Morten Valbjørn, Aarhus University
This is part of the MENA Politics Newsletter, Volume 2, Issue 1, Spring 2019. Download the PDF of this piece here and the full issue here.
Identity politics traditionally has figured prominently in the study of the international relations of the Middle East, a region famously described as “dripping with identity politics.” At the same time, it is obvious that the Arab uprisings not only impacted the Middle East, but also scholarship on the region, as reflected in post-2011 debates on whether it is necessary to reject, revise, or revisit past theoretical approaches to and understandings of Middle East politics. Against this background, it is natural to ask whether the classic discussion about identity politics in (the study of) Middle East international relations is still important, and if so, to what extent has the emergence of some kind of “new Middle East” also paved to way for a “new” kind of identity politics and corresponding need to revise our approaches to the topic. In recent years, these questions have been addressed in a number of ways, spanning the role of identity politics “on the ground” in the Middle East as well as among scholars within academia.
1. (Re)examining the composition of sub/supra/territorial state identities
To examine whether the importance of various kinds of identities has changed, scholars have revisited the classic debate about the composition of different kinds of identities in the Middle East. One common argument about regional identity has long been that the most distinctive feature of the Middle East state system was “the relative incongruity between state and identity,” particularly, the relative importance of an Arab versus territorial state identities. Following the Arab uprisings, a new version of this classic debate has evolved.
Initially, the presence of only Egyptian flags at Tahrir Square in early 2011 prompted some to question whether state and national identity in the Middle East at last had prevailed, or if the resonance of the Arab uprisings across the “Arab sound chamber” instead showed how Arab politics still carried a distinct Arab dimension. While this discussion to some extent resembled the classic debate about (the myth of) the end of Arabism, which has been going on since 1967, the conversation soon shifted. Eventually, scholars recognized that a weakening of the Arab dimension of Arab politics did not necessarily have to mean a strengthening of territorial state identities. In line with Lynch’s statement that “a number of deeper trends have come together in recent years to give frightening new power to identity politics writ large,” various kinds of sub- and supra-state identities other than the Arab instead began to receive increasing attention.
Some scholars drew attention to sub-state identities based on tribe or ethnicity, discussing whether this would lead to a remapping of the Middle East. Others suggested that the defining feature of identity politics in a “new Middle East” would be what Abdo coined the “new sectarianism,” and others have described as a process of “sectarianization.” While Shia/Sunni sectarianism had been debated in the decade before the Arab uprisings, the terms of the debate had changed. Previous skeptics now acknowledged that sectarianism had become “a real factor in politics,” and instead of discussing whether sectarianism was a “myth or reality,” the debate on sectarian politics now largely revolved around questions about why sectarianism had (re)emerged and how it has impacted various dynamics of regional politics. While sectarianism still holds a prominent position on the agenda, recently it has been supplemented with an emerging interest in whether the Middle East—like other parts of the world—is witnessing the rise of some kind of “new nationalism.” This may mark a new stage in the post-2011 debate on the composition of identities in the Middle East.
Compared with the pre-2011 debates on identity politics in Middle East international relations, this first perspective highlights dimensions of both continuity and change. While non-territorial state identities are still studied, supra-state identities other than Arab receive more attention. This is illustrated in the labelling of current regional rivalries not only as a “new Arab cold war,” an “Arab cold war redux,” or the “third Arab cold war,” but also as a sectarian/Shia–Sunni/Iranian–Saudi/Islamic/Middle Eastern regional cold war.
2. Grasping identity politics together with old partners and new friends
If identity politics is still relevant in the new Middle East but with a different configuration of (supra and sub-state) identities, what are the implications for Middle East international relations? Are our existing analytical and theoretical approaches still useful or do they need to be revised? Since the Arab uprisings, these questions have been examined in debates that involve old partners as well as new allies.
In the decade before the Arab uprisings, the traditional gap between IR theory and Middle East scholarship had already begun to narrow. In recent years, the IR/Middle East nexus has been further revitalized through various conferences, workshops, and publications on how IR theory can contribute to a better understanding of the international dimension of the Arab uprisings and how insights from the Middle East can enrich broader debates in IR.
For instance, some have combined neo-classical realism with Middle East studies’ strong attention to supra-state identities and domestic-international linkages to show how sectarianism is used in geopolitical rivalries among regional powers and through proxies in various domestic theaters. Others have drawn on historical sociology to develop a new identity/ideology framework that refines and nuances our understanding of the ideational drivers of the foreign policies of regional powers. Still others have introduced the Copenhagen School’s theory about securitization to examine the process by which sectarian identities become security issues and sources of conflict.
The traditional prominence of analytical eclecticism in Middle East scholarship continues to inform analyses today. Hinnebusch, for instance, has introduced a “multivariate synthetic approach” that draws on neoclassic realism, constructivism, English School theory, IPE and historical sociology to account for international relations in a new Middle East marked by “transnational identity wars and competitive interference.” Meanwhile, Lynch combines a constructivist emphasis on ideas, a realist focus on states, and theory on proxy war, networks, civil war, and insurgency to make sense of “the new Arab wars.”
In addition to this revitalization of the IR/Middle East studies nexus, new issues have emerged that leverage other kinds of partnership. One critique posited that the recent sectarianism debate has explained sectarianism away by reducing the phenomenon to factors exterior to sectarian identity politics itself. In response, a growing number of Middle East scholars are now exploring whether and how insights from religious and ethnicity studies as well as from the broader IR debate on the role of religion in international relations can be useful analytical tools to study sectarianism in way that avoids the pitfalls of both essentialism and instrumentalism. This relates to another debate partly inspired by Brubaker’s distinction between “diacritical” and “normative ordering” dimensions of (religious) identities. Rather than focusing on the classic issue about territorial- versus supra-state identities, there is a growing interest in examining whether different kinds of supra-state identities affect regional politics differently. For instance, does it matter that external actors are emphasizing different kinds of (supra/sub-state) identities when trying to mobilize local proxies in Syria or Libya respectively? Likewise, does it make a difference if the current regional rivalry is understood in terms of an Arab, sectarian, Islamic, or Middle Eastern regional cold war?
3. How scholarly identities “in here” shape how we understand identity politics “out there”
While the two previous perspectives focus on the composition of identities in the region and their implications for analyzing regional politics, it is possible to identify a third and more novel and self-reflexive way of discussing identity politics. While Middle East scholars “have always acknowledged the importance of identities for an understanding of the region,”7 surprisingly little attention has been directed at whether and how our own political, cultural, and professional identities “in here” might shape scholarship and influence how identities “out there” are approached, theorized, and discussed. Previously, this issue was mainly confined to the area studies controversy with its distinction between those trained in the disciplines versus area studies.15 Conversely, questions about geo-cultural epistemologies and the role of the cultural-institutional contexts for knowledge production have received less attention.
These questions however have figured prominently in that part of the broader field of IR theory engaged in the so-called Global/Post-Western IR debate. Following Cox’s famous remark about how “theory is always for someone and for some purpose…(there) is no such thing as theory in itself divorced from a standpoint in time and space” combined with Hoffmann’s statement about how IR to a large extent has been an “American Social Science” and Wæver’s suggestion that ”IR might be quite different in different places”, this has not only given rise to an inward-looking critique of (mainstream) IR for being blind to its own limited or bounded perspective. It has also led to more outward-looking explorations into whether international relations are imagined and studied in substantially different ways in other parts of the world and how the “non-West” to a larger extent can become a “producer of knowledge” rather than being only an “object of knowledge.”
According the TRIP (Teaching, Research, and International Policy) Project survey on theory and practice of IR around the world, the Middle East figures as one of the most studied regions “beyond the West.” Nevertheless, Middle East scholars (from the region and elsewhere) have been largely absent in the Global/Post-Western IR debate, where focus has been occupied by discussions concerning Chinese, Indian, Latin American or continental European IR. Questions about how Middle East international relations have been studied within the region itself or whether, for instance, American and European Middle East scholars differ in how they approach the region have only rarely been addressed. Partly as an outcome of an Arab uprisings triggered soul–searching among Middle East scholars, however, there are signs of an emerging interest in examining this dimension of identity politics in (the study of) Middle East international relations. In addition to studies on the geopolitics of knowledge and postcolonial agency, this trend includes scholars studying the “politics of insecurity” viewed from Beirut or how security in the Arab world and Turkey is “differently different.” This new mode of analysis has recently been reflected in the manifesto for a “Beirut School of critical security studies.” And various workshops have brought together leading figures from Global/Post–Western IR with Middle East scholars, to compare how IR is studied and taught in American, European, and different Middle Eastern contexts, producing self-reflective autobiographies of how private experiences, institutional contexts, geo-cultural locations, disciplinary training, and the encounter of specific influential persons/books have influenced scholars’ intellectual journey.
A new chapter in an old book
In the context of the 9/11
debate, Halliday once remarked that that “there are two predictable, and nearly
always mistaken, responses to any great international upheaval: one is to say
that everything has changed; the other is to say that nothing has changed.”
Against this background, he called for simultaneous attention to both
continuities and changes. This advice is similarly relevant in the debate on
the role of identity politics in the study of Middle East international
relations after the Arab uprisings. While the Middle East may still be “dripping
with identity politics,” classic themes have reemerged with a twist, and novel
issues have been introduced. The exact composition of different kinds of
identities in the region and its implications for regional politics continues
to be an important but contested topic, but other supra-state identities than
the Arab now receive more attention. The IR/Middle East studies nexus still
offers important analytical tools, but at the same time, it is possible to
detect a growing interest in how the specific nature of different supra/sub–state identities, and religion
in particular, can be taken more seriously in non-essentialist ways. Finally,
it is possible to detect a new trend in the debate on identity politics, which
redirects focus from identities “out there” to those “in here.” This is reflected
in a novel interest in whether scholars’ own identities, shaped not only by their
disciplinary training but also their cultural–institutional setting, impact how they study
identity politics in the Middle East. In view of these dimensions of both
continuity and change, the current post-Arab uprisings debate appears most of
all as a new chapter in a long and old book on the role of identity politics in
(the study of) Middle
East international relations.
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Categories: NEWSLETTER: Volume 2, Issue 1