Book Review Expat-ing Democracy: Dissidents, Technology, and Democratic Discourse in the Middle East

Book Review Expat-ing Democracy: Dissidents, Technology, and Democratic Discourse in the Middle East by Nir T. Boms (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2016), 246 pages

Reviewed by Patrycja Sasnal Director, Middle East and North Africa Project, Polish Institute of International Affairs, Warsaw

Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, 2017

Looking at events around the world, one can not escape the impression that despite the monumental leap forward in communications technology and its availability, politically, we have taken a step into the unknown: the world of post-truth politics where information may no longer hold the central place of importance it once did. Disseminators of “alternative facts” meddling in elections; auto-censorship in private, yet government-friendly media; ideological wars fought via social media—these are phenomena whose political consequences we must face without fully understanding them. Meanwhile, since the 2011 upheavals in the Arab world, counterrevolutionary forces have reconquered most states in the region (but for the bright exception of Tunisia), with terrifying results in war torn Syria, Libya, and Yemen. 

NirT.Boms’ Expat-ing Democracy returns us to the state of affairs a few short years ago globally and in the Middle East, inculcating in the reader a hope that perhaps the liberal order will not be lost after all. Boms, a research fellow at Tel Aviv University and a lecturer of Middle East studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, makes a bold attempt at an almost impossible goal: conceptualizing the research on democracy promotion in the Middle East through the use of new communication tools by the Middle East expat diaspora. He is an excellent example of an Israeli scholar wading into interactions with Arab and Iranian expats. For the purpose of his study, Boms conducted sixty interviews and placed these in the context of the fast-changing world of communications technology.

At the core of his thesis is the idea that expat groups, thanks to technology, are able to influence political discourse in their countries of origin. Boms specifically focuses on Syria and Iran. Much of his research had already been collected for his PhD dissertation at the University of Haifa on the influence of information technology on the creation of civil society in Syria and Iran. The initial question he asks is the following: What is the overall influence and potential of pro-democracy expatriate groups on democratization in the Middle East?

Boms then answers the question in separate chapters on ICT (Information and Communications Technology), democratization in the Middle East, and the Syrian and Iranian Diasporas, followed by a short summary of the first three chapters. The fifth (and final) chapter focuses on the role of new media in the Egyptian and Tunisian political changes of 2011, apparently added after the main research for the study had been completed. The most extensive thematic focus in the study is on the Syrian and Iranian Diasporas. Boms provides a meticulous enumeration and description of these, concentrating on groups opposed to the governments in their countries of origin. Globalization helped these Diasporas and their voices grow.

In the first section, Boms sets out to differentiate between three political “camps” in the Middle East: the government, the Islamist opposition, and the “pro-democracy” opposition. The last one began using ICT tools when they were made available; thus ICT became a catalyst for the dissemination of ideas and helped maintain the democratic discourse. He discusses means of communication in general, and their role in revolutions, and how media has changed over time. Without free media, he argues, the prospects for democratic transitions are dimmer. Boms goes on to trace how ICT has grown over the past decades. He establishes a connection between economic growth, ICT, and democratization. ICT improves access to power and weakens established institutions and the ability to control and manipulate information, hence, according to Boms, increasing transparency as well as public participation and awareness. He does not remain uncritical of the ideas he is trying to prove—Boms mentions Malcolm Gladwell and Rami Khouri, who questioned this optimistic connection, though eventually he concedes that these opinions are in the minority.

Syria and Iran, according to Boms, provide different case studies of internet penetration and political change. He tracks how Syria went “online” but censored content until the eruption of the revolution in 2011. Boms compares the Syrian case to the Iranian one (mostly around the time of the Green Revolution) to prove that Tehran was better prepared than Damascus to tackle “internet protests.” His initial conclusion is that the liberals were able to provide a “more solid political alternative” on the level of discourse. The two case studies make up the majority of the third chapter on Diasporas.

The second part of Expat-ing Democracy discusses the compelling question of whether democracy, which has grown to be a universal value, can be applied to the Middle East. Citing philosophers, surveys, and post-war surges in democratic sentiment, Boms points to democracy promotion in the Middle East, both during the Cold War as well as before and after the September 11 attacks, as a constant feature of European and American policies. He does not shy away from asking whether democracy can ultimately prevail in the Middle East, and delves into one of the more sensitive aspects of that question: The bridges between democracy and Islam do exist, he asserts, but are few in number. Boms, however, does not deal with the difficulties of promoting democracy cross-culturally. History has taught us that change can only come from within. The addition of this perspective would have offered greater nuance to the consideration of the role of the diaspora in democratization. The diaspora is both within and without at the same time.

In a short summary, the author presents a nuanced and rich overview of his findings. BomsconfirmstheroleofICTincreatingliberalmediaoutletsandgivingexpatriate groups a new tool with which to disseminate their discourse, thereby expanding the civil society framework. The influence of expatriate groups on democratization in the Middle East is the core focus of his study. He concludes that despite limitations, the expat discourse has a growing reach and an ability to broaden the debate. In the fifth chapter—which was meant to update the book—Boms finds the role of the media in the Arab Spring to be unique. Thanks to the “new media,” the third camp—“the democrats”—could finally be heard.

The numerous references to IR theories, the history of political thought, and public opinion polls leave little doubt that this is a book written by a political scientist and was probably intended for an audience with a similar background. Communication and democracy is already a distinct field of study, albeit an interdisciplinary one. Boms adds the perspective of the Arab diaspora, which makes the research more interesting but also more difficult.

In writing this book, the author needed to investigate the role of ICT in democracy promotion in the Middle East, which in itself is an ocean of study. However, he also decided to focus on Middle Eastern Diasporas, which compelled him to expand the research into a new realm. Boms copes with this challenge by looking at case studies. He deftly deals with very distinct technological, social, and political phenomena that usually require separate expertise. Boms has researched the topic since 2001, and yet ICT—the fastest changing domain—is still his focus. He also runs the risk of collecting and presenting data that can quickly become outdated. In the end, though, Boms preserves the book’s validity by adopting the time-tested methodology of the Delphi interview. Dozens of collected interviews will remain a unique source of information for years to come.

Boms’s work is a welcome addition to the existing literature. Two variations on the topic in question are well researched: the ICT and the voice of the agency in the Middle East and the role of Diasporas in transitions to democracy. In light of the existing literature, the added value of Boms’ book is in its examination of three elements in one study: ICT, democracy in the Middle East, and the role of Diasporas. He manages to aptly combine the three angles into a very coherent and informative study.

In the epilogue, the author makes a personal statement about being a “cyberoptimist” whose enthusiasm waned over the course of his research. Boms hopes that this work will be valid regardless of the current events in the Middle East.

It is intended to serve as a “pointer to deeper currents” in the future. The world in 2017 has not yet produced many instances that validate Boms’s optimistic, or moderately optimistic, view of the role of ICT in democratization processes. However, if his research does indeed point to deeper currents, the world may yet get back on the democracy track.

Notes

1 See Jabbar al-Obaidi, “Communication and the culture of Democracy: Global Media and Promotion of Democracy in the Middle East,” International Journal of Instructional Media, XXX:1 (March, 2003), 97–110; Mohammed M. Aman and Tina J. Jayroe, “ICT, Social Media, and the Arab Transition to Democracy: From Venting to Acting,” DOMES: Digest of Middle East Studies, XXII:2 (Fall, 2013), 317–47; Daniel Baldino and Jarrad Goold, “Iran and he emergence of information and communications technology: the evolution of revolution?” Australian Journal of International Affairs, LXVIII:1 (January, 2014), 17–35. 2 See Gabriel Sheffer (ed.), Modern Diasporas in International Politics (New York, 1986); Irene Kapusta, “Arab Diasporas: A Catalyst for the Growth of Social Ventures in the Middle East?” Social Entrepreneurship in the Middle East, Dima Jamali, Alessandro Lanteri (eds.) (New York, 2015), pp. 208–43; Galia Golan and Walid Salem (eds.), Non-State Actors in the Middle East: Factors for Peace and Democracy (London, 2013).

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