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The Crises of Nation-State System in the Middle East: Imaginaries, Practices, Structures

Panel XII-17, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
Almost a century after the territorial demarcations of modern nation-states of the Middle East, the failure of this political form in providing peaceful and democratic coexistence is no hidden secret. Whether progressive or reactionary, challenges to the nation-state system in the region have been enormous in the past decade. From the civil wars in Yemen and Syria to the revival of the Caliphate by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), from the Rojava Revolution to the adaptations of its main slogan, ‘woman, life, freedom’, by the most current uprising in Iran, marginalized and oppressed groups have risen against centralizing, hierarchizing, and homogenizing structures of the nation-state. Yet, dominant narratives still explore these crises largely via Eurocentric methodological tools that ignore the multiscalar nature of colonialism and the multi-layered dynamics of nation-state formation and maintenance. Consequently, the West-Rest analytical framework continues to obscure the internally colonial and systematically patriarchal forms of domination that inform the practices and histories of the nation-states in the Middle East. As a result, the interconnected and overlapping nature of national, class, and gender-based forms of domination, exploitation and colonization are often overlooked. Moreover, the formation of nation-states and nationalist movements in the region over the last century cannot be separated from the introduction, establishment, and the state-led naturalization of Eurocentric modes of knowledge production that are ontologically dualist. Highlighting the intertwined nature of nation-state and internal colonialism, this panel addresses the very institution of the nation-state as a historical construct and interrogates the spatial and temporal practices and imaginaries that perpetuate its existence and enable its reconfigurations, particularly in Kurdish and Iranian contexts. The panel will further discuss alternative conceptual and analytical categories that problematize Eurocentric and nationalist imaginaries, and enrich the existing scholarship on the crises of the nation-state system in general and the Middle Eastern nation-states in particular.
International Relations/Affairs
Political Science
  • Nationalism and national liberation movements have been historically seen as avenues, or necessary steps, for decolonization. For the most part in the twentieth century, anti-colonial struggles of colonized nations adopted nationalist ideologies to put an end to colonial rule inflicted on them by foreign entities. Therefore, nationalism was viewed as a liberating doctrine and an antidote to colonialism. However, many anti-colonial thinkers and scholars have questioned the viability of nationalism for decolonizing purposes. As the term neo-colonialism suggests, even successful national liberation movements that led to the establishment of sovereign, national states did not succeed in abolishing colonial relations altogether. Although neo-colonial and exploitative economic relations between newly established nation-states in the Global South and their former colonizers were largely due to structural inequalities embedded in global capitalism, nationalist ideas and establishments did not necessarily prevent the reproduction of colonial relations within the newly formed nation-states. While critiques of nationalism have largely suggested a nationalist politics oriented toward the interests of subaltern classes as an alternative to classical nationalism, there has been less attention paid to the concept of the nation as a colonial construct. Since colonization is not merely a matter of establishing exploitative relations and apparatuses but it also involves defining the colonized and ruling them, a decolonizing project must include concepts and definitions that problematize and replace the colonial discursive constructions of the colonized. I argue that Abdullah Ocalan’s notion of democratic nation offers a decolonized conception of the nation as it is framed through reversing and undoing the colonial conceptualization of the nation, hence decoupling the nation from political identification with ethnicity or any other cultural identities. In other words, a democratic nation is not identified with a certain ethnicity but the free coalescing of different collectivities which are bound together by autonomously formed political and social institutions. In my presentation, I will first present an introduction to Ocalan’s criticisms of the nation-state and nationalism and their role in reproducing colonial relations. Then, I will delineate his idea of democratic nation and explain the relationship between decolonization and depoliticization of ethnicity.
  • Although the compulsory hijab is the most noticeable manifestation of the Shi’ist repression under the Islamic Republic, it is not the only form of veiling that exists. Farsism can be considered as an even more entrenched form of hijab serving to conceal non-Persian bodies of the colonized nations in Iran. Exploring the causes of such a distraction, I turn to the national state form and its associated class production of Farsist (Irancentric) knowledge and argue that a twofold mechanism of ‘dressage’ is underway: Shiism and Farsism. The latter is linked to the state production of mostly non-Persian internal colonies as integral parts of ‘Iran’. These two interconnected veiling practices tame and alienate individual and collective bodies (of women, non-binaries, and internal colonies). Docile bodies are produced to serve the interests of the ruling classes. An abstractly homogenized and monorhythmic Body (‘Iranian’ nation) is thus imposed on the differential polyrhythmic bodies through everyday Farsism. From a socialist perspective, it is imperative to see individual and collective bodies as dialectically interdependent rather than dualistically separate. Drawing on Lefebvre, Gramsci, and Poulantzas, I conceptualize Farsi as a colonial language characterized by a spatiotemporally dualistic framework manifested in the dichotomies like Persian-nonPersian. Produced as ‘specialized knowledge’ these dualisms have formed the everyday worldview of ordinary peoples who have been forcefully pulled into the state-produced Persian knowledge/culture. It will be discussed how these dualisms shape the hegemonic struggles that physically and conceptually reproduce the class relations of production. The Iranian national state is built on the interdependent pillars of Aryan Farsist racism and Islamic Shiist patriarchy, forming a single, conflicting entity known as Farshiism. Farsism and Shiism come together to absent the subaltern geohistories. Farshiism is evident in the dualistic feminization of territory that represents national space as Nāmūs (virtue or honor) or the mother of the integral Body of the nation whose ‘territorial integrity’ must be preserved at any cost. Drawing further on Dolores Hayden and Gillian Rose I argue that the dualist spaces of the nuclear family house – with its gendered division of labor – and the national territory are mutually constitutive. The marital space can be defined as the cell form of the national state space. National and marital spaces represent different scales of the same social form. Legally produced as privately owned and mutually exclusive bounded properties, these spaces form a material barrier to the development of emancipatory strategies.
  • Contrary to the notion that political spaces are fixed and permanent, they are in fact constantly subject to change and transformation. This highlights the dynamic and evolving nature of political spaces and underscores the need for ongoing analysis and examination. The imposition of a monolithic national identity often leads to the creation of political spaces of resistance, as regional and international power dynamics play a significant role in shaping national political spaces. This is exemplified by the transformation of the fragmented, and porous political space of the Qajar empire into the territorial power of the Iranian nation-state in the 1920s. This transformation, I argue, was a result of the Great Game followed by the Great War, as well as the reaction of the national elite to the World Powers and the semi-colonization of the country. The establishment of the Iranian nation-state challenged the regional imaginary spaces sought by the World Powers before and after the First World War. At the same time, it was a result of the conflicting and alternative spaces developed by the incorporation of Iran into capitalism. With the establishment of the Iranian nation-state in 1926, the Persian national elites gained dominance in the country's political scene. This new national elite, partially formed by an anti-colonial agenda, quickly became internal colonizers and altered the political landscape of the country fundamentally. They challenged the imagined colonial spacing of the country, but their uniform national imagination of Iran was soon unsettled by subjects which they were struggling to unify into a homogeneous nation. This paper aims to examine the interplay between the formation of the national space, the regional imagination of the World Powers, and the creation of alternative political spaces which do not align with internationally recognized political borders in Iran and Kurdistan in the context of the Middle East in the twentieth century. Key Words: Political Space, Kurdistan, Iran, Colonial Powers, Nation-state, Imagined Space
  • The post-Cold War Middle East has witnessed the rise of competing, yet entangled ideas about what makes the international order unjust and how to transform it accordingly. These ‘international imaginaries’ are competing not only over what Vivien Jabri calls ‘access to the political and the international’, but also over transforming the scalar arrangement of the regional order and norms of politicking therein. This condition illustrates a multi-temporal image of modernity that profoundly contrasts Eurocentric narratives of unilinearity of history and supratemporality of the political and the international. It also alludes to the significance of existing local inter-societal hierarchies in the formation of rivalries over future orders. However, as I argue in this article, the existing mainstream and postcolonial analytical frameworks reduce these hierarchies to mirror images of the West-Rest binary and, thus, confine their multi-temporality to the binary logic of Eurocentric imaginaries. My article explores this issue and the possibilities for tackling it in three steps. First, I explain how the West-Rest binary is ingrained at the core of a main body of postcolonial and some Marxist analyses of non-Western societies through their methodological Eurocentrism. I will also explain how this has caused an optical illusion in recognizing the temporal direction of international imaginaries and their oppressive or egalitarian implications. Second, to avoid these issues, I suggest taking an ‘inter-subaltern turn’ in understanding the roots and political implications of international imaginaries. The inter-subaltern turn does not dismiss the significance of colonial and imperial relations in the constitution of the modern world and acknowledges the subaltern position of many societies, states, and groups that fall under the ‘Rest’ category in the international space. However, by stressing on the historicity of nation-state building processes, it enables redeeming the significance of the transformation of local socio-political hierarchies in the trans/formation of modern international imaginaries. In developing this framework, I will draw on Cornelius Castoriadis’s theory of social imaginaries and on the tradition of social and political ecology's theory of power, particularly in the works of Lewis Mumford, Abdullah Ocalan, and Murray Bookchin. Finally, I will concretise the first two parts of my article by explaining their implications for understanding the international imaginaries underlying the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, first, at the moment of the emergence of the nation-state of Turkey, and second, upon the rise of democratic confederalism and neo-Ottomanism as two entangled but contrasting imaginaries.