Time’s ‘protester’: Veiling luminance

The author attempts to deconstruct Time magazine’s naming of ‘the protester’ as person of the year.

Individuals such as Tunisian blogger Lina Ben Mhenni fit the frame of the protester [EPA]

Exeter, UK – Newsmakers, including the BBC, broke the event stating that “Time unveils Person of the Year: the Protester“.Time magazine actually veiled the protester.

A few notes protesting the veiling of ‘the protestor’ are recorded below.

It is part and parcel of humans’ self-exploration and quest for self-other knowing that we cut up the world around us, name its many fragments, and box and re-box them according to endless criteria, prejudices, properties, linguistic resources and spatial materials.

The naming game is what we all do, but can never do it perfectly. The worlds of politics, publishing, showbiz, business, and sports have all integrated naming in what they do. That obsession of the epitome that speaks for an entire genre, category, or practice is amongst the ways adopted to measure and quantify “the good”, “success” or “beauty”. It is also part of the vocation of “modelling” and “iconising” social agents and phenomena.

However, there are no perfect nomenclatures. They are Janus-faced. Roses grow with prickles. We all say one person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. A perfect cliché. An Arab proverb states that “in his mother’s eyes the camel is a deer”.

We name as part of communicating love but also hatred, to promote and demote agency, to evaluate worth, appreciate and depreciate, and to include and exclude. Basically, we name to know, and the world is, supposedly, easier to navigate, when it is “neatly” labelled.

But how do we know that what we name is really know-able? Take the “protester” do we really know what “it” actually is or what “it” means? I am no Englishman but from what I know it may refer to an agent of dissent, resistance, and opposition. In one sense, these are “radical” values (depending what we mean by “radical”, an adjective which once had a positive connotation and today used as an epithet for instance to describe one brand of “Islamists”.)

But in another, dissidence and opposition are the trademarks of democratic politics. May be not if the “protester” stops traffic, paralyses public space, impedes entry into official buildings or occupies them. May be meaning is contextual: valid in Cairo or Tripoli but not in New York!?

Red Herrings?

I find two anomalies – in jest at least – a “liberal” (?) magazine endorsing new “radical” (?) politics! The second is more perplexing for me – and calls for critical thinking. Do the meanings of protest, dissidence, and objection apply to Osama bin Laden? Was he a protester? We all know he was a terrorist. Are terrorists protesters? Is it the medium of protest, its reach, geography or end that defines the properties or identity of a “protester”?

I do not know. But I am asking simply because the runner-up was Admiral William McRaven who commanded the assault that liquidated Bin Laden. Time could not have awarded person of the year concomitantly to “the protester” and its “hunter” or antithesis!? I am confused. I wonder if this is a matter for linguists and grammarians to sort not for journalists and military commanders.     

Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Mandela epitomise “the protester”. Would Ché? Castro? ANC? Hamas? The Afghan Mujahideen (once allies of Bin Laden)? The Tunisian Federation of Trade Unions? All had something to do with “redefining people power”!

Dressing ‘the Protester’ in burqa?

Time has been brilliant in its coverage of the Arab revolution. It is spot on that 2011 has epitomised protest.

Its naming of “the protester” as person of the year is couched in invisibility and namelessness. May be this intended to distribute credit more widely, rather than cement it to a single figure. Why not champion the value (protest, dignity or freedom) not its agent? Maybe only an agent or a doer can personify a “person of the year”.

My qualms with this is that we have since the heyday of Black September and the Munich terrorist attacks engaged in naming and shaming persons and agents of violence, terror or autocracy. Many of these who were “demonised”, rightly or wrongly under whatever context, had their names put to their faces.

For different reasons and under different circumstances, Arafat, Saddam, Zarqawi, Gaddafi and Bin Laden, amongst others, all were kind of “fire-branded”: Arab faces with Arab names which stood as epitomes of “evil”. Their faces could be almost globally recognised. They were made to be “icons” of Arab “evil-doing”. No one is to blame for this apart from the men who wore these names with the aid of media machines of the West – before even Al-Jazeera arrived on the scene.    

Incidentally, all these men were killed violently and Arafat was most likely poisoned.

This is the gist of what is being argued here: evil is given names and identities. Good seems to be “veiled”.

Putting a name to “the Protester” would have been one way for the media to embody protest as an ethos against misrepresentation. The year 2011 has dazzled, moved and continues to shake the world with the display of people power. It would not have mattered which name was put to “the protester” so long as a human being, Arab or non-Arab, male or female, breathed life into the protester, bringing him or her out of namelessness and invisibility.

Tunisian blogger Lina Ben Mhenni, Khaled Said or April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt, Bahraini human rights activist Zainab Al-Khawaja or murdered Syrian doctor Ibrahim Othman all deservedly fit the frame of the protester and their proudly worn names befit the value of dignity and freedom-driven defiance and resistance.

Naming the good

The world has already celebrated Arab protest and Tawakkul Karman and Mohamed Bouazizi are only two of the names accorded international honours in recognition of their roles in igniting or leading anti-authoritarian protest.

The Times, the British newspaper, has him as its person of the year. In the minds of millions Mohamed Bouazizi epitomises “the protester”. Deservedly.

I just wonder whether, as in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Bouazizi thought “the lady doth protest too much, methinks”… before he protested against Faida Hamdi, the female municipal officer who confiscated his scales, and set in motion an unstoppable chain of tsunamic reactions that shook the world in 2011!?

Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratisation: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009), The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004) and forthcoming Hamas and the Political Process (2012).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.