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Architectures of Conflict: Repression and Resistance in Securitized Middle Eastern Cities

Panel VI-12, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 4:00 pm

Panel Description
Cities are increasingly gaining prominence as the sites of contestation in the Global South—not only do collective action and uprisings begin more frequently in central squares and public spaces, but we also now witness insurgent mobilization and prolonged warfare in urban peripheral districts. Indeed, these phenomena can be ascribed to the rapid urbanization processes in the last few decades. The current reality, then, requires theorization and empirical engagement to account for gaps in our understanding of the intricate relationship between urban space and political violence. And while scholarship on the Middle East has devoted greater attention to urban politics, it did not adequately examine how the forms of political violence became urbanized, so to speak. The organizing principle for this panel is how urban space intersects with and shapes politics somehow relating to violence. It builds on insights from a range of Middle Eastern cases Spanning Turkey and the Levant. Specifically, the panel proposes to shift the focus from “traditional” battlegrounds to the wider, ostensibly more mundane, and ordinary spaces of contestation that manifest through urban ecologies and built environments. It seeks to expose and compare modalities of conflict targeting domestic spaces, infrastructure, heritage sites, and populations in cities of the Middle East. The panel hence generates questions on how heritage efforts such as selective excavations, exhibition, destruction as well as reconstruction could serve as means of counterinsurgency; how military checkpoints in a particular city affect the civilian perceptions of security; how the toppling of statues, followed by government-led initiatives to occupy urban public spaces by re-erecting new statues of glorified figures could commemorate conflict; and how patterns of fragmentation and faction formation in the suburbs could be understood through the intersection of local networks and the built environment. Collectively, it offers to rethink spectacular forms of political violence, as in the case of warfare, and analyze it instead by centering the patterns of repression and resistance that emerge in and through securitized urban architectures.
Political Science
  • Co-Authors: Obayda Ghadban
    Why does insurgent mobilization vary within the same ethnic group? And why does such a process oftentimes take shape along different vectors at the same locality? This paper reassesses the role of the social structure of ethnic groups by positioning it along two important and theoretically underdeveloped variables: the influence of leading figures of local, meso-level groups, and the conditions enabled by the built environment in which they operate. Under such framework, the paper foregrounds the multiplicity of group memberships and their spatial denominators in reinforcing (or undermining) the formation of insurgent groups. To test this empirically, we develop two social network models in the local context of the Damascene countryside during the first year of the revolution: the first on the set of pre-uprising relationships in two towns that experienced rapid urbanization in the decades prior to insurgency, and the second on the relationships of the armed factions in the same locations. We develop unique local data to quantitatively account for variables relating to the spatial, socioeconomic, and ideological characters that could explain the discrepancies between the two patterns. This is complemented by semi-structured interviews with local leaders and members of said social networks to specify the modalities through which recruitment took place. Ultimately, the study introduces a more nuanced reading of the causal mechanisms underlying variance in highly fragmented localities and new indicators that capture these conceptual intersections.
  • It is predominantly known that history is written by winners. However, this statement is true when a conflict has a symmetric tendency. In the case of Syria, where the conflict (2011- ) has been widely considered asymmetric, history is being written by a regime/government that won the war by not losing it. This paper investigates cultural heritage practices, uses, and abuses in Syria since the colonial period. First, this paper explores cultural heritage destruction and the toppling of statues representing political figures, e.g., Hafez Al-Assad, located in Syria’s public spaces. The paper analyses the continuous efforts to create the war narratives, production of oral history, and the selective (in)tangible memorialization of Syria’s recent conflict by re-erecting (new) statues of foreign soldiers and glorified figures in Syrian contemporary history. This paper highlights how the decisions to rebuild heritage in urban spaces reflect social understandings of the war experienced, and political visions for the post-conflict future. I argue that heritage practices, uses, presentation, (re-)production, and promotion in Syria since the colonial period have produced a politicized, one-sided (hi)story influenced by political agendas. This history includes highly politicized, ongoing tangible and intangible heritage reconstruction works, freighted with cultural meaning, and primarily intended to bolster the power and authority of the ruling regime.
  • This research assesses the impact of military checkpoints by investigating the feeling of security/insecurity among the population exposed to these checkpoints. Drawing on extensive fieldwork in Lebanon, quantitative data will be collected across various locations to produce an overall representation of the communities’ sentiments towards checkpoints. The findings will broaden the literature on checkpoints and their impact outside of the conventional scope of Israel-Palestine.This study aims to fill the gap within IR theoretical frameworks by demonstrating how checkpoints play a vital role in everyday practices while creating new understandings of the body in security practices. It does so by bringing notions of performance, affective atmospheres, and space into engagement with work on borderscapes to explore new understandings of security. From a Realist perspective, the role of the military is rigid and confined to national security including its checkpoints. Contrastingly, military checkpoints do more by facilitating and/or challenging the transition and maintenance of peacekeeping as well as influence the future governance of post-conflict societies. Since many regions are currently engaged in, transitioning from, or feeling the aftermath of armed conflict, the study will provide valuable insight into a reality which a vast percentage of the world’s population faces. I argue that military checkpoints are of vital importance in the overall reconstruction and stabilization of transitioning societies, whether by acting as a stimulant (safety) or as a deterrent (fear).
  • Emerging modalities of warfare such as drone-delivered ordinance increasingly target urban landscapes, populations, and infrastructures. Yet states’ security agendas exceed military deployment. They often use bureaucratic techniques—leveraging courts, policing, and development agencies—to achieve military control, e.g., via the reformulation of land and property rights during civil wars. How do urban planning and heritage-making serve as integral tools of warfare against populations viewed as unruly and living environments perceived as disorderly? What are the consequences of their deployment on minority populations and their built environments? To answer, I term the legal practices and developmentalist strategies such as legal-institutional dispossession; militarization of urban landscapes; and urban development that states such as Turkey employ to control and manage ostensibly threatening populations “counterinsurgent urbanism.” To examine mechanisms that drive counterinsurgent urbanism and to uncover its effects, I draw on a multi-sited ethnography of local governance and city planning in the Kurdish city of Diyarbakır in 2022-2023, encompassing the UNESCO World Heritage site of Suriçi as well as the Kayapınar and Bağlar districts in the wake of urban war of 2015-2016. In this paper, I focus on the state’s efforts to build up touristic potential of the historical city center Suriçi as integral to its security agenda in the post-conflict era. Ironically, the unfolding of urban violence took place merely one month after UNESCO declared Suriçi a World Heritage Site, a status achieved through the collaboration of the pro-Kurdish local government and the Turkish state. In August 2015, Suriçi, the 2000-year old city center of Diyarbakır, emerged as a prominent and particularly violent site of conflict where a full-scale urban war, involving the use of heavy weaponry. By treating “heritage as data”, I elaborate how heritage efforts in the historical city center Suriçi become a tool to suppress perceived future threats by bolstering Turko-Islamic past as well as staging the district as an “open air mall” which paves the way for a gradual displacement of remaining residents in the aftermath of the urban war. I draw on in-depth interviews with old and current bureaucrats, activists, and residents; firsthand observations of staged heritage by participating events in the district such as a week-long Sur Culture Road Festival organized by the government; surveys conducted with tourists; and memory walks organized by activists in the district to demonstrate the intertwinement between heritage-making, commodification, and pacification as well as resistance towards these efforts in the form of space-making and memory-making.
  • The man focus of this paper is to highlight and investigate the power of narrative and discursive practices to normalise violence implicated within socio-spatial organisations and configurations. However, the concern is not only to expose the intermingling forces and relations of power that afflict and often regulate such configurations, but to look at the interstices formed by counter-narratives of social agents. In light of the problematic posed by modern biopolitical strategies and increased techniques of fear and violence within the context of cities in conflict, the question of city narratives and the implications of discursive power and agency become pressing. This paper focuses on the necessity to revise city narratives taking into account the dangers of institutionalised discursive representations and articulations of power and violence that seek to anaesthetise social practice (that is change-oriented), hinder it, or normalise its defeat. The main focus will therefore tackle counter-narratives within a transgerenic scope of investigation. I specifically look into socio-spatial formations as attributes to and sometimes dictates of socio-spatial practices of the everyday, while at the same time accentuates of conditions of possibility of resistance. In such a manner, my contribution seeks to veer away from implications of reductionism inherent in an outlook centred on strict binary oppositions (in the formation of knowledge pertinent to power and power structures) and determinism. By broadening the scope across multiple narrative genres, this paper seeks to explore the agentive articulations of power that create alterity, difference, and change. The point is to liberate our narratives, whether of revolutionary or liberatory work, or even that of resistant and subversive social praxis, beyond such binaries as defeat/victory. I specifically look at counter-narratives formed around and out of the last few years in Beirut, to highlight such a necessity to reconsider the way we look at, see, and read cities, especially those in conflict or subsumed under the weight of constant violence and fear.