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NU-Q study examines ‘Arab Spring’ language

Jordan Harrison, Assistant Campus Editor

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A Northwestern University in Qatar professor has published a study about the use and origins of the term “Arab Spring” to refer to unrest and change in the Arab world since December 2010. The paper is part of a series published by NU-Qatar.

Ibrahim Abusharif, an associate professor of journalism at NU-Q, published the paper, “Parsing ‘Arab Spring,’” in February. He wrote the term originated from Western media and not from the countries that experienced unrest and revolution, such as Egypt and Tunisia.

“The success of naming, then, is vested in marbling shared assumptions and familiar narratives into vocabulary that makes implicit sense to an audience that often is far removed—geographically, culturally and even sympathetically—from the named event,” Abusharif wrote in the study. “And given the unprecedented capacity for news and nomenclature to spread so widely and swiftly, the ‘Arab Spring’ phrasing has become somewhat of a phenomenon. It embodies an ‘interpretative package’; that is, it offers more or less immediate cultural meaning that pivots on the idea of democratization in a region that has resisted democracy.”

The term “Arab Spring” is more complex than commonly thought and falls short at capturing the variation in the revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa, Abusharif said.

“What happened in Tunisia is different than what happened in Egypt, and what happened in Egypt is really different than what happened in Libya. And of course Syria is another thing altogether,” he said. “(Arab Spring) covers the wider angst that you do see in the Arab world about the status quo, but of course it needs to be parsed out because there are marked differences between different nations and how they ultimately want to move.”

The study examines the history of the word “spring” to refer to a political revolution, the terms used by Arab media to refer to the movements and objections to the term in the Arab world.

Early on, Arab press referred to the movements as “Arab Revolutions,” or “thawrat.” Some commentators object to the term “Arab Spring” because it suggests too optimistic an outcome, and it represents a Western, “imperial reach” over the language of the phenomenon, according to the study.

Everette Dennis, the dean of NU-Qatar, called Abusharif’s work a “distinctive contribution” and said research at NU-Qatar helps build an identity for the school and interact with the surrounding region.

“Research for us can be a platform for discussing topics that would be harder otherwise,” he said. “It becomes a real template for taking on topics that are otherwise quite controversial in this country or in the Middle East in general.”

Abusharif said how we name movements influences our understanding of them.

“Language is a very interesting thing to look at, and we should not be very passive about looking at descriptors and framing of phraseology,” he said. “It’s very important to stop and look at them and see what they really mean beyond the surface.”

Email: jordanharrison2017@u.northwestern.edu
Twitter: @MedillJordan

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