The idea that countries in the Middle East are static, totalitarian states is a common misconception among many Westerners, according to a leading scholar.
In fact, it is “ordinary people” in many of the countries in that region who are slowly effecting change, said Asef Bayat, professor of sociology and Middle East studies and chair in society and culture of the modern Middle East at Leiden University in the Netherlands.
In Western countries, activism is typically led by organized groups such as youth organizations, unions and feminist groups, he said while speaking at Concordia University March 31.
In non-democratic states, however, it is large, unorganized groups of people which are creating change.
“These are fragmented, non-authoritative groups that are driving change in the region,” said Bayat.
The professor and author coined the term “non-movements” to describe these movements, and used the example of rural Egyptians moving from the countryside to the outskirts of Cairo, where they are now building makeshift shelters and communities, and changing the landscape.
“The panic and concern this has caused amongst urban elites is remarkable,” said Bayat. “What are very ordinary decisions have very significant implications.”
The lack of organized movements is based largely on the fact that in totalitarian or authoritarian states, these groups are targeted very quickly. “Non-movements are the results of a particular political state, the authoritarian state. Because they are so much ingrained in daily life, they are very difficult to suppress.”
Bayat also gave the example of the Iranian women’s movement, which steadily made gains after years of repression in the 1990s. “Their goals are the same goals as earlier Western movements. The right to study, to work outside, to travel without a man’s permission. Every change they have made has become a stepping stone for other claims. And this is based on everyday actions, uncovering their faces, jogging, going in public parks, asserting their public place.”
Some members of the audience questioned whether the term non-movement was really unique to the Middle East or totalitarian states, which Bayat countered by saying the non-movement was, unlike organized movements, fundamentally non-ideological.
“This is not a politics of protest but a politics of presence, and of practice. The practices I’m talking about are a part of everyday life.”
The speech had a political element as well, as Bayat suggested the American doctrine of regime change was not the best way to bring change.
“The idea exists that there is a big desire for change but no agency. But changes do happen in that part of the world. It gives us some hope that despite authoritarian surveillance, there are ways to exercise agency.”