 British action thriller film directed by James McTeigue and written by the Wachowski Brothers is based on the 1982 comic book of the same name by Alan Moore and David Lloyd” (Wikipedia 2017). The movie represents one person’s struggle to avenge his government’s wrongdoing and abuse of power.
These V masked protesters were not exclusive to the Arab Spring, but similar “V” masked protesters were also spotted among several other political unrests that were unfolding in Western societies including some parts of Europe and the United States (during the Occupy Wall Street Movement of 2011). Therefore, the V mask became a symbol of resistance not only in the Middle East, but also for Western societies. Let’s recall some of the political unrests in societies other than the Arab Spring: V masks were seen again in Brazil in June 2013 when over 200,000 Brazilians, mostly youth and university students, took to the streets over such issues as the rising cost of 2014 World Cup preparations in that country. The protesters stated that they were “angry about high taxes, corruption, and lavish spending on the upcoming World Cup soccer tournament, among other complaints” (Castillo and Darlington 2013). It is interesting that the Brazilian protestors used many of the same images and strategies employed in the two Muslim-majority countries, Tunisia and Egypt. For example, Brazilian protesters wore V masks during the demonstrations. See figure 2.
Figure 2: A Protester wearing a V Mask During Demonstrations in Brazil (Source AP)
Likewise, protesters used V masks during the Occupy Wall Street Movement in 2011 in the United States (See Figure 3) and 2013 protests in Turkey (See Figure 4). V masks also appeared in Europe in reaction to the recent reports of worldwide US spying on virtually all telephone and Internet communications (See Figure 05).
It is pertinent to mention here that the popularity and iconic power of this symbol of protest led the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia to ban V masks in their countries (Zakaria 2013). Consequently, the V mask has been transformed from a movie prop in England to a symbol of resistance during the Arab Spring to a nearly universal symbol of resistance to government and corporate abuse, corruption, and violence, proof that collective memory themes have now become part of a bigger phenomenon. Thus, a strong case can be made that the political uprisings in the Muslim World neither started nor ended with the so-called Arab Spring. YouTube and other social media were, in fact, helping political activism take place on a global scale.
If we treat this globally recognized V mask as a collective memory theme, then the original idea of collective memory as applying only within individual groups or cultures is challenged; collective memory, thanks to the online platforms made available by digital media, now truly extends to virtually everyone on earth. This concept resonates with the work of Reading (2011) and Hoskin (2011). Reading (2011) argues that collective memories in the digital age are the result of globalization and digitization, and should be called as “Globital” memories instead of collective memories. Reading (2011) adds that it is because of the global nature of digital media that multiple interpretations of the same event are created. One implication of this phenomenon is that collective memory is no longer static, but rather something that is porous and able to take many shapes, something that was not possible in the past. Hoskin (2011) holds similar views. He argues that collective memory in this time of digital media is different from that of the past and so should be called “connective” memory, instead.
In conclusion, this short essay argues that while studying social media’s role and contributions in social movements, we need to understand this phenomenon in two ways: social media’s role in creating a collective memory that connects the people of one specific country or culture during a political uprising (i.e., the formation of a collective “We”), and social media’s role in changing the nature of collective memory in the digital age (i.e., formation of connective memory). In invite my fellow academics to revisit the events of the Arab Spring and retest our approaches to social movements and collective actions in a global perspective so as to understand and explore new dynamics and avenues in this digital age. This may help not only test our existing theoretical paradigms, but also to evolve and improve these theoretical perspectives in rapidly changing media and communication landscape of the 21st century.
Figure 3: A Demonstrator Wearing V Mask During the Occupy Wall Street Movement 2011, USA (Source Guardian)\
Figure 04: A Turkish Protester Wearing V Mask during Anti-Government Protests 2013 (Source Al-Jazeera)
Figure 05: A Demonstrator Wearing V mask to Protest the US alleged spying on the EU (Source The Guardian, UK)
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Wikipedia (2017). V for Vendetta Film. Retrieved on March 22nd from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V_for_Vendetta_(film)
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