Life as Politics How Ordinary People Change the Middle East (Asef Bayat)

Middle East Studies Online Journal- ISSN 2109-9618- Issue n°6. Volume 3 ( Summer 2011)

Etudes  du Moyen-Orient. N°6. Volume 3. ( Eté 2011)

.2011دراسات الشرق الأوسط، مجلة فكرية محكمة. العدد السادس . المجلد الثالث صيف


Reviewed By: Majid Rafizadeh*

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press (October 21, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0804769249
  • ISBN-13: 978-0804769242


Asef Bayat is Professor of Sociology and Middle Eastern Studies and holds the Chair of Society and Culture of the Modern Middle East at Leiden University, the Netherlands. He is the author ofMaking Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn (Stanford, 2007) and Street Politics: Poor People’s Movements in Iran (1997).

Download this paper (PDF): Life as Politics


sef Bayat, a prominent scholar of social movements, working-class activism, the agency of the urban poor, and the politics of space and place in the Middle East has published his most recent book entitled Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East. Bayat is a sociologist by training whose work has consistently been theoretically informed and engaged. His work as also largely been comparative due to his thorough knowledge of both Iran and Egypt, his work has also been largely comparative. In the past Bayat served as Academic Director of the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World (ISIM) which was established by a consortium of Dutch universities. Currently, Bayat is Professor of Sociology and Middle Eastern studies at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Bayat’s most recent book provides an overview of the intellectual project that he has been engaged over the past decade. As a public intellectual and scholar, Bayat examines the lives of the working poor and other subordinated groups in the Middle East, including women. He observes how these groups have been forces for social and political change in the region. As such, he offers an alternative theoretical paradigm to the one of mainstream Euro-American political science which claims that (male) sociopolitical elites are the only significant agents of change. Life as Politics is a collection of articles and essays originally published by Bayat in a range of academic journals and edited volumes between the years 2000 and 2009.

Bayat points out that, through the prism of prevailing social movement theories formulated largely by Western social scientists, many scholars have concluded that youth and/or women’s movement do not exist in the Middle East because the characteristics of these groups do not comply with the principle “framework”.  This conclusion relies, specifically, on Euro-American patterns of historical development and sociopolitical contention. Given the fact that these social movement theories draw purely upon Western experiences, Bayat questions the extent to which predominant western social movement theories can account for the complexities and particularities of the socio-political and socio-religious “social movements” of the Middle East. He emphasizes that it is problematic to make a comparison that takes one of the elements of comparison as a “norm” while not questioning the “original configuration.” Because dominant western “models” have specific historical genealogies, it is debatable if they can effectively explain the intricate dynamics of the resistance and upheavals of the Middle East.

Bayat contends that predominant western social movement theories fail to pay adequate attention to the way that disenfranchised urban youth in the region, “through their quiet and unassuming daily struggles, refigure new life and communities for themselves and different urban realities on the ground in Middle Eastern cities […] not through formal institutional channels, from which they are largely excluded, but through direct actions in the very zones of exclusion” (p. 5). The book argues that many Westerners who promote social change in the Middle East get it wrong by failing to comprehend the particular fluidity of the region’s people, social structures, movements, and cultures. Life as Politics has contributed to the conceptualization of social movements, agency and politics in the Middle East by introducing the term “social non-movements.” According to Bayat, “social non-movements”  refers to the “collective actions of non-collective actors; they embody shared large numbers of ordinary people whose fragmented but similar activities trigger much social change, even though these practices are rarely guided by an ideology or recognizable leaderships and organizations” (p. 14). “Social non-movements” develop by means of the “art of presence” as well as the “courage and creativity to assert collective will in spite of all odds, to circumvent constraints, utilizing what is available and discovering new spaces within which to make oneself heard, seen, felt, and realized” (p. 26).  For Bayat, these non-movements are also the product of the “quiet encroachment of the ordinary people” through which the urban poor in the Middle East seek to cope with the impact of neo-liberal economic policies, globalization, and the failure of the state to address their needs.  “Quiet Encroachment” is the “… non-collective but prolonged direct actions of dispersed individuals and families to acquire the basic necessities of their lives (land for shelter, urban collective consumption or urban services, informal work, business opportunities, and public space) in a quiet and unassuming illegal fashion” ( p. 45).

One example of a non-movement is the way that Iranian women have been able to encroach upon and challenge patriarchal power despite limited domains and opportunities for open political activism. Other examples include urban youth struggling to create a space for “fun” lifestyles and ideologies which are not approved by the state or by Islamist movements; urban poor running their own parking services; Iranian youth throwing parties behind closed doors; daily cosmopolitan co-existence between Muslims and Christians in an Egyptian suburb; Muslim women wearing the veil, or hijab, based on their individual preferences; Egyptian and Iranian youth expressing themselves by balancing God, fun and sex;  and the ways in which urban public spaces have transformed into locations of struggle in many parts of the Middle East.

Bayat contrasts these movements with the organized social movements of the West. According to Western sociologists, “social movements” are constituted by three fundamental elements. First, movements must have an organized and sustained claim on the authorities. Second, they must hold a repertoire of performances such as street marches, public meetings, associations, and media statements. Third, through a variety of political actions, the movements have “public representations of the cause’s worthiness, unity, numbers, and commitments” (p.9). On the other hand, social movements in the Middle East bear different characteristics. First, they have a tendency to be unspoken, yet action-oriented. Their demands are made on an individual basis rather than through groups that are ideologically driven, audible and unified. Second, despite government sanctions, people practice their demands directly rather than organizing and mobilizing under leaders who put pressure on authorities. Finally, the resistance takes place during everyday life rather than through extraordinary deeds of mobilization such as attending meetings, lobbying, petitioning and so on.

Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East is a significant book and well worth reading. It is valuable work that makes a significant contribution to scholarship on contemporary urban social life in the Middle East. It is also a crucial source for scholars and activists who seek to gain a comprehensive and deep understand of the ongoing struggles of people in the Middle East who struggle for a better life in the face of severe socio-economic conditions and the brutality of oppressive, dictatorial regimes.










* Majid Rafizadeh is an Iranian/Syrian scholar, currently conducting research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and columnist for Harvard International Review.



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