Uncritical reflections on Arab sport and society

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Halvdan Haugsbakken
Norwegian University of Science and Technology


Mahfoud Amara
Sport, Politics and Society in the Arab World
192 sidor, inb.
Basingstoke, Hamps.: Palgrave Macmillan 2012 (Global Culture and Sport)
ISBN 978-0-230-30792-6

Sports, Politics and Society in The Arab World, authored by Mahfoud Amara, is apparently one of many books currently competing for attention in the wake of the Arab Spring, and a book which, as I interpret it, it is also dedicated to. Amara is lecturer in Sport and Leisure Policy and Management at Loughborough University, UK. His research interests include comparative sports policy and spans a variety of topics that intends understanding sports in Arab-Muslim contexts. He has published widely on the politics of the Pan-Arab Games, sport in colonial and post-colonial Algeria, sport and media in the Arab world, sport modernisation debates in the Gulf region and comparative models of football development. Sports, Politics and Society in The Arab world, published on Palgrave Macmillan and consisting of roughly 200 pages, is the latest addition on Amara’s publishing list. But this book is a complex one; it positions itself in relation to complex social and societal forces and grasping topics such as nation-state building, globalisation, democratisation, modernisation and authentication. He sets out to understand overall social and societal processes in the Arab world by using sports as his analytical tool. In other words; he employs the traditional sociological argument or perspective that sports is not an isolated enclave in society, but is firmly integrated into it. This means that Amara’s project is ambitious.

Sports, Politics and Society in The Arab World is divided into six chapters that explores different aspects of sports in the Arab world, and a conclusion. The first chapter maps how the nation-state uses sports to promote and foster national and cultural identities, especially that of Arab nationalism. Amara outlines a typical trait often seen under the Cold War: sports were heavily employed by the East and the West to foster collective identities, which had the potential to exceed and suppress other collective identities, but also was a battlefield for opposing ideologies such as the so-called Free world against Soviet communism. This trait serves as backdrop in Amara’s outline: he documents how hybrid Arab state-configurations have used and created sport games intended at uniting and integrating different post-national pan-Arab and pan-Islamic identities.

Chapter two deals with Amara’s home turf – football in Algeria. This is more of an historical analysis focusing on football’s role as an extension of the state, especially how holders of power have tried to legitimise their politics and ideologies. In chapter three, Amara turns his eyes to more current and familiar affairs; he addresses the emerging sports-media-complex in Arab countries. Over the years, a huge, new Arab global media-complex has targeted Arab sports fans as a new consumer market. In chapter four, which also somehow overlaps with chapter two, he explores how implemented and adopted sports polices in North African countries are virtually more or less the same as the national and regional political and economic systems. This is for example seen in the upswing of new sports facilities and hosting of international sport tournaments throughout the region. While the last chapter investigates sport in the Arab world seen from an Islamic perspective, Amara’s conclusion pinpoints which directions future research should take.

This is not a book that analyses the variety of sports practiced in the Arab world, but frequently goes back to one topic, football in Algeria.

There are a number of strengths and shortcomings with Sports, Politics and Society in The Arab World, but sadly its limitations heavily outweighs its strengths. Considering its strengths first, Amara’s work certainly adds new research-based knowledge to the field of sport study in the Arab world. For example, the most interesting chapter is the one that describes the emerging Arab sport-media complex. But that is its most valuable commodity; the rest is not impressive reading, considering on the author’s indicated intentions. Amara states that he wants to present a critical reflection. He does not do that. “Critical” should be blacked out completely and leaving only “a reflection”. Because that is all that he offers. I have not identified one single coherent and independent argument that Amara wishes to analyse and critically address. Amara addresses several interesting questions but mostly very superficially. There is little or no independent argument analysing the effects of the major topics he set out to discuss, something one would expect when discussing the implication of modernisation. For example, it would be interesting to hear his analysis of the fundamental changes that is happening in the Arab world and how it actually relates to sport. Instead, it becomes a mush up of interesting anecdotes that Amara does not challenge. They are just accounted for. Nothing more.

And this leads me to other analytical problems. The title of the book is misleading. It should have been called “Football, Politics and Society in The Arab World”. This is not a book that analyses the variety of sports practiced in the Arab world, but frequently goes back to one topic, football in Algeria. Too often the concepts deal with the implications of football, and for a better read the study should have been narrowed down to exploring the diverse meanings of that game. It is more analytically precise to address the social effects of “Europeanisation” of Arab football.

And this leads me to my last point; quality control. This is a matter that lies in the hands of the publisher and editors. I really question if the employees at Palgrave Macmillan have read through the manuscript, before they launched it onto the market, or, if it has been a driver to economically harvest from the public attention given to Arab Spring. Amara’s work differs in quality. The first chapter and the conclusion should have been refereed promptly. They are not what I consider to be of academic standard, because some of the conclusion turns quality into a travelling diary, which are not impressive reading, and, hence ignores analysis of an important subject. The introduction, in addition, lists the chapters in the wrong order, something that becomes clear from chapter three. I hope that for the second edition – if there is to be one – the quality is improved and that the overall arguments are framed properly. Otherwise, new readers are most likely to pass same conclusion as I – the book needs considerable analytical improvements.

Copyright © Halvdan Haugsbakken 2012

1 comment on this postSubmit yours
  1. I am happy to take it – we cannot satisfy everybody—however, this should not be sprit of a book review as the focus was more on emphasising/highlighting the shortcomings at the determent of promoting some of the positive aspects that could add to the debate/ and to the study of sport in the Arab World. The approach of the reviewer in this case is not productive, hence the choice of the review’s title “Inferior analysis of Arab sport and society”.

    Stating that the book was more about football than other sports is harsh. We cannot of course ignore the fact that football has a significant place politically/ideologically and culturally in the Arab world, as is the case in many other regions of the world , that is said, the book did examine/ or at least cover, other sports, sport organisations or sporting issues (e.g. car racing industry; Olympism and Olympic sports; basketball , international sport events; to name a few). I invite the reviewer to check the Indexing. Yes I do not pretend that I have covered everything (all the sports, and all the significant issues around sport in the Arab world). One has to take a humble approach when confronted to this huge challenging task/enterprise of studying sport in the Arab World, which is yet to be studied. The most important aim of the book (at least the way I see it) was to initiate a debate, which is I think is a good start (since , as far I am aware, there were not many books –if none – written about this topic before).

    As for the timing of the book, I have to remind the reviewer that the process of getting the proposal for the book to be accepted can take some time. I started the process – of sending through the proposal and the writing up–in 2010. Nobody in 2010 could have predicted (even the US government) that BenAli, Mubarek and Geddafi regimes would had all colapsed , in one year, in 2011. However, as an author, from an Arab origin, it was not possible for me not to be concerned or not to be affected by the events that were (and still) taking place in the Arab World. This explains my style of writing (i.e.“ a travelling diary”) in the concluding chapter – written at the midst of events in Tahrir square and clashes in Libya – which I admit , was more of a personal reflection/quest on the significance of studying sport/ or the importance of sport studies in a region going through one of its most drastic transition in its modern history , after that of independence from colonialism, 50 years ago.

    Please find below a link to a sample chapter of the book (open access): http://www.palgrave.com/PDFs/9780230307926.pdf

    Best regards/ Salam

    Mahfoud Amara

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