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Contested Culture: Identity Formation, Nationalism, and the State in the Modern Middle East

Session II-11, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, December 1 at 5:30 pm

Panel Description
This panel looks at grassroots narratives of belonging and nationalism in various forms of cultural production. The papers question the depiction that Gulf societies are defined by rentier states. Investigating cultural production as a site of nation-making and negotiating national identity reveals key dynamics of top-down and bottom-up processes, cooptation, alignment, and tension in identity formation. This approach avoids the flattening narratives of state-centered national identities. The multi-disciplinary panel engages cases from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE in different historical periods. The first and second papers uncover the role of “cultural entrepreneurs” in constructing identity narratives in Saudi Arabia and Qatar and the UAE, respectively. The first paper argues that the recent rise of nationalism in Saudi Arabia is not a mere state invention, but an appropriation of a grassroots intellectual production in the 1970s and 1990s. The second paper challenges state-sanctioned cultural narratives that express Gulf states’ futuristic ambitions and ideals of global inclusivity by contrasting them with artistic works from Gulf futurism. It attempts to undermine modernity’s narrative of development within the Gulf by creating new nodes of belonging. Tackling similar themes of cosmopolitanism and artists in interaction with the state, the third paper interrogates the construction of state cosmopolitanism in the context of nation building in contemporary Saudi Arabia. The cosmopolitan attitudes promoted, the paper argues, are animated by actors within the Saudi state’s new coalition who have expressed their belonging and concern for the nation primarily through a preoccupation with the global gaze. In a similar vein yet drawing on a different place and time, the fourth and fifth papers engage identity formation in the mid-20th century in interaction with Arab Nationalism in Iraq and Kuwait. The fourth paper examines the work of Michel ‘Aflaq and a number of his colleagues in defining the Ba’th Party in Iraq and Syria. Responding to works that treated ʿAflaq’s time in Iraq as symbolic, the paper draws on new sources to show he played an active role in defining Iraqi Pan-Arabism. The fifth paper looks at identity contestation in the context of Kuwait and the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion. It examines representation of Ajam in cultural production in the 1960s, specifically in Arab Nationalist leaning publications. Collectively, the panel is a point of departure for a nuanced discussion about the dynamic processes of identity formation and nationalism in the wider Gulf region.
  • What is the role of culture - and specifically intellectual production - in the construction of Saudi national identity? This paper argues that the notion of a distinct Saudi culture plays a fundamental role in the construction and recent popularization of Saudi national identity and nationalism. Historically, the authors that I call cultural entrepreneurs pushed back against the dominance of the Islamist Sahwa movement in the public discourse by advancing the idea of Saudi Arabia as a culturally distinct nation within a territorially defined nation state, contrasting the Islamists’ exclusively religious and transnational identity construction. It is this understanding of Saudi culture that makes it a powerful tool in the contemporary state-led identity project that emphasizes territorial and political sovereignty and that marginalizes Islamist elites. To make the case, the paper compares historical intellectual production, crafted by Saudi intellectuals and cultural entrepreneurs, particularly between the 1970s and 1990s with contemporary state-led discourses about Saudi national identity. The article analyzes previously ignored intellectual production from Saudi cultural identity entrepreneurs such as ʿAbdallah Alghadhdhami, Turki Alhamad or Saad Albazei as well as writings published in the cultural magazine Alyamama. The historical sources collected in Saudi archives will be complemented with semi-structured interviews conducted in Riyadh, Jeddah, and the Eastern province between December 2021 and spring 2022. The paper is going to compare the historical intellectual production with the contemporary state-led discourse, particularly by analyzing the projects conducted by the newly founded Ministry of Culture and the Dirʿiyah Gate Development Authority - which excavates and re-constructs the “old” Saudi capital. Further, the paper is going to draw on a comparison of highschool history curricula between the 1990s and 2022 to demonstrate how “culture” becomes the dominating basis of Saudi national identity at the expense of religious identity construction and references to Mohammed ibn ʿAbd Alwahhab. Thereby, the paper demonstrates that the contemporary national identity discourse is much more than just a recent invention by the political leadership - as many observers of the country claim - but one which partly builds on a rich intellectual tradition that now has been repackaged and popularized.
  • This paper examines how Gulf futurism, as an art and cultural movement, uses various forms of artistic productions and speculative fictions to link the Gulf’s historical moment and contemporary present, with imagined utopian futures. Through the process of creating knowledge and art, Gulf futurists strive to shift narratives of oppression, hyper-modernism, and state-sanctioned “progress” projects into narratives that re-imagine possible future(s) shaped less explicitly by colonial and racist tendencies. This paper examines Qatar and the UAE’s rapidly growing museum culture and the acquisition of foreign art sponsored by rentier revenues, as examples that embody westernized Enlightenment utopian ideals and as liminal space/s stuck between a traditional past and a planned future. Through an analysis of certain Gulf futurists’ work like Kuwaiti-Sengalese artist/musician Fatima and Mona Al-Qadiri, and Qatari-American writer/artist Sophia Al-Maria, this paper contests Gulf state-sanctioned cultural narratives and productions that express Gulf states’ futuristic ambitions. It argues that cultural resources used by Qatar and the UAE to create their global image through art and cultural productions, may have contributed to their global inclusivity, yet simultaneously also contribute to Gulf locals’ non-inclusivity in said productions on a local-scale. It supports this claim by looking at bottom-up examples of art/cultural productions by Gulf futurist artists, and by providing an alternative reading of their works as a mode of retro-futurist nostalgia, not for the Gulf past but rather, for its future. In doing so, Gulf futurism’s articulation within aesthetics and literature distorts and undermines modernity’s narrative of development and progress in the Gulf and makes visible the often-marginalized actors involved within sites of cultural production. Through an analysis of such productions, this paper aims to enlarge the analysis and investigation of the Gulf’s sphere of knowledge, power and being by asking: who is creating cultural productions in the Gulf? What are these productions for and who benefits from it?
  • One of the predominant themes of post-2015 transformation in Saudi Arabia has been the push to build a strong national identity that centers around the state. In what seems to be a paradoxical combination, the same project that has mobilized an aggressive nationalism also identified opening up to the world and promoting a cosmopolitan mindset as a priority for its developmental scheme. Understandably, some scholars and commentators have dismissed the latter part as a branding practice at best and a propaganda operation at worst. Against such assessments, this paper utilizes empirical insights to explore the construction of cosmopolitanism within the nationalist project. I argue that the engagement with the “world” is animated by actors within the Vision 2030 coalition who have expressed their belonging and concern for the nation primarily through a preoccupation with the global gaze. The drastic reshuffle in prestige and privilege in the art field in Saudi Arabia demonstrates this point. The contemporary art movement, which thrived in the global network linked to centers of the global art field before 2015, was at the receiving end of sudden empowerment, resources and key positions in the new cultural institutions. The movement emerged in the late 2000s with a group of young artists introducing provocative political art that was not welcomed by the establishment. A few years later, the positions were flipped. The Vision’s empowerment of the avant garde came unintentionally at the expense of the Modernist art establishment who found themselves alienated despite throwing their support behind the Vision’s liberalizing policies. Unpacking the dynamics of the shift, the paper shows how central state cosmopolitanism was to the very structure of the cultural transformation. For state cosmopolitanism, the art establishment’s networks, self-presentation and aesthetics have little relevance, with recognition and resources directed to those who can identify with the “world.” The argument is based on an ethnographic narrative, interviews with key figures, artworks and exhibition booklets. It builds on an alternative account of the relationship between the arts movement and the state, where both actors share a fundamental interest in the “global” in what can be described as a strategic convergence, in dynamics missed by existing narrative of the movement. The national imagined community formulated by the Vision is informed by an imagined world associated with the Global North, spaces with which state economic vision engages, while promoting a nationalism that sharpens the distinction vis-à-vis other transnational solidarities.
  • Michel ʿAflaq (1910-1989), a Greek Orthodox Christian born in Damascus, was a co-founder of the Arab Socialist Baʿth Party, branches of which eventually took over and ruled both Syria (1963-present) and Iraq (1968-2003). As arguably the most consequential co-founder of the Baʿth Party whose intellectual ideas underpinned its ideology, ʿAflaq has received relatively little scholarly attention, lacking an academic biography in Arabic, English, or any major European research language. After a falling out with the Syrian Baʿth Party and fighting between the Iraqi and Syrian branches, ʿAflaq moved to Baghdad in 1968, where he served the Iraqi Baʿth as the nominal head of the party and was revered as the “founding leader” (al-qā’id al-mu’assis) by Iraqi President Saddam Hussein until the former’s death in 1989. Earlier and more recent works have generally treated ʿAflaq’s time in Iraq as symbolic and inconsequential. Both these earlier and more recent works have not been informed by the important sources on ʿAflaq in the Baʿth Party and Iraqi state records made available to researchers as a result of the 2003 Iraq War. Captured audio recordings of Saddam’s meetings with his top officials have revealed that ʿAflaq and his fellow-Syrian deputy Elias Farah were respected participants in policy discussions. Because the Baʿth Party headquarters was located next to ʿAflaq’s mausoleum, the archives of the former contained personal papers and hours of video of ʿAflaq speaking on Iraqi state television and at internal party functions. This paper will discuss ʿAflaq, Farah, and their fellow Syrian colleague Shibli al-ʿAisamī in the service of the Iraqi Baʿthist state, drawing on both the internal records and their writings published by Saddam’s regime. It will also be informed by consultation of the membership files of lesser-known members of the Syrian Baʿth Party who followed in the footsteps of these prominent party intellectuals in migrating to Iraq and serving Saddam’s regime. All of these men were vocal proponents or adherents to Pan-Arab ideology, yet as a consequence of internal branch feuds and national rivalry between the Syrian and Iraqi branches of the Baʿth Party, ultimately lent their ideas and loyalty to a regime that increasingly defined Baʿthist Pan-Arabism in terms of Iraqi interests and the personality cult of Saddam Hussein. As such, the paper will engage with the themes of the panel and be situated at the intersection of top-down and bottom-up narratives of nationalism and belonging.
  • Identity has been a contested issue in Kuwait in recent years. Kuwaitis construct their identities in relation to each other based on several factors including religion, sect, ethnicity, countries of origin and even places of residency. In relying on one or more of these factors, some within society build barriers to exclude “others” from being true citizens or true Kuwaitis. Even though this phenomenon has intensified during the last 15 years, this paper argues that the inclusion and exclusion of Kuwaiti citizens is not new. This practice has been within society for a relatively long time. This paper will take cartoons appeared in al-Tali’a, a weekly newspaper that was the platform of Arab Nationalists in Kuwait, as a case study to examine that. It will review issues of al-Tali’a in the period between 1962 to 1968. It deals with cartoons as “a form of ‘visual opinion discourse’” (Abraham, 2009). Therefore, it will analyze al-Tali’a’s cartoons by paying attention to the local context in Kuwait as well as the regional developments. The paper will qualitatively analyze the content of the cartoons.