SOCIAL CONDITIONS Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East, by Asef Bayat. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010. $21.95.
Reviewed by Zain Abdullah
Works on the Middle East and Muslims are in no short supply. And the recent uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, among other countries in the region, make the prospect of ever new releases imminent. What has been missing, however, are innovative ways to grasp the area's complex polities and, at the same time, its everyday realities. But Asef Bayat is clearly among the few capable of approaching this task. With 16 years of teaching Middle East Studies at the American University in Cairo, he has gained a firsthand look at a nation in transition. He has also written skillfully on his own country of Iran. As a sociologist, director, and chair of centers on Islam, society, and the modern world, he approaches his subject with academic rigor and insight.
Life as Politics has 12 main chapters, which were all adapted from essays mostly written in 2007, and they range in publication from 2000 to 2009. Besides this, the book opens up with a short preface and an introductory chapter laying out the book's premise. At its core, though, Bayat is interested in agency and social change among ordinary Muslims in the Middle East. While revolution and social activism in the region are typically viewed in terms of political Islam (Islamism) or social movements, Bayat offers an alternative view of how change occurs through what he calls "social nonmovement." This refers to how the poor engage in unorganized behavior as a politics of practice (based on direct action), rather than as a politics of protest for claims against the state, acquiring, often illegally, resources they deem essential for their survival and dignity. In short, "nonmovement" constitutes the concerted and somewhat ordinary efforts of disfranchised groups working individually to improve their lives. While this behavior is categorized as collective action and believed to foster some sort of social change, it is nonetheless a "nonmovement" because it lacks an ideological framework, appointed leadership and the formal structure of protest organizations. By comparison, social movements deliberately mobilize their members and challenge the state to meet their demands (pp. 19-20). However, the distinction between movement and nonmovement is less about how they differ in terms of structure and content.
Rather, Bayat proposes a new way of thinking about movement itself, despite the fact that his idea of nonmovement might appear counterintuitive. Instead, the author focuses on the collective and compensatory behavior of the unorganized masses, which is perhaps a major reason his reformulation of social movement is so intriguing. It has the potential to intervene into what we commonly understand to be collective agency overall, not to mention its implications for rethinking social activity and political practice in the Muslim Middle East.
Life as Politics, however, is more than a critique of social movements. It is decidedly an exploration into the kinds of action Bayat calls the "quiet encroachment of the ordinary" (p. 45). In fact, it is this encroaching behavior that qualifies what he means by social nonmovement. …