18.9 C
London
Sunday, May 19, 2024
HomePoliticsIdentity, Nationalism and the Politics of Sectarianism in the Middle East

Identity, Nationalism and the Politics of Sectarianism in the Middle East

ANU Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies PhD Candidate Khalid Al Bostanji reviews the work of Miaad A. Hassan on how majorities and minorities in the Middle East shape political identities. He argues that these identities have not been sectarian but rather responsive to highly nuanced political and external challenges.

- Advertisement -spot_img

ANU Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies PhD Candidate Khalid Al Bostanji reviews the work of Miaad A. Hassan on how majorities and minorities in the Middle East shape political identities. He argues that these identities have not been sectarian but rather responsive to highly nuanced political and external challenges.

By Khalid Al Bostanji

Since the first wave of popular Arab uprisings in 2011, social scientists have turned their attention to the regimes whose rule caused the uprisings.

Many have approached the crisis of these regimes as an issue of democratisation (or, more precisely, a lack thereof). Personally, I believe these are the most convincing approaches to the crisis of Arab states. However, the Arab Spring also highlighted the complexity of the issue in terms of its various political and social components such as the ‘Arab-Israeli conflict’, and internal factors like militaries and tribal politics, and importantly, consociationalism as well as majoritarian systems.

Miaad A. Hassan addresses the question of “majorities” and “minorities” in power by focusing on four case studies of Arab states where minority rule is argued to have defined the political and social systems following the end of British and French colonialism throughout the second half of the last century.

Hassan sets the scene for his latest book, Identities, Nationalism, and the State: The Politics and Ethnicity and Minority Regimes in the Middle East by defining clear aims and establishing a strong theoretical framework based on a humble approach that considers the work of many scholars who previously tackled matters of nationalism, ethnicity, identities, and minority regimes.

Within this framework, there is an acknowledgement of “the siloing of issues in studies on nationalism and ethnicity”. This point is relevant to the cases under study because it is one explanation for why research before the Arab Spring had failed to account for the resilience of sectarian identities in politics and its impact on social life.

Personal experience is also applicable here. In the immediate leadup to 2011, political and social experiences in much of the region were not sectarian in nature but rather characterised by any sort of challenge to the regime, regardless of the sectarian identities that might define those challenges.

These experiences of cross-sectarian repression should enrich social scientists’ understanding of the region without essentialising any Arab state, because the dynamics at work in one state can obviously be different to those in another.

In terms of commonalities and going back to the failure of studies on nationalism and ethnicity, Geerts’ (to whom Hassan refers frequently) claim in 1963 that the “transfer of sovereignty is a metamorphosis of subjects into citizens,” raises doubts about sovereignty in the Arab region.

Despite the existence of what might be described as a “developed organisational structure” in countries like Egypt, the impact of imperial legacies and modern geopolitics have been major roadblocks on the path toward democratisation.

Despite Arab public opinion in opposition to various regimes, these regimes have survived by detaching themselves from what Hassan refers to as “Arab core issues.” This detachment culminated in Anwar El-Sadat’s withdrawal from Egypt’s historic role in defending Palestinians against Zionist colonisation and (ongoing) ethnic cleansing of their homeland.

Adding to these issues, the region witnessed an increasing politicisation of ethnicity and nationalism that further complicated the affairs of various countries under minority rule (a term used frequently in the book).

The book contains a rigorous analysis of nationalism as a concept, in which Hassan presents and assesses several definitions. Among those that focused on nationalism and its manifestations in the “Middle East,” Elie Kedourie’s approach to the topic is particularly problematic. In his writings about the Arab region, Kedourie displays a contempt for its peoples. writing about Arabs as citizens of nations who only know despotism and will thus always vote for strongmen rule in any democratic experiment. Clearly, we should not rely on such “scholarship” when studying the social and political phenomena of any ethnicity in the Middle East, whether Arab, Kurdish, or any other group.

In chapter three, Hassan covers “the precursors to ethnic conflict” and makes a critical distinction between conflict and violence. Violence such as in the colonial forms employed by the British Empire and Israel has been countered by Palestinian revolutionaries and coalitions of fellow Arab armies under the authority of largely weak regimes. Hassan’s objective on this point is a contribution to our understanding of conflict (ethnic conflict more specifically).

The example of Iraq is pertinent here. Saddam Hussein’s repression of a majority of Shia peoples, and any other opponent of his regime, has been manipulated by Iran as a regional neighbour attempting to mobilise the Iraqi Arab Shia in favour of its interests in the Middle East. This raises existential questions about “the search for identity” and its intersection with “state formation.”

It is a shame to have to identify groups politically as majorities and minorities within the one state. The demands of the Arab Spring revolutions were democratic and anti-sectarian, and so were the earliest modern movements for Arab independence. Before nationalist ideologies like that of the Baath Party, there was a form of nationalism during the Arab Renaissance (Nahda) that produced a type of political counterculture to the Ottoman millet system that limited identities of the region’s peoples to those of a religious affiliation.

Elites from both rural and urban, military and civilian, and Christian and Muslim backgrounds were of diverse confessional identities and equally active in these movements. But the French and British empires divided the movements into a number of mandates and protectorates, the relevance of which is not confined to the past, as Hassan points out.

The Arab Spring revolutions in Syria and Bahrain were painted by the regimes of both countries as foreign conspiracies, which led to situations characterised as majorities against minority regimes (“Sunni against Alawite” and “Shiite against Sunni” respectively). In Iraq, the rule of Saddam Hussein and the following American occupation led to a new status quo defined in ways that range from a consociational or quota-based system to a majoritarian system. Hassan invites us to look at the regimes of all these countries – including Lebanon – as being exemplary of minority rule, and she poses a question about what kind of majoritarian rule results from regime change.

While I am personally not an advocate of such designations in the context of citizens who should be equal when identified in terms of their political representation, I do think there can be analytical value in the term minority.

In terms of the Levant (i.e. Bilaad ash-Shaam), one of the most politically influential “minorities” is that of Druze citizens (al-Muwahhidun) in Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Lebanon. The Lebanese remember Kamal Jumblatt as a leader of the progressive political front in post-independence Lebanon, and Jordanians remember Rashid Tali’a as their first prime minister who was ousted by the British and then continued the fight for independence in the Great Syrian Revolt.

More symbolically, all Arabs remember Sultan Basha al-Atrash who supported the Arab Revolt and led one of the crucial fronts in Syria’s battle against the French. Arabs still name their children after him, and my Druze friends never fail to remind me that we owe them for the Syrian Revolt!

But I would argue that neither he nor Jumblatt and Tali’a are remembered for the fact that they came from a so-called minority. Rather, they are remembered for their contributions to Arab independence and for their stand with the region’s peoples in their struggle for freedom.

Notes from the Editor: This is a review of the work of Miaad A. Hassan’s Identities, Nationalism, and the State: The Politics and Ethnicity and Minority Regimes in the Middle East (Lexington Books, 2023). ISBN: 9781793606402 (ebook). Hassan is an Assistant Professor at the American University of Kurdistan. Khalid Al Bostanji is a graduate of the University of Queensland where, in 2017, he completed a Bachelor of Economics majoring in International Trade and Finance. He also completed a Bachelor of Social Science (Honours) from RMIT University in 2020 and is now a PhD candidate at the ANU Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies. Khalid’s thesis is focused on Arab-Turkish relations and Turkey’s use of soft and hard power within its foreign policy approach towards the Arab region.

- Advertisement -spot_img
- Advertisement -spot_img

Stay Connected

1,000FollowersFollow

Must Read

- Advertisement -spot_img

Related News

- Advertisement -spot_img

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here